‘Nijinsky’s Last Dance’
Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint
916 G Street N.W.
Powerful, brilliant and gay, Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev famously started the Ballets Russes in Paris in 1909, smartly bringing together the best artists, composers, choreographers, dancers and fashion designers to create the most revolutionary dance company of its era.
The unstoppable Diaghilev is equally well known for fostering the career of his much younger lover, the legendary Nijinsky (1889-1950). Roundly considered the 20th century’s greatest male ballet dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky is remembered for dancing and choreographing daring new sexually charged works like “Afternoon of a Faun,” “ Jeux” and “Rite of Spring.” Without Diaghilev’s support, it wouldn’t have happened.
“Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929: When Art Danced with Music,” an exhibition currently at the National Gallery of Art (through Oct. 6) explores the man and his achievement. CulturalDC is joining the fun in presenting the Slovenia-based Mladinsko Theatre’s production of local playwright Norman Allen’s one-man play “Nijinsky’s Last Dance” at Flashpoint, D.C.’s downtown arts space.
“When I began to see pictures of Nijinsky (advertising the National Gallery show) on the sides of buses running up and down 16th Street, I knew that I wanted to be a part of this,” says Allen, who is gay. So he approached both the National Gallery and CulturalDC (part of whose mission is to match spaces for performances) and told them about this Slovenian production of his play. He suggested bringing it to D.C. would be one more way to help celebrate the exhibition. All agreed.
At 80 minutes without intermission, “Nijinsky’s Last Dance” mixes text, movement, music and sound. The piece is biographical, but rather than being strictly chronological, it’s more of a poetic, dramatic wash of his life. And though a one-man show, the actor slips in and out of other characters.
“Nijinsky was a great mimic which was a god send for me as a playwright,” Allen says. “He goes into Diaghilev for a half page. Then he’s his wife Romola Pulszky (an obsessed fan he unexpectedly married), or Tamara Karsavina (the great prima ballerina with whom he was occasionally paired).”
A longtime balletomane, Allen’s play premiered at Arlington’s Signature Theatre in 1998. It was reprised at the Kennedy Center in 2003. More recently as a guest artist in Slovenia, Allen saw the Mladinsko version.
“It’s an amazing production. A very powerful actor named Primož Bezjak plays Nijinsky,” he says. “It’s performed in Slovenian with English surtitles. And the company stipulates that no more than 60 tickets can be sold for each performance regardless of the size of the theater. The stage is encircled with just one row of chairs. Fortunately, because Flashpoint is such an intimate space, this won’t feel odd.”
Obviously well built but rather static in photographs, Nijinsky was reportedly athletically explosive and incredibly sexy and provocative on stage, as was his work.
“Nijinsky’s choreography for ‘Jeux’ was a response to Diaghilev’s desire for them to have a threesome. The ballet is choreographed for a man and two women and structured around a tennis match, but sex is at its core,” Allen says. “But it’s ‘Afternoon of a Faun,’ though, that is truly a sexual experience. Nijinsky shocked the audience at the premiere when he placed a nymph’s veil on the stage and lowered himself onto it, rubbing his crotch against it, imagining it to be her. By all accounts his astounding stage presence was sexual in nature. In ‘Faun,’ he created a role that gave him a direct means to express that.”
Around the time when the First World War broke out, Nijinsky began to show signs of schizophrenia, an illness that would soon after effectively end his career. Allen believes Nijinsky’s professional and personal crackup mirrored the war.
“Nothing would ever be the same. Everything fell apart. The world view changed. And he couldn’t make that transition,” he says.
One of Nijinsky’s last dances, says Allen, was an improvisational piece performed at a ballroom in Saint Moritz before an invitation-only audience. Already mentally ill but still traveling Europe with his wife and children, Nijinsky’s intention was to dance the war, physically expressing horror and disillusionment. Reviews weren’t great.
Allen recommends making a trip to the National Gallery before seeing the show. A section of the exhibit is dedicated to Nijinsky. Unfortunately there is no footage of Nijinsky dancing — not a single frame exists. “It’s a shame in way,” Allen says. “But it also contributes even more to Nijinsky’s status as a legend.”