by Carol Rocamora
A bare stage, a set of gilded chairs, a pair of huge mirrors, and presto – the remarkable life and times of Sergei Diaghilev are conjured up before our eyes.
And a turbulent life it was, as embodied by Douglas Hodge in Terrence McNally’s arresting new bio-drama called Fire and Air, now playing at the Classic Stage Company. Hodge’s passionate performance leaves an indelible impression of the Russian impresario who founded the Ballets Russes in 1909 and changed the art form forever.
One of the great artistic visionaries of the 20th century, Diaghilev practiced a collaborative approach to creating ballet, commissioning great composers like Debussy, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Strauss to write scores, and great artists like Picasso, Dali, Matisse and Coco Chanel to design sets and costumes. Among his towering achievements were the premieres of Debussy’s “The Afternoon of a Faun” (1912), and Stravinky’s “The Rite of Spring” (1913) – both of which caused tremendous controversy.
McNally’s script focuses intensely on Diaghilev’s stormy relationship with his principal dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky, the object of his obsessive love (played by a seductive James Cusati-Moyer). Beginning with Diaghilev’s deathbed tableau, the narrative flashes back to 1912 and their first tempestuous collaboration in Paris, when Nijinsky (who choreographed “Faun”) added an impromptu erotic sequence that caused an uproar. “We rehearse spontaneity till we achieve it!” rages Diaghilev, stripping Nijinsky of his provocative costume (expertly designed by Ann Hould-Ward).
But Nijinsky will not be controlled, and their conflict continues. The jealous, possessive Diaghilev hires a private detective to follow the company to Argentina and keep an eye on Nijinsky – who, in his final act of rebellion, marries a ballerina, prompting Diaghilev to fire him.
It’s a riveting story, and McNally tells it with purpose and economy, featuring a handful of essential dramatis personae who represent Diaghilev’s loyal entourage – including Dima, his devoted cousin (an elegant John Glover); Dunya, his stalwart nurse (a stoical Marsha Mason); and Misia, the ballet’s principal patroness (a stately Marin Mazzie).
John Doyle’s signature style of minimalism, fluidity and precision serves McNally’s narrative beautifully. He navigates the ensemble around the empty stage (designed by Doyle himself, with evocative lighting by Jane Cox), and, with a stroke of his directorial hand and selective sound cues, conjures up a scene on a Venice beach or a train ride, as the company tours Europe. There are striking, surreal moments – such as when Nijinsky and Diaghilev’s new lover, dancer Leonide Massine (played by a lithe Jay Armstrong Johnson) speak to each other across the years in a shared moment that, as they explain, never took place in reality. Or when Nijinsky and Massine actually dance, accompanied by haunting excerpts of Debussy and Stravinsky’s scores. Each time, the effect is magical.
Always at the center of the music and the movement is Diaghilev, as portrayed with fire and flamboyance by Douglas Hodge. He’s a complex, charismatic character, and Hodge embraces the challenge full-force, filling the stage with his larger-than-life presence. “I am a man who creates creators!” he cries. The emotional and physical demands of the role are extreme –as when, for example, Diaghilev falls to the stage floor, embracing the legs and kissing the feet of Nijinsky, his love-object. It’s a stunning image – to be repeated again with Massine, expressing the heights of Diaghilev’s passion and the depths of his desperate need.
In a final, evocative tableau, the ensemble members stand at a ballet bar stretched across one of the huge, gilded mirrors. They practice their pliés under Diaghilev’s exacting eye. “I choose to make the world a better place,” he declares. It’s one of many evocative moments in a production that tells the story of an extraordinary artist – brought to life by a team of collaborators worthy of his artistry.
Photos: Joan Marcus
Fire and Air, by Terrence McNally, directed and designed by John Doyle, at Classic Stage Company through February 25 www. classicstage.org