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Dance | Weekend Chat

The Master Comes to Life in 'Nijinsky Speaks'

October 05, 2000|LEWIS SEGAL | TIMES DANCE CRITIC

Although he gave his last performance in 1917, and no known film exists of his dancing, Vaslav Nijinsky remains an endlessly fascinating symbol of the 20th century artist as genius, celebrity, sexual outlaw and madman. Born in Kiev of Polish parents in 1890, he danced for only a decade and spent more than half his life in a mental asylum before he died in London in 1950.

Actor-dancer Leonard Crofoot's 1997 monodrama "Nijinsky Speaks" flashes back from the asylum to reexperience events in the dancer's life and career. In the process, it channels some of Crofoot's own memories of a childhood spent in a wheelchair and early ballet lessons with a dancer who specialized in Nijinsky roles.

Question: When did you first learn about Nijinsky?

Answer: I was trained as a dancer with George Zoritch of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. And in the early '60s, [star dancer] Anton Dolin was a guest teacher at the Zoritch studio. He had me do some jumps and turns and said, "You're a regular Vaslav Nijinsky."

I said, "What's that?" And he said "It's not a what, it's a who," and he wrote it down and said, "Go to your library and get this book by Cyril Beaumont." So almost right when I began ballet, I knew about Nijinsky.

Q: In what ways do you think you resemble him?

A: We are the same height, and we're structured the same. I've tried his shoes on, and they fit. I'm American Indian and he's from Russia and we both have the almond eyes and the high cheekbones. However, he had dark eyes and I have blue eyes and he had dark hair and I have light hair, which I don't color for the show.

Emotionally and in our training we are also very similar. George Zoritch studied at the [Russian] Imperial Ballet, the same as Nijinsky. And the reason I got into dance is that I was crippled--I was living in a wheelchair for my early years of life. And I use that very heavily in my acting because I know what it is to be alone, and I feel that he was a very lonely person: He lived within himself.

Q: How did "Nijinsky Speaks" come to be?

A: I did bits of about five or six different dances of Nijinsky's during a gala performance at the Severin Wunderman Cocteau Museum in Irvine in 1994. Visual artist Robin Palanker attended the gala and she came up with the concept of "Nijinsky Speaks," then worked with me on the research, edited the script and did the graphics and publicity.

Q: Has the show changed since The Times reviewed it at the Glaxa Studios in Silver Lake in 1997?

A: Yes, dramatically, because at that time I was using Nijinsky's diaries with the blessing of his family. But when I went to New York [in 1998], they revoked the use of the diaries because the unexpurgated edition was coming out and they didn't want it to be conflicted with the earlier version that I was using.

I approached them to see if I could use the new diaries and they said yes--but only after they published them. But I said, "I can't wait, I'm already booked [in New York]." So I rewrote all those portions, in my own words.

Q: Did that compromise the show artistically?

A: No, it was a blessing, because having already used the diaries, I could put it in my own words and my own story came out, and I think it's much better. I'm very pleased with it, and it's mine.

Q: Does your continuing commitment to this show keep you from working on other projects?

A: No. In between my touring engagements, I do other things. I just danced in a Coen brothers film--"The Barber's Project"--for choreographers Bill and Jacqui Landrum. And I had a great time.

Q: Are you surprised by the success and new options that this show has generated?

A: Definitely. I didn't think it was going to last all these years. I only did it as a showcase because I wasn't getting a lot of work, and I thought that if I showed people what I could do maybe some director or casting person, producer, whatever, would want to hire me. I never expected that it would be my bread and butter--and that it would gain me my own independence.

It has also given me the taste of wanting to create--to do more choreography and projects of my own as well as working in the industry for others. And if I've learned anything from Vaslav Nijinsky, it's to be independent.

BE THERE

"Nijinsky Speaks," Smothers Theatre, Pepperdine University, 24255 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu. Saturday, 8 p.m. $30. (310) 456-4522.

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