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NIJINSKY'S LAST DANCE (article first published : 2000-07-7)

"I am Nijinsky" mutters the mentally-deranged figure in a straitjacket curled up on the floor. The mutters grow to insistence and eventually into a shout as the persona of the legendary Russian dancer who was once hailed as "the eighth wonder of the world" asserts himself.

In between reverting back to his state of madness, Nijinsky looks back on his life and his loves with each lighting state - a spotlight here, a red surround there - prompting him to a further memory.

In "Nijinsky's Last Dance", written by Norman Allen, directed by Maralin Vanrenen and presented by Pieter Toerien, Gavin van den Berg reminds us what a fine actor he is. Working mainly in television recently, he has certainly lost none of his stagecraft in this finely-honed and focused performance. Clever costuming allows his straitjacket to be reversed to become an ordinary coat and his white loincloth has an extra length of material which serves as a dress or a shawl when he portrays his sister Bronislawa, ballerinas Karsavina and Pavlova or wife Romola de Pulszky.

The feted son of legendary dancers Thomas Laurentiyevich Nijinsky and Eleonora Bereda, Nijinsky entered the Imperial School of Dancing in St. Petersburg at the age of nine - "a very odd boy, legendary legs and thin face, holds himself proud as if afraid to speak" reports his teacher. Before long, his phenomenal talent was discovered and he had graduated and entered the Mariinsky Theatre by the age of 16. So began an extraordinary career that was to see him perform all the leading parts at the Mariinsky Theatre and at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.

It wasn't long before he caught the alert - and lascivious - eye of Sergey Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballet Russes. Their sexual and professional relationship forms the basis of Nijinsky's Last Dance, with Diaghilev's proprietorial attitude breaking off a relationship with sculptor and writer Auguste Rodin.

Diaghilev controls his life and even after he fires Nijinsky from the Ballet Russes because he dares to get married, he remains in the background tormenting and hounding him.

Norman Allen's finely constructed script allows Gavin van den Berg full rein of his considerable dynamics. While he never actually dances, he perfectly executes the highly distinctive movements of the faun and so credible is his performance that it would surprise the audience not at all if he launched into the work itself. He moves through the agonies of creation, the pride of success and the self-importance, never forgetting that his particular genius doesn't just "happen": "This is not magic, this is hard work!" he cries.

Nijinsky was the principal dancer of the Ballet Russes and his capacity for elevation made his performance in "Le Spectre de la Rose" a sensation. He premiered ballets such as Fokine's "Schéhérazade" and "Pétrouchka". His choreography was considered daringly original and he produced works that are now classic such as "L'après-midi d'un Faune" (Afternoon of a faun), "Jeux", "Le Sacre du Printemps" (The Rite of Spring) and After he left the Ballet Russes he toured America, eventually ending up in a music hall show only to discover Diaghilev in the audience one night.

The war and its devastating results played on his brain, eventually turning him to madness. After only ten years in the international limelight, he retired from the stage at the age of 29 in 1919. His nervous breakdown was diagnosed as schizophrenia.

Gavin van den Berg gives us an idea of what this extraordinary dancer would have been like to know. He puts in a tour de force performance, all the more impressive by his control at the end when people started leaving, presumably to get to other productions. They were the losers - you don't get much better than this.

It still seems that some festival audience members need to be reminded that they are watching live performances where performers and audience alike need to focus on the matter at hand. In addition to the requests to switch off cellphones, what about asking people who think they may have to leave early to seat themselves close to the nearest exit and - even better - take their shoes off when they leave so that they don't disturb either performers or audience?




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