A few years back, on a cold and wet night in Grahamstown during the National Arts Festival, I slipped into a sports club venue to see a solo show titled "Vaslav".
It was obviously a Nijinsky tribute I thought, but was intrigued by the writer (Karen Jeynes) performer (Godfrey Johnson) and the director (Lara Bye).
All three carry a certain theatre cachet which puts you on alert. And they didn't disappoint. It was one of the most exciting shows of this kind I had ever seen because of the coming together of this creative trio.
This special show opens in Joburg's Auto and General Theatre on the Square on Valentine 's Day for a short run on February 26. It's a must see.
"I first thought of doing a show about Vaslav Nijinsky in 2000," notes Johnson who had read the artist's diaries and was struck by the poetic style of his writing. "In 2014, Jeynes and I met to discuss how we could create a production that could include music and other theatrical elements. Lara Bye came on board as director and together Lara and I created songs and monologues based on the text written by Karen."
Bye explains in more detail that Johnson had always been drawn to the story of Nijinsky – particularly around his relationship with Diaghilev and also with Stravinsky as well as the musical world of the time- a time of great artistic innovation.
"Godfrey looks like a young Vaslav and the more research I did into the Nijinsky story, into his family background, his relationship with his sister, his training as a young dancer in St Petersburg, research into the modern world in the making- the more I became totally gripped and immersed in the idea of finding a unique performance to capture all of this," she says about her journey of discovery and vision for the work.
She didn't want to focus only on the ballet and on his well-documented descent into madness but also on his passion, his deep love and dedication to his art, his sexuality, the way he became a plaything for audiences and managements, she explains.
And right there is how these artistic souls unlocked something in a performance that if it had been done more conventionally would have slipped off into the stratosphere without a peep.
It does help that Johnson has all these strings to his performance bow. This one taps into it all – perfectly.
The process was a productive one as she and Johnson took the text, her research and original song material that he had written, and started transforming it into a cabaret. "Alongside his diaries we added historical details and anecdotes and together created the lyrics with musical arrangement by Godfrey discovered together in his spare bedroom in Mowbray."
She describes this as an incredible period with Johnson's extraordinary versatility as a pianist which allowed them to showcase what she describes as "a slice of musical history- Tchaikovsky to Stravinsky via Schoenberg and early Jazz". With that she also encapsulates the richness of the work while describing Nijinsky as "an elusive icon of both the Imperial Russian ballet and the Western avant garde."
"Audiences are moved by the story of Vaslav, but also by the exquisite honesty of Godfrey's performance."
"Audiences are moved by the story of Vaslav," she elucidates, "but also by the exquisite honesty of Godfrey's performance." She captures his performance best: "It is so nuanced and raw and highly skilled and ugly and funny and sexy and tragic and graceful all at once. We focused on Vaslav, the young man who stuttered in public and who wore ill-fitting suits rather than on Nijinsky, the God of Dance."
It is this slant towards the tragic schism between the two that turns this into such an innovative and compelling work, "Nijinsky really was an exceptional artist and innovator. I would have loved to have been in those early audiences. He jumped so high he seemed to float in the air. Women fainted at the sight of his virility and strength and beauty. Before Nijinsky male ballet dancers were the porteuse for the ballerina. Pavlova refused to dance with him- she didn't want to share the curtain calls."
With the help of choreographer Fiona du Plooy they found a way to capture iconic moments of his choreography throughout the show without having to dance, because their focus was on the the story of Vaslav. "This was a man who finds himself in and out of mental asylums, misunderstood by his wife who he claims is afraid of him while he is afraid of spiders, who rages against the war, who doesn't understand why he is locked up, who discovers Tolstoyism and has religious visions. As he wrote in his diaries 'everyone thought I was mad, I just thought I was alive'."
It is their choices to showcase the inner world of someone many know more through his dancing that makes this such an enchanting work both to witness and then to digest.
It's about the script, the way the director and performer fleshed it out and pulled it this way and that, the extravagant staging not in actual execution but in the layering of the meaning that thumps the viewer with its emotional impact.
You need both the words, the inner world and the visuals for the dramatic impetus which has all come together through the eyes of a visionary director and a multi-talented performer who inhabits this artist in all his madness – or as Vaslav believed, his just being alive.
Bye concludes: "Godfrey was meant to tell this story and the journey has been one of total joyful collaboration. I hope audiences experience this transporting performance from him."
My own wishes couldn't be more heartfelt!
Vaslav opens at Sandton's Auto and General Theatre on the Square and runs from February 14 to 26.