The Outsider

imagesVaslav Nijinsky was in many ways an outsider. The famous Russian dancer’s Polish roots, slightly Asiatic looks and  upbringing in a family of itinerant dancers made him a source of disdain among his peers as a boy.

In adult life, though the centerpiece of Serge Diaghilev’s world famous Ballet Russes and adored by his public, the dancer’s sexual orientation and mental instability made it impossible for him to lead a “normal” life.

The outsider nature of Nijisnky’s life is the focus of Hamburg Ballet director John Neumeier’s powerful work about the dancer which is currently here in the Bay Area as part of the San Francisco Ballet‘s season.

The Hamburg Ballet’s energetic yet sensitive company inhabits the psychological playground in which the work is set with brilliant acting and angular-muscular dancing that’s full of vulnerability.

The frame for the narrative is Nijinsky’s final public appearance as a dancer in January 1919 in a St. Moritz Switzerland hotel ballroom. From this point onwards, the dancer, falls ever deeper into a state of despair as events and characters from his life and work inhabit his fevered mind.

Nijinsky’s outsider status is made clear from the opening moments when the dancer performs a high-strung, frenetic solo to Chopin’s Prelude No. 20, the Polish music signifying the un-Russianness of the dancer.

In that scene, as in almost every subsequent section, there is at least one character on stage watching the action.  In the opening scene, the observers are the hotel guests and members of Nijinsky’s entourage. Later on, Diaghilev sits in a chair quietly watching Nijinsky. Towards the end, the protagonist himself, having lost his mind, sits down, a crumpled mess. The idea of watching something or someone from the outside makes the idea of Nijinsky’s lack of belonging seem extremely palpable and sad.

Speaking of outsider feelings: I’ve been listening to baritone Thomas Meglioranza and pianist Reiko Uchida’s heart-achingly beautiful new recording of Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle. Meglioranza’s voice is like The Hamburg Ballet ensemble’s dancing — it’s warmth channels feelings of loss and loneliness.



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  1. says

    Thanks, Chloe. . . I am enamored of The Outsider, a book by Colin Wilson that looks at Nijinsky, Herman Hesse, T.E. Lawrence, Goethe, Van Gogh and others in the context of existential despair and intentionality and the path to meaning.

    “Le dieu del la danse,” was acclaimed worldwide as he remained unsatisfied personally. He was, as the book points out, “plagued by the Outsider’s greatest enemy, human triviality” His obsession of becoming God, of becoming Christ-like, his descent into what was termed, “incurable insanity,” is the stuff of legend and art. The last lines in his diary are posted on my bulletin board, “My little girl is singing: ‘Ah ah ah ah.’ I do not understand its meaning but I feel what she wants to say. She wants to say that everything is not horror, but joy.”

    Thanks for conveying the gist of Hamburg Ballet’s work so eloquently.

  2. Sarah says

    Chloe it was fabulous to see Life of Nijinsky– BEAUTIFULLY performed– and then head of to watch Douglas Fairbanks as another sort of outsider in “The Thief of Bagdad” on Saturday. Fairbanks was apparently quite inspired by Nijinsky, as is evident watching him leap in and out of jars, prance through the souk, etc! Another great example of life bringing unexpected connections…

  3. says

    Artists, by the nature of their work, search for new worlds. To fully embody those new worlds they must stand apart and often inhabit unoccupied regions of philosophy, morality, justice, and social relations. Genuine artists are thus always outsiders on some level. Standing alone is not easy. Most of the people I know who claim to be artists aren’t.