A great tragedy Credit: Hamburg Ballet

The Hamburg Ballet makes its Chicago debut on an epic scale with Nijinsky, a two-and-a-half-hour work by the company’s artistic director, John Neumeier. A sixth-grade teacher cemented Neumeier’s obsession with incendiary dancer-choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky by scolding him for reading Anatole Bourman’s The Tragedy of Nijinsky. By 2000, when Nijinsky debuted, Neumeier says he’d amassed “hundreds of objects” for a collection dedicated to his idol: works of art, press clippings, even the menu from the great man’s wedding brunch, signed by him and his wife, Romola.

Nijinsky opens with the dancer’s final performance, in 1919, at a Saint Moritz hotel. According to a 1999 New York Review of Books story by Joan Acocella, he’d plunged into schizophrenia by then; he told Romola on the way to the hotel that his solo—which reportedly began with a half hour of staring at the crowd—would be his “marriage with God.” In Neumeier’s ballet, Nijinsky’s disordered thoughts take the form of surreal juxtapositions of real-life figures with the roles he danced or choreographed. His life and work are fused, for instance, in a telling trio danced by company members playing Nijinsky, Romola, and the title creature from L’apres-midi d’un faune.