We probably all remember our past decades in terms of important milestones. Remember my first job at Taco Bell? Or my 20s when I made that home movie about a mutant baby living in a party pack of Hamms beer? Or last year, in my early 30s, when I proceeded to watch as many television series as my free hours would allow? I do. I'm not giving up hope that my life will someday inspire a made-for-TV movie. But I'm not holding my breath that I'll warrant a play like Vaslav Nijinsky does in Norman Allen's Nijinsky's Last Dance—a one-man-show starring Tyler D. Nielsen that opened last week at the Downtown Dance Collective.
On paper, Nijinsky had a neatly packaged, dramatic life. In 1900, when he was 10 years old, he was accepted into the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg. By his 20s he was choreographing and dancing in major ballets with gravity-defying leaps and radical moves regarded as major rebellions against tradition. During this time he met his lover and promoter Sergei Pavlovitch Diaghilev, and later, his wife, a Hungarian countess named Romola de Pulszky. In his 30s, his schizophrenia put him away in various insane asylums until his death in 1950.
Nijinsky kept a diary, and it apparently provided good reference for Nijinsky's Last Dance, which is a monologue looking back on his life—sometimes with clarity and other times with manic madness—from the confines of a Swiss sanatorium. This production is the directorial debut of local actor Chris Torma. The DDC's Heather Adams Torma, Chris' wife, choreographs it. The play begins with Nielsen standing like a Roman statue swaddled in a cream strait jacket that is artfully fastened by its flowing cuffs to the small square stage in front of the studio's mirror. The mirror serves a curious backdrop: Those in attendance can see their own reflection, and when Nielsen wanders (or leaps) into the aisles it's easiest to watch him through the mirror rather than crane your neck to look at him behind you. It gives the illusion of a much larger audience for a play that is really about a man all alone talking to his walls.
Aesthetically, Nielsen fits the role of a coveted, European dancer. He's statuesque with golden curls and sculpted cheekbones. He sports the kind of mischievous boyish grin that makes you believe what he says and laugh at his jokes. He changes his tone and mannerisms ever so slightly when he inhabits other characters, Diaghilev and de Pulszky, for instance. He's elegant, but likable when he points to members of the crowd as if remembering them as audience members from ballets past saying, at one point, "You! You are the one in Utah who understands!" His grin and sincere demeanor also make him seem all the more insane and tragic whenever he begins to derail.
As you might imagine, a play about a ballet master with legendary leaping legs (they came under scientific investigation after his death) suffers from a conundrum: How do you get even a trained dancer to portray that kind of talent, let alone someone like Nielsen who has no dance background? Fortunately the play is mostly talking, and when Nielsen does dance, his moves are graceful enough to imply a man who once danced on great stages, but who is now riddled with madness.
What's important in a play becomes so much more concentrated in a one-man show, and, especially, in one about insanity, which, like drunkenness, is easy to make a caricature. When there's an accent involved, it's even more precarious. In any case, as I was watching I kept thinking of Errol Morris' interviews with former Secretary of State Robert McNamara in The Fog of War. Sure, it's a documentary and Nijinsky's story is an ocean apart, but something can be said for the way The Fog of War captures a person explaining, and often justifying, his life. One example: McNamara says briskly, "You don't know what I know about how inflammatory my words can appear. A lot of people misunderstand the war, misunderstand me. A lot of people think I'm a son of a bitch."
But, oh man, do you know that he's on the verge, the way he lets the words sit in the air, full of self-denial, a yearning to be understood, the regret and the defensiveness lurking under the restraint of his tone.
I wanted more of that in Nijinsky's Last Dance. When Nijinsky is anguished Nielsen yells the lines, even when they could be more repressed and nuanced. It's these moments when we're being acted at. Not that that's always bad: Nijinsky is a performer after all and might have been so even with only himself as an audience. Still, it would have been satisfying to experience a few more complex moments with Nijinsky the man, not just the legend.
That's in a perfect world. What's important is that Nielsen is fairly magnetic. For one full hour he demands your attention, telling a good story with more energy than I could possibly imagine giving to anything. Nijinsky led an impressive life; this production is ambitious enough to be impressive, too.
Nijinsky's Last Dance continues at the Downtown Dance Collective Thursday, Nov. 18, through Saturday, Nov. 19, at 8 PM nightly. $12/$5 student rush.