Nijinsky began to lose his mind in a Swiss village in 1919. He was only 29 years old, still dazzling, animal-like, an Aschenbach vision on the Lido, a young man who could jump and pause in the air: but he began to spend all night in his studio scribbling the same things over and over, the doodlings of the incrementally mad. The thing he drew was eyes. Sometimes, in his little exercise books, he might draw spiders, or the many faces of Diaghilev, but mainly it was the eyes, black eyes, red eyes, and sometimes he’d go over each one so much he’d tear right through the paper.
He danced professionally for the last time that year. An invited audience gathered at a local hotel. He began the performance by sitting in a chair staring at them for half an hour; these rows of doctors and bankers, these well-scrubbed ladies who’d never made it to Paris, they looked into his famous eyes that stared without blinking. Then he rolled out two pieces of velvet in the shape of a cross, and he stood at the head of it: ‘Now I will dance you the war,’ he said, ‘the war which you did not prevent.’
A girl who had cared for Nietzsche in the last phase of his illness was often around the Nijinsky house, and she said the great dancer had the same look on his face. The look was a fairly familiar one in the family: Nijinsky’s older brother Stassik’s mind wasn’t right, and his maternal grandmother had starved herself to death. On the morning of Nijinsky’s startling performance at the hotel he began to write a diary – a series of savage declarations, the mirror (or the blackboard) of a creative mind on the slide, incorporating letters to people he loved or loathed. As the diary ends he is on his way to see Eugen Bleuler – the man who came up with the word ‘schizophrenic’ – and not long afterwards he was sent to Kreuzlingen, to the Bellevue Sanatorium.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Nijinsky’s death. It has become fairly orthodox to observe – as everyone observes when talking about Schumann or Virginia Woolf or Van Gogh – that Nijinsky’s madness was not unattached to his genius. His choreography is a study in grace and brutality, in his ‘madness’ he invented modern dance, his mind is a set-text in the Jungian analysis of personality, he was fifty years ahead of his time, his life was an erotic spectacle – narcissistic, instinctive, free – and his work captured the emerging rhythm of mind for a generation that was heading into the fearsome carnival of the Great War. But Nijinsky was a sleek gazelle trotting round the edge of a precipice; he was a primitive: how did he come to be the patron saint of modern art?
His diaries can now be read for the first time in their original form. Joan Acocella’s restoration is a job very well done: she has elegantly failed to spare the blushes of the dead, and instead what we have is a final, proper edition of Nijinsky’s diary, a dark assemblage that can sometimes read like out-takes from the thoughts of Raskolnikov, or notes towards another short novel by Schnitzler. The diary shows Nijinsky at the very turning-point of mental illness. ‘He knows,’ Acocella writes in her introduction, ‘that something extraordinary is going on in his brain, but he does not know whether this means he is God or that he is a madman, abandoned by God.’ Above all, Nijinsky, as a dancer and a choreographer, had a synthesising genius: he broke with symmetry to make things new, and he investigated ugliness, and moral lies, in order to establish new, true, beautiful things. The diaries show that his obsessions were narrow, but they were his obsessions: in some sense he had been thinking the same thoughts since he was a tiny 16-year-old dancer.
In Nabokov’s first novel Mary there is a portrait of two Russian dancers who yearn for a wider world of freedoms. Kolin and Gornotsvetov live in a room reeking of perfume and sweat, and there is something new in their decadence, something newly European in the way these two intend to elongate themselves into the modern hours. ‘Having admired the coral varnish of his nails,’ Nabokov writes, ‘Kolin carefully washed his hands, smeared his face and hands with sickly-sweet toilet water and threw off his dressing-gown. Naked, he took a few steps on his points, did a little entrechat, quickly dressed, powdered his nose, and made up his eyes.’ This is the world that Vaslav Nijinsky entered as a young dancer in St Petersburg, a world, Acocella writes, ‘in which there was a heavy sexual trade in ballet dancers’. Yet Nijinsky was both involved in all this, and at the same time apart from it: he spent many of his evenings reading The Idiot by candlelight, nurturing his conscience and his garden of possibilities, suddenly believing, as he said, ‘that mankind can be redeemed by beauty’.
Five foot four inches tall, Nijinsky was full of grief and also full of exuberance. By the time he met Diaghilev he was already admired by every passing prince, a boy genius with feline limbs and a burgeoning sense of the power of immorality. Diaghilev, like the Baron de Charlus, bowing left and right as he walked into restaurants, allowed both Nijinsky and Pavlova to believe that taking the Ballets Russes to Paris was their own idea. But it was very much Diaghilev’s idea: he had the burnished glitz of the true Svengali, and if he could do nothing else in life he could love art, and he could provoke Paris with a display of the lavishly new.
The Parisians could hardly contain themselves during the first season of the Ballets Russes in 1909. John Singer Sargent’s painting, Vaslav Nijinsky in ‘Le Pavillon d’Armide’, captures the long-necked, outrageous spectacle of this new animal of dance. All of Proust’s characters were there in the audience, and they had never seen anything as exotic as Nijinsky. The choreographer Fokine, who was devoted to obliterating the genteel posturing of 19th-century dance by introducing a more vigorous interpretative art, wrote of Nijinsky ‘softly leaping great distances ... overflowing with an abundance of power’. Alexandre Benois, the painter, and one of the new kind of set designers courted by Diaghilev, saw the young Nijinsky as ‘half-cat, half-snake, fiendishly agile, feminine and yet wholly terrifying’. And he tried to capture the new ethos: ‘In the ballet,’ he wrote, ‘I would point to the elemental mixture of visual and aural impressions; in the ballet is attained the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk about which Wagner dreamed and about which every artistically gifted person dreams.’ For Diaghilev, the ballet was not just a case of pretty symmetries and eloquent arms: it was to be the greatest and most modern tapestry in the world, an exercise in pure wonderment.
‘I never saw anything so beautiful,’ Proust wrote to his friend Reynaldo Hahn. When the Ballets Russes returned with Giselle, it was like nothing that had come before. Never had such taste been displayed – the sets were unconscionably lavish, the costumes colourful and exotic to a new degree, the music was outrageous, the dancers barely human – and there was Nijinsky at the middle of it all, jumping as if not to come down, filling the air with a torridly contemporary sort of expression, much of which depended on his capacity to strip away conventional stage behaviour, and make nothing seem like everything. Even Fokine thought Nijinsky was going too far: ‘You are just standing there doing nothing,’ he shouted. ‘I am acting with my eyes,’ Nijinsky replied.
Nijinsky would fill books with notes about the parts he danced. In her memoir, Theatre Street, Tamara Karsavina recalls Nijinsky’s bizarre way of going on. ‘I was sadly taken aback when I found that I danced, mimed, went off my head and died of a broken heart without any response from Nijinsky. He stood passive and bit his nails.’ But it was Nijinsky and Diaghilev who shared the new vision. Richard Buckle, Nijinsky’s biographer, describes what they were after:
Fokine had rebelled against the academic dance, throwing out tutus, turn-out, and virtuosity for its own sake ... Diaghilev foresaw a dead-end to the ballet of local colour and the evocation of past periods or distant lands, and he had a prejudice against stories ... Fokine had conjured up Versailles and the Romantic era; he had made an Egyptian, a Persian and a Russian ballet with the help of Bakst, Roerich and Golovine ... Like Isadora Duncan ten years earlier and like Martha Graham a quarter of a century later, Nijinsky had to put aside all he had learned and been in order to discover how to tell the truth in his own way. He was doing what Picasso had done when he painted his first Cubist pictures three years before.
The ‘new truth’ for Nijinsky was about dancing not to the music, but dancing through it, or even dancing against it. He had an interest in the basic units of movement, and the primitive, erotic essence of dancing: he wanted the body to be used with a precision unspoiled by manners or affectation, in a distillation of pagan simplicity and sexual energy. At one point he imagined his dancers – and himself – like relief figures on a Greek urn. Arms would not be sinuous and elegantly curved, with fingers sensitively spread: the arms would be held out from the body and bent up from the elbow, with the palms up and still. The legs would not ‘turn out’ from the top of the thigh – the hallmark of classical technique – with the feet chopping around en point: the knees would face straight ahead, and the feet might turn in towards each other. The head would not pitch and roll with the inclination of the arms: it would be side-on. The whole effect, in L’Après-midi d’un faune, is of a new plasticity, a new kind of physical suggestiveness, where Debussy’s music finds some strange counterpoint in the sculptural movements of the dancers. What you see on stage is the difference between a portrait and an embodiment: the faun does not seem to impersonate desire, it seems to be desire.
The recent productions of some of these works – Nijinsky’s ballet L’Après-midi d’un faune and his Bloomsbury ballet Jeux enjoying their first ever performances by the Royal Ballet – still have an amazing impact, throwing instincts about movement and feeling high into the air all these years later. When Carlos Acosta, as the faun, finally takes the muse’s shawl back to his lair, lies on top of it, and slightly jerks his pelvis, there is still a tangible sense of sexual outrage. The over-muscularity of the Royal Ballet’s male company takes something away from Nijinsky’s androgynous approach, but it is all still there, profoundly beautiful and melancholy, a pagan assault on every social sensibility. Fokine called it ‘pornographic filth’, but it was not that, it was just beyond all the bounds of convention. A matinee audience at the Royal Opera House today still seeks to avert their children’s eyes as the faun crawls after the shadow of his own desire, rutting into an ancient shawl.
Diaghilev encouraged Nijinsky to invent Jeux, the second of the Nijinsky-choreographed pieces newly performed by the Royal Ballet, after they’d watched a tennis match in Bedford Square (‘Quel décor!’). The Royal Ballet production brings out the witty nature of the piece: a man chases a tennis-ball into a garden and gets drawn into a lusty, tangled dance with two women. It was the first ballet ever danced in modern dress. The Royal Ballet’s performers play the whole thing intelligently: they follow the spirit of Nijinsky’s Modernism without turning it into an academic exercise. Looking like Art Deco sculptures in an English garden, the three dancers come alive, but they are very strange, lobbing and volleying physical gestures around the open space. It might be worth knowing that Nijinsky choreographed the ballet with a volume of Gauguin reproductions open on the studio floor.
Rupert Brooke fell in love with the Ballets Russes. ‘Do you realise you have just seen a miracle?’ he said to a friend. ‘Nijinsky actually stopped still in the air.’ The Russians, he added, ‘can redeem our civilisation’. Ottoline Morrell was more impressed by Nijinsky’s chokers – they became fashionable with all the hostesses in London – and found the dangerous side of his reputation quite alluring. At lunch, however, she found him ‘rather ugly’, and a bit ‘like a jockey’. But everybody noticed that Nijinsky had a supernatural-seeming gift for self-transformation. It was a gift so extreme it had always seemed capable of unbalancing his mind. While watching him in Le Spectre de la rose, Cocteau remarked that Nijinsky was like ‘some melancholy, imperious scent’, that ‘evaporates through the window in a jump so poignant, so contrary to all the law of flight and balance’. Ellen Terry, in her book The Russian Ballet, says this taking on of parts was the only way for Nijinsky to be even remotely himself: ‘A puppet, a half-animal creature, a faun, a character from the Commedia dell’Arte or even a Green boy in love with himself was much easier for him. He needed a mask.’
In some larger sense – in some way to do with desire and death at the Fin de Siècle – Nijinsky also appeared like a prophecy, a frightening conjuror with the energies of the epoch. Another way of putting it would be to say that he expressed his time, and expressed it in terms for which his time was not ready. This partly explains his fascination for the Bloomsbury set: war and sexuality were his main concerns. Modris Eksteins explains the way Nijinsky seemed to summon the peculiar worries of the age. ‘Nijinsky was the faun,’ he writes, ‘a wild creature temporarily trapped by society. Imagine, they said to themselves, this incredible physical specimen, given to instinct and passion, free of moral constraint ... and they became delirious in their imaginings. Lytton Strachey sent “a great basket of magnissime flowers” and went to bed, as he himself declared, “dreaming of Nijinsky”.’
On 29 May 1913 Nijinsky’s ballet Le Sacre du printemps opened at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Several bars into the opening movement, people in the audience, who had paid double-price to get in, began to jeer and scream at the tops of their voices. The top-hatted beau monde was very much in evidence, and so was a crowd of about forty Ballets Russes groupies in soft caps. Cocteau, the illustrator Valentine Gross, Apollinaire, Stravinsky and many others have left (conflicting) accounts of what happened next. It was difficult to tell who was performing, the audience or the dancers on stage. What is known is that the audience’s cries of execration were louder than the orchestra: old ladies stood up to proclaim their disgust, a leader of Paris society spat in a man’s face, a friend of the company tried to beat out the rhythm on the top-hat of the man in front, people hissed and booed and waved their programmes. The dancers at one point seemed to be dancing to the noise: Nijinsky stood on a chair in the wings, shouting out numbers for them to follow.
What sound were the dancers dancing to? What element in contemporary culture was the audience shocked by? It is hard not to feel that each side, audience and performers, was dancing to the same tune, the fragmented yawp of a time rapidly breaking into war. In a sense this night was the beginning of the end for Nijinsky: he himself had envisaged a unification and purification of all instincts; he thought himself to be opening the way for a new kind of truth. His work began now to look like something filled with portent rather than hope: people would later feel it possible to describe the noise over the trenches at Verdun in terms of the sound of Stravinsky’s music, and the broken bodies in terms of Nijinsky’s revolutionary corps de ballet. Eksteins’s book, an invaluable study of the historical and artistic matters of the period, shows how the Great War would change the meaning of everything, including everything that seemed entirely personal and beautiful to Nijinsky:
Most radical imaginations, whether of a political or aesthetic bent, were engrossed from the outset. The war offered extremes of emotion and effort – Dorgelès called the trenches ‘this huge confessional’ – as well as sights, sounds and images that bore no relation to the staid Edwardian or even the febrile Wilhelmian world. The war thus acted as a veritable exhortation to the revolutionary renewal for which the prewar avant-garde had striven.
Robert Graves would later write of the ‘duty to run mad’ unleashed by the experience of the trenches. Nijinsky wasn’t in the trenches, but millions of his broken bodies were, and when he stepped before his final audience at the hotel in Switzerland, he was already crazy, and the only thing he wanted to dance was the war.
By that time Nijinsky had fallen out with Diaghilev – over money, and Nijinsky’s marriage to Romola de Pulszky – and he took to indulging his hatred for his former lover in his diary. Like other favoured boys of the period – Lord Alfred Douglas, for instance – Nijinsky began to express a ceaseless disgust for the sex he had with the older man. His flowing narcissism goes septic, and he begins to see his body as a sort of enemy. The diary contains endless disquisitions on arses and excrement and masturbation: along with Lloyd George and Diaghilev, Nijinsky’s arsehole becomes one of the diary’s most frequent sources of irritation.
Romola spent her life protecting himself from himself. She also proved zealous when it came to the business of protecting herself – and the world’s view of her – from the contents of himself’s diary. Her own edition of 1922 is full of deletions and little additions, done for the sake of respectability. As Acocella points out, Romola’s version of the diary is an editorial achievement, but ‘it is not what Nijinsky wrote ... she deleted all references to defecation and much of the copious material on sex.’ Thankfully, and very successfully for the modern reader, Acocella renounces these expurgations in her own edition, and so our picture of Nijinsky’s dual-minded, dark-souled, confessional crack-up is complete.
Romola was the kind of person who fancied herself as a partner to genius, and though she had at least one big affair with another man, she stuck by Nijinsky over the many years. Mrs Nijinsky (unlike Acocella, who is generally far less indulgent of Romola’s myth-making) always felt the need to deny the earlier signs of madness, the picking of his nails until they bled, the bouts of violence, the self-anointing as godhead. Someone once noticed that Nijinsky would keep on dancing even after the curtain came down. ‘Don’t worry,’ said Romola, ‘Vaslav isn’t mad. He can’t stop suddenly after dancing like that: the heart must gain its normal rhythm by degrees.’
‘If my wife reads all this she will go mad,’ Nijinsky writes near the beginning of his diary, ‘for she believes in me.’ The diary sometimes reads like a dance-notation, or a deliberate prose poem: the shades of odd feeling, the leaps of madness, are brutally choreographed on the page. There is grandeur: ‘I am a man like Christ who fulfils God’s commands. I am God.’ There is paranoia: ‘I am afraid of the mob because I think that they have bestial intentions and can misunderstand me and will then lynch me.’ There is delusion: he thinks people are in the room with him. He traverses many wild byways of association: on one page, he goes from medicine to séances to alcohol to God. He proclaims himself a vegetarian, a Tolstoyan, an ‘unthinking philosopher’, an enemy of the English, a masturbator (‘I think Gogol was a masturbator’), and sometimes he just descends into baby-talk (‘Gu gu gu gu gu. You gu gu and I gu gu’).
You get a very strong sense of a brilliant man alone with his resentments. He is stranded among unnatural sensations – ‘My hair is moving, for I can feel it’ – and the old hatreds dance in front of him, especially when he begins to think about sex or the war. Reading the unexpurgated diary of Nijinsky is like reading occasional passages from a Modernist masterpiece: like reading a cut-up of Thomas Mann or a disarranged Robert Musil. In Nijinsky’s darkest hour we can see the outline of a very slow, modern-seeming death: he doodles the Great War in four volumes. In the end there is only a build-up of losses in his otherwise sparse room – loss of talent, loss of friends, loss of young lives to the terrible progress of new ideas. ‘Diaghilev is a graveyard,’ he writes. ‘I say that Dostoevsky is God. Diaghilev thinks he is the God of art. I think I am God. I want to challenge Diaghilev to a duel so that the whole world will see. I want to prove that all Diaghilev’s art is sheer nonsense.’
We last see Nijinsky performing his famous jump for a group of photographers brought by Romola to the Swiss hospital in 1939. She wanted to show how much better he was since his insulin shock treatment. Joan Acocella tells us that the hospital authorities were not at all pleased by the intrusion, but they noted in their records that the applause gave Nijinsky some pleasure.