“Nikolai and the Others,” Richard Nelson’s new play at the Beaumont Theater, recreates one very particular milieu of Russophone exiles in America just after World War II. The characters include Nikolai — better known to posterity as the composer Nicolas Nabokov — the painter Sergei Sudeikin; Sudeikin’s ex-wife, Vera; and her second husband, Igor Stravinsky. They swirl around the choreographer George Balanchine (Michael Cerveris), who is at work with Stravinsky in preparing the ballet “Orpheus.” Though the play has its problems, I would want it to be seen by anyone interested in Balanchine and his choreography.
Today Balanchine’s posthumous influence has become the main global force in ballet; it surpasses that of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in its influence on international repertory. The Balanchine we see in this play, however, is nowhere near that status yet.
It is spring 1948. Diaghilev, who died in 1929, is still a dominant figure for many of the Russians onstage. Balanchine has not yet founded New York City Ballet, and he is best known in New York for his immense success with choreography for musicals, including “On Your Toes,” “Babes in Arms,” “The Boys From Syracuse” and many more. (Everything will change in a few months: the success of “Orpheus” was the factor that led to City Ballet’s formation, though this ballet has seldom made a great impression on anyone since the 1950s.)
The dance material we see here from “Orpheus” has an impact beyond any performance of the complete one-act ballet, which was last seen at City Ballet in fall 2012. The dancer-actors in “Nikolai” aren’t important Balanchine stylists. But because this “Orpheus” scene is a rehearsal within the play, we, like the spectators onstage, are caught up in it as if it were still in gestation.
And we’re watching at close quarters. Michael Rosen has something of the personal beauty that distinguished Nicholas Magellanes, the original Orpheus; Natalia Alonso shows a dash of the proud assertiveness that so distinguished Maria Tallchief, the original Eurydice (and newly married to Balanchine). The core themes of the ballet — the different tugs of duty and love felt by an artist, the demands for affection made by an artist’s spouse, the continuance of art beyond life and death — emerge with absolute directness.
We see Balanchine among Russians. Usually we hear of Balanchine from the Western dancers who worked with him, but a number of them have said that, for all his embrace of Western culture and his delight in America, his mind did not fully adjust to the West as did that of some others. Alexandra Danilova, his contemporary and longtime colleague, expressed herself in funny one-liners that captivated her American friends, whereas aspects of Balanchine’s humor and inner world remained opaque.
Here we see the universe where Russian was spoken in America. Many former students of the School of American Ballet, which Balanchine founded with Lincoln Kirstein in 1934, have said the contributions of Balanchine’s fellow Russians were vital to the enterprise. Two minor characters here are members of its staff, named only as Evgenia and Natalia. More central are Nikolai’s ex-wife, Natasha, and the gathering’s hostess, Lucia Davidova, Balanchine’s closest confidants. (Davidova is one of the interviewees in “I Remember Balanchine,” a remarkable compendium of interviews conducted over years by Francis Mason and published in 1991.) Here Magellanes and Tallchief are the only non-Russian-speakers; we quickly understand when the Russian characters are speaking English to them, because then and only then do they acquire Russian accents.
The research done by Mr. Nelson is exceptional. In the first act, the world of Russian émigrés is Chekhovian in both intimacy and intricacy. Mr. Cerveris’s performance catches the extraordinary blend of charming good manners and absolute artistic purposefulness that so characterized Balanchine. The man and the artist still remain inscrutable — we understand that he is a mystery to his wife and to many others too — but we see him here both at ease and at work.