It is said that Nijinsky’s leaps were a thing of wonder, that at their zenith he would appear to hang in the air, defying gravity. At the age on nineteen he joined Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and the seeds of legend were planted. His choreography and performance in Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps heralded the start of modern dance, questioning convention and shaking up the staid and stymied world of classical ballet.
But his leaping days were short lived. He danced for the last time in public in 1919. After a measly nine years he could dance no more, diagnosed with schizophrenia he was confined to a lunatic asylum in Switzerland. When we meet him at the beginning of De Sprong van Nijinsky (Nijinsky’s Leap) he can hardly stand and walk. He tries a few basic positions but grace and elegance elude him.
There are photographs and the legend, but no film of Nijinsky so much of what we know is from handed down hearsay and contemporary writings. Luckily, he kept a diary during the period when his schizophrenia was taking hold and it is on this personal written work that much of this multidisciplinary piece is based. It is a plea for letting go of reality and daring to float in another world.
Conceived and presented by Esther Apituley in association with Scapino Ballet Rotterdam, De Sprong van Nijinsky is beautifully and cleverly staged by director Titus Tiel Groenestege. The very effective décor, by Karl Klomp, consists of a dozen or so clear plastic sheets, pillars almost, the full height of the stage, about eighty centimeters wide. On to these are projected various images to create atmosphere and provide aides memoire. But, perhaps most significantly, they create what amounts to a Hall of Mirrors through which the disoriented dancer wanders, not knowing what is reality and what is fantasy, unable to distinguish between himself and what is a mere reflection of his what he used to be. He sits and writes his diary, reliving his glory days, fearing he will never leap again and that his hopes will die like poppies in the snow.
The show is built around the music composed by Chiel Meijering and beautifully played by Victor Lange on keyboard, Paul Medeiros on violin and Esther Apituley herself on viola. There is quite a bit of spoken word, in Dutch, written by Ko van den Bosch. The myriad characters – nurses, psychiartrist, wife, etc. – are capably played by the musicians and by Gary “Duimalot” Gravenbeek who hovers, a shadowy figure whose function is not entirely clear. But it is on the Nijinsky character that the spotlight dwells. Convincingly portrayed by Scapino Ballet principal dancer Mischa vam Leeuven we feel the agony and frustration of an artist who has lost his way or, in this case, had it stolen from him in a cruel twist of fate. He is an errant soul who, in his madness, believes he is a king, an emperor, God even. He fantasizes that he could still leap high enough to whirl up the dust on the moon.
Nijinsky was in and out of asylums for much of the rest of his life, often maintaining long periods without speaking. He died in London in 1950 aged sixty. But the legend has never dimmed and young dancers still aspire to recreate and emulate his amazing leap. With De Sprong van Nijinsky Esther Apituley and her colleagues have created an original and exciting piece of theatre which is on tour until the beginning of June. Michael Hasted 23rd April 2023