“I am not descended from flesh. I am God.”: It’s Vaslav Nijinsky’s Birthday

From Tennessee Williams’ semi-autobiographical last play, Something Cloudy, Something Clear:

CLARE. [to Kip] I’m about to deliver a lecture to him on making concessions in art.

KIP. For or against?

CLARE. I think any kind of artist — a painter like Van Gogh, a dancer like Nijinsky –

AUGUST. Both of them went mad.

CLARE. But others didn’t, refused to make concessions to bad taste and yet managed survival without losing their minds. That’s purity. You’ve got to respect it or not.

Vaslav Nijinsky was born in the late 19th century and was recognized as extremely gifted very early on during his time at the ballet school in St. Petersburg. He was chosen by choreographer and ballet master Serge Diaghilev to be the lead dancer in his company, the Ballets Russes. (See the fantastic documentary, The Ballets Russes for the story of this legendary company.)

Nijinsky was only in his early 20s, but he was already creating his own work, in particular three ballets that one can say without exaggeration changed the world: The Afternoon of a Faun, Jeux, and The Rite of Spring. The Rite of Spring, with its score by Stravinsky, is the most famous: at the ballet’s first performance in Paris in 1913, the audience rioted in outrage. Literally. The performance caused a riot. The Rite of Spring was part of a much larger artistic “movement”, representing the avant-garde, the experimental, slowly infiltrating the art world. (1913 was also the year of the famous Armory Show in New York, another “and nothing was the same after that” event. 1913 was a big year). Old forms were breaking up, 19th-century traditions shattering. Literature, music, dance, art, architecture, fashion, social mores: all were going through massive upheavals. In 1913, Gavrilo Princip stands in the wings, waiting for his entrance.

Ballet is one of the most conservative artforms on the planet. Opera is probably a close second. Tradition is key. The iron-clad form is how it survived. Nijinsky’s The Rite of Spring, though, confronted tradition and pushed on past it. It strolled into the future. It CREATED the future. The Rite of Spring came OUT of a tradition, but didn’t bow down before it. Hence: RIOTS.

Nijinksy and Diaghilev were lovers, and for a time it was a productive love affair. They were both working at the top of their forms. Their breakup was stormy and then Nijinsky married a woman named Romola, who sounds like a wretched human being. Nijinsky was fired from the Ballets Russes, and things really started to spiral out of control. Perhaps he had always been a little bit mad, but as long as he had the outlet of his art, and the protection of Diaghilev, his madness was used for creative purposes. Perhaps. These are the things people still discuss when it comes to Nijinsky. Was he mad? Could his tragic end have been prevented? So WHAT if he was a little bit mad? He was hospitalized repeatedly. The treatment in those “hospitals” was brutal. If you weren’t sick when you entered the hospital, you sure as hell were MADE sick during your stay. Romola would park her husband in a sanatorium and then travel the world, living it up, eating out on his name, lying to the press: “He’s getting ready for a comeback!” Meanwhile, Nijinsky was in a locked room, dozing off, his head drooping into his bowl of soup . He painted the walls with his feces. He was given hundreds of shock treatments and insulin treatments, which probably caused irreversible brain damage. It’s just a fucking devastating story.

His diaries were eventually published: The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky. I read them in high school with a sense of queasy curiosity. They haunted me. There were pictures of people visiting Nijinsky in the asylum and making him jump for them. It was so awful. His face is blank, he is an old stout-ish man, with a deteriorated mind, jumping in place to satisfy visitors he didn’t know. I consider his diaries a must-read: they are an extended rant about what it is like to be him, his hallucinations, his fantasies. He felt he was God-like, he was paranoid, he felt persecuted (understandable), and in moments of lucidity mourned all he had lost. The scariest part is he knew he was losing his mind.

Auden, in his great poem, “September 1, 1939”, writes:

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

The myth of Nijinsky is so gigantic – which is fascinating – since there is almost no footage of him dancing. ALMOST. There’s a rare clip of him from 1912 performing Faun.

You squint at the blurry image, trying to catch that flame of transcendence.

But most of his work comes to us through the myth of its reputation, the impact it had on those who were there. It’s like Laurette Taylor as Amanda Wingfield in the original production of The Glass Menagerie. There’s no footage of that performance. And so we must take people’s words for it, those who saw Nijinsky and had literally life-transformative experiences from it. They went out changed.

The words to describe Nijinsky by those who saw him dance, make one ache for a time machine. Professional writers struggle to find the words to describe his effect on audiences, and what it was he was actually doing. People talk about him being energy in the flesh, but also say that his persona onstage, and his ability as a dancer, touched the Gods. He is one of the greatest dancers of all time, and nobody alive today has seen him dance. Additionally, unless someone painstakingly wrote down all the steps, the actual ballets are lost to us. Attempts have been made to re-create his choreography, with varying degrees of success. Although he was classically trained, his ballets pushed the form towards modernism. The silhouettes were different, primal, flat, sharp-angled. He moved away from the flow and grace of ballet’s tradition. This was one of the things that was seen as so outrageous with The Rite of Spring (but, as Joan Acocella points out in her New Yorker essay about Nijinsky: the furor that erupted around The Rite of Spring is often presented as a reaction to Stravinsky’s score, which makes sense because the score still exists, we can listen to it, we can judge for ourselves. But the dance is lost. We only have eyewitness accounts as to what Nijinsky created, and tiny bits of footage. Important to remember that it was the music AND the dance that were controversial. Just because we can’t SEE something doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

Here is an excerpt from Acocella’s essay.

Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints: Essays, ‘After the Ball Was Over’, by Joan Acocella

Of Nijinsky we have only one twelve-minute ballet, The Afternoon of a Faun. Still, it is a great ballet – a watershed – and, together with Nijinsky’s other, missing ballets, it influenced later choreographers, notably hi sister, Bronislava Nijinska, whose reputation has had a tremendous reflowering in the past decade, and who claimed that everything she did came out of his work.

Beyond the question of his place in ballet’s historical record, Nijinsky’s life commands our attention by the sheer romantic force of its events. What a story this is! An awkward young boy who practically overnight becomes a world-famous dancer, then creates three ballets that change dance history, then jilts the world’s foremost ballet impresario, switches sexual orientations, marries a groupie, and goes raving mad, not without leaving behind an account of his conversations with God and a thorough inventory of his sexual practices: no wonder Romola thought this should be made into a movie. (It was, after her death – Herbert Ross’ dreadful 1980 Nijinsky.)

Whatever Nijinsky was in reality, he is by now a legend, a major cultural fact, and not just because of his extraordinary story but because of the way that story ties in with certain critical issues in ballet. Ballet’s relationship to time – the fact that the repertory, unanchored by text, is always vanishing, just as the dance image on the stage is always vanishing – forms a large part of the vividness and poignance of the art. We are always losing it, like life, and therefore we re-create it, mythologize it, in our minds. Nijinsky’s life – his rapid self-extinction and the disappearance of his ballets – is like a parable of that truth. If dance is disappearance, he is the ultimate disappearing act. Accordingly, he is held that much dearer. If many people today still believe that he was t he greatest dancer who has ever lived, that is partly because there are so few records of his dancing. Until recently, there were no known films of him. (Ostwald says that a short 1912 film of Nijinsky dancing in The Afternoon of a Faun was recently televised in Russia.)

His ballets have likewise been mythologized in their absence. Who can say whether The Rite of Spring was in fact the great modernist masterpiece that it is now claimed to be? Perhaps it was something more like the shaggy, dull, pseudo-folkloric thing that we saw in the Joffrey Ballet “reconstruction”. Many of those who were disappointed by the Joffrey version simply concluded that its flatness was due to its having been put together from such scrappy evidence – in other words, that it wasn’t really Nijinsky. But who knows?

Nijinksy taps into a final myth, that of the genius-madman. He was tagged with this label long before he went mad, just on the basis of the contrast between his onstage mastery and his offstage ineptitude. Diaghilev’s friend Misia Sert called Nijinksy an “idiot of genius”. And after he went insane the formula was pumped for all it was worth. Some writers described him as a kind of Russian yurodivy, or “holy fool”, a man who, like Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin, was incompetent in life because his vision of divine truth was too clear. Others invoked the moth-to-the-flame metaphor: Nijinsky was a man who tested the limits – in dancing, in choreography, in sex – and paid the price; he went farther out on the limb than the rest of us, and fell off; he died for our sins. The shadow of Christ – and of van Gogh, that modern avatar of Christ – hovers at the edge of all these images. As with van Gogh, the metaphor is reflexive: he went mad because he was a great artist, and he was a great artist because he went mad.

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2 Responses to “I am not descended from flesh. I am God.”: It’s Vaslav Nijinsky’s Birthday

  1. Donna Hill says:

    Nijinsky has long fascinated me. Two bios that are very good, if you have not read them are: Richard Buckle’s Nijinsky: A Life of Genius and Madness and Vere Krasovskaya‘s 1979 book Nijinsky. Also for incredible photos Lincoln Kirsten’s beautiful book Nijinsky Dancing. I regret that I could not travel to NY to see the NYPL exhibit on Nijinsky some years back.

    Diaghilev was not a choreographer, btw, entrepreneur. He did choreograph Nijinsky’s life and it is a shame, terrible what happened on that South American tour and the horrible aftermath. Romola was a piece of work. It is enlightening and tragic to read Dame Marie Lambert’s recollections of working with him while he was choreographing and creating Le Sacre du Printemps. How she was inspired and then realized she was in love with him. One does wonder, as you say, if his madness would have progressed as it did had he not impulsively married Romola in 1913.

    There is no footage of Nijinsky or any of the rest of the Ballet Russe company dancing (though I read somewhere that some footage has been found and was posted on youtube, I have yet to find it). The closest you can see, imo, are the photos taken in Jacques Emile Blanche’s garden. In one shot Nijinsky is caught in mid leap, and it is a powerful image. The video you linked to, as you know, is a digital creation based on the photos by Baron Adolf de Meyer (beautiful, other-worldly portraits of Nijinsky). The person who made those did a series of them, they give a glimpse of what we might have seen.

    If you have not seen the Joffrey Ballet tribute to Nijinsky where Rudolph Nureyev dances, Le Spectre de la Rose, L’apres Midi d’une Faune and Petrouchka, it is also worth seeking out. Joffrey recreated the Bakst sets and costumes from the 1911-1913 Ballet Russe and it is eye-poppingly gorgeous. I could sit down and talk to you of this great artist, tragic figure and legend for endless hours. Obsessed a little here, I guess. Sorry for the lengthy comments! Thank you for remembering him so beautifully on his birth anniversary.

  2. Mirkka Salo says:

    Thank you Sheila for the good article and beautiful pictures, some of them I have not seen before.
    Because both Nijinsky’s ballerina sister and his classmate Bourman who bullied Nijinsky in school and others have testified that “Vaslav Nijinsky can do entrechat dix, six meters long assamble, jump higher than his own hight” and other especially rare skills both for dancers of his time and dancers of later times, on my opinion it is unfair or lack of knowledge that it is questioned if he really was the best dancer of all known. He was. ❤️

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