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|A CurtainUp Review
Nijinsky's Last Dance
by Les Gutman
This year celebrates the centennial of Vaslav Nijinsky's admission (at age ten) into the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg. His masters there would not be likely to view that as a reason to celebrate; his great accomplishment was to uproot the vocabulary they implanted in him and, as playwright Norman Allen suggests all geniuses do, "think a new thought"
Ten year increments seem to have defined the important moments in Nijinsky's life. At age twenty, he had his most important one, meeting the impresario Sergei Pavlovitch Diaghilev, who would become his promoter and lover. It was during the brief span of the five following years that Nijinsky was able to revolutionize the concept of men in ballet. By age thirty, he had stopped dancing, instead hopping from one mental institution to the next, an activity that would occupy the remaining thirty years of his life .
This is the third new solo performance about Nijinsky that CurtainUp has reviewed in the last two years. (The other two, Nijinsky-Death of a Faun and Nijinsky Speaks, are linked below.) It should not be surprising that playwrights find Nijinsky's trajectory fascinating. And with the publication of large parts of his diary (information linked below), it's also a subject that has become quite accessible.
Norman Allen has seized upon his subject's institutionalization as a very effective vehicle for telling his story. Set in a Swiss sanitarium, his Nijinsky (Jeremy Davidson) moves a lot but does not dance. He spends most of his time talking to the walls and daydreaming, as mental patients are wont to do. Allen is thus able to circumnavigate one difficulty that beset the other attempts at dramatizing Nijinsky's life, the unenviable task of convincingly replicating the grace of, arguably, the greatest dancer of all time. This structure also provides director Joe Calarco with the means to plausibly introduce other characters (Diaghilev, his wife Romola and others) through the sometimes-mocking voice of Nijinsky.
Allen and Calarco are fortunate to have in Davidson an actor who is able to thoroughly inhabit his character, finding both physical and verbal expression unhaltingly. This is all the more remarkable for someone who is an athlete and not a dancer, and makes the work of the estimable choreographer Karma Camp that much more worthy of praise. Calarco has cautiously calibrated the insanity he permits Davidson to exhibit, so that we continue to focus on what Nijinsky says rather than on how Davidson says it. Along the same lines, Davidson affects an accent that is evocative without being intrusive. Punch lines, few and far between, are signaled by a more contemporary vernacular, and seem successful in eliciting the laughs intended. In this and other respects, Davidson's shifts are at once subtle and yet dramatic. Let me be clear: whatever one thinks of the end product, Davidson's performance is masterful.
A raised square, chalky-black platform, bereft of adornment or prop, and presumably suggesting the confines of Nijinsky's institutional cell, affords Davidson no sanctuary on stage. Only Daniel MacLean Wagner's extensive and detailed lighting intrudes on the vast space inside and outside that room -- Signature's black box is exposed without obstruction all the way to the cinderblocks in all directions. A straitjacket tossed off once Vaslav is securely in his quarters reveals the barely-more elaborate costume: a loose-fitting shirt (which cleverly doubles at one point as a dance partner) and pants over bare feet. Even these garments provide no refuge when Nijinsky recalls posing for an admiring Rodin. And David Maddox has used the visual sparseness of the production as a cue for some very impressive aural effects emanating, it would seem, from both within and without Nijinsky's head.
There is, notwithstanding its triumphs, something less than totally fulfilling about this production. It is likely the best take on Nijinsky we've seen so far. (For the record, I was far less impressed with Leonard Crofoot's Nijinsky Speaks than my colleague David Lipfert in his review linked below.) But it still does not fully illuminate its subject. It tells us what, but not why. It lets us see Nijinsky's passions, but it never finds for Nijinsky a voice to enable us to understand much less experience them. Perhaps, even in this very thoughtful effort, words never can. As a young Nijinsky was told: quot;You are meant only to dance." LINKS MENTIONED ABOVE
CurtainUp's review of Nijinsky-Death of a Faun
CurtainUp's review of Nijinsky Speaks