In 1919, Vaslav Nijinsky gave his final performance in a hotel in Switzerland. The famous, tortured ballet dancer began by sitting in a chair and glaring at the audience for half an hour.

That final role is the starting point for John Neumeier’s ballet Nijinsky, which charts the rise and fall of the world’s greatest male ballet dancer. Rarely seen outside of Europe, it will be performed by The Australian Ballet in Melbourne for the first time in September.

In his glory days the Russian-Polish dancer – who was born in Kiev in 1890 to parents who were both celebrated dancers – was worshipped like a rock star. The French called him “le Dieu de la Danse” – the God of Dance. Fans stole his underwear from his dressing room while he was performing groundbreaking works such as Afternoon of a Faun, which premiered in Paris 1912. Known for his gravity-defying leaps and experimental and erotic choreography, he changed ballet forever.

Yet behind the scenes the maverick dancer endured mental illness. He struggled to maintain a semblance of normality before a descent into madness prematurely ended his career in 1919.

Nijinsky is a tour de force not only because of the central character, but because of the choreography,” says The Australian Ballet’s artistic director, David McAllister. “For Neumeier, dance is really elemental: it’s not just about putting steps together, it’s about truly telling a story and dancing like an actor. It’s powerfully dramatic.”

McAllister lobbied Hamburg Ballet’s Neumeier – one of the greatest living choreographers – for 15 years to allow The Australian Ballet to dance Nijinsky. The portrait of the groundbreaking artist was created in 2000 on the 50th anniversary of the dancer’s death.

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“Nijinsky was a superstar before we had the media that we have now,” says McAllister. “He completely captivated not only the people who saw him dance, but even the people who didn’t see him dance, as his notoriety spread around the world.”

Nijinsky is a powerful showcase for the company’s male dancers, who are given the opportunity to evoke Nijinsky’s distinctive style amid sets and costumes inspired by the exoticism of the Ballets Russes, which was renowned for collaborations with creatives such as Léon Bakst, Pablo Picasso and Coco Chanel. Over two acts, seven male dancers portray Nijinsky’s many facets.

“It’s a really powerful work for a whole series of men because not only is there the central character of Nijinsky, but also all the separate roles he created are represented,” says McAllister. “And then of course there is the character of Sergei Diaghilev, who was sort of his Svengali, in a way – at one point his lover but also the man who nurtured his career.”

Nijinsky’s introduction to ballet began at an early age. At nine he was accepted by the Imperial Ballet School in Russia, the world’s leading dance school at that time. In 1909 he joined the Ballets Russes under Diaghilev and became the company's star male dancer. The Rite of Spring, a collaboration between Nijinsky and composer Igor Stravinsky, famously nearly incited a riot at its premiere in Paris because of its avant-garde sensibility, and Nijinsky’s experimentation helped bring ballet into the modern era.

“Nijinsky changed the face of dancing and changed the role of male dancers from standing behind the ballerina to being stars themselves,” says McAllister. “He pioneered the way for [Rudolf] Nureyev and [Mikhail] Baryshnikov, but it is still Nijinsky who is the benchmark today.”

Nijinsky performed with the Ballets Russes until 1917, when he was forced to leave the company by his mentor and lover Diaghilev, who was outraged by the dancer’s decision to marry Hungarian aristocrat Romola de Pulszky. He worked alone for several years before suffering a nervous breakdown at the age of 29. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, he retired from the stage and was institutionalised on and off until his death in 1950.

Nijinsky offers a rare opportunity to experience that career from its exhilarating start to its devastating conclusion.

“It’s incredible that someone’s talent can burn so brightly and then fall so deeply into the clutches of mental illness,” says McAllister.

“His career was relatively short – it wasn’t even 10 years – yet during that time he changed the face of male dancing with some of the most groundbreaking works the world has ever seen.”

The Australian Ballet’s Nijinsky runs at Arts Centre Melbourne from September 7–17 before touring Adelaide Festival Centre from October 14–19 then Sydney Opera House from November 11–28. Tickets are available here.

Broadsheet is a proud media partner of The Australian Ballet.

Take a friend with you to see Nijinsky for half the price. Use the promo code BROADSHEETSYD to receive 50% off your second adult ticket for performances on Tuesday 15 November and Wednesday 16 November.

Images courtesy of Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Collection