Nijinsky, Vaslav

Nijinsky, Vaslav
orig. Vatslav Fomich Nizhinsky

born March 12, 1890, Kiev, Ukraine, Russian Empire
died April 8, 1950, London, Eng.

Russian ballet dancer.

After early lessons from his parents, famous dancers with their own company, he and his sister, Bronislava Nijinska, trained further in St. Petersburg, and he joined the Mariinsky Theatre company in 1907. With his spectacular leaps and unrivaled grace, he was an immediate success, dancing leading roles in Giselle, Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty, often with Anna Pavlova and Tamara Karsavina. In 1909 he joined the new Ballets Russes, and he created many roles in Michel Fokine's ballets, including Carnaval, Les Sylphides, Le Spectre de la rose, Petrushka, and Daphnis and Chloe. In 1912–13 he choreographed The Afternoon of a Faun, Jeux, and The Rite of Spring, all of which caused scandals. His marriage in 1913 led to his dismissal from the company by his mentor, Sergey Diaghilev. He continued to perform but with less success. His intensifying mental illness led to his retirement in 1919, and he lived mostly in mental institutions in Switzerland, France, and England until his death. His status as a legend is unequaled in the history of dance.

Nijinsky in Spectre de la rose.

By courtesy of the Dance Collection, the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center, Roger Pryor Dodge Collection

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▪ Russian dancer
Russian in full  Vatslav Fomich Nizhinsky  
born March 12 [Feb. 28, old style], 1890, Kiev
died April 8, 1950, London

      Russian-born ballet dancer of almost legendary fame, celebrated for his spectacular leaps and sensitive interpretations. After a brilliant school career, Nijinsky became a soloist at the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, in 1907, appearing in such classical ballets as Giselle, Swan Lake, and The Sleeping Beauty. In 1909 he joined Sergey Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, and the company's choreographer Michel Fokine created Le Spectre de la rose, Petrushka, Schéhérazade, and other ballets expressly for him. Nijinsky's own works as a choreographer include L'Après-midi d'un faune and Le Sacre du printemps.

      Vaslav was the second son of Thomas Laurentiyevich Nijinsky and Eleonora Bereda; both his parents were celebrated dancers, and his father in particular was famous for his virtuosity and enormous leaps. The Nijinskys had their own dance company and performed throughout the Russian Empire. Nijinsky's childhood was mostly spent in the Caucasus, where he danced as a small child with his brother Stanislav and his little sister Bronisława. His father, noticing the child's great disposition for dancing, gave him his first lessons.

      At the age of nine, at the end of August 1898, Nijinsky entered the Imperial School of Dancing in St. Petersburg, where his teachers, the foremost of the time, soon discovered his extraordinary talent. When he was 16 years old, they urged him to graduate and enter the Mariinsky Theatre. Nijinsky declined, preferring to fulfill the customary period of study. At the time he already had been heralded as the “eighth wonder of the world” and the “Vestris of the North” (in reference to Auguste Vestris, a famous French dancer of the 18th century). During his school years he appeared at the Mariinsky Theatre, first as a member of the corps de ballet, later in small parts. He danced in St. Petersburg before the Tsar at the Chinese Theatre of Tsarskoe Selo and the Hermitage Theatre of the Winter Palace.

      Nijinsky was graduated in the spring of 1907 and on July 14, 1907, joined the Mariinsky Theatre as a soloist. His first appearance was in the ballet La Source with the Russian ballerina Julia Sedova as his partner; the public and the ballet critics burst out immediately in wild enthusiasm. Among his Mariinsky partners were three great ballerinas, Mathilde (Kschessinska, Mathilde) Kschessinskaya, Anna Pavlovna Pavlova (Pavlova, Anna), and Tamara Platonovna Karsavina (Karsavina, Tamara Platonovna). As danseur noble, he danced the leading parts in many ballets, including Ivanotschka, Giselle, Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and Chopiniana. From 1907 to 1911 Nijinsky danced all of the leading parts at the Mariinsky Theatre and at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, where he was a guest performer. His success was phenomenal.

      In 1909 Sergey Diaghilev (Diaghilev, Sergey Pavlovich), former assistant to the administrator of the Imperial Theatres, was commissioned by the grand duke Vladimir to organize a ballet company of the members of the Mariinsky and Bolshoi theatres. Diaghilev decided to take the company to Paris in the spring and asked Nijinsky to join as principal dancer. Its first performance was on May 17, 1909, at the Théâtre du Châtelet. Nijinsky took Paris by storm. The expression and beauty of his body, his featherweight lightness and steel-like strength, his great elevation and incredible gift of rising and seeming to remain in the air, and his extraordinary virtuosity and dramatic acting made him a genius of the ballet. From 1907 to 1912 he worked with the company's choreographer, Michel Fokine (Fokine, Michel). With his phenomenal talent for characterization, he created some of his most renowned roles in Fokine's Le Carnaval, Les Sylphides (a revision of Chopiniana), Le Spectre de la rose, Schéhérazade, Petrushka, Le Dieu bleu, Daphnis et Chloé, and Narcisse. His later ballets were Mephisto Valse, Variations on the Music of Johann Sebastian Bach, Les Papillons de nuit, and The Minstrel. Until 1917 Nijinsky appeared all over Europe, in the United States, and in South America. He was called le dieu de la danse.

      In 1912 he began his career as a choreographer. He created for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes the ballets L'Après-midi d'un faune, Jeux, and Le Sacre du printemps. Till Eulenspiegel was produced in the United States without Diaghilev's personal supervision. His work in the field of choreography was generally considered daringly original.

      Nijinsky married Romola, countess de Pulszky-Lubocy-Cselfalva, in Buenos Aires on Sept. 10, 1913. During part of World War I and again in World War II, he was interned in Hungary as a Russian subject. In 1919, at the age of 29, he retired from the stage, owing to a nervous breakdown, which was diagnosed as schizophrenia. He lived from 1919 until 1950 in Switzerland, France, and England, and died in London in 1950. Nijinsky is buried next to Auguste Vestris in the cemetery of Montmartre in Paris.

Romola Nijinsky

Additional Reading
The standard biographies, both by his wife, Romola Nijinsky, are Nijinsky (1933), and The Last Years of Nijinsky (1952), both reprinted in 1980. Bronisława Nijinska, Early Memoirs (Eng. trans. 1981), the first volume of his sister's life, is an invaluable source containing previously unpublished material about Nijinsky's childhood. Other important studies are Geoffrey Withworth, Nijinsky (1911); Cyril W. Beaumont, Nijinsky (1932); Colin Wilson, The Outsider (1956); and Lincoln Kirstein, Nijinsky Dancing (1975). Nijinsky's diary was published as The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky (1936). Nijinsky As We Knew Him (1972), is a collection of reminiscences of the dancer by such prominent writers, artists, musicians, and dancers as Paul Claudel, Jean Cocteau, Auguste Rodin, Marcel Proust, Sergei Prokofiev, and Tamara Karsavina.

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Universalium. 2010.

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