ONE is plagued with questions while watching Godfrey Johnson performing the role of Vaslav Nijinsky, foremost of which is why he has waited so long to fill this role. The link between genius and insanity, the agony of a creative temperament and the price artists pay for their art are other queries that pirouette in your mind.
As we watch his descent into madness as the world-famous dancer loses his tenuous grip on sanity, the uncanny resemblance between Nijinsky and Johnson is remarkable. Aside from the physical likeness, both artists are accomplished piano players. The talented musician and singer is best known for his cabaret performance of works by artists such as Jacques Brel and Leonard Cohen. He has accompanied Pieter Dirk Uys in many of his shows, the most recent being Fifty Shades of Bambi. In Vaslav he reaches new heights.
This is no mere rendition of song but cabaret at its darkest and finest. Nijinsky was born in Kiev when it was part of the Russian Empire in 1899 or 1890, a date which is still disputed, to Polish parents. He retained his Polish identity and in the opening sequence Johnson makes light of what must have been a difficult position to take in the years of Russian national sentiment preceding World War I.
He was the son of two dancers and his early exposure to dance and obvious talent led to his joining the Imperial School of Ballet in Russia at the age of 9. Nijinsky was feted as a star and had numerous roles in the productions staged by the Imperial School from a very young age. If you are anticipating scenes of Johnson dancing, you will be disappointed.
Aside from a brief piece which is more movement than dance, it is in his dazzling digital performance at the keyboard where the dancing occurs. Watching him play is mesmerising and the Kalk Bay Theatre allows one to observe his skill from almost all vantage points.
His playing is passionate and unrestrained and mirrors the complex turmoil of Nijinsky’s life. His early years were plagued by bullying, and the poignant enactment of the young child mocked by his classmates for his unusual appearance is heartbreaking. The dancer’s relationship with Sergey Diaghilev of the Ballets Russes Company was his primary one for many years.
As Veronica Horwell described in a review of one of the many Nijinsky biographies: “Diaghilev employed Nijinsky, clad and fed him, put rings on his fingers and original roles at his toes.”
His most memorable roles were performed while he was a member of Diaghilev’s company; Petrushka, the Rose in Le Spectre de La Rose (1911), a slave in Le Pavillon d’Armide (1909) and Scheherazade (1910). He flaunted a raw sensuality that forever changed the role of the male ballet dancer. No longer were they mere physical adjuncts to female ballerinas but had roles in their own right. Influenced by the music of Debussy, Satie, Bach and Stravinsky, Johnson has composed a score which together with lyrics explores these roles and conveys both the thrill and structure of the dance. Lincoln Kirstein, writer and co-founder of the New York City Ballet, once said that Nijinsky “murdered beauty” for dance in the same way that Picasso did for visual art. She may add that Johnson has murdered it for cabaret after watching this performance, such is the intensity of this theatrical feat.
Nijinsky was also an accomplished choreographer and created The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps) (1913), Afternoon of a Faun (L’après-midi d’un faune) (1912), Games (Jeux) (1913), and Till Eulenspiegel (1916). In his most famous choreographic work, The Rite of Spring, the Chosen One dances herself to death, a chilling portent perhaps, where it could be argued that Nijinsky danced himself to a point of madness.
The coexistence of great artistic genius and insanity is a familiar concept and Johnson explores the images of insanity with raw intensity. As his ballet career and his sham marriage to Romola de Pulzky faltered, so too did his mental health, and he was subsequently diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Jeynes has written the text based on Nijinsky’s diaries, which he wrote over a period of six weeks while in an asylum. Footage taken in asylums at the time that Nijinsky was incarcerated is a horrific reminder of the conditions under which patients were kept and is almost unbearable to watch.
The set is simple and video projections on a plain white curtain alternate between the interior of an asylum and still photographs of the dancer. There are only a few minutes of film of Nijinsky actually dancing as Diaghilev did not allow any filming of the dancer. Keevy has designed lighting which is both dramatic and functional. Even the floor is bathed in light so when Johnson is furiously pedalling the piano it is visible and as deft as any entrechat. Bye’s direction draws the maximum theatricality from Johnson. While his other cabaret performances have contained performative elements, this production allows him to stretch his actor’s muscles. Johnson refers to dancing as “music made visible”.
In this piece, his music and voice make the dance visible.
Nijinsky was many things to different people and Vaslav explores all of those facets. He is not merely a madman and insanity is not merely an illness. Despite or perhaps because of his mental state he led a remarkable life. The theatrical representation of fragments of it is no less remarkable.