One hundred years ago ballet entered a new age. As a lead performer with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the 5'4", 19-year-old Russian artist Vaslav Nijinsky (circa 1890–1950) reversed male dancing’s second-class status, inspired choreographers to make work reflecting the human spirit and created four ballets that upended the notion that dance had to be beautiful.
Along with Diaghilev, choreographer Michel Fokine and composer Igor Stravinsky, Nijinsky helped transform ballet from a courtly entertainment into a modernist art movement injected with social commentary that explored primitive or folk art as a basis for psychological truth. The impact of his artistry will never be forgotten. But as ballet underwent marvelous and radical changes, Nijinsky, the “exotic, elfin, feline” and “god of dance,” suffered.
Born in Kiev to Polish ballet dancers who performed on the Russian equivalent of the Vaudeville circuit, Nijinsky began studying dance with his parents around age 7 and made his professional debut in a traveling circus. A year later, his father abandoned the family. His mother then moved her three children to St. Petersburg, with the intention of enrolling Nijinksy and his sister Bronislava in the Imperial Theatre School. (No better place to study and perform ballet existed.) One of 15 boys accepted into the school, Nijinsky immediately made an impression. “The little devil never comes down with the music!” said one teacher about the virtuoso pupil’s astounding ballon.
Following his 10-year education, Nijinsky joined the Imperial Theatre as a coryphé, skipping the corps de ballet entry-level position. He immediately began partnering the Imperial’s leading ballerinas, performing important classical roles and collaborating with Fokine, who (to the consternation of the conservative Imperial Theatre administration) was pushing the boundaries of ballet choreography. In 1907, Fokine boldly featured Nijinsky in the only male role of his Chopiniana. This decision irritated the Imperial’s hierarchically organized dancers. Nonetheless, the critics and the management took note that Fokine’s choice of Nijinsky to play the romantic Poet was perfect—he moved with a lush, otherworldly quality.
Nijinsky’s life path radically changed course when he met Diaghilev, the relentlessly energetic and innovative founder of the Ballets Russes. In their first meeting in 1908, Nijinsky agreed to become one of Diaghilev’s featured performers for the impresario’s fledgling company. Following the Ballets Russes’ first two summer seasons abroad, critics remarked on Nijinsky’s uncanny ability to collapse boundaries between acting and dancing. Fans stole his underwear from his dressing room. And Diaghilev decided that he wanted to have a full-time touring company. The only thing that stood in the way was the Imperial Theatre, which required Nijinsky, his sister Bronislava and other key dancers to perform in St. Petersburg. But Diaghilev got his wish three months before the Ballets Russes embarked on its first full-length tour. After Nijinksy appeared onstage wearing only tights and a short tunic as Albrecht in Giselle, the Imperial Theatre immediately fired him for public indecency. With no home company and no pension, he became entirely dependent on Diaghilev.
While Diaghilev changed the path of Nijinsky’s life, it was Fokine, the Ballets Russes’ first choreographer, who provided Nijinsky with roles that drove home his virtuoso dancing and nurtured his chameleon-like charisma: the Golden Slave in Scheherazade (1910), the nameless clown in Petrouchka (1911) and the Rose in Le Spectre de la Rose (1911). Nijinsky’s dancing wowed audiences as it evoked vastly different emotional landscapes—the enslaved sexual dynamo, the abused clown and the incarnation of a rose. Following these experiences, the dancer made his first work for the Ballets Russes, Afternoon of a Faun in 1912. With this ballet, Nijinsky took Fokine’s erotically charged theme to an even greater level, creating a scandal when he as the Faun climaxed on top of a nymph’s scarf during the ballet’s final moment.
His sister Bronislava Nijinska, who also became a boundary-breaking choreographer, described in her memoirs the creation of what is now considered Nijinsky’s masterpiece, Le Sacre du Printemps (or The Rite of Spring, 1913). Choreographed to Stravinsky’s eponymous score, Sacre involves a prehistoric Slavic tribe’s ritual of dancing one of its maidens to death. During the first rehearsals, the dancers were asked to count Stravinsky’s score, which changes meter with almost every measure. They became so frustrated that they threatened to quit. They also resented Nijinsky’s demand that they walk and jump in a pigeon-toed position, completely contradicting ballet’s outward technique. Most critics at that time reviewed Sacre as visually hideous and thematically brutal and called it an assault on the ears. Nijinsky’s Sacre still exists today, but only through a reinterpretation made by dance reconstructionist Millicent Hodson. The work remains the first and only ballet that caused an audience to riot.
Following this artistic failure, Nijinsky left Europe for the company’s South American tour, during which he met Romola de Pulszky, an upper-class socialite and Ballets Russes enthusiast. Three weeks later, the pair decided to marry, despite sharing no language in common. When Diaghilev was informed of the shotgun wedding of his star dancer and lover, he fired Nijinsky. Without an outlet to continue his experimental choreography, Nijinsky experienced increasing levels of anxiety. At 28 years old, Nijinsky performed before a paying audience for the last time.
During the next three decades, he lived with chronic schizophrenia, moving in and out of sanatoriums until his death from liver cancer in 1950. The loss of Nijinsky to mental illness is one of dance history’s greatest tragedies. And today, all that visually remains of this revolutionary artist’s performance quality are mesmerizing photographs that speak to something ineffable and universal. DT
Bronislava Nijinska: Early Memoirs, translated and edited by Irina Nijinska and Jean Rawlinson, Duke University Press, 1992
Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, by Lynn Garafola, Oxford University Press, 1989
Looking at the Dance, by Edwin Denby, “Notes on Nijinsky Photographs,” Horizon Press, 1968
Nijinsky, by Richard Buckle, Phoenix Giant, 1998
Nijinsky Dancing, by Lincoln Kirstein, Alfred A. Knopf, 1975
The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, by Vaslav Nijinsky, translated by Kyril FitzLyon and edited by Joan Acocella, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1998
Vaslav Nijinsky: A Leap into Madness, by Peter Ostwald, Carol Publishing Group, 1991
Nijinsky, Paramount Pictures Corp., 1980
Nureyev and the Joffrey Ballet in tribute to Nijinsky, Nonesuch/WarnerVision Entertainment, 1998
Paris Dances Diaghilev, Elektra Nonesuch/Dance Collection, 1992
Freelance writer Rachel Straus is working on a PhD in dance history.
Photo by John Lindquist, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives