The lure of Nijinsky

It's no surprise that stage and screen are fascinated by dance's most flamboyant figure. A compelling new play adds to the mystique, says Paul Taylor

The great Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky recently leapt on to the British stage as a tantalising apparition conjured up by a sexually deprived young woman in the world premiere of Tennessee Williams's late one-act play A Cavalier for Milady. He is about to leap again now into Rattigan's Nijinsky, a fascinating new stage drama by Nicholas Wright. This is being mounted as part of Chichester Festival Theatre's centenary celebration of another gay author, Terence Rattigan, whose 1952 play The Deep Blue Sea will run in rep with it, cross-cast and with the same director, Philip Franks.

The near-coincidence of these Nijinsky sightings prompts some broader reflection on how the dancer has surfaced as a dramatic character. In theatre, works focusing on him have ranged from the Williams piece to Robert David MacDonald's Chinchilla, in which the Ballets Russes became a metaphor for the trials and triumphs of sustaining theatre companies in general, including MacDonald's own Glasgow Citizens. Nijinsky's diary, that piercingly intimate account of a mind sinking into psychosis, written just before he was institutionalised in 1919, has inspired ambitious cinema (such as the flow of impressionistic imagery and archive material that evoke his state of mind with a haunting immediacy in Paul Cox's 2001 film The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky) and powerful poetry, from W H Auden's "September 1, 1939" to Frank Bidart's 30-page tour de force of psychological ventriloquism "The War of Vaslav Nijinsky". And let us not overlook the fair number of trashy, meretricious cashings-in on the case.

There's no great puzzle as to why writers are attracted to his story. It is, for a start, drenched in sex – both offstage (in Nijinsky's openly gay love affair with his mentor, the legendary impresario Sergei Diaghilev) and in the overpoweringly ambivalent erotic presence of the man himself. Like his scandalously barefoot goat-god in L'après-midi d'un faune, he seems to conjoin the animal and the otherworldly and to fuse, as in his choreography for The Rite of Spring, the primitive and the futuristic. It's hard for any bio-drama either to leave out – or to avoid reducing to a cliché – the legendary image of Nijinsky standing on a chair in the wings desperately screaming out the count of his complex polyrhythms to dancers who could no longer hear the orchestra during the uproar that greeted the Rite's notorious 1913 Parisian premiere.

Then there are the many graphic paradoxes that can be grappled with – such as the apparent perversity whereby Nijinsky, famed for his gravity-defying leaps, became a choreographer who revolutionised dance by turning it into angular, animated friezes (inspired by Greek and Egyptian art) or into a chthonic ritual of hunched-over stamping. And above all, the story offers rich opportunities for imaginative speculation. Notoriously, a distraught Diaghilev sacked his lover by telegram the moment he received the news that, on a sea voyage with the company to South America, Nijinsky had married Romola de Pulszky, a rich 22-year-old Hungarian groupie who had spirited herself aboard in order to be near him.

What possessed Nijinsky to take a step that left him essentially ruined as an artist, since though every opera house in the world would have been thrilled to engage him, none could provide the conditions he needed to continue with his experimental choreography? And what kind of game was Diaghilev playing? Was his response one of simple grief-stricken jealousy or was Nijinsky the victim of a set-up designed to loosen the connection between the impresario and his protégé's increasingly uncomfortable art?

Equivalently tricky questions, requiring informed surmise, are raised – with relation to Rattigan – in Nicholas Wright's new play. In 1974, Rattigan completed a screenplay commissioned by the BBC for its Play of the Month slot on the relationship between Nijinsky and Diaghilev. Romola Nijinsky, the dancer's widow, apparently made a blackmailing fuss about her husband being presented as a homosexual and Rattigan, in somewhat mysterious circumstances, withdrew the script. (Since her husband's death, Romola had somehow managed to become both intensely homophobic and a practising lesbian.) What, however, should precede conjecture about why Rattigan aborted his own project is the question of why he took it on in the first place.

He described the dancer and impresario as "the two most famous lovers since Romeo and Juliet". But Rattigan, the doyen of subtle studies of deep-seated emotional reticence, unequal passion and lonely stoicism, had never before portrayed love between two men. The taboo-breaking in his plays is done by women, sensitively characterised in their own right and also surrogates. A key case is Hester Collyer, the judge's wife who affronts middle-class respectability with her sexual passion for a much younger ex-RAF fighter pilot in The Deep Blue Sea, a play which reflects Rattigan's own troubled relationship with Kenneth Morgan, an actor whose suicide bid, unlike Hester's, was a devastating success.

The playwright continued to resort to the coded and oblique even after the partial decriminalisation of homosexual relationships and the abolition of stage censorship produced a climate more tolerant of explicitness. So matching him with this material is, in some respects, a bit like hiring the Ken Russell of the lurid The Music Lovers and Valentino (in which Nijinsky pops up) to direct Separate Tables. With this screenplay, the author seems to have determined to break the habits of a lifetime and to write the great uninhibited drama that he felt had eluded him.

Rattigan's Nijinsky is set in a suite in Claridge's in 1974 where the dramatist – ill, three years away from death and in a slightly altered state from a mixture of whisky and morphine-based painkillers – is holed up preparing himself for interviews with the irate widow and his BBC producer by leafing through the script of the Nijinsky screenplay. Brought to life by actors who double as characters in the 1970s, the prospective drama bursts in to the hotel room, blurring the division between then and now – to the effect that Rattigan and Diaghilev are regularly able to converse clubbably and to swap notes on, among other things, boy protégés and creativity, whether Rattigan would have written more boldly if Diaghilev had been his producer, and the irony whereby both impresario and dramatist, in their respective decades, are in contention with Romola. For revealing reasons (in Rattigan's case, deep and quite separate personal misgivings about going public with the piece) neither put up the fight with her that they might have done.

The field is littered with the ruins of Nijinsky projects that did not make it to the light of public scrutiny or that scraped there and shouldn't have. Edward Albee wrote a screenplay called "The Dancer" in 1970 that passed to Christopher Hampton and, at one stage of its development, was to have had Marlon Brando and Rudolf Nureyev as the lovers. The film that emerged a decade later was the poorly received Nijinsky, directed by Herbert Ross with Alan Bates and George de la Pena. The 2005 television film Riot at the Rite was in some respects a worthy venture – but it was marred by unspeakable biopic dialogue and grating anachronisms. At that date, even the most suicidally chippy company member would be unlikely to have whined to Alex Jennings's Diaghilev: "Sir, to do Mr Nijinsky's bidding allows us no freedom of expression."

The best evocations of the dancer and his story, as in the production of the Williams play, are those where you can feel the author's deep personal investment in the subject. But Rattigan's Nijinsky is the first play where the nervous relationship between the writer and this material has been explicitly dramatised. "They can hate me if they like," Rattigan says of his detractors, brandishing the BBC screenplay, "but they cannot say that this was written by a piss-elegant old queen who's too frightened to tell the truth about himself." "Then why are you behaving like one?" asks his producer, who knows he'll pull the plug on it – because of the mistrust bred in him by a lifetime's experience of homophobia, from a desire not to be categorised and, crucially, because of his understanding of the importance to his work of obliquity and subtext: "If I had a big sign saying 'queer' hanging over my head, then there'd be nothing under the surface... I'd be a preacher."

Wright's insightful conjectures pull you into the moving plight of a man who knows he hasn't long to live and yet prefers the tragedy of failing to make the breakthrough to the embarrassment of doing so. At the same time, the shrewdly speculative screenplay often vindicates Rattigan's gift for the understated, not least in the lethally quiet, concise and unmelodramatic final parting between Nijinsky and Diaghilev after a chilly signing of contracts. In commissioning this very interesting work (which, in a sense, constitutes two world premieres in one) and in programming it to run in rep with the profoundly pertinent Deep Blue Sea, Jonathan Church's regime at Chichester would appear to be pulling off yet another of its coups.

'Rattigan's Nijinsky', Festival Theatre, Chichester (01243 781312) to 3 September

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