Vaslav Nijinsky

From Academic Kids

Vaslav Fomich Nijinsky (Вацлав Фомич Нижинский, Polish language: Wacław Niżyński) (March 12, 1890April 8, 1950) was a Polish-born Russian ballet dancer and choreographer.

Thought to be among the great male dancers in history, he studied at the Imperial Dancing Academy, Saint Petersburg, Russia, and would become celebrated for his virtuosity and for the depth and intensity of his characterizations. He could perform en pointe, a rare skill among male dancers at the time (Albright, 2004) and his ability to perform seemingly gravity-defying leaps was also legendary.

He was born in Kiev, Ukraine, to a a Russified Polish dancers' family; despite poor language knowledge, he regarded himself as a Pole. In 1900 he acted in the St. Petersburg theatrical school under the management of N.G. Legat, M.K. Obukhov and Enrico Cecchetti. At 18 years old he had leading roles in the Mariinsky Theatre.

A turning point for Nijinsky was his meeting with Sergei Diaghilev, a member of the St Petersburg elite and wealthy patron of the arts, promoting Russian visual and musical art abroad, particularly in Paris. Nijinsky and Diaghilev became lovers, and Diaghilev became heavily involved in directing Nijinsky's career. In 1909 Diaghilev took a company to Paris, with Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova as the leads. The show was a great success and increased the reputation of both the leads and Diaghilev throughout the artistic circles of Europe. Diaghilev created Les Ballets Russes in its wake, and with choreographer Michel Fokine, made it one of the most well-known companies of the time.

Nijinsky's talent was showed in Fokine's pieces such as “Pavilion Armidy” (music by Nikolai Tcherepnin), “Cleopatra” (music by Anton Arensky and other Russian composers) and a divertissement “The Feast”. His execution of a pas de deux from the “Sleeping Beauty” (Tchaikovsky) was a tremendous success; in 1910 he shone in “Giselle”, and Fokine’s ballets “The Carnival” and “Scheherazade” (based on the orchestral suite by Rimsky-Korsakov).

Then Nijinsky went back to the Mariinsky Theatre, but was soon dismissed as a result of scandal and became a regular member of Diaghilev’s troupe, whose projects centered around him. He had leading roles in Fokine's new productions “The Spectre of the Rose” (Weber) and Igor Stravinsky's “Petrushka”.

With Diaghilev's support, Nijinsky began to work as a choreographer himself, influenced by Dalcroze's eurhythmics, producing three ballets, L’Aprs-midi d’un Faune (The Afternoon of a Faun, with music by Claude Debussy) (1912), Jeux (1913), Till Eulenspiegel (1916) and Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring, with music by Igor Stravinsky (1913). Nijinsky created revolutionary movements in his shows, moving away from the traditional flowing movements of mainstream ballet. His radical angular movements combined with heavy sexual overtones caused a riot in the Thtre de Champs-Elyses when Le Sacre du Printemps was premiered in Paris. He had "masturbated" with the faun's scarf in The Afternoon of the Faun (Albright, 2004).

In 1913 the Ballets Russes toured South America, and because of his fear of ocean voyages Diaghilev did not accompany them. Without his mentor's supervision Nijinsky fell in love with Romola de Pulszky, a Hungarian ballerina. They were married in Buenos Aires: when the company returned to Europe, Diaghilev, in a jealous rage, fired them both. Nijinsky tried to create his own troupe, but its crucial London engagement failed due to administrative problems.

During World War I Nijinsky, a Russian citizen, was interned in Hungary. Diaghilev succeeded in getting him out for a North American tour in 1916, during which he choreographed and danced the leading role in Till Eulenspiegel. Signs of his dementia praecox were becoming apparent to members of the company. He became afraid of other dancers and that a trap door would be left open.

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 by psychiatrist Eugene Bleuler. He spent the rest of his life in and out of psychiatric hospitals and asylums. He also wrote a two-part diary then. He died in a London clinic on April 8, 1950 and was buried in London until 1953 when his body was moved to Cimetire de Montmartre, Paris, France beside the graves of Gaetano Vestris, Theophile Gautier, and Emma Livry.

He is mentioned in Groucho Marx's song Lydia the Tattooed Lady and W.H. Auden's poem "September 1, 1939". Presumably, the famous race horse, Nijinsky II, was named after him.

In 2001, his diaries were adapted into a film by Paul Cox. The screenplay was written directly from the diaries by Cox and then read over related imagery. The subject matter included his work, his sickness, and his relationships with Diaghilev as well as his wife.


  • Albright, Daniel (2004). Modernism and Music: An Anthology of Sources, p.19. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226012670.

External links

fr:Vaslav Nijinski ja:ヴァーツラフ・ニジンスキー pl:Wacław Niżyński


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