- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 3, 2002

''The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky" or plain "Nijinsky" if you like and don't mind confusion with Herbert Ross' biographical melodrama of the same title, a sumptuous disappointment of 1980 is being sheltered for a week at the American Film Institute Theater between far more imposing performances of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis."

Compiled by the Dutch-Australian filmmaker Paul Cox, this sincere but tedious appreciation of the celebrated ballet star and choreographer of the pre-World War I years proves a stilted combination of dance interludes, documentary text and photographs, and pictorial filler (often generic, hand-me-down lyrical imagery set in forest and field).

The Nijinsky mystique, a powerful source of stimulation in the Parisian art world of 1912-14, was difficult for a director as sophisticated and ballet-wise as the late Mr. Ross to recapture in satisfying ways. And his resources from playwright Hugh Wheeler to actor Alan Bates (cast as the ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who became Nijinsky's patron and lover) to the young dancer George De La Pena to an accomplished production team were way out of Mr. Cox's modest league.

The novelty of this fresh attempt at Nijinsky shrine-tending is the participation of Sir Derek Jacobi on the soundtrack, reading excerpts from a diary the ill-omened subject kept for a brief time in 1919, before being committed to a mental asylum. Nijinsky was 30 at the time and remained institutionalized until his death in 1950.

A ballet troupe, Leigh Warren and Dancers, supervised by Alida Chase, simulates passages from the handful of dances that are still associated with Nijinsky's fame as a performer or choreographer: "Specter of the Rose," "Scheherazade," "Petrouchka," "Afternoon of a Faun" and "Jeux." Curiously, the continuity doesn't advance as far as the Nijinsky-Stravinsky collaboration on "The Rite of Spring," which stirred one of the most famous uproars in art history when first performed in 1913. There are some disparaging remarks about Stravinsky and his wife in the diary excerpts, which tend to gravitate between benign platitudes and maliciously futile score-settling.

The ensemble devotes its most ambitious efforts to an open-air impression of "Faun," perhaps a bum idea because it aligns the movie even more with stale avant-garde movies in which nymphs and fauns were likely to be lurking. It would preferable if the dance segments could be isolated on stages of one kind or another. Maybe rehearsal stages are best, because "Jeux" seems to profit from an intimate illusion, also reinforced by the fact that its three dancers are shadowy nudes.

Indeed, "Diaries" makes a sounder claim on the title "Full Frontal" than the worthless new movie that actually invokes it.

The photographic record makes Nijinsky seem intriguing, but evidently there is no film footage of his work. As a practical matter, the mystique does suffer as a result of the impossibility of judging just how innovative or dated Nijinsky would appear almost a century after he commanded attention and adoration. The fragments of Isadora Duncan in motion aren't terribly reassuring.

Because the spoken part of this presentation is more compelling, Mr. Cox is hard-pressed to keep the pictorial side up to Mr. Jacobi's level of elocution. He frequently runs out of resources as promising as lithe nudes and Nijinsky memorabilia. His fallback positions are abstract perennials: shadows on steps, snowbanks or rock pools; rapid pans through woodsy surroundings; a recurrent shot of a crane flying with a branch in its beak; lost interludes of abstract dance movement, with performers in vaguely laughable costumes striking agonized poses.

Given the arrival next weekend of the vastly more entertaining Robert Evans biopic "The Kid Stays in the Picture," which demonstrates that a recorded-book soundtrack can carry an entire feature under certain circumstances, "Diaries" does suggest that voice-over narration or commentary could enjoy an unexpected resurgence.

Mr. Jacobi's voice certainly holds "Diaries" together. Mr. Evans' voice dominates "Kid" in a more amusing and intimate way because it permits us to hear a show-business saga from the horse's mouth. In both cases, the illustrative elements need to play catch-up with the soundtracks. They never catch up.


TITLE: "The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky"

RATING: No MPAA rating (Adult subject matter and presentation a biographical documentary with elements of sexual candor and some dance interludes performed in the nude)

CREDITS: Directed by Paul Cox. Choreography by Alida Chase. Cinematography by Mr. Cox and Hans Sonneveld. Wardrobe by Jilly Hickey. Music by Paul Grabowsky

RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes


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