I’ve just had the rare opportunity, within four days yet, of seeing two full-length story ballets that could not be more different if someone had planned the pairing. You can consider them opposing poles of ballet choreography: a highly traditional Cinderella, from the Russian National Ballet Theatre (at the Marin Center, this past Sunday only), and the intellectual, avant-garde Nijinsky, from the Hamburg Ballet (presented, for just one more night, by San Francisco Ballet). It was a wonderful opportunity to be able to compare the two works—even better, SFBallet is ending this season with a brand-new version of Cinderella, by Christopher Wheeldon.
The 1945 Cinderella was choreographed for the Bolshoi Ballet by Rostislav Zakharov, one of the foremost figures in Russian ballet during the Soviet era, which was a mixed blessing for his legacy. His work nicely fit the Soviet preference for realistic, “uplifting” art—indeed, Cinderella (danced to Prokofiev’s timeless music) and an earlier ballet, Fountain of Bakhchisarai, from 1934, are two of the most famous ballets in the Russian classical tradition. The flip side of that esthetic, of course, is that the lack of experimentation meant his style did not evolve, and his reputation declined well before his death in 1975.
Yet both his most famous ballets have been revived and well received, especially Cinderella. On Sunday afternoon in Marin, it was easy to see why. The audience for the matinee-only performance was filled with little girls and a few boys, most of whom I presume are taking ballet lessons. (I’ll bet they easily recognized many of the steps.) I sat next to an angelic three-and-a-half-year-old who applauded when she saw the Blue Fairy (forget Disney’s plump little old lady) and her Fairies of the Season Princesses in glittering green, yellow, red, and white, respectively. Like the rest of us, she loved the funny business of the Stepmother and the two bratty Stepsisters, a high point of this ballet.
If Cinderella is smooth, easy to follow, and, yes, charming, Nijinsky is intense, stunningly ambitious (and I do mean stunning), almost overwhelming. It calls for all one’s attention, and even then, you can’t grasp in one viewing all of what Hamburg Ballet artistic director John Neumeier is going after in this two-act ballet, which premiered in 2000.
Nijinsky opens in 1919 in an elegant hotel in St. Moritz, where the Ballet Russes’s Vaslav Nijinsky last danced in public. Legendary for both his dancing and his groundbreaking modernist choreography, Nijinsky spent his last three decades in and out of mental institutions. The solo dance in the hotel evokes shards of memory—of his parents, his dead brother, his lover and mentor, Ballets Russes impresario Serge Diaghilev, his shipboard romance with Romola de Pulszky, the woman he married—as well as of his most famous roles. This is one case in which it helps to read the program first, if you’re not familiar with Nijinsky’s tortured history or iconic characters such as Harlequin, Petrouchka, the poet in Les Sylphides, the golden slave from Scheherazade, the faun of L’apres midi d’un faun. (I understand in each case, Neumeier’s choreography even suggests the original, so this is truly a balletomane’s ballet.)
The choreography and dancing are extraordinary, at times gasp inducing in their skill and fervor; this is the first time I’ve ever worried about injuries. I found the first act thrilling. As the second act proceeds, the aggressive movements of the soldier-ghosts of “The War,” and Nijinsky’s oncoming madness and collapse, to Shostakovich’s pounding music become more and more overwrought. I would have liked to feel more elated, in the end, more compassionate and less drained. Nijinsky might have been better pared down. But this is how any art form evolves, with overreaching and risk taking. Neumeier asks a lot of his dancers, and of his audiences, and hurray for that.
Feb. 19, Nijinsky; Feb. 26, Program 3 opening night; May 3, Cinderella opening night, SFBallet, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F., 415.865.2000; www.sfballet.org.