Director Herbert Ross has said of his newly released film, "Nijinsky": "When you try to recreate a legend, you're skating on very thin ice." Sad to say, insofar as the film attempts to project a legendary phenomenon of the art of dance, the ice cracks and the skaters plunge feet first into the drink. What's sad is the money and effort spent on an opportunity so thoroughly flubbed -- another movie venture on the career of Vaslav Nijinsky and Serge Diaghilev's celebrated Ballets Russes isn't likely to come along for many moons.
Of the seven ballet sequences in the film, only one offers anything near a complete work, and that one -- Nijinsky's "Afternoon of a Faun" as recreated by Ballet Rambert veterans -- is so mangled by dislocating cuts, closeups and reaction shots that the choreography is virtually nullified.
In both "Faun" and the film's most extensive excerpt -- the cell scene from Fokine's "Petrushka" -- it's also distressingly apparent how wide of the legendary mark fall the dance performances by George de la Pena, a promising young soloist from American Ballet Theatre, in the title role.
However handsomely decorated, the other ballet passages are so brief and visually fragmented that their dance values end up as negligible.
But perhaps the worst esthetic damage is done by the maudlin and simplistic conception of the film as a whole. The staging of the crucial, scandal-provoking conclusion of "Faun" manages to suggest that Nijinsky, already "unbalanced" and emotionally overcome, undergoes an actual masturbatory climax. Such as interpretation, contrary to historical fact, trivializes Nijinsky's great creative achievement in this ballet -- it turns "Faun" into the kind of sordid sensationalism the Parisian bluenoses of 1912 saw in it.
The one momentary but ingratiating touch of bonafide dance artistry we get comes to us from the Italian ballerina Carla Fracci, portraying Nijinsky's partner, the late Tamara Karsavina, in snippets from "Le Spectre de la Rose."