Friday, November 17, 2006

'Nijinsky's Last Dance' Revisited

Actor Jeremy Davidson was a featured player in Friday night's new episode of Law & Order, NBC's venerable crime drama, now in a new timeslot after years anchoring the Peacock Network's Wednesday night schedule.

Davidson played a distraught father who shoots dead the murderer of his diabetic daughter in a massacre at an elementary school.

Years ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing Jeremy Davidson in a one-man play, Nijinsky's Last Dance, at the Signature Theatre in Arlington. Here is what I wrote for The Metro Herald on December 4, 1998:

Nijinsky One on One
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

An awestruck balletomane once came upon Vaslav Nijinsky, the great Russian dancer, at a Paris cocktail party and asked breathlessly, "How is it, Mr. Nijinsky, that you create such an effective illusion of leaping up, stopping in midair, and drifting gracefully back to earth?" Nijinsky smiled and replied: "It is very simple. I leap up, stop in midair, and drift gracefully back to earth.”

The arrogance and talent of Vaslav Nijinsky are now on display at Signature Theatre in Arlington. In Nijinsky's Last Dance, a new one-man play by Norman Allen, Jeremy Davidson plays the ill-fated dancer, whose career ended before he was 32 years old and who spent his next 30 years in mental institutions.

Yet Davidson portrays more than just Nijinsky. He also effectively portrays -- as Nijinsky might -- the major figures in Nijinsky's life: his first ballet instructor, his lover and impresario (Sergei Diaghilev), his wife, his sister, and others. Davidson gives us a Nijinsky who clearly had strength but who was hopelessly naive (if not innocent) and adrift when his relationship with Diaghilev ended. He shows us a man who practically invented the concept of "celebrity" yet who was unable to purchase a railway ticket onJeux his own.

Nijinsky, as dancer and choreographer, pushed the envelope of dance. He pressed forward even when he was booed off the stage in such works as Jeux ("Games") and Le Sacre du Printemps ("Rite of Spring"), which caused riots in Paris theatres. He was world famous in an era before radio or television, and when movies were just beginning to take hold. He became famous by touring Russia and the United States, Europe and South America.

Allen's play is fairly straightforward. We come upon Nijinsky as he enters the first of the asylums that will be his home until he dies. He begins a monologue that describes his life as a series of flashbacks. There are no props, no furniture.

The wonder of Nijinsky's Last Dance lies in its integrated use of set design, lights, color, and sound. Lou Stancari's minimalist set strips Signature Theatre to the bare walls. (The building's former use as a machine shop becomes clear, and it becomes apparent what a small space Signature has to work in, making its long string of hits all the more remarkable for the constraints in which the theatre has to work.) In the center of the stage is a square, white platform, slightly raked. Davidson, as Nijinsky, never wanders beyond the confines of this platform, which might well be a padded room.

Lighting designer Daniel MacLean Wagner uses the platform as a canvas, upon which he choreographs colors and shapes that press the show forward. Light and color create new locales for the "action" to take place and also reveal the inner workings of Nijinsky's mind. While never quite psychedelic, the lighting design might well be a drug that helps us to better understand what drives a mad genius like Nijinsky.

So, too, the sound design and original sound composition by David Maddox: bits and pieces of the music that Nijinsky made famous -- or that made Nijinsky famous -- drift throughout the play. We hear the applause that affirms Nijinsky's claim on grandeur. We feel ourselves transported to imperial Russia.

All these elements are brought together ably by director Joe Calarco, in his first Washington-area effort after his off-Broadway sensation, Shakespeare's R&J, a new take on the Romeo and Juliet story. Here, he has hit just the right note in every aspect of the show.

Playwright Norman Allen again demonstrates his facility for imagined historic drama. His previous piece, Waiting in Tobolsk, dealt poignantly and humanely with the final months of the family of the last Tsar. That play had its full-scale premiere last summer by the Moonlight Theatre Company, in the same month that the Tsar's family were laid to rest in St. Petersburg, 80 years after their assassination by Bolshevik thugs. He also wrote The Ballad of Lady Jane Grey for the Signature in the Schools program with Wakefield High School last January.

Any actor faces a real challenge in a one-man show, but Jeremy Davidson meets his with particular aplomb. After all, it must be difficult to imitate the movement of the century's greatest dancer and make it believable. In collaboration with Signature's mainstay choreographer Karma Camp, Davidson approximates Nijinsky's moves without actually dancing -- something appropriate for a dancer in decline. One scene (portrayed with full frontal nudity, a warning for the squeamish and the prudish) is particularly moving and erotic at the same time.

Nijinsky's Last Dance is not perfect, but it is a terrific demonstration of how the raw elements of theatre can work in concert -- how theatre is a collaborative art in which the whole is far more than the sum of its parts.
For a review of Davidson in another of his beguiling stage roles, see "'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' -- Take Two."

No comments: