Vaslav by Dex Goodman



CAST: Godfrey Johnson

VENUE: Kalk Bay Theatre

UNTIL: August 9

RATING: ****

VASLAV Nijinsky’s off-beat brilliance is celebrated with insight and sensitivity by Godfrey Johnson, whose role in this one-hander brings him centre-stage instead of confining him to his more familiar place at the keyboard – although his pianistic virtuosity is also a significant part of the show.

One would expect Nijinsky’s life and career to be conveyed through the medium of dance, but instead we have cabaret as the vehicle for a homage to this artist.

This is not as wayward a choice as it might seem, since Vaslav was not only a great dancer, but also a pianist of note (like Johnson). Moreover, cabaret as a genre was coming into its own at the time of his rising career in ballet, a career that ended in 1919.

Stylistic inclusiveness is immediately apparent in the musical prelude to the show as Johnson effortlessly blends Saint-Saens and ragtime before fixing the audience with a haggard gaze and embarking on a series of flashbacks that begin with Nijinsky’s boyhood in Poland. Johnson’s face captures a wide range of emotions, while his lean build makes him a plausible interpreter of the mature Nijinsky.

Lara Bye’s direction keeps audience attention alive despite the paucity of props and austere costuming. This show is created with the simplest of means: one man, a piano and serial images projected on a backdrop.

Such minimalism demands a lustrous performance, and Johnson obliges with the requisite intensity.

The selection of music played reflects the period in which Nijinsky lived, from familiar snatches of Debussy, Ravel, Satie and Stravinsky to original and evocative compositions by Johnson himself, which are in keeping with the spirit of the show. There is a noticeable element of jazz emerging in the early 20th century, dismissed by some, such as Paul Valéry, as “barbaric”.

That incomprehension of the waves of change sweeping into the performing arts in Vaslav’s day, as well as his descent into paranoid schizophrenia, are what make Johnson’s character so human and vulnerable, despite flashes of defiance. Nijinsky had the courage of a man who chose the vividness of life at the expense of being judged insane.

As the stage lights fade on the lone figure at the piano, stripped down to his underwear, few could claim indifference at the spectacle of one who went from stardom in the Ballet Russe to the bleak solitude of a mental institution.

A top-rate production from Johnson, Bye and Karen Jeynes, who wrote the text from Nijinsky’s diaries.