BWW Interview: Godfrey Johnson on Bringing Nijinsky to Life in VASLAV at The Fugard Theatre
Vaslav Nijinsky stands as one of the most celebrated, yet also controversial great male dancers of the 20th century. Bringing the spirit and life of Nijinsky to the Fugard stage this month, Godfrey Johnson chats with BroadwayWorld about the triple Fleur du Cap Theatre Award nominated production VASLAV.
BWW: Let's start with how this show was conceptualized. What was the starting point for the creation of VASLAV?
Godfrey: I discovered Nijinsky's diary many years ago and was struck by the interesting musicality of his writing. I have always been intrigued by the artistic revolution that occurred at the beginning of the twentieth century. So much happened that changed the course of history and I guess the richness of the period and the relentless scientific and artistic developments seduced me into dreaming of this show. Karen Jeynes and Lara Bye helped me realise this.
BWW: What was your favourite part of working with director Lara Bye in the production of this show?
Godfrey: She is a visionary and relentlessly creative. Lara creates a playful environment and you cannot help but feel safe in her hands. It is marvelous to have a director who does such detailed research and also knows how to have a good laugh. The coffee sessions are of course the best!
BWW: Nijinsky is no doubt an intriguing figure, but what drew you personally to his character? Do you relate to him in any way?
Godfrey: As a youngster I was very drawn to the work of Igor Stravinsky, notably 'The Rite of Spring'. The knowledge that Nijinsky was the first to create choreography for this groundbreaking work always appealed to me; to make physical this revolutionary sound. Curiously, this led to my having a sense of kinship with Nijinsky. I was very shy as a little boy and, much like Nijinsky, the shyness dissolved as soon as I got onto a stage.
BWW: What did you base your musical composition on for VASLAV and what ways did you try to incorporate the "spirit" of Nijinsky into it?
Godfrey: I have always loved the composers, artists and writers of the early twentieth century and late nineteenth century. I listened to a lot of Debussy, Ravel, Satie and Bartok whilst preparing for the show. I imagined a key in which Nijinsky spoke; F minor seemed to feel correct for him. In terms of incorporating the "spirit" of Nijinsky, I suggest the music of some of his great ballets in the score and hope that this will help capture the spirit.
BWW: How does movement play a role in this production?
Godfrey: I am performing both at and away from the piano using gesture to evoke the balletic nature of the subject and his iconographic poses. Fiona du Plooy was instrumental in helping me distill the extraordinary choreography. I am not a dancer and therefore thought that it would be better to focus on the music and allow gestures and movement to be extensions thereof.
BWW: How does your background in cabaret help with your approach to VASLAV and the role of Nijinsky?
Godfrey: I have always been drawn to the grit and decadence of the Weimar Period; artists and scientists sharing talents and allowing themselves to be angry, political, dangerous, hilarious and beautiful. I have spent most of my career alone on stage and I have never really been able to categorize myself - I think that has helped me build the confidence to just go for it. I think that 'cabaret' allows one to explore space and self in a way that is quite unapologetic. The work of Benjamin Britten, Kurt Weill, Jacques Brel and Tom Waites certainly helped me see that any idea or story is worth sharing.
BWW: What was the most daunting aspect of performing as such a complex character?
Godfrey: There is little footage of Nijinsky dancing and therefore there was nothing to 'copy'. I think the most daunting aspect was to find an inner Nijinsky that was not caricature.
BWW: And what was the most fun?
Godfrey: Performing every night. I always love the post performance analysis and food.
BWW: Lastly, how would you want audiences to approach VASLAV?
Godfrey: With no preconceptions. If you are a lover of art, dance, music, history or poetry, there will be something for you to enjoy.
Photo credit: Dex Goodman and Robert Kirsner
VASLAV will be performed in The Fugard Studio Theatre from 5 to 17 November Tuesday to Saturday at 8pm with matinee performances on Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets from R150 to R160 can be booked through The Fugard Theatre box office on 021 461 4554 or through The Fugard Theatre's website at www.thefugard.com.