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Pas de deux

There was no end to his energy. When in the country he ran, swam, fished, climbed, ran off with gypsy boys, crept out late, and got into every kind of scrape. He mixed easily—above all with circus people—and he had a free, ardent, and inquisitive nature. Only in his exaggerated fear of being punished does it seem with hindsight that some form of psychic disorder threatened him. His elder brother, Stassik, “went off his head,” as people then said, around the year 1900. As against that his sister Bronislava was and remained all her life the personification of stability and good sense. But, as everyone knows, it was with Stassik, the sequestered invalid, not with Bronislava Nijinska, the lifelong worker and survivor, that Nijinsky finally sided.

Still, if the demons got him in the end, he gave them a very good run. On the stage there was never any question, whether in school or afterward, that he would set a completely new standard for male dancing. As is already well known, Nijinska in these memoirs tells us exactly what he did on the stage. We need only a minimal knowledge of the syntax of the dance to see him, as she describes him, in his first appearance outside of Russia. We are in the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on the evening of May 19, 1909. Nijinsky has appeared from the wings in “a prolonged leap, grand assemblé,” only to be halted by a huge outburst of applause.

Suddenly, from demi-pointe préparation, Nijinsky springs upwards and with an imperceptible movement sends his body sideways. Four times he flies above the stage—weightless, airborne, gliding in the air without effort, like a bird in flight. Each time as he repeats this changement de pieds from side to side, he covers a wider span of the stage, and each flight is accompanied by a loud gasp from the audience.

Nijinsky soars upwards, grand échappé, and then he soars still higher, in a grand jeté en attitude. Suspended in the air, he zigzags on the diagonal (three grands jetés en attitude) to land on the ramp by the first wing. With each relentissement in the air the audience holds its breath.

The next musical phrase is amazing for its dance technique—the modulation of the movement in the air, possible only for Nijinsky—executed on the diagonal from the first wing, grands jetés entrelacés battus.

Throwing his body up to a great height for a moment, he leans back, his legs extended, beats an entrechat-sept and, slowly turning over onto his chest, arches his back and, lowering one leg, holds an arabesque in the air. Smoothly in this pure arabesque, he descends to the ground. Nijinsky repeats this pas once more, like a bird directing in the air the course of its flight. From the depths of the stage with a single leap, assemblé entrechat-dix, he flies towards the first wing…. He ends the variation in the middle of the stage, close to the ramp, with ten to twelve pirouettes and a triple tour en l’air, finishing with the right arm extended forward in a pose révérence. The variation has been executed from beginning to end with the utmost grace and nobility.

It is in this workmanlike and unrhetorical style that Nijinska details one after another of her brother’s appearances. She also tells us how he worked at the barre and in his middle-of-the-floor exercises. Working at an accelerated tempo that allowed him to complete in forty-five to fifty minutes what would have taken another dancer three hours, he “seemed more intent on improving the energy of the muscular drive, strength and speed than on observing the five positions.” (Anyone who has studied Rodin’s little sculpture of Nijinsky in action can readily believe this.)

Certain other peculiarities emerge from her account: among them, that “in his adagio exercises, in the développé front, he could not raise his leg higher than ninety degrees; the build of his leg, his overdeveloped thigh muscles, as solid as a rock, did not permit him to attain the angle possible for an average dancer.” And as to the celebrated leap, she has this to say:

In the allegro pas he did not come down completely on the balls of his feet, but barely touched the floor with the tips of his toes to take the force for the next jump, using only the strength of the toes and not the customary preparation with both feet firmly on the floor, taking the force from a deep plié. Nijinsky’s toes were unusually strong and enabled him to take this short preparation so quickly as to be almost imperceptible, creating the impression that he remained at all times suspended in the air.

Nijinsky never stopped working. When other students at the Imperial Ballet School were walking around the town with their hands in their pockets, he clenched and unclenched, hour by hour, the hand in which he held a black rubber ball. In this way he brought to an ever greater perfection the fluttery wrist-and-finger movements that he used in the “Blue Bird” pas de deux.

As the “Blue Bird” is so familiar to today’s audiences it is of particular interest to learn from Nijinska of the way in which Nijinsky emended the original version. Dancing in London in 1911, he had Anna Pavlova as his partner. She was not the most generous of colleagues—Nijinska tells us that she once said, “I do not wish to see ovations being given to Nijinsky for a performance in which I too dance. Let the public that comes to see Pavlova see only Pavlova!”—but she did undoubtedly inspire him to surpass himself.

Nijinsky astonished the audience in London with the new technique he displayed in his variation of the coda, introducing a new step, pas volé, never seen before, in place of the series of brisés volés previously executed by the male dancer.

In the conventional pas brisé volé the weight of the body shifts from one leg to the other. Nijinsky felt that the movement of the body from side to side broke the impetus forward and impaired the thrust of the body upwards. In his new pas Nijinsky used a grand battement balançoire very effectively in combination with a cabriole (en avant and en arrière), and by developing a supreme coordination and synchronization of movements achieved a perfect balance of the body en l’air, rendering himself literally “weightless,” high above the stage.

As to the dedication involved in feats of this kind, Nijinska has this to say: “During his school days he had been allowed to bring home barbells, and he had practiced with them during weekends and summer vacations until, while still a student, he was able to lift seventy-two pounds with one arm.” While in Bordighera, ostensibly to rest, he went to a little room in the basement of his hotel that had a wooden floor and practiced there. “He would execute each pas or movement much more strongly than he ever would on the stage, thereby building up a reserve of strength so that, onstage, he could hide all the effort and tension required for his dances and make even the most technically difficult pas appear effortless.”

He could have done all this and been no more than an incomparable gymnast. But what actually happened from the moment of his graduation performance onward was that he said something about the expressive potential of the human body that had never been said before. And what he created was not “beauty” so much as awe, stupefaction, and something akin to fear. Like the soprano soloist in Schönberg’s second string quartet, he seemed to breathe the air of another planet. But, at the same time, he brought on to the stage a mysterious, unnamed, and entirely redoubtable something from the collective unconscious.

To do that is to bear a very great burden. Nijinsky in this was both favored and disfavored by his environment. There is a sense in which Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes was the natural home of the new. There was a great company, there was great new music to work with, there was an enthusiastic international audience, and there were none of the petty interferences that officialdom brings with it.

For Nijinsky the performer, the change from the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg to the Diaghilev company was virtually all gain. For Nijinsky the aspirant choreographer the comparison could hardly be mooted, for it is inconceivable that L’Après-Mid d’un faune, Le Sacre du printemps, and Jeux would have been accepted by the Imperial Ballet. It is thanks to Diaghilev that the history of ballet now sometimes seems like a garden in which Nijinsky stands at the end of every allée. It was thanks to Diaghilev that Nijinsky was able to bring to ballet what Lincoln Kirstein calls “a new intensity of psychological characterization” as well as the unprecedented technical accomplishment of which his sister writes. It was thanks to Diaghilev that in a mere four years (1909-1913) he who had been simply a stupendous performer became the originator of dance languages as radical as any that the avant-garde has produced since.

Bronislava Nijinska is as lucid, and as convincing, on the subject of Nijinsky’s own ballets as she is about everything else. As on all other occasions, she is the complete workman, to whom fancy phrasing is alien. (It is left to Edwin Denby, writing in 1943, to say something definitive about the dance language of the Faune: “In Faune the space between the figures becomes a firm body of air, a lucid statement of relationship, in the way intervening space does in…Cézanne, Seurat and Picasso.”) Nijinska keeps to specifics, here as in all things, and anyone who cares for dance will marvel at the way in which Nijinsky could invent and carry through three entirely different new idioms at a time when he was performing one arduous role after another on the stage.

No man can carry so great a burden if he feels unconfident of the conditions in which his work is going forward. Diaghilev could be uniquely “supportive,” in today’s language, but he was also volatility made flesh. With an unsubsidized company to pay for, with colleagues who thought only of themselves, and with a nature that thrived on intrigue and mischief, Diaghilev had at any given time a hundred things on his mind, of which ninety-nine were irresoluble. Nijinsky by contrast thought of only one thing at a time, and if Diaghilev wavered at any point it seemed to Nijinsky that the earth was opening beneath his feet.

There was also, of course, the sexual matter. Where that is concerned, Nijinska preserves a nineteenth-century reticence. If she thinks that Nijinsky was a “normal” man destroyed by homosexual intrigues, she never says so. If she thinks that he was fulfilled by homosexuality, only to be destroyed by the revisionist embraces of his wife, she never says that, either. In fact she never says anything directly on this subject, forthright as she is in everything else. If Nijinsky’s friend and protector Prince Lvov gives him a gold ring set with a large diamond and “at least twelve pairs of elegant shoes,” handmade by the best shoemaker in St. Petersburg, she makes no comment, any more than she does when Nijinsky stops wearing that ring and begins to wear another (“a massive, new platinum ring with a sapphire, from Cartier”) that he had been given by Diaghilev.

In general she does not suggest that Nijinsky had any marked sexual drive in either direction, let alone in both. In this, as in so much else, he was brutally teased by his fellow students. His first flirtations were broken off, for one lofty reason or another, and when he was finally persuaded to go with a prostitute he was at once infected with disease. As late as 1912 he said to his sister that if he ever married, it would be with one of Gauguin’s girls from Tahiti, so that their children would have beautiful brown skins. Neither in his diary—admittedly a dubious source—nor anywhere else does he seem to have been other than passive and acquiescent in his relations with men.

But Nijinska does say that “with Diaghilev and his entourage, it seemed to me that Vaslav was never himself.” And since she alone could crack the code of his famous silence it seems probable that a good deal lies behind that remark. “Vaslav seemed so much freer and more relaxed in his conversations with us in Monte Carlo, away from Sergei Pavlovitch,” she also says; and although nothing but catastrophe came of his attempt to break away from Diaghilev and set up a company on his own, we sense that Nijinska felt an overriding delight in the idea that her old, happy, easy relationship with her brother would forthwith be resumed.

It is difficult to read a life of Nijinsky without a sense of overwhelming oppression as the narrative nears the thirty years’ death in life about which nothing consoling can be said. If the early memoirs of Bronislava Nijinska are not oppressive in that way, it is because they are not “a life of Nijinsky,” but a double portrait of an exceptionally full, rich, and trustful relationship. Quite apart from that, they remind us implicitly that although we shall never know what Nijinsky’s Sacre du printemps was really like, it is still possible to reconstruct Nijinsky’s Les Noces, which in its way is no less remarkable as an evocation of ancestral Russia. And although we shall never see Jeux as Nijinsky conceived it, we have Nijinska’s Les Biches to show that as early as 1924 ballet could refer to modern life and modern ways as freely and easily as Nijinsky had hoped for when he saw Duncan Grant and his friends playing tennis in Bedford Square.

For Les Noces and Les Biches and for much else besides, we must hope that the editors of this book are at work on “The Later Memoirs of Bronislava Nijinska.”

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