Nijinsky: a Life

A few tantalising seconds of jerky black-and-white footage are all that survive as cinematic evidence of Vaslav Nijinsky’s balletic genius. But in her enthralling biography, Nijinsky, Lucy Moore helps redress the deficiency by providing an atmospheric lens through which the greatest ballet dancer of all time comes once again to life. Through Nijinsky’s own diary, as well as many other contemporary sources, Moore uses her meticulous and intelligent research to tell the moving story of a professional life that began in triumph and ended in desperate sadness.
With a circlet of poppies and cornflowers on his five-year-old head, Nijinsky made his public debut in a Cossack folk dance in 1894. The three Nijinsky children were abandoned at an early age by their father and brought up by their impoverished, self-sacrificing mother, who remained single-mindedly ambitious for her gifted younger son. In 1899, she was rewarded when Vaslav was offered a coveted place at St Petersburg’s Imperial Theatre School, the training ground for the future stars of St Petersburg’s celebrated Mariinsky Theatre.
Sergei Diaghilev first saw Nijinsky dance in 1907. Diaghilev was Russia’s dominant promoter of the arts, an arresting “magnificent bear” of a man, whose physical presence and “a faint whiff of the violet bonbons he habitually chewed” fills this book. Gauche, monosyllabic and predominantly heterosexual, the 18-year-old Nijinsky was innocent of the intense atmosphere of sexual liberation that governed Diaghilev’s hedonistic lifestyle.
But on stage Nijinsky’s unequalled grace, beauty and sensuality was accentuated by his apparent ability to transcend the physical and float through the air as if he had learnt to fly. “You have to go up and then pause a little up there,” he explained with disarming simplicity.
Under Diaghilev’s direction, an exceptional company of radical artists, who together embodied the spirit of modernism, arrived in Paris in 1909 as members of the new Ballets Russes, among them the choreographer Michel Fokine, the designer Léon Bakst and the composer Igor Stravinsky. Within a few months, accompanied by Bronia, his adored dancer sister, Nijinsky, trembling “like an aspen leaf” as he later recalled, had signed a contract as the new company’s leading dancer. Largely motivated by professional ambition, he had also succumbed to Diaghilev’s irresistible charm and become his patron’s lover.
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