Childhood & Early Life
Vaslav Nijinsky was born on 12 March 1889 at Kiev in Ukraine, as the second son of celebrated Polish dancers Thomas Laurentiyevich Nijinsky and Eleonora Bereda. He had a brother Stanislav Fomitch (born in 1886) and sister Bronislava Fominitchna (born in 1891).
In 1900, he joined the Imperial Ballet School and learnt ballet under celebrated ballet dancers Sergei Legat, Nicholas Legat and Enrico Cecchetti.
He earned supporting roles in classical ballets such as ‘Swan Lake’, ‘The Nutcracker’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and subsequently he won the Didelot scholarship.
He spent much of his school life away from classrooms as he was chosen to play roles in ballet performances with several productions. This impacted his academic grades negatively.
In 1904, he was given the lead role in Marius Petipa’s last ballet, La Romance d'un Bouton de rose et d'un Papillon. However, the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War that year prevented the ballet from being performed.
In 1906, he performed in the ballet sequence of Mozart's ‘Don Giovanni’ produced by Mariinsky. His skill was much appreciated and he received an offer to be part of the Imperial Ballet Company. As he had a year to complete his education, he chose to continue his studies and stayed back.
He graduated in 1907 and was subsequently offered a career offer with Imperial Ballet Company in a mid-level rank of coryphée unlike the corps de ballet.
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Vaslav Nijinsky began his career as coryphée with the Mariinsky theatre in 1907. Though his roles in ballet performances were predominantly minor, he focused on showcasing his skill and technical abilities. In the years that followed, he was given the opportunity to perform solo roles as well.
In 1908, he met Sergei Diaghilev, a Russian art critic and producer of opera, ballet and art exhibitions. This was a turning point in his life. He gradually became good friends with Sergei Diaghilev and his work and career was later managed by Sergei Diaghilev to a large extent.
The following year Sergei Diaghilev organized a tour of Paris with his ballet and dance companies and painters. Vaslav Nijinsky was assigned one of the lead roles and the tour ended as a huge success. His partnership with dancer Tamara Karsavina was well acclaimed.
He performed several acts, which went on to be regarded as his signature performances, such as ‘Cleopatra’, ‘The Feast’ and “Le Pavillon d'Armide”. Between 1907 and 1911, he was also a guest performer at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.
In 1910, a fellow ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska opted for him to perform in the revival of Marius Petipa's ‘Le Talisman’. His role as Wind God Vayou earned him much appreciation and popularity.
Upon his return to Mariinsky Theatre, he was dismissed, as he made a stage appearance during his performance in ‘Giselle’ without following the company dress code. However, there were multiple ballet projects arranged by Sergei Diaghilev that were centered on Vaslav Nijinsky.
He portrayed the lead roles of ballet performances in Fokine’s ‘Le Spectre de la Rose’ and Igor Stravinsky's ‘Petrouchka’. His impression of a puppet in the latter earned him much appreciation.
Other than performing ballet, he began choreographing ballet acts that transcended the boundaries of traditional ballet. He attempted to bring in modern elements that were regarded as controversial.
A few of the acts he worked on are ‘L'après-midi d'un faune’ (1912), ‘Jeux’ (1913),’ ‘Le Sacre du Printemps’ (1913) and ‘Till Eulenspiegel’ (1916). The acts were premiered at the Théâtre de Champs-Elysées in Paris and were met with a huge uproar.
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In 1913, upon the instructions of Sergei Diaghilev, he went on a tour of South America with the Ballets Russes (an itinerant ballet company based in Paris) troupe. During the journey he met Hungarian countess Romola Pulszky and they became involved in a romantic relationship.
Upon his return to Europe, Vaslav Nijinsky was dismissed from the company by an enraged Sergei Diaghilev. He later attempted to form his own ballet group, but lack of proper administration led to its failure.
In 1914, with the onset of the World War I he was confined to house arrest in Budapest as he was termed as Enemy Russian Citizen. Sergei Diaghilev, who was facing issues with his ballet company post the dismissal of his crowd-pulling artist tried to procure the release of Vaslav Nijinsky and succeeded in 1916.
Vaslav travelled to New York for the American tour of the Ballet Russes in 1916. While on tour he choreographed and performed the main role of the act ‘Till Eulenspiegel’. However, the tour met with several issues with regard to play content and payment.
The American tour of 1916 was followed by an additional tour of the US later that year. However, the organizer Otto Kahn insisted on Vaslav Nijinsky’s involvement as manager and this led to Sergei Diaghilev’s return to Europe leaving his troupe in the U.S. Though Vaslav Nijinsky’s individual performances were praised, his haphazard management resulted in heavy financial loss.
His last performance was in 1917 during a South American tour for the Red Cross with pianist Arthur Rubinstein.
Personal Life & Legacy
He was married to Hungraian aristocrat Romola de Pulszky in 1913. The couple had two daughters Kyra Nijinsky (born in 1914) and Tamara (born in 1920).
In 1919, he suffered from nervous breakdown and later was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He was then committed to Burghölzli and was later transferred to Bellevue Sanatorium. He spent the last 30 years of his life in and out of asylums and psychiatric hospitals.
His wife published the first biography of Vaslav Nijinsky in 1934. The book contained information about his early career and life. Two years later she released a censored version of his diary that he maintained before being committed to asylums.
He died on 8 April 1950, due to kidney failure at London.
In 1952, his wife published a biography of him that shared details of his later life and career.