The Leaping Prince

If I say the name Nijinsky there may be a possibility that with Cheltenham Gold cup week, you might think I'm talking about a horse.

I'm not. This week in history on the 12th of March marked the birth in 1890 of Vaslav Nijinsky who would go on to become one of the most famous and controversial ballet dancers of the 20th century.

The story of Vaslav Nijinsky is a tragic one, filled with moments of intense beauty and creativity, but also marred by the devastating impact of mental illness. His parents were dancers with the Setov opera company and they had Vaslav touring with them before he could even say "plié."

Nijinsky's brother and sister also were part of the group, with his sister Bronislava even becoming a choreographer and working closely with him throughout his career. But it was Vaslav who really made waves in the dance world.

At the age of nine, he was accepted into the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg graduating in 1907, he quickly became a member of the Imperial Ballet and was already snagging starring roles.

But Nijinsky's career really took off when he joined the Ballets Russes in 1909. This new ballet company was started by the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who took the Russian ballet scene to Paris and blew everyone's minds. Nijinsky quickly became the company's star male dancer, causing a story every time he hit the stage.

Diaghilev saw something special in him and the two became lovers.

With the Ballets Russes, Nijinsky was able to really experiment with dance and choreography, creating innovative works that broke new ground for male dancers. He became a total sensation and household name, forever changing the ballet world.

Now, Nijinsky wasn't content with just being an incredible dancer - he wanted to make his own mark on the ballet world.

In 1912, he started choreographing his own ballets, including L'après-midi d'un faune to music by Claude Debussy, Le Sacre du Printemps to music by Igor Stravinsky, Jeux, and Till Eulenspiegel. These were revolutionary at the time.

L'après-midi d'un faune caused huge waves, with its sexually suggestive final scene - scandalous! And Le Sacre du Printemps? Let's just say fights broke out in the audience and caused a riot. Nijinsky was really pushing boundaries both as ballet as an art form and socially.

He originally envisioned Jeux as a piece with three male leads, but Diaghilev insisted it be danced by one man and two women. He was ahead of his time by a hundred years.

In 1913,  he met and eventually wed with a Hungarian aristocrat named Romola de Pulszky while on tour in South America. Nijinsky and Romola had two daughters together, Kyra and Tamara Nijinska.

An enraged Diaghilev wasn't too thrilled with this whole situation and soon Nijinsky was excluded from the ballet world.

Interned during the outbreak of World War I (as deemed a Russian enemy in Budapest) he was under house arrest in Hungary until 1916. The stress had taken a toll on Nijinsky's mental health and his condition only worsened. Even after intervention from his ex-lover Diaghilev and other international leaders secured his release, his mind became increasingly unstable. 

In his last public performance, the renowned pianist Arthur Rubinstein would begin to cry at the obvious confusion and distress Nijinski could see in this once-great artist.

He was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1919 and from that point onwards, his life became a cycle of hospitalisations, treatments and relapses.

Despite the setbacks, there were moments of hope and inspiration. In 1945, after moving to Vienna with his wife Romola, Nijinsky stumbled upon a group of Russian soldiers playing folk tunes on traditional instruments. The sound of the balalaika and the other instruments immediately transported him back to his childhood in Russia, and he began to dance with a passion and intensity that amazed the soldiers. For a brief moment, Nijinsky's illness seemed to lift and he was once again able to communicate with those around him. Drinking and laughing with the soldiers, he regained his voice and found joy in the simple pleasure of making music and dancing.

Sadly, these moments of respite were all too brief. Nijinsky's mental health continued to deteriorate and he spent much of his remaining years in and out of psychiatric institutions. The world lost one of its greatest dancers when Nijinsky passed away in 1950 at the age of sixty in London. Yet, despite the tragedy of his life, Nijinsky's legacy continues to inspire new generations of dancers and artists. His passion for dance and his unwavering commitment to his craft has left an indelible mark on the history of art and his memory remains a testament to the power of creativity and human resilience in the face of adversity.

This week's sketch...

Available here


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