April 14, 1980 12:00 PM

The subject is fascinating: The wildly imaginative Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky was the sensation of European ballet from 1907 to 1919, but spent the next 30 years in and out of mental institutions. Alan Bates and charming ballerina Leslie Browne head the cast. The sumptuous locations include Hungary, Sicily and Monaco. Yet director Herbert Ross manages to make a clumsy film that stumbles and falls. Bates, as Diaghilev, the Ballet Russe impresario who was Nijinsky’s patron and lover, has his moments, but he is required to engage in relentless chitchat about choreography and homosexuality. The dance scenes are dull, which is surprising since Ross did them so well in The Turning Point. The editing is choppy, and the principals are often shot in such extreme close-up that all movement is lost. It is difficult to judge the dancing of George de la Peña, the New York-born star of the American Ballet Theatre who plays Nijinsky. There’s no doubt about his acting, though. He’s so shrill he makes Nijinsky seem bratty instead of mad. Browne, who dances not a step, is miscast as a scheming young woman who wants to steal George from Alan, It’s almost enough to confirm the dumb prejudice that ballet is effete, fatuous and oh, so tedious. (R)

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