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Vaslav Nijinski
Choreographer

© DR

Born in Kiev in 1889 to Polish and dancer parents, Vaslav Nijinsky joined in 1898 the Imperial Ballet School of St. Petersburg. Showing exceptional gifts for dance, he made his stage debut at only 15 in Acis and Galatée by Fokine (1904). He was hired by the Maryinsky Theatre two years later, where he quickly became a soloist. He created in 1907 Fokine’s Le Pavillon d’Armide with Anna Pavlova. He was trained by ballet master Enrico Cecchetti. Prima ballerina assoluta Mathilde Kschessinska chose him as her dance partner. Serge Diaghilev, who had just successfully staged Russian music concerts in Paris, an exhibition of Russian painters, and Boris Godunov (1908), was considering producing ballet shows. He borrowed their best performers from the Maryinsky: Fokine, Pavlova, Karsavina and Nijinsky. The first show staged at the Théâtre du Châtelet in May 1909 featured Le Pavillon d’Armide, Le Festin, Polovetsian Dances, Les Sylphides, Cleopatra, starring Nijinsky that Paris was now celebrating as the new god of dance. The next year, at the Palais Garnier, his virtuosic performances as the Carnaval’s Harlequin and Scheherazade’s Slave, or Kobold in Les Orientales, as well as his poetic interpretation of the Prince in Giselle, confirmed his artistic coronation. In 1911, after he danced Albrecht in a costume designed by Alexandre Benois (wearing a simple tunic and tights without the then-common and required trousers), Nijinsky was dismissed by the Maryinsky Theatre for inappropriate behaviour – he had shocked the Empress dowager. Diaghilev offered him right away a permanent contract as soloist in the Russian Ballets. Nijinsky left Russia, never to return. After Monte-Carlo and before London, the Russian Ballets came back to Paris and to the Théâtre du Châtelet. The Spirit of the Rose and Pétrouchka made Nijinsky enter the legend. The next year (1912), he danced in The Blue God, Daphnis and Chloé, and The Afternoon of a Faun, which marked his debut as a choreographer. He continued to choreograph with Jeux and The Rite of Spring. But Nijinsky fell ill and went in Hungary to rest with his step-family. On their way to Hungary, his wife Romola gave birth to a girl, Kyra, in July 1914 in Vienna. The war broke out while the couple was in Budapest: considered as Russian enemies, they were confined in their house. With the help of Romola’s cousin, pianist Lily de Markus, Nijinsky was allowed to work on his choreographies. Influenced by his encounter with Richard Strauss in 1912 in Vienna, where he was touring with Diaghilev who had commissioned the composer The Legend of Joseph, Vaslav started to work on a symphonic poem, Till Eulenspiegel. The Russian Ballets had sought refuge in Spain, on the invitation of King Alphonse 13th, and remained far from the French-German conflict. Diaghilev continued to work on his projects (such as Tricorne, with Massine) and prepared the next tour of the Ballets in the US. Their American impresario clearly stipulated that Nijinsky should take part in the New York performances. Thanks to the Embassy network, Nijinsky and his family were released and travel from Bordeaux to the US, reaching New York on the beginning of April 1916. Nijinsky’s performances were a triumph. In New York, he worked with painter Robert-Edmond Jones for his fourth ballet: Till Eulenspiegel, whose creation was held in October 1916. After a 5-month tour across the US, the Company went back to Spain in March 1917. In July, the Russian Ballets went on a new tour in South America. During the tour, Nijinsky almost had several accidents – by chance or on purpose (broking ropes and falls of technical devices) – which left him morally shaken. Back in France, Vaslav and Romola went to Lausanne to reunite with their little Kyra and the family settled in St-Moritz in December 1917. Nijinsky wished to go back to Russia to found a Dance Theatre. He spent the year 1918 writing in his diary, taking notes for his ballets, drawing strange circular shapes. His behaviour changed: he kept silent for long moments, and often experienced sudden fits of rage. During a charity evening at the Hotel Suvretta on January, 19 1919, Nijinsky was improvising a solo, “dancing war”, when he suddenly froze and stared at the spectators. Fearing for his mental health (his older brother, Stanislav, had already been committed) his family consulted a doctor who diagnosed schizophrenia. Nijinsky followed several treatments in the psychiatric hospital of Kreuzlingen, near Zurich. A second daughter was born in 1920: Tamara. Travelling in London (1922) and in Paris (1924 and 1929), Nijinsky attended –absent-mindedly- a few performances of the Russian Ballets. Nijinsky began to be treated with insulin. During a visit of Serge Lifar in June 1939, he seemed to awake at the sound of the music of The Spirit of the Rose. Fleeing the Nazis during WWII, the Nijinsky’s left Switzerland and sought refuge in Hungary. In 1945, Hungary declared war, so the family travelled through Austria to London, where “God’s clown” died, shortly after, on Good Friday (April, 8 1950). Nijinsky’s was buried in the Cemetery of Montmartre. 

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