Current Issue #477

Vaslav Nijinsky: The Greatest Male Dancer the World has Ever Seen

Vaslav Nijinsky: The Greatest Male Dancer the World has Ever Seen

Nijinsky was born in 1889 the second son of two dancers. His brother Stanislas became insane, but their sister, Bronislava, like Nijinsky gained entrance to the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg and became a notable dancer and choreographer herself.

Nijinsky’s very special quality was clear from the first. Bullied, when 12, he was tricked into jumping a bar lifted higher when he wasn’t looking. Not expected to live, he spent four days unconscious. His resilience, even at that age, pulled him through, but he had several months recovering at home.

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The greatest sensation of the Diaghilev Ballet’s sensational 1909 Paris season, when asked if it was difficult to stay in the air as he did while jumping, he did not at first understand, and then very obligingly said, “No! No! Not difficult.

You have to just go up and then pause a little up there.” Although disliking company choreographer, Michel Fokine, Nijinsky was the superb interpreter of his principal roles – the pantherish Golden Slave of Scheherazade, Carnaval’s Harlequin, the spirit of the rose in Le Spectre de la rose and especially Petrushka.

Choreographically, Nijinsky took a huge step with l’Apres-midi d’un faune (Afternoon of a Faun) (1912), in which the barefoot dancers, six nymphs pursued by the faun (Nijinsky) move in profile. In 1913 came Jeux, involving a lost tennis ball, a boy and two girls, and Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), an ancient fertility ritual with a chosen virgin dancing herself to death.

The dancers, without a pointe shoe in sight, performed Nijinsky’s often angular, athletic choreography to Igor Stravinsky’s equally avant-garde score. A riot broke out. So great was the noise that the choreographer mounted a chair in the wings and shouted numbers for the beats to his dancers. Nijinsky created one more full ballet, Till Eulenspiegel, on an American tour in 1916, but only Faune survives.

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Artists of Hamburg Ballet in John Neumeier’s Nijinsky. Photography © Holger Badekow

The company toured to South America in 1913 without Diaghilev, who was told by a clairvoyant he would die by water. Sometime after hearing the seemingly incredible news that in Rio Nijinsky had married a company member, Romola de Pulszky, he dismissed him on a trumped up charge.

There was a rapprochement later. But during World War I the Nijinskys were detained in Hungary and Austria, and among other places moved to Switzerland. In 1919, Nijinsky was diagnosed with schizophrenia, giving his last performance in a St Moritz hotel, Suvetta House, announcing, “Now I will dance you the war, with its suffering, with its destruction, with its death.

The war which you did not prevent and so you are also responsible for.” Romola devoted herself to him and after beginning treatment in 1938 he was largely recovered by July 1940. He died in London in April 1950.

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Vaslav Nijinsky’s grave in Paris’ Montmartre Cemetery

In commemoration, John Neumeier, American-born artistic director of Hamburg ballet, an authority on the dancer, premiered his full-length Nijinksy in 2000. Seen in Australia on his company’s 2012 Brisbane tour it is now touring for the Australian Ballet (AB). Part I begins in Suvetta House, then becomes a series of memories of Nijinsky’s roles and people in his life. Part II portrays his later life and descent into madness.

The ballet ends where it began, with the last recital. Neumeier has said, “In Nijinsky’s eyes, it is the world around him – not Nijinsky that has gone mad”.

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Artists of Hamburg Ballet in John Neumeier’s Nijinsky. Photography © Holger Badekow_3038

AB principal Kevin Jackson, taking the leading role (along with four others), told The Adelaide Review rehearsals began in May with repetiteurs. Neumeier will arrive three weeks before the premiere. “There’s a lot of dancing – it’s all based on movement. [Neumeier] will put all the emotion and story into the ballet.

We have a framework, and a relative idea of what it all means, but I believe he’s a very intellectual and emotionally-driven man and so he’ll be able to tell us more about it. I worked with him for one rehearsal when he came out to cast the ballet. We basically had to walk from one corner of the room to another, but the amount of information he gave us of the backstory was just incredible, so I’m really interested to work with him in that way and how far he can push the artistic side of my dancing.”

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Kevin Jackson as Nijinsky for the Australian Ballet’s production Photography: Justin Ridler

Neumeier is extremely protective of his ballet, and when I asked Jackson how he came to give it to the AB, he believes it is because the company has a contemporary as well as a classical skill base; some of the partnering in Nijinsky, for instance, is similar to Graeme Murphy’s. AB’s artistic director David McAllister has been trying to nab Neumeier since 2002. With this breakthrough the hope is that he will eventually choreograph a work for the company. “That would be awesome,” says Jackson.

The Australian Ballet Nijinsky Festival Theatre Friday, October 14 to Tuesday, October 18 australianballet.com.au

Header image: Kevin Jackson as Nijinsky for the Australian Ballet’s production Photography: Justin Ridler

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