Friday, 19 September 2014

Giants of Academia & the Arts

 … but, then again, nobody is perfect

Vaslav Nijinsky (12 March 1889 or 1890 – 8 April 1950)

Nijinsky was of Polish descent (thus making him actually Wacław Niżyński) and arguably the greatest ballet dancer ever to have taken to the stage, one who was celebrated for his virtuosity, the depth and intensity of his characterizations and for his legendary ability to perform gravity-defying leaps. But – wouldn’t you know it? - despite all his undoubted achievements and for all his unsurpassed greatness, remembrance has played its usual cruel trick on him too, in the form of a half-ton of namesake horseflesh destined to become the outstanding equine athlete of his time, in a career that would mirror almost exactly, in terms of consummate mastery, that of his illustrious predecessor, completing the Triple Crown (Guineas, Derby, St Leger) along his route into legendhood. However, this Nijinski chose 1970 to attain his pinnacle, within living memory and whilst the cameras were rolling, whereas the original was confined to mostly before the Great War and was never filmed, thus reducing the latter to “that Russian dancing bloke what the Derby winner were named after.” Alas, however, Fate can often deal a spiteful hand and when the colt was whipped off to Kentucky to become an equally successful stallion, the name had already been used up, so he had to be called, in the All-American way, Nijinsky II. Thus he, too, became “the Other Nijinsky.”

Vaslav Nijinsky was born in either 1889 or 1890 but definitely in Kiev, then in the Russian Empire (making him Russian), though to Polish parents, Tomasz Niżyński and Eleonora Bereda (making him Polish), Nijinsky always considering himself to be Polish, even though he could never speak the language properly, thanks to spending his childhood in Russia where his parents worked, both of them being accomplished dancers. They had married in 1884, Eleanora continuing to tour and dance with the Setov Company, despite the arrivals of Stanislav Fomitch (1886), Vaslav (1889) and Bronislava Fominitchna (“Bronia,” 1891). When Josef Setov died around 1894, the company disbanded, so Nijinsky Senior decided to set up his own one. It was not a success. Sounds familiar, don’t it? The dad of a legend turns out a bit of a dead loss? And something of a lothario to boot, which is probably what Mrs Nijinsky would’ve used her well-aimed size niner for, had she ever caught up with him, only he’d legged it with another dancer whilst touring in Finland. The remaining Nijinskys then headed back to Russia and St Petersburg, where the mother pulled strings to get Vaslav into the Imperial Ballet School in 1900, Bronia following two years later, at around the time that Stanislav, poor lad, was being committed to an asylum for the insane. Still, better than being sent to dancing school, we’d’ve said.

At the School, all went well at first, at least on the ballet front, with Vaslav’s teachers agreeing about his exceptional abilities – who can forget his mouse in the Nutcracker? Brings a tear to the eye just thinking about it – and he was confirmed as a boarder. Alas, however, events soon began to tread an all-too-familiar path when the academic work declined inexorably toward the ignominy of the dunce’s cap, so much so that only his brilliance as a twinkletoes saved him from expulsion, not helped one whit (though it did complete the seemingly obligatory apprenticeship required to gain pre-eminence) by being bullied. For being Polish, for a start off, though his schoolchums, faintly jealous of his abilities, also dubbed him "Japonczek," seeing his looks were ever so slightly Japanese, and this at a time when the Russians were at war with Japan. Still, as they say, “sticks and stones etc.,” which Vaslav found to be all too true when one young scamp “deliberately caused him to fall,” leaving him in a coma for four days.

That incident was in 1901, so still early days and they probably just hadn’t got to know him properly yet. When they did, they would finally discover that, underneath that cold exterior, he was actually unremarkable to look at, reserved and something of an all-round dullard. Even so, he still had his moments. He was very much one of the gang in 1903 when a group of them, as they were being driven to the Marinsky Theatre in carriages, whiled away the time by shooting the hats off the heads of passers-by with their catapults, an adventure that would culminate in Vaslav’s expulsion, from which he was eventually restored but merely as a non-resident, on a month’s probation, and then only after a sound thrashing. And there we have it: the full house. If you happen to be serious about achieving fame and reputation amongst the pantheon, then first ensure that: your Dad’s a wash-out; you flunk it at school; you get bullied; and you get a good beating or two along the way. You’ll be halfway home already.

Christmas 1906 saw him promoted to King of the Mice in the Nutcracker and then, in April 1907, he was congratulated on his graduation performance by no less a figure than Mathilde Kchessinska of the Imperial Ballet, who invited him to partner her and thus pretty much guaranteed him a golden future. Quite literally, in fact, because the nobility often turned up to rehearsals for a looksee, including the main man himself, and every dancer that performed before the Tsar received a gold watch inscribed with the Imperial Eagle. Meanwhile, Nijinsky’s salary was 780 roubles a year, which, at current exchange rates, would be about £12.

Around now came another significant moment, for both career and life, when he chanced to run into Sergei Diaghilev, the celebrated and highly innovative producer of ballet and opera, who just happened to be running a little company of his own, known as the Ballets Russes (the Russian Ballet), which is a bit ironic really, seeing they didn’t do much of the actual dancing there, preferring instead to head off abroad, especially to Paris. Despite the big hat, the man was no fool: those Russian winters can’t half get a bit nippy. For a while, the pair became lovers. As it goes, Sergei himself had just got back from a triumphant 1908 season over there and was already formulating plans for another one the following year by gathering together a spectacular array of some of the greatest names around ballet at that time, in a company that would, naturally enough, include Nijinsky amongst its ranks.

Despite the all-too-evident scattering of stardust, preparations didn’t go quite so smoothly as might have been wished. For one thing, the retiring Nijinsky felt intimidated by the aristocratic company he found himself in. Then there were the inevitable debates (“musical differences”) about what they would actually perform, with Diaghilev wanting the choreographer, Fokine, to come up with a whole new ballet, music and all, to be called Cléopâtre (presumably spelling it thus so that the French might then fathom what it was all about), and padding out the evening’s entertainment with a cobbled-together set of popular dances. Nijinski and Anna Pavlova would be the principal dancers (she, of course, famously created the role of the Dying Swan but, true to form, she is mostly remembered for having a dessert named after her), along with Tamara Karsavina, who just happened to be Pavlova’s deadly rival, which was asking for trouble really. Then Fokine insisted that his pupil, Ida Rubenstein, appear as Cleopatre (she having notoriously stripped naked during the Dance of the Seven Veils in Salome, so you can see what was uppermost in old Fokine’s mind), so then Nijinsky insisted that his sister should have a part too. Diaghilev headed off to Paris to get things sorted that end but no sooner does he get back than Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovitch drops down dead and, unfortunately, he was where the cash for the project was supposed to come from. Then the permission to borrow scenery was withdrawn and finally they had to drop the opera through lack of funds. Still, as they say in the business, the show must go on. And it did. And, amazingly, it was a huge success.

Nijinski then decided to have a bash at the creative side himself, choreographing ballets which “pushed boundaries” and “exceeded the limits of propriety.” As well as being lewd to the point of obscenity, his “new trends” in choreography were lumpy and plodding, all of which eventually culminated in a spot of ballet violence breaking out amongst audiences: Paris simply wasn’t ready for this kind of stuff. Diaghilev, as a shrewd promoter, saw it all as good publicity but, by now, relations between himself and Nijinsky had become somewhat strained, not helped when the financial backers asked him to sack Nijinsky as choreographer. Which he got Nijinsky’s sister to do in the end and then, instead of going on the scheduled tour to South America in August 1913, he claimed he had had a premonition that he would die at sea, so he gallivanted off on holiday to Venice where, it was remarked, “perhaps adventures with pretty dark-eyed boys awaited him." Bronia was too pregnant to go, so Nijinsky ended up sailing off on his own, reft of the two people who had been his chief support.

But he wasn’t on his own for very long. In fact, he was stalked. The party included Romola, Countess de Pulszky-Lubocy-Cselfalva (and you wouldn’t want to be the one making the announcements when she arrived at the Grand Ball, would you?), who had recently become engaged. However, this Hungarian lady had been taken to see the Ballets Russes in Budapest and saw him in it, reporting that, "an electric shock passed through the entire audience. Intoxicated, entranced, gasping for breath, we followed this superhuman being.” Which, apparently, was enough for her to break off the engagement and start following Nijinsky around instead, though he was difficult to actually approach, never going anywhere without his minder. Eventually, she talked her way backstage, which is far as the talking really got, seeing they shared no common language and had to get by on the little French either of them knew, resulting in his forming the misunderstanding that she was a prima ballerina, so he was keen as kippers at first. When he discovered that she wasn’t, he ignored her. Not to be so easily put off, she had ballet lessons with the troupe’s dancing coach, who warned her that Nijinsky was "like a sun that pours forth light but never warms." That did nothing to dampen her ardour, nor did being told by her friend (who also happened to be in love with him) that he was homosexual. Being a stout Catholic, she prayed for his conversion. To heterosexuality. It seems she referred to him as Le Petit. We don’t know quite why …

 Somehow, totally inexplicably, Nijinsky ended up proposing to her, though only via a go-between, which she then took to be a malicious joke, until the man himself finally asked her, in broken French and in mime (as we all tend to do) and she accepted. When the ship stopped at Rio, they rushed out to buy wedding rings, and the second they landed in Buenos Aires on 10 September 1913, they became man and wife. You can probably sense another alas on the way at this point, can’t you? For one thing, the boychasing Diaghilev (who hadn’t bothered to come), sobbed shamelessly in despair, bellowed recriminations, cursed Nijinsky’s ingratitude, Romola's treachery, and his own stupidity. So we’re told, anyway. Though he did pull himself together enough in the end to sack the foremost dancer of all time (he sacked any dancer of his who had the effrontery to get married), which was also about the time that Romola started to realise the terrible mistake she had made.

Nijinsky then discovered that not only was he out of work but that he would now be due for his share of the compulsory Russian military service, unless something happened to turn up sharpish. The French came in with an offer of a position with the Paris Opera, though (typical of your French) that would not start for over a year, which was about as much use as garlic toothpaste, to be frank, and so, once again, it was left up to us British to ride to the rescue and come up with the goods: eight weeks as part of a mixed bill. In a Music Hall. His response was decidedly ungracious and ungrateful.

In 1914, he took the now (and astoundingly) pregnant Romola back to Vienna, where he was promptly put under house arrest, seeing he was an enemy Russian and the war was on. Only in 1916 did he (and many others) finally manage to negotiate an escape from the situation and, on 4 April 1916, he arrived in New York, where he at last started to make a bit of cash (a thousand dollars a show, they say), despite the fact that the ballet itself was bombing. But the glory days were already behind and, before long, he began to show signs of the schizophrenia that would see him in and out of asylums for the rest of his life and put an end to the dancing. Nijinsky died in a clinic in London on 8 April 1950.



"Nijinsky in Scheherazade2" by unknown photographer, possibly Baron de Meyer (see also File:Nijinsky_040.jpg) - Library of Congress[1]. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

"Vaslav Nijinsky in Le spectre de la rose 1911 Royal Opera House" by Unknown - User scan of A History of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 1732–1982, p. 70. ISBN 9780946338009.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

"Talisman -Mathilde Kschessinska -Niriti -1909 -4" by Unknown photographer at the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Peterbsurg, Russia - Photo comes from my own collection and was scanned by me. Mrlopez2681 01:44, 10 August 2006 (UTC). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

"Nijinsky Le Festin Michel Fokine" by Bert. A, photographe - Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

"Sergei Diaghilev photo" by Sergei Blokh - Licensed under Creative Commons Zero, Public Domain Dedication via Wikimedia Commons -

"Anna Pavlova in costume for the Dying Swan, Buenos Aires, ca 1928, by Frans van Riel" by Frans Van Riel (1879-1950) - Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -,_Buenos_Aires,_ca_1928,_by_Frans_van_Riel.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Anna_Pavlova_in_costume_for_the_Dying_Swan,_Buenos_Aires,_ca_1928,_by_Frans_van_Riel.jpg

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