March 12, 1889 – Vaslav Fomich Nijinsky:
I danced frightening things. They were frightened of me and therefore thought that I wanted to kill them. I did not want to kill anyone. I loved everyone, but no one loved me, and therefore I became nervous.
He was born on this day in Kiev, to Polish parents, and for his lifetime he considered himself a Pole. He grew up poor, but by the time he was in his late teens, Nijinsky had already enjoyed heady affairs with several older men, including Prince Pavel Dimitrievitch Lvov a wealthy athletic nobleman in his early 40’s who provided Nijinsky with an apartment, a splendid wardrobe, and a magnificent diamond ring, and who also assisted Nijinsky’s mother, who had been living in poverty.
When the Prince cooled toward him, he passed off Nijinsky to another nobleman, Count Tishkievitch, who taught him piano and also lavished him with expensive gifts. Nijinksy wrote:
I loved the prince, not the count.
During that time Nijinsky became a leading star of the Mariinsky Ballet and was a frequent guest artist at the Bolshoi Ballet, despite his being short and stocky. His most famous partner was the great Anna Pavlova, and his talent and fame brought him Tsar Nicholas II among his patrons.
When he was 19-years-old, Nijinsky met the compelling, potent, 35-year-old Sergei Diaghilev, heir to a vodka fortune, a great Russian impresario and art patron and founder of the famed Ballet Russes.
Diaghilev and his artistic circle of friends founded the World Of Art (not to be confused with World of Wonder), an innovative, modern magazine backed by the director of the Russian Private Opera Company, the wealthy Princess Maria Tenisheva. The ever-industrious Diaghilev took a job as a special assistant to Prince Sergei Mikhaylovich Volkonsky, owner of the Imperial Theatre chain, where he imagined and then produced a series of popular productions.
Around this time, Diaghilev began embracing a flamboyant sense of style and quietly, had a love affair with his first cousin, Dmitry Filosofov, later a famous journalist. Diaghilev developed a reputation in the art world that took him to the cultural capital of the world, Paris, a city he fell in love with while visiting while on a tour with a Russian folk-dance company. In 1909, he founded the legendary Ballet Russes in Paris.
The company became a sensation, celebrated for scrapping the starched traditions of ballet and introducing original musical scores and wild new choreography, plus costumes, lighting and sets designed by the most creative members of the belle époque avant-garde: Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Coco Chanel. They contributed to his ground-breaking presentations: Parade, Le Tricorne, and Le Train Bleau.
Ballet Russes drew attention by using the most striking dancers, with principles Nijinsky, Ida Rubenstein and Pavlova.
Just 20-years-old, Nijinsky started his rapturous romantic and professional partnership with Diaghilev, who groomed the young Nijinsky to be known as “The God Of Dance”. Diaghilev used all his considerable resources to create ballets designed to highlight Nijinsky’s phenomenal artistry and sexual magnetism, with roles as the Golden Slave in Schéhérazade (1910) and as the androgynous scent of the rose in Le Spectre de la Rose (1911), both which displayed the dancer’s talent and charisma.
Diaghilev also encouraged Nijinsky to choreograph ballets, giving him the finest dancers to work with and unprecedented amounts of rehearsal time. The four ballets that Nijinsky created, L’Après-midi d’un Faune (1912), Le Sacre du Printemps (1913), Jeux (1913), and Till Eulenspiegel (1916), were box-office failures. They are now considered to be the foundation of modern ballet. Set to Claude Debussy’s score, L’Après-midi d’un Faune ended with Nijinsky, dressed as a faun in a skin tight costume, miming masturbation into a wisp of fabric. The public and critical responses were what you might expect for 1912. His jerky choreography for Igor Stravinsky‘s throbbing music, Le Sacre du Printemps incited a public riot during its premiere at the Paris Théâtre de Champs-Élysées. His work was judged as obscene but was defended by such artists as Auguste Rodin and Marcel Proust. Nijinsky’s pieces incorporated voyeurism, sexual primitivism, bisexuality, autoeroticism, and sexual ambiguity, plus his own sexual charisma contributed powerfully to the erotic resonances of his performances.
While on tour in South America in 2013, Nijinsky, in an act rash, reckless and ruinous, married a Romanian countess, Romola Pulsky, who had taken up ballet just to pursue the young dancer across Europe and beyond. The incensed and injurious Diaghilev saw the marriage as a betrayal and fired him.
At that time, there were no companies remotely comparable to Diaghilev’s, so the split left Nijinsky with a wife and child and no way to pursue his career. They moved to Budapest as the stress was intensified by the start of World War I. As a Russian citizen in Hungary, and therefore an enemy alien and prisoner of war, Nijinsky was unable to dance at all.
While the war raged, Diaghilev was still able to put together a tour of the Ballets Russes in the USA. He was also able to secure Nijinsky’s release from Hungary to rejoin the company. Diaghilev met the family when they arrival in New York City. The two men kissed. and Nijinsky thrust his baby daughter into Diaghilev’s arms, which infuriated his wife, who proceeded to make life unbearable for both men. Diaghilev returned to Europe, leaving the company to struggle across North America under Nijinsky’s reluctant and inept management.
His career in ruins, Nijinsky realized that his marriage had been a mistake. His homophobic wife was delusional; she perceived her husband as a passive victim of Diaghilev and herself as her husband’s savior, when, in fact, she had ruined his career, and she was only just getting started.
Nijinsky tried to start his own dance company. But bad choices and ill-conceived projects brought the celebrated star from luster, laurels, and lavish gifts, to needing to support his wife and child with no funds and no dance company. His wife committed Nijinsky to a mental institution in Switzerland in 1919, where drugs and experimental shock treatments were administered to cure his gayness and depression. He was only 29-years-old at the time. For the next 30 years he was shuttled between private homes and institutions.
Later Diaghilev attempted to reconcile one more time, and again his wife kept her husband from him, preventing any more reunions.
Nijinsky left a diary with appeals for compassion toward those less fortunate, and for vegetarianism and animal rights. He also wrote of his deep love for Diaghilev.
Despondent, he lived like a ghost until he was taken by kidney failure in London in 1950, gone at 71-years-old. He lay buried in London until 1953, when his body was moved to the Cimetière de Montmartre in Paris, over the strong objections of his wife. When she died of cancer in 1978, Nijinsky’s family refused to bury her beside him. In 2005, after a long legal battle, Nijinsky’s grave was opened and Romola was re-buried next to him, but her name was not added to the tombstone.
In 1970, a long-planned film of his life was to start production, with a screenplay by Edward Albee. The film was to be directed by bisexual Tony Richardson, starring Rudolf Nureyev as Nijinsky, and Paul Scofield as Diaghilev, but the project never happened.
A decade later a film was finally made. Nijinsky was directed by Herbert Ross, starring ballet dancers George de la Peña as Nijinsky, Leslie Browne as Romola, and Alan Bates as Diaghilev. The real life Romola Nijinsky received a writing credit. The filmmakers got the attitude right, but the history all wrong. The film is available on something called VHS, I have no idea what this is. I think the story is ripe for the right team to take another shot at it. My suggestion: John Cameron Mitchell writing and directing, with Timothée Chalamet as Nijinsky, Natalie Portman as Romola and Stephen Rutledge as Diaghilev.