Vaslav Nijinsky

Posted: May 13, 2013 in Art, Bio, Culture
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Vaslav Nijinsky  ( March 12, 1889/1890 – April 8, 1950) was a Russian danseur and choreographer of Polish descent, cited as the greatest male dancer of the early 20th century. He grew to be 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 and his ability to perform seemingly gravity-defying leaps was legendary.

Nijinsky was introduced to dance by his parents, who were senior dancers with the travelling Setov opera company and his early childhood was spent touring with the company. Aged 9 he joined the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg, the pre-eminent ballet school in the world. In 1907 he graduated and became a member of the Imperial ballet starting at the rank of coryphée instead of in the corps de ballet, already taking starring roles. The choreographer and dancer Bronislava Nijinska was his sister and worked with him much of his career.

In 1909 he joined the Ballets Russes, a new ballet company started by Sergei Diaghilev which planned to show Russian ballets in Paris, where productions of the quality staged by the Imperial ballet simply did not exist. Nijinsky became the company’s star male dancer, causing an enormous stir amongst audiences whenever he performed, although in ordinary life he appeared unremarkable and even boring to meet. Diaghilev and Nijinsky became lovers, and although Nijinsky had unparalleled ability, it was the publicity and opportunity provided by Diaghilev’s company which made him internationally famous. In 1912 Nijinsky began choreographing his own ballets, including L’après-midi d’un faune (1912), Jeux (1913), and Till Eulenspiegel (1916). At the premier of Le Sacre du Printemps (1913) fights broke out in the audience between those who loved and hated a totally new style of ballet. Faune frequently caused controversy because of its sexually suggestive final scene. Jeux was originally conceived as a flirtatious interaction between three males, although Diaghilev insisted it be danced by one male and two females.

In 1913 Nijinsky married Hungarian Romola de Pulszky while on tour with the company in South America. She had seen the Ballets Russes perform in 1912 and thereafter ‘stalked’ the company and Nijinsky. Nonetheless, no one was more surprised than she was when Nijinsky asked her to marry him, in broken French since neither was fluent in the same language. The marriage caused an immediate break with Diaghilev, who dismissed Nijinsky from the company. With no alternative employer available, he attempted to form his own company but this was not a success. He was interned in Hungary during World War I under house arrest until 1916, finally being allowed to leave after intervention by Diaghilev, who wanted him to perform in an American tour, and supported by calls for his release from many powerful world figures.

Nijinsky became increasingly mentally unstable with the stresses of having to manage tours himself and deprived of opportunities to dance, which had always been his total obsession. After a tour of South America in 1917, and due to travel difficulties imposed by the war, the family settled in Switzerland, where his mental condition continued to deteriorate. The rest of his life was spent suffering from mental illness which incapacitated him beyond the ability to dance again in public.

Biography

Vaslav Nijinsky was born in 1889 or 1890 in Kiev, Russian Empire, as Wacław Niżyński, to ethnic Polish parents, touring dancers Tomasz Niżyński (b. 7 March 1862) and Eleonora Bereda (b. 28 December 1856). Nijinsky was christened in Warsaw and considered himself to be a Pole despite difficulties in properly speaking the language due to his childhood spent in Russia’s interior where his parents worked.

Eleanora, with two brothers and two sisters, was orphaned while still a child and started to earn her living as an extra in Warsaw’s Grand Theatre Ballet (Polish: Teatr Wielki), becoming a full member of the company at age thirteen. In 1868 she was talent spotted and moved to Kiev as a solo dancer. Tomasz also attended the Wielki Theatre school, becoming a soloist there before at age 18 accepting a soloist contract with the Odessa Theatre. The two met, married in May 1884 and settled to a career with the travelling Setov opera company. Tomasz was premier danseur, and Eleanora a soloist. Eleanora continued to tour and dance while having three children, Stanislav Fomitch (b. 29 December 1886 in Tiflis); Vaslav; and Bronislava Fominitchna (‘Bronia’, b. 8 January 1891 in Minsk). Both boys received training from their father and appeared in an amateur production of Hopak in Odessa in 1894.

Josef Setov died about 1894 and the company disbanded. Thomas attempted to run his own company, but this was not a success, so he and his family became itinerant dancers, his children appearing in the Christmas show at Nizhny Novgorod. In 1897 Thomas and Eleanora separated after Thomas had fallen in love with a dancer, Rumiantseva, while touring in Finland. Eleanora moved to 20 Mokhovaya Street in St Petersburg with her children. She persuaded a friend from the Wielki Theatre, Victor Stanislas Gillert, who was at the time teaching at the Imperial Ballet School, to help get Vaslav into the school, and he arranged for Enrico Cecchetti to sponsor the application. Bronia entered the school two years after Vaslav. Their brother became increasingly mentally unstable and was admitted to an asylum for the insane in 1902.

Imperial Ballet School

In 1900 Nijinsky joined the Imperial Ballet School, where he initially studied dance under Sergei Legat and his brother Nicholas, and studied mime under Pavel Gerdt, all principal dancers at the Imperial Russian Ballet. At the end of the one year probationary period, his teachers agreed upon his exceptional dancing ability and he was confirmed as a boarder at the school. He appeared in supporting parts in “Faust”, as a mouse in “The Nutcracker”, a page in “Sleeping Beauty” and “Swan Lake” and won the Didelot scholarship. During his first year, his academic studies had covered work he had already done, so his relatively poor results had not been so much noted. He did well in subjects which interested him, but not otherwise, and was warned in 1902 that only the excellence of his dancing had prevented his expulsion from the school for poor results. This laxity was compounded through his school years by his frequent choice as an extra in various productions, taking him away from classrooms for rehearsals and spending nights at performances. He was teased for being Polish, and with the nickname “Japonczek” for his faintly Japanese looks at a time Russia was at war with Japan. Even his dancing ability raised the resentment of some of his classmates. An incident in 1901 when one of the class deliberately caused him to fall led to his being in a coma for four days.

Mikhail Oboukhov became his teacher in 1902, and awarded him the highest grade he had ever given to a student. He was given student parts in command performances in front of the Czar of Paquita, The Nutcracker and The Little Horse. In music he studied piano, flute, balalaika and accordion, receiving good marks. He had a good ability to hear and then play music on the piano, though his sight reading was relatively poor. Against this, his behaviour was sometimes boisterous and wild, resulting in his expulsion from the school in 1903 for an incident involving students shooting at the hats of passers-by with catapults while being driven to the Mariinsky Theatre in carriages. He was readmitted to the school as a non-resident after a sound beating and restored to his previous position after a month’s probation.

In 1904 at the age of just fourteen, Nijinsky was selected by the great choreographer Marius Petipa to dance a principal role in what proved to be the choreographer’s last ballet, La Romance d’un Bouton de rose et d’un Papillon, but the work was never performed due to the out-break of the Russo-Japanese War.

On Sunday 9 January 1905, Nijinsky became part of the Bloody Sunday massacre in St Petersburg, where a group of petitioners led by Father Grapon attempted to present their petition to the Czar. The crowd was fired upon by soldiers, leading to an estimated 1000 casualties. Nijinsky was caught in the crowd on Nevsky Prospect and propelled towards the Winter Palace. Cossacks charged the crowd, leaving him with a head wound. The following day, he returned to the scene with a friend whose sister was missing. She was never found. Nijinsky became calmer and more serious as he grew older, but continued to make few friends, which continued through his life. His reserve and apparent dullness made him unappealing to others except when he danced.

The 1905 annual student show included a pas de deux from The Persian Market danced by Nijinsky and Anna Fedorova. Oboukhov amended the dance to show off Nijinsky’s abilities, drawing gasps and then spontaneous applause in the middle of the performance with his first jump. In 1906 he was part of the Mariinsky production of Don Giovanni, in a ballet choreographed by Michel Fokine. He was congratulated by the director of the Imperial Ballet and offered a place in the company despite still being more than a year from graduation. Nijinsky chose to continue his studies. He tried his hand at choreography, with a children’s opera, Cinderella, with music by another student, Boris Asafyev. At Christmas he played the King of the Mice in The Nutcracker. At his graduation performance in April 1907, he partnered Elizaveta Gerdt, again choreographed by Fokine. He was congratulated by Prima ballerina Mathilde Kchessinska of the Imperial ballet, who invited him to partner her. His future career with the imperial ballet was guaranteed to begin at the mid-rank level of coryphée, rather than in the corps de ballet. He graduated second in his class, though with top marks in dancing, art and music.

Early career

Nijinsky spent his summer after graduation rehearsing and then performing at Krasnoe Selo in a makeshift theatre with an audience mainly of army officers. These performances frequently included members of the Imperial family and other nobility whose support and interest were essential to a career and each dancer who appeared before the Tsar received a gold watch inscribed with the Imperial Eagle. The family moved to a larger flat on Torgovaya Ulitsa buoyed by Nijinsky’s salary, his new earnings from giving dance classes himself, and his sister too was now employed by the ballet company. The new season at the Mariinsky theatre began in September 1907 with Nijinsky employed as coryphée on a salary of 780 roubles per year.

He appeared with Sedova, Lydia Kyasht and Karsavina. Kchessinska partnered him in La Fille Mal Gardée, where he succeeded in an atypical role for him involving humour and flirtation. Designer Alexandre Benois proposed a ballet based upon Le Pavillion d’Armide choreographed by Fokine to music by Nikolai Tcherepnin. Nijinsky had a minor role, but one which allowed him to show off his technical abilities with leaps and pirouettes. The partnership of Fokine, Benois and Nijinsky was to repeat throughout his career. Shortly after, he upstaged his own performance, appearing in the Bluebird pas de deux from the Sleeping Beauty, partnering Lydia Kyasht. The Mariinsky audience was well familiar with the piece, but exploded with enthusiasm for his performance and his appearing to fly, an effect he continued to have on audiences with the piece during his career.

In subsequent years, Nijinsky was given several soloist roles. In 1910, Mathilde Kschessinska selected Nijinsky to dance in a revival of Petipa’s Le Talisman, during which Nijinsky created a sensation in the role of the Wind God Vayou.

Ballets Russes

A turning point for Nijinsky was his meeting Sergei Diaghilev, a celebrated and highly innovative producer of ballet and opera as well as art exhibitions, a man who concentrated on promoting Russian visual and musical art abroad, particularly in Paris. The 1908 season of colorful Russian ballets and operas, works mostly new to the West, was a great success, leading him to plan a new tour for 1909 with a new name for his company, the now famous Ballets Russes, with choreographer Michel Fokine and designer Léon Bakst. Nijinsky and Diaghilev became lovers for a time, and Diaghilev was heavily involved in directing and managing Nijinsky’s career.

1909 opening season

During the winter of 1908/9, Diaghilev started planning for the 1909 Paris tour of opera and ballet. He gathered together a team including designers Alexandre Benois and Leon Bakst, painters Nicholas Roerich, Alexander Glazunov and Konstantin Korovine, composers Glazunov and Tcherepnin, regisseurs Vsevolod Meyerhold and Alexander Sanine and other ballet enthusiasts. As a friend and as a leading dancer, Nijinsky was part of the group, although his sister recorded that he felt intimidated by the august and aristocratic company. Fokine was asked to start rehearsals for the existing Le Pavillion d’Armide and for Les Sylphides, an expanded version of Fokine’s Chopiniana. Fokine favoured expanding the existing Une Nuit d’Egypte for a further ballet, but although Diaghilev accepted the idea of an Egyptian theme, he required a comprehensive rewrite involving new music, to create a new ballet Cléopâtre. To round out the program, they needed another ballet, but without sufficient time decided on a suite of popular dances collected together, to be called Le Festin. Anna Pavlova, Karsavina and Nijinsky would be principal dancers, Fokine insisted that Ida Rubenstein would appear as Cleopatra and Nijinsky insisted that his sister should have a part. Fokine noted Nijinsky’s great ability at learning a dance and precisely what a choreographer wanted. Diaghilev departed for Paris in early 1909 to make arrangements, which were immediately complicated on the day of his return, 22 February 1909, by the death of Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovitch, who had sponsored an application by Diahgilev for an imperial subsidy of 100,000 roubles for the tour.[19]

Rehearsals started on 2 April at the Hermitage Theatre, which the company had been granted special permission to use along with loans of scenery. No sooner had rehearsals started but the permission was withdrawn, going the same way as the imperial subsidy. Diaghilev managed to raise some money in Russia, but now relied significantly on Gabriel Astruc, who had been arranging theatres and publicity on behalf of the company in France, to also provide finance. Plans to include Opera had to be dropped because of the lack of finance and logistical difficulties in obtaining necessary scenery at short notice and for free.

Diaghilev and Nijinsky travelled to Paris ahead of the rest of the company. Initially Nijinsky stayed at the Hôtel Daunou, but moved to the Hôtel de Hollande together with Diaghilev and his secretary, Alexis Mavrine, before the arrival of the others. Members of the company had noticed Diaghilev keeping a particularly proprietorial eye on Nijinsky during rehearsals in Russia, and the travel arrangements and accommodation were taken as confirmation of a relationship. Prince Lvov had visited Nijinsky’s mother in St Petersburg, telling her tearfully that he would no longer be taking a special interest in her son, but he nonetheless advanced a significant sum to Diaghilev towards the tour’s expenses. Mavrine was known to have been Diaghilev’s lover, but left the tour together with Olga Pedorova shortly after it had begun.

The season of colorful Russian ballets and operas, works mostly new to the West, was a great success. The Paris seasons of the Ballets Russes were an artistic and social sensation; setting trends in art, dance, music and fashion for the next decade. Nijinsky’s unique 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 La Fête. His expressive execution of a pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty (Tchaikovsky) was a tremendous success.

Later seasons

In 1910, he performed in Giselle, and Fokine’s ballets Carnaval and Scheherazade (based on the orchestral suite by Rimsky-Korsakov). His portrayal of “Petrushka” the puppet with a soul, was a remarkable showmanship of his ability to transform into this characters. His partnership with Tamara Karsavina, also of the Mariinsky Theatre, was legendary, and they have been called the “most exemplary artists of the time”.

Ballets choreographed by Nijinsky

Nijinsky took the creative reins and choreographed ballets which pushed boundaries and stirred controversy. His ballets were L’après-midi d’un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun, based on Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune) (1912); Jeux (1913); and Till Eulenspiegel (1916). In The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps), with music by Igor Stravinsky) (1913), Nijinsky created choreography that exceeded the limits of traditional ballet and propriety. For the first time, his audiences were experiencing the futuristic, new direction of modern dance. The radically angular movements expressed the heart of Stravinsky’s radically modern score. Unfortunately, Nijinsky’s new trends in dance caused a riotous reaction at the Théâtre de Champs-Élysées when they premiered in Paris. As the title character in L’après-midi d’un faune, in the final tableau (or scene), he mimed masturbation with the scarf of a nymph, causing a scandal; he was defended by such artists as Auguste Rodin, Odilon Redon and Marcel Proust. Violence broke out in the audience as The Rite of Spring premiered. The theme of the ballet centered around a young maiden who was sacrificing herself by dancing until she died. The theme, the difficult music of Stravinsky combined with the heavy, pedestrian movement of Nijinsky’s choreography, led to a violent uproar, one which didn’t seem displeasing to Diaghilev.

Marriage

Nijinsky’s work in choreographing ballets had proved controversial, badly received by critics and time consuming in rehearsal. He was asked to begin preparing a new ballet, La Légende de Joseph, but aside from the difficulties created by his working methods, Diaghilev came under pressure from financial backers and theatre owners for productions more in the style of previous work. Although Diaghilev himself had become unhappy with Fokine’s work, thinking he had lost his originality, he was now obliged to employ him for two new ballets, including Joseph. Relations between Diaghilev and Nijinsky had deteriorated under the stress of Nijinsky’s becoming principal choreographer and his pivotal role in the company’s financial success. Diaghilev could not face Nijinsky to tell him personally that he would no longer be choreographing the ballet, but instead asked his sister Bronia Nijinska to deliver the bad news. The company was to embark on a tour of South America in August 1913, but Nijinska herself, who had always worked closely with Nijinsky and been a strong support to him, could not accompany the tour because she had married in July 1912 and was now pregnant. In October that year, their father had died while on tour with his dance company. Diaghilev did not accompany the South American tour, claiming the reason was a prediction made to him that he would die on the ocean. Others have suggested the reason had more to do with wanting to spend time away from Nijinsky and enjoy a holiday in Venice, “where perhaps adventures with pretty dark-eyed boys awaited him”.[23] Thus Nijinsky set sail on a 21-day sea voyage in a state of turmoil and without the people who had been his closest advisers in recent years.[24]

The tour party included Romola de Pulszky, whose father Count Charles Pulszky was a Hungarian politician, while his wife, Emilia Márkus was a famous actress. In March 1912 the recently engaged Romola was taken to see the Ballets Russes in Budapest by her prospective mother-in-law and was greatly impressed. Nijinsky had not been performing, but she returned the following day and saw him: “An electric shock passed through the entire audience. Intoxicated, entranced, gasping for breath, we followed this superhuman being… the power, the featherweight lightness, the steel-like strength, the suppleness of his movements..” Romola broke off her engagement and began following the Ballets Russes across Europe, attending every performance she could. Nijinsky was difficult to approach, being always accompanied by a ‘minder’. However, Nijinska befriended Adolf Bolm, who had previously visited her mother, thereby gaining access to the company and backstage. She and Nijinsky shared no common language; she spoke French but he knew only a little, so many of their early conversations involved an interpreter. When first introduced to her, he gained the impression she was a Hungarian prima ballerina and was friendly. Discovering his mistake, he ignored her thereafter.

Romola did not give in. She persuaded Diaghilev that her amorous interests lay with Bolm, that she was rich and interested in supporting ballet. He was persuaded to allow her to have ballet lessons with Enrico Cecchetti, who accompanied the troupe coaching the dancers. Nijinsky objected to her presence with the professionals and Cechetti warned her against becoming involved with Nijinsky (who was “like a sun that pours forth light but never warms”), but Diaghilev’s endorsement meant that Nijinsky paid her some attention. Romola took every opportunity to be near Nijinsky, booking train compartments or cabins close to his, despite probably being warned that he was homosexual by Marie Rambert, who Romola befriended and who was also in love with Nijinsky. As a devout Catholic, she prayed for his conversion to heterosexuality. In later life, Romola was to have lesbian relationships, and it is possible the androgynous nature of much of Nijinsky’s dancing was part of his appeal for her. She referred to him as Le Petit, and wanted to have his child.

On board ship, Romola had a cabin in first class, which allowed her to keep a watch on Nijinsky’s door, while most of the company were exiled to second class. She befriended his masseur and was rewarded with a rundown on his musculature. Determined to take every opportunity, she succeeded in spending more and more time in his company. The unexpected friendliness was noticed by Baron de Gunsbourg, an investor in the Ballets Russes, who had been tasked with keeping an eye on the company. Instead of reporting back to Diaghilev on what was occurring, Gunsbourg agreed to act on Nijinsky’s behalf in presenting a proposal of marriage to Romola. Romola thought a cruel joke was being played on her, and ran off to her cabin crying. However, Nijinsky asked her again, in broken French and mime, and she accepted. Although Gunsbourg had a financial interest in Ballets Russes, he was also interested in forming his own company, and a split between Diaghilev and his star dancer might have presented him with an opportunity.

When the ship stopped at Rio, the couple went straight to buy wedding rings. Adolph Bolm warned Romola not to proceed, saying “It will ruin your life”. Gunsbourg hurried to arrange the marriage, getting permission by telegram from Romola’s mother so an express wedding could take place once the ship arrived at Buenos Aires, Argentina, where the couple were married on 10 September 1913 and the fact was announced to the world’s press. Back in Europe, Diaghilev “gave himself to a wild orgy of dissipation…Sobbing shamelessly in Russian despair, he bellowed accusations and recriminations; he cursed Nijinsky’s ingratitude, Romola’s treachery, and his own stupidity”.

As the company was due to start performing immediately, there was no honeymoon. A few days after the marriage, Nijinsky tried to teach Romola some ballet, but she was not interested. “I asked her to learn dancing because for me dancing was the highest thing in the world”, “I realized that I had made a mistake, but the mistake was irreparable. I had put myself in the hands of someone who did not love me.” Romola and Nijinsky did not share accommodation until after the season was safely underway, when she was eventually invited to join him in separate bedrooms in his hotel suite. She “almost cried with thankfulness” that he showed no interest in making love on their wedding night.

Dismissal from Ballets Russes

On returning to Paris, Nijinsky anticipated returning to work on new ballets, but Diaghilev was not to be found. Eventually a telegram was received informing Nijinsky that he was no longer employed by the Ballets Russes. Nijinsky had missed a performance in Rio when Romola was ill, and this was stipulated as a sackable offence in the dancers’ standard contracts. Diaghilev also usually dismissed dancers who married. This was perhaps beside the point, since Nijinsky had never had a contract, nor wages, all his expenses having been paid by Diaghilev, although his mother received an allowance of 500 francs per month (other senior dancers had received 200,000 francs for a six-month season). Fokine was re-employed by Diaghilev as choreographer and premier danseur, accepting on the condition that none of Nijinsky’s ballets would be performed. Leonide Massine joined the company as the new attractive young lead for Joseph.

The Ballets Russes had lost its most famous and crowd-pulling dancer, but Nijinsky’s position was even more difficult. He appears not to have appreciated that the consequence of his marriage would be a break with Diaghilev’s company, although many others immediately expected this would be the result. The Ballets Russes and the Imperial Russian ballet were the pre-eminent ballet companies in the world and uniquely had permanent companies of dancers staging full-scale new productions. Not only had Nijinsky left the Imperial ballet on doubtful terms, but he had not been granted exemption from compulsory military service in Russia, something that was normally given to its dancers. He could find only two offers, one a position with the Paris Opera which would not start for more than a year, the other to take a ballet company to London for eight weeks to perform as part of a mixed bill at the Palace Theatre. Anna Pavlova sent him a caustic telegram, reminding him that he had disapproved some years before when she had appeared there in vaudeville. On another occasion, he had told a reporter “One thing I am determined not to do, and that is to go on the music-hall stage”.

Bronia was still in St Petersburg following the birth of her child and Nijinsky asked her to be part of his new company. She was glad to do so, being concerned at how well he could cope without his customary supporters. When she arrived, there was friction between her and Romola: Bronia was critical that the new central figure in her brother’s life showed so little organisational ability; Romola resented the closeness between brother and sister both in their shared language and in ability to work together in dance. The final company had only three experienced dancers: Nijinsky and Bronia plus her husband. Scenery was late, Fokine refused to allow the use of his ballets, there was inadequate time to rehearse, and Nijinsky became “more and more nervous and distraught”. Diaghilev came to the opening night in March 1914.

The audience divided between those who had never seen ballet who objected to the delays necessary for scene changes, and those who had seen Nijinsky before who generally felt something was lacking (“He no longer danced like a god”). On another night, when the orchestra played music during the scene change so as to calm the audience, Nijinsky, having expressly banned this, flew into a rage and was discovered half dressed and screaming in his dressing room. He had to be calmed down enough to perform. He jumped on a stagehand who had flirted with Romola (“I had never seen Vaslav like that”). A new program was to be performed for the third week, but a packed house had to be told that Nijinsky was ill with a high temperature and could not perform. He missed three days, and the management had had enough. The show was cancelled and Nijinsky was left with a considerable financial loss. Newspapers reported a nervous breakdown.

Later life

Romola was now pregnant, so the couple returned to Vienna where Kyra was born on 19 June 1914. The start of World War I meant that Nijinsky became an enemy Russian citizen under house arrest and could not leave the country. The war made problems for the Ballets Russes too: it was hard to obtain dancers and Fokine had returned to Russia. Diaghilev started negotiations for Nijinsky to work once more for the company in October 1914, but could not obtain Nijinsky’s release until 1916 after complex negotiations and a prisoner exchange with the United States, where it was agreed Nijinsky would dance and choreograph for the Ballets Russes’ tour. King Alfonso XIII of Spain, Queen Alexandra, Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna, Emperor France-Josef and the pope all interceded on his behalf.

Nijinsky arrived in New York 4 April 1916. The tour had already started in January with a number of problems: Faun was considered too sexually explicit and had to be amended; Scheherazade including an orgy between black and white did not appeal to racist Americans; and ballet aficionados were calling for Nijinsky. Romola took over negotiations, demanding Diaghilev pay Nijinsky for the years he had been unpaid by the Ballets Russes before he would dance in New York. This was settled after another week’s delay by a downpayment of $13,000 against the $90,000 claimed, plus a fee of $1000 for each performance in America.

Negotiations with Otto Kahn of the Metropolitan opera led to a further tour being agreed across the US for the autumn. Kahn did not get on with Diaghilev and insisted Nijinsky should manage the tour. Massine and Diaghilev would return to Europe, leaving Nijinsky to dance and manage for a salary of $60,000. Nijinsky was to prepare two new ballets. Rehearsals for Till Eulenspiegel did not go well, Nijinsky again had difficulty explaining to the dancers exactly what he needed them to do and would explode into rages. Pierre Monteux, the conductor, refused to take part in performances because he did not want to be associated with failure. Nijinsky twisted his ankle, postponing the season’s opening for a week and his own appearance by two weeks. Still rehearsals for Eulenspiegel had not been completed and it had to be improvised during its first performance. Nevertheless it was well received, and Nijinsky’s performance in Faun was considered better than Massine’s. As the tour progressed, Nijinsky’s performances received steady acclaim, although his management was haphazard and contributed to the tour’s loss of $250,000.

It was around this time in his life that signs of his schizophrenia were becoming apparent to members of the company. Following the tour, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and taken by his wife to Switzerland, where he was treated unsuccessfully by psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler.

Nijinsky spent the rest of his life in and out of psychiatric hospitals and asylums. During the last days of the Second World War he danced in public for the last time. He encountered a group of Russian soldiers decamped outside of Vienna, playing traditional folk tunes. Inspired by the music and his reunion with his countrymen, he leapt into an exquisite dance, astounding the men with the complexity and grace of his figures. The experience restored some of Nijinsky’s capacity for communication, after having maintained long periods of almost absolute silence. Nijinsky died in a clinic in London on April 8, 1950, and was buried in London until 1953 when his body was moved to Montmartre Cemetery in Paris beside the graves of Gaétan Vestris, Théophile Gautier, and Emma Livry.

Legacy

Nijinsky’s daughter Kyra married the Ukrainian conductor Igor Markevitch, and they had a son named Vaslav. The marriage ended in divorce.

Nijinsky’s Diary was written during the six weeks he spent in Switzerland before being committed to the asylum, combining elements of autobiography with 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 egos rather than focusing on what the artist was trying to say. The diary also contains bitter and conflicted thoughts regarding his relationship with Diaghilev.

As a dancer, Nijinsky was extraordinary for his time. He is responsible for changing audiences’ perspective of the male dancer. He was a sensual performer and although he wore revealing costumes, he looked androgynous.

Nijinsky is immortalized in numerous still photographs, many of which were made by E.O. Hoppé, who extensively photographed the Ballets Russes London seasons between 1909 and 1921. However, 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, and that the reputation of the company would suffer if people saw it in only short jerky films.

 

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