THEATRE WITH MUSIC: Cape Town, Godfrey Johnson in Vaslav, The Fugard Theatre Studio Theatre, until November 17, 2019

Vaslav: review

Script: Karen Jeynes, with Godfrey Johnson and Lara Bye

Performer: Godfrey Johnson

Director: Lara Bye

Lighting: Jon Keevy

Movement/choreography: Fiona du Plooy

Continuity/technical: Dylan Esbach

Dates: Vaslav is on in The Fugard Studio Theatre, until November 17, 2019. Tuesday to Saturday at 8pm. Matinee performances on Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm.

Tickets: R150-R160.

Book: through The Fugard Theatre box office on 021 461 4554 or online

I saw this beautiful, tender piece at the Kalk Bay Theatre in 2014, after its premiere at the National Arts Festival of that year. I was very moved by Godfrey Johnson’s homage to Vaslav Nijinsky – his incredible artistry, struggles with mental health; creative process of making art, self-worth, madness, identity, love, meaning; the challenges that faced him as an artist and faces all creatives.

Watching Vaslav in 2019 in the Fugard Theatre Studio and for me, the piece has gone beyond tribute-cabaret into a full-formed multi-layered play. Not only is Vaslav a play; it mashes up theatre with the medium of piano recital/concert. Johnson – a classically trained pianist – vividly conjures up the legacy of Nijinsky, through music- and images the legend. On his piano, he hammers out the soundtrack of the dancer’s life – internal and external.

Dance was everything to Nijinsky but it came to an end in September 1917 when age 28, he gave his last public performance. By 30, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was confined to a psychiatric institution. In 1919, he created a diary. The diary took shape in a frenzy, over six weeks. This was shortly before he was locked up in an asylum in Zurich. Vaslav is set within the confines of the asylum. The Vaslav script by was drawn from the diary pages.

In 1917, the world was at war and Nijinsky was at war with his demons. He died in London, in April 1950 – aged 60 or 61 (unverified).

Scant footage exists of him doing his famous leaps as he was terrified of technology and resisted being filmed. Our imaging of Nijinsky is through films, books, drawings and from accounts of people who saw him in action

Johnson climbs deep inside the fractured persona of Nijinsky. This was evident in the first run of Vaslav. In 2019, the intensity has been amped up- visually through gesture and as Johnson physically moves across the keys of the piano – reaching for notes –seeking an understanding of art, life, desire. Johnson’s fingers dance across the keys of the piano as he traces Nijinsky’s trajectory from child prodigy into locked up artist, tagged as “mad”.

The figure of Vaslav at the piano is juxtaposed with images projected onto a screen in a curtained structure. It is reminiscent of a makeshift theatre one might construct to present plays in a home; in an institution; perhaps in a low-budget travelling circus. In the 2014 Vaslav, I had a sense that what we were seeing was a PowerPoint sequence of static images, accompanying the dialogue and music. In the staging in 2019 at the Fugard, that slide show has been developed into a montage with blurred edges which has a filmic quality. It is a visual extension of the Vaslav we see in front of us- not merely a slide show and pictorial demonstration.

The walls of the Fugard Studio Theatre stage have been left bare. Jon Keevy’s striking lighting plot –with luminous glowing illumination strips- frames the tortured figure of Vaslav who is telling us his story. For me, it suggests a sense of funfair and fairground with Vaslav as the object of curiosity.

Vaslav was objectified during his short professional career. He was desired and adored by his public. He was an object of desire. His dancing revolutionised the male body in dance. The public was scandalised and titillated. Nijinsky loved the adoration. He loved to fly and soar. He relished in the precision of his craft and in the slog of hard work. He wanted to feel and for others to feel; to be touched.

Nijinsky toured the world with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Reference is made in Vaslav to his dancing in Bloemfontein. It sounds like a joke but Ballets Russes did tour to South Africa. Nijinsky was hot and then he burned out. His whole life had been a performance. His parents were entertainment gypsies – dancer in a touring opera company. They lived out of suitcases. Johnson told me that when Nijinsky was 12, his mother pimped him out to Diaghilev – okay, encouraged him to get together with the impresario. Diaghilev was 18 years his senior. It was the way to get ahead in the business of dance. It is a tragedy that his artistic career ended when he was 28. His impact was immense and his legacy continues.

Godfrey Johnson’s Vaslav is a must-see theatre experience, for anyone interested in the creative process and the ecstasy and agony of making art.

*Note to producers- this piece is easily transportable. Book it for your theatre.

Theatre/ ✈ travel advisory: The Fugard, Cape Town

✔ Address: Corner Caledon and Lower Buitenkant Street, District Six, Cape Town, 8001

Book: or calling 021 461 4554

Two stages: main (320 seats) and studio theatre (118).

✔Food: Drinks, coffee, sweets, popcorn, pizzas, samoosas. Rooftop bar is open when the weather is decent. Glorious city views.

Currently on at The Fugard Theatre –November 2019:

Kinky Boots – the musical– On until February 2, 2020. Tues to Fri 8pm, Sat 3 and 8pm, Sun 3pm. Tickets R250 – R470. Review on TheCapeRobyn.

Fugard Bioscope World Arts Cinema Season- October 7 2019 until August 31, 2020. Mondays at 3pm and 7pm.