Even today, seventy years after his death and over a hundred since his last public performance, the name of Nijinsky remains synonymous with all that is greatest about ballet of the twentieth century. None that came before him could dream of reaching his heights, and few enough of those that have come after ever attempted. If his notoriety in popular culture has at moments distracted from his advances in modern dance, it is only because now, as then, we struggle to understand the full meaning of his innovations.
Vaslav Nijinsky was born in Kiev in either 1889 or 1890 (his sister’s Early Memoirs give the date as the former, his wife’s biography of him as the latter, and a number of critics have opted for the get out clause of ‘definitely around then’). Both his parents were dancers and when it came time to educate him, the Imperial Ballet School in Saint Petersburg was an obvious place for him to go – he had already impressed audiences in character and acrobatic performances as a child. His parents had by this point split and the Imperial School offered full board and maintenance for its serious pupils. Even at this young age he distinguished himself in dance (if not in academia) and upon becoming an Imperial Performer in 1907, was given starring roles, even while only in the ranks of the coryphée (a leading dancer in the corps de ballet), something that caused no little jealousy among his colleagues. However, although he was equally well received there by audiences, the position didn’t last long. In 1910, he left the Imperial Theatre after a costume related scandal and became a full-time dancer at the Ballets Russes, the dance company formed by impresario Sergei Diaghilev.
This was not his first time dancing with Diaghilev’s company however. In 1909, following two successful years of producing Russian operas in Paris, Diaghilev returned with the dancers who were to make up his Ballets Russes. Initially, these Russian dancers – many of them recent graduates of the Imperial School – were daunted by this Saison Russe. As Bronislava Nijinska, Vaslav’s sister and fellow artist at the Ballets Russes, wrote in her memoir, “France had nourished the ballet in Russia with her choreographers and ballerinas. Suddenly now, we the Russians wanted to astonish the public of Paris with the Russian Ballet” (Nijinska, 1981). This Saison Russe hailed Nijinsky as a “Vestris of the North” (Bolshoi.ru, 2020) in reference to le dieu de la danse of the 18th century, Auguste Vestris. What if Diaghilev, publicity genius though he was, had overestimated the willingness of French audiences to be lectured on their own art? There was no need to fear. Nijinsky left this god of dance in the dust. As his sister remarked, “Once the public saw Nijinsky “lifted to heaven… all comparison with Auguste Vestris vanished” (Nijinska, 1981). His performance in Les Sylphides, choreographed by Michel Fokine, a fellow convert from the Imperial Ballet, and set to the music of Chopin changed the course of ballet in the 20th century.
Prior to this, the male dancer had lost much of his repute in Western Europe. Ballet itself was seen as a second-class art, a little bit of light entertainment in between the great operas of the moment. Lynn Garafola recognised the “low ebb” that ballet was at, even in Paris, once its capital, and how the ballerina herself was “[p]itied, scorned, and desired,” the courtesan of the art world. The male dancer was a mockery of masculinity to an audience who went to gaze upon the slim leg of the ballerina; a suspect character whose main role seemed to be to show off the form of his partner. Théophile Gautier, poet and noted dance critic once wrote “Nothing is more distasteful than a man who shows his red neck, his big muscular arms, his legs with the calves of a parish beadle, and all his strong massive frame shaken by leaps and pirouettes” (Gautier, 1995). Clearly, the Paris audience’s distaste for leaps and pirouettes on the male form did not survive its encounter with Nijinsky. He proved that “the premier danseur could be more than just a partner of the ballerina. He created a new image for the male dancer, and thereafter ballets were no longer mounted solely for the ballerina” (Nijinska, 1981). One critic noted, somewhat disparagingly that, “for Nijinsky the dancer is his [the public] idol, the object of a cult that in another era he would have dedicated to the premiere danseuse of the Paris Opéra” (Ghéon, 1991).
The implicit criticism was that in placing Nijinsky on a pedestal, the audience was simply repeating their treatment of the ballerina earlier; appreciating a beautiful body with little thought for the artistry of the performance. The criticism was not wholly misplaced. The Ballets Russes looked good. Alongside his elegant role in the more French style Les Sylphides, in 1910, Nijinsky became The Golden Slave in Fokine’s Schéherazade. Inspired by One Thousand and One Nights, the ballets, while formally innovative, also gave the French audience exactly what they were looking for: spectacle. Indeed, the success of Bakst’s orientalist costumes and sets was such that Garafola (1989) contends that the pre-World War fascination with its costume can be dated to one of Diaghilev’s first dance performances, and cites one critic as saying “Russian artists have acted as intermediaries between the East and us, and they have given us a rather greater taste for oriental color than a taste for their own art.” Visibly from rather further East than Russia, and the cosmopolitan Petersburg dancers who formed the Ballets Russes especially, this exoticism made the subversive lust of a powerful queen for her slave lover both more exciting and more socially acceptable. And Nijinsky’s Golden Slave was at the centre of it all, his “animal-like flexibility” and “half-naked body… soaring over the stage” captivating audiences, male and female alike” (Mariinsky Theatre, 2020). And as with the later ballets, many have read a certain amount of personal emotion into Nijinsky’s performance. However, Nijinsky was more than just a dancer; he choreographed three ballets, all of which have changed the face of dance.
L’Après-midi d’un Faune (1912) scandalised audiences with what seemed to be an open representation of sexuality, climaxing (quite literally) with Nijinsky as Faun, shuddering orgamsically on the floor, clutching the scarf of the Chief Nymph. As Garafola (1989) notes, “in dispensing with exoticism… Nijinsky stripped the veil of ritualized fantasy from the representation of sexuality.” And while, according to Nijinska (1981), after an immediate second performance the audience went wild for Nijinsky, the reviewers were not so certain. Instead of the traditional review, Le Figaro published a front-page essay by Gaston Calmette (1912) railing against the piece, without ever actually naming the final sin. Auguste Rodin, celebrated sculptor, defended Nijinsky in a letter to Le Matin, and Calmette’s ill-judged response, criticising Rodin and the state of French art at the time brought fame to the Faune for what would probably seem to be all the wrong reasons (Järvinen, 2009).
Garafola (1989) herself sees the dance as a moment of sexual – and particularly heterosexual – discovery, and links it to Nijinsky’s fascination, recorded in his diaries, with the Parisian cocettes, or prostitutes. The fetishism of the scarf in the finale, she argues, is not a sign so much of hetero or homosexual desire as much as a “deep rooted ambivalence towards men and women alike” (Grafola, 1989). When in doubt, the Faun, and Nijinsky, choose self-gratification over company of either sex.
However, to focus only on scandalous sexuality is to miss the reasons the ballet remains such a central part of dance history. Described by Nijinska as freeing from the captivity of old choreography, an entrance into a “new phase of art”, it went against everything classically trained dancers had learnt about movement (Nijinska, 1981). In the – often fractious – rehearsals, the ballerinas involved complained to Nijinska that “they would never be able to make their bodies assume such unusual positions” (ibid). Faune went beyond the aesthetics of Classical Greece which appeared in Fokine’s choreography, into the two dimensional forms of archaic frieze inspired, apparently, by Egyptian reliefs Nijinsky saw in the Louvre (Caddy, 2012). The fixity of positions, with the dancers always looking to the side and arms at angles previously unseen in the world of ballet, contrasted hugely with the soft symphony of Debussy. Dance writer Robert Greskovic (1998) described how “the moves of Nijinsky’s choreography passed through the music’s lush atmosphere like ships through a fog”. Indeed, this intentional disjunction between sound and vision so upset some critics that they started to claim that, as a simple Russian, Nijinsky could not understand “civilised French art” – a bold claim for a group who had so raved about previous, exotic offerings (Järvinen, 2009). As Juliet Bellow (2010) states, “these movements paradoxically came closer to traditional ballet than the apparently free-flowing movements of Fokine or [Isadora] Duncan… render[ing] back to dance a sense of meditation, of intention, of artifice”.
So why did the critics so object to Faune where they had once lavished praise on Fokine’s unclassical floating? In removing the exotic from his ballet, Nijinsky had not just reflected the voyeuristic tendencies of the French audience right back at them. Claude Debussy’s work had already been the site of intense cultural debate, and Louis Laloy’s declaration that Debussy had “rediscovered in himself… the old soul of our race” typified the nationalist rhetoric, existent even in the Left, of a country already paranoid about its relation with the Classical and its claims to culture (Bellow, 2010). Nijinsky’s innovative, unnerving new dance style disrupted this accepted view of the relation between French contemporary culture and the idealised vision of the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome of the French elite. Nijinsky hardly stopped there.
Although Jeux, his next ballet, is often overlooked, it presents an important counterpoint to Faune and Sacré, two ballets whose main inspiration appears to be the primitive. Jeux is about a potential ménage à trois and a game of tennis. In his writing, Nijinsky described the ballet as “about three young men making love to each other” and that it “is the life of which Diaghilev dreamed.” (Garafola, 1989). Diaghilev was to be the young man, the two young women the two young male lovers he dreamt of having. While these diaries were written just before Nijinsky’s psychological breakdown, so his comments on “evil love” should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt, their insight into the autobiographical nature of the piece cannot be disregarded. Not that it is perfectly autobiographical, however; if Diaghilev desired such a ménage à trois, the Young Man is oddly uninterested. Although when the two young women start a dalliance with one another that seems a little too sapphic, the Young Man does intervene, otherwise, he tends to stand aside, or with gaze averted. Involved, but cautiously, without complete commitment where once the Ballets Russes might have shown a full orientalised orgy of concubines and slaves. Once more, Nijinsky subverts the promised sexual finale, ending the seduction prematurely by scattering the lovers with a tennis ball. Satisfaction is not allowed, perhaps even to be feared in and of itself.
Once more, one of Nijinsky’s biggest innovations is with time period. There was an essential contemporariness to this ballet – Nijinsky would sometimes even go to the tennis courts instead of rehearsals, able to see in real time the physicality he sought to capture (Nijinska, 1981). Though sports had been used in a number of ballets prior (Luigi Manzotti’s Sport in 1897 for example), Jeux was a rebuke to the critics who argued that “only history offered the material of a good dance spectacle”.(Barker, 1982 and Bellow, 2010).
The motions of tennis provided a backdrop for an dismantling of the psychology of modern romance – rather more intellectual than even some of the more frilly products of the Ballets Russes. However, modern era or no, Nijinsky maintained his harsh, structured choreographic style. The critics, once more, do not always react well; yet this time, they saw more of a link to machinery. Laloy saw too many robotic mechanisms, Ghéon, “an engineering drawing”. Nijinsky once more disrupts the idealised physical form with his distorting physicality, removing the spontaneous movements and replacing them with an almost cubist appreciation of repetitive motion and control.
After such a break with tradition, Le Sacré du Printemps, the imagined ritual of an ancient Slavic tribe, would seem to be a return to form for the ballet company which produced Firebird and Schéherazade. Stravinsky had started writing the music, and staging for Sacré in 1910, in conversation with Nicholas Roerich. Roerich had previously designed The Polovtsian Dances and Ivan the Terrible for Diaghilev, and both shared an interest in ethnography – they had met at Talashkino, home of the artistic colony of the neonationalist Princess Maria Tenisheva. They took their primary inspiration from Slavonic myth, and Nijinsky in turn was inspired by their creations; Nijinska (1981) quotes him as saying “Roerich’s art inspires me as much as does Stravinsky’ powerful music”. Millicent Hodson even sees echoes between the motifs in the costuming and Nijinsky’s choreography, an argument Garafola seems not unconvinced by.
And yet more than any ballet before or since, Sacré has become known for the near riot it caused at its premier on May 29th 1913. According to Nijinska, at the moment of the curtain’s lifting, the audience made their horror known and would not be silenced until Maria Piltz danced her final sacrificial dance. Such was its critical reception that Sacré gained the nickname Le Massacre du Printemps (Bellow, 2010). This time, the critics saw in the primitivism of Nijinsky a ‘decomposition’ of art. The language of contemporary criticism was used to decry this primitivist offering, with descriptions of “puppet-like automatism and “mechanical shudders”, this time, Bellow notes, with an added slice of hysteria (Bellow, 2010). Although apparently primitive in form, Jacques Rivière notes the nature of the ballet as about complete physical control, one where “we find ourselves in the presence of man’s movements at a time when he did not yet exist as an individual” (Garafola, 1989). Somehow, he does not link this depersonalisation to the much more contemporary notions. Already across the world the cult of modernity was appearing and being debated. In the same year that Sacré premiered, Natalia Goncharova, leader of the Russian Avant-garde created Велосипедист, ‘cyclist’, a futurist exploration on the bustle and speed of city life. Others saw more danger in the advent of modernity. Bellow sees in the shapes of the dancers on stage a reference to ‘hysteria’, the female illness now used as a shorthand in French culture for “modernity’s effects on the body,” and in the critic’s fear of Nijinsky’s movements a larger fear of the changes modernity was to wring on French culture in general (Bellow, 2010).
Le Sacré du Printemps was an explosive piece, to this day a source of controversy and fascination both in and of itself and for what it may reveal about its creator. Although Nijinsky went on to choreograph a number of other ballets, only one more, Till Eulenspeigel, ever made it to the stage. Nijinsky had ceased to work with the Ballets Russes after his surprise marriage to Romola de Pulszky. Diaghilev did not normally allow his dancers to marry one another, but he took this heterosexual partnership of his lover as a personal insult. Nijinsky continued to dance, even returning to the Ballets Russes for a tour of the US. His last performance was on the 30th of September 1917, at a benefit for the Red Cross in Montevideo. Two years later he was diagnosed as schizophrenic and committed to a sanatorium. He never gave another performance. His talent brought ballet to the equal of the other arts, and inspired generations of future performers, choreographers and designers.
- Bronislava Nijinska, 1981, Early Memoirs, trans + ed. Irina Nijinska, Jean Rawlinson, Durham and London, Duke University Press
- Lynn Garafola, 1989, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, New York, Oxford, Oxford University Press
- Juliet Bellow, 2010, Modernism on Stage : The Ballets Russes and the Parisian Avant-Garde, Taylor & Francis Group
- Barbara Barker, Spring 1982, ‘Nijinsky’s “Jeux”, The Drama Review: TDR, Vol 26, No. 1, Historical Performance Issue, pp. 51-60, The MIT Press
- Hanna Järvinen, Summer 2009, ‘Dancing Without Space – On Nijinsky’s “L’Après-midi d’un Faune” (1912)’, Dance Research: The Journal of the Society for Dance Research, Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 28-64, Edinburgh University Press
- Robert Greskovic, 1998, Ballet 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving the Ballet rev. edn Milwaukee, WI: Limelight Editions, 2005
- Davina Caddy, 2012, The Ballets Russes and Beyond: Music and Dance in Belle-Époque Paris, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
- Henri Ghéon, September 1991, “La saisson russe au Chatelelet”, Nouvelle Revue Francaise, pp.250-251
- Théophile Gautier, 1995, Écrits sur la danse, Paris, Actes Sud
- Bolshoi, Vaslav Nijinsky Nijinsky, Bolshoi.ru, acc. 26/04/20, < https://www.bolshoi.ru/en/persons/people/2511/>
- Mariinsky Theatre, Schéhérazade Playbill, Mariinsky.ru, acc. 26/04/20, <https://www.mariinsky.ru/en/playbill/repertoire/ballet/sheher>