Vaslav Nijinsky is frequently cited as the greatest male dancer of the 20th century. His revolutionary performances and pioneering choreography aided the advancement of his art into the modern era and opened the waning medium of ballet up to a myriad of experimental possibilities. In partnership with his lover, the impresario Sergei Diaghliev, Nijinsky exerted an integral influence over several productions before the First World War. His execution of Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune and Stravinsky’s La Sacre du printemps earned him international recognition, leading some critics to call him ‘the god of dance’. Like many icons, his significance grew beyond the confines of his biography and his legacy became a symbol of youthful aspiration for creative perfection. Towards the end of his career, he was consumed by schizophrenia. He spent the remaining years of his life drifting in and out of asylums. There is only one recorded occasion of the nimble Nijinsky dancing in public after the collapse of his fragile mind and psychiatrists are only now starting to understand the psychological significance of that overlooked event.
Born in Ukraine in 1889, he met his first patron, Prince Lvov, after leaving the Imperial Russian Ballet School. Lvov soon grew bored of his beneficiary and passed on the patronage to Diaghliev. Diaghliev’s company, The Ballet Russes, offered Nijinsky the creative freedom he needed to change ballet forever. At first, using the choreography of Mikhail Fokin, Nijinksy dazzled audiences with his high leaps, contorted poses, mesmerising presence and surprising acting abilities.
After Fokin’s departure from the company, Nijinsky assumed the role of choreographer, much to the chagrin of his fellow dancers. Nijinsky’s choreography dramatically broke with ballet tradition. His dancers were instructed to suppress as much emotion as possible and they were told to articulate their gestures almost mechanically. He was often accused of forcing dancers to do unnecessarily ugly acts. His choreography may have divided his cast but once he graced the stage, no one was in doubt that Nijinsky was a generation-defining talent. His performances are unfortunately lost to history as none were ever recorded for posterity. Contemporary critics, however, universally attested to his power to become emblematic, an achievement that continues to inspire dancers today. In these circumstances, The Ballet Russes produced its most famous and controversial performance – La Sacre du printemps.
Diaghliev’s love for Nijinsky was not reciprocated. Nijinsky often escaped the oppressive supervision of Diaghliev’s flunkies to fool around with female prostitutes. The end of their collaboration came in 1913 during a tour of Brazil. Nijinsky unexpectedly married the Hungarian aristocrat, Romola de Pulszky, breaking Diaghliev’s heart. On Nijinsky’s return to Paris, Diaghliev fired him from the company and hired Leonide Massine. Penniless, Nijinsky looked for work in London before moving to Budapest where during the tumultuous times of the First World War he was placed under house arrest for being Russian. Entreaties from emperors, popes and princes achieved his liberation, but they were sent on the condition that he return to the ballet.
After a successful tour of America where he wowed Woodrow Wilson and met Charlie Chaplin, Nijinsky started experiencing the onsets of his insidious condition. ‘They’re trying to kill me’ he would whisper to his dancing partners. Basic questions would be met with suspicion and his agitated eyes would flash at faces they no longer found familiar. Professor Bleuler (the man who coined the phrase schizophrenia) examined Nijinsky in 1919 and recommended his immediate commitment to an asylum. Over the next three decades he developed debilitating symptoms like mutism, motor inhibition, hebephrenic states and violent tendencies. His wife began to miss her Hungarian family and so Nijinsky was transferred to an institution in Budapest in 1940. By 1943, his mental illness had made him a likely target for Nazi extermination programmes and Nijinsky was sent to a smaller sanatorium in the surrounding countryside to avoid attention. In May 1945, the order was given to eradicate all patients at the sanatorium and he was forced to hide in a nearby cave.
This lamentable flow of unfortunate events came to a remarkable end when the Red Army arrived. One day he came across a group of Russian soldiers singing around a campfire. He was inspired when he heard the music of his homeland and started to dance to express his joy. The astonished soldiers soon realised who the old man was and embraced him tenderly. For the first time in twenty-six years, Nijinsky enjoyed a notable recovery. He exhumed his loquacity, socialised with ease and gladdened those he spoke with. This exultation was unfortunately short-lived, but thereafter he was never as excitable or unhappy as he had been. He died in London in 1950 from kidney failure and is buried in St Marylebone cemetery.
What were the sources of Nijinsky’s schizophrenia? Were they linked to his visionary perspective? How did a chance encounter with soldiers calm his nerves? These are questions that cannot be definitively answered. Many artistic visionaries have suffered from mental illness. It is almost a cliché to underline their names. From Thelonious Monk to Frederich Hölderlin, from Van Gogh to Syd Barrett, a connection between brilliance and sickness seems self-evident. Emeric Pressburger wrote a memorable line for the film A Matter of Life and Death – ‘a weak mind isn’t strong enough to hurt itself. Stupidity has saved many a man from going mad’. Nijinsky was not a clever man but he was a gifted one. Gifted not solely in body but also in mind. The vision he realised was always remembered fondly by those who watched him work. When Marie Rambert was asked ‘how high could Nijinsky jump?’, she would reply ‘I don’t know how high from the ground, but I know he was close to the stars’.