Glimpses of Nijinsky…100 Years Later

By Laura Maguire

December 1, 2009, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Much celebrated this year is the 100th anniversary of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the Paris-based company that changed the face of dance in the twentieth century, as well as having enormous influence on the worlds of music, fashion, and design. Formed in 1909 by Russian impresario extraordinaire, Serge (Sergei) Diaghilev, the Ballets Russes was responsible for revolutionizing classical ballet, both in terms of its modernist approach to choreography and its experimental collaborations with other art forms. Some of the twentieth century’s most noted choreographers—Michel Fokine, Vaslav Nijinsky, Léonide Massine, Bronislava Nijinska, and George Balanchine—began their careers with the Ballets Russes, which also nurtured such incredible dance talent as Tamara Karsavina, Anna Pavlova, and Alexandra Danilova, among many others.

A more tragic, less well-known anniversary—certainly, one that is not being commemorated worldwide—is that of the Ballets Russes’ brightest star, Vaslav Nijinksy, who was committed to a psychiatric hospital ninety years ago. Nijinksy, ultimately diagnosed with schizophrenia, spent the remaining thirty years of his life in and out of psychiatric hospitals, often in a catatonic or severely depressed state. While not the kind of anniversary one necessarily wants to celebrate, for local choreographer Erika Tsimbrovsky, the heartbreaking story of Nijinsky’s descent into madness is the inspiration for her new work, Nocturnal Butterflies, dedicated to this legendary artist and dancer.

Born in Kiev to Polish parents, both of whom were professional dancers, Nijinsky’s story begins as a child prodigy in the Imperial Ballet School, St. Petersburg. Already by his eighteenth birthday, he had gained much notoriety for his dancing and extraordinary athletic ability. His performances caught the attention of a young aristocrat, Prince Lvov, who paid another young dancer to arrange an introduction to Nijinsky, a practice in sexual trade that was fairly common at the time. Thus began what was probably Nijinsky’s first relationship. In addition to the much needed supplement to his meager income with the Imperial Ballet, Nijinsky’s relationship with Lvov afforded him entry into a brand new milieu, where he could mingle with the higher strata of Russian society.

It was Lvov, quickly tiring of Nijinsky as a sexual partner, who introduced him to Diaghilev in 1908. At the time, the thirty-five year old Diaghilev was already one of the most prominent figures in the St. Petersburg art world. Between 1898-1908, he founded and edited Mir iskusstva (The World of Art), an innovative fin de siècle journal dedicated to promoting new contemporary Russian art and criticism, he organized a huge exhibition of Russian art in Paris, and, he presented Boris Godunov at the Paris Opéra—all of which paved the way for the Ballets Russes’ opening season of opera and dance in 1909. After their initial meeting, Nijinsky and Diaghilev became lovers and lived openly as such, sharing hotel suites in Paris and appearing in public together as a couple. Nijinsky, renowned for his artistry, his athleticism, and his extraordinary expressive talent as an actor, became the Ballets Russes’ principal male dancer. He was known particularly for his preternatural ability to leap into the air and, apparently, stay there, suspended for a moment. Added to this talent, his scandalous relationship with Diaghilev, as well as the Fokine ballets that cast him in roles that were highly eroticized—Nijinsky soon became a star of international reputation, one who could whip an audience up into an hysterical frenzy with his other-worldly dancing.

After a few years as the principal male dancer in the company, Nijinsky began his choreographic career with the Ballets Russes and made three works, The Afternoon of a Faun, Jeux, and most notably, The Rite of Spring. On its opening night in May 1913, The Rite of Spring provoked such a riot in the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris that the police had to be summoned to restore order, all while the performance continued on stage. It is said that the distraught Nijinsky had to stand in the wings screaming the musical counts to the dancers, who could not hear the orchestra above the din of the roaring crowds. As dance critic Joan Acocella explains, what audiences were exposed to with Nijinsky’s choreography was like nothing they had seen before: “The lovely, noble three-dimensional shapes of the academic ballet, the five positions of the legs and arms, the turned-out feet: all were gone. Under Nijinsky’s direction, the dancer moved in profile, slicing the air like blades (The Afternoon of a Faun), or they hunched over, hammering their feet into the floorboards (The Rite of Spring). The approach was analytic, the look ‘ugly,’ the emotions discomforting.”

Even before the outrage over Rite, Nijinsky’s relationship with Diaghilev was straining and in an astonishing move, Nijinsky married a beautiful young Hungarian countess named Romola Pulszky. When Pulszky had first seen Nijinsky perform in Budapest in 1912 , she became obsessed with him and quickly attached herself to the company, following them everywhere—London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, and back to Budapest. For eighteen months she went largely unnoticed by Nijinsky until 1913, when she seized her opportunity onboard a ship to South America with the company. Within two weeks of any relations at all between the two and despite the enormous language barrier (their initial “conversations” consisting mostly of mimes and gesturing), Vaslav and Romola became engaged and were married shortly thereafter in Buenos Aires.

Upon hearing this news back in Paris, Diaghilev was said to have become hysterical, sobbing shamelessly in despair. Shortly after Nijinsky’s return to Europe, he was fired from the Ballets Russes. It is not clear if the personal betrayal of Nijinsky’s marriage is ultimately what prompted Diaghilev to dismiss him. As Peter Ostwald, psychiatrist and biographer, explains, Nijinsky was an extremely difficult choreographer to work with, frequently flying into temper tantrums and unable to communicate what he wanted to his dancers. Rehearsals took an inordinate amount of time as Nijinsky attempted to extract unconventional movements from his dancers, movements that flew in the face of the classical training they had received and which were, therefore, very difficult to perform. Nijinsky lacked the necessary social and verbal skills to communicate effectively and thus found it difficult to elicit the cooperation of his dancers. In his personal relationship with Diaghilev, he was also prone to erupt into violent rages, a problem Diaghilev complained about to Nijinsky’s sister, dancer/choreographer Bronislava Nijinska. Given these problems, as well as the kind of volatile reception Nijinsky’s work had received in Paris, it made sense for the ever-astute Diaghilev to make this decision, thus ensuring the future success of the Ballets Russes.

For Nijinsky, this turn of events was a disaster, leading to his first documented nervous breakdown in 1914. Romola was by then already pregnant with their first child, Kyra, and war had erupted in Europe. The couple moved to Budapest to live in safety with Romola’s mother and they stayed there till 1916 when Nijinsky was granted permission, with Diaghilev’s help, to travel to Vienna. Negotiations with Diaghilev began on a Ballets Russes tour of the United States, in which Nijinsky was to make his final ballet, Till Eulenspiegel. In early 1917, he returned to Europe and continued working for the Ballets Russes in Spain, followed by another tour of South America. During this time, Nijinsky’s erratic behavior, nervousness, depression, and paranoia increased, and upon his return to Europe toward the end of 1917, he and Romola moved to the Swiss Alps. There, in creative isolation, Nijinsky worked on a number of ballets that he wanted to make, including one called Papillons de la Nuit (Nocturnal Butterflies), a name that Tsimbrovsky has borrowed for her new work inspired by the dancer. Tragically, Nijinsky was not to make this or any other ballet. His psychiatric condition further deteriorated in Switzerland, eventually leading to his hospitalization in 1919.

For those of us interested in art and artists, there is something fascinating about the story of a creative genius gone mad, about someone who struggles to tread water but who is eventually pulled under by the invisible currents that threaten to take us all. We ponder that fine line between genius and insanity, between this world and another unknown, potentially menacing, potentially beautiful world. We wonder if the madness and the vast creativity share a common source and, if so, what that implies for those of us who are only a little mad. Nijinsky’s tragic end is not unique. Less than twenty years earlier, the brilliant German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche spent the last eleven years of his life in a near vegetative state prompted by a nervous breakdown in 1889. What makes Nijinsky’s case remarkable, however, is that he documented his own “leap into madness” as it was occurring. In the six week period prior to being committed to a psychiatric clinic in Zurich, Nijinsky kept a series of notebooks, which later became known as The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, when his wife published them in 1936. It was not until much later, long after Romola’s death in 1978, that a new, unexpurgated version of The Diary was published. These notebooks, Nijinsky’s so-called “diary,” are the last creative work we have from this artist.

For Tsimbrovsky and her dancers, Nijinsky’s notebooks form the foundation of their research for Nocturnal Butterflies. Tsimbrovsky, a recent immigrant from the former Soviet Union, started reading Nijinsky’s diary as well as Romola’s biography in a period of insomnia induced by a deep anxiety about being a stranger in a strange land, unsure about how her art would be received in the Bay Area. Something about the title Nocturnal Butterflies resonated with her, if only in a liminal, unexpressed way. As a dancer, she was fascinated by the rare opportunity to catch a glimpse into the internal workings of another dancer’s mind, especially one of such exceptional talent as Nijinsky. It felt to her like she had been given a key that unlocked a gate to a hidden garden, one she could only dream about on those nights when insomnia did not grasp her in its clutches. She imagined the manic Nijinsky, scribbling incessantly throughout the night, while Romola slept nervously by his side. She began to feel her way into his unhinged world, into a darkness where one navigates only by the faint sound of a moth’s wings flapping somewhere in the distance.

Reading Nijinsky’s notebooks is no easy task. While there are moments of crystal clarity, revealing both a depth of awareness and a certain poetic vision, it is obvious that this artist’s creative genius did not extend to the literary. Indeed, Nijinsky was known to have great difficulty with verbal communication and was sometimes considered “a slow thinker” or “an idiot of genius” by his peers. Accordingly, suffering through Nijinsky’s prose, not to mention his “poetry,” can feel like a kind of torture. In the streams of bizarre and frequently contradictory thoughts, Nijinsky uses the same simple syntactical structures over and over ad nauseum, and many of the ideas he obsesses over can be mind-numbingly tedious to one not so gripped —“Nature is life. Life is nature. An ape is nature. Man is nature. An ape is not the nature of man. I am not an ape in man… An ape is stupid. I am stupid. But I have reason. I am a reasonable being, but an ape is not reasonable.” As Tsimbrovsky’s London-based composer/musician Grundik Kasyansky says of his experience reading the notebooks, “I feel weak, dizzy, sick. My eyes water. My head spins.” Echoing this sentiment, dancer Andrew Ward describes how the rhythm and pace of Nijinsky’s writing, “the short jerky sentences that immediately contradict themselves,” gave him a feeling of madness in his own head.

Despite its ability to nauseate, to make one feel demented, or perhaps because of it, Nijinsky’s writing is a rich source of inspiration for the dancers in Nocturnal Butterflies. As Rosemary Hannon says, “I find the sounds of those crazy poems from the book coming out during our improvisations—as if the repetitive rhythmic syllables are animal sounds. I notice the rhythm of the sentences and how each thought is followed into a maze of other thoughts. This, therefore that. Therefore that. Therefore that.” Of course, the effect that Nijinsky’s writing has on the dancers is not always known on a conscious level and Tsimbrovsky encourages them to be guided by intuition rather than the rational, conscious mind. A reoccurring theme in Nijinsky’s notebooks is the emphasis on feeling over thinking. Referring to his wife, he writes, “She thinks I am mad, because she thinks a lot. I think little and therefore understand everything I feel. I am feeling in the flesh. I am feeling in the flesh and not intellect in the flesh. I am the flesh. I am not feeling. I am God in the flesh and in feeling. I am man and not God. I am simple. People must not think me.” In her rehearsals for Nocturnal Butterflies, Tsimbrovsky uses passages like this one that particularly resonate, ones which speak to the division between body and consciousness, between the material and the spiritual. While she prefers to remain tight-lipped about the specific techniques she employs in creating the performance, Tsimbrovsky’s dancers agree that it is a deep and interesting process. As Christine Bonansea says, “I really like how Erika uses the text. With her direction, we make the spirit and words of Nijinsky alive—we give him a resonance. It’s not about history anymore, it’s about physicality, bodies, ‘matière.’” Lindsay Gauthier adds, “Nothing is without connection to the theme, even if you are not intentionally trying to make a connection. The information expresses itself through your body and the dance because you have ingested the material. What is most interesting about how we use the text is in the ways that we don’t intend to; in the moments that something happens without expectation or planning, a discovery is made, a piece of magic uncovered.”

Erika Tsimbrovsky’s Nocturnal Butterflies will premier at Theater Artaud, San Francisco, December 10-12. For more information: dreammapping/ and

This article appeared in the December 2009 issue of In Dance.

Laura Maguire is a writer, dancer, and organizer, and is co-producer of Nocturnal Butterflies. She currently teaches at Stanford University, where she received her PhD in Philosophy.