Performing Arts: Theater
February 4, 2018
At the turn of the 20th century, one of the great figures of the art world surfaces and single handedly changes the image of dance and definition of an “impresario.” Serge Diaghilev, the man whose motto was “astonish me!” clearly captured Terrence McNally’s imagination producing “Fire and Air” based on Diaghilev’s struggle to achieve greatness and presented by Classic Stage Company.

Diaghilev famously achieved groundbreaking developments during his reign over Ballets Russes (1909 – 1929) but those accomplishments are buried behind constant whining about boils, while blubbering in the arms of his devoted nanny Marsha Mason. Yes, Diaghilev (fitfully played by Douglas Hodge) is a flawed man, but the balance of neurosis and accomplishments leans heavily towards the hysteria.

Plagued by depression, financial challenges, homosexual desires and internal demons physically manifested as red splotches all over his fevered body, Diaghilev succeeds in becoming the toast of Paris at the turn of the century.

Diaghilev’s greatness centered on his ability to connect brilliant, young composers and artists with choreographers. This action in combination with his decision to streamline ballets into one acts featuring a unified creative team insured his place in dance history. The one other defining feature of Diaghilev’s august career was his intense relationship with the brilliant dancer/choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky (James Cusati-Moyer).

This creative and sexual pairing caused both men extensive psychological pain. McNally focuses on the tortured relationship and on Diaghilev’s dyspeptic personality. Interestingly, although it’s Nijinsky who suffers from mental disease and is ultimately committed to an asylum, in McNally’s version, Diaghilev behaves more erratic and mentally untethered than Nijinsky.

A complex man, Diaghilev was part of the educated and elite St. Petersburg crowd, but that society was baked in tradition and his innovative ideas had no air. “Fire and Air” taps into Diaghilev’s regrouping of his ambitions in Pairs where his unsparing nursemaid Marsha Mason coddles him. Always in debt, Diaghilev’s artistic productions are supported by the efforts of the great art patroness Misia Sert (Marin Mazzie). Elegantly portrayed by Mazzie, she is part nursemaid part patron saint, and only every once in a while does McNally hint at her political astuteness. Similarly, Dima (John Glover), the deeply educated, empathetic cousin who tries to stabilize Diaghilev’s finances, resembles a passing bookkeeper.

As for Nijinsky, his role is nearly mute. Slim and graceful, he looks like a dancer but does not move like one. Interestingly, dance demands are few and limited primarily to the popularized two-dimensional poses depicting Nijinsky in his famous role from “Afternoon of a Faun.” For those not familiar with the controversial ballet, it’s difficult to conjure up the novel choreography. Attached to just a few wisps of the liquid score by Debussy, Cusati-Moyer hits few poses-- in particular the famous lunge on the floor, neck arched back, mouth open at the point of sexual ecstasy. The faun costume by the great Leon Bakst and reconstructed by Ann Hould-Ward, was the most convincing element.

Similarly, when Nijinsky becomes involved in the creation of the 1913 “Le sacre du printemps” one of the century’s most earth-shattering ballets, the lack of visuals from the "Sacre" and any reasonable stretch of Stravinsky’s ferocious score makes the experience exasperating.

McNally does try to illuminate Diaghilev’s impact on Nijinsky because not only did he give Nijinsky—the Michael Jordan of male dancers—opportunities to perform and choreograph, he also expanded Nijinsky’s educational horizons introducing him to the era’s great books, artists and museums.

But Nijinsky was conflicted by his sexual relationship with Diaghilev. That turmoil is underscored when in 1913 Nijinsky goes on tour to South America without the overbearing Diaghilev, and marries Romola.

This devastates Diaghilev who tries to redirect his interests in the dramatic dancer/choreographer Massine, nicely played by Jay Armstrong Johnson. However, this doesn’t soothe his disturbed soul. Actually there’s a nice “imagined” passage where Nijinsky warns Massine about Diaghilev’s ways, his temper and anxieties--odd predilections.

A spare production, the primary visual elements include a string of light bulbs suspended from the ceiling, a few gold edged chairs, two ornate mirrors and a dancer’s barre. Director John Doyle magnifies the word over production values, but there’s an imbalance of physical and verbal information.

For audiences who are not familiar with the great achievements of Diaghilev, “Fire and Air” offers a thumbnail sketch of a time when the arts and invention held hands inspiring a new era that looked back at the old academies of Europe and forward to the new movement language and sounds emitted from the New World.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis

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