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Secrets of Nijinsky

To most people who knew him as an adult, the oddest thing about Nijinsky was his social incompetence. The dancer Lydia Sokolova, who began working with him in 1913, says that “when addressed, he turned his head furtively, looking as if he might suddenly butt you in the stomach…. He hardly spoke to anyone, and seemed to exist on a different plane.”5 Sokolova’s statement, together with all other descriptions of Nijinsky written after he went mad, must be understood as colored by that fact. Still, by most accounts, he was remarkably introverted. At parties he would sit silently and pick his cuticles. Even his wife, so protective of his reputation, reports that the dancers called him “Dumb-bell” behind his back.

These social difficulties made his choreographic career a nightmare at many points. The Ballets Russes dancers had been trained in the academic style. To induce them to forget all that and move like figures in an antique frieze or aborigines around a campfire required tact, patience, and excellent communication skills: precisely what Nijinsky lacked. Sokolova recalls that when, in rehearsing Faun, he told her to move through rather than to the music, she burst into tears and ran out of the theater. Others stayed but loathed his work and let him know it. Faun, an eleven-minute ballet, is said to have required over a hundred hours of rehearsal. And Nijinsky had to deal with opposition not just from the dancers but also from his collaborators—Debussy, the composer for Faun and Jeux, disliked both ballets and said so—not to speak of critics and audiences. During the première of The Rite of Spring the uproar in the theater was so great that the dancers could not hear the music. Nijinsky stood in the wings, sweat coursing down his face, screaming the musical counts to the performers—a terrible image.

At the same time, his relationship with Diaghilev was deteriorating. By the time of The Rite of Spring, their love life was apparently over. Worse, Diaghilev seemed to be abandoning Nijinsky as an artist. The company’s next major ballet, The Legend of Joseph, with music by Richard Strauss, was to have been choreographed by Nijinsky. Diaghilev, perhaps dismayed by the scandal over The Rite of Spring—or, more probably, concerned over the strain that Nijinsky’s ballets imposed on the company—now reassigned The Legend of Joseph to Fokine, Nijinsky’s rival, who was also demanding to dance Nijinsky’s major roles. “Perhaps he [Nijinsky] should simply leave the Ballets Russes and not dance for a year,” Diaghilev blandly suggested to Bronislava Nijinska, who was delegated to carry such messages to her brother. Nijinska recalls that Nijinsky was now in a “heightened state of nervousness…, as if he felt that a net was being woven around him.”6

These last events help to explain the extraordinary thing Nijinsky did next. He got married. In the summer of 1913, shortly after the première of The Rite of Spring, the Ballets Russes embarked on a tour of South America. Diaghilev did not accompany them, but someone else did: Romola de Pulszky (1891-1978), a wealthy, headstrong Hungarian, twenty-two years old, the daughter of Hungary’s foremost classical actress, Emilia Márkus. Romola had seen Nijinsky dance in 1912. She thereupon decided to marry him and attached herself to the company, as a sort of groupie, for that purpose. On the ship, she made her interest in Nijinsky known, and two weeks out of port, without having exchanged more than a few words with her (at that time they had no language in common), he proposed. They were married in Buenos Aires two weeks later.

That was the beginning of a series of crises that culminated five years later in Nijinsky’s madness. First, Diaghilev fired him. This is understandable; whatever the state of their relationship, Diaghilev still considered Nijinsky his companion, and he was undone by the younger man’s defection. (Diaghilev’s friend Misia Edwards—later Misia Sert—was with Diaghilev when he received the news. He was “overcome with a sort of hysteria,…sobbing and shouting,” she later wrote.7 ) Nijinsky, on the other hand, was apparently mystified by Diaghilev’s reaction. He wrote Stravinsky begging him to “please ask Serge what is the matter.” “If it is true that Serge does not want to work with me,” he added, “then I have lost everything.” Stravinsky later described this letter as “a document of such astounding innocence—if Nijinsky hadn’t written it, I think only a character in Dostoievsky might have.”8

Nevertheless, Nijinsky’s assessment of the situation was correct: he had lost everything. In order to dance, he did not need the Ballets Russes. Any opera house director would have been delighted to engage this great star to dance the standard ballet repertory. But Nijinsky by this time was not a dancer of standard repertory. He had been through that stage with the Imperial Ballet. He was different now—an experimental artist. He needed roles that would extend his gifts, and above all, he needed to choreograph. For these things he did need the Ballets Russes, which at that time was the only forward-thinking ballet company in the world. While Nijinsky’s later psychosis was probably, in part, biologically based, even the firmest adherents of the biological theory of schizophrenia agree that constitutional vulnerability must be combined with some potent psychological stress in order for the illness to develop. In Nijinsky’s case, the major stress was unquestionably his inability, after his dismissal from the Ballets Russes, to do what he regarded as his work.

Nor, with his personality, could he manage a company of his own, as he soon learned. The following March, with the help of the loyal Bronislava, Nijinsky undertook to mount a ballet season, with a company of seventeen, at a music hall in London, but he fell ill from overwork, and what was to have been a two-month engagement was canceled after two weeks—a humiliating and expensive failure. Ostwald believes that at this point Nijinsky suffered his first “nervous breakdown.” He couldn’t sleep, was plagued by fears, went into screaming rages—a condition that was probably made worse by an increase in his responsibilities: the Nijinskys’ first daughter, Kyra, was born in June 1914. Soon afterward, the family traveled to Budapest, to visit Romola’s mother, at which point World War I broke out and the Hungarian authorities declared Nijinsky a prisoner of war, placing him under virtual house arrest in the home of Emilia Márkus. There he remained for a year and a half—never dancing, trying to devise a system of dance notation, reporting to police headquarters once a week—while Romola quarreled with her mother. Emilia Márkus was a temperamental woman, and she did not relish the prospect of having house guests for the duration of the war.

In 1916 Nijinsky was released, thanks to Diaghilev, who now needed him for a season at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, but the reunion of the two men was poisoned by a quarrel over money. (Romola had decided that Diaghilev owed Nijinsky several years’ worth of unpaid salary. At her behest, Nijinsky had sued Diaghilev in 1914.) When that first American season was over, Otto Kahn, the chairman of the Metropolitan Opera board, engaged the Ballets Russes for a second New York season, to be followed by a cross-country tour (1916-1917), and he unwisely decided that the company should be directed during this period by Nijinsky, not Diaghilev. What followed was probably the most chaotic and demoralized tour the Ballet Russes ever undertook. A four-month journey, stopping in fifty-two cities, with over a hundred dancers and musicians: it was a huge administrative assignment, and Nijinsky had no administrative skills.

By this time, furthermore, he had come under the influence of two members of the company, Dmitri Kostrovsky and Nicholas Zverev, who were followers of the religious philosophy of Leo Tolstoy. Night after night he would remain shut up in his train compartment with these two moujiks, as Romola called them, while Kostrovsky, with shining eyes, called him to the faith. Born a Roman Catholic, Nijinsky had long had a religious turn of mind—Romola records that as a teenager he had dreamed of being a monk—and he had been studying Tolstoy for years. Now he embraced Tolstoy’s teachings with a whole heart. He became a vegetarian; he preached nonviolence; he tried to practice “marital chastity.” He took to wearing peasant shirts and told Romola that he wanted to give up dancing and return to Russia, to plow the land—an announcement that prompted her to abandon him for the last leg of the tour. He tried to run the company in accordance with his new beliefs. For example, he began to practice democratic casting, giving lesser-known dancers leading roles, including his own roles, often without announcing the cast changes to the public.

After this dreadful tour, on which the Metropolitan Opera lost a quarter of a million dollars, Nijinsky performed with the Ballets Russes for a few months more, in Spain and South America, in 1917. By now he was caught up not only in the quarrel between Romola and himself over his Tolstoyanism but also in a struggle between Romola and Diaghilev over what she saw as Diaghilev’s plot to destroy Nijinsky. When the dancer stepped on a rusty nail, when a weight fell from a pulley backstage, these events were not regarded as accidents. In September, the Montevideo newspaper El Día printed what seems to have been Nijinsky’s last interview. “After I left school,” he was quoted as saying, “webs of intrigue were woven around me; people who had no other reason than envy for their hostilities began to appear.”9 Since Romola often distributed typed “interviews” with Nijinsky to journalists, these may be her words rather than his.

On September 30, 1917, after the end of the Ballets Russes’ South American tour, Nijinsky performed with Arthur Rubinstein at a Red Cross benefit in Montevideo. According to Rubinstein’s memoirs, Nijinsky, who was to have been second on the program, delayed and delayed his appearance, while the management threw on hastily assembled acts—the municipal band playing national anthems, a local intellectual declaiming an essay on dance to give him time. Finally, after midnight, Nijinsky came onstage, looking, says Rubinstein, “even sadder than when he danced the death of Petrushka,”10 and performed some steps to Chopin. Rubinstein burst into tears. This was Nijinsky’s last public performance. He was twenty-eight. He then moved with his family to St. Moritz.

According to Romola’s biography Nijinsky, all went well during their first year in Switzerland. Nijinsky, she says, did his exercises every day on the balcony of their house, Villa Guardamunt, just up the hill from the village of St. Moritz. He plotted new ballets, made drawings, and worked on his notation system. Then, around January of 1919, he began to fall apart. He took to closeting himself in his studio all night long, producing drawing after drawing, at furious speed. The drawings were mostly of eyes, Romola reports: “eyes peering from every corner, red and black.” When she asked him what they represented, he replied that they were soldiers’ faces. “It is the war,”11 he said. When he and Romola took walks together, he would stop and fall silent for long periods, refusing to answer her questions. One day he went down to St. Moritz with a large gold cross over his necktie and stopped people on the street, telling them to go to church. He also had spells of violence. He drove his sleigh into oncoming traffic. He threw Romola (holding Kyra) down a flight of stairs.

  1. 5

    Dancing for Diaghilev: The Memoirs of Lydia Sokolova, edited by Richard Buckle (London: John Murray, 1960), p. 38.

  2. 6

    Nijinska, Early Memoirs, p. 475.

  3. 7

    Misia Sert, Two or Three Muses (London: Museum Press, 1953), p. 120.

  4. 8

    Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Memories and Commentaries (1960; University of California Press, 1981), pp. 38-39. Quoted in Peter Ostwald, Vaslav Nijinsky: A Leap into Madness (Lyle Stuart/Carol, 1991), pp. 102-103.

  5. 9

    Nijinski,” El Día, September 13, 1913, p. 8.

  6. 10

    Arthur Rubinstein, My Many Years (Knopf, 1980), p. 16.

  7. 11

    Romola Nijinsky, Nijinsky (1934; Pocket Books, 1972), p. 353.

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