In Nijinsky, ballet's spark of genius smothered by madness

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 June, 2013, 4:17pm


Nijinsky: A Life

by Lucy Moore


Vaslav Nijinsky was almost immobile at the last moment of his real life. Only his expressive hands moved, turning magazine pages as he waited outside the office of a pioneer psychiatrist at a Zurich asylum. After a consultation the doctor privately told Nijinsky's wife, Romola de Pulszky, that her husband was incurably mad. Nijinsky already knew his condition; he had kept an inventory of his own disintegration in a journal. There followed 31 years of schizophrenia with rare lucid episodes. He was never himself again.

Just days away from Nijinsky's 30th birthday in 1919, and the biography is almost all over but for a coda on a fading legend.

Half of his short life had been in training, first as the infant-phenomenon son of dancers scrabbling around the Russian provincial entertainment circuit - here the boy begged a tap lesson from a black American duo, there he fell into a circus animal act, or taught himself piano. Then his mother pulled every string to get him into the Mariinsky Theatre school in St Petersburg, a rigid classical grind, in the hope he might do well enough in ballet to retire on an imperial pension at 36. Nijinsky was a byproduct of pre-revolutionary Russia, a culture wide open to influences western and eastern, high and low.

The energy from his lowly childhood elevated him. As a student, he was cast by choreographer Mikhail Fokine, who wanted a male dancer with attitude to redress the sexual balance on stage - not a safe pair of hands to loft a prima ballerina, but a power. Nijinsky was certainly that.

When Fokine defected to Sergey Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1909, Nijinsky, aged 19, went too.

Diaghilev employed Nijinsky, clad and fed him, put rings on his fingers and original roles at his toes, and generated genius publicity. But he did not respect the very young man, paid him no salary, and kept him in isolation working too hard. Nijinsky listened in silence to Diaghilev's circle, looked intently in the galleries to which Diaghilev exposed him, and escaped only in dance. He found in his characters - the exultant, doomed slave in Scheherazade, the noble poet of Les Sylphides - a safe space in which he didn't have to be himself and he belonged to no one else.

Yet the greatest of his characters, the pathetic fairground puppet Petruschka clapping his mittened hands, was clearly Nijinsky with his pop-art past, bound like a serf to his showman master.

The Rite of Spring, which premiered in 1913, astonished Paris, but it was not the shocking triumph Diaghilev demanded: despite strenuous rehearsals the dancers were bewildered and the audience was wild, and mostly in quite the wrong way.

Nijinsky departed with the company for a South American tour, and De Pulszky, the daughter of a Hungarian diva, who had been stalking him - going so far as to learn the rudiments of ballet and attach herself to the company - pounced during the ocean voyage. Diaghilev learned of the improbable marriage of these twin immaturities in a telegram, and cast his favourite off for ever, except when, desperate for funds, he needed him to star in the old roles on money-making - in fact money-losing - tours.

It was all doom from then on, and Lucy Moore does doom divinely. She is blunt about her ignorance of ballet: although she often refers to the memoirs of Nijinsky's gifted sister Bronia, whose brutal choreography for Les Noces is the nearest we shall ever get to seeing her brother's Rite, Moore never cites Bronia's analyses of his dances, so vivid you can project his moves on your eyelids. Although the Diaghilev-Nijinsky experiment trialled all the phases and images of modern showbiz, Moore keeps away from the practice of celebrity, too, but for focusing on a vignette of Nijinsky and Charlie Chaplin, waifs woebegone together one day in California.

What she writes about with angry unsentimentality is the absurd waste of Nijinsky's post- Rite existence, from the parody of a rom-com aboard the liner bound for Buenos Aires to his final performance in a Swiss hotel in 1919, in which he danced his own disintegration, and that of the world at war.

The life of a dancer is brief - Nijinsky would have collected his pension in just six more years if he hadn't staged his exit from the Mariinsky over wearing a tunic that displayed his sublime behind, and if the tsar hadn't already been shot - but his final curtain was cruel, and Moore lowers the darkness with great tenderness.

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