Half Snake, Half Panther

James Davidson

  • BuyNijinsky by Lucy Moore
    Profile, 324 pp, £25.00, May 2013, ISBN 978 1 84668 618 4

His sister hadn’t seen him for seven years. She had been trapped in Kiev during the war that followed the Russian Revolution. Eventually, in 1921, she managed to escape with her elderly mother and two small children and made her way to Vienna.

When we entered his room Vaslav was sitting in an armchair; he did not get up to greet us. Mother rushed to embrace him, but Vaslav showed no emotional reaction on seeing his mother. He remained withdrawn into himself, also when I embraced him. Throughout our visit in his room he had an absent look, staring into space and not uttering a word.

Twelve years earlier, in May 1909, Bronia Nijinska had watched her brother wow the audiences of Paris, dancing the role of Armida’s favourite slave in Le Pavillon d’Armide during the first season of the Ballets Russes de Serge de Diaghilev: ‘While he is still up in the air a rumble runs through the theatre,’ Nijinska wrote. ‘Tcherepnine holds up his baton waiting for the applause to subside. The long white gloves of the ladies and the white cuffs of the men rise in swells over the theatre like a flock of white doves.’ Nijinsky was hailed by the Figaro as the ‘dieu de la danse’. Not for the last time.

The year before, Nijinsky had started a relationship with Diaghilev: ‘I trembled like an aspen leaf,’ he recalled in his diary, perhaps overstating his case. ‘I hated him, but I put up a pretence, for I knew that my mother and I would starve to death.’ Following the Paris season Diaghilev took him to Venice, for what Lucy Moore in her new biography describes as ‘an unconventional honeymoon’.

In 1910, the god of the dance returned to Paris. This time he starred in Schéhérazade. The fun-loving Queen Zobéide, played by the extraordinary-looking Ida Rubinstein, cajoles the chief eunuch to open the doors of the harem ‘to admit the hordes of black slaves’. Nijinsky, the queen’s favourite slave, is brought on in a golden cage wearing gold harem pants and covered in bracelets and jewels: ‘The whiteness of his gleaming teeth was accentuated by his strange blueish-grey make-up.’ The eunuch is terrorised into unlocking the cage: ‘His bare torso twisted in the fervour and excitement of his new-found freedom, like a cobra about to strike.’ He leaps on Zobéide like a wild panther: the sight of ‘his half-snake, half-panther movements, winding himself around the dancing Zobéide without ever touching her was breathtaking’, Nijinska wrote. But the orgy is discovered and ends in a massacre: ‘The dark slave falls, and in his last spasm his legs shoot upwards; he stands on his head and rotates his lifeless body – Nijinsky made a full pirouette standing on his head – before dropping to the ground with a heavy thud.’ Schéhérazade was the sensation of the 1910 season; soon ‘peacock tail’ colours and chiffons influenced by the Ballets Russes designer Léon Bakst were appearing in all the collections of the maisons de couture and fashionable ladies started wearing turbans.

But Nijinsky was in danger of getting typecast: ‘There were at this time fantastic fables about him; that he was very debauched, that he had girdles of diamonds and emeralds given to him by an Indian prince,’ Ottoline Morrell wrote. From Romola Nijinsky’s biography of her husband we learn that an early admirer –Prince Lvov, whom Romola refers to as ‘X’ – once adorned him with lace and jewels and took him to Carnevale dressed as ‘a lady of the rococo period. He looked as if he had walked out of a Watteau … and only later was he shocked into regretting his perfection and his innocence.’ These fantasies of the jewelled tomboy projected onto Nijinsky by rich aristocrats continued long after he had left Russia, producing what Lucy Moore describes as ‘surreal’ moments. Years later, getting dressed next door to Nijinsky at a club swimming-pool in Bar Harbor, the set-designer Robert Edmond Jones was surprised by a knock at the door:

I open it. A middle-aged man stands there, exquisitely dressed in fastidious nuances of pearl grey which harmonise with the tones of his silvery, scented moustache. He is tall and willowy and his delicate hands are beautifully manicured. We look at one another. No word is spoken. Presently he takes a large flat case of pearl-grey leather from his pocket, opens the lid and holds the case out to me. On a bed of pearl-grey velvet lies a mass of beautiful jewels – moonstones, black pearls, diamonds, emeralds, cabochon rubies … There is an awkward silence. Time seems to run down and stand still, like a worn-out alarm clock, like a tired heart that stops beating. I hear Nijinsky putting on his shoes in the next compartment. The stranger in grey holds out his store of fabulous baubles, all glittering and flashing in the acrid New England sunlight. All at once I burst out laughing. He closes the door, turns on his heel, and silently goes away.

For the 1911 season Nijinsky was allowed to expand his range somewhat beyond exotic sex slaves. He starred in two new ballets choreographed by Fokine, Le Spectre de la rose and Petrushka. The former was based on a rather morbid poem by Théophile Gautier in which the ghost of a rose addresses the girl who has taken him home as a souvenir from her first ball: ‘O toi qui de ma mort fus cause … j’ai ta gorge pour tombeau’ etc. The rose appears in her bedroom and dances around the sleeping girl. Finally, he leaps out through the window. The dance was no more than a filler, a divertissement, less than ten minutes long, three or four rehearsals, not much more than an improvisation, but its impact on audiences was phenomenal, especially the final leap, which many found incredible. The role clearly had an impact on Nijinsky’s future wife, who spends several pages of her biography describing it. The great and the good crowded backstage to watch Nijinsky land in the arms of four men, have his brow mopped and a quick massage, a scene that reminded Cocteau, who did a wonderful little drawing of it, of a boxer between rounds: ‘In a few seconds, slapped, drenched, pummelled, he walked back out onstage, bowing, smiling.’ His dresser quietly sold petals from his costume to sentimental society ladies and was able, according to Romola, to buy a house on the proceeds.

As a dancing role, Petrushka could not be more different, a puppet made of straw, alternately stiff and spineless with mitten hands and staccato turned-in steps in no way beautiful, sexy or even attractive. Three puppets, Petrushka, the Moor and the Ballerina, are brought to life by the Magician. Petrushka is killed by the Moor, his rival for the love of the Ballerina, and then returns as a ghost to haunt the Magician. This is widely considered Nijinsky’s greatest role because of his achievement in ‘turning a wooden puppet into an existential hero’, as Moore puts it. Even Fokine gave him credit for that.

One of the reasons Le Spectre de la rose was prepared so quickly is that it replaced another short ballet, based on Mallarmé’s Theocritean eclogue ‘L’Après-midi d’un faune’ and danced to Debussy’s 1894 Prélude, in which a Sicilian faun interrupts his siesta with reminiscences of the vain attempted rapes of the morning and then falls into a sleepy, more satisfying fantasy. This ballet was Nijinsky’s first attempt at choreography and Diaghilev was very nervous about its reception; hence the year-long delay in staging it. Anyone who had read the poem (Nijinsky apparently never did) or who knew the gist and had heard Debussy’s astonishing score might well have imagined a ballet of soft flowing languorous movements and fleeting hazy images. But Nijinsky seems rather to have found inspiration in something more stiff and static: archaic bas-relief. It was only when Bakst declared the ballet ‘a super-genius creation and we are all fools not to have understood it’ that Diaghilev began to relax.

The ballet opened in the Théâtre du Châtelet on 29 May 1912. As the sound of a flute is heard, Nijinsky is seen on top of a rock waking from his doze, flexing his sandalled foot, gesturing two-dimensionally with mitten hands and mitten thumbs. Some nymphs arrive, barefoot and again in profile. The faun straightleggedly descends from his vantage point and eventually engages with one of them in the same plane in a stiff stand-offish pas de deux. He does one short jump over an imagined stream – the sole elevation event in the entire ballet – and interlocks arms with the nymph, stiffly. Her sister naiads return and chase him off. He returns to his rock, stretches out his back leg while opening his mouth wide up to the sky, like a cat laughing, and then has some kind of sex with her dropped scarf.

The audience was stunned into silence. Diaghilev ordered the dancers to perform the whole thing again as an encore. ‘When the curtain fell for a second time the crowd applauded wildly,’ Moore writes. Next day, however, the Figaro ran a front-page article headlined ‘Un Faux Pas’, not a regular review by its regular sympathetic reviewer – that had been ‘eliminated’, according to Nijinska – but a piece by the editor of the newspaper himself, Gaston Calmette: ‘Ce n’est ni une églogue gracieuse ni une production profonde. Nous avons eu un faune inconvenant avec de vils mouvements de bestialité érotique et des gestes de lourde impudeur.’

The next day the Matin responded with its own front-page article, headlined ‘La Renaissance de la danse’, purporting to be by the rather elderly Auguste Rodin. This piece saw Nijinsky as the third element in a trinity of pioneers of modern dance, following Loie Fuller and Isadora Duncan. As a reward for his letting his signature be used Rodin was allowed to observe Nijinsky in the flesh, as a model for a sculpture. But then something inappropriate happened; either the two were found asleep by Diaghilev leaning on each other, as Nijinska has it, or Nijinsky caught the old man masturbating over him behind his back, as Cocteau claimed. Even better than Rodin, Odilon Redon wrote to Diaghilev that he regretted his old friend Mallarmé was not alive to see ‘this wonderful evocation of his thought’. The argument over the virtues or otherwise of the ballet escalated into proposed police injunctions and questions of Russian foreign policy, ensuring that the short piece made headlines around the world. Moore comes up with a great headline from the Pittsburgh Gazette: ‘WICKED PARIS SHOCKED AT LAST’.

It was a true succès de scandale: the performances sold out and Diaghilev seems to have been very pleased. As a reward Nijinsky was allowed to do some more choreography in a completely different style to a newly commissioned work by Debussy: Jeux. The idea came to him in Ottoline Morrell’s garden in Bedford Square during a visit to London, and so it has been called a ‘Bloomsbury ballet’. It focuses on tennis players searching for a lost ball. According to Nijinsky it started out as a fantasy of Diaghilev’s, a homosexual threesome, but was eventually choreographed for a male and two females, a waltz with changing partners and movements taken from daily life: playing tennis, smoking, bickering, even briefly dancing the turkey trot.

When Jeux was finally premiered on 15 May 1913 at the super-modern Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, neither the most ardent fans nor the most subtle admirers of the Ballets Russes could find much positive to say about Nijinsky’s choreography. Debussy’s Jeux is now considered one of the watersheds in modern music, so it is disappointing, to say the least, that Nijinsky didn’t rise to the occasion. But that may partly be explained by the fact that he had been distracted by another score, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

Stravinsky had been working on the themes of the piece with the painter, antiquarian and theosophist Nicholas Roerich since 1910. The idea was to go beyond the archaic into the prehistoric, the primitive and the pagan with a ballet about ‘The Great Sacrifice’ in a primordial Russia. Originally, it had been assumed that the choreographer would be Fokine, but Stravinsky expressed doubts about him in a letter to his mother: ‘New forms must be created and the evil, the greedy and the gifted Fokine has not even dreamed of them … Genius is needed, not habileté!’ Other contemporaries expressed equal dislike of the idea of working with Fokine; clearly he could be difficult.

So when Nijinsky was appointed to choreograph The Rite of Spring nobody seems to have minded. Indeed, they seem to have embraced the idea; Diaghilev wanted his own man involved in this extraordinary project, Moore suggests, and Stravinsky and Roerich may have thought Nijinsky would be more pliable than Fokine. At this time Nijinsky’s only choreographing credit was L’Après-midi d’un faune, but no one seems to have worried about whether someone who had over many months and after many hours of extra rehearsal ‘successfully’ choreographed ten minutes of quietly modern Debussy for five minimally moving dancers, could successfully choreograph 35 minutes of noisily modern Stravinsky for an entire corps de ballet, while also choreographing and performing in Jeux.

There had already been signs that Nijinsky was having trouble. During the early rehearsals for Jeux the great Tamara Karsavina asked him ‘What’s next?’ Nijinsky said: ‘You should have known yourself a long time ago! I will not tell you.’ This apparent problem with communication was one reason Diaghilev engaged the services of the young Marie Rambert, whose first language was Polish, as was Nijinsky’s, and who had been instructed in Dalcrozian Eurhythmics (later known in British primary schools as Music and Movement). One of the main principles of Eurhythmics was the idea that music needed to be experienced through the body, or even that each musical impulse should have a corresponding bodily impulse. Diaghilev and Stravinsky were enthusiasts; the members of the Ballets Russes were having none of it: ‘To register my protest at this project, I did not attend the first lesson,’ Nijinska wrote. ‘Despite Diaghilev’s strict order … only half the members showed up for “Rythmitchka’s”, as we had nicknamed her, second class, and the third was attended only by Adolf Bolm … I liked Marie Rambert.’

On 29 May 1913, just two weeks after he had presented Jeux to a decidely unimpressed audience, Nijinsky premiered The Rite of Spring. The violent reaction to it is well known, as is the image of Nijinsky in the wings shouting out the counts above the din of the booing. (Moore adds that there had been problems with counting even in rehearsals, because Russian words for numbers are so many-syllabled that it was hard to count at the same time as keeping up with the beat.) The movements Nijinsky had choreographed followed the pattern of Petrushka and the faun: stiff, turned in, huddled over, jerky, straight-legged, percussive, the opposite of elegant. Members of the audience called for urgent medical attention or for a dentist. There were fights, faintings and walk-outs. Stravinsky was clearly surprised as well as horrified by the reaction. Nevertheless, he claims that as they all went off to dinner, as well as being ‘excited, angry, disgusted’ they were ‘happy’. Diaghilev even announced that the evening had been ‘Exactly what I wanted.’

By the end of July, however, Diaghilev had changed his tune. He arranged a meeting with Nijinska, too frightened to tell Vaslav himself face to face that his ballets had been a failure, that the world was not ready for them, that the sponsors of the Ballets Russes were unwilling to sponsor Nijinsky’s ‘researches into the future of dance’. Nijinska told her brother and immediately understood from the violence of his reaction why Diaghilev had felt it necessary to send the message through her. Worse was to come. Diaghilev needed to get Fokine back into the company, even if that meant Nijinsky would have to take a year’s sabbatical.

*

Meanwhile, a couple of months after the premiere of Le Sacre du printemps the company was booked to begin a tour of Brazil and Argentina. Nijinska had just got married and Diaghilev didn’t like sailing so when Nijinsky embarked on the SS Avon in Cherbourg on 15 August 1913, he was without either his sister or a patron for the first time in his life. He was alone, but not for long. Four days after landing in Argentina, he married Romola de Pulszky in the register office in Buenos Aires, the marriage being solemnised in the Iglesia de San Miguel.

Romola was a Hungarian socialite, the daughter of Emilia Márkus, a famous actor. By her own account she had targeted and even stalked Nijinsky secretly for several years, but could never get close to him. Now, with Bronia and Diaghilev out of the way and Nijinsky trapped on a boat for weeks, she took her chance. Even so it was a comical courtship, mostly conducted with stares and pantomime, as was the quite unexpected marriage proposal: ‘“Mademoiselle, voulez-vous, vous et moi?” indicating on the fourth finger of the left hand, a ring.’ And an unusual kind of wedding night: ‘Everyone smiled in a way that rather annoyed me … I wonder what they would have said if they knew that Nijinsky had not returned to my apartment the previous evening, and that there had been no necessity for my placing all the movable furniture in front of my door.’

As everyone, except the newly-weds, expected, Diaghilev reacted very badly, weeping and wailing and losing himself in orgies of dissipation in Naples and Florence. On Nijinsky’s return to Europe he found a telegram informing him he had been dismissed from the Ballets Russes. ‘Now, for the first time, it dawned on me that perhaps I had made a mistake,’ Romola wrote. Nijinsky quickly started up his own company with his sister and was engaged for an eight-week season at the Palace Theatre in London, coming on stage after a drag artist and followed by a Bioscope. Anna Pavlova, whom he had mocked for commercialism after she appeared at the same theatre, sent a congratulatory telegram. The season started well, although some critics felt that the magic had gone. But after a couple of terrifying backstage tantrums Nijinsky contracted flu and/or had a nervous breakdown and the shows were cancelled.

This pattern was repeated several times over the next few years, the magic of his name cancelling out the notoriety of his mismanagement, postponements and cancellations. There were several attempts at reconciliation with Diaghilev, who managed to have him freed from house arrest in Budapest following the outbreak of the First World War and even signed him up for a tour of South America. But Nijinsky’s behaviour was getting more and more erratic. Artur Rubinstein shared a programme with him at a gala benefit in Montevideo in 1917. The god of the dance finally made his entrance after midnight and immediately performed one of his unbelievable leaps, but Rubinstein found himself crying: ‘The horrible mixture of a seemingly endless farce with one of the most heartbreaking tragedies was more than one could bear.’

Nijinsky returned to Budapest with Romola and their young daughter, Kyra. His final public performance took place at the Suvretta House Hotel in early January 1919. An audience of about two hundred had gathered. Nijinsky spent the first half an hour sitting staring at them. The pianist began playing some Chopin. Romola encouraged him to dance. ‘I am not a machine,’ he replied and Romola ran out of the room. When she returned he was dancing. After a brief pause he laid a velvet cross on the floor and stood at its crosspoint with arms outstretched. He then proceeded to dance the First World War. Moore cites an eye-witness who described him ‘avoiding a shell, defending a shallow trench … tearing the clothes which covered him and were now becoming rags and tatters’. Then, ‘one last spasm shook his body which seems riddled with bullets.’ As an encore Nijinsky stood facing the wall and made some strange movements like a ‘mad magician’.

When he got home Nijinsky wrote in a diary he had begun earlier the same day his account of the evening: ‘In the carriage I told my wife that today was the day of my marriage with God.’ A few weeks later Romola took him to Zurich to consult with Eugen Bleuler, the discoverer or inventor of schizophrenia; Bleuler quickly pronounced him incurably insane and Nijinsky was committed to an asylum, ready to launch a new phase of his career as an authentically crazy genius.

In 1936 Romola published the diary, which Nijinsky wrote in the six weeks between the Suvretta recital in January and his final commitment to a sanatorium in March. ‘More than once’, the Times’s reviewer wrote, ‘Nijinsky reminds us of Hamlet; in his confession that he feigned madness in order to watch those set to watch him, and in his disclosure of a nature too sensitive to bear the ills of contemporary society, such as war, the commercialisation of the arts, the clipping of the wings of human spontaneity by the mechanising of life.’ A few months later Romola put on an exhibition of his drawings to raise money for the Nijinsky Foundation. This time the Times reviewer compared his work to Richard Dadd’s.

When a new, unexpurgated version of the diary appeared in 1999 it became clear that Romola had reordered things and edited the journal in ways that subtly changed its overall character, making it less tedious, masturbation-fixated and scatological than the original, and also less illiterate – Nijinsky’s written Russian was exceptionally poor. But the new edition still leaves us with the same questions about creative genius and madness, and in particular about modernist madness. In the most obvious sense, as Joan Acocella notes in her introduction to the 1999 edition, mad people, like avant-garde artists, are used to being misunderstood. But Moore goes further. She thinks that ‘many of the diary’s characteristics are qualities of early modernist art. Repetition, elision and odd juxtapositions are hallmarks of visual artists like Picasso, and of writers like Joyce and Eliot, who created stream-of-consciousness narratives akin to Nijinsky’s.’ She even suggests that the diary is a kind of prose cubism, capturing a real, fragmented, multi-dimensional world of simultaneous conflicting emotions. Of course, there has long been a perceived link between modernist forms and madness – Pierrot Lunaire, surrealism – if only in their outrageousness, their wandering outside the norms of expectation. But I remain to be persuaded that Nijinsky was a skilful inventor of movement, let alone a creative genius.

*

Moore and others dismiss the notion that the choreographic ideas for L’Après-midi d’un faune and even The Rite of Spring could have come from Diaghilev, as Diaghilev claimed and as many believed, simply because it’s ridiculous to imagine such a fat man demonstrating anything. And Nijinska not only provided reams of written testimony to her brother’s choreographic genius in the five hundred pages of her Early Memoirs (which end in 1919) but actually produced a concrete testament to that claim with her own ballet Les Noces, universally recognised as a modernist masterpiece, which she claimed was the natural result of her brother’s experiments, about which she certainly knew more than anyone else.

I think Nijinska should probably have taken more credit. From all I have read and seen of Nijinsky’s choreographies, descriptions, stills and reconstructions, nothing convinces me that he was a great choreographer. Even L’Après-midi d’un faune, which is the most reliably reconstituted of his ballets, comes across as silly, cheesy and slight without Nijinsky in the title role. On the other hand, there seems no doubt that his confused mental state chimed with another, duller modernist modality, not the rich chaotic associative streams of Joyce, or the incredible juxtapositions of surrealism, or the exuberant breaking free from normative representational frames of the expressionists, but the opposite of all that: blankness and simplification. As the Times reviewer sagely noted of his mad drawings in 1937: ‘The art of people with unbalanced minds … generally tends to an exaggerated orderliness.’ That emotional blankness he had insisted on for the dancers in Jeux and L’Après-midi d’un faune, that voidance of self that allowed him so eerily to inhabit the characters of slaves, a puppet, a flower and a faun, allowed him to find a brief affinity with modernism, just as a clock stuck at 8.30 will twice a day find an affinity with actual time, until finally blankness took him over completely.

There is plenty of evidence of his fierce struggle for recognition as an artist rather than a mere performer, an agent rather than a dummy. Nijinsky quickly grew to resent the admiration expressed for his giant leap in Le Spectre de la rose. ‘I am not a leaper; I am an artist,’ he would insist. But Diaghilev not only did not rate him as a choreographer, he did not rate choreography as an art. So in a straightforward way Nijinsky’s startlingly stilted modernist compositions of 1912-13 are an assertion of his right to be mundane. He desperately desired not to leap, to be appreciated for forms not feats, and one first step towards achieving that was simply to eliminate feats. Or perhaps it is even more straightforward; he wanted to make his own agency manifest, by a singular refusal to wow. But sadly it was only his sister who was in a position, after Les Noces, to respond to the question: ‘What next?’

I don’t think we are in danger of forgetting about Nijinsky – too many musical monuments and images are associated with his name – but it is nice to be reminded of his existence on the hundredth anniversary of The Rite of Spring. Moore has written a cool, businesslike introduction to his remarkable life and times, drawing on the full range of vivid memoirs and fervid recollections. It’s true that when you look at the original versions of the passages she paraphrases they are usually much more vivid, but when the events are so brilliant, tragic and poignant, and when what is written about them is so often overwrought, then a proficient and professional guide is just what is needed.

Having read her biography and having long ago also read Nijinska’s and Romola’s versions of his life, I still don’t know what to think about Nijinsky, his violence and stupidity, his vanity and sublimity. But then I remember that he was only 29 when he publicly lost his marbles in the Suvretta House Hotel, only 24 when he premiered Jeux and The Rite of Spring in the same season, only 23 when he performed as the faun and only 20 when he was first hailed as the god of the dance in Paris. And throughout all that he was the direct or indirect object of a great geyser of sexual and romantic fantasies on the part of hordes of aristocrats and members of the upper-middle class, both men and women, from all over the world. With that degree of fantastic projection and expectation, and obliged to perform at the epicentre of the modern movement in Paris in the early 1910s, it is amazing he managed to play the sane game for so long.