The dancer Vaslav Nijinsky flamed across the firmament in one of the most brilliant and brief trajectories in the history of art.
When Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes burst on the Paris scene in 1909, Nijinsky became, at age 20, its star and the most famous male dancer in the world. For the next three years, his spectacular dancing galvanized audiences in such avant-garde works as “Schehera-zade,” “Spectre de la Rose” and “Petrushka.”
By 1912, he had choreographed the groundbreaking “L’Apres-midi d’un Faun.” The next year, he created “Le Sacre du Printemps” to Igor Stravinsky’s bold score, provoking a tumultuous reception from the scandalized audience.
His open relationship with Diaghilev was another scandal. The same year as “Sacre,” he married, prompting a rupture with Diaghilev that, in turn, marked the beginning of his descent into madness. He returned to the company briefly for a North American tour in 1916.
That was it: In less than a decade, after just five years of major performances, he acquired an aura that has made him a legend to this day. Innumerable biographies, novels, ballets, poems, plays, paintings and movies have been made about him. “The Red Shoes,” the classic 1948 film, is a thinly disguised retelling of the Diaghilev-Nijinsky conflict.
During World War I, he was interned in Switzerland. He began a diary, an extraordinary record of an artist’s struggle with madness, on the same day that he gave his last public performance. He called this long, strange solo recital his “marriage with God”; it took place Jan. 19, 1919, in the ballroom of the Survetta Hotel in St. Moritz.
A re-creation of that scene and that setting begins John Neumeier’s “Nijinsky,” which the Hamburg Ballet is dancing next week at the Kennedy Center Opera House. This marks the German company’s first appearance in Washington.
Mr. Neumeier, the American-born director who has headed the Hamburg for 30 years, says he wanted to do more than tell the story of Nijinsky’s life.
“The ballet is talking about Nijinsky through his own medium, telling about him through contrasting styles of dance,” he says.
Mr. Neumeier has adopted a stream-of-consciousness style and split the Nijinsky role among several of his dancers “because he was many things to many people; he had an incredible gift for transformation,” the choreographer says. “So there is a dancer who is Nijinsky throughout. Other Nijinskys portray different aspects of his character — one shows his sensual, erotic quality dancing the Golden Slave, another his androgynous quality in ‘Spectre de la Rose,’ a third his vulnerable quality as a broken human being in ‘Petrushka.’”
The second half of the ballet is even more introspective, according to Mr. Neumeier. It is set to the 11th Symphony of Shosta-kovich.
“After that recital at Suvretta House in 1919, he became silent; he hardly spoke after that. We’re going inside, seeing from the inside his world of images.
“His older brother, Stanislav, who was also mad — for Nijinsky a sort of frightening mirror image — is an important role in the second part, as is the image of the First World War. He was terribly haunted by the images of cruelty.
“We see a pas de deux between Nijinsky and Diaghilev; we see Nijinsky struggling to create a new movement language; we see him on shipboard meeting Romola, his future wife; we understand a narrative going through this chaotic world of hallucination.”
Mr. Neumeier, who describes the dancer-choreographer as “visionary,” has the largest collection of Nijinsky memorabilia in the world. He owns the very first book written about Nijinsky, published when he had created “Faun” and “Sacre.”
“Reading it, I realized that even in 1913 there were people who were appreciating, even if not completely understanding, what he was doing choreographically, that something serious was going on.”
Mr. Neumeier, who grew up in Milwaukee, directs the Hamburg Ballet and also its school, which produces 65 percent of the company’s dancers. With the kind of state sponsorship dance directors here can only dream of, Mr. Neumeier has produced a body of ambitious ballets set to monumental music — including Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” and “Magnificat,” Mozart’s “Requiem” and four of Mahler’s symphonies.
This June the company is celebrating Mr. Neumeier’s 30th anniversary by presenting 16 of his works in a three-week festival.
WHAT: The Hamburg Ballet in “Nijinsky”
WHEN: Wednesday through Feb. 29 at 7:30 p.m., Feb. 28 and 29 at 1:30 p.m.
WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House
TICKETS: $27 to $97