The minor values of the dance drama Nijinksy, set in the world of European ballet circa the early 20th century, have dimmed with time, and it’s not as if Nijinsky ever enjoyed much critical goodwill. From a thematic standpoint, the most significant aspect of the film is not its depiction of ballet, but rather its presentation of a gay relationship. The title character is a volatile diva considered the greatest dancer of his generation, and his lover is the domineering and petulant director of the storied Ballets Russes. Yet while there’s never any ambiguity as to whether these characters are a couple, director Herbert Ross takes an arm’s-length approach to intimacy, so most of the relationship manifests in bitter arguments and vengeful manipulations, reducing an interpersonal dynamic to the cheap rhythms of a campy soap opera. If Nijinksy felt the least bit bold in 1980, it seems tame (or worse) today.
A parallel issue is Ross’ proclivity toward “pretty pictures,” to borrow a phrase from another dancer-turned-director, Bob Fosse. Everything about Nijinsky is beautiful, from the fluid movements of dancers to the opulent costumes and locations to the supple music and photography. Even moments intended to seem atonal, such as an erotic dance set to dissonant music by Stravisnky, are pristine. Coupled with the timid approach to sexuality, this uptight aesthetic makes Nijinsky antiseptic, not exactly the right quality for a story about the repercussions of romantic torment. Yet it’s not as if the film lacks pleasures, and in fact, many of the overly mannered qualities that suppress the movie’s emotionality add to its purely sensual appeal. Ross films dance well, so whenever Nijinsky focuses on re-creations of the title character’s famous performances, one can marvel at the artistry and athleticism on display. Similarly, the endless procession of evening gowns, gilded furnishings, grand staircases, and tuxedos generates a certain intoxicating quality; like a Merchant-Ivory production, Nijinsky has a strong element of lifestyle porn.
As for the story, which should be fascinating but is not, the narrative tracks the slow decline of Vaslav Nijinsky (George de la Peña) from fame to madness. At the beginning of the movie, he’s at the apex of his celebrity, but he bristles at limitations placed on him by lover/mentor Sergei Diaghilev (Alan Bates). Nijinsky agitates to become a choreographer as well as a dancer, even as circumstances compel Nijinsky to rebel against his sexuality by exploring relationships with women. It’s all quite turgid, more so because of de la Peña’s competent but forgettable work. Ross and the screenwriters never get a bead on what makes Nijinsky tick, so his descent into schizophrenia unfolds lifelessly. In the end, only Bates’ thorny supporting performance and a few moments of onstage spectacle resonate.