“I am Nijinsky!” The actor Primoz Bezjak repeatedly declares, one moment bathing in glory as the acclaimed god of dance, and the next wailing in pain as that integration of self crumbles. Mladinsko Theatre’s spare and searing production of Nijinsky’s Last Dance has come to Washington from Slovenia. In the intimacy of the Mead Theatre at Flashpoint Gallery, the show compels us to both bear witness and examine the combustible coalition between genius and madness.
The characters who peopled Nijinsky’s life read like a Who’s Who of the international arts world of the first part of the twentieth century, including the great Russian ballerina Tamara Karsavina, Michel Fokine, the radical choreographer who broke from the classical ballet tradition and paved the way for modern dance, and, of course, Sergei Diaghilev, the great impresario who thrust the young dancer onto the world stage but robbed him of both his innocence and his opportunity to mature in an independent life. Other names appear here as minor characters, including Debussy, Cocteau, and the sculptor Auguste Rodin.
The colors, voices, and vibrancy of the period are on display in this work but all evocatively imagined through the memory of one man – Nijinsky — and the talents of the remarkable performer Bezjak who portrays him and his circle. The plasticity of Bezjak’s body expresses with every gesture Nijinsky’s inner landscape, housed, as he was for the last thirty years of his life, in a mental institution.
Nijinsky’s Last Dance compresses the dancer’s world, takes us behind the scenes indeed into the most private aspects of the dancer’s life. Bezjak carries us through the man’s struggle as he tries to recall and piece his life back together or at least hold onto remnants of who he once was.
Local playwright Norman Allen’s compelling solo drama premiered in Washington in 1998 in a much-heralded production at Signature Theatre then returned for a run at the Kennedy Center in 2010. Now translated into Slovenian, this imported production compresses Allen’s drama even further. Gone are the handholds Allen had provided in his original writing where actor would signal that he is transforming himself into another character. For some in the audience who don’t know Nijinsky’s story it might have left people at sea at times. I would argue that the choice to push the impressionistic quality of Allen’s remarkable gem of a play is supported stylistically in the context of the experimental music and arts of that period, particularly Claude Debussy.
The choice to not fill all the spaces with clear logical steps also furthers our deeper experiencing of the inner landscape of a fragmented psyche. We begin to feel the disorientation where boundaries between Nijinsky’s performance roles and self and between himself and the people in his life are blurred or seem not to exist at all.
Director Marko Mlacnik and choreographer Mateja Rebolj have crafted a work where dramatic beats, movement, and scenic elements all coalesce so that one moment or “chapter” in Nijinsky’s life unfolds and bleeds into another seamlessly. Everything builds from the first moment when Nijinsky sits in total silence and we hear in his head the simple physical instructions of a dance class or perhaps a choreographic chain of movements and experience the fullest absorption of an artist at work.
The production plays on so many levels. Anyone who has a dance background or knows the highlights of Nijinsky’s historical breakthrough dances will appreciate Bezjak’s technical skill and emotional embodiment as he slips in between one iconic style of dance and another. With the soft, intentional placement of the asymmetrical arms in the port de bras over his head, the actor exudes the romantic spirit of Le Spectre de la Rose, where we are told it took five men off stage to keep him from killing himself when leaping through a wall on his last exit. Bezjak then wildly cavorts over the perilous struts, totally transformed as the indestructible puppet Petrushka, elbows akimbo, jerking his body grotesquely and spinning as if on strings which then cut has Petroushka collapsing lifeless in a heap. Rebolj has coached the able-bodied actor not to recreate the whole choreography but find the most iconic gestures, body postures, and sequences to take us back into the emotional essence of those great dances.
Artistically it is in the role in L’après-midi d’un faune which Nijinsky choreographed himself, that indeed the character seems to go beyond limits of human boundaries into something approaching primitive. With the tight steps, angular side-postures, and stylized semiphore hands gestures, the dancer ironically seems to become most free but at the same time, ventures into a kind of shamanic transformation from which he can never return.
NIJINSKY’S LAST DANCE
Closes Friday, August 30, 2013
Mead Theatre at Flashpoint
916 G St NW
1 hour, 10 minutes without intermission
Monday thru Friday
Details and Tickets
There is of course the psychological dimension of this play, which proceeds to lay out a series of key and painful traumas by which one might trace the unraveling and explain the sources of mental illness the man suffered. Some events might be part of the lore of Nijinsky’s life; others might come as a shock. His father abandons the young boy and his mother. Nijinsky loses his virginity in one night both to a woman and a man, the latter his patron, a prince, in a scene raw and horrific. The dancer is kept as both an attractive sexual prize and something of a pet. There are scenes where the character of Diaghilev both seduces and bullies the young dancer. He raises Nijinsky up only later to shame him and cast him off when he grows bored.
Hard to believe that the show has been touring since 2010, so grueling is the work out physically and emotionally. Bezjak leaves nothing out from his exposé of character. At times, trying to follow the almost inaudible mumblings, I felt that I was witnessing not a polished show but the first stages of an actor’s private exploration of character.
All to emphasize this is an important piece of theatre. Rarely in Washington can one experience something so raw and emotionally truthful. Anger. Terror. Desire. It’s all there, and isn’t that what theatre is supposed to be about?
Note: It was a challenge also to follow the projected translations, limited as the screens were to two of the four sides that were at times at odds with the sightlines when I wanted to stay glued to the compelling action.
All of this works as a dialogue and extension to the remarkable exhibit on at the Smithsonian’s East Wing on Diaghilev and the Ballet Russe.
Nijinsky’s Last Dance by Norman Allen . Translated by Jakob J. Kenda . Directed by Marko Mlacnik . Produced by Mladinsko Theatre . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.