Vaslav Nijinsky


Ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky (1889-1950), was born in Kiev, Ukraine, to ethnic Polish parents who were on tour as dancers in their own troupe. He was later christened Wacław Niżyński in Warsaw. Vaslav was later responsible for reestablishing the prominence of the male ballet dancer, and he achieved fame as a brilliant, controversial choreographer. He was also one of the few male dancers to perform en pointe . Unfortunately, for all the brilliance of his technique, charisma and talent, his avant-garde career lasted only a few short years before ending in tragedy.

While still a teenager, Nijinsky, possessed of a distinctly androgynous appearance, had a homosexual affair with the much older Prince Pavel Dimitrievitch Lvov, who showered him with luxuries, providing an apartment, splendid clothes and diamond rings; as well, the prince assisted Nijinsky’s mother financially. His affair with the prince was quickly followed by one with Count Tishkievitch. During that time Nijinsky became the leading star of the Mariinsky Ballet and was a frequent guest star at the Bolshoi Ballet, in spite of his being short and having a stocky build. His most famous partner was none other than Anna Pavlova, and his talent and fame were such that he counted Tsar Nicholas II among his patrons. By the time he was nineteen, Vaslav had begun his romantic and professional partnership with dance impresario Sergei Diaghilev, a Russian nobleman under whose tutelage Nijinsky became known as the God of Dance . Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes dance company was without peer in Europe, and Nijinsky became its star by the age of twenty.

Vaslav had been admitted to the St. Petersburg Imperial School of Ballet at the age of 10, and upon graduation joined the Imperial Ballet as a soloist, a rare feat. His reputation grew with each dance performance in Russia and Paris, and soon he was choreographing his own works, which broke with classical tradition, to put it mildly. At 22 as principal of the Ballets Russes , he performed his own creation in Paris, based on Claude Debussy’s music, L'Après-midi d'un faune (1912), which ended with Nijinsky, dressed as a faun in a skin tight costume (above), miming masturbation into a wisp of fabric while on stage. Nijinsky said, “I don’t know what happened, but I had an orgasm right there on stage.” The public and critical responses were what you might expect for 1912. While in Paris the next season his angular, jerky choreography for Stravinsky’s throbbing, primitive sounding Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) incited a public riot during its premiere. His works incorporated voyeurism, sexual primitivism, bisexuality, autoeroticism, and sexual ambiguity.
While on tour in South America later that year, he impulsively married Romola de Pulszky, a Hungarian corps-de-ballet dancer who had been chasing him around the globe. Their wedding in Buenos Aires resulted in professional tragedy. Enraged when he got the news, Diaghilev fired him. Nijinsky attempted to strike out on his own, but was unsuccessful in starting his own dance troupe. Accustomed to being adored, pampered and lavished with luxuries, he found himself broke, unemployed and responsible for supporting a manipulative, domineering wife and children in Hungary, while still in his mid-20s. When WW I broke out, he was living in Budapest and, as a Russian citizen, was incarcerated as an enemy prisoner of war. In 1916 Diaghilev rescued him by arranging for Vaslav and his family to arrive in New York City, so he could join a Russian touring company. Nijinsky’s wife was jealous of the former lovers’ reunion and thwarted their reconciliation at every turn. As a result, Diaghilev abandoned Nijinsky and returned to Europe, while the tour company struggled under Nijinsky’s inept management.
His career in ruins and bereft of a patron, Nijinsky realized that his marriage had been a grave mistake. He was also depressed by the war and began to recede into delusion. His homophobic wife was also delusional, in that she perceived Vaslav as a passive victim of Diaghilev’s lechery, and herself as her husband’s savior, when, in fact, she had single handedly ruined his career. But she was just getting started. Romola committed Nijinsky to a mental institution in Switzerland in 1919, where drugs and experimental shock treatments were administered in an attempt to cure his homosexuality and depression. He was only 29 years old at the time, and his wife’s actions effectively destroyed him – he never danced again. For the next 30 years he was shuttled between private homes and institutions until he died of kidney failure in London in 1950.
Vaslav lay buried in London until 1953, when his body was moved to the Cimetière de Montmartre in Paris, over the strong objections of Romola. When she died of cancer in 1978, Nijinsky's family refused to bury her beside him. In 2005, after a long legal battle, Nijinsky's sepulcher was opened and Romola was re-buried next to Nijinsky, but her name was not added to the tombstone.