Russian Ballet History

Diaghilev's Ballets Russes 1909-1929

Legendary Vaslav Nijinsky

Vaslav Nijinsky (1889 - 1950)

Nijinsky was a Russian ballet dancer and choreographer of Polish descent. Nijinsky was one of the most gifted male dancers in history.  His  ability to perform seemingly gravity-defying leaps was legendary.  Nijinsky was born in Kiev, Ukraine, son of Polish dancers Tomasz Niżyński and Eleonora Bereda. In 1900, he joined the Imperial Ballet School, where he studied under Enrico Cecchetti, and Nicholas Legat.  At only 18 years old he was given a string of leads. In 1910, a fellow Imperial Ballet dancer, Mathilde Kschessinskaya, 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.

Nijinsky met Sergei Diaghilev, a celebrated and highly innovative producer of ballet and opera as well as art exhibitions, who concentrated on promoting Russian visual and musical art particularly in Paris.  In 1909, Diaghilev took his dance company, the Ballets Russes, to Paris, with Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova as the leads. The show was a huge success.   Nijinsky's talent showed in Fokine's pieces such as “Le Pavillon d'Armide”, “Cleopatra” and  “The Feast”.  His partnership with Tamara Karsavina, also of the Mariinsky Theatre, was legendary, and they have been called the "most exemplary artists of the time".

Then, Nijinsky went back to the Mariinsky Theatre, but was dismissed for appearing on-stage during a performance as Albrecht in Giselle 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, where many of his projects now centered around him. He danced lead roles in Fokine's new productions Le Spectre de la Rose, and Igor Stravinsky's Petrouchka, in which his impersonation of a dancing but lifeless puppet was widely admired.

Nijinsky took the creative reins and choreographed ballets. His ballets were L'après-midi d'un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun, based on Claude Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune) (1912), Jeux (1913), Till Eulenspiegel (1916) and Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring, with music by Igor Stravinsky) (1913). 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. The radically angular movements expressed the heart of Stravinsky's radically modern scores. Nijinsky's new trends in dance caused a riotous reaction at the Théâtre de Champs-Elysées when they premiered in Paris.

In 1913, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes toured South America. Diaghilev did not make this fateful journey, because he was told by a fortune teller in his younger days, that he would die on the ocean if he ever sailed. Without his mentor's supervision, Nijinsky entered into a relationship with Romola Pulszky, a Hungarian countess. An ardent fan of Nijinsky, she booked passage on board a ship that Nijinsky was due to travel on, and during the voyage Romola succeeded in engaging his affections.  They were married in Buenos Aires when the company returned to Europe. Diaghilev is reported to have flown into a rage, culminating in Nijinsky's dismissal. Nijinsky tried in vain to create his own troupe, but a crucial London engagement failed due to administrative problems.

During World War I, Nijinsky was interned in Hungary. Diaghilev succeeded in getting Nijinsky out for the 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 dementia praecox were becoming apparent to members of the company.

Nijinsky had a nervous breakdown in 1919, and his career effectively ended. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and taken to Switzerland by his wife, where he was treated unsuccessfully by psychiatrist, Eugene Bleuler. He spent the rest of his life in and out of psychiatric hospitals and asylums. Nijinsky died in a London clinic on April 8, 1950 and was buried in London until 1953 when his body was moved to Cimetière de Montmartre.  The tombstone of Vaslav Nijinsky is in Cimetière de Montmartre in Paris. The statue, donated by Serge Lifar, shows Nijinsky as the puppet Petrouchka.File:Vaslav Nijinsky tombstone.jpg

While immortalized in numerous still photographs, 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.


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