Vaslav, revisited

Originally published in Cue.

It’s only the first night of Festival and it’s already bitterly cold. “Do you mind if we do this outside? I’m dying for a cigarette,” Godfrey Johnson asks apologetically before ushering us out the side door of this bowls club turned performance venue.

“You know,” he says, lighting the cigarette, “it feels like just the other day. Isn’t that bizarre?” It’s been a year since I last interviewed him, and the energetic cabaret performer gets straight into it.

He’s only working on three shows this year – including Pieter Dirk-Uys’s Never Too Naked – which is actually a fairly light workload for him. This morning I had seen him in the fluid and entertaining Mr Johnson Presents. Sitting down with a thump on the stool of the piano placed squarely in centre stage, he was ebullient and commanding in his performance.

In his tight, moss-green suit, he’d sung songs about muscle-clad gym fiends who’d mistaken him for Mr Bean and flirted continuously with an old man in the audience called Sam. It was rough and fun and ended with a Billy Joel number.

Now, Johnson’s just finished his first showing of Vaslav, a piece that’s all about its precision and craftsmanship. . In it, he inhabits the fraying mind of the great Polish ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky long after his career is over and he has been institutionalised for schizophrenia.

“It’s a challenge doing these two different styles,” he says. “It’s very much about breathing. When you’re improvising, you don’t always think about those things. You’re too busy entertaining. Vaslav is good for me.”

Johnson, along with writer Karen Jeynes and director Lara Bye, had to breathe life into a man using only his old diaries and written accounts of him. Clad in an ill-fitting shirt, Johnson plays the perfect fish out of water, the dancer who can no longer dance.

Out of character Johnson is much more relaxed, but still bounces up and down on the spot when talking about Nijinsky and his relationship with composer Igor Stravinsky.

“They were anarchists. Imagine this guy dancing this strange, strange dance and to this bizarre music, that made people angry. Before then they were listening to pretty things like Tchaikovsky and suddenly there was this discordant, aggressive music.”

“It was punk, really!” Johnson exclaims, punching the air with his lit cigarette.

While some of the music in Vaslav is drawn from straight from the period, Johnson has added his own cabaret spin. And while Johnson lacks the professional dance training of Nijinksy, he believes that it works in his favour: “The great thing about him being an older character is that all you’re seeing is suggestion and memory so it’s all in his head.”

“You know, it’s also nice to be acting for a change. Usually I’m just singing,” he adds with a chuckle, putting out the cigarette.

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