A combination of fire and air is how Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario and founder of the famed and influential company Ballets Russes company, describes himself in Terrence McNally’s play of the same name at New York City’s Classic Stage Company.
We see plenty of the former, and not much of the latter in multi-Tony winner McNally’s play, which focuses on the tangled intimate and professional relationship of Diaghilev (Douglas Hodge) and the great Vaslav Nijisnky (James Cusati-Moyer), then a hot young dancer on the road to international glory.
The dynamic between them, on the surface at least, is a dusty gay familiar: not-so-hot older guy (with painful boils wracking his body), is into much-hotter younger guy (whose muscular dancer’s frame is often unclothed).
Their early 20th-century liaison is complicated by the men’s foibles and ambitions. There is Diaghilev and his furiously revolving artistic mind, contemplating his own brilliance, intentions, aims, and how badly compensated and acknowledged he is for his efforts (at one stage he throws coins around the stage).
He loves Nijinsky, he is bereft without him (when Nijinsky goes abroad, falls for a fellow dancer, Romola de Pulszky, and marries her), and he also hates Nijinsky for possessing—and being celebrated for—the sexual and artistic power that he has. The play makes only glancing reference to the “madness” that later afflicted Nijinsky.
Diaghilev knows, and so does the young man, that Nijinsky’s own ascendancy is imminent. Nijinsky is using Diaghilev, while the latter is both desperate lover, holding on to the younger man as hard as he can, and also tyrant, seeking to make or break him.
“In Spectre de la rose, when you fly through the window, you are a Greek god come to life, thanks to a costume perfect in every detail, many of which I saw to myself,” Diaghilev tells him. “Without it, you are a rough looking Pole from the Ukraine with legs that are too short by half for a danseur noble.”
McNally’s play, directed by John Doyle, the CSC’s artistic director, is stately and proudly wordy; more an animated meditation on desire, art, and power than a raw deconstruction of a once-fruitful, now-screwed-up relationship.
Diaghilev was an artistic polymath—whose inspirations and practices embraced visual art, music, and ballet—and yet we see none of that swirl around him. The stage at the CSC is bare bar five golden chairs, the kind you might see in banqueting halls. There are also two huge mirrors behind and above a golden barre. Red, blue, and white lights signify shifts in time and place.
There is also very little dance, apart from notably—at beginning and end—Nijinsky assuming the iconic Nijinsky pose of the faun, from the ballet he crafted from Debussy’s Prelude à l’après-midi d’un faune.
Accompanying Diaghilev is his own entourage. The wry and put-upon Dunya (the excellent Marsha Mason) is an old retainer, always at the side of her beloved “Seryozha,” knitting, consoling, sorting out things, and rudely being ordered to fetch champagne. She sees her master’s frailties and self-delusions when it comes to Nijinsky all too well, but cannot challenge him.
John Glover is a cousin, Dima, who had a long-ago relationship with Diaghilev and is still nursing the heartbreak of their breakup and the hope they may one day reunite.
Marin Mazzie’s Misia Sert is a rich benefactor, dolled up in black cocktail dress, and whose dramatic purpose is the least well-defined in the production. She drifts around, tells us of her rich husband, and drifts off again, smiling at Diaghilev indulgently.
The play, as you would expect from the playwright of Love! Valour! Compassion! and Master Class, is full of barbs, dark wisecracks, and spirited cris de coeur about love and art. It also assumes your knowledge of Diaghilev and Nijinsky is as wide and embracing as the playwright’s.
The program helpfully offers both a potted history of the characters in the play. But a play shouldn’t need a program, and so scattered references to Stravinsky and other Ballets Russes collaborators and other history may send you rushing later to find out more about the characters and era. The plays knows it all, and assumes you know it all too.
Fire and Air does remind you what a nightmare artists can be, so consumed in their pursuits that they have little idea of the impact of their words and deeds on others. Hodge’s Diaghilev convincingly blusters and bullies to get what he wants, both professionally and intimately.
He is also utterly needy. As he sizes up Nijinsky, he seems to want to possess him sexually and artistically. The line between both is, for Diaghilev, necessarily blurred: The two are as interdependent as he imagines both himself and the dancer to be.
The most telling moment between them comes when Nijinsky jumps into the older man’s arms, suddenly child-like, and then kisses him, “the little bastard,” as Diaghilev calls him, roughly drawing blood.
There was no model for “being” gay, or gay relationships in those days; homosexuality was little-understood, barely accepted, and heterosexual marriages inevitable. Diaghilev’s struggle to articulate love is necessarily entwined with his art; art is, for him, both inspiration and solace.
Cusati-Moyer’s willowy and sly Nijinsky knows his beauty, knows his allure, and knows his many talents. The most telling moment in the play comes not with his toying and also genuine affection he holds for his older master, but when he comes face-to-face with Léonide Massine (Jay Armstrong Johnson) he notes firmly that the latter may be his successor in the Ballets Russes and in Diaghilev’s bed, but he will always be his lesser.
But Massine, who is not as intelligent or cunning as his predecessor (though still has a beautiful body that Diaghilev feasts on), has one thing that Nijinsky wants, something that all the rich men who pore at him, and that Diaghilev did not have: youth and beauty.
McNally makes Messine’s relationship with Diaghliev the minor to Nijinsky and Diaghliev’s main event; he also chooses not to interrogate Nijinsky’s return to the Ballets Russes, or his mental health decline, which presumably would have introduced inconvenient dramatic snarls.
Nijinsky died before Diaghilev, but Fire and Air is a long, well-signposted slalom to Diaghilev’s own end.
“We created each other. What a pair. Just listen. The music tells you everything,” a dying Diaghilev imagines telling Nijinsky. And yes, as you leave CSC, you will likely be humming Debussy. You may also be left with more questions than answers when it comes to the passions and lives of Diaghilev and Nijinsky.
Fire and Air is at CSC, 136 East 13th St., NYC, until Feb. 25. Book tickets here.