- The Washington Times - Friday, February 27, 2004

This has been a banner fortnight at the Kennedy Center for offering a fascinating glimpse of arts from abroad. Performances have ranged from theater groups and recitals in the Festival of France to the weeklong run of the Hamburg Ballet’s “Nijinsky,” which concludes tomorrow.

A standout of the French Festival was “Les Sublimes,” one of the most challenging and provocative performance pieces to have appeared at the center since — well, probably since Peter Sellars was stirring up audiences here in the ‘80s.

A dazzling piece of agitprop, it was refreshingly different “people’s art”: gritty, earnest, thought-provoking, but also highly theatrical with imaginative use of video, awesome acrobatic feats and startling visual images.

The differences between European sensibilities and ours are elusive, but real. There’s a greater emphasis abroad on inventive staging; free association is used frequently as a shaping device. These traits show up in the dance works of Pina Bausch and Angelin Preljocaj and are distinctive elements of “Les Sublimes” and “Nijinsky.”

The “Nijinsky” by John Neumeier, artistic director of the Hamburg Ballet, has flashes of inspired staging in its free-form dramatization of the legendary dancer’s troubled life.

When the audience arrives, the curtains already are up on the first scene — a replica of a hotel ballroom in Switzerland where Vaslav Nijinsky (1888-1950) gave his last performance before madness overcame him. House lights dim, stage lights brighten, noisy guests arrive. Finally, Nijinsky makes his appearance and begins to dance.

By all eyewitness accounts, it was a strange and discomfiting solo. With so vivid an event, it would seem impossible — indeed, almost sacrilegious — to re-create that tortured moment.

In the event, artistic imagination pales before real life as the scene unfolds, but Mr. Neumeier leaves us a with a striking final moment in this first scene: Nijinsky reclines on the floor, in a pose reminiscent of one he struck in “Afternoon of a Faun,” and slowly places his fist in his wide-open mouth.

There follows a phantasmagoria of images from Nijinsky’s colorful life — his homosexual relationship with Serge Diaghilev, his oddly precipitate marriage to Romola Nijinsky, the often androgynous roles he danced — “Spectre de la Rose,” “Le Carnaval,” and “Petrushka” — and especially the strange new movement he introduced onto the stage with ballets he created — “Afternoon of a Faun,” the odd trio in “Jeux” and the pagan “Rite of Spring.”

Mr. Neumeier often quotes from Nijinsky’s own movements to good effect, but much of his own choreography is flat and ordinary, not strong enough or inventive enough to sustain his dramatic story. The prosaic dance element does not measure up to the bold scenic picture.

The choreographer has his best moments when he’s dealing with florid, over-the-top emotions or making connections by layering movement, such as juxtaposing the overt sexuality of the Faun as background.

At the opening performance, there were strong performances from Jiri Bubenicek as Nijinsky; Anna Polikarpova and Elizabeth Loscavio as his wife and sister, respectively; Ivan Urban as Diaghilev; Yukichi Hattori as his deranged brother; and Alexandre Riabko, Otto Bubenicek and Lloyd Riggins appearing in Nijinsky’s dance roles.

**1/2

WHAT: The Hamburg Ballet in “Nijinsky”

WHEN: Final performances are today and tomorrow, 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House, New Hampshire Avenue and F Street NW

TICKETS: $27 to $97

PHONE: 202/467-4600

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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