June 2012

Josh Zajdman


Nijinsky: A Life of Genius and Madness by Richard Buckle

If you felt like Black Swan made ballet exciting, or worse, interesting, you haven't met Nijinsky. You may have heard of him, but the magnitude of his life, talent, and exploits has been surprisingly diminished over time. His story is a sad but juicy one -- rife with sex, domestic squabbles, betrayal, riches, travel, and an ever-spiraling descent into mental disorder. His life was short -- he died around sixty years old -- and, above all, complex. Each pirouette or pas de deux seemed to position him for recognition or precede his decline. Richard Buckle's truly epic biography Nijinsky: A Life of Genius and Madness, having been reprinted in a beautiful new edition, does a fine job of straddling the divide while illuminating the man and refuting the myth. It's not all successful, however. Though a terrific read, it's overstuffed, seemingly to the point of rupture, with detail and analysis. When considering a biography, that's a strange critique. But, like a prima donna refusing to cast aside a costume from her glory days, Buckle's tome can be ill-fitting and lumpy in strange places. The three prefaces, from varied editions preceding this one, clue a close reader in to Buckle's appreciation of not just the mot juste but all the mots that can be danced around. This continues, with exhaustive regularity, through the rest of the biography. Yet the personalities of Nijinsky and those around him ultimately provide a propulsive experience for the reader.

Buckle divides his work into a series of chronological chapters. The first, "1898-1908," opens with nine-year-old Vaslav Fomitch Nijinsky, as he is being ushered by his mother into the Imperial School of Ballet in Petersburg. It's hard to reconcile the effeminate, sculpted force on the cover with the depiction of the young, timid Russian schoolboy on the pages immediately following it. Nijinsky was one of three siblings, but the only one being separated from his parents. It wasn't an unexpected move, as Mother and Father Nijinsky were both celebrated dancers. However, it was a calculated one. Vaslav's father Thomas had abandoned Elena and their three children for a life of touring as a dancer. In an effort to advance her son socially, and decrease the number of mouths to feed by one, Elena brought Vaslav for the audition, both of them cloaked in fervent hope on that decisive August day.

If the boy Vaslav became a pupil of the Imperial School he would have his foot on the lowest rung of the ladder of the Civil Service: he would be the equivalent of a junior officer cadet. After seven or eight years, if he graduated to the company of the Mariinsky Theatre, he would climb from corps de ballet to coryphe, from coryphe to second soliste, from second soliste to first soliste, from first soliste to premier danseur. As a leading dancer Vaslav could attain fame and fortune.

Elena wanted the best for her boy, but nobody could have expected the trajectory he would shortly embark on. The teacher of the senior boys group, Nicolas Legat, recalled Nijinsky's audition. "The first impression he produced on the examining commission was an unfavourable one, for he appeared awkward in manner and delicate in health. But at the doctor's examination I was struck by the formation of his thigh muscles...I told Nijinsky to move a few paces away and jump. His leap was phenomenal. 'That youngster can be made into a fine dancer,' I said, and passed him without further ado." That jump would eventually become a signature of Nijinsky's. Just  like a gazelle, or maybe, even, a faun. Of course, Nijinsky achieved great success while in school. But, it was a particular event which forever changed his life and that of ballet. In November of 1908, Vaslav Nijinsky was introduced to Sergei Diaghilev. In his diary, written in 1918 -- one of the many peaks of his madness, Nijinsky recounted the meeting.

Lvov introduced me to Diaghilev, who asked me to come to the Europa Hotel where he lived. I disliked him for his too self-assured voice, but went to seek my luck. I found my luck. At once I allowed him to make love to me. I trembled like a leaf. I hated him, but pretended, because I knew that my mother and I would die of hunger otherwise.

Buckle points out that the passage was written during Nijinsky's madness, and might very well be fabricated. However, "we know from corroborative evidence of many of the incidents which he records that this is not the case." The record of their immediate consummation is to be taken at face value. In this case, as in most, Buckle gets the last word. "Their union could produce no children, but it would give birth to masterpieces -- and change the history of the dance, of music and of painting throughout the world."

Chapter two, "1909," outlines the first performances of the Ballet Russes in Paris. Buckle's penchant for outlining each step of every performance, a criticism that he received previously and mentions in the prefaces, is at its finest here. More importantly, the chapter reads like a guest list for great thinkers, writers, and performers of the era. It wasn't just Diaghilev and Nijinsky, but Fokine, Proust, and Sarah Bernhardt. As you may expect, Nijinsky was revelatory and the great career was launched. That was just on-stage, though. In a delightful aside, Buckle writes that "Proust found Nijinsky uninteresting off-stage." One of Buckle's more interesting digressions is a kind of cheat sheet he creates by providing background on the real people that became even more famous as Proust's characters.

But back to Nijinsky. As his celebrity increased in stature, his social circle increased in size and import. In 1910, Nijinsky met Stravinsky. This was the other professional relationship that would permanently alter Nijinsky's life. The Firebird was poised to take flight, and Petrushka shortly afterward. But it was another work of Stravinsky's, Le Sacre du Printemps, which caused riots and insured Nijinsky's legacy. In two short years, Stravinsky elevated Nijinsky into the most famous choreographer the world had yet seen. Nijinsky had barely enough time to bask in his success before his torrid relationship began with Romola de Pulszky, his soon-to-be wife. Upon marrying, a jealous Diaghilev forced Nijinsky out of the Ballet Russes. Thus began, in earnest, the harrowing descent into madness he had flirted with for all of his life. He was only twenty-one. He danced in public for the last time at twenty-nine. After reading of Nijinsky's life, it becomes even more clear that genius cannot flourish in the grips of madness, and yet, often, can't take off without it. Yet if madness should get ahead, it has, at least in poor Nijinsky's case, no trouble maintaining the lead.

In a rare, and especially chilling, moment of concision, Buckle summarizes Nijinsky's life. "Ten years growing; ten years learning; ten years dancing; thirty years in eclipse." Adjusting for the thirty-four years since the third edition, one certainly hopes this life of Nijinsky is rediscovered regardless of Buckle's prolix tendencies.

Nijinsky: A Life of Genius and Madness by Richard Buckle
Pegasus Books
ISBN: 978-1605983387
608 pages