Fomich Nijinsky |Polish language: Waclaw Nizynski) (March 12, 1890 –
April 8, 1950) was a Polish-born Russian ballet dancer and choreographer.
Thought to be among the great male dancers in history, he became celebrated
for his virtuosity and for the depth and intensity of his characterizations.
He could perform en pointe, a rare skill among male dancers at the time
(Albright, 2004) and his ability to perform seemingly gravity-defying
leaps was also legendary.
He was born in Kiev to a a Russified Polish dancers' family; despite
poor language knowledge, he regarded himself as a Pole. In 1900 he joined
the Imperial Ballet School, where he studied under Enrico Cecchetti,
Nicholas Legat, and Paul Gerdt. At 18 years old he had leading roles
in the Mariinsky Theatre.
A turning point for Nijinsky was his meeting with Sergei Diaghilev,
a member of the St Petersburg elite and wealthy patron of the arts,
promoting Russian visual and musical art abroad, particularly in Paris.
Nijinsky and Diaghilev became lovers, and Diaghilev became heavily involved
in directing Nijinsky's career. In 1909 Diaghilev took a company to
Paris, with Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova as the leads. The show was a great
success and increased the reputation of both the leads and Diaghilev
throughout the artistic circles of Europe. Diaghilev created Les Ballets
Russes in its wake, and with choreographer Michel Fokine, made it one
of the most well-known companies of the time.
Nijinsky's talent showed in Fokine's pieces such as “Pavilion
Armidy” (music by Nikolai Tcherepnin), “Cleopatra”
(music by Anton Arensky and other Russian composers) and a divertissement
“The Feast”. His execution of a pas de deux from the “Sleeping
Beauty” (Tchaikovsky) was a tremendous success; in 1910 he shone
in “Giselle”, and Fokine’s ballets “The Carnival”
and “Scheherazade” (based on the orchestral suite by Rimsky-Korsakov).
Then Nijinsky went back to the Mariinsky Theatre, but was soon dismissed
as a result of scandal and became a regular member of Diaghilev’s
troupe, whose projects centered around him. He had leading roles in
Fokine's new productions “The Spectre of the Rose” (Weber)
and Igor Stravinsky's “Petrushka”.
With Diaghilev's support, Nijinsky began to work as a choreographer
himself, influenced by Dalcroze's eurhythmics, producing three ballets,
L'après-midi d'un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun, with music
by Claude Debussy) (1912), Jeux (1913), Till Eulenspiegel (1916) and
Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring, with music by Igor Stravinsky
(1913). Nijinsky created revolutionary movements in his shows, moving
away from the traditional flowing movements of mainstream ballet. His
radical angular movements combined with heavy sexual overtones caused
a riot in the Théâtre de Champs-Elysées when Le
Sacre du Printemps was premiered in Paris. He had "masturbated"
with the faun's scarf in The Afternoon of the Faun (Albright, 2004).
In 1913 the Ballets Russes toured South America, and because of his
fear of ocean voyages Diaghilev did not accompany them. Without his
mentor's supervision Nijinsky fell in love with Romola de Pulszky (Pulszky
Romola), a Hungarian ballerina. They were married in Buenos Aires: when
the company returned to Europe, Diaghilev, in a jealous rage, fired
them both. Nijinsky tried to create his own troupe, but its crucial
London engagement failed due to administrative problems.
During World War I Nijinsky, a Russian citizen, was interned in Hungary.
Diaghilev succeeded in getting him out for a North American tour in
1916, during which he choreographed and danced the leading role in Till
Eulenspiegel. Signs of his dementia praecox were becoming apparent to
members of the company. He became afraid of other dancers and that a
trap door would be left open.
Nijinsky had a nervous breakdown in 1919 and his career effectively
ended. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and taken to Switzerland
by his wife where he was treated by psychiatrist Eugene Bleuler. He
spent the rest of his life in and out of psychiatric hospitals and asylums.
He also wrote a two-part diary then. He died in a London clinic on April
8, 1950 and was buried in London until 1953 when his body was moved
to Cimetière de Montmartre, Paris, France beside the graves of
Gaetano Vestris, Theophile Gautier, and Emma Livry.
He is mentioned in Groucho Marx's song Lydia the Tattooed Lady and W.H.
Auden's poem "September 1, 1939". Presumably, the famous race
horse, Nijinsky II, was named after him.
In 2001, his diaries were adapted into a film by Paul Cox. The screenplay
was written directly from the diaries by Cox and then read over related
imagery. The subject matter included his work, his sickness, and his
relationships with Diaghilev as well as his wife.
was born in Kiev, probably in 1889. His parents were Polish dancers
who traveled around the Polish and Russian empires. He, and later his
sister Bronislava, entered the Imperial Theatrical School in St. Petersburg
for training in ballet. His ability was recognized quickly and he joined
the Imperial Ballet at the Maryinsky Theatre on graduation.
Diaghilev was a prominent member of St. Petersburg’s intellectual
and artistic life, dedicated to presenting Russian creativity to Western
Europe. He had curated a successful exhibition of Russian art in 1906
and presented concert music and opera in 1907 and 1908 seasons in Paris.
In 1909, he brought a company from the Imperial Ballets to Paris, led
by Nijinsky with Anna Pavlova. Their dancing, designs by Russian artists,
and the new repertory won enormous acclaim and established Diaghilev
and Nijinsky, an openly gay couple, as the centers of the Western Europe’s
artistic elite. Pavlova left to pursue her own touring career, but the
creative core of the Ballets Russes remained with Diaghilev in Paris.
spent the final six weeks before his permanent consignment to an insane
asylum as something a madman in the attic. With his family--wife, young
daughters and occasionally, mother-in-law--and household staff downstairs,
the legendary dancer retreated to his room in a remote Swiss villa to
tangle with his burgeoning psychosis. Fearful that his wife would (as
she ultimately did) commit him, and highly suspicious of the physician-cum-amateur
psychiatrist who daily came by to examine him, Nijinsky perceived the
diary as the only safe haven for the rambling thoughts that were overtaking
him. Throughout, the anxiety and anguish are palpable, as Nijinsky writes
about his disillusionment with his mentor and lover, Ballets Russes
director Serge Diaghilev; his alienation from and distrust of his closest
family members; and his fear of insanity and its consequential confinement.
His writing becomes more obscure as the weeks progress and he examines
his relationship to God, writing "I am God" at one point,
and later: "God said to me, 'Go home and tell your wife that you
are mad.'" As his schizophrenia evolves, the pace and style of
Nijinsky's prose changes radically--toward the end he writes in abstract
verse--but he remains, with a dancer's sensibility, attuned to the cadences
of his environment. The noises of the household, the ringing of the
phone, footsteps down the hall, smatterings of conversations overheard
are all registered as a sort of accompaniment to his dance with madness
and function perhaps as a final tether to reality.
Nijinsky's wife stumbled upon the diary in a locked trunk some years
after her husband disappeared into the abyss of madness and soon released
it for publication to feed public interest in her famous mate--but not
before she sanitized the manuscript to such a degree (removing references
to his homosexuality, overblown ego, bizarre paranoia, and various obsessions
with bodily functions and sex acts) that its essence was obscured. Now
80 years after it was written, 20 years after its renegade editor died,
and six years after the copyright that Nijinsky's daughters held expired,
the unexpurgated version of the diaries faithfully restores the fascinating
record of a great artist's struggle for his life.
One of this century's finest male dancers, Nijinsky might have become
known as the greatest ballet choreographer of the modern era had his
career not ended so early. Nijinsky danced professionally for only 10
years (1907-1917), and his reputation as a choreographer was established
by only three ballets, all choreographed for the Ballets Russes between
1912 and 1913. Scandal surrounded his career: under Sergei Diaghilev,
his lover and the impresario behind the Ballets Russes, Nijinsky choreographed
The Afternoon of a Faun, which contained movements suggestive of masturbation;
the premiere of his Rite of Spring, choreographed to Stravinsky's dissonant
score, caused audiences to riot and storm out of the theater. After
severing ties with Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes at age 29, Nijinsky
slid into insanity, and these diaries chronicle six weeks (January 19-March
4, 1919) of this period. The publication of this new translation (initially
published in bowdlerized form in 1936), which for the first time includes
a fourth journal of letters and poems, gives readers a chance to read
an autobiography of a great artist during his psychological decline.
This does not always make for easy reading: Nijinsky's thoughts are
circuitous; he records his experience moment by moment and often breaks
his train of thought to describe an incident in the next room. Although
he is sometimes lucid, he often writes in contradictions and non sequiturs.
Fitzlyon's excellent translation, which provides helpful and nonintrusive
footnotes to explain Nijinsky's many linguistic idiosyncrasies, is complemented
by Acocella's (Mark Morris) illuminating introduction. (Feb.) FYI: Acocella
has just been named as the dance critic of the New Yorker.