The ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky (1890-1953) electrified his audiences with a virtuosity directly related to the characterizations he forged by the genius of his imagination. Although his dancing and choreographic career was short, he remains a symbol of human artistic achievement.
Vaslav Nijinsky was born in Kiev, Ukraine, on March 12, 1890 (some sources say 1888, others 1899). The Nijinsky children accompanied their Polishborn, academy-trained mother and father, Eleonora and Thomas, on the tours that featured their parents' character dances in Russian opera houses, concert halls, summer theaters, and circuses.
Vaslav's sister, Bronislava, younger by three years, had kept notes almost from the time she could write. She worked closely with Vaslav during the years he was the dazzling star of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and she a member of the company (she was later to choreograph numerous distinguished ballets, among them Les Noces—1923—and Les Biches—1924). A brother, Stanislas, two years older than Vaslav, succumbed to mental illness in early adolescence.
In her book, Early Memoirs (1981), Bronislava describes the young Vaslav as lively, mischievous, and adventurous. He would stand on the knobs of a door and swing side to side with it, and could bounce just as high and forcefully as a rubber ball, and would sneak off to a nearby gypsy camp to enjoy and imitate the action he saw there.
Introduction to the Ballet
At the age of ten Vaslav was brought to the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg by his parents. He was auditioned and accepted for both academic and ballet training. He was soon recognized as "remarkable" by his ballet teacher, N. Legat, although he was considered not very bright academically, except in geometry. Diaghilev's scenic artist, Alexandre Benois, in his Reminiscenses of the Russian Ballet writes of Nijinsky a few years later as being "a short, rather thick-set little fellow with the most ordinary colourless face."
In 1908 Vaslav was graduated from the Imperial School with honors and a few months later was partnering leading ballerinas on the stage of the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg. It was at this time that he met Sergei Diaghilev, 18 years his senior, and became his protegé and lover. In the summer of 1909 Diaghilev brought a group of Russian dancers to Paris for a brief season, with Vaslav dancing the lead roles in the Fokine ballets Pavillon d'Armide, Les Sylphides, Prince Igor, and Cleopatre. The response to the company was spectacular, the success of Nijinsky dazzling. Again on leave for a season in 1910, the troupe brought Scheherazade and Carnavalto Paris. The company with its brilliant music, decor, and dance was wildly acclaimed, and Nijinsky was adored. Back in St. Petersburg, Nijinsky was dismissed from the Imperial Theatre when he refused to wear trunks over his tights in an appearance with Tamara Karsavina in Giselle. Diaghilev then determined to set up a permanent company in the West.
From 1911 through 1913 the Diaghilev Ballets Russes was met with overwhelming enthusiasm throughout Europe. Nijinsky danced Le Spectre de la Rose and, encouraged by Diaghilev, made his first attempt at choreography with L'apres-midi d'un Faune. In 1913, still as lead dancer, he also choreographed Le Sacre du Printemps and Jeux, both controversial and breaking the molds of classic ballet. His dancing remained extraordinary. Marie Rambert, who worked with Nijinsky in the Jaques-Dalcroze method, made vital comment about his dancing in Quicksilver (1972): " … One is often asked whether his jump was really as high as it is always described. To that I answer: I don't know how far from the ground it was, but I know it was near the stars. Who would watch the floor when he danced? He transported you at once into higher spheres with the sheer ecstacy of his flight."
Marriage Brings Dismissal from Ballets Russes
Sergei Diaghilev had a fierce fear of the sea and when later in 1913 the company left for a tour of South America he did not accompany it. On the boat trip Nijinsky became interested in a young Hungarian heiress, Romola, who was in the corps de ballet, and when they landed in Buenos Aires they were married.
Upon receiving the news of the marriage Diaghilev cabled Vaslav Nijinsky to inform him that he was dismissed from the company. Severed from his personal and professional ties with the ballet, the importance of Nijinsky as dancer and choreographer went into decline.
While he was active as a ballet dancer he electrified his audiences with protean performances and a virtuosity that was never exhibitionistic, but always related to the characterizations he forged by the genius of his creative imagination. As choreographer, also briefly, he provided a daring and exotic breakthrough into the 20th century.
His dancing was seen by relatively few audiences during the brief nine years of his professional dance activity, and there are no moving pictures of him. But there are photographs, and they are telling. Is it the same dancer who looks so unreal in The Spectre of the Rose, that grovels as the straw puppet in Petrouchka, that portrays the patrician Albrecht of Giselle and the sensuous harem slave of Scheherazade, the earthy Greek sculpture-come-to-life in Afternoon of a Faun? Each has a different weight, stance, movement, style.
Edwin Denby conveyed his keen observations of accents, counterforces, and relationships of body parts and assists us in seeing the nuance of the artist's superb gift of communication in his Notes on Nijinsky Photographs, which first appeared in an illustrated monograph edited by Paul Magriel (1946).
Mental Illness Ends Professional Life
In the spring of 1914 Nijinsky made an unsuccessful attempt to start his own company, and signs of mental illness began to appear. From 1914 to 1916 he was interred as a civilian prisoner of war in Austro-Hungary, his wife's country. In 1916 he rejoined the Diaghilev company and went with it to the United States with only tepid success. He tried another tour soon after with his own company, choreographing and dancing the lead role of Til Eulgenspiegel. There was still another brief tour in South America. Then came the end of his professional life.
He and Romola went to Switzerland, and for the next decade there was constant shifting from one clinic to another in the hope of finding a cure. Attempts to bring back his memory and interest in ballet were also futile. For the more than half of his life that remained—he died at the age of 60—his mind and body were engulfed by a mental disease identified as schizophrenia. There was not a day of respite.
Romola Nijinsky's Life of Nijinsky, assisted by Lincoln Kirstein (1933), blames much on Diaghilev. Kirstein, who had never seen Nijinsky dance, was inspired by the photos. It was with Romola Nijinsky's help that he met George Balanchine, who then arranged to bring him to the United States. There was much scandal and controversy over the homosexual relationship with Diaghilev. Was it a Svengali situation? Was it that the artist needed the support of the sponsor? Would there have been no breakdown had there been no break with Diaghilev?
The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky (1968), edited by Romola Nijinsky, includes drawings made during the years in mental institutions and has painful-to-read recitations of what is called "Reflections on Life, Death, and Feelings" in which Vaslav identifies himself with God and calls out for peace and love.
Vaslav Nijinsky died in 1953 and is buried in Paris. Romola died in 1978. Daughter Kyra Nijinsky, born in 1914, painted many dance portraits of Vaslav, although she never saw her father dance. Daughter Tamara, born in 1920, worked with puppets.
Further Reading on Vaslav Nijinsky
Most of what we know about Nijinsky comes from the vast literature, diverse and often controversial, that perpetuates the legend of his greatness. Some of this was written by those who knew him, much by those who never saw him dance but fell in love with the legend and were inspired to investigate and share their discoveries. Nijinsky by Vera Krasovskaya (1974) includes additional background information with emphasis on the Russian elements of the dancer's life and training. Nijinsky by Richard Buckle (1971) provides a comprehensive account of casts, dates, descriptions, and details of negotiations based on definitive research and information from those who worked closely with him. The Denby essay is reprinted in the outsize Nijinsky Dancing, a compilation of over 100 photographs with brilliant text and commentary by Lincoln Kirstein (1975).
Additional Biography Sources
Buckle, Richard., Nijinsky, Harmondsworth etc.: Penguin, 1975.
Nijinsky, New York: Schirmer books, 1979.
Nijinsky, Romola de Pulszky., Nijinsky and The last years of Nijinsky, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.
Ostwald, Peter F., Vaslav Nijinsky: a leap into madness, Secaucus, NJ: Carol Pub. Group, 1996.
Parker, Derek., Nijinsky: god of the dance, Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, England: Equation; New York, N.Y.: Distributed by Sterling Pub. Co., 1988.