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234th Season

Vaslav Nijinsky


Vaslav Fomich Nijinsky (March 12, 1890 – April 8, 1950) was a Polish-born Russian ballet dancer and choreographer. Nijinsky was one of the most gifted male dancers in history, and 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 Russified Polish dancer‘s 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 Pavel 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 “Le Pavillon d‘Armide” (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 “Carnaval (Ballet)" and “Scheherazade” (based on the orchestral suite by Rimsky-Korsakov). His partnership with Tamara Karsavina, also of the Mariinsky Theatre, was legendary.

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 Petrouchka, which became the role he identified himself with throughout his life.

With Diaghilev‘s support, Nijinsky began to work as a choreographer himself, influenced by Dalcroze‘s eurhythmics, producing three ballets, L‘apres-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 Theatre de Champs-Elysees when Le Sacre du Printemps was premiered in Paris. As the title character in L‘apres-midi d‘un faune he enacted masturbation with the nymph‘s scarf (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 entered a relationship with Romola de Pulszky (Pulszky Romola), a Hungarian countess. Based on his sister Bronislava Nijinska‘s memoirs, it is generally acknowledged that Romola went out of her way to trap Nijinsky into marriage. An ardent fan of Nijinsky, she took up ballet and used her family connections to get close to him. Despite her efforts to attract him, Nijinsky appeared unconscious of her presence. Finally Romola booked passage on board a ship that Nijinsky was due to travel on, and had a friend set them up. Numerous speculations as to the true reason for their marriage have arisen, the most popular being that Nijinsky saw Romola‘s title and supposed wealth as a means to escape Diaghilev‘s repression. Romola has often been vilified as the woman who forced Nijinsky to abandon his artistry for cabaret fare, her pragmatic and plebeian ways often jarring with his sensitive nature. This contributed largely to his decline into madness. In his diary, Nijinsky famously said of Romola "My wife is an untwinkling star ..." 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 died in a London clinic on April 8, 1950 and was buried in London until 1953 when his body was moved to Cimetiere de Montmartre, Paris, France beside the graves of Gaetano Vestris, Theophile Gautier, and Emma Livry.

Nijinsky‘s famous Diary was written in the six weeks he spent in Switzerland before being committed to the asylum. It is actually part memoir, part diary, and part manifesto. It contains appeals for compassion toward the less fortunate, and for vegetarianism and animal rights. Nijinsky writes of the importance of feeling as opposed to reliance on reason and logic alone, and he denounces the practice of art criticism as being nothing more than a way for those who practice it to indulge their own egoes rather than focusing on what the artist was trying to say. The diary also contains a bitter expose of Nijinsky‘s long-term relationship with Diaghilev.


Mariinsky Theatre:
1 Theatre Square
St. Petersburg
Mariinsky-2 (New Theatre):
34 Dekabristov Street
St. Petersburg
Mariinsky Concert Hall:
20 Pisareva street
St. Petersburg

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