The first biography of Vaslav Nijinsky, which appeared in 1934, was written by his wife Romola with the help of two ghosts — the young Lincoln Kirstein and Little Blue Bird, an obliging spirit called up by a psychic medium to provide information from beyond the grave. Needless to say, the book wasn’t entirely accurate; and nor, two years later, was her edition of Nijinsky’s confessional diaries, a stream-of-consciousness record of his descent into madness, which she censored, restructured and cut by over a third. It took Richard Buckle’s now classic life of the dancer (published in l971 and amended after Romola’s death) to sort fact from fiction and recreate the phenomenal impact of Nijinsky and Diaghilev’s Russian Ballet.
From 1909 to l913 audiences in Paris and then London idolised this ‘soaring angel’, whose exotic beauty and tendril-like arms were offset by massive gnarled thighs and a virile technique. Classical ballet was then a dying art and the male dancer there only to support the ballerina, but in the androgynous roles created for him by Fokine — Les Sylphides, Schéhérazde and Le Spectre de la Rose — Nijinsky became the main object of admiration and desire.
As the feline, negro slave in Schéhérazade, clad in gold harem pants, his naked torso painted silver-grey with strings of pearls encircling his long neck, Nijinsky embodied the thrilling orientalism, glamour and decadence of the Saison Russe. And yet he was even more remarkable as the anti-hero Petrouchka, a piteously ugly sawdust puppet with ashen face, stooping gait, knock-knees and dangling feet. On stage, Nijinsky the star disappeared completely, and, for Sarah Bernhardt, he proved himself to be the finest actor in the world.
The plight of Petrouchka, enslaved by the merciless Showman, was seen at the time to be a parable for Nijinsky’s relationship with Diaghilev, who had moulded him as an artist and jealously kept him in thrall. The real-life situation was not that simple. The dancer had a forceful personality of his own, and when he began choreographing, ignored Diaghilev’s demands for a more conventional approach. Uncompromisingly experimental, Nijinsky was one of the great 20th-century modernists. In L’Apres Midi d’un Faune, he replaced graceful ballet positions with two-dimensional, bas-relief shapes and transformed himself into a horned, dappled creature, whose stylised but unmistakable orgasm in the ballet’s final moments stunned the Paris audience into silence.
The controversy it caused was nothing to the first-night furore that greeted Nijinsky’s Sacre du Printemps. Intent on finding a dance equivalent for the atavistic spirit of Stravinsky’s revolutionary score, Nijinsky invented convulsive, tribal movements with clenched fists, hunched shoulders and blank faces. The dancers hated what he was asking them to do, and so he worked out his ideas on his sister Bronislava, also a Ballets Russes dancer. If she was challenged and inspired by the brutally subversive choreography, Diaghilev was appalled, insisting that Nijinksky change the entire ballet. He refused, and it was this sign of implacable independence that marked the beginning of the rupture between the dancer and his mentor.
Pages of surprising clarity in Nijinsky’s diaries reveal what it was like for a 19-year-old boy to be the lover of a man who regarded himself not as an impresario but ‘a Maecenas’, destined to become a legend. Awestruck by the genius and social dazzle of the Diaghilev circle, Nijinsky was made to feel stupid and told not to speak. He was heterosexual by nature but so bewitched by Diaghilev that he believed him when he said that love for a woman was ‘a terrible thing’.
Sex was a payback for the opportunities he was being given, but it can only have been an ordeal. Nijinsky graphically recounts how Diaghilev would jiggle his two false front teeth with his tongue, and rub black cream into his hair to disguise the grey, cream that, to Nijinsky’s disgust, soiled their black pillowcases. He saw through Diaghilev’s affectations, writing scathingly about the dyed chinchilla stripe in his hair — ‘he wanted to be talked about’ — and the monocle he wore although his vision was perfect. Disillusion set in when he discovered that Diaghilev had lied to him about needing it:
I trusted him in nothing and began to develop by myself, pretending that I was his pupil. Diaghilev felt my pretence and did not like me, but he knew that he too was pretending, and therefore he left me alone. I began to hate him quite openly. Diaghilev hit me with his cane because I wanted to leave him.
Nijinsky’s surprise marriage to the star-struck young Hungarian Romola de Pulszky sent Diaghilev into paroxysms of grief and rage. Their affair was over but he took his revenge by immediately dismissing the dancer from the Ballets Russes — almost certainly the first trigger of Nijinsky’s psychosis. Having been completely shielded from daily realities, he found himself having to take responsibility for a wife, then their baby, and for the administration of his own ballet company. He began to break down, and during the first world war lived secluded in a Swiss mountain village, where his hyper-mania manifested itself in a torrent of creativity. Ideas for new ballets and a system of dance notation were interspersed with obsessively executed geometrical drawings and random inventions, including a windscreen-wiper and prototype ballpoint pen.
Decline into full-blown mania necessitated incarceration in a mental institution — the dancer’s fate for the next 30 years. Having entered Nijinsky’s life as a virtual stalker, Romola now became his guardian angel; she never gave up hope of a cure, consulting Jung and Freud, trying Christian Science, faith healers, and eventually, insulin shock treatment. Her biography was written in order to fund Nijinsky’s medical fees.
In the eight decades since that book’s publication, Nijinsky’s life has been retold in numerous biographies, films, plays and radio and television adaptations. Now, pegged to the centenary of the Rite of Spring, we have Nijinsky by Lucy Moore. With no new material, this is not a book for the cognoscenti, but an aggregate of everything written to date. If Richard Buckle had the authority Moore lacks, as well as access to first-hand sources, his fixation on Diaghilev, the subject of his following biography, led to constant digressions, while Nijinsky disappeared under a welter of names and social history.
Moore keeps her subject centre stage, and writes a compelling, well-researched narrative. And yet the book could have been so much better. There are too many unattributed quotations, jaunty first-person asides and obvious remarks (we don’t need to be told that Nijinsky was not physically attracted to Diaghilev). She gives us only Romola’s dramatic, imprecise interpretation of the diagnosis of ‘incurable insanity’, with no indication of any treatments available at the time (for this you have to seek out the 1991 psychiatric biography, by Peter Oswald, who got hold of the Swiss hospital records). And while the account of Nijinsky’s formative years is enriched by his sister Bronislava’s superb Early Memoirs, Moore passes over what may be its most crucial disclosure of all: her riveting, eye-witness portrayal of Nijinsky’s dancing.
Most contemporary accounts are as nebulous as Cocteau’s ‘impression of some melancholy imperious scent’, but Bronislava, who was coached by her brother, can vividly describe and deconstruct his technique. At 5’ 4”, with such heavy musculature that he couldn’t raise his leg above 90 degrees, Nijinsky had neither the physique nor the flexibility required by today’s choreographers, but his virtuosity would still be considered extraordinary. Bronislava witnessed his mythical entrechat dix, saw him executing over a dozen pirouettes and reveals the secret of his famous elevation — a combination of what she calls the ‘grasshopper mechanism’ of his thighs and an uncanny strength in his toes.
She was, along with Diaghilev, the most important figure in the young Nijinsky’s life — a soulmate, whose two ballets, Les Biches and Les Noces, inspired by his genius, are both masterpieces in their own right. Moore finds room in her book to include her own libretto for a ballet, and yet confines Bronislava’s contribution to a footnote. For me this confirmed beyond doubt that Nijinsky, however timely and enjoyable, is not a book to be taken seriously.
More Spectator for less. Stay informed leading up to the EU referendum and in the aftermath. Subscribe and receive 15 issues delivered for just £15, with full web and app access. Join us.