Vaslav Nijinsky: burning briefly, but brightly

Vaslav Nijinsky: burning briefly, but brightly

Nijinsky's creative biography is only ten years long, but during this time he managed to succeed as a dancer, choreographer and reformer.

Inherited talent

Vaslav Nijinsky (Wacław Niżyński) was born in 1889 in Kiev, his parents were ballet dancers. During that time, the family toured extensively, and their son debuted on stage when he was only 5 years old. He danced the hopak in the Odessa theater production enterprise.

The Nijinskys had bad luck: there was no permanent troupe and they had to take odd jobs. Soon, the father left the family, and the mother with three children left for St. Petersburg.

For Vaslav, whose dancing talent was discovered when he was a child, the move became a springboard. In 1898, he entered the St. Petersburg Ballet School. Seven years later, the choreographer Mikhail Fokine, who was a teacher there, staged the ballet Acis and Galatea for the graduates. He invited Nijinsky to play the faun, although this was against the rules as the young man wasn’t a graduate yet. This is how Nijinsky danced on the Mariinsky stage for the first time and got rave reviews of the audience. In his Materials on the History of Russian Ballet, Mikhail Borisoglebsky quotes the following recollections of his contemporaries: 

“Nijinsky amazed everyone: the young artist is barely 15 years old and he is going to spend another two years at school. It is especially nice to see such exceptional capabilities. Lightness and elevation, together with remarkably smooth and beautiful movements, are amazing."

After graduating from school, the dancer entered the Mariinsky Theater, where he quickly became a principal. Over the next few years, the outstanding ballerinas of the time - Tamara Karsavina, Mathilde Kschessinska, Olga Preobrazhenskaya, Anna Pavlova - were his stage partners. Nijinsky performed parts in Mikhail Fokine's ballets Le Pavillon d'Armide (1907), Egyptian Nights (1908), Chopiniana (1908). Vaslav Nijinsky had a trouble-free career until 1911, when he was fired from the Mariinsky with a scandal.

The reason for the expulsion from the theater was the indignation of the Emperor’s family, caused by the look of the artist in the production of Giselle. His costume was considered absolutely indecent, although today a tight-fitting leotard on a male dancer doesn’t surprise anyone. 

The Birdman and a daring choreographer

After the Mariinsky, a new stage began in Nijinsky's creative life. Back in 1909, the artist successfully participated in Diaghilev's Russian Seasons. After being fired from the St. Petersburg theater, the dancer continued his collaboration with the great impresario. Until 1913, Vaslav Nijinsky was appearing on stage during the Russian Seasons, the audience adored him. High and extended jumps became the signature element of the dancer, thanks to them he was called The Birdman and The King of Air.

But Nijinsky didn’t stop after he had achieved the role of a principal. When Fokine left the troupe, he became a ballet master. His choreographic debut was the production of the Afternoon of a Faun to the music by Claude Debussy. Then Nijinsky staged the ballet The Rite of Spring to Stravinsky's music for the Russian Seasons - this was an expressionist work with original plastique and unusual rhythm. The result of working with the composer Igor Stravinsky turned out ambiguous: the premiere was a scandal, many didn’t understand and didn’t accept the performance. Later, Stravinsky wrote in his memoirs: 

“During the whole performance I was at Nijinsky's side in the wings. He stood on a chair, screaming: "sixteen, seventeen, eighteen" - they had their own method of counting to keep time. Naturally, the poor dancers could hear nothing by reason of the row in the auditorium and the sound of their own dance steps. I had to hold Nijinsky by his clothes, for he was furious, and ready to dash on to the stage at any moment and create a scandal.”

 The unsuccessful premiere didn’t break the spirit of Nijinsky the choreographer. He boldly experimented in yet another production - Games to the music by Debussy. In this plotless ballet, as in the two previous productions, one could easy see a challenge to the existing ballet canons. 

The notable merit of Vaslav Nijinsky in ballet choreography lies not only in his originality and fresh eyes. He paid special attention to virtuoso male dance: obviously, in this case the ballet master was helped by the view of a genius dancer. 

Difficulties and challenges

After the "Diaghilev" period, Nijinsky began to experience difficulties. He tried to establish his own theatrical enterprise, the company had 17 people in it. They decided to show a repertoire, based on the productions by Nijinsky and Fokine, at the Palace Theater in London. However, these performances didn’t have success with the public.

In 1916, the dancer entered the stage as a member of the Russian Ballet: Diaghilev invited him to join their American tour. Nijinsky performed his star roles in the ballets Petrushka and The Spirit of the Rose at the Metropolitan Opera.

The last premiere for Nijinsky was the production of Till Eulenspiegelhe, which he choreographed and danced the main role in. The ballet was first seen by the audience of the Manhattan Opera in the same year 1916. Unfortunately, this performance was also a failure.

A year later, Vaslav Nijinsky danced for the last time in the ballet The Spirit of the Rose. A year later he wrote a book, The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky. This was followed by almost 30 years of stage neglect and personal hardships: for a long time, he was treated for schizophrenia and died in 1950 in London. 

Brilliant plastique and acting depths

Nijinsky left the stage and the world of ballet long before his death. But in a few years of his brilliant career, the talent of a dancer and choreographer was highly appreciated by both the audience and professionals. Ballet critics called him the eighth wonder of the world, the audience idolized for the ability to profoundly transform. Expressionist plastique has become a distinctive feature of Nijinsky's choreography: both in his dances and productions. 

Sarah Bernhardt once said about Nijinsky: 

“I see the greatest actor in the world!”