Citizen Staff Writer
Before Michael Jordan there was Vaslav Nijinsky.
Ballet history is full of stories about how Nijinsky could hang in the air for what seemed like forever. He leaped . . . he stayed up there . . . end of story.
But the story does have another side. In Russia at the beginning of the 1900s, the main role of male ballet dancers was to lift the female dancers, to hold these petite tutu princesses high enough for the most dramatic display of the female form.
The flamboyant Nijinsky, with all that leaping ability, wasn’t content to be just another lifter. He wanted to upstage the ladies, get some spotlight time of his own. In 1910, he shocked European audiences with his performance as the Wind King Vayou. He was 20.
Just nine years later, he would become a patient at a mental asylum in Switzerland.
“Nijinsky was the first male dancer who was important, so he has always been an influence on me,” said Ricardo Melendez, a dancer/actor from Puerto Rico.
Melendez is performing “Nijinsky’s Last Dance” next weekend at Invisible Theatre.
“When I came across the script by Norman Allen I immediately wanted to do it: To join the disciplines of theater and dance.”
Melendez is uniquely suited to this task. He was a teen studying acting in Puerto Rico when he was given a dancing role in “Pinocchio.”
“I was hooked,” he remembers happily.
Melendez worked hard, won dance scholarships to study in the United States and, three years later, signed his first contract to be a New York City dancer. His résumé includes stints with the Alvin Ailey Dance Ensemble and the dashing Ballet Hispanico.
“Nijinsky’s Last Dance” didn’t include much dancing as it was originally written. Melendez took care of that shortcoming, adding the classic ballet choreography that Allen describes in the script.
Now, Melendez has a one-man show that portrays eight characters, lasts 90 minutes and is performed without an intermission. Included are the historical figures of Auguste Rodin, the sculptor, and Sergei Diaghilev the arts impresario, who was Nijinsky’s conspicuous lover for a time.
That last dance in the title is performed in the disturbed dancer’s head as he sits in the asylum, clinging to his sanity by remembering highlights of his past.
“There are lots of pictures of him dancing, so we know what he looked like,” Melendez says. “The ideas he forged were perpetuated through Isadora Duncan and, later, Martha Graham.”
Nijinsky was diagnosed with schizophrenia, which began mildly but became increasingly worse.
“Remember, the early 1900s were a time in the art world when painters and sculptors were exploding with new ideas. Nijinsky was a part of that excitement, too,” Melendez says.
“I think originally his mental state is what made him such an imaginative dancer. Not only could he leap and hang in the air, but he could project the characters of dancers like no other.”
Along with those invigorated audiences of 1910, Melendez loves the same rush of excitement performing in small, up-close and personal spaces – spaces much like the intimate stage of the Invisible Theatre.
“That response with the audience is always so immediate,” he says. “This is storytelling at its most basic, with less technology but a stronger personal connection.”
IF YOU GO
What: Invisible Theatre presents “Nijinsky’s Last Dance,” performed by Ricardo Melendez
When: 7:30 p.m. March 12, 8 p.m. March 13-14, 3 p.m. March 15
Where: Invisible Theatre, 1400 N. First Ave.
Price: $25, discounts for groups of 10 or more
Info: 882-9721, www.invisibletheatre.com