top of page

Spotlight: Vaslav Nijinsky

Today's Spotlight Saturday focuses on one of the greatest male dancers of the twentieth century: Russian dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky.

In costume for 'Le Spectre de la Rose'

Nijinsky was born in either 1889 or 1890 (the sources disagree), in Kiev, Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire. He was christened Waclaw Nizynski in Warsaw. His parents were Polish, and were dancers with the travelling Setov opera company. Nijinsky's mother Eleonora was a soloist, and his father Thomas as premier danseur (principal artist). He had two siblings, elder brother Stanislav, and younger sister Bronislava ('Bronia'), who would become a renowned dancer and choreographer in her own right.

Statue of Nijinsky and his sister Bronislava Nijinska, by Giennadij Jerszow

In 1897, Nijinsky's parents split, and his mother Eleonora took the children to live in St. Petersburg. Nijinsky was accepted into the Imperial Ballet School in 1900, thanks to the recommendation of famed teacher Enrico Cecchetti. Bronia was admitted two years after her brother, and the two became extremely close.

Nijinsky studied dance under the brothers Nicholas and Sergei Legat, and mime under Pavel Gerdt. All three were famous principals with the Imperial Ballet. Nijinsky excelled in dance classes, but was not so good in the academic classes. In 1902, he was told that only his outstanding dancing ability was allowing him to remain at the school. His poor grades were worsened by constant rehearsals and performances in ballets for which he was chosen as an extra; a supporting role in Faust, a mouse in The Nutcracker, and a page in both The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake.

Nijinsky in 1907

Nijinsky was teased for his Polish descent and envied by some of his classmates for his dancing ability. In 1901, one of them deliberately caused him to fall, resulting in a concussion and a four-day coma. But he recovered quickly, and his abilities were not damaged; in 1902, his new teacher Mikhail Oboukhov awarded him the highest grade he had ever given a student. He danced roles in the ballets Paquita, The Nutcracker, and The Little Horse, all in front of the Tsar.

In 1904, he was chosen by Marius Petipa for a principal role in the choreographer's last ballet, La Romance d'un Bouton de rose et d'un Papillon. The ballet never premiered, interrupted by the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War. On 9 January, 1905, Nijinsky was caught up in the Bloody Sunday massacre in St. Petersburg. When a group of people attempted to submit a petition to the Tsar under the direction of Father Grapon, the Cossack soldiers fire upon and charged the crowd, resulting in an estimated one thousand deaths. Nijinsky was hit on the head by a Cossack, and one of his friends lost a sister, who was never found.

In costume for 'Le Pavillon d'Armide'

The 1905 student show included a pas de deux from The Persian Market, in which Nijinsky partnered Sofia Fedorova. His teacher adapted the piece to showcase his talent, drawing spontaneous applause from the crowd mid-way through Nijinsky's first jump. He then danced in the opera Don Giovanni in 1906, in a ballet sequence choreographed by Michel Fokine. He was offered a place with the company, but chose to complete his studies. At his graduation performance in 1907, for which he partnered Elizaveta Gerdt in a pas de deux choreographed by Fokine, he was congratulated by prima ballerina Mathilde Kschessinskaya and invited to partner her.

In costume for 'Le Festin', 1909

With his sister Bronia also employed by the company, Nijinsky began at the Imperial Ballet as a coryphee rather than a corps de ballet member. He partnered ballerina Sedova, Lydia Kyasht, and Karsavina, and partnered Kschessinskaya for the ballet La Fille Mal Gardee. He then had a minor role in le Pavillon d'Armide, but soon upstaged himself in the Bluebird Pas de Deux for The Sleeping Beauty, in which he partnered Lydia Kyasht. The audience gave spontaneous applause on his appearing to fly. In 1910, Kschessinskaya chose him for a principal role in her revival of Petipa's Le Talisman, and he caused a sensation as Vayou, god of the wind.

In costume as Vayou for 'Le Talisman', 1910

Nijinsky then met Sergei Diaghilev, just as the latter was about to launch his company under a new name - the Ballets Russes. Nijinsky joined the newly christened company as a lead dancer, and he and Diaghilev were briefly lovers. Diaghilev was to prove extremely influential in mapping Nijinsky's career. For his 1909 Paris tour, Diaghilev selected three ballets: Le Pavillon d'Armide, Les Sylphides (an expanded version of the already existing Chopiniana, also by Fokine), and a new ballet, Cleopatre, an expanded version of the already existing Une Nuit d'Egypte. A fourth ballet was needed to round out the programme, but there was insufficient time to choreograph one from scratch; instead, they grouped together a series of popular dances now called Le Festin. This would star Pavlova, Karsavina, and Nijinsky.

In costume for 'Scheherazade'

The season was extremely popular in Paris, setting trends in dance and art for at least the next decade. Nijinsky himself was a great success, stunning crowds with his unique talent. In the 1910 season, he danced in Giselle and the Fokine ballets Carnaval and Scheherazade. He was also extremely popular in the role of Petrushka, from the ballet of the same name. It was also during this season that he began his legendary partnership with ballerina Tamara Karsavina.

Members of the Ballets Russes, 1911 - Nijinsky fourth from left, with Tamara Karsavina on his left

During later seasons, Nijinsky began to try his hand at choreography. His ballets were difficult, modern, and extremely different. His first works were Afternoon of a Faun (1912), Jeux (1913), and Till Eulenspiegel (1916). When they premiered in Paris, his ballets nearly caused a riot outside the theatre. His most famous work, The Rite of Spring, was choreographed in 1913 to the modern music of Igor Stravinsky. His angular, radical movements, together with the ballet's theme - of a young maiden who sacrifices herself to the gods by dancing to death - caused actual violence in the audience when it premiered. Diaghilev, far from being warned off, was extremely pleased at the notoriety the ballet brought.

The original production of 'The Rite of Spring'

Even so, when the company began to feel pressure from theatre managers who wanted a more well-known, sedate programme, Diaghilev returned to Fokine for new work. Nijinsky's early work had been difficult to rehearse and badly received, especially by the critics. Nijinsky was told that he would no longer be choreographing the new ballet La Legende de Joseph. Instead, the ballet, based on the Bible, would be completed by Fokine. In 1913, the company went on a tour to South America. Bronia was unable to join them due to pregnancy, and Diaghilev had decided not to join his dancers, leaving Nijinsky without his closest advisors.

Nijinsky with his wife Romola

The tour party included Romola de Pulszky, the daughter of a Hungarian count. Romola had been following the Ballets Russes across Europe, and had befriended company member Adolf Bolm. Romola and Nijinsky shared no common language, and to begin with spoke through an interpreter. When Nijinsky was first introduced to her, he got the impression she was a Hungarian prima ballerina. Upon discovering his mistake, he ignored her until Diaghilev allowed her to take class with the company, under Cecchetti, their ballet master. She was warned off pursuing Nijinsky by Cecchetti, Bolm, and dancer Marie Rambert, due to Nijinsky's homosexuality.

Despite this, Nijinsky still eventually proposed marriage to Romola, who accepted. They were married in Argentina on 10 September 1913. The marriage alienated Diaghilev, who was still in Europe, and Nijinsky appears to have regretted his rash decision not long after the wedding. When the company returned to Europe, Diaghilev refused to meet with Nijinsky, instead informing him by telegram that he was no longer employed by the Ballets Russes. He was replaced by Fokine and the young Leonide Massine.

Nijinsky and Romola on their wedding day in Argentina

The Ballets Russes was the only forward-thinking company at that time, something Nijinsky desperately needed in order to be able to choreograph his works. He debated over a contract with the Paris Opera Ballet, eventually deciding to start his own company. The company had only three experienced dancers - Bronia, her husband, and Nijinsky himself - and had late scenery and little time to rehearse. Fokine refused to allow them to perform his ballets. Under extreme stress, opening night in March 1914 was something of a flop. By the third week, in which Nijinsky did not dance with the excuse that he was ill, the theatre manager had had enough, and the show was cancelled.

As Romola was now pregnant, she and Nijinsky went to Austro-Hungary, where their daughter Kyra was born on 19 June 1914. They were still there when the First World War broke out, and Nijinsky, being Russian, was confined under house arrest as a citizen of the enemy. Meanwhile, Fokine had returned to Russia, so Diaghilev began to negotiate for Nijinsky's return to the company. Despite the intercessions of King Alfonso XIII of Spain, Queen Alexandra of Denmark, Dowager Empress of Russia Maria Feodorovna, Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria and Pope Benedict XV, this was not achieved until 1916. Even then, it involved a complicated prisoner exchange with the United States (where the Ballets Russes was now based).

Nijinsky with his daughter Kyra, 1916

By the time Nijinsky arrived in New York on 4 April 1916, the Ballets Russes tour had already encountered a number of problems. Afternoon of a Faun was considered to explicit for American audiences, and Scheherazade did not appeal to them. Romola demanded that Nijinsky be reimbursed for the years he had not danced with the company before appearing on the stage. This was agreed to, and the tour became more successful with the introduction of Nijinsky. Otto Kahn, of the New York Metropolitan Opera, agreed to a second tour during autumn, but insisted that Nijinsky should replace Diaghilev as manager.

In costume for 'Petrushka', 1911

Diaghilev returned to Europe with Massine, leaving Nijinsky in charge of a company of 100. He began rehearshing Till Eulenspiegel, but it did not go well; he was unable to communicate what he wanted the dancers to do, and would frequently explode into rages. In addition, he had twisted his ankle, and so did not take part in the performances for the first week. The first performance of Till Eulenspiegel had to be improvised, but it still received good reviews. The tour received a reasonable amount of acclaim, though the company lost money due to Nijinsky's haphazard managing. His last public performance was on 30 September 1917, during a South American tour. He was 28, dancing to the accompaniment of pianist Arthur Rubinstein at a benefit for the Red Cross.

In costume for 'Afternoon of a Faun'

By this time, his schizophrenia had become obvious to other members of the company. He and Romola retired to Switzerland in an attempt to recover from the stress of the tour, but failed to do so. Romola, with the help of her parents, took him to the psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler in late 1919, who officially diagnosed him and committed him to Burgholzli, a psychiatric hospital. He was soon moved to the Bellevue Sanatorium, and was still there when his daughter Tamara was born in 1920.

He spent the next thirty years in and out of asylums. After the end of the Second World War in 1945, while living in Vienna, Nijinsky encountered a group of Russian soldiers playing folk tunes. Inspired by the music, he astounded the men by beginning to dance. This encounter helped him to speak again; he had taken to keeping absolutely silent for long periods of time.

In costume during the 1909 Paris tour

In 1947, he moved to England with Romola. He died of kidney failure in London on 8 April, 1950. He was 61. Though originally buried in England, his body was later moved to Paris where he was buried alongside French dancers and poets, including Emma Livry and Theophile Gautier.

Nijinsky was invaluable in the creation of modern dance, propelling ballet forward and acting as a precursor to Leonide Massine and George Balanchine, among others. His long struggle with his illness contributed to the depth and beauty of his dance. Unfortunately, no video footage of Nijinsky exists, as Diaghilev refused to allow his dancers to be filmed. Even so, he was indisputably one of the greatest dancers of the twentieth century.

Nijinsky's tombstone, Montmartre Cemetery, Paris - the statue was donated by dancer Serge Lifar and depicts Nijinsky in character as Petrushka

Thanks for reading! Next week the Spotlight will be on Frederic Franklin.

- Selene

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
bottom of page