- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 2, 2003

It’s a heady thing to become a goner at an early age.

I was barely 10 when my mother took me to see Rudolf Nureyev dance — and when he soared out the window at the end of the ballet “Spectre de la Rose,” all covered in rose petals, he took me with him.

I was gone, transported. I was that drowsy young girl in the ballet, clutching a long-stemmed rose after her first ball.

I thought that feeling would never occur again, until “Nijinsky’s Last Dance,” Signature Theatre’s incandescent production of Norman Allen’s play about artistry and madness. Of course, the solo piece (featuring the splendid Jeremy Davidson) is about the great Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, not Nureyev. And “Spectre de la Rose” is only alluded to through gesture and dialogue, not performed.

Yet this production, with its seamless melding of material and collaborators, holds such sway and power over the audience that you feel you are basking in the heart and soul of Nijinsky. In less than 90 minutes, you not only forget yourself, you leave yourself.

How often does that happen in the theater?

The experience is not a new one. “Nijinsky’s Last Dance” was first staged in Washington by Signature in 1998, and was a sellout that garnered four Helen Hayes Awards, including best play. It was a show that theatergoers and critics spoke about in glowing terms for years, and to this day, the Signature box office still gets inquiries as to when “Nijinsky” is going to return.

It’s back for three weeks, having moved from Signature’s intimate space to the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. The high standards from the 1998 productions have been maintained, and perhaps even surpassed in this revival.

This biographical play begins with Nijinsky (Mr. Davidson) roaming the confines of a mental institution in Switzerland. Although wearing the loose, grubby clothes of a patient, he has the carriage and princely bearing of a dancer.

“I am the son of a god. I am a bluebird — I fly,” he proclaims and although he is clearly mad, there is something to him seeing himself as a creature not entirely of this world. He is too exquisite to be human.

Addressing invisible patrons, Nijinsky coils back into memory, recounting his childhood and early training at the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg at the turn of the century. He flirts waggishly with the audience as he tells of joining the famed Ballet Russe at age 18, and also becoming the lover of its founder, Sergei Diaghilev. For him, Diaghilev created the immortal dances “Petrouchka,” “Spectre de la Rose,” and the incendiary “Afternoon of a Faun” and “The Rites of Spring.” Nijinsky moved freely between the genders, male or female; didn’t matter as long as they were beautiful.

There is a glorious scene where Nijinsky recounts his meetings with the sculptor Auguste Rodin, who did endless nude sketches of the dancer warmed by the Parisian sun streaming into his studio. This portrayal of the slow, sweet seduction through an artist’s adoring eye and love of line is one of the most sensual things you will ever see onstage.

The play also delves into Nijinsky’s break with Diaghilev and his subsequent solo touring, becoming one of the first superstar dancers. By 30, he had stopped dancing completely and entered the first of many insane asylums. This may sound like a documentary, but the spare poetry of Mr. Allen’s words, the stylized language, make it anything but dry.

Mr. Davidson, with his sinewy dancer’s body and the absolute control and mastery of his gestures, could hold an audience rapt by himself. His movements (choreographed by Karma Camp) are elegant. He moves as if air and gravity are nuisances to be brushed aside.

It is priceless to watch him capture the nuances of Diaghilev’s cane-tapping stride or the arched-back, proud stance of prima ballerina Karasavina. Yet, what makes “Nijinsky” such a standout is the way the elements fit together. Director Joe Calarco could make this a tour-de-force solo performance (and, in a way, it is), but the combination of lighting, music, sound effects and setting allow for a richer sensory experience.

Lou Stancari’s set is a plain wooden platform that Daniel MacLean Wagner’s superb lighting effects turn into a sun-baked Russian steppe, a posh European parlor, the lights of Paris or the bars of the asylum. The simplest effect is the finest — Nijinsky’s shadows loom on the walls like silent, eloquent dance partners.

Daniel Maddox’s soundscape combines classical music, bird sounds, mutterings and whispers to create the chaotic interior of Nijinsky’s mind.

The play may deal with Nijinsky at a time in his life when he was empty and unbalanced. Yet, as Nijinsky says, there are other ways of dancing.

This production, soaring and leaping in a realm of purity and spirit, has found them.

****

WHAT: “Nijinsky’s Last Dance” by Norman Allen

WHERE: Terrace Theater, Kennedy Center

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays, 2 p.m. Saturdays. Through Sept. 14.

TICKETS: $25 to $30

PHONE: 202/467-4600

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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