It has been said that no photograph accurately depicted the mysterious allure of ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. The cameras of his time were too slow to capture the height of his leap, and stationary images couldn’t reveal the sensual line in his steps.
In comparison with his peers-manly acrobats whose role was to support their celebrity female partners, all the while maintaining a virile anonymity-Nijinsky was a dancer of a vastly different stripe. Considered “conspicuously masculine in tights,” his powerfully muscular legs buttressed a slender torso that was accented with graceful feminine arms. It is rumored that he rouged his cheeks and painted his lips. His contradictory image enabled him to achieve an androgynous sexual appeal; he attracted, and was attracted to, men and women. During the span of his lifetime, beginning at the St. Petersburg’s Imperial Ballet School and ending with his forced disavowal and later schizophrenia, Nijinsky became something of an abused toy that people of either gender would tinker with.
His story is the subject of Norman Allen’s play, “Nijinsky’s Last Dance,” which won a shelf full of Helen Hayes Awards when it premiered at the Signature Theatre in 1998. If anything, the revival playing now through Sept. 14 at the Kennedy Center has gained momentum and poise under the direction of Joe Calarco and starring Jeremy Davidson. Gripping and heart-racing, the “Last Dance” is the rare production both eulogizes and embodies its subject with equal delicacy. Norman understands the tremendous work that goes into ballet, and Davidson understands the necessity of making it only appear effortless. The symbiosis between play and player requires the partnership of a pas de deux. Nijinsky would be proud of their testament to his legacy.
“Nijinksy’s Last Dance” opens with its title character wrapped in a straightjacket and shackled by mental instability. As he unfolds and unfurls his story for us, picking random faces from the audience in schizophrenically illusive vanity, one can’t help but heave a sigh of empathy. The one-person show has rarely seemed so interactive and true, with no need to vindicate its performer’s reasons for breaking the fourth wall and talking to us, rather than at us.
Davidson doesn’t have a ballet dancer’s body, let alone Nijinsky’s paradoxical physique, so he must imply each physical distinction with pantomime and suggestive vocal articulations. He has committed to a histrionic style made famous by other one-person show actors such as Anna Deavere Smith. In the process, however, Mr. Davidson seems to be inventing a new kind of performing before our eyes – his emotive voice soars up into the heavens while his figure churns firmly onstage, condemned by gravity’s pull. Using two vocabularies to speak, Davidson’s body language represents the dancer’s mind while his verbal dynamics represent his celestial dexterity, a surprising metaphor carried out to thrilling effect.
“Just one bird flies. Quiet and listen,” Mr. Davidson remarks in an amplified stage whisper. With a flicked wrist, the crumple of his baggy warm-up blouse flaps into motion and the seductive awe listen,” Mr. Davidson remarks in an amplified stage whisper. With a flicked wrist, the crumple of his baggy warm-up blouse flaps into motion and the seductive awe Nijinsky had of nature is vicariously experienced by the audience watching him.
A child of “la luna” (the moon), and a self-proclaimed lunatic, Nijinsky found himself longing to wade through his dreams, where “imagination is power, where you work from your vision” to the dance itself. “Nijinsky’s Last Dance,” appropriately, is an irresistible invitation to roam in a conscious dreamscape, where in your seats you curse gravity for keeping you at bay.
“Nijinsky’s Last Dance” is playing until Sept. 14 at the John F. Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, located at 2700 F St. NW. Tickets range from $25 to $30.