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.
Steyn du Toit reviews two plays in Cape Town, both directed by Lara Bye, on at the Baxter and Kalk Bay theatres. Oscar and the Pink Lady is a moving production sketching a life barely lived, starring Sandra Prinsloo, while Vaslav, featuring Godfrey Johnson, outlines the life of ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky and his lifelong battle with paranoid schizophrenia
THE BEAUTY, cruelty and ephemerality in the business we call life are observed in two plays currently on in Cape Town. Oscar and the Pink Lady and Vaslav are both directed by Lara Bye, staged at the Baxter and Kalk Bay theatres, respectively.The plays also star two of the industry’s most consummate performers.
In Oscar and the Pink Lady, Bye directs Sandra Prinsloo in the role of Oscar, a terminally ill 10-year-old cancer patient. Finding him writing a series of letters to God at the beginning of the play, we learn that he only has 12 days left to live. In his first written dispatch he ob- serves that grown-ups have devel- oped a strange tendency to go deaf whenever he asks them about dy- ing, and that even his parents avoid coming to visit him in the hospital because they are too emotional.
Surrounded by a cast of kids nicknamed after their various inflictions – among them Braaivleis (a burn victim), Einstein (water on the brain), Blue Betty and Popcorn – the only adult willing to be open with Oscar is Granny Rose, an elderly volunteer who visits the hospital daily. Also played by Prinsloo (along with the rest of the characters), she then undertakes his emotional journey of dying with Oscar. By proposing that they should pretend each of his remaining 12 days represent 10 years, she explains that he will therefore be a 120-year-old by the time of his death.-Based on a 2002 novel by Belgian author Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, the production was first presented locally in 2012 after being trans- lated from French into Afrikaans by Naòmi Morgan. It has since en- joyed several acclaimed stagings across the country – scooping up a best actress award at 2012’s Aardklop as well as the best theatre production, best director and best actress nods at last year’s Klein Karoo National Arts Festival.
Supplemented by a single bench on stage, Pieter-Jan Kap’s gentle lighting cues and Braam du Toit’s tender background music, Oscar and the Pink Lady is a moving production that sees Prinsloo sketching a stirring composition of a life never lived. Guided by Bye’s direction, she succeeds in avoiding cheap tactics and sentiment to de- liver a production of substance and of big ideas. Leaving the viewer pondering issues of mortality and existentialism, few eyes were left dry at the end of opening night’s performance. Prinsloo is pure magic on stage. One of the industry’s most venerable figures, not only has she en- joyed a distinguished career in theatre, film and television spanning several decades, but her recent efforts show there’s plenty more where that came from. Aside from the intercontinental hit that was The Sewing Machine, the past few years also saw her reuniting with Marius Weyers (after nearly 30 years) in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ? and Tom Holloway’s And No More Shall We Part. We are very lucky to still see her perform so often locally.
The God of the dance
From hospital wards where children have to cram entire lifetimes into a tenth of the usual time, to institutions filled with mental illness and broken people, Vaslav revolves around Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky’s 30-year battle with paranoid schizophrenia. On at the Kalk Bay Theatre, and starring Godfrey Johnson as the artist often referred to as “The God of the Dance”, the script was compiled from Nijinsky’s diaries and journal entries.
Presented by way of a fragmented narrative, this brave production sees Bye and Johnson shift through the shards that was Nijinsky the man, the artist and the cultural observer. Against a back- drop of archive video footage, movement co-ordination by Fiona du Plooy as well as period music played by Johnson on piano, what emerges is a portrait of a gifted individual who continues to have an impact on our world nearly 100 years after he danced for the last time.
Judging by all the detail and nuance, a staggering amount of research into their subject’s life and cultural and historical context has been done by Bye, Johnson and Karen Jeynes (who wrote the script with them). It speaks of a creative team not simply interested in piecing together something to lure fans of Nijinsky, but rather a group of dedicated, passionate theatre- makers throwing themselves wholeheartedly into the process of presenting something of substance, honesty and respect.
The production is further elevated by the presence that is Johnson on stage. Anyone familiar with his past work – whether it’s giving a Fleur du Cap-winning performance in Kissed by Brel or playing the piano for Evita Bezuidenhout – would be able to attest to his distinct energy and command of his craft. Pushing himself even further with Vaslav, watching Johnson so consumed by his character – notice the mad glint in his eyes, the foam gathering around the corners of his mouth or the look of bliss on his face when hunched over the piano, for instance – make for an intensely memorable, moving piece of theatre.