Sunday, January 21, 2007

Vaslav Nijinsky (1890-1950) - Early Gay Ballet Icon

In street clothes 1909

In Rehersal - Rare action photograph

Nijinsky, perhaps most famous of male ballet dancers, had an exotic and effete eroticism that created a sensation among (particularly gay) men as well as women in the early years of the C20 - a phenomenon usually associated with pop singers of today. His technique was unparalleled, including an extraordinary 'ballon', or elevation or jump. Wits commented that he seemed painted on the ceiling. This prodigous physical facility was linked to an uncanny ability to identify with and transmute into the character he was portraying.

Of Polish descent, he joined the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg in 1898 at the age of 9, graduating into the Maryinsky Theatre (now the Kirov Theatre) in 1907. He caught the attention of Sergei Diaghilev, an impressario whose idea it had been to export Russian art to the west. An exhibition of primitive and modern painting in Paris in 1907 evolved into performances of opera and ballet in 1908 and 1909 as the 'Ballets Russes'. And these continued, as seasons of ballets in ever-increasingly dispersed theatres all over the world, till the impressario's death in 1929.

Nijinsky had become Diaghiliev's lover and premier dancer of the company in that first Paris season, creating the principle male role in many of the early works of the great choreographer Michel Fokine. The dancer's career however was short - he went mad over 1916-7, writing a diary explaining his sense of his life, and drawing 'The Third Eye' through which he felt he observed the truth of things:

Nijinsky lived on till 1950, cared for by his wife Romola. His body was transferred to Cimetiere de Montmartre, in Paris, in 1953.

His sex appeal seems to stem from physical and psychological sources. From his luscious heavy muscularity and from his soft asexual but animal eroticism, with respect to his stage persona. This eroticism was passive and unengaged - knowingly observed but non-participating. A quality he shares with Marilyn Monroe and Marlene Dietrich.

Something of all this can be glimpsed in photographs of ballets he danced for the 'Ballets Russes':

'Giselle' 1910

'Scherhezade' 1910

'La Spectre de la Rose' 1911

'Le Dieu Bleu' 1912

'L'apres midi d'un faune' 1912 (sorry - no accents on my puter!)

I'm not sure if this nude drawing is from life. But it's possible - certainly Nijinsky had a following of gay balletomanes, particularly in Diaghilev's social circle.

The definitive life of this great dancer is Richard Buckle's 'Nijinsky' (1971). Perhaps somewhat over-burdened with less than salient detail. But, as Mr Bennet in 'Pride and Prejudice' says to his daughters when they are reading aloud Mr Gardiner's letter about the discovery of Kitty's discovery in London with the infamous Mr Wickham, 'Read on! read on!'. You know what I'm saying!

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