N. Rimsky-Korsakov, “Vaslav Nijinsky in the Ballet Scheherazade”, 1910, Private Collection
Born Waclaw Niżyński on March 12, 1889, in Kiev to Polish parents, both touring dancers, Vaslav Nijinsky was a ballet dancer and choreographer, considered the greatest male dancer of the early 1900s. Praised for his virtuosity and intensity of the characters he portrayed, Nijinsky possessed the ability to dance ‘en pointe’, on his toes with feet fully extended, a rarity among male dancers at the time.
In 1909, Nijinsky joined the Ballets Russes, a new ballet company started by ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who concentrated on promoting Russian arts abroad, particularly in Paris. Diaghilev became deeply involved in directing and managing Nijinsky’s career, eventually becoming Nijinsky’s lover for a time. Despite complications in both reworking existing ballets and financial issues, the 1909 Paris season of colorful Russian operas and ballets was a success, with Nijinsky displaying his unique talents and the performances setting new trends in dance, music and fashion.
Breaking against tradition, Nijinsky began choreographing in 1912 original ballets with new trends in music and dance, sometimes causing riotous reactions at the Théâtre de Champs-Élysées. His “Afternoon of the Faun”, set to music by Debussy, is onsidered one of the first modern ballets; though, the ballet’s sexually suggestive final scene caused controversy among its Parisian viewers. His ballet “Rite of Spring”, set to music by Stravinsky, which exceeded the limits of traditional ballet, music scores, and propriety, resulted in violence among the audience at the premier.
In September of 1913, while on tour with the Ballets Russes in South America, Nijinsky married Hungarian aristocrat and actress Romola de Pulszky, despite warnings to both parties by friends. They toured together with the troupe for the season, living in seperate rooms. Nijinsky realized he had made a mistake with the marriage; but the marriage was never legally ended. After the tour was ended, Nijinsky and troupe traveled back to Paris.
Relations, both work and personal, between Diaghilev and Nijinsky had been deteriorating for some time. Upon his return from the South American tour, Nijinsky was notified by an assistant to Diaghilev that he would no longer be employed by the Ballets Russes and also learned that none of his original ballets would be performed by the group. This was particularly devastating as the Ballets Russes was the pre-eminent ballet company and the only innovative modern-thinking one. An attempt was made by Nijinsky to form his own dance company, but he did not succeed.
Classified a Russian citizen and no longer with a military exemption from service, Nijinsky was interned in Budapest during World War I, under house arrest until his release was arranged in 1916. The complex arrangements for this included the agreement that Nijinsky would dance and choreograph for the North and South America tour of the Ballets Russes. The tour proved very stressful to Nijinsky, already in an unsteady position, resulting in anxiety and bouts of rage and frustration. His last performance was in Montevideo, Uruguay, for the Red Cross on September 30, 1917 at age twenty-eight. It was at this time that signs of Nijinsky’s existing schizophrenia became apparent to members of the company.
In 1919 in Zurich, Nijinsky was diagnosed with schizophrenia and committed to Burghölzli, the leading psychiatric hospital in Switzerland. For the next 30 years, Nijinsky was in and out of hospitals and asylums, maintaining long periods of silence during his years of illness. From 1947 Nijinsky lived in Surrey, England, with his wife Romola who tended to his care. He died from kidney failure at a London clinic on April 8, 1950, and was buried in London, his body later being moved in 1953 to Montmartre Cemetery in Paris.
Nijinsky wrote his “Diary”, reflecting the decline of his household into chaos, during the six weeks in 1919 he spent in Switzerland before being committed to the asylum to Zurich. Discovering years later the three notebooks of the diary plus another with letters to a variety of people, his wife Romola published a bowdlerized version of the diary in 1936, translated into English by Jennifer Mattingly. She deleted about forty per cent of the diary, especially references to bodily functions, sex, and homosexuality, recasting Nijinsky as an “involuntary homosexual.” Romola also removed some of his more unflattering references to her and others close to their household. The first unexpurgated edition of “The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky” was published in 1995, edited by New Yorker dance critic Joan Acocella and translated by Kyril Fitz Lyon.
Nijinsky is immortalized in numerous still photographs, many of them by British portrait photogaper E. O. Hoppe, who photographed the Ballets Russes seasons in London extensively between 1909 and 1921. No film exists of Nijinsky dancing; Diaghilev never allowed the Ballets Russes to be filmed because he felt that the quality of film at the time could never capture the artistry of his dancers.