The set-up: Vaslav Nijinsky was a complicated character. Renowned as one of the greatest ballet dancers of all time, he changed the face of the art through his distinctively angular, sexually-charged choreography, which for his time, the early 1900s, revolutionized the field.
By nine he was dancing with the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg and quickly rose to fame under the wing of wealthy art patron and ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev. But Nijinsky's rapid ascent was paralleled by a swift decline in both his ability to handle his own glories and a mental deterioration. He was deemed mentally ill by the young age of 30 and spent the rest of his life in and out of institutions.
Edge Theatre is currently presenting the regional premiere of Nijinsky's Last Dance, penned by Normal Allen, winner of the Helen Hayes Award for New Play. Newcomer, Darnea Steven Olson, who not only takes the stage alone for the entirety of the 90-minute performance, plays the role of Nijinsky, as well as capturing eight other characters that are interwoven throughout.
The execution: This is a difficult production in all respects. Nijinsky was a complex man. Driven by an obsession with dance and a unique sexuality uncharacteristic of his time, attempting to understand the meaning behind the man takes an audiences' undivided attention, especially given the plethora of Russian names and phrases, as well as superior writing and an incredibly strong actor. The writing is there, mostly. Allen, who has a background in tackling persons of interest in his writing, does a fine job of moving the story along without overburdening the audience with very minute details. Allen is obviously well-versed in Nijinsky's history, although at times there is a vagueness that when coupled with the difficult language, takes you out of the play. For those who don't know Nijinsky's background may have been confused on a few key details. Was Nijinsky a homosexual or not? His multifaceted relationship, sexual and otherwise, with benefactor Diaghilev could have been fleshed out better.
Aside from the subject, tackling a one-man, hour and a half production is a monstrous exploit in itself. It requires a command of the audience, especially a 90-minute one-man heavy drama, and it also needs a very skilled actor. You have to give Olson a lot of credit for taking this role on. It is obviously physically exhausting, as I would assume mentally draining as well. And Olson did a respectable portrayal and should be proud of his work. However, he wasn't quite there.
As stated, Nijinsky was known to ooze sexuality, attracting both men and women, and Olson's portrayal was lacking in this respect. Additionally, that drive, that fierce obsessive behavior that the dancer became known for, which would ultimately drive him mad, wasn't powerful enough to understand his painful mental downfall. The words were available, but the "crazy" was missing.
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Director and Edge Theatre Director, Jim Tommaney (and frequent theater critic for the Houston Press), moved Olson around the sparse set well and pushed the actor to reach his own limits. Although, I found it odd, and perhaps it was just me, that there was no dancing in the production. Olson looks and moves like a dancer, which could be credited with time spent in the marines. There were multiple moments when the dance wanted to come out of him; he swayed and walked on tippy-toes, but never was he given the opportunity to turn the character's joy, anger or passion into movement. This omission may have attributed to my want for a greater display of the character's fervor and mental volatility.
Despite this, Olson has a great career as an actor ahead of him. He is captivating and unadulterated, a raw talent that will go far with some more coaching. Hats off to him for a job well done.
The verdict: Nijinsky's Last Dance is a challenging piece of work, and both director and actor should be proud of their accomplishments. For those familiar or not with the dancer's fascinating story, the play is worthy of watching.
Edge Theatre's Nijinsky's Last Dance by Norman Allen runs September 6 to Sept. 20. Midtown Art Center, 3414 Labranch. Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 3 and 8 p.m. $20, seniors $15, students $10. For tickets call 832-894-1843 or visit www.brownpapertickets.com