The greatest male dancer of the early twentieth century: he was principally associated with Diaghilev's company the Ballets Russes, which took the new Russian ballet into the West. He was also a choreographer.

Vaslav Fomich Nizhinsky* was born in Kyyiv (Kiev) in 1889 or 1890 (sources disagree; perhaps it's the Julian calendar, but I can't pin it down yet). He was extremely precocious as a dancer (performing with his parents' company at the age of three), and was renowned for being able to do ten entrechats. He entered the St Petersburg imperial ballet school in 1898. In 1907 he graduated, joined the Mariinsky Theatre (later Kirov), and danced with Pavlova in Fokine's ballet Pavillon d'Armide.

On meeting Diaghilev he was taken into the Ballets Russes in 1909, and starred in Les Sylphides (1909), Schéhérazade (1910), Le Spectre de la rose (1911), Petrouchka (1911), and Daphnis and Chloë (1912). A dispute over his costume for Giselle, deemed obscene, led to his dismissal from the Imperial Ballet (the Mariinsky Theatre), and he worked full time for Diaghilev.

Film exists of at least one of his roles, probably more, but one stands out in my memory as one of the most extraordinary things I've ever seen in ballet: in Le Spectre de la rose he leaps out of a window. An upper-storey window. In the wrong direction. Think of a balletic leap across the stage: he starts at one side, makes an effortless gentle spring, rises high in the air, -- and anyone else would describe a graceful Newtonian parabola and come to rest on the far side of the stage. Nijinsky kept going. Having leapt into mid air he simply goes up and up across the whole length of the stage and disappears out of an upper-storey window.

Nijinsky then worked for Diaghilev as choreographer of L'Après-midi d'un faune (1912, music of Debussy), Jeux (1913, Debussy), and the revolutionary Le Sacre du printemps (Rite of Spring, 1913, music of Stravinsky). All three were first produced in Paris.

He set up his own company in 1914, without success, was briefly interned in Hungary in the War, and rejoined Diaghilev in 1916, for the choreography of Till Eulenspiegel. His last solo performance was in 1919, but from 1917 he had suffered from schizophrenia and he spent much of his later life in mental hospitals in Switzerland, until his death in London in 1950. He was cared for by his wife, Countess Romola de Pulszka, marriage with whom in 1913 had led to a rift with Diaghilev. He is buried in Montmartre next to Auguste Vestris (1760–1842), greatest male dancer of a century before.

His sister Bronislava Nijinska (1891-1972) was also an important dancer and choreographer; she too began with Diaghilev.

* He is always known in English under the French spelling with J.

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