Guillaume Côté dances the title role in National Ballet of Canada’s “Nijinsky.” (Courtesy Aleksandar Antonijevic)

Neumeier’s ‘Nijinsky’ brings ballet star’s life to light

Hard-core ballet fans will revel in the impeccable detail of “Nijinsky,” choreographer John Neumeier’s full-length “biopic” of Ballet Russes star Vaslev Nijinsky.

At the same time, general audiences less familiar with the early 20th century dancer’s pioneering work, his bridge between classical and contemporary styles, will nonetheless feel his pain.

The National Ballet of Canada’s production at the War Memorial Opera House in a San Francisco Ballet guest presentation (Hamburg Ballet, which premiered it in 2000, did the piece here in 2013) is jam-packed, sometimes confusing, yet beautiful, dazzling and harrowing.

Guillaume Côté is brilliant in the title role — dancing with characters he portrayed in his short, complicated career, with his lovers and family, at last succumbing to mental illness.

His insanity’s physical manifestations — he literally beats himself and dives and falls — are heartbreaking.

The non-linear story begins with his final salon-type dance in a hotel ballroom before a group of admirers in 1919; still a young man, he’s clearly got issues.

Côté’s solo, danced to Andrei Streliaev playing Chopin’s foreboding Prelude in C minor on a grand piano onstage, is angular and angry, and doesn’t please his regally attired audience.

The setting gives way to myriad compelling scenes that co-mingle Nijinsky’s art, work and personal life.

A haunting duet in which he and his mentor and lover Sergei Diaghilev (a commanding Evan McKie) erotically entwine (set to Shostakovich’s Sonata for Viola and Piano, beautifully played by Yi Zhou and Streliaev) is simply breathtaking.

Yet Nijinsky also is entangled with his wife Romola; Heather Ogden, attired in red velvet and flowing white, is captivating in the role, whether dancing alone or in passionate duets with her husband (and, later, another lover).

Amid these interactions come scenes from Nijinsky’s famous ballets, with his career-making roles: the Harlequin in “Carnaval” and Rose from “Spirit of the Rose” (danced by Naoya Eba); the Golden Slave in “Scheherazade” and Faun in “The Afternoon of a Faun” (Francesco Gabriele Frola); and the tennis player in “Jeux” (Skylar Campbell).

Meanwhile, the animated corps — white-clad spirits from “Les Sylphides,” a leaping and bounding harem from “Scheherazade,” with the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra directed by David Briskin sounding excellent playing Rimsky-Korsakov’s dynamic score — surrounds the soloists.

Nijinksy’s spiral downward is illuminated more in Act 2; his groundbreaking, unpopular avant-garde choreography for “The Rite of Spring” intermingles with frenzied scenes from World War II set to Shostakovich’s crashing Symphony No. 11, and a sad reconciliation with Romola (she pulls him on a sled, shades of “Citizen Kane’s” Rosebud).

Spent and wasted, he’s back in the first scene’s ballroom, rolling out his own final red carpet in an exhausting, compelling mad scene.

Neumeier, a self-professed Nijinsky nut, created divine sets (with traditional and modern elements, from a grand hotel lobby to huge, moving neon hoops) and sumptuous, historically accurate costumes to perfectly complement his choreography.

“Nijinsky” isn’t just a classy piece of psychological theater; it’s a compelling introduction to the master of modern ballet that just may make audiences want to learn more about its protagonist’s art-filled, tortured life.

Presented by The National Ballet of Canada
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. April 4-5, 8 p.m. April 6, 2 and 8 p.m. April 7, 2 p.m. April 8
Tickets: $40 to $265
Contact: (415) 865-2000,

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