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Passion and Dementia

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A LETTER TO DIAGHILEV

Timothy Buckley

at Curious Theatre Branch, through December 4

Vaslav Nijinsky, the legendary dancer and choreographer, was a prophetic figure. In the years before World War I, when artistic theories were crumbling and political structures were about to crumble, much of the art--Oscar Wilde's Salome, Gustav Klimt's flat, golden paintings of women--glorified a kind of decadence in which men and women might be willing to throw away life and happiness for a single night of passion. This decadence was crystallized in the dances of the Ballets Russes and particularly the dancing of Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova in such works as Fokine's Sheherazade and Cleopatre. Nijinsky had a central role in Sheherazade, dancing the part of a favorite slave, chosen for sex. The dances he himself created were full of a primitive sexuality: innocent sexuality in The Afternoon of a Faun, and a bloody delirium in The Rite of Spring.

Nijinsky's personal life was also of epic proportions. He had a homosexual affair with the impresario of the Ballets Russes, Serge Diaghilev, then married a well-meaning student. Diaghilev refused to cast Nijinsky in other dances, and shortly afterward Nijinsky suffered a nervous breakdown; he was confined in mental hospitals until his death in 1950. Two legends have grown up around him: as a genuine artist, and as the romantic figure of an artist, overwhelmed by the forces he portrays.

Chicago-based choreographer and performance artist Timothy Buckley has written what he calls a "dance play" portraying Nijinsky's life in the insane asylum, based on diaries that Nijinsky kept there (the program notes call these "a classic psychiatric self-portrait of a schizophrenic"). Buckley uses a new edition of the diaries not edited by Nijinsky's wife, and it shows an uglier side of the man as a violent, sexually obsessed inmate given to bouts of religious frenzy. Because the diaries are written in the fragmented manner typical of schizophrenia, Buckley has not used them verbatim but created his own speeches and dialogues.

Buckley explored the same material in a work earlier this year called Jinsky Pinsky: A Night in Tights. Though A Letter to Diaghilev has many of the same speeches and episodes, Buckley has revamped the plot to focus squarely on Nijinsky and his state of mind. For example, Jinsky Pinsky is about an insane man who thinks he's Nijinsky, but Letter is about Nijinsky. Jinsky's wife poses as a nurse in order to sedate him, but she's been eliminated altogether in Letter. The list of differences goes on, but the main difference is that Letter works while Jinsky did not.

The one-act is set in Nijinsky's room in the asylum, where Nijinsky (Buckley) is attended by two nurses (Lauren Helfand and Christy Munch) he's training as ballerinas for a performance in Paris. Dance sequences rise out of the action much as the songs in musicals do. The action is focused completely on Nijinsky--his attempts to escape, his delusion that Diaghilev is always watching him, his impassioned letter to the impresario asking for money and forgiveness, his argument with an offstage wife.

The first half of the piece follows Nijinsky's wild flights of thought: a declaration about the nature of dance might be closely followed by an assertion that everyone can dance, followed by a condemnation of most people as too lazy to risk dancing like he does, followed by a condemnation of Diaghilev as heartless. Or Nijinsky might suddenly express a need to walk outside, for which excursion he and the nurses put on coats and scarves, then pantomime walking on a mountain--a pantomime that quickly shifts into a full-out dance, the performers dashing across the stage and climbing on top of each other as if over rocks. When the nurses fall exhausted to the floor, Nijinsky--aided by his manic energy--is barely winded. Afterward it's not clear whether the walk actually happened or was simply a figment of Nijinsky's imagination.

The first half has little narrative logic--it's a collage that shows the many sides of Nijinsky's alienation. Its crazy-quilt structure suggests that to understand Nijinsky we must follow him on the trail of his obsessive thoughts. The second half gathers some narrative force as the play begins to focus on the source of Nijinsky's delusions, but the first half makes any answers seem tentative. The confusion is heightened by the presence of a third nurse (Liz Payne) who definitely belongs to the real world--when Nijinsky lectures, she simply watches, as a nurse in an asylum would.

This "dance play" is as much a dance as a play. Many of Nijinsky's speeches are thoughts about dance; he gives a pep talk to the ballerinas, for instance: "Give in to gravity. You are married to gravity." Earlier, during a tirade, Nijinsky says, "I know only one language. So I dance. To communicate without language. I dance the world of democracy." Dance is at the center of Nijinsky's obsessions. By following the trail of his thoughts, we see his restless ambition and overpowering emotions, and understand his driving need to dance in order to express himself--we see his passion.

A Letter to Diaghilev is about the passion and dementia in dancers' lives--the manic energy needed to keep their bodies in shape, the search for patrons, the yearning for the chance to perform and the accompanying self-doubt, the everyday details of costumes, press releases, and acupuncture appointments, which Nijinsky and his nurse/ballerinas haggle over. The performances are broad and energetic, giving the play an entertaining surface that makes the difficult plot shifts easier to handle. The dancing--to piano works by Bartok and Stravinsky--is enjoyable, particularly a solo by Buckley that takes Nijinsky through an emotional collapse that ends in a self-abusive tantrum.

In fact Buckley and his dancers will get their chance to perform in today's Paris; they'll take A Letter to Diaghilev to the Dance Theatre Workshop in New York in December.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.

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