CorrespondenceWritingQuotationsBooksPoetryCreative WritingNewspapers & Magazines

Nijinsky, Iconic Russian Ballet Dancer

Updated on June 27, 2017
A young Nijinsky (1890-1950).
A young Nijinsky (1890-1950).

Forward

While this article is primarily based on information from the biography, I have included some additional information from online sources to answer questions or supplement information not covered by the book. Some of the information, such as Nijinsky's weight, conflicts perhaps due to these figures correlating to different times in the dancer's life. Such details are minor.

Why Read About Nijinsky

Perhaps you admire the dramatic arts, dance, or the combination of these. Perhaps you are seeking inspiration for a focus, not necessarily ballet, in your life. Maybe you just like reading about cultural histories.

In any case, Mrs. Romola Nijinsky, presents the life of her husband, a highly talented ballet dancer, a fifth generation ballet progeny, in a most detailed and perceptive manner--not only of her husband, but of the socio-political environment that affected Russian ballet during his lifetime. The read, in essence, is a delightful historical romance. The descriptions and details behind and around each ballet are superb.

The Biography of Nijinsky: Introduction, Dedication, and Chapters

This particular hardcover book was copyrighted by Simon and Schuster of New York in 1934 and was in its eleventh printing in 1947 before ISBNs were created; however, more current editions, even paperback versions, can be found by booksellers online.

Mrs. Nijinsky dedicates the book to her dear friend Frederica Dezentje who died of tuberculosis in New York during 1932. The dedication simply reads: To the Memory of Frederica Dezentje without whose affection and friendship this book could not have been written.

The book contains over 447 pages with twenty (20) chapters arranged in two parts, an epilogue and an index . Seventeen (17) illustrations embellish the text.

Chapter Titles

PART ONE

  1. MY FIRST ENCOUNTER WITH THE RUSSIAN BALLET
  2. THE CHILDHOOD OF VASLAV NIJINSKY
  3. THE IMPERIAL SCHOOL OF DANCING
  4. NIJINSKY AND THE MARIINSKY THEATRE
  5. THE RUSSIAN RENAISSANCE
  6. THE FIRST PARIS SEASON
  7. THE FRIENDSHIP OF SERGEI DE DIAGHILEFF AND VASLAV NIJINSKY
  8. NIJINSKY'S BREAK WITH THE MARIINSKY THEATRE
  9. NIJINSKY AS CHOREOGRAPHER
  10. L'APRÈS-MIDI D'UN FAUNE

Part Two deals with the years following Nijinsky's detachment from Diaghileff, the onset of WWI, and the dance tours in America, Spain, and South America. The last two chapters cover the couple's retreat in St Moritz, Switzerland, and, finally, Vaslav Nijinsky's developed personality disorder.

Romola de Pulsky-Nijinsky (1891-1978)
Romola de Pulsky-Nijinsky (1891-1978)

About Romola Nijinsky

A formal "About the Author" is not given in the book; however, Romola writes in first person and discusses family ties and presents personal observations in a most detailed manner.

She was born Romola de Pulszky on February 20, 1891, in Hungary, which was then a part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. She first became acquainted with the Russian Ballet in 1912 when the troupe performed in Budapest. Her mother was a well-known dramatic actress in Hungary. Through her mother, Romola became acquainted with Adolf Bolm, a Russian character dancer, and events progressed that fulfilled Romola's dream of becoming part of the Russian Ballet. She was already infatuated with Vaslav Nijinsky (pp. 5-17).

At first I saw and thought of him only as the rest of the world did, as a great artist and a prodigious dancer. Only much later did his extraordinary personality become clear to me. Nijinsky was essentially a seeker after truth, a kind, sweet soul, a philosopher, and a helper of mankind. His aim was to comfort, to perceive, to uplift and bring joy to humanity. He considered that his amazing talent was merely a gift of God, with which he had been entrusted to accomplish [H]is purpose.

— Romola de Pulsky-Nijinsky

Vaslav Fomith Nijinsky's Physique

Romola's description of this dancer occurs on page 12.

His features were decidedly Mongolian, and the almond-shaped eyes were a dark brown, although on the stage they seemed a dark blue or green. He was of medium height and very muscular, but on the stage he seemed tall and slender. Even his physical being seem to change according to the part he danced.

According to the biography, Vaslav was chosen as a student for the prestigious Russian Imperial School of Ballet because of his developed body, especially the thighs, at the age of 12. By the time the youth was 16, he had mastered all the steps and movements his teacher Obouchov had to offer; for all purposes, Nijinksy had surpassed his masters (p. 43). Nijinsky's legs were so muscular that tendons projected remarkably outward from his well proportioned body, and he was able to pick up his female partner dancer with one arm; whereas, other male dancers required two (p. 89). He was of medium height for a dancer, weighing only 130 pounds.

Amazingly, the man was able to move from one side of the stage to the other in one leap (tour en l'air), and he was able to repeatedly cross his feet (changement) ten times (10X) while up in the air. The spring in his step enabling him to perform these feats was attributed to his unusual foot bones, comparable to a bird's. Not only could he easily grasp with his toes, but his foot flexion was to the point where the distance from his toes to his ankle equaled the distance from his ankle to his heel!

Auguste Rodin was so impressed with Ninjinsky's musculature that he made this sculpture.
Auguste Rodin was so impressed with Ninjinsky's musculature that he made this sculpture. | Source

Ninjinky's Proposal and Marital Beliefs

Vaslav was so dedicated to dance as an art that those around him believed he would never marry. Romola herself became so frustrated with her unsuccessful attempts to develop a relationship with him, that she had given up all hope of them ever being intimate.

To complicate matters, the couples had no fluent common language, Vaslav speaking Russian and Romola German and English, so Vaslav's proposal of marriage was conveyed by Baron Dmitri Gunsburg, who apparently spoke Russian and German. Romola interpretted the message as a bad joke--Vaslav wasn't even present--and became so upset, she retreated to her room for solace. Then, later, after Romola was persuaded to come out of her room, she unexpectedly ran into Vaslav on deck. Using the little French he knew and a gesture of pantomime, Vaslav proposed again; Romola knew enough French to understand and accepted (p. 236). The couple had a Catholic wedding on September 10, 1913, at Iglesia St. Miguel in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

When Romola arbitrarily decided not to jeopardize a ballet career by having an operation to prevent conceiving a child, Vaslav was relieved when she decided to abandon the surgery and told her, "Thank God. What He has given, nobody has the right to destroy." Then later, during a more opportune moment, he added that every human being had the right to decide in the questions of life and death. He did not feel he had the right to interfere if she had firmly decided not to become a mother, but was grateful that God had made her understand [the sacredness of motherhood] in time [to change her mind] (p. 261).

Ten Significant People in Nijinsky's Life

Name
Role
Diaghileff, Sergei Pavlovitch
Russian Ballet director-manager-producer
Vassily
Vaslav's bodyguard, hired by Diaghileff
Karsavina, Thamar
prima ballerina
Bakst, Leon
stage scenery designer
Fokine, Michael
ballet instructor & composer
Cecchetti, Enrico
teacher, Imperial School of Dance, "the Maestro"
Nijinsky, Bronislava
Vaslav's younger sister, dramatic ballerina
Baton, Rene
conductor, Pasadena Orechestra of Paris
Bonais, Aexandre
French painter & scenery designer
Stravinsky, Igor
ballet music composer & writer
Apart from Romola, Vaslav's wife, and Kyra, his daughter, these are the people most frequently mentioned in the biography. Names are listed from (top to bottom) with the most to lesser degree of contact with or influence on Vaslav.

Translations from French to English of Quotes in Nijinsky

While Russian was the dancer's native tongue, many quotations in the biography appear in French, a language of which he had some knowledge that developed in his relationship to Romola. (Note: I do not speak French, and felt I missed a lot during the first reading; that's why I created this section. My interpretations in brackets may not be the best, but they made sense to me.) Here are some translations from the online dictionary to, hopefully, ease the reader's understanding.

Je suis le spectre de la rose | Que tu portais hier au bal (p. 118)
English: I'm the inspected [image] of the rose that you wore yesterday at the ball

Un Faune sommeille | des nymphes le dupent | une echarpe oubliée satistfait son rêve | le rideau baisse pour que le poème commence dans toutes les mémoires. (p. 173)
English: A faun slumbers[,] nymphs him trick [a trick of the nymphs] | a scarf forgotten satistfait [validates] her dream | the curtain down [opens] so that [2 wds: where] the poem begins[, all] in the memory.

les jeux de sport, les jeux de l'amour (p.185) English: the games of sport, the games of love

Je vous en prie, laissez achever le spectacle. (p. 203) English: I beg you, let['s] complete the show [4 wds (or): let the show finish!].

. . . vient de passer et de me saluer (p. 207) English: . . . just go and greet me (Romola was excitedly explaining to her friend Anna that Vaslav had just passed and greeted her.)

Vatza, j'ai besoin, je dois payer es nouveaux décors, ou Stravinsky ne veut pas travailler sans etre paye tout de suite. Ce qu'il est mercenaire. Je prends ton salaire pour les prochains mois. (p.215) English: Vatza, I need, I have to pay are [for] new designs, or Stravinsky would not work without being paid immediately.[,] What[which] is mercenary. I take your salary for the next few months. (Daighileff is explaining to Vaslav, addressed as Vatza, that his salary will be withheld for the next few months in order to pay for new designs and for Stravinsky's salary, which the composer requires be paid in advance.)

Je veux vous remercier que vous avez élevé la danse à la hauteur des autres arts. (p. 232)
English: I want to thank you that you have high [4 wds: for elevating] dance at [to] the height of the other arts.

. . . mais tu es paresseux. Viens, viens, j'ai besoin de toi; il faut que tu danses pour e Ballet Russe, pour moi. (p. 433) English: . . .but you're lazy. Come, come, I need you. It takes you to dance for e[the] Russian Ballet, for me.

Je ne peuz pas car je suis fou. (p. 433)
English: I don't can not [3 wds: cannot] because I'm crazy.

A few instances of speech occur in Russian, but the majority are French, and, very often, Romola provides either a translation or explanation for the words to be understood in oontext.

Commentary and Conclusion

I have never watched a live operatic ballet performance, but have a mild interest in the dance because I admire dancers' physiques and that of figure skaters--good muscle tone that is not as pronounced as a gymnast or weight lifter.

In junior high school, I would sometimes imagine myself as a ballerina and go through some self-created, simple movements. Grace and posture, I believed, were an essential part of beauty, to which I think any woman with a healthy dose of self-esteem aspires.

I took a beginning ballet class at Michigan State University during my sophomore year (1972). As I leaned toward academia, rather than body development, I found some of the exercises boring! I simply lacked the focus and patience to be a serious ballerina.

However, I took the discipline up again in San Francisco in 1977. Many of the other students were much more advanced than I, and I allowed my perception to discourage my own development. My effort only lasted a couple of weeks.

People with singular career focuses entice me. This man was totally immersed in his art. He not only practiced rigorously, but perfected his own makeup for each character, choreographed, composed music, and developed notation for dance movements so future ballet dancers could perform a given ballet without having to make a whole new routine. He was undoubtedly a genius in his field, yet he rejected promotional interviews and marketing that spotlighted only him. He maintained his humility in his effort to bring joy to the masses through dance.

While Wikipedia mentions homosexuality as a trait in his youth, the biography makes no mention of it whatsoever. Romola saw his noble commitment to his art and wanted to help him promote it. His pure integrity in this regard surely eclipses any innuendos of homosexual persuasion.

I cannot completely end my commentary without at least mentioning something about Nijinsky's mental health problem during the latter part of his life. As a sensitive artist who wanted to uplift humanity, something in the man turned this mission into something disturbing to his friends and family. Images of war pervaded his psyche on a very deep level; in fact, he had experienced his life's trial as being labeled a "prisoner of war." His portrayal of dying soldiers as a performance left his audience in shock. After many consultations with doctors, Romola did try to help Vaslav by engaging the assistance of a variety of psychics and healers without success. As one who engages in spiritual studies and holistic healing methods, I believe Vaslav could have returned to some sort of normalcy by spending much time in nature and adjustments in his diet, perhaps. When morbid energies pervade the psyche, these must be deactivated and replaced by wholesome stimuli. During several years of pre- and early adulthood, I experienced an assessment of schizophrenia myself. In looking back, I realize the importance of family support, the calm surroundings of nature, gentle exploration of core values influencing one's life purpose, and a good diet. Vaslav Nijinsky needed to let go of his preoccupation with his art, enough to allow for healing of the soul. Perhaps some time with very young children would have helped in this regard.

Somewhere in my distant past, I heard the expression that short people need to prove themselves. With his petite frame, perhaps this was part of Nijinsky's psychology. His dedication to God through his art, however, makes this idea seem void. He didn't need to prove anything to anyone--until his demise, his spirit shown through each step and leap. The man was brilliant in his field for his time.

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • Marie Flint profile image
      Author

      Marie Flint 4 weeks ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA

      I was especially privileged in having this book because folded inside it was an aging newspaper clipping that took nearly a whole page titled "Kyra Nijinsky: She Remembers Papa."

      Vaslav's and Romola's daughter appeared elderly in this newspaper article. She stated, "I remember my father from the time I was 3 [sic]. I saw him dance in 'Sylphides' in New York. I remember the dark velvet clothing with white sleeves that he wore. He flew in the moonlight . . .

      "I remember he would pick me up and say, 'Stretch your little toes.' " --Fairchild Publications, a division of Capital Cities Media, Inc.; May 22-29, 1983.

      She helped clarify the issue of homosexuality as well by stating that her father was not so, but did have an affair [singular] with Sergei Diaghilev. Vaslav's marriage to Romola, of course, ended the suspicions of any sexual attraction to males and acknowledged the dancer as a human, not purely super human, which he seemed in his dedication and avoidance of socializing.

      Good reading--both book and newspaper article.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 4 weeks ago from Queensland Australia

      I found this very interesting, Marie. I know Nijinsky was always Rudolph Nureyev's inspiration. Good to see a new article by you here. (I did notice this typo: "I cannot (...) my commentary without at least mentioning something about Nijinsky's mental health problem during the latter part of his life. " It seems the word "end" or "conclude" is missing.)

    • Marie Flint profile image
      Author

      Marie Flint 4 weeks ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA

      Thank you for catching the missing word, John. I corrected it.

      This was a long, labored hub article. Nijinsky led the life of an aristocrat, basically, wearing fine clothes, and not having to serve in the military. However, his dedication to dance kept him away from social connections, as it was for him practice, practice, practice! One can be obsessed with something so much that an imbalance is created. That, and having lived during the time of the first world war, must have been the "straw that broke the camel's back" in reference to his health in latter years.

      I found it interesting that he actually admitted to his manager Diaghileff of his (Vaslav's) condition--that of being crazy. An actual lunatic would not say that. At least I perceived an element of sanity in that admission.

      After checking all the special marks on the French phrases, maybe now I'm ready to take up the language! (My daughter has some understanding of very basic vocabulary.)

      Thanks for the read. Blessings, as always!

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 4 weeks ago from The Caribbean

      A great tribute to the life and work of Vaslav Fomith Nijinsky. We also learn about his wife from what she chooses to reveal about him. Thanks for the introduction to these two exceptional artists. A great, enjoyable read!

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 4 weeks ago from london

      A brilliant read, Marie.

      I must confess that some articles I struggle with. I read them, when I do, perhaps, because of my love for the author/writer.

      Your writing is brilliant and made the Hub flow so well! I was fascinated to hear that he gave credit to God. The real geniuses say this and I'm glad that he did. Thank you for bringing his spirit; his wife's and daughter's spirit alive.

    • Marie Flint profile image
      Author

      Marie Flint 4 weeks ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA

      Dora and Manatita, thank you so much for reading and commenting. Comments always give me an extra boost of encouragement for writing. God bless you!

    Click to Rate This Article