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.


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…

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