- The Washington Times - Friday, September 5, 2003

Vaslav Nijinsky (born in Kiev in 1890, died in London in 1950) was one of the 20th century’s most brilliant and controversial artists.

As a dancer, he embodied all the exotic glamour of the famous Diaghilev Ballet. Contemporary accounts of his astounding leaps ensure his mythic status.

As a choreographer, he provoked a scandal with the overt sexuality of his dances (“L’Apres?midi d’un Faune”) and even riots (“Le Sacre du Printemps”). Works that once were greeted with bewilderment and even hostility are recognized now as the creations of a daring and original mind.

Adding to the drama and pathos of his life, Nijinsky began a descent into madness when he was 29. He was to spend the last 30 years of his life in and out of insane asylums.

This larger-than-life figure has been captured in biographies, novels, plays, poetry, movies, dance, paintings and sculptures. Now he is the compelling subject of “Nijinsky’s Last Dance,” a one-person drama playing at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater through Sept. 14.

“I’ve always loved all things Russian — and classical ballet,” says playwright Norman Allen, who created the play five years ago for Signature Theatre. “Those led me to read a biography of Nijinsky, and his character fascinated me. He has a combination of strength and vulnerability and a prophetic vision of the future. … He gave us these amazing ballets that laid the groundwork for a new way of looking at dance, and he takes bold risks to do it.”

Mr. Allen decided to set his play about Nijinsky using a single actor.

“A one-person play is a difficult form,” he says. “It’s hard to hold an audience’s attention with someone speaking for an hour and a half. But it also gives you some great freedoms — you can be more poetic, go into a character’s subconscious and have him express that.”

When Mr. Allen began his play, he sought advice from Julie Harris, who had been successful in many one-person shows. The audience, she said, needs to know where they are and why they are there. Once you make them comfortable, you can go anywhere you want.

It was advice the playwright took to heart.

“We begin with Nijinsky in the insane asylum, in his straitjacket, and then he conjures up his audience. We’re in his imagination; he’s speaking directly to us. He says where he’s performed — San Francisco, Paris, Utah — and recognizes the people out in the darkness of the house.”

In the next hour and 20 minutes, Nijinsky, alone on a bare stage, conjures up his life: the heady atmosphere of the Russian court, the intrigues of life in mentor Sergei Diaghilev’s orbit, the strict discipline of the dancer’s craft, his drive to create a new kind of dance, his perilous marriage, his artistic and spiritual struggles, and the forces of darkness that begin to engulf him. In the process, he offers sometimes amusing, sometimes touching imitations of Diaghilev, ballerina Tamara Karsavina and his wife, Romola.

Jeremy Davidson, the actor playing this demanding part, calls it “the role of a lifetime — emotionally, physically, vocally.”

“I try to have the same routine every day so I can depend on a certain amount of energy each night,” he says. “I eat a lot, basically a small meal every three hours. I warm up for three hours before the show: a physical workout, a voice workout, lots of yoga and stretching, and then I try to center myself.”

Mr. Davidson says there was an uncommon amount of trust among the creative people — playwright, director, choreographer, lighting and sound designers — putting the play together.

“Communication is a tricky thing in the theater because you’re dealing with people who have very large spirits and very fragile egos, and in a creative setting, as soon as you let an ego get in the way, the creative process dies.

“Joe Calarco, the director, had such a strong vision of what he wanted to do. I felt very free working with him — that I could try things physically and emotionally, and he would steer me in the right direction.

“It was disconcerting,” Mr. Davidson adds, to rehearse a strip scene “in front of people I’d never met before. It was awkward — much harder than doing it in front of a theater audience. But ultimately, by the time I had to be naked in front of them, it was a very safe environment.

Despite that experience, the actor hesitated when asked if he would play the role again this year.

“The play had been such a success I had a certain fear of failing. But my wife had never seen me in the part — we didn’t know each other when I did it the first time — and I really wanted her to see this side of my life.”

For his part, Mr. Allen describes the collaborators as a “dream team.”

“This play is a great example of how the interpreters create their own work of art using the foundation of the text,” the playwright says. “Jeremy did a lot of his own research on Nijinsky, and I think he understands the character so well that he embodies it in ways that I could not possibly foresee sitting in front of my computer. Every moment onstage, Jeremy is a revelation.

“The interesting thing about this one-man show is that it’s not,” Mr. Allen observes. “It’s a two-person show: Jeremy and the stage manager, Ronnie Gunderson, who is there with a microphone saying, ‘Hit the button now,’ to control the sound and the lights. She has to know, as Jeremy flings his arms to the right and those lights come up, that it’s Nijinsky’s energy that makes those lights happen, because everything is coming out of Nijinsky’s mind in this play. She has to be in his mind; they have to be one person.”

Another example of creative interplay, Mr. Allen says, was a sequence in the play in which Nijinsky is finding the basic shapes of “L’Apres?midi d’un Faune.”

“That scene is almost entirely the work of the director and the choreographer, Karma Camp. There is very little dialogue. You see Nijinsky discovering the movements he uses in ‘Faun.’ The lighting designer, Dan Wagner, starts laying the colors of that ballet — the blues and greens — on the floor that Jeremy is moving on. And the sound designer, David Maddox, takes the Debussy score of ‘Faun’ and gives solos to different instruments that are in the original score. All of these people are creating this incredible moment onstage. It’s brilliant.”

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