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Remembering Nijinsky

Troubled ballet legend honored in biographical show

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Primoz Bezjak, Vaslav Nijinsky, theater, dance, gay news, Washington Blade
Primoz Bezjak, Vaslav Nijinsky, theater, dance, gay news, Washington Blade

Primoz Bezjak as Vaslav Nijinsky in ‘Nijinsky’s Last Dance.’ (Photo courtesy Mladinsko Theatre and CulturalDC)

‘Nijinsky’s Last Dance’
Aug. 26-30
Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint
916 G Street N.W.
culturaldc.org

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.”

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Movies

Queer ‘TV Glow’ a surreal horror gem

Challenging and surprising us in a way that feels thrillingly audacious

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Justice Smith and Bridgette Lundy-Paine in ‘I Saw the TV Glow.’ (Photo courtesy of A24)

In an age when so much of our consciousness is fixated on screens, it’s no surprise that the year’s most effectively soul-shaking horror film so far should be about precisely that.

It’s certainly not the first movie to take on the topic. Using television and computer screens to evoke creepy chills was a “thing” even before David Cronenberg used “Videodrome” to blur the lines between the physical world and the electronically conveyed imitation of it we often substitute for the “real thing.” In “I Saw the TV Glow,” however,  the focus is not so much about the natural fears that arise from our reliance on technology to help us navigate our lives – the dangers of artificial intelligence or the violation of privacy to manipulate us or make us vulnerable – as it is about something much more primal. Filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun’s second feature might center on our fears around pop culture obsessions and the dangerously delusional fantasies they inspire, but its real agenda lies in a somewhat less obvious direction.

Tapping into shared millennial memories about the kid-friendly fan-culture fodder our televisions fed us in the 1990s, Shoenbrun’s movie revolves around Owen (Justice Smith), whose early teen years take place within that era. Reserved, anxious, and out-of-step with the conventional expectations embraced by his parents (Danielle Deadwyler and Limp Bizket frontman Fred Durst), seventh-grade Owen (Ian Foreman) finds himself drawn to lesbian ninth-grader Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine) when he spots her reading a book about a TV show called “The Pink Opaque.” His fascination, partly fueled by the “forbidden” nature of a series that airs past his strictly enforced bedtime, leads the two into a secretive friendship, in which they bond over the quirky fantasy it presents – in which two teen girls with a psychic connection battle monsters together despite living on opposite sides of the world – and come to experience it as an escape from reality, which reflects and helps to alleviate their own respective unaddressed personal traumas.

Fast forward to roughly a decade later, when Owen, now working in a go-nowhere job at the local movie multiplex, reunites with his former friend – surprisingly, considering that she had disappeared around the same time that their favorite TV obsession was canceled abruptly, with a never-to-be-resolved cliffhanger left as a final discordant note. She tells him a disturbing tale of being trapped inside “the world of the show” after memories of “The Pink Opaque” began to blend with reality in her mind, suggesting that their own identities are somehow tied to its two heroines and that its outlandish mythology is somehow more “real” than the lives they remember living themselves – and triggering a similar process in Owen after their encounter leaves him questioning his own memories of the series and its influence over his fate.

Anyone who has seen Schoenbrun’s debut feature – “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” (2021), which, like “I Saw the TV Glow,” premiered to acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival, putting the nonbinary filmmaker in the upper bracket of rising talents to watch – will know that their unique narrative approach has a way of keeping the viewer off balance, and that’s something that works brilliantly to give the newer feature its disconcerting impact. Though it incorporates elements of the “body horror” subgenre to elicit some squirmy moments, it’s more unsettling than outright scary, achieving its creepiness by undermining our perceptions and reminding us of the unreliability of memory – in essence, by removing the illusion of certainty from our experience of reality, calling everything we assume about it into question. We aren’t the first to note the similarities between the filmmaker’s approach and that of David Lynch, whose disorienting nonlinear style would have obvious parallels to theirs even if it wasn’t peppered with visual callbacks to some of the latter director’s iconic work; far from being mere imitation, however, it’s the use of a shared visual language to take us on a surreal and sometimes nighmarish journey, which operates under the malleable rules of dream logic as it shape-shifts its way through a narrative that feels as much like free-association as it does a story. 

What makes it particularly effective is that it captures the kind of cultish fandom those of latter generations feel around the precious TV memories of their youth – frequently around the kind of loopy, outlandish sci-fi fantasy shows like the one at its center – and the reasons why such pop culture fodder have such appeal for anyone who, like its two protagonists, feels like an outsider in a world that seems to have no place for them. We’ve all felt like that at some time or another, no matter which generation we are from, so we can relate – just as we can relate to the experience of revisiting a show we loved from our youth and finding it different than we remembered, something this movie deploys brilliantly to hook us into its premise and spark our own paranoid fantasies about mind control over the broadcast waves, supernatural or otherwise.

But while Shoenbrun’s film succeeds masterfully at triggering all those “hidden message” fantasies that emerge in our pop culture – the hubbub over “backward masking” on rock albums comes to mind, or the uproar over the demonic influence of role playing games like “Dungeons and Dragons” – it delivers a much more existential level of fear almost through its stylistic approach alone. By challenging not only our memories of the past but our perception of the here-and-now, “I Saw the TV Glow” pulls the rug out from under our belief in a concrete reality. Further, by following its saga through several stages of life – it follows Owen over a course of 30 years – it drives home the inevitable connection between aging, loss of control over our own minds, and ultimately, death itself as the fate which awaits us all. 

Yes, that sounds pretty grim, and melancholy to boot – but after all, why shouldn’t a horror film embrace those qualities? And like the best horror films, this one finds a transcendent beauty in the twisted darkness it shows us, even if it offers us little  – beyond the escapist fantasies we cling to from our youth, that is – to comfort us as we face the grim uncertainties of our own lives.

How it accomplishes that is something we’ll leave you to discover for yourself, but we would be remiss not to note the movie’s deeply queer/trans subtext – both its lead characters are ostracized for non-conformity in their sexual or gender orientations, though most of that is conveyed “between the lines” rather than explicitly explored – which brings a tangible and resonant layer of metaphor to the proceedings.

Admittedly, “TV Glow” might not be the kind of horror film for all fans of the genre – its nonlinear style and surrealistic resistance to concrete interpretation are sure to alienate those looking for a more easily-digestible experience. Nevertheless, it’s a rare genre film that steps outside its expected boundaries to challenge and surprise us in a way that feels thrillingly audacious – and that’s more than enough for us to jump on board.

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The Washington Renegades: 25 years of kicking and camaraderie

Nation’s first LGBTQ rugby club heads to Rome for major tournament

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The Washington Renegades are celebrating 25 years.

In June of 2003, Ned Kieloch decided to go to an LGBTQ-inclusive men’s rugby practice on one Tuesday. He jokes that he never left. 

It was a long time coming — Kieloch had picked up a flyer for the team, the Washington Renegades, about three years earlier at Millennium March on Washington in 2000. He forgot about it until he moved to D.C. in 2003 when he got more information at Pride. Kieloch realized the practice was right down the street from where he lived at the time. 

Kieloch, who’s the current president of the Washington Renegades all these years later, has been actively involved since that first Tuesday practice. He took on his first officer position after just six months of joining the team.  

“I just fell in love with the game and with the guys, and I’ve never looked back,” Kieloch said. 

The Washington Renegades, founded in the fall of 1998 in D.C. as the first LGBTQ inclusive men’s rugby club in North America, is gearing up to commemorate its 25th anniversary. The group, made up of mainly men, is also traveling to Rome to play in an international gay rugby tournament this month. 

Kieloch played on the team for about a decade, then went on to support the team off the field. Since his time with the Washington Renegades, he’s seen the team through 100-point losses and winning seasons. 

Now, he’s heading to Rome with current players and team alumni to take part in the Bingham Cup, the biennial world championships of gay rugby. 

Washington Renegades (Photo courtesy of the Renegades)

Jetting to Rome 

This tournament first took place in 2002 in Mark Bingham’s memory, who was a gay rugby player among the passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93. Along with a few others, he fought against hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001. This effort resulted in the crash of the plane in Pennsylvania, which prevented the hijackers from crashing it into a building in D.C. Bingham played for the gay rugby team the San Francisco Fog and helped to organize the Gotham Knights team in New York City. 

The Bingham Cup has been hosted in San Francisco, Nashville, London, and Amsterdam, among other cities around the world. 

About 60 people with the Washington Renegades will travel to Rome for the Bingham Cup, which runs from May 23-26. More than 100 teams will be participating, with about 5,000 players in total. 

Kai Walther, the team’s community engagement chair, said he’s looking forward to connecting with and learning from other queer people from other global teams. The LGBTQ rugby community is only so big in the United States, he said, and he’s excited to meet more people with his same passion. 

“There’s an understanding,” he said. “We all play this sport. We all are putting our bodies on the line for this.”

Nick DiNardo, who’s been a part of the Washington Renegades for two seasons, was looking for a place to play sports that was also connected to his identity. He got in contact with Kieloch, and like his own experience two decades ago, DiNardo was immediately all in. 

Growing up playing sports and hiding his identity, DiNardo said having queer-focused teams like the Washington Renegades is integral to building safe spaces where people can bond while doing something they love. 

“I’ve really developed a family,” DiNardo said. “We … support creating a space that’s open, inclusive, and safe for anyone who wants to come and learn and have a good time.”

Straight people are also a part of the team, which Kieloch says reflects the team’s values. 

“I think that’s one of the best things about our club,” Kieloch said. “I just love the camaraderie of it.”

Walther joined the Washington Renegades in the summer of 2023. He loves being on the team for several reasons — to meet new people and be able to be a part of a team where he feels he can be his entire queer self.

Because of the nature of the sport, trust is necessary, he said. This comes easier when everyone on the team has the same inclusive and accepting frame of mind. 

“There’s so much happening on the field. Like hitting other people, we have to get really close to each other, and support each other on tackles against other teams,” he said. “And so when we’re all on the same page, it makes us a lot stronger.”

Washington Renegades (Photo courtesy of the Renegades)
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PHOTOS: PrEP for Pride

White Plains LGBTQ celebration held by Charles County Department of Health

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A scene from PrEP for Pride at the Charles County Department of Health in White Plains, Md. on May 18. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The second annual PrEP for Pride LGBTQIA+ Pride Festival was held on Saturday, May 18 on the campus of the Charles County Department of Health in White Plains, Md.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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