Mladinsko Theatre’s ‘Nijinsky’s Last Dance’: An introspective, physically in-your-face play

The mad tango of “Nijinsky’s Last Dance” is back in Washington, where it began its award-winning career at Signature Theatre in 1998. The Slovenian version at Flashpoint this week is radically different, though — a poster child for European director’s theater that takes so many liberties (without the author’s permission), D.C. playwright Norman Allen was distressed when he saw the Mladinsko Theatre production.

Last year, Allen wrote a long essay about his initial shock and gradual acceptance of this staging. Tuesday night, he was in the audience at Flashpoint’s ultra-cozy Mead Theatre Lab, where the 90-minute solo show about the triumphs and breakdown of early-20th-century ballet legend Vaslav Nijinksy has been sheared to an introspective, physically in-your-face hour.

The scenario lends itself to the Mladinsko’s treatment: The play finds the post-breakdown Nijinsky flashing back on his tempestuous life and career, the controversial successes (the sexualized “Afternoon of a Faun”) and fraught romances with Ballets Russes choreographer Sergei Diaghilev and wife Romola de Pulszky.

Director Marko Mlacnik and designer Barbara Kapelj Osredkar give this a daring look by cutting a hole into the center of the small platform stage. Two slim iron bars form a narrow cross in the middle, and actor Primoz Bezjak occasionally walks on a tightrope across it.

It’s a treacherous little environment, and one that the audience experiences close-up, because the seating is only one row deep around most of the stage. Adding to the menace is what looks like jagged metal framework from a bed violently ripped from Bedlam. Mlacnik and Osredkar come up with several sharp images of Nijinsky caged by one facet or another of their fiendish design.

Bezjak is remarkably brave in these surroundings, hurling and twirling with a dancer’s discipline while delivering the fevered speeches in excited raptures and troubled murmurs. The performance is in Slovenian, with English surtitles on screens that can be hard to see; they’re so close and low in the small room that Bezjak might block your view, depending on where he’s standing.

But with art and sex as contexts, it’s useful to be able to contemplate the male physique close up, and, anyway, nothing blots the heated impression Bezjak makes of Nijinsky’s ferocious talent and emotional instability as Nijinsky becomes the world’s foremost male dancer, even while hitting the rocks psychologically. The adaptation, as we could fairly label this show (here in conjunction with the National Gallery of Art exhibition “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes 1909-1929: When Art Danced With Music”), does not crest with the shapeliness of Allen’s original. Instead, it has its own manic, crashing drive, propelled by Bezjak’s muscularity, grace and calculated recklessness.

Nijinksy’s Last Dance

by Norman Allen. Translated into Slovenian by Jakob J. Kenda. Directed by Marko Mlacnik. Choreographer and director’s right hand, Mateja Rebolj; costumes, Barbara Kapelj Osredkar; composer, Bojana Saljic Podesva; lighting designer, Matjaz Brisar; sound design, Silvo Zupancic. About one hour. Through Friday at Flashpoint’s Mead Theatre Lab, 916 G St. NW. Call 866-811-4111 or go to culturaldc.org.

First Post byline, 1992; covering theater for the Post since 1999. His book "American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice" will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.
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