Long considered the father of modern dance, Nijinsky revolutionized ballet in the early part of the last century. He scandalized Paris with his unorthodox choreography and sex-specific dances, and is remembered as much for his groundbreaking work with the Ballets Russes as he is for the nervous breakdown that ended his short career.
Romola has long been named the reason for that breakdown, a fact that haunts Gaspers, a retired music teacher now living in Phoenix. According to history, Nijinsky's marriage to Romola so offended his male lover, Ballets Russes impresario Sergei Diaghilev, that Diaghilev dismissed him from the company. Nijinsky's career never recovered, and the strain led to mental illness with which he was institutionalized for the remaining 30 years of his life.
Gaspers' interest in restoring her grandmother's good name is recent. For many years, she cringed at the mention of Nijinsky. "I didn't want to be part of the Nijinsky legacy," Gaspers says. "I wanted my own identity."
All that changed in 1989 when she met a student of dance who asked to see her grandfather's garments. "I had tossed them into a box under my bed," Gaspers remembers. "Rather irreverent. This woman held his dance tights very carefully, like a sacred object. I was amazed, and I began to think that this was a crime against art, to have these costumes in a box under my bed when they meant so much to so many. I thought, 'If we don't [represent him], who will?' We did it only because we knew Romola's wishes."
"We" is Gaspers and her mother, Nijinsky's daughter Tamara, who also lives in the Valley. When Romola died, the affairs of Nijinsky's estate fell to Tamara, and Gaspers felt obliged to assist her mother. The two women have devoted themselves to "Romola's wishes" by founding the Vaslav and Romola Nijinsky Foundation.
In their world travels, the women have stumbled across numerous theater pieces about Nijinsky. "There were one-man shows everywhere we went," Gaspers says of one long journey with her mother. "And they were garbage, period. I thought, 'I can write something better. I should write something.'"
Back home, Gaspers asked playwright Terry Earp to look at the play she'd written about her grandfather. Earp, herself a student of dance, had enjoyed national success with a one-man show about her husband's ancestor, Wyatt Earp. "Terry read it and said, 'This is not a play; it's a lecture,'" Gaspers recalls. "But she offered to write the play about my grandfather herself."
Gaspers is amazed, she says, at Earp's insight into her grandmother's life. The one-woman, one-act play finds Romola alone in a New York hotel room in 1953. While she awaits news of her husband's reinterment in Paris' Montemartre cemetery, Romola recalls her life, talking to herself and to framed photographs of Nijinsky. Gaspers is planning to perform the show in Budapest, Australia and Paris, and Earp would like to tour the production in the States.
In the meantime, the show has the tentative feel of a workshop production. While the stunt casting of Nijinsky's granddaughter is an effective promotional device, the piece would benefit from a stronger performance. On the other hand, even a skilled actor would require more material to work with. So many of the speeches Earp has written begin with the phrase "I will always remember . . ." or "Who can ever forget . . ." and yet are almost always unexciting and forgettable.
The real points of interest here are the man's dancing, his madness and his sexuality. But because it's impossible to re-create the excitement of a dance performance by talking about it (which doesn't stop Romola from trying, repeatedly), and because Romola barely touches on the effects of her husband's illness or the impact of his homosexuality, we're left with a lot of loose memories that barely evoke the man or the myth. The result plays like a visit with a slightly dotty aunt whose yarns aren't as interesting as they are long. A little trimming and a few more revelations (like that Romola was herself a homosexual) would make for a more compelling evening of theater.
But Madame Nijinsky: Married to a God does what Gaspers wanted it to do: It rescues her grandmother's reputation. "Up until now, the world has painted Romola as the Wicked Witch of the West," she says. "They say if Nijinsky had not married her, he would not have gone insane. What I am trying to set straight is that Diaghilev and Nijinsky might have been lovers, but I don't think Diaghilev would have stayed with Nijinsky for 31 years like Romola did. She is not the one who made him go crazy. She tried to save him."