ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Vaslav Nijinsky – a great dancer from Kyiv
Vaslav Fomich Nijinsky (1889–1950) — born in Kyiv — Ukrainian dancer and choreographer of Polish origin, dance innovator. One of the leading members of the Diaghilev Russian Ballet. Brother of the dancer Bronislava Nijinska. Choreographer of the ballets The Rite of Spring, The Afternoon of a Faun, The Games and Till Eulenspiegel.
Theater is beautiful. If it is ugly – just no one will come. Bright stage lights, a stage decorated by talented artists, beautiful costumes, amazing actors who give the audience strong and vivid emotions, wonderful music and sensitive spectators who understand all this well …
But this is a view from the audience. On the other hand, from behind the scenes, what do we see? Very complex and absolutely ugly theatrical machinery, stage workers, with an effort to roll out and remove the scenery, actors chatting about trifles, preparing for the performance … Not at all.
And having plunged into the intricacies of relations between theatrical people, you can feel yourself at a balneological resort – you understand that there are benefits from this, but the feeling that you are swimming in mud does not leave. A game instead of emotions, intrigue instead of relationships, and everything is not real.
However, it does not bother us much – it was not in vain that Akhmatova said, “If only you knew from what rubbish …” This is about poetry, but don’t we admire the beautiful water lily in the swamp, knowing where its roots draw juices from? Everything is very complicated, and we want to understand and know. Maybe in vain?
The man who made a real revolution in the world perception of ballet was born in Kyiv in a family of dancers, immersed in the world of theater from the beginning of his life. His parents, Tomasz Nijinsky and Eleonora Bereda, achieved quite a lot of success in their work. Eleonora was five years older than Tomas and was a ballet soloist. But Tomasz was also “number one”.
Vaslav was their second son, and two years later their daughter Bronislava was also born. On the same day, April 18, 1891, both Vaslav and Bronislava were baptized in Warsaw, in the Roman Catholic Church of the Holy Cross, where the heart of Frederic Chopin is still buried in a silver urn.
It seems that their father introduced them to dancing from a very tender age. Vaslav made an entrance on the stage in Odesa at the age of five, dancing a hopak. They could have started earlier – the bard Alexander Dolsky recalled that his mother danced in Swan Lake in her second month of pregnancy.
Soon the troupe, which included Vaslav’s father, broke up, and hard times began for the family. When a fragile family is shaken, it is threatened with disintegration. So Tomasz Nijinsky, on tour in Finland, fell in love with the young soloist Rumyantseva, left his family and divorced his wife.
Eleonora began to look for ways to accommodate the children, and in 1898 she brought the nine-year-old Vaslav to the entrance exams in St. Petersburg, to the Imperial Ballet School. This made it possible to enter the Mariinsky Theatre, where students were taken on a state budget, and it was also important.
The teachers knew and respected Father Nijinsky well, but it was not very prime – no one was taken there because of the pull. And Vaslav himself did not impress them, seeming not very well developed sissy. And they would have given him a turn from the gate, if not for the teacher Nikolai Legat.
He solved almost all the questions very simply – he asked the boy to take a few steps back and jump. Vaslav did it – and the jump was so phenomenal that he was immediately accepted. Later, Nijinsky’s jumps became a legend in world ballet, but this one was the first!
Studying in private schools for boys is a difficult and dangerous thing. They frankly did not like Nijinsky there, they called him a Jap for his Asian facial features, and even teased him for being a Pole. In addition, he was withdrawn, silent and rather slow thinking.
In 1905, the teacher of the school, Mikhail Fokin, staged the ballet Acis and Galatea for graduates. Nijinsky was still two years away from graduation, but he was also offered the role of a faun. The premiere took place on 10 April at the Mariinsky Theatre, and all reviewers noted the great success of Nijinsky.
They wrote about him, “The graduate Nijinsky amazed everyone: the young artist is barely 15 years old … It is all the more pleasant to see such exceptional data. Lightness and elevation, together with remarkably smooth and beautiful movements, are amazing … It remains to be wished that the 15-year-old artist does not remain a child prodigy, but continues to improve. Is this not a success?
The teachers were already ready to let him out of the school – if he hadn’t done so badly in general subjects, even flunking the exam in history. But after such success, he was taken to the Mariinsky Theater without any knowledge of history and even geography …
He immediately took the position of prime, acting as a partner of such great stars as Kshesinskaya, Preobrazhenskaya, Pavlova and Karsavina. In contrast to the traditions of the 19th century, where women set the tone in ballet, Fokin needed bright male roles, and Nijinsky suited him.
In 1908, after one of the performances, Nijinsky received a note saying: “I would like to meet you. Would you agree to celebrate your success in a restaurant? My friends and I will wait for you at the actor’s entrance. Prince Pavel Lvov signed this note.
He was a well-known person – both for his generosity in financial support of young talents, and for his sexual orientation, which is now politely called non-traditional. Young beautiful dancers enjoyed his special sympathy.
Was Nijinsky by nature a supporter of same-sex love? Almost certainly not – the facts confirming this will be given below. But he eventually agreed to Lvov’s courtship, and their love affair became a fact known to many.
It is hard to believe it, but biographers prove that his mother Eleonora played a decisive role in his consent. She fully approved this and assured her son that Lvov would arrange his fate, make his career easier and provide. The original diaries of Nijinsky found confirmation of this …
Nijinsky enjoyed wild success. The audience called him a jumping imp and applauded to the limit. Prince Lvov did not have a soul in him, gave expensive gifts, saved him from material problems and did everything to make his life happy. What’s wrong?
But a new person intervened in his measured life – a brilliant manager and entrepreneur, a propagandist of Russian art, and especially ballet, all over the world, and then it first of all meant “in Paris” – Sergei Diaghilev. By the way, the same sexual orientation as Lvov.
He immediately rated Nijinsky extremely highly – and not only as a dancer. Memoirists write that he directly persuaded Prince Lvov to give up Nijinsky to him – so his career would move forward by leaps and bounds, and it would be to the benefit of the person whom Prince Lvov loves.
Some believe that Prince Lvov initially resisted, not wanting to give in to his beloved. But if that was the case, Diaghilev won, and Nijinsky went over to him. One gets the impression that Nijinsky himself was passive in this conflict – as they agreed, so be it …
As early as 1909, Diaghilev really came to grips with Nijinsky’s career, involving him in his brilliant Russian Seasons ballet in Paris. There Nijinsky was admired, they called him the bird-man, the god of dance and the second Vestris (the legend of the world ballet).
At first, Nijinsky perfectly combined Diaghilev’s entreprise with work at the Mariinsky Theater – if the seasons do not coincide, why not? But in 1911 his work at the Mariinsky came to an end. And under rather scandalous circumstances – he was accused of obscenity.
The reason was the production of Giselle, in which he appeared in a costume designed by Alexandre Benois himself, a tight-fitting leotard without the traditional bandage around the hips. Now such a costume for a dancer is a completely common thing, and then they even demanded to stop the performance, but Nijinsky refused to change clothes and played in this costume to the end.
The Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna raised a fuss – however, later she claimed that she only asked to change the costume and that she liked Nijinsky and his work at the Mariinsky Theater. Why, then, was Nijinsky ordered to be fired, if the empress did not want this?
It is believed that during the analysis of this incident, the prima ballerinas Pavlova and Kshesinskaya intervened, who not only had powerful patrons, but were also openly jealous of Nijinsky’s success. This is possible – theatrical life knows lots of such examples.
Nijinsky became the lead dancer for Diaghilev’s Russian Seasons in Paris. His performances cannot be called an indisputable success – many took up arms against them. But there was enough noise and a touch of sensationalism in them, and everyone argued about them – this is also a success, and a considerable one at that.
The ballet The Afternoon of a Faun to the music of Debussy quarreled all of Paris. The owner of Figaro, Calmette, wrote, “We saw a faun, unbridled, with disgusting movements of bestial eroticism and completely shameless gestures. And that’s it.” But Auguste Rodin replied that in no other role was Nijinsky as incomparable and delightful as in this performance.
The premiere of the ballet Petrushka to Stravinsky’s music, where Nijinsky danced the title character, was a great success. But The Rite of Spring, staged by him himself, caused a real scandal – the performance was hardly completed. In the hall, fans and opponents of the ballet just fought. Now, when The Rite of Spring is a classic, it’s even hard to believe.
Nijinsky lived in Diaghilev’s house, while having neither his own housing nor his own money – Diaghilev’s servant Vasily followed him everywhere and unquestioningly paid for any of his expenses. Nijinsky’s life with Diaghilev was far from idyllic – Vaslav was burdened by control over him.
In particular, this rejection was expressed in the fact that Nijinsky cheated on Diaghilev right and left, not embarrassed to visit brothels, and did not disdain either men or women. Diaghilev paid both for these services and for the treatment after them – it suited him …
Nevertheless, Nijinsky did not leave Diaghilev for quite a long time. Their lives seemed scandalous but steady. However, in the meantime, Romola de Pulszky, the daughter of a famous actress and director of the Hungarian National Opera, an aristocrat and a beauty, entered the Diaghilev troupe.
In August 1913, the troupe went on tour to South America. Diaghilev did not go – he was afraid of sea travel. Even before the end of the voyage, an acquaintance of Nijinsky approached Romola and asked if she would agree to marry him. Romola immediately gave her consent.
On September 10, 1913, they got married in Buenos Aires. Nijinsky freed himself from Diaghilev – but at a high cost. As soon as Diaghilev found out about his marriage, he fell into a rage and immediately sent a telegram to Nijinsky, in which he said that the troupe did not need his services.
I remind you that Nijinsky did not have a contract, Diaghilev had no obligations to him, he did not pay him any fees – he simply paid for all his expenses. Now, of course, he stopped doing it. Nijinsky faced the need to live independently, but he did not know how to do this.
Nijinsky was well aware that he had a name in the art world and talent. But the fact that this is not all that is needed for success, and the ability of an organizer is also needed, he did not realize – throughout his life others did it for him. Besides, he had a serious enemy.
He decided to create his own enterprise. He recruited actors, agreed with the London Palace Theatre. But it turned out to be more difficult with artists: Roerich, Bakst and Benois did not work with him – they were afraid of Diaghilev. He invited then unknown artist and composer – Picasso and Ravel, and nevertheless tried to start work. But Diaghilev could not leave it just like that.
To prevent Nijinsky’s success, he simply dragged him through the courts. He started lawsuits, challenging copyrights, filing each new lawsuit an hour before the start of the performance, and while the lawsuits were sorted out, the performances were filmed from the stage. Two weeks later, Nijinsky’s troupe went bankrupt.
He went to Hungary – to his wife. But hour by hour it didn’t not get easier: the First World War has begun. Nijinsky, as a subject of a hostile state, was placed under house arrest. His wife’s relatives treated him without the slightest sympathy, there was no work, the prospects were unclear.
But then Diaghilev showed up again – either he humbled his violent temper and forgave him infidelity, or simply Nijinsky’s name was needed to decorate the tour poster – and in 1916 he invited him to tour the Russian Ballet in North and South America. So he also danced Petrushka and Vision of the Rose on the stage of the famous New York Metropolitan Opera.
In the same year, on October 23, at the Grand Opera Theater (Manhattan), the premiere of the last ballet in Nijinsky’s choreography, Till Eulenspiegel to music by Richard Strauss, was shown. He himself performed the main part. But the performance, despite a number of interesting finds, was not a great success.
The last time Vaslav danced on the opera stage was in Buenos Aires in 1917, in Chopiniana and Vision of the Rose. After the end of the war, the Nijinskys settled in Switzerland. They had two daughters: Kira and Tamara. He probably made plans to continue his career in ballet …
But the heaviest overloads provoked a mental illness in Nijinsky. Once he, always gentle and polite, suddenly pushed his wife and daughter down the stairs. The Swiss psychiatrist diagnosed “schizophrenia” – when he almost did not recognize his loved ones.
His final performance took place in 1919. About his performance, he said to his wife, “This will be my wedding with God.” Nijinsky danced strange, frightening parts, made a velvet cross on the stage, and at the end said, “The horse is tired.” He never performed anywhere else.
The further life of Nijinsky is a wandering from one sanatorium or clinic to another. His wife devotedly looked after him and hoped to cure him. Diaghilev arrived and began to take him to performances so that in a familiar place his mind would return to him. Nothing helped.
In 1939, Serge Lifar visited him, brought an accompanist and began to dance for him – he also hoped that it would help. Lifar performed for several hours, but there was no result. Only once Nijinsky got up and jumped – his last jump was filmed.
In 1945, the famous dancer was suddenly discovered by a Life correspondent in post-war Vienna, dancing among Soviet soldiers. The meeting made an indelible impression on Nijinsky: having hardly spoken before, he spoke in Russian with his former countrymen.
In 1950, he died in another clinic – in London. In 1953, he was reburied in Paris – next to the grave of Vestris. On his grave, Serge Lifar installed at his own expense a bronze monument depicting a sad clown – Nijinsky himself in the ballet Petrushka.
Do they remember him now? Art lovers all over the world remember, of course. Many prizes of international competitions are named after him, in Paris there is Nijinsky Street. But in my native Kyiv there is no such street, and I did not even find information about the memorial plaque. Maybe I’m wrong.
All illustrations are from open sources