Do you know what it’s like to lose yourself?
It’s what Thomas Leroy tells Nena Sayers, the pretty and fragile ballerina in 2010′s ballet noir depiction Black Swan. He tells her to lose herself, to stop being so composed, so guarded, so carefully constructed.
In a way that’s what I’ve always admired most about ballet, and what I thought a lot about last night in the first act of Nijinsky, playing at the National Ballet of Canada in Toronto. Starring Guillaume Côté (who I was fortunate enough to interview for Yonge Street prior to the performance) as the troubled ballet legend Nijinsky, the ballet intertwines dream sequences and hallucinations with the dancer’s descent into madness. It’s based around his last performance, which took place on a ship, a theme that was carried throughout the performance. There are days and days of circle imagery and chairs, repeated, the icons of which I have yet to more deeply explore.
But composure and lack there of, that’s what I thought about. And when, in the second act, the ballet and Côté did lose itself to a perfectly choreographed, highly intensified escalation of madness, I was hypnotized and horrified. I was left stunned and bruised.
My entire life is spent writing words, or thinking about words, or having people tell me I think too much about what words mean. “But that’s the definition,” I say all the time. “That is what the words mean.”
In ballet there are no words (though in Nijinsky there was a lot of screaming). A lot is left to interpretation. In ballet the stories are told entirely without words. They are told instead with bodies and movement and music and sequences overlapping, spaces of time, explosions of dancing, moments of stillness. They are told with people. Their thoughts are presented as visions, swirls of colour, scenes interspliced with other scenes. They are like pieces of film cut up and put together, like something Tyler Durden would do, you’re left feeling something inside of you but you’re not always sure why.
In Nijinsky to depict the war, soldiers move uncomfortably slowly in the background across the stage from right to left. Their moves are firmly executed and exaggerated. They are composed. They never stumble. Nijinsky’s madness, on the other hand, unfolds in front of this. At points they become one, the madness or war, the madness of Nijinsky himself. Sometimes the music is jarring. Once or twice I couldn’t breathe.
I approached this ballet differently than I had others before. I wanted to feel something from Nijinsky. I needed to feel something. When you’re a writer life can be its own madness, it is a constant battle, I never feel composed. When I am still with only my thoughts, I panic before chasing, trying to chase, them away. Madness and silence have a unique relationship. Madness lives inside the heads of the mad, as it did in Nijinsky’s. This ballet captured this perfectly. I found myself lost in a different way.