On March 12, 1889, one of the great stars of ballet was born.
Vaslav Nijinsky, the most famed and esteemed ballet dancer of his time, has gone down in history as one of many tortured artists, his madness on par with the likes of Vincent Van Gogh and Edgar Allen Poe.
However, there was much more to his life than his struggles with mental health. To create beautiful art, one must be able to first understand beauty.
It was said by many that Nijinsky was a genius of the art, and was truly dedicated to ballet above all else.
EDUCATION THE IMPERIAL SCHOOL
Nijinsky was admitted to the Mariinsky Education (the Imperial School of Ballet at the time) at age nine in 1900. His younger sister, Bronislava, joined the school two years later.
He studied under Nicholai Legat and Obouchov, who claimed that, “He surpassed his masters in their art,” by time he was just fifteen years old.
Nijinksy was suspended at one point for playing a prank, but after going back home for his suspension he realized how tight of a financial situation his mother was in, and vowed to work harder and be more serious to help support her.
After re-admission, he injured himself practicing and was hospitalized for three months. It was clear that Vaslav was exceptional in his talent, and was offered a position with the Mariinsky two years before graduation, but he begged to be allowed to finish his training and was granted permission to do so.
In 1908, Nijinsky officially joined the Mariinsky Theater, where he continued his studies under Enrico Cecchetti. He became incredibly famous, dancing as a Soloist to the Tsar. However, after only a few short seasons, Diaghilev convinced Nijinsky to resign in 1911 due to a costuming complaint by a royal audience member.
Vaslav continued working with the Ballet Russes, and multiple other dancers followed suit around this time. Even Cecchetti, who had a contract with the Mariinsky, left after being convinced to continue teaching Nijinsky.
BALLET RUSSES & DIAGHILEV
Diaghilev and Nijinsky formally met around 1908 or 1909. They became immediately inseparable, dedicated to the progress of the art form. Diaghilev himself was not a dancer, but after inheriting a good bit of money had found that art was his true passion. Luckily, he had an eye for talent as well.
Together, along with Michel Fokine, they founded the Ballet Russes in 1909. Their company attracted dancers such as Anna Pavlova and Tamara Karsavina.
Nijinsky choreographed three ballets (never finishing his fourth, Till Eulenspiegel) for the Ballet Russes and was their star performer for many years. They travelled all over Europe meeting many famous artists of the time along the way.
Diaghilev and Nijinsky were romantically involved throughout their time together, spurring multiple quarrels about their work and company.
Nijinsky was fired by Diaghilev in 1913 after Nijinsky married Romola de Pulszky. He would later be re-admitted, but the relationship between Diaghilev and Nijinsky would never truly recover, both feeling betrayed by the other.
⊙ L'apres midi d'un faune, 1912
Nijinsky began to choreograph for the Ballet Russes in 1912. His first, and likely most famous work during his time was L’apres midi d’un faune or The Afternoon of the Faun.
This ballet, though a deeply beloved part of the Russes repertoire, at first shocked audiences due to the masturbatory gesture made toward the end of the piece. Diaghilev and Fokine agreed, according to Nijinsky’s wife, that it was one of the most meaningful ballets thus far produced.
⊙ Le Sacre du printemps, 1913
Today, Nijinsky’s best known piece of choreography remains Le Sacre du printemps or The Rite of Spring; if not for its inventive modern choreography than certainly for the riot it caused during its premiere in the Champs-Élysées Theater in Paris.
The ballet debuted on the anniversary of The Afternoon of a Faun, falling once more on May 29 (this time in 1913). The choreography and composition were described as “primitive” and “dynamic” by Nijinsky’s wife, who also wrote the following quotes about the evening and the choreography in her biography of Nijinsky:
“Yes, indeed, the excitement, the shouting, was extreme. People whistled, insulted the performers and the composer, shouted, laughed.”
“It is the adoration of nature in its most primitive form.”
This ballet was thought to be Nijinsky’s least known and his most formative. This ballet, single-handedly (according once more, to his wife) “carried the ballet into the midst of modern life”.
The ballet focuses on the youth of its protagonists; their vitality is shown through their athleticism and their passionate love for one another.
⊙ Early Life
Vaslav Nijinsky was born in current day Kyiv, Ukraine to Eleanora and Thomas Nijinsky, both dancers. The parents raised Vaslav and his older brother, Stanislav, on the road while on tour. Thomas trained his children in dance and quickly realized that Valslav was the most talented, paying him extra attention. Vaslav’s younger sister, Bronislava, soon joined the family as another talented dancer.
Unfortunately, one day on tour, Stanislav suffered a major injury that permanently mentally disabled him. He was being watched by the nanny, but when she wasn’t paying attention, he fell out of the window from three stories up and landed on scaffolding above the first floor. The accident subsequently led to the separation of Vaslav’s parents.
From then on, the children were raised in extreme poverty. Eleanora quit dancing to focus on raising her children and because she was unable to leave Stanislav by himself. Her only hope was that Vaslav would become a famous dancer.
She sent him to the Imperial Ballet audition at 7. Though talented, he was too young and was denied admittance. She auditioned him again at 9, and he was admitted.
Romola de Pulszky was a Hungarian countess who was known to have had a lasting affection for Nijinsky, and when she got the chance, she boarded a ship she knew him to be boarding as well.
Their courting was short and for a good bit of their time spent together, neither could speak the other’s language. However, not long after meeting, they became engaged in early 1913. About a month later, Romola joined the Ballet Russes as well. Together they had two children, Kyra and Tamara.
When Kyra was young and the family was in Hungary visiting Romola’s mother, the first World War began. Nijinsky and his family were kept in the country as prisoners of war for many years. It was not until Diaghilev, who still disdained Nijinsky, managed to have them freed for an American tour that they were able to escape.
⊙ Life After Ballet
The war affected Nijinsky’s mental health greatly. On his South American tour in 1917, Nijinsky performed publicly for the last time. From then on, his health declined rapidly.
Romola took him to St. Moritz, Switzerland where he was diagnosed with Schizophrenia and lived the final thirty years of his life primarily in psychiatric institutions.
Featured Photo of Vaslav Nijinsky in the ballet Le spectre de la rose as performed at the Royal Opera House in 1911 (Wikimedia Commons)
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Nijinskys forth coreography, Till Eulenspiegel, was finished and performed in US. It was a success.