The supreme dancer with a tragic soul
Book Review: Nijinsky: A Life, Lucy Moore Profile books, €31.50
Vaslav (pronounced 'Vatslav') Nijinsky was born in 1889 in Kiev, now the capital of the independent Ukraine but then part of the Russian empire. His parents were itinerant dancers who toured the provinces, performing in circuses and music halls, and making a precarious living. When Vaslav was just eight, his father abandoned the family for another woman, an event which marked the young boy deeply. Five years later, his brother Stassik, who, after a fall at the age of two, had never developed mentally, was committed to a psychiatric hospital.
From very early on, Nijinksy, with his parents' encouragement, evinced not just an interest in, but a great talent for, dancing, and, at the age of 10, he was admitted to the Imperial Theatre School in St Petersburg to train professionally. Although he frequently got into trouble and was poor in the more academic subjects, it quickly became apparent that he was a dancer without equal – in time he would be called God of the Dance – and a glittering career beckoned.
As he began that career, Nijinsky attracted the attentions of the wealthy playboy prince, Pavel Lvov, who showered him, his mother and his sister with everything money could buy.
Although he was probably not homosexual, Nijinsky responded, writing years later: "I loved him because I knew he wished me well."
Homosexuality in Tsarist Russia was officially outlawed but widely practised: older, wealthy 'gentlemen' would not only cruise at night in pick-up spots around St Petersburg but accumulate strings of catamites and pass them round each other like pretty little playthings.
Thus in time, Lvov steered Nijinsky in the direction of the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, director of the Russian Ballet.
It was under Diaghilev that Nijinksy achieved his greatness as a dancer and, later, as a choreographer. Lucy Moore insists that Diaghilev lived solely for art, that money and possessions simply didn't interest him. It seems clear, however, that he wanted to possess Nijinsky.
Nijinsky had a stage presence, a style of dance, a way of rising above the earth into the ethereal, the other, the supramundane that set him apart from all other dancers, and Diaghilev capitalised on this. But he was a poor businessman, forever incurring debt, and expected Nijinsky always to do without a salary or independence, to live as a kept man.
When the Russian Ballet performed in Budapest in 1911, a young socialite, Romola de Pulszky, was in the audience. She immediately set her sights on Nijinsky, and inveigled her way into the ballet as a trainee dancer to get close to him.
It took her a while but eventually she caught his eye, and the two were married in Argentina, even though they had no common language in which to communicate.
However, she was selfish, avaricious and vain, and did Nijinsky more harm than good.
Despite his glory, perhaps because of it, Nijinsky spent the last 30 years of his life suffering from mental illness.
Different doctors offered different diagnoses, prescribed different treatments, but nothing worked.
He was a shell of a man, as though the gaps others had seen in him earlier had grown and filled him.
Ms Moore presents Nijinsky as a great but tragic figure, one whose practice of art – unlike those around him – was pure and innocent, as though he never ceased to be the little boy whose dancing so pleased his family.
She argues that art "will always be the highest of human ideals".
Yet art for Nijinsky was a trap, especially when his mind gave way. Nonetheless, she has done what all good biographers should do – make us want to see Nijinsky in action, to behold him dance.
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