Vaslav Nijinsky occupies a place in the history of dance as one of the premiere stars and pioneering dancers of the ballet. His name has become synonymous with graceful leaps in defiance of gravity. At the same time, his life was a turbulent one, as dramatic and chaotic as any superstar, and has been the subject of film and story. No embellishment is needed, however, to make Vaslav Nijinsky's life more interesting. Just the facts speak for themselves.
Becoming Vaslav Nijinsky
A native of Kiev, Ukraine, Nijinsky joined the Imperial Ballet School in 1900 at the age of eleven. For seven years he studied under famous teachers such as Nicholas Legat and Enrico Ceccheti before being given leading roles upon reaching 18. His breakthrough came in 1910 when he danced the part of the Wind God Vayou in le Talisman.
It was during this time that Nijinsky became involved with another famous personage, Sergei Diaghilev, who produced ballet as well as other Russian art forms throughout the world. Diaghilev became instrumental in directing and managing the young ballerino's career, casting him along with Anna Pavlova in leading roles for Les Ballets Russes. The company became one of the most well-known and successful of that time.
A Career of Beauty, Grace and Scandal
Vaslav Nijinsky continued to impress the world with his performances with Les Ballets Russes, especially under the choreography of Michel Fokine in works such as Carnaval and Scheherazade. Another famous performance was his interpretation of the pas de deux in Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty Ballet, and many of his best performances were with the famous ballerina Tamara Karsavina who performed with him at the Mariinsky Theatre in Russia.
He was dismissed from that theater, however, when he performed on stage without a dance belt, offending the Dowager Empress with his "obscene" display. Returning to Diaghilev's company in Paris, several performances were created specifically to feature him as the star, including Fokine's Le Spectre de la Rose and Stravinsky's Petrushka.
Not content with merely dancing, Vaslav Nijinsky decided to choreograph his own ballets, a practice unheard of for a still-active dancer of the time. One of them, Le Sacred du Printemps, set to the music of Igor Stravinsky, remains one of the most famous and beloved dances of all time, re-imagined by many dancers and choreographers since then including Merce Cunningham.
At the time, however, his works were often criticized for being lewd and obscene, especially in works such as L'apres-midi d'un faune which includes a sexual act mimed in the final scene. It took a lot to offend Parisians, but he only managed to continue performances with the ardent defense of other artists like Marcel Proust and Auguste Rodin. At no time were any of his performances filmed, so there are only written accounts and still images of his work to draw from.
The Decline of Vaslav Nijinsky
In 1913, during a tour of South America with Les Ballets Russes, Nijinsky met and fell in love with Countess Romola Pulszky after she pursued and ultimately seduced him. Upon hearing of their marriage, Diaghilev angrily dismissed the ballet star. Though he tried to form his own company, Nijinsky found the administrative details of the business too difficult and it failed spectacularly.
World War I also affected his ability to perform, as he was interned in Hungary, only getting out of that country in 1916 thanks to Diaghilev's influence. He toured America that year and choreographed and danced in Till Eulenspiegel, another of his best-known works.
Unfortunately this was also the year that his friends and fellow dancers began to notice his mental decline, which continued to deteriorate into schizophrenia and a complete nervous breakdown in 1919. During an unsuccessful treatment in Switzerland he wrote a long and confused autobiography which still manages to give a glimpse of the emotional and empathic dancer's mind even as it fell apart. He remained in and out of mental institutions throughout the rest of his life, dying in a London clinic in 1950. His remarkable ability and creative passion remains an inspiration to the world of ballet to this day.