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Secrets of Nijinsky

In December 1917, Vaslav Nijinsky, at that time the most celebrated male dancer in the Western world, moved into a villa in St. Moritz with his wife, Romola, and their three-year-old daughter. His relations with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the company in which he had made his name, were now severed, and with a war on, it was impossible for him to seek other engagements. So he and Romola had decided to retreat to neutral Switzerland and wait for peace. By the time of the armistice, however, Nijinsky had begun to go insane. His famous diary, written in six and a half weeks, from January 19 to March 4, 1919, was the record of his thoughts as that was happening. To my knowledge, it is the only sustained, on-the-spot (not retrospective) written account, by a major artist, of the experience of entering psychosis. Other important artists have gone mad—Hölderlin, Schumann, Nietzsche, Van Gogh, Artaud—but none of them left us a record like this. The diary was first published in 1936, in a drastically expurgated English edition. For over sixty years now, this has been the only available English-language version. In February, at last, a complete English text will be published, in a new translation by Kyril FitzLyon.

1.

Nijinsky was born in Kiev around 1889 to a pair of Polish dancers who worked on the touring circuit—opera houses, summer theaters, circuses—in Poland and Russia. His parents were his first dance teachers. At age seven he made his professional debut in a circus in Vilno, playing a chimney sweep who rescued a piglet, a rabbit, a monkey, and a dog from a burning house and then put out the fire. The following year, the father, Thomas, abandoned the family (his mistress was pregnant), and the mother, Eleanora, moved with her three children to St. Petersburg. At age nine, Nijinsky entered the Imperial Theatrical School, the same school that was to produce Michel Fokine, Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, George Balanchine, and Alexandra Danilova—most of whom, like Nijinsky, began their Western careers with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes—plus, more recently, Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. He was a poor student (his younger sister, Bronislava, often did his homework), but as soon became clear, he was a phenomenally gifted ballet dancer. By the time he appeared in school productions, the press was already calling him a prodigy, and when he graduated from school in 1907, at age eighteen, he was taken into St. Petersburg’s Imperial Ballet not as a member of the corps de ballet, the usual starting rank, but as a coryphée, one rank higher.

In those days in Russia, as in Western Europe, there was a heavy sexual trade in ballet dancers. Some dancers actually accepted fees from interested ballet patrons for making introductions. In 1907 one such dancer introduced Nijinsky to the thirty-year-old Prince Pavel Lvov, a wealthy sports enthusiast, and Nijinsky entered upon what was probably his first sexual relationship, with the blessing of his mother, who, though she discouraged his heterosexual interests—she felt that marriage would impede his career—was proud to see her son with so fine a figure as Prince Lvov, and was also grateful for Lvov’s financial help. (The Nijinskys had very little money.) But Lvov soon tired of Nijinsky and began introducing him to others, including, in 1908, Sergei Pavlovitch Diaghilev.

Diaghilev, then thirty-five, was one of the most important people in the St. Petersburg art world. With his friends, he was part of the capital’s so-called World of Art group, a loosely organized fraternity of artists, musicians, critics, and other writers who set themselves the goal of liberating Russian artistic culture from the narrow political dictates (realism, nationalism, social criticism) that had dominated it since the 1860s. The group’s most influential project was its journal, Mir iskusstva (The World of Art, 1898-1904), edited by Diaghilev. By publicizing in Russia the avant-garde art of the European fin de siècle, Mir iskusstva was instrumental in converting Russian painting from an exhausted realism to the freer, more imaginative symbolist style of the early twentieth century. Having brought Western art to Russia, Diaghilev then began bringing Russian art to the West, using Paris as his base. There, in 1906, he presented a lavish exhibition of Russian painting and sculpture; in 1907, a series of concerts of Russian music, most of it unknown to Europeans of that period; in 1908, a triumphant production, the first in the West, of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, starring Feodor Chaliapin.

For 1909 Diaghilev was planning to bring to Paris not just Russian opera but ballet as well. Prince Lvov, Nijinsky writes in his diary, “forced me to be unfaithful to him with Diaghilev because he thought that Diaghilev would be useful to me. I was introduced to Diaghilev by telephone.” He went around to the hotel where Diaghilev was staying, and was bedded, and presumably hired, the same day.

For both men, it was a fateful meeting. Diaghilev’s 1909 Paris ballet season was so successful that he soon established a permanent company. That company, the Ballets Russes, was to be the most glamorous and influential theatrical enterprise in Europe in the 1910s and 1920s, and during its crucial pre-World War I period, Nijinsky’s dancing was a great part of its fame. Conversely, it was the Ballets Russes that made Nijinsky famous. In St. Petersburg he had been a locally celebrated dancer. With the Diaghilev company, in the ballets of the troupe’s house choreographer, Michel Fokine—Les Sylphides, Scheherazade, Le Spectre de la Rose, Petrouchka, others—he became an international star and, by all accounts, a great artist. Apparently, he was an extraordinary actor, not so much realistic as classical, in the Racinian sense. To quote one eyewitness, the ballet historian Cyril Beaumont, “He does not seek to depict the actions and gestures of an isolated type of the character he assumes; rather does he portray the spirit or essence of all types of that character.”1 That he was also a dancer of unprecedented virtuosity is clear from the memoirs of his younger sister, Bronislava Nijinska. Here she is describing his Paris debut, in Fokine’s Le Pavillon d’Armide:

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…. From the depths of the stage with a single leap, assemblé entrechat-dix, he flies towards the first wing.2

The audience gasped, she says, and well they might have, for they had never before seen a male dancer do such things. Though still flourishing in Russia, ballet had been in decline for half a century—and male ballet was all but dead—in Europe. To his Western audiences, Nijinsky was something utterly unforeseen, a miracle.

Augmenting his glamour was the atmosphere of scandal that, wherever he went, his whole life long, was always attached to Nijinsky’s name. In the pre-World War I years, this was probably due to the fact that he lived openly as Diaghilev’s lover—they shared hotel suites—and that the roles Fokine created for him were often ambisexual, and strongly sexual. The best example is the Golden Slave in Scheherazade, where he appeared in brown body paint, and grinning, and wound with pearls—not so much a sex object as sex itself, with all the accoutrements of perversity that the fin-de-siècle imagination could supply: exoticism, androgyny, enslavement, violence. Offstage too, Nijinsky looked exotic. He had a Tartar face, with prominent cheekbones and slanted eyes. (At school, he was known as the “little Japanese.”) Finally, there was his personality. So present and forceful on stage, he was the opposite offstage: naive, shy, recessive—blank, almost. Anything could be projected onto him, and anything was. In her memoirs the Bloomsbury hostess Ottoline Morrell, one of the Ballets Russes’ English patrons, recalled that Nijinsky was the subject of “fantastic fables”—“that he was very debauched, that he had girdles of emeralds and diamonds given him by an Indian prince.”3 During performances, people snuck into his dressing room and stole his underwear.

The note of scandal became more pronounced when, with Diaghilev’s encouragement, Nijinsky began his choreographic career. Between 1912 and 1913 he produced three ballets—The Afternoon of a Faun, Jeux, and The Rite of Spring (to Stravinsky’s now-famous score)—that were like nothing that had ever been called ballet before. The lovely, noble, three-dimensional shapes of the academic ballet, the five positions of the legs and arms, the turned-out feet: all were gone. Under Nijinsky’s direction, the dancers moved in profile, slicing the air like blades (The Afternoon of a Faun), or they hunched over, hammering their feet into the floorboards (The Rite of Spring). The approach was analytic, the look “ugly,” the emotions discomforting. Of these works, only one, The Afternoon of a Faun, survives today,4 but it is enough to show that Nijinsky ushered ballet into modernism. At the time when they were first performed, however, the crucial point about these ballets was that they caused an uproar. The Rite of Spring, as is well known, set off a riot in the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris. The police had to be called. All this added to Nijinsky’s notoriety.

2.

Nijinsky may have been unstable from his youth. His older brother, Stassik, was mentally unsound and had to be hospitalized as a teenager. If, as Bronislava Nijinska suggests, Stassik’s troubles began when he fell out of a window onto his head as a child, his condition would have had little to do with Nijinsky’s. But there were other circumstances. Peter Ostwald, in his 1991 psychiatric biography, Vaslav Nijinsky, speculates that the dancer may have had a genetic predisposition to depression, through his mother. (Her mother, upon being widowed, had starved herself to death.) Ostwald also raises the possibility that Nijinsky may have suffered brain damage as a result of a serious fall that he took at age twelve.

In any case, it is clear that at least by late adolescence Nijinsky was not like other boys. At eighteen, during his first season in the Imperial Ballet, he stopped dancing one night in the middle of the Act I pas de trois of Swan Lake and began taking his bows while the orchestra was still playing. If he was unbalanced at this point, the fame that now began gathering around his name may have unsettled him further. And if he was able to manage celebrity at that time, what was the effect on this quiet boy when, two years later, upon his debut with the Ballets Russes, the Parisians began referring to him as le dieu de la danse? Theater artists must always have some difficulty factoring into their minds the fantasies that they excite in the audience, but in Nijinsky’s case the fantasies were more elaborate and the mind more vulnerable. It is not impossible that his idea, endlessly reiterated in the diary, that he was God began with the experience of being called a god by the Parisian audiences.

  1. 1

    Bookseller at the Ballet: Memoirs 1891 to 1929 (London: Beaumont, 1975), p. 135.

  2. 2

    Bronislava Nijinska: Early Memoirs, translated and edited by Irina Nijinska and Jean Rawlinson (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981), pp. 270-271.

  3. 3

    Memoirs of Lady Ottoline Morrell: A Study in Friendship, 1873-1915, edited by Robert Gathorne-Hardy (Knopf, 1964), p. 215.

  4. 4

    In recent years there have been attempted reconstructions of Nijinsky’s other ballets, but the choreographic evidence is so meager that these productions must be considered constructions rather than reconstructions.

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