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In many ways, Vaslav Nijinsky (George De La Pena), as he is represented in this Herbert Ross film, is the iconic tortured artist, vivified and doomed by his art. While his performances in "Jeux" (1913) and "The Rite of Spring" with music by Igor Stravinsky are heralded for their originality and power, much in the dancer's life is a shambles. Though the ladies beat a path to his door (the dancer was such an object of erotic fascination, underwear was often stolen from his dressing room, according to accounts of the time), Nijinsky has been long involved in a homosexual relationship with his mentor and the director of the Ballets Russes Sergei Diaghilev (Alan Bates) who alternately adores and rebuffs the young, volatile dancer. An advocate for Russian art, both dance and the visual arts, Diaghilev traveled abroad to showcase talent like Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova and also introduced Western arts to Russia.
Though clearly seduced by Diaghilev's charisma and power, Nijinsky also shows signs of conflict about his homosexuality in Ross's film. Vacationing in Greece with Diaghilev, Nijinsky asks him about women he has slept with, clearly curious about the road not taken. "We are what we are and we should never forget it" says Diaghilev. Though the older, socially-prominent Diaghilev is secure in his life's choices, the exhausting demands of the stage play havoc with Nijinsky's mercurial sense of identity. In one of the film's most provocative moments -- based on an actual moment in the dancer's life -- Nijinsky acts out masturbatory gestures onstage while playing the faun in "The Afternoon of a Faun" inspired by Stephane Mallarme's poem. The dance caused a scandal when it was performed in 1912, though prominent artists including August Rodin, Odilon Redon and writer Marcel Proust defended Nijinsky. Subjected to boos and jeers and angrily confronted by Diaghilev, Nijinsky is mystified over his actions, as if driven by some force outside himself.
When a beautiful, wealthy Hungarian countess and ballerina, Romola de Pulsky (Leslie Browne), expresses romantic interest in Nijinsky, he is seduced, perhaps, by the chance to live a "normal" life. In short order the couple are married, though the shift from homosexuality to heterosexuality proves disastrous for Nijinsky.
American Ballet Theater soloist George De La Pena is a believable combination of haughtiness as a world-renowned dancer and vulnerability as a young man afraid he is succumbing to the mental illness that devoured his own brother. As his mentor, Alan Bates is cold and impervious, willing to cast Nijinsky aside in his hour of greatest need. Ross's goddaughter Leslie Browne, who received an Academy Award nomination for her role in the 1977 ballet classic A Turning Point is less effective as the scheming socialite who wants nothing more than to claim Nijinsky for her own. Once she has him, de Pulsky watches the dancer slowly crumble, and -- in an unexpected turn of events -- finds an inner-resolve and protectiveness that drives her to care for her husband.
Now a screen icon, Jeremy Irons made his film debut as the petulant, baby-faced Ballets Russes choreographer Michel Fokine peeved at having to surrender his choreographer duties when Nijinsky becomes interested in trying his hand.
Nijinsky was Herbert Ross's second film after The Turning Point focused on the world of dance. The Turning Point was also Ross's first and only Academy Award director nomination. Ross had worked with Mikhail Baryshnikov in The Turning Point, but Baryshnikov turned down the role of Nijinsky when it was offered. Ross was a former dancer and choreographer who understood the emotional stresses and also the intense highs of the performer's life which he ably translated to the screen. His big Hollywood break came in 1968 when he choreographed Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl.
Often surprisingly tepid considering the extremes it depicts -- intense love affairs, schizophrenia, scandalous performances, copious sex -- Nijinsky is the episodic chronicle of a fascinating dancer's life more than an insight into his subjective experience of the world. The main character remains consistently, disappointingly at arm's length.
After such a celebrated life, Nijinsky's unhappy descent into mental illness was all the more disturbing. Some speculated that Nijinsky's tremendous ambition and the anxiety involved in keeping his homosexuality secret explained his schizophrenia. Ross suggests in his film that it was largely Diaghilev's abandonment that drove Nijinsky to the depths of madness. Nijinsky spent the remainder of his life in institutions and finally died in a London asylum in 1950.
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by Felicia Feaster