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'Nijinsky' falls down as a visual document

Friday, July 12, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Watching and, more important, listening to Paul Cox's film "Nijinsky" put me in mind of a line from Don MacLean's song about Vincent Van Gogh: "This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you."


RATING: Unrated; contains nudity, sexual references and violent images.

PLAYERS: Delia Silvan, Chris Haywood, voice of Derek Jacobi.




It should come as no surprise that Cox, whose most recent film was "Innocence," made a movie about Van Gogh in 1987 along the same lines as his current film about the legendary dancer and choreographer, now at the Harris Theater.

"Nijinsky" is based on the diary written by the great performer at the beginning of his descent into madness in 1919, while living in St. Moritz in the aftermath of World War I and as revolution raged in his adopted homeland of Russia.

Derek Jacobi reads from the diary, providing the only spoken words in the film. Cox adds an impressionistic montage of images that attempt to replicate how Nijinsky saw, interpreted or imagined the world around him.

Numerous motifs recur in both the writing and the visuals: God, death, love, despair, Christ on the cross, the dancer's bleeding foot, running streams, fields of flowers, a slaughtered lamb, Nijinsky's wife (Delia Silvan) and daughter, Nijinsky in the guise of his many characters and particularly as the Faun.

The diary tells us that Nijinsky doesn't think, he feels. He doesn't just acknowledge God's presence. God is in him, he is in God and, finally, he IS God. He is not sick in the mind or in the body, he insists. Ultimately, he admits to being sick in the soul. Often he wants to weep. Most of all, he wants to dance -- but that will never happen again.

"I'm alive and therefore suffer because men do not know the importance of life," he writes. "I'm not an ordinary man -- I'm a dancer. You will understand me when you see me dance."

Ah, but there's the rub. We cannot see Nijinsky dance. His performances were never preserved on film, either in motion pictures or in stills. Cox's movie contains just a few tantalizing photographs and drawings of the great man. The director substitutes contemporary dancers performing Nijinsky's celebrated roles, but that's not the same thing.

We can try to understand his words, and it seems clear that his madness was in fact a withdrawal into a different view of reality. As the New York Review of Books said of the diary, it "glimpses truths about art and life, beauty and god, society and personality, which seem saner than our own logic."

It also makes him seem like a hothouse flower, and Cox's attempts to get into his head ultimately seems as precious as singer MacLean's paean to Van Gogh -- and repetitious to the verge of pretentiousness.

If only we could see Nijinsky dance. Maybe then we could see the world as he did. Maybe then we would understand. But we cannot, and so the mystique endures.

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