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Vaslav Nijinski, Le Dieu de La Danse

A Century Later: Nijinksi is Still a Legend

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Nijinski's Childhood

Nijinksi was born in Warsaw to parents who were both connected with the Warsaw branch of the Russian Imperial Ballet. His parents earned a living touring in Poland and Russia. Nijinksi learned to dance from his parents and became part of their act when he was seven years old.

The father abandoned the family for a pregnant mistress when Nijinsky was nine. Mother Eleanora moved with her three children to St Petersburg and entered Nijinksy in the Imperial Theatrical School, where he quickly proved a ballet prodigy.

Nijinski graduated from school in 1907 and joined the Imperial Ballet as a soloist, partnering the the foremost ballerinas in many ballets, including Giselle, Swan Lake. and Sleeping Beauty.

Shortly thereafter, he acquired a patron in Prince Pavel Lvov. This relationship involved sex between Nijinski and Ivov, and money from Ivov to support Nijinki's family. "Nijinksi entered upon what was probably his first sexual relationship, with the blessing of his mother, who, though she discouraged his heterosexual interests – she felt that marriage would impede his career – was proud to see her son with so fine a figure as Prince Lvov, and was also grateful for Luvov's financial help." — J Acocella.

In 1908 Prince Lvov passed him off to Sergei Diaghilev, a prominent figure in the St Petersburg art and theatre world. In 1909, Sergei received a commission from the grand duke Vladimir to organize a ballet company. Diaghilev brought the company to Paris in the spring of 1909. The company took Paris by storm with its Oriental themes and solo masculine dancers; men had disappeared from French ballet stages years ago and their roles performed by women. Nijinksi's strength, virtuosity and dramatic acting were especially acclaimed. The season in Paris was so successful that Diaghilev formed a permanent company, the Ballets Russes.

Nijinski, the God of Dance

"He may have been the greatest ballet dancer of the last century. In any case, he was ballet's first modernist choreographer. In his twenties, he made a series of ballets that challenged academic dance as Picasso, around the same time, was challenging painting." — The Lost Nijinsky

Nijinki's brillance as a dancer was an important part of the Ballets Russes success, and Michel Fokine's choreographies established a context in which Nijinki became an international star. Fokine's choreographies were exotic, fantastic, emotional, and often sexually provocative. Nijinski was technically brilliant and an extraordinary actor. The combination caused a sensation. European ballet had been in decline for half a century. Most Europeans had never seen a male ballet dancer; most leading male roles were performed by women. The Ballets Russes caused a revolution in European perception of what ballet could be. "We have found ourselves in the position of being forced to develop a completely fresh set of æsthetic standards so as to keep pace with the development of a tradition which for us, previously, had been little more than a dead and obsolete form." — Geoffrey Whitworth

"There are many young men in the Russian ballet who dance excellently with their bodies, even if they cannot leap as high as Nijinsky, but what really separates him from them is the fact that he dances not only with his body, but with his soul... 'So free and yet so disciplined!' said someone of Nijinsky's dancing. It was a very good criticism. But I like even better these words from a French appreciation by M. Charles Mèryel: 'We should not begin by praising him for his prodigious physical ability for leaving the ground. Let us think first of his power of evoking, through the means of a human body in movement, a sort of beautiful dream, of his power of subjugating his material appearance so that he becomes a visitation divijie and almost immaterial.'... Whatever his role, the young Russian dancer projects an interior emotion which has in it all the force of spontaneity, but is at the same time conscious and considered." — Ellen Terry

In 1912 Nijinsky began his choreographic career, producing, in two years, The Afternoon of a Faun, Jeux, and the Rite of Spring. Nijinksi's vision bewildered both dancers and audiences; he wanted an evolution in shape, steps, lines, and relationship to music. The shyness and social ineptness which marked many of his interpersonal relationships had not interfered with his dance career, but launching a new approach to choreography and movement required communication and administrative skills that Nijinski did not have. A sizable number of dancers, collaborators and audience members disliked his work and let him know it; a development which Nijinksi, the star dancer, was ill-equipped to assimilate.

Forward and Down; Nijinski Outpaces his World

Diaghilev was not willing to continue with Nijinki's choreographic experiments; the stress was tearing his Ballets Russes apart. He rehired Fokine (who had quit in 1912) and assigned him responsibility for the next major ballet, which had already been assigned to Nijinski, and then suggested that Nijinksi might benefit from a leave of absence. This, coupled with the deterioration of their personal relationship, threw Nijinski into a panic which he attempted to shore up by marrying Romola de Pulszky, a wealthy young Hungarian who had been in love with him for two years.

Diaghilev took this personally and fired him, at which point the real clouds closed in: Nijinski, the great dance artist, no longer had a company with which to materialize his artistic vision.

"Nijinky's assessment of the situation was correct: he had lost everything. In order to dance, he did not need the Ballets Russes. Any ballet company would have been delighted to engage this great star to dance its standard repertory. But Nijinski by this time was not a dancer of standard repertory. He had been through that stage with the Imperial Ballet. He was different now — an experimental artist. He needed roles that would extend his gifts, and above all, he needed to choreograph. For these things he did need the Ballet Russes, which at that time was the only forward-thinking ballet company in the world." — J Acocella.

Nijinksi took steps to provide himself with the context that he needed, but he was an artist, not an administrator, and events in the larger world conspired against him. In 1914 he formed a dance company in London, but was forced to cancel its first dance season after two week because of illness from overwork. Then his first daughter, Kyra, was born, followed by the outbreak of WWI in August. Nijinksi and his family were visiting Romola's mother-in-law in Budapest when the war broke out; Nijinski was designated an enemy alien and obliged to remain in Budapest until 1916, reporting to police headquarters once a week and living with his resentful mother-in-law. He spent his time modifying and improving the Stepanov dance notation that he had learned at the Imperial School, and recording every movement of his first ballet (Afternoon of a Faun) in his new notation system. He was, at this time, in his mid-20s, only a few years older than the boy who had graduated from the Imperial School. No one, least of all young Nijinski, realized that the clock was ticking; he had only three more years left as a productive artist before mental illness shut down his ability to communicate in any meaningful way. If Nijinksi ever had a chance to train others to use his notation, they died with the secret in their breast. The notation code was not broken until 1988, at which point the Afternoon of a Faun could be authentically revived.

In 1916, Diaghilev arranged for Nijinksi's release so that he could travel to New York to perform with the Ballet Russes at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. The season was enough of a success to inspire the Metropolitan Opera to hire Nijinski to direct a second season and a cross-country tour. Once again, Nijinski's communication and administrative skills proved inadequate to the task, and resulted in a chaotic four-month tour that resulted in a loss of $250,000: the equivalent of almost 6 million dollars in 2016.

In 1917, Nijinksi was hired to tour with the Ballet Russes in Spain and South America. The pressure of administrative duties was replaced with arguments with his wife over his growing commitment Tolstoyanism and his wife's arguments with Diaghilev; Romula had been suing Diaghileve for unpaid back pay and was convinced that Diaghilev was attempting to destroy Nijinksi. After the tour, the family moved into a villa in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Performances and interviews stopped, although Romula wrote that Nijinksi was working on new ballets and on a plan to establish a Russian school of choreography and music composition.

in 1919, Nijinksi was diagnosed as schizophrenic. He was unable to perform in a way that made sense to his audiences. He would spend the rest of his life in and out of institutions. The impact of his initial separation from Diahilev and the Ballets Russes and the subsequent stresses of failed projects and a world war cannot be estimated. Was schizophrenia his inevitable destiny? No one knows for sure.

Nijinski's mental illness has been the subject of research and speculation for almost a century. His choreography, however, was not closely evaluated until the 1970s, at which point the perception of Nijinski as an artist possessed was mitigated by evidence of a strong artistic intellect. "The myth that had collected around him as a dancer — that he was a flame, a vision, a messenger from the beyond — seemed merely confirmed by the news of his illness... Nijinski had always been famous for his jump. As witnesses would describe it, he would rise and then pause in the air before coming down. Now, it seemed, he had declined to come down... While it is possible, as I have said, to relate the experimentalism of his ballets to his later insanity, the first and strongest impression one gets from his one extant ballet, The Afternoon of a Faun, is of a steely intelligence; strict, analytic, even ironic." — J Acocella.

Nijinski and Romula lived in Switzerland and England until he died in 1950.


Nijinski born in Kiev, Russia.
Nijinki#039;s father abandons his family.
Nijinksi is enrolled in the Imperial Theatrical School.
Nijinksi graduates from the Imperial Theatrical School and begins working in the Imperial Ballet as a soloist.
Le Pavillion D'Armide, choreographed by Mikhail Fokine, premiered in November in St Ptersburg. Pavlova, Gerdt and Nijinsky were the stars.
Diaghilev brings Russian opera and ballet to Paris for a very successful season, inspiring Diaghilev to found the Ballet Russes.
Michel Fokine becomes the resident choreographer of the Ballet Russes.
Nijinksi begins his choreographic career with The Afternoon of a Faun.
Michel Fokine quits the Ballets Russes.
Nijinski's second choreography, Jeux, is presented.
Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) premiers in Paris on May 29, 1913. The premier remains famous for the fights that broke out in the audience between supporters and detractors.
Mikhail Fokin rejoins the Ballet Russes.
Nijinsky marries dancer Romola de Pulsky, and Diaghilev dismisses him from the company.
Nijinski attempts, and fails, to establish his own dance company in London.
June: Daughter Kyra is born.
August: World War I breaks out while Nijinksi and his family are visiting Budapest. Nijinski is designated an enemy alien and kept under house arrest.
Leonide Massine emerges as Diaghilev's love interest and the principal dancer and choreographer of the Ballets Russes.
Nijinksy is released through Diaghilev's influence and travels to New York to perform with the Ballet Russes at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. He choreographed and danced the leading role in Till Eulenspiegel.
The Metropolitan Opera hires Nijinksi to direct a second season followed by a cross-country tour.
Nijinki's administrative skills result in a chaotic four-month tour that resulted in a loss of $250,000: the equivalent of almost 6 million dollars in 2016.
Nijinksi tours with the Ballet Russes in Spain and South America.
Nijinsky moves into a villa in St. Moritz, Switzerland, with his family.
Nijinsky's brother Stassik dies.
Nijinksi is diagnosed as schizophrenic.
Second daughter Tamara is born.
Nijinski and Romula move to England.
Nijinsky dies.


Ellen Terry, The Russian Ballet, Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis, 1913.

Encyclopedia Brittanica, Dance Notation, Web.

Maura Enright, Ballet Russes, Web.

Geoffrey Whitworth, The Art of Nijinsky, 1913. Illustrated by Dorothy Mullock.

Jean Cocteau, Vaslav Nijinsky, Web, six illustrations and titles.

John Coulthart, Feuilleton, Web.

Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library. Nijinsky, Vaslav The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1910 - 1911.

New Yorker, The Lost Nijinsky, Web, May 7 2001.

Russian Ballet's Ballets Russes 1909-1929, Web.

Vaslav Nijinsky, The Diary of Vaslav Nijinksy, Translation by Kryil FitzLyon, edited by Joan Acocella, published by Farrar, Straus and Firoux, New York, 1995.

Vaslav Nijinski, Twenty seconds of Nijinksi in Afternoon of a Faun.

Vaslav Nijinski, Compilation of brief clips from 15 ballets, including some of his famous leaps.

Wikipedia, Leonide Massine

Wikipedia, Vaslav Nijinksi.

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Last updated August 2016
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