Lucy Moore: Nijinsky

Poor Nijinsky. Poor sad, mad, vanished Nijinsky. His career was astonishingly brief, the trail that was left in his meteoric wake so persistent it is hard to believe he danced for little more than seven years.

He was born in 1889 or 1890, to Polish dancers working in Russia (Nijinsky thought of himself as Polish, but he spoke the language poorly, and spent his life in Russia before moving to France).

His astonishing talent was noted early in his student days at the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg, and on graduation he was chosen to partner Mathilde Kschessinskaya, not merely the company’s prima ballerina assoluta, but the tsar’s mistress as well. The newly promoted dancer was also chosen, off-stage, by Prince Lvov, a lover of ballet, and of ballet dancers.

Sergei Diaghilev soon replaced Lvov both in Nijinsky’s bed and by featuring the dancer as his male star in the first season of his Ballets Russes in Paris, in 1909.

In theory the Ballets Russes only borrowed dancers from the Imperial Theatre in their summer holidays. But in 1910, Nijinsky was sacked – perhaps because he was obdurate about an “indecent” costume (it didn’t have shorts over his tights), perhaps because of political manoeuvrings against Diaghilev, perhaps because his partners were not thrilled at the ovations he was getting.

In any case, Diaghilev and Nijinsky embraced the opportunity to create a permanent company in France, away from Imperial oversight. Joined by the talents of Fokine, Benois, Bakst and Stravinsky, the great ballets poured out: The Firebird, Petroushka, Carnaval, Scheherazade.

Nijinsky, however, wanted to create a new way of moving, of understanding music, a modernist style for which few were ready. L’après-midi d’un faune scandalised as the faune – Nijinsky himself – mimed masturbation as the curtain fell. Le sacre du printemps, with its insistence on a brutal primitivism, was somehow even more shocking.

What would have happened to Nijinsky’s future work, we have no way of knowing. Nijinsky, at best a social naïf, was “captured” on tour by Romola de Pulszky, a Hungarian groupie. They married, and Diaghilev responded by immediately sacking his greatest dancer.

The First World War found the star interned as an enemy alien, causing untold damage to his always fragile mental state. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic, although precisely what that meant has been debated ever since. Certainly he was institutionalised, off and on, until his death in 1950.

The rise and fall has been picked over ever since. We know so much about this most famous dancer, and we know almost nothing. Was Nijinsky by preference homosexual, or heterosexual? (Romola, it has been noted, formed relationships exclusively with women otherwise.) Was Nijinsky a careerist, selecting Lvov and Diaghilev to progress his career, or were they predatory older men who gave an innocent young boy no choice? Was the startlingly modern choreography he produced his own, or did Diaghilev and others, as they later claimed, contribute the bulk?

These questions will never be finally resolved, but that doesn’t stop people asking. There have been a dozen biographies since Richard Buckle’s ground-breaking 1971 book, and while new information has from time to time emerged, by now the well has really run dry, and Lucy Moore merely goes over the well-worn ground.

Nijinsky also shows signs of having been produced in haste (presumably to coincide with the centenary of the famous 1913 performance of Sacre), with repetitions abounding, despite the book’s brevity. More troublingly, to produce a narrative flow, Moore has quarantined many of the controversies in the notes. What she calls “the reality” appears in the main text, only to be contradicted in the notes, which most people, of course, will not read.

Centenary aside, why another book? Seven years of dancing, a quarter-century of madness, a further 75 years of squabbles, legends, mythmaking and unmaking. Surely it is past time to let the poor sad man rest quietly in his grave?