Great galloping dance of a movie;

Starring Alan Bates, George de la Pena, Leslie Browne. Directed by Herbert Ross Herbert Ross has been making movies for years, but a large chunk of his heart lies with the world of ballet. Gradually, Ross has been bringing his two loves closer together -- in "The Turning Point," for example, which told of two middle-aged women strongly involved with the art of dance. Now he has taken a great balletic leap to 1912, and given us a richly detailed biography of the legendary Russian dancer Nijinsky.

Though Nijinsky himsel is at the core of the picture, the most prominent character is the impressario Diaghilev, as played by Alan Bates. He's a commanding figure, given to imposing postures and intimidating fits of pique. Yet he's also a very vulnerable man -- and his most tragic flaw is his homosexual attachment to Nijinsky, which quite distorts his usually impeccable artistic judgment.

The affair between Diaghilev and Nijinsky is presented as a historical fact, but the movie utterly avoids any hint of exploitation, sensationalism, or overt homosexual behavior. Indeed, this troubling subject has rarely been handled with more restraint. And, of course, it is only one facet of a multifaceted film that pirouettes all over Europe, visiting the best theaters, hotels, and watering places, and offering fascinating incidents in all of them.

One minute we're watching Stravinsky hammer out "The Rite of Spring" on his piano, and moments later we're at the premiere of the piece, watching the audience rebel against this new and "pagan" art. We listen to the great choreographer Fokine wrangle with Diaghilev over top billing, and worry about Nijinsky's mental health as his career begins to wobble. And behind it all is a lush backdrop of Debussy music, Bakst scenery, and other artifacts from a vanished but still-fascinating age.

Though its subject is dance, "Nijinsky" doesn't spend too much time on the ballet stage. We see only bits and pieces of fabled works, restaged with great cinematic flair by Ross and a platoon of associates. The result is a movie for the dance dilletante as well as the full-fledged balletomane -- a costume drama where all the characters are just a little larger than life, and where the tumultuous process of creation is as important as the finished work of art.

Nearly all the performances are first-rate. Bate's portrayal of Diaghilev is all the more impressive when you remember that his other current film is "The Rose," wherein he plays an overaged hippie trying to keep a dissolute rock star out of the gutter. George de la pena, a gifted young dancer, plays Nijinsky with grace and delicacy. Another dancer, Leslie Browne, is less effective as Romola de Pulsky -- the woman who cajoles Nijinsky into marriage -- though Miss Browne manages to muster more expression here than she did in "The Turning Point." Alan Badel is a riot as the foppish Baron de Gunsburg, and Jeremy Trons gives a remarkably subtle characterization of Fokine. Among the technical credits, Douglas Slocombe's cinematography and John Lanchbery's musical score stand out.

Though it careens a bit out of control during its more hysterical moments, particularly when the title character starts losing his mind on his way to the film's tragic ending, "Nijinsky" is a great galloping dance of a movie. Like Hollywood biographies of old, it doesn't mind dipping into melodrama now and then, but it always remembers to bail itself out with humor and sparkle. It's a strong and sometimes stunning achievement.

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