BWW Reviews: Edge Theatre's NIJINSKY'S LAST DANCE is a Show Biz Tell All

Vaslav Nijinsky was heralded as the greatest male ballet dancer of the early 20th century. He deftly performed gravity defying leaps, leading many to assume he used wires, and could even dance en pointe, which was a rare skill for male ballet dancers at the time. He famously choreographed L'APRÈS-MIDI D'UN FAUNE, which had a salaciously explicit ending for the contemporary audiences of 1912, JEUX, a flirtatious dance which he intended to be danced by three men but was changed to be danced by one man and two women, and the legendarily infamous 1913 LE SACRE DU PRINTEMPS (THE RITE OF SPRING), which ended with the graphic sacrifice of a female virgin and caused fights to break out between the audience as some loathed and others championed his totally new style of ballet. Vaslav Nijinsky's life was rich with juicy backstage romantic affairs, and he also suffered from mental illness, which became so extreme that he was forced to retire from the dance world and spent the remainder of his life in and out of psychiatric hospitals. All of this is addressed in the 1998 one-man show NIJINSKY'S LAST DANCE, written by Norman Allen, which is enjoying a Houston premiere production by Edge Theatre Company.

Playwright Norman Allen credits his inspiration for the show to a trip through a bookstore where he was drawn to a biography of Vaslav Nijinsky. In a video interview with The Kennedy Center he explains that he read the published diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky and that they were written during his decent into madness. Here is where the writing gets a little problematic. For those of us in the audience who have not read the biographies or diaries, some details take a while to sink in and comprehend, especially as the character of Vaslav Nijinsky discusses the ending of his relationship with Sergei Diaghilev, marrying his "stalker" Romola de Pulsky, finding no success in touring separate from Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, and then returning to working for Sergei Diaghilev's to perform in an American tour. As the script approaches these moments of Vaslav Nijinisjy's life, the crumbling and nervous character on the stage becomes incoherent and decidedly less trustworthy as a narrator. Ideas are muddled and details lost in the confusion of insanity, culminating in a fiery and stirring retelling of the 1913 premiere of LE SACRE DU PRINTEMPS in Paris.

Taking on the role of Vaslav Nijinsky, Darnea Steven Olson handles the challenge of a one-man show well. His charisma and energy easily carries the audience through the first 45 minutes of the show. His biggest obstacle in the production is having to become and inhabit the characters of his lover Sergei Diaghilev, prima ballerina Tamara Kasavina, his artistic champion Auguste Rodin, and others. He doesn't vocally or bodily differentiate the characters from one another, so his reenactments of Vaslav Nijinsky's conversations with these key figures from his life get muddled. In the interview with The Kennedy Center, Norman Allen says "Nijinsky was a great mimic in real life." Unfortunately, Darnea Steven Olson doesn't show us this, causing the production to suffer towards the end. However, throwing life preservers out to each member of the audience, he captivates us again for a compelling finale as his madness explodes on stage and an offended and brawling audience in Paris destroys everything he has worked to achieve.

As a former United States Marine, Darnea Steven Olson has a limber and well-toned physique that works to give the impression of a dancer's body. He utilizes agile movements, which he attributed to his experience as a tennis player and skateboarder at last night's impromptu talk back. Despite his agility, his movements are still heavy. Most of his steps plod with a weightiness that illustrates he has not had dance training. There is that certain (maybe even stereotypical) graceful, lithe fluidity that dancers carry themselves with that is missing. Ultimately, the illusion of professional male dancer is not entirely maintained, which does detract from the performance on an aesthetic level.

The production's direction and technical elements keep the performance moving forward at a comfortable pace. At the opening of the show, Darnea Steven Olson as Vaslav Nijinsky is lying on the floor in what appears to be a cage. As the show progresses, the audience comes to understand that the cage is equally symbolic of Vaslav Nijinsky's madness, his own genius, his passion, and audience reactions to his work. Each box constricted him and often worked incongruently of each other, leaving him mentally torn to shreds.

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