Nijinsky in Les Orientales (1910), costumes by Bakst (Photo: Druet)
For all the acclaim and artistry of The Ballets Russes, the centerpiece of the company—on stage and off—was the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. Born in Kiev (at that time a part of Russia) to traveling Polish ballet dancers, young Waclaw Nizyinski, was trained in dance from a young age. At nine, he joined the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersberg. Unpopular (and rather plain in regular dress), Vaslev was teased for being Polish—and later called “Japonczek” for his vaguely Japanese looks (Russia was at war with Japan). He had few friends (a condition which would remain throughout his life). He frequently acted-out, sometimes getting into trouble in school. And he paid little attention to subjects which didn’t hold his interest—in this case, academics. But he excelled in music and playing instruments, and came-alive when dancing—he received the highest dance marks the school had ever given.
In 1909, at the age of 19, Nijinsky joined the Ballets Russes and came under the control of Diaghilev. In Nijinsky, Diaghilev had an incredible star, a performer with the potential to become the greatest celebrity of his time. With Diaghilev, Nijinsky had a platform to reach world-wide audiences with his dance and choreography. A symbiotic, professional relationship soon became an intimate and sexual one.
And what a star Nijinsky was! His sheer technique, virtuosity, and gravity-defying athleticism was unlike any dancer who came before him. He was able to create physical characters—intense, painful, real—that brought the ballet’s stories to life. Plus, his stunning physicality (and somewhat androgynous beauty) radiated on-stage and before the camera. With Diaghilev’s guidance, Nijinsky became the super-celebrity of his day.
Sadly, Nijinsky’s heyday was not to last. In 1916, while touring in North America—Nijinsky was now dancing, choreographing and attempting to manage the company—the company members started to see signs of the schizophrenia which was to soon end his career. He spent many of his last years in and out of asylums, sometimes writing, occasionally dancing, often uncommunicative for long stretches of time. He died in London in 1950 and is now buried in Montmarte Cemetery in Paris.
While his brilliant career was very short—less than ten years—Vaslav Nijinsky lived it as one of the world’s greatest stars.