writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition

Unanswered questions

Nijinsky's Last Dance
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater
Aug. 27-Sept. 14, 2003

By Lisa Traiger
© 2003

"I am Nijinsky!" declares Jeremy Davidson in the opening moments of playwright Norman Allen's sketch of the great dancer and even greater choreographer. It's wishful and wistful thinking, to say the—least. Nijinsky, legendary for his boundless leaps, his tradition-defying choreography and his brief but historic career—just nine years—truncated by mental illness, was an artist and a personality of unrepeatable world-renowned. But Allen's 90-minute, intermissionless one-man show is more gloss on the star than either a biography or even psychological or artistic portrait. "Nijinsky's Last Dance," which received a Helen Hayes Washington Theater Award for outstanding new play four years ago, was revived by Arlington, Va.'s Signature Theater for the Kennedy Center's fall Prelude Festival, a fortnight sampling of performing arts from blue-grass to zydeco, ballet to "The Wizard of Oz," meant to entice audiences to Washington's largest and most prolific performing arts center.

In "Nijinsky's Last Dance," that Davidson for the most part doesn't dance is understandable and, ultimately, one of director Joe Calarco's wisest moves. For though we know of Vaslav Nijinsky's fame as a danseur with the Maryinsky Ballet and more importantly as a choreographer with Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, we'll never know how he actually danced. From photographs we know of Nijinsky's short muscular stature, his thick neck, his heavy-lidded eyes and his expressive features. But photographs are just glyphs, they don't tell us how his leap soared through a window in "Spectre de la Rose." Nor do they show us he transformed himself into a man-puppet who could shed tears in "Petrouchka." Nor how his animal magnetism and erotic nature stunned and enticed audiences at "L'apres-midi d'un Faune." That Nijinsky was a phenomenal dancer is undisputed. How Nijinsky danced remains a mystery, ever to be unsolved.

Allen's play, set in a Swiss sanitarium in 1919 two years after the dancer made his final public appearances in South America, relies on the mad mind of the artist to relive key points and characters to relate his life story. On Lou Stancari's bare wooden floor, which with Daniel MacLean Wagner's lustrous lighting, becomes stage, ballroom, artist's studio and bare hospital room, actor Davidson transforms himself, again and again. He's Prince Lvov, the young dancer's early patron and lover; Tamara Karsavina, the exquisite and outspoken ballerina and friend; Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes, Nijinsky's extraordinary promoter and lover; and Romola de Pulszky, a corps dancers who set out to marry this great dancer but mostly inept man (He never bought himself a train ticket.). Davidson does an admirable job in this unforgiving role, transforming from character to character with barely momentary pauses.

Choreographer Karma Camp gleaned the simplest of movements from ballet's vocabulary—loping runs and an elementary port de bras—while she also reproduced a few famed poses: as Petrouchka, arms drooping toward the floor, feet pigeon-toed; as the Rose, arms encircling his head in ecstatic reverence; as the Faun, that particular two-dimensional Grecian urn-like walk—suggest the ghostly specter that was Nijinsky. Davidson fearlessly tackles the role and the movement Camp has set for him with unequivocal commitment. He believes, so we, too, want to believe. But it just isn't so. As the strains of Debussy, or Stravinsky—captured by sound designer David Maddox—allude to, as the photographs suggest, Nijinsky was great for his technique, but he was even greater for his ability to inhabit his roles with incomparable abandon.

The question that Allen unfortunately avoids is what forces made Nijinsky: Could Nijinsky have been as great as he was if he had had a more stable and conventional mind? The issue of madness and creativity is one that has intrigued over the centuries. Nijinsky's life, explicated here in "Nijinsky's Last Dance," merely hints at this larger question without ever probing into why this man, so exceptional as an artist and a dancer at his career's peak, fell ill and lost his ability to dance, to choreograph and to communicate and preserve himself in the ways he knew best. "Nijinsky's Last Dance" is a fine production, produced and performed with tremendous care, but it is not, ultimately, the finest representation of an unparalleled artistic voice. Perhaps, to imitate Nijinsky—in body, in spirit and in form—is an impossibility. And perhaps the more pressing question we must ask in the throes of a new century and a new millennium isn't who was Nijinsky, but will there ever be another?

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 1
September 29, 2003

Copyright ©2003 by Lisa Traiger




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The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on October 7, 2003