Nijinsky: ballet boy

written by Beth on March 12, 2013 in News with no comments

You may have seen yesterday’s Facebook gallery inspired by a ballet dancer and choreographer, Marius Petipa. Today, we continue that theme on the blog with another legendary dancer.

As a child, I loved ballet. I had lessons, I had the shoes, I read all the books aimed at young girls who want to dance – Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes, the entire Sadlers Wells series. They were all about girls in pink leotards and ribboned shoes, dreaming of performing in the biggest theatres to the greatest applause, encore after encore, roses falling at their feet. It was all so romantic. But these books were never about boys.

Then came Billy Elliott – a film that became a renowned West End stage hit. The story is of a young boy from a mining town who falls in love with ballet against the wishes of his traditionalist father. It’s a film which emphasises that life is not easy for young men who want to dance. This is a truism borne out by the life we’re discussing on the blog today.

'Giselle : Vaslav Nijinsky (dans le rôle de Albrecht, acte II)', French National Library, public domain

‘Giselle : Vaslav Nijinsky (dans le rôle de Albrecht, acte II)’, French National Library, public domain

Wacław Niżyński (or Vaslav Nijinsky) was the greatest male dancer of the early 20th century. Born in Kiev in the Russian Empire on 12 March 1889, his parents introduced him to dance and at just aged 9 he enrolled in the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg, the best ballet school around. In 1909 he joined Ballet Russes, which aimed to take Russian ballet to Paris where its like had never been seen. Nijinsky became the group’s star male dancer, captivating audiences with every performance. His virtuosity, strength and characterisation were astounding, his gravity-defying leaps legendary, and he was one of very few male dancers to be able to dance en pointe (on tip-toe with wooden blocks in his ballet shoes).

Illustration of Nijinsky dancing in 'L'Apres-midi d'un Faune', from a Ballet Russes programme: 'Programme officiel des Ballets russes : Théâtre du Châtelet, mai-juin 1912, [seize représentations de gala] : [troisième spectacle, 29 et 31 mai, 1er et 3 juin 1912]', French National Library, public domain

Illustration of Nijinsky dancing in ‘L’Apres-midi d’un Faune’, from a Ballet Russes programme: ‘Programme officiel des Ballets russes : Théâtre du Châtelet, mai-juin 1912, [seize représentations de gala] : [troisième spectacle, 29 et 31 mai, 1er et 3 juin 1912]‘, French National Library, public domain

Off-stage though, he was thought to be uninteresting to meet, even dull. But the same can’t be said of his private life. He had an affair with Ballet Russes’ founder, Sergei Diaghilev, which ended, along with Nijinsky’s welcome at Ballet Russes, when he married a Hungarian woman named Romola de Pulszky in 1913. They had a daughter, Kyra, who was born in June 1914.

Although Nijinsky had found some success choreographing ballets while with Diaghilev, he was unsuccessful in starting his own ballet company without him. Then, during the Second World War, Nijinsky found himself under house arrest in Hungary as an enemy Russian citizen, and was released only when Diaghilev intervened, offering him a tour of America.

Suzanne Farrell and Jorge Donn dance in a theatrical portrayal of the great dancer called 'Nijinsky: God's Mad Clown' by Glenn Blumstein. Image: 'Nijinsky, Clown de dieu', The Royal Library: The National Library of Denmark and Copenhagen University Library, copyrighted work available under a CC-BY-NC-ND licence

Suzanne Farrell and Jorge Donn dance in a theatrical portrayal of the great dancer called ‘Nijinsky: God’s Mad Clown’ by Glenn Blumstein. Image: ‘Nijinsky, Clown de dieu’, The Royal Library: The National Library of Denmark and Copenhagen University Library, copyrighted work available under a CC-BY-NC-ND licence

Sadly, the stress and strain of these years during which he had to manage his own tours and had few opportunities to dance, took its toll. Nijinsky’s mental health suffered as he obsessed over his love of ballet. Finally settling in Switzerland after the war, things didn’t get any better. Nijinsky’s mental state deteriorated to such an extent that he was unable to dance in public again. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and treatment proved unsuccessful. He died in 1950.

Ballet  has always been full of tales of high emotion, tantrums and breakdowns both on and off the stage. One of the most recent representations of this is the disturbing film, Black Swan. Is it that an artistic temperament is needed in order to pirouette ever faster, sauté ever higher? Or is it the pressure of performance and perfection that puts strain on artists? Whatever it is, I’m not sure it exists with other forms of dance. Have you ever seen a tap dancer do anything other than grin? I’m sure there’s nothing that brings a smile to your face like a step-ball-change or a shuffle-off-to-Buffalo. But on the other hand, tap dance doesn’t have the majestic beauty of ballet. Or the romance. Or the depth.

I think I’m going to get those ballet books back out of the attic and dream of Covent Garden again.