World Premiere of ‘Immortal Longings’ a Triumph at ZACH

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Wyatt Fenner (left) as Vaslav Nijinsky and Steven Epp as Sergei Diaghilev in Immortal Longings. (credit: Kirk Tuck)

Immortal Longings is the new play by four-time Tony winning writer Terrence McNally. It’s currently having its world premiere in the Topfer Theater at ZACH.

The story is a fictional take on the lives of real people. Sergei Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballet Russes, is at its heart. In the main, the play focuses on his relationship with top male dancer Vaslav Nijinsky.

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Terrence McNally (right) attended the premiere of Immortal Longings at ZACH with husband Tom Kirdahy. (credit: Charles Quinn)

In the early part of the 20th century, Diaghilev shocked most of Paris — and delighted an important minority — when he brought a company of dancers on break from St. Petersburg’s Imperial Ballet to a City of Light awash with modern art. With this ‘Ballet Russes,’ Diaghilev created a total work of art: a thoroughly modern mixture of ballet, visual art, and music. It used choreography never seen before, costumes and scenery by the likes of Picasso and Chanel, and cacophonous music by Diaghilev’s fellow Russians Stravinsky and Prokofiev.

Against this backdrop, McNally tells the story of the relationship between Diaghilev and Nijinsky. Bare bones of the story are known to history, but even a cursory search turns up conflicting information on who was using whom in this relationship. McNally gives his take, showing Diaghilev as the older and wiser mentor to the young and naive — yet supremely talented — Nijinsky.

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Steven Epp (left) as Sergei Diaghilev and Wyatt Fenner as Vaslav Nijinksi. (credit: Kirk Tuck)

It’s more complicated than that, as both parties have other motives. Diaghilev wants his ballet company to succeed, and Nijinsky longs to become not just a star dancer, but a choreographer. Creative differences spark friction between the lovers. As Nijinsky grows in confidence, he needs Diaghilev less. The latter needs him more, and cracks start to form in the impresario’s carefree facade. The play is a push and pull between them, a blurring of lines between mentor and mentee: lovers in an unequal relationship that is ultimately unsustainable.

The play tours the audience down on a twisting mountain road of emotions, eying beautiful vistas one minute and gaping at terrifying switchbacks the next. Ultimately a poignant story, Immortal Longings is happily shot through with one-liners that had the audience bursting into surprised laughter.

McNally’s main character is realistically multidimensional. Diaghilev leaps from jovial to melancholy and back again with alacrity. Paramour Nijinsky is more of a one-note character: whiny, but beautiful.

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Shannon Koob (right) as Misia Sert and James Patrick Nelson as Diaghilev’s cousin Dmitry ‘Dima’ Filosofov. (credit: Kirk Tuck)

A few others round out the cast and add flavor. Diaghilev, at middle age, is still attended by his childhood nurse. Dour and sarcastic, Dunya is supremely Russian. By contrast, ballet patroness Misia Sert is almost uniformly lively and witty while providing Diaghilev both moral and financial support.

Along with the deeply personal story, the audience gets to experience the Ballet Russes’ triumphs and flops, most famously the near-riot at the premiere of the ballet Sacre du Printemps (more recognizable to English speakers as the Rite of Spring).

Immortal Longings continues at ZACH through July 14 and is highly recommended.

Note: This show contains full nudity and is recommended for adult audiences only.

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