He was nicknamed “Chinchilla” for the slash of white in his otherwise jet black mane and he was an impresario as enamored of his artists as he was of the art. Sergei Diaghilev dragged ballet out of the too-too tutu 19th-Century world immortalized on the canvases of Edouard Manet and into the 20th-Century defined by dancer/choreographer Michel Fokine, the jagged unfamiliar music of Stravinsky and Debussy and lush settings by Leon Bakst, Pablo Picasso and others.
And Diaghilev, the middle-aged Russian émigré whose Paris-based Ballets Russes lasted just two decades, from 1909 to 1929, loved his very young protégé and star, Vaslav Nijinsky, who danced Debussy’s onanistic Faun and choreographed Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Nijinsky loved him back, though apparently more, as Stephen Sondheim wrote in a different context, as a “pleasurable means to a measurable end” than anything of a higher nature. When the dancer married conventionally and started a family, Diaghilev was crushed – at least until the next boy came along to fill his slippers.
Terrence McNally (Master Class, The Lisbon Traviata) writes about artists with a bemused affection that can turn caustic on a dime, and while his favored subject is opera, he also has written about dance, notably in one of his most honored dramas, Love! Valour! Compassion! about a dancer/choreographer confronting the diminishment of aging. His new play, Fire And Air, dramatizes the story of Diaghilev, Nijinsky and their circle, much as Master Class was based on true stories of La Divina, Maria Callas.
I recall reviewing a play in the late ’70s called Chinchilla that fictionalized these real-life characters, possibly produced by the Phoenix Theatre, that has faded into history. McNally’s is the more heartfelt work, and it’s been given a burnished and beautiful production by John Doyle, his collaborator on The Visit, who has staged the play and designed yet another visually elegant production in the Classic Stage Company’s tiny East Village space. Doyle, also CSC’s artistic director, has turned it into a gilded dance studio, with an oversize mirror suspended and angled above the action and gold-painted chairs, and little else to detract from the melodrama unfolding below, giving us at all times two views of the proceedings.
Douglas Hodge, a Tony winner for a revival of La Cage Aux Folles, plays Diaghilev as a nervous nest of neuroses (I couldn’t help but wonder whether the role was written for McNally’s muse, Nathan Lane, currently preparing to reprise his performance as Roy Cohn in Angels In America). Diaghilev is still attended by his aging nurse (a marvelous and unrecognizable Marsha Mason) and indulged by both his former lover and cousin Filosofov (John Glover) and patroness Misia (Marin Mazzie, both perfectly cast).
Best of all is James Cusati-Moyer ‘s Nijinsky – sleek, pouty, immature, brilliant, manipulative, compliant and insistent, all at once. He can allow Diaghilev to fuss over him, even as he determinedly sets out his own paths of career and love. When, near the end, Vaslav meets his replacement, the dancer Leonid Massine (the excellent Jay Armstrong Johnson), Nijinsky’s resolve to betray no emotion is almost heartbreaking.
Heartbreaking also is an apt word for McNally’s obvious love for these complicated, characters whose ferocious self-regard is of a piece with their compulsion to produce art. It’s what links the artist and the impresario. It’s ultimately anti-romantic and perhaps lacking in conventionally dramatic narrative, because so much is hidden in the heart (not to mention the bedroom). Yet in McNally’s compassionate vision and Doyle’s exquisite evocation, it’s terribly human.