Hamburg Ballet's John Neumeier seems to have pulled out every card in a trick deck when he made the strange and often captivating evening-length ballet "Nijinsky," which premiered in the San Francisco Ballet's second season program Wednesday at War Memorial Opera House.

The Wisconsin-born Neumeier has been steering the German company for 40 years and has had a lifelong fascination with the genius dancer/choreographer who slowly went mad after creating ballets for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes that helped change the face of the art form. As Nijinsky himself did in "Afternoon of a Faun," Neumeier gives us a moment in time and keeps us locked in it until the curtain goes down. It was both interminable and gorgeous.

Choreographer John Neumeier’s "Nijinsky," based on the life of the famed Russian dancer, is the subject of the San Francisco Ballet’s
Choreographer John Neumeier's "Nijinsky," based on the life of the famed Russian dancer, is the subject of the San Francisco Ballet's second program of the season. ( Holger Badekow )

"Nijinsky" opens in the ballroom of the Suvretta House Hotel in St. Moritz, Switzerland, where the 28-year-old artist danced for the last time in a performance he called "Wedding With God." Over the next 2½ hours, Neumeier never lets us leave that room, even though the scenery -- his own designs, as are the costumes and lighting -- changes. Instead, we enter Nijinsky's fevered mind and wake up after this overly long dream where we began.

Even in the opening scene, where the set creates an air of lightness, space and order, madness is meant to lurk. Neumeier shows it in the theatrical chatter of his characters -- all dancers and family (Nijinsky's sister was the renowned Bronislava Nijinska), the charismatic impresario Sergei Diaghilev, Nijinsky's former lover and boss who fired Nijinsky when the dancer married a Polish ballerina in the corps de ballet. It lurks in the fevered clapping of an already disinterested crowd and in the anxiety of his wife, Romola.

It is almost mad to attempt to portray mental illness in dance, and that, I suspect, was part of Neumeier's challenge. Mental fragmentation with depersonalization is one of lunacy's signatures, and Neumeier adeptly captures both as we witness Nijinsky's world multiplying and the figures in it becoming characters in his dances and nightmarish replicas of themselves.

But Neumeier trots out small armies of Nijinskys as the lead, danced by Alexandre Riabko, dances with himself in his famous roles -- the Dionysian Faun, the fragrant Rose, the larky boy in "Jeux." Diaghilevs multiply more ominously, like darkly expressionistic figures, and a blitz of music from Nijinsky's various ballets runs through the night, creating auditory overload. The effect is of an uproar in a vast psychological space.

Riabko as Nijinsky danced with lovely pliancy that echoed the renowned dancer's, but with an emotional blandness that ultimately undercut Nijinsky's air of dislocation yet astuteness that is evident in his diaries that today read like modernist fiction. Romola, who has been characterized in dance lore as a predator, is danced by Hélène Bouchet as a tender companion who carts her husband off like a little boy on a sled at the end. It's a role she performs with a little too much devotion -- we know that this was a young woman obsessed with Nijinsky and determined to snare him. In other words, she was a groupie with an emptiness of her own to fill, none of which we see.

That Neumeier gives us all the imagined objects of Nijinsky's psyche -- his father, mother, brother, rival dancers, dance partners as well as his famous roles, such as Petrouchka and the Rose -- signals how ambitious the choreographer is. But for audiences with little knowledge of Nijinsky's career, is this near-chaos legible? Even for those up on their Ballets Russes lore, all these figures fuse together into an incestuous heap. Beautifully clothed, lit and designed, in the end "Nijinsky" is also safe. Rather than take us into the danger zone of a crackup, Neumeier wears us out with the sheer tedium of insanity. Who knew going mad was so banal?

s.f. ballet

Presents the Hamburg Ballet production of John Neumeier's "Nijinsky"
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 15, 16 and 19; 2 p.m. Feb. 16 and 17
Where: War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
Tickets: $35-$325, 415-865-5600, www.sfballet.org