Nijinsky Returns to Arts Festival
By Montague Gammon III
The one-man show Nijinsky’s Last Dance, which stunningly marked the debut of Norfolk’s Workshop Theater Group in 2006 before garnering praise and awards abroad, takes another local turn as a co-presentation of the Virginia Arts Festival and Todd Rosenleib Dance.
Ricardo Melendez, actor, dancer, costumer, scholar, playwright and teacher, reprises his role as the famously brilliant, famously troubled, and not so famously yet clearly victimized dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, whose madness-curtailed brief career early in the 20th Century changed the shape of concert dance forever.
He also voices the remarks of Nijinsky’s lovers, teachers, wife, and of Serge Diaghilev, the impresario whose personal and professional interest in the young dancer propelled them both to the pinnacle of the dance world.
Workshop’s other co-founder Steve Earle, chair of the Governor’s School for the Arts Theatre Department, is again directing the play.
Playwright Norman Allen’s script recounts, in a 90 minute monologue, Vaslav Nijinky’s rise from uncommonly talented student dancer to star of the Ballet Russes. Under the command of founder Diaghilev, Ballet Russes swiftly became the world’s most famous ballet company. Even today it may well be, for its innovations, its concentrations of talents and its resonating influence, the most important company in the history of dance.
Nijinsky might still be the most famous male dancer who ever lived, movie stars excepted.
Among his numerous achievements, he choreographed and danced the first productions of Stravinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun and of his ground-breaking Rite of Spring, the latter marking its 100th Anniversary this year. (See accompanying article.)
Even as Nijinsky drifted toward the schizophrenia which eventually swallowed him, he created dances that stunned, shocked and captivated audiences all over the world.
Together the young genius dancer and the aging genius impresario Diaghilev formed a personal and artistic partnership that eventually brought into their circle the almost unknown Stravinsky, among a synergistic host of brilliant designers, choreographers, costumers and composers.
Seduced by a gay Russian nobleman when still a boy, Nijinsky had been passed on to the gay, possessive and fiercely manipulative Diaghilev like a hand-me-down garment. Yet he was, in all likelihood, primarily straight.
When Nijinsky married (a woman who probably did love him but who also possessed more than a hint of the stalker, in current terms), Diaghilev fired him.
The gravity defying prodigy who had never needed to manifest a down-to-earth practical side was cut adrift, reduced for a while to dancing in music halls between jugglers and low comedians. Though his venues and material did improve, and he toured again in association with his wife and Diaghilev, economic distress and confusion brought emotional stress and decline.
Early in the play, which flashes back and forth between Nijinsky’s asylum confinement, his childhood and his career, he says, “All the sadness of life … begins when you realize that great talent, that gifts from God, are not enough, that the world makes greater demands. To survive, to eat, to be happy.”
Diaghilev says of Nijinsky, “…at the core of his being there is a vast cavern…”
At the end of Nijinsky’s career – when he was no more than 30 or 31 – the horrors of the recently ended World War I finally unhinged him, and one of the greatest talents of an age that was filled with shimmering pan-artistic geniuses spent the last half of his life institutionalized.
Nijinsky tells the audience, “It takes a great effort to remain sane.”
Allen has written – composed really – a work of lyrical potency, poignancy, and gritty reality.
(That reality includes enough details about sexuality and sexual activity to mark this as a play for reasonably mature audiences, though the phrasing and vocabulary are never crude nor offensive.)
Nijinsky’s Last Dance conveys, as well as one can expect words to do, not only what Nijinsky’s audiences experienced but the joy and the passion that the dancer himself found in his sublime artistry and soaring movement.
As an actor, Melendez projects the barely contained energy of the highly trained dancer that he has been since adolescence. That energy is clearly perceptible, yet unmarked by exterior tension. Melendez is not so much the “coiled spring” of cliché, but a varying, pulsing laser aimed at each empathetic heart in his audience.
His resume includes a BA in Dance Pedagogy from Butler University and an MFA in Theater from Brooklyn College, teaching and costuming at the Governor’s School, work at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, stage, film and TV roles, authorship of Call Me Boricua! and Cloaked (both done and well received here), the positions of Principal Dancer and Assistant Artistic Director for Dance Kaleidoscope, Indianapolis, and several years as the Artistic Director for Ballets De San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The NUVO publication, Indianapolis, called his performance in Nijinsky’s Last Dance “mesmerizing.” Scotland’s Metro Magazine said “Melendez brings soaring grace to his interpretation”, noting “An impassioned quality to his portrait.” Fest Magazine, of Edinburgh, claimed that “Melendez is Nijinsky.”
The Workshop Theater Group show was nominated for Best Production at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2007, earning mention there as one of the 20 shows that were “must sees.” Melendez was named Best Actor at the 2008 Dublin Gay Theatre Festival.
Earle calls Melendez “the consummate performer,” and after directing him in roles as disparate as Hamlet and Oscar Wilde, maintains that if “Ricardo has a project I say ‘yes’.”
Nijinsky’s Last Dance by Norman Allen
Virginia Arts Festival
co-presented with Todd Rosenleib Dance
Benjack Studio Theatre at TRDance Center
325 Granby St., Norfolk