For balletomanes this was enthralling. Artistic Director David McAllister and music director and chief conductor Nicolette Fraillon from the Australian Ballet talked to Caroline Baum about the Company’s upcoming production of Nijinsky choreographed by internationally renowned John Neumeier which opens next week here in Sydney after a hugely  successful season in Melbourne.

The premiere of the Nijinsky/ Stravinsky work Sacre du Printemps ( The Rite of Spring ) took place in Paris in May 1913 and famously caused a riot In the audience. What can we expect from this new work by Neumeier?!

Baum began by asking McAllister how he managed to obtain the rights to Neumeier’s work given that it is a work tightly controlled by the choreographer.

McAllister replied that several years ago now he attended performances and had talks with Neumeier but nothing really came of it until 2011 when they met again and made more definite arrangements.

Baum  asked Fraillon what audiences can expect of the score.  Fraillon described the score as a musical collage. The score features many passages related to specific roles that Nijinsky danced – for example the poet in  Les Sylphides,  the Golden Slave in Scheherazade,  Harlequin in Carnival.

Fraillon also mentioned his last rather shattering concert in Switzerland which included an anti war speech and was rather Expressionistic in nature.

The second half of Neumeier’s dance work uses the score of Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony and represents Nijinsky’s descent into madness with the backdrop pre-revolutionary Russia. 

She also explained the nature of the Nijinsky role in this latest work.  The role is multi-faceted and uses three dancers. She also talked about Nijinsky’s technique and physique and how he had chunky thighs and incredible elevation.

We were reminded that at the period Nijinsky was discovered , ballet was in decline and often male roles were danced by women en travestie.

McAllister spoke about the kind of ballet training that took place at the time, and went on to describe  Nijinsky’s versatility and astonishing characterisations.

He described how Nijinksy was an unexpected phenomenon which turned the ballet world around, and turned the focus back on the men.

Baum then went on to ask about the casting for the role .McAllister explained that Neumeier watched the Australian Ballet in class and rehearsals and cast the ballet after that. He had originally developed the roles in consultation with the dancers in his own company and then when it had transferred to the National Ballet of Canada he watched rehearsals there as well.

Fraillon reminded us of the Australian Ballet’s links to the Ballets Russes and how then the dancers might have been a different body shape and stockier, but their commitment to the roles they danced was amazing.

Baum then asked about the research required – McAllister answered that the dancers immersed themselves in the major standard biographies of Nijinsky and Digahlev ( for example the Anatole Bourman and Richard Buckle books ).

He talked about how the dancers then were not just dancers but also actors. Neumeier was looking for dancers who had a sense of passion about the work. Fraillon and McAllister then talked about how it is about building on the rehearsal process and what s created daily so the performance is in some ways a continual work in progress.

Baum then asked about Nijinsky’s relationship with Diaghilev .McAllister answered by saying that Nijinsky was pretty much grabbed by Diaghilev straight out of ballet school and how they were inseparable – Diaghilev was Nijinsky’s lover, mentor and tutor. Diaghilev kept Nijinsky rather isolated inside the world of the Ballets Russes yet cast him out after Nijinsky’s marriage to Romola.

Baum then asked about Nijinsky’s madness- was Diaghilev aware of it ? McAllister replied that he was aware of it but it didn’t really emerge until he was forced out of the Ballets Russes. Nijinsky had been sheltered , but now was unable to return to Russia, unable to work as a dancer – he didn’t really have a life outside dance. He also talked about the ghastly ‘’treatments’ for his madness , how Romola tried everything, all sorts of doctors and clinics but in vain.

Fraillon also added about the loss of his brother and how that affected him. This then led to talk of his family , how both Nijinsky’s parents were dancers – and his also famous sister Bronislavia ( Bronia) Nijinska, was also a famous choreographer .( famous for the ballet Les Biches among others ) . Interestingly , Bronia stayed within the world of the Ballets Russes and had a longer career than Vaslav.
The talk then turned to the 1913 premiere of Sacre du Printemps.  Fraillon pointed out that what caused the riot was the ground breaking strange choreography with its turned in feet and earthy low jumps. There are stories of Nijinsky calling the counts to the music from the wings of the stage as the dancers couldn’t hear properly because of the noise of the riot.

Then the discussion changed to how Neumeier’s work is very multilayered and there were references again to the last performance by Nijinsky , and how Diaghilev was striving for Gesamtkunstwerk ( a ‘total art work ‘ ) with his ballets.There was great collaboration between Nijinsky and Stravinsky for both Faune and Sacre.

McAllister then was asked why three dancers for the different aspects of Nijinsky he replied it is sort of like a poem with  each of the roles reflecting a different version of it.

Fraillon then talked about the role of the Faune in Neumeier’s work and how it is part of representing Nijinksy’s descent in to madness.

McAllister reminded us that Nijinsky’s work was ground breaking , the beginning of contemporary dance and how we would not have had Nureyev and Baryshnikov or other important male dancers since. Also , we don not really know what the ‘ original’ Rite of Spring was like although there has been the Joffrey reconstruction .

The session was then brought to a graceful close.

Running time an hour no interval.

This latest Culture Club event took place at the Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House on Tuesday November 1.

NIJINSKY, choreographed by John Neumeier, opens at the  Sydney Opera House on Friday November 11.