Nijinsky, Iconic Russian Ballet Dancer
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.
- MY FIRST ENCOUNTER WITH THE RUSSIAN BALLET
- THE CHILDHOOD OF VASLAV NIJINSKY
- THE IMPERIAL SCHOOL OF DANCING
- NIJINSKY AND THE MARIINSKY THEATRE
- THE RUSSIAN RENAISSANCE
- THE FIRST PARIS SEASON
- THE FRIENDSHIP OF SERGEI DE DIAGHILEFF AND VASLAV NIJINSKY
- NIJINSKY'S BREAK WITH THE MARIINSKY THEATRE
- NIJINSKY AS CHOREOGRAPHER
- 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.
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!
- Vaslav Nijinsky – Height, Weight, Age
A brief overview of the dancer's life, including some information not in the biography.
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
Diaghileff, Sergei Pavlovitch
Russian Ballet director-manager-producer
Vaslav's bodyguard, hired by Diaghileff
stage scenery designer
ballet instructor & composer
teacher, Imperial School of Dance, "the Maestro"
Vaslav's younger sister, dramatic ballerina
conductor, Pasadena Orchestra of Paris
French painter & scenery designer
ballet music composer & writer
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 weightlifter.
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.