Thursday, November 25, 2010

Savoir Faire en pointe

In the world of ballet especially in the formative years at the beginning of the 20th century, all male dancers were judged against one man alone. No one matched him for his virtuosity and the depth and intensity of his characterizations. His ability to perform en pointe, a rare skill among male dancers at the time and his seemingly gravity-defying leaps were legendary. No one matched him and it seemed that no one ever could. Inexplicably linked with Sergei Diaghilev together they set the ballet world on fire.

Vaslav Nijinsky was clearly extraordinary for his time. What made him extraordinary was most probably his charisma and skill in mime, as the feats with which he astonished his contemporaries are now second nature to any male dancer. In epicene roles such as the god in Le Dieu Bleu, or the favourite slave in Scheherezade he was unsurpassed.

Born in 1900 in Kiev he joined the Imperial Ballet School where he studied under Enrico Cecchetti, Nikolai Legat, and Pavel Gerdt. The company's Prima ballerina assoluta Mathilde Kschessinska (Mistress to Tsar Nichols II) selected Nijinsky to dance in a revival of Marius Petipa's Le Talisman, during which Nijinsky created a sensation in the role of the Wind God Vayou.

Even this early in his career Nijinsky had the charisma and also savoir faire to do things entirely how he wanted to do them. His partnership with Tamara Karsavina, of the Mariinsky Theatre, was legendary, and they have been called the "most exemplary artists of the time".

A turning point for Nijinsky was his meeting Sergei Diaghilev, Nijinsky and Diaghilev became lovers for a time, and Diaghilev was heavily involved in directing and managing Nijinsky's career. Diaghilev created his famous company the Ballets Russes with choreographer Michel Fokine and designer Léon Bakst. 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.

During a performance of Giselle at the Mariinsky Theatre, he was dismissed for appearing on-stage during a performance as Albrecht wearing tights without the modesty trunks obligatory for male dancers in the company. The Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna complained that his appearance was obscene, and he was dismissed. It is probable that the scandal was arranged by Diaghilev in order that Nijinsky could be free to appear with his company, in the West.
Nijinsky took the creative reins and choreographed ballets, which slew boundaries and stirred controversy. His ballets were L'après-midi d'un faune based on Claude Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune), Jeux, and Till Eulenspiegel .

As the title character in L'après-midi d'un faune during the final tableau he mimed masturbation with the scarf of a nymph, and caused a scandal. This was probably his best remembered role and has been copied widely since.

In The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps), with music by Stravinsky, 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. Unfortunately, Nijinsky's new trends in dance caused a riotous reaction when they premiered in Paris.
During a 1913 Ballets Russes tour of South America and free from Diaghilev’s supervision, Nijinsky married Romola de Pulszky in Buenos Aires. When the company returned to Europe Diaghilev is reported to have flown into a rage, culminating in Nijinsky's dismissal.

During World War I, Nijinsky was interned in Hungary. Diaghilev succeeded in getting him out for a North American tour in 1916. During this time, Nijinsky choreographed and danced the leading role in Till Eulenspiegel. However, it was around this time in his life that signs of his schizophrenia were becoming apparent to members of the company. He suffered a nervous breakdown in 1919, and his career effectively ended. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and taken to Switzerland by his wife He spent the rest of his life in and out of psychiatric hospitals and asylums. Nijinsky died in a clinic in London on April 8, 1950.

No film exists of Nijinsky dancing. Diaghilev never allowed the Ballets Russes to be filmed. 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 only in short jerky films.


  1. Thanks for this special holiday treat. I didn't realize Nijinsky lived to that late a date. I also haven't seen as many photos of him. It's a shame that Nijinsky isn't on film, but I think Diaghilev was correct.

    That reminds me of Queen Victoria, who sent recorded greetings to other heads of state, but demanded that they then be immediately destroyed, knowing that otherwise they'd be played for entertainment. No recording is left.

  2. I adore your collection of photos there really inspiring for me :)

  3. Mark, now there would be a find if one just happened to surface! I have always wondered how she would sound and wasn't aware of this.

    Sam, I would like to see the results of your inspiration. One Mardi Gras I went dressed as Nijinsky in L'apres. It took me weeks to get the shoe polish off my skin!

  4. well!!! that's a very interesting post!!
    love it!!

  5. Fabulous post! I have to say that extraordinary people like Anna Pavlova Nijinsky, Diaghilev will always be the pride and glory of Russia and the only good of the most terrible times Russia had to go through in the past century. Thank you for this wonderful post!

  6. So much I didn't know about Nijinsky! Incredible post...and I really enjoyed the photos! It is sad that he was never filmed. Although perhaps Diaghilev was right. I'm sure it was quite something to see him dance in person.


  7. I just LOVE coming over here to learn something, and you never disappoint David! Posts that teach me something are my favorite kind!!
    Nancy xo

  8. He looks so dashing in that first black and white picture!

    By the way, it is said - not quite sure if it's true - that Nijinsky had a rare bone condition: although quite strong his bones were spongelike (as the ones of birds) making him very light and supple. Due to this quality he was able to jump higher and longer than any other male dancer.

  9. He was an international treasure.


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