Book review: Nijinsky by Lucy Moore

Nijinsky in Le Spectre de la Rose. Picture: Getty
Nijinsky in Le Spectre de la Rose. Picture: Getty
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NIJINSKY’S dancing was sublime. His life – well, that was a godawful mess, as Lucy Moore’s new biography makes excruciatingly clear.


by Lucy Moore

Profile Books, 320pp, £25

What’s more, Nijinsky reveals that dramatic off-stage intrigue – such as the acid attack on the Bolshoi’s artistic director in March – is nothing new. Every member of the Ballets Russes – highly strung drama queens, to a man and woman – believed he or she was the most important person in the troupe. As one American press officer noted: “I had never imagined that the interpersonal relations of the members of a group could be so involved and complex, full of medieval intrigue, illicit love, misdirected passion and aggression.”

Vaslav Formich Nijinsky was born and raised to dance – as was his talented sister, Bronia, who was actually delivered in a dressing room after their mother went into labour while dancing a polonaise in Minsk. The family was Polish, though Nijinsky’s parents, living a hand-to-mouth existence as migrant dancers, met in Odessa, and he was born in Kiev on 12 March, 1889.

Eleven-year-old Vaslav secured one of the few coveted places in the Imperial Theatre School, famous for its austere, rigorous training. He was bullied by classmates because he was Polish, spoke with an accent, and was terribly poor. They nearly killed him with a prank involving a soaped-up floor, and he lay in a coma for five days. He had the last laugh, of course, because even in his teens he was so blatantly exceptional that after his final exam the judges burst into applause.

What made Nijinsky’s dancing so special? His sister Bronia’s description may be the most lyrical: “As he extends upwards, a barely perceptible quiver runs through his body; his left hand close to his face, he seems to be listening to sounds, only heard by him, which fill all his being. He radiates an inner force that by its very radiance envelops the theatre, establishing a complete rapport with the audience.” Nijinsky was equally renowned for his gravity-defying leaps – he seemed to linger in the air. Off stage, by contrast, Nijinsky was taciturn, with a marked inability to express himself. People found him uninteresting.

Nijinsky understood the effect his dancing had on people, and he understood celebrity culture. After graduation he joined the Imperial ballet as coryphe, one step below soloist, and was paired with Anna Pavlova and Mathilde Ksheninskaya (the reigning prima ballerina assoluta of her day). During his career he made two key contributions, first, in drawing attention to the power and skill of male dancers, and later, Moore explains, “by taking the first bold steps towards abstraction in dance. His method of almost sculptural choreography . . . is commonplace today, but no-one had worked this way before Nijinsky.” He worked from the inside out, testing every move on his own body before communicating it to the other dancers – albeit as clumsily as he communicated everything requiring him to speak.

Though Nijinsky was probably not gay, according to Moore, two of his most important relationships were with men. The first, with Prince Pavel Lvov, gave him a taste for finery and decadence. Moore explains that the benefits of this liaison outweighed any concerns Nijinsky or indeed his mother might have had, adding that although homosexuality was then illegal in Russia, “it was commonly accepted that lower-class men . . . would, for a small sum and out of a certain deference, have sex with men of a higher social standing.”

In the wings, literally, was Sergey Diaghilev. He and the dancer grew closer and closer, with Nijinsky actively doing all he could to attract the older man’s attention – aided and abetted by Prince Lvov, who encouraged Nijinsky, partly because trading lovers was the done thing, partly because he knew it would further the 19-year-old’s career.

Nijinsky late wrote about his first sexual encounter with Diaghilev: “I hated him, but I put up a pretence, for I knew that my mother and I would starve to death. . . [I] pretended that I agreed with all his views. . . . it did not matter to me what sacrifice I made.” Shortly after this, in 1909, Nijinsky joined Diaghilev in Paris, where the Ballets Russes was engaged to perform. The audience went wild. “Until the Russians’ arrival in Paris, ballet had been seen as an all but dead art form,” writes Moore. Ballerinas were presumed to be demi-mondaines, and wealthy gentlemen were encouraged to ogle them during rehearsals, as if window shopping.

Yet the Russians, and Nijinsky above all, worked relentlessly in the practice studio. He performed his routines and exercises at double the speed of others to build up his strength, so that once on stage, his movements would appear effortless. Did it work? Composer Reynaldo Hahn said, “When one has seen Nijinsky dance, nothing else matters.”

Along with performing, Nijinsky branched out into choreography – most famously L’Après-midi d’un faune, and Le Sacré du Printemps, both of which which caused outrage when they premièred, because of their unusual movements and sexually suggestive content. This did nothing to diminish Nijinsky’s celebrity status.

But Nijinsky’s heyday was short-lived. From 1910 he was an exile from Russia – effectively stateless – because he refused to perform national service. Nijinsky’s mental health was fragile, too, a weakness exacerbated by sheer hard work. Then he fell out with Bronia in 1913, when she withdrew from dancing a leading role in Le Sacré du Printemps, because she was pregnant.

On a trip to South America in 1913 – made without Diaghilev – he formally met Romola de Pulszky, who had effectively been stalking him for ages, even winning a place in the dance troupe to be near her idol. She followed him around the ship until, after 16 days, he sent an emissary, who said, “Romolo Carlovna, as Nijinsky cannot speak to you himself, he has requested me to ask you in marriage.” The ceremony took place on 10 September, four days after docking in Buenos Aires. Diaghilev, informed by telegraph, fell to pieces, then promptly fired his star. Bronia read about the wedding in a newspaper headline.

This was not a true meeting of minds – he wanted to share his art; she wanted to share his wealth – nevertheless, they did love one another. They quickly had a daughter, and Nijinsky proved an engaged father.

Diaghilev, never one to miss a business opportunity, invited Nijinsky back into the company to star in a fresh Ballets Russes tour. It was a disaster, partly because he returned to Europe, leaving Nijinsky in charge of the troupe.

The dancer fell under the spell of two Rasputin-like figures, began wearing coarse shirts (previously he favoured silk) and stopped eating meat. It was a passing phase, but the deterioration in his mental health wasn’t. He was paranoid and withdrawn, and abusive to dancers during rehearsals. In autumn of 1917, he and Romola retreated to Switzerland in an effort to repair his health.

For a while domestic life soothed him. But he also took long, silent walks – and he suffered hallucinations. He attempted to strangle the nanny in a fit of rage. He also kept a diary from 19 January to 4 March, 1919. According to its translator, “It is the only sustained, on-the-spot (not retrospective) written account, by a major artist, of the experience of entering psychosis.” The diary ended when Nijinsky was admitted to the state asylum in Zurich. An assessing doctor told Romola that her husband was incurably insane.

From this point on, Moore’s book is depressing reading. Nijinsky had a terrible time in that primitive asylum, often begging for poison so he could kill himself. He left briefly in 1920 – nine months later Romola had their second daughter – and again in 1923, when the family reunited in Paris. Romola came into her own, trying everything she could to earn money. When Diaghilev came to visit, and asked Nijinsky to dance again, he replied: “I cannot because I am mad.”

Some felt his madness was selective and self-induced, the theory being that society forced Nijinsky to adopt a false self, and he retaliated by retreating into himself. Moore floats other theories, suggesting he might have suffered from a schizophrenic disorder, been bipolar, or on the Asperger’s spectrum.

Nijinsky was alone in Paris in 1928 – Romola fled to New York, trying to make a life – being badly looked after by paid attendants. In April 1929 Romola asked the Swiss clinic to fetch her husband from Paris. “The nurses they sent found him in a cell in an apartment, neglected, raving and smeared in faeces.”

During the Second World War, husband and wife were reunited in Budapest. Romola rose to the occasion, writes Moore. “For five years she managed to keep them both fed, clothed and alive, while she looked after a seriously ill man in the most challenging of conditions.” They emigrated to England in 1948, living there until Nijinsky’s death in Sussex in 1950. He left Romola just £30.

Moore’s style is novelistic, but there’s no reason to believe that she’s taken imaginative flight, for her bibliography and footnotes (highly readable in their own right) are extensive. She doesn’t take sides, giving us the good and the bad in people, without resorting to finger-wagging.

There is much enjoyment here for anyone curious about the milieu in which Nijinsky moved – from gossip about Tsars’ love affairs, to potted biographies of the many colourful players in his story, including Igor Stravinsky, Claude Debussy, and designer Léon Bakst. Moore explains the complicated economics of ballet, reminding us that it a business, as well as an art form. And she devotes a chapter to the cultivation of the Nijinsky legend.

Despite the sad, upsetting nature of Nijinsky’s story, Moore’s enjoyable biography does a fine job of explaining not only who Nijinsky was, but – once you peel away the glitter – why he really mattered.