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Vaslav Nijinsky
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Vaslav Nijinsky

Vaslav Fomich Nijinsky (Вацлав Фомич Нижинский) (March 12, 1890April 8, 1950) was a ballet dancer and choreographer, born in Kiev, Ukraine.

Considered among the great male dancers in history, he studied at the Imperial Dancing Academy, Saint Petersburg, Russia, and would become celebrated for his virtuosity and for the depth and intensity of his characterizations. He could perform en pointe, a rare skill among male dancers at the time, (Albright, 2004) and his ability to perform apparently gravity-defying leaps was also legendary.

In 1900 he acted in the St. Petersburg theatrical school under N.G. Legat, M.K. Obukhov and E. Cheketti's management. At 18 years of age he had leading roles in the Mariinsky theatre.

A turning point for Nijinsky was his meeting with Sergei Diaghilev, a member of the St Petersburg elite and wealthy patron of the arts, promoting Russian visual and musical art abroad, particularly in Paris. Nijinsky and Diaghilev became lovers, and Diaghilev became heavily involved in directing Nijinsky's career. In 1909 Diaghilev took a company to Paris, with Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova as the leads. The show was a huge success and greatly increased the reputation of both the leads and Diaghilev throughout the artistic circles of Europe. Diaghilev created Les Ballets Russes in its wake, and with choreographer Michel Fokine, made it one of the most famous companies of the time.

Nijinsky's talent was showed in Fokine's pieces such as “Pavilion Armidy” (music by N.N. Cherepnin), “Cleopatra” (music by A.S. Arensky and other Russian composers) and a divertissement “The Feast”. His execution of a pas de deux from the “Sleeping beauty” Tchaikovsky was a tremendous success; in 1910 he shone in “Zhisel”, Fokine’s ballets “The Carnival” and “Shakheresada” (music by Rimsky-Korsakov).

Then Nijinsky returned to Mariinsky theatre, but he soon was dismissed as a result of scandal and became a regular member of Dyagilev’s troupe, whose projects centered around him. He had leading roles in Fokine's new statements “Vision of Rose” (on music К.М. Fon Weber;) and Igor Stravinsky's “Parsley”.

With Diaghilev's support Nijinsky began to work as a choreographer himself, producing three ballets, L’Après-midi d’un Faune (The Afternoon of a Faun, with music by Claude Debussy) (1912), Jeux (1913), Till Eulenspiegel (1916) and Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), the last accompanied by Stravinsky's famous music of the same name (see The Rite of Spring) (1913). Nijinsky created revolutionary movements in his shows, moving away from the traditional flowing movements of mainstream ballet. His radical angular movements combined with heavy sexual overtones caused a riot in the Théâtre de Champs-Elysées when Le Sacre du Printemps was premiered in Paris. He had "masturbated" with the faun's scarf in The Afternoon of the Faun (Albright, 2004).

In 1913 the Ballets Russes toured South America, and because of his fear of ocean voyages Diaghilev did not accompany them. Without his mentor's supervision Nijinsky fell in love with Romola de Pulszky, a Hungarian ballerina. They were married in Buenos Aires: when the company returned to Europe, Diaghilev, in a jealous rage, fired them both. Nijinsky tried to create his own troupe, but its crucial London engagement failed due to administrative problems.

During World War I Nijinsky, a Russian citizen, was interned in Hungary. Diaghilev succeeded in getting him out for a North American tour in 1916, during which he choreographed and danced the leading role in Till Eulenspiegel. Signs of his dementia praecox were becoming apparent to members of the company. He became afraid of other dancers and that a trap door would be left open. Nijinsky spent many years in and out of mental hospitals. Nijinsky had a nervous breakdown in 1919 and his career effectively ended. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and taken to Switzerland by his wife where he was treated by psychiatrist Eugene Bleuler.

He spent the rest of his life in and out of psychiatric hospitals and asylums. He died in a London clinic on April 8, 1950 and was buried in London until 1953 when his body was then moved to Cimetière de Montmartre, Paris, France beside the graves of Gaetano Vestris, Theophile Gautier, and Emma Livry.

He is mentioned in Groucho Marx's song Lydia the Tattooed Lady.