HE SITS AT the piano and caresses it into life, like a god. Like a demon. Like a godly demon or a demonic god. Sometimes he looks maniacal and deformed at other times, like a sprite, who could at any moment leap the constraints of gravity and fly away. This is Godfrey Johnson in his utterly magnificent portrayal of Vaslav Nijinsky, in a piece of theatre that is aflame with energy from the moment he touches the piano keys.
But more than a focus on the biographical complexities of a Polish dancer in Russia who effectively broke and reconstituted what ballet means by the electricity of his movements and his uncanny ability to pause mid-leap, this extraordinary work paints a portrait of an era. It was the Fin de Siècle. The end of the nineteenth century and boundaries were being tested by creative people across the spectrum – and the text is encrusted with musical quotes from Debussy and Ravel, Stravinsky and Diaghilev, from Schoenberg and Berg and more. You get to taste the elegance and the wildness, the conventions and how fragile they were, in the splay of language which reaches and stretches into infinity as it blurs boundaries and casts choreographic sequences into the ether.
And once you are firmly within the period and its frissons of possibility in a world that was a whirligig of newness and change, you realise something more. More than a celebration of Nijinsky only, this is an essay about the values of the society of the time, where critics held sway and literature had meaning. Proust is present. As is the bitchery between Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova. But more than all of this, it’s an astute and sharply honed exploration of madness and growing old. And in this capacity, it is handled with such a sophisticated understanding of poetry and humour, sadness and cruelty that it leaves you breathless, your pulse racing, wishing for more and more… alas, too quickly it is over.
Godfrey Johnson is not a performer who we see often getting the chance to embrace the whole stage and to stretch his skills in a diversity of mad directions. Most recently in Johannesburg he was the accompanist in Pieter Dirk Uys’s Fifty Shades of Bambi. His immense ability to infuse this wild and impassioned script and so movingly interject the music and the dance, by association, into it, brings an ethos of fire and feathers, of unbottled energy that describes the way in which art can beget madness, and which renders this work utterly haunting and uncannily beautiful.
Vaslav is an imminently pristine piece successfully backed with an audio-visual track and effective and simple lighting choices but the stage does tend to be a little cluttered with wire cords connected to microphones and light, which slightly, but not pervasively, tend to bruise the magic that is cast.
The work is not quite a monodrama – the piano, similarly to how it is handled in Zakes Mda’s The Mother of All Eating – becomes a character in its own right. Not in a literal sense, but in the gritty gorgeousness of the musical puns and drama, sequences and masturbatory musical phrases that populate the work. In giving Debussy’s L’après-midi d’un faune jewel-like haunting prominence, it conjures up associations with the work of South African choreographer Elu, who, too was mesmerised in celebrating the atavistic values where artist meets beast, meets god all in the same intellectual conversation.
- Vaslav is directed by Lara Bye and written by Karen Jeynes, Godfrey Johnson and Lara Bye, based on the diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky. It features design by Jon Keevy (lighting) and Joanna Evans (set and costume co-ordination) and is performed by Godfrey Johnson at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until February 25. Call 011 883 8606 or visit theatreonthesquare.co.za