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Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Tragedy of the Nijinskys

As the title of my blog would suggest, I am an inveterate collector of facts and curios. A few years ago I read a review of a new book about the legendary dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky. Reader, I bought the book, and a great many others about him, and if I were ever to appear on Mastermind, this would be my specialist subject.

Another famous Nijinsky
I have just finished a biography by his daughter Tamara. If she is still alive, she is  91 years old. She barely knew her father. His brief brilliant career ended when he was in his 20s and went mad. For the rest of his life he lived in asylums.

Nijinsky's life was tragic, but reading Tamara's book, I was transfixed by the tragedy of the Nijinsky women. This would make a fascinating film in itself.

Polish born Nijinsky, variously described in books as shy and sullen, transformed himself when he applied his make-up and elaborate costumes and danced. Although no footage exists, he was capable of remarkable feats of dancing and could apparently hang in the air as he performed entre chats. He was also a skilled mime and actor.

His lover was the famous impresario Diaghilev, who made his charge world famous as they travelled the world with the Ballets Russe.

Diaghilev was terrified of water so he didn't join the company on a long cruise to South America. And that was where Romola de Pulzsky, an ambitious socialite, the daughter of a famous Hungarian actress, saw her opportunity.

She relentlessly pursued Nijinsky, and, although they didn't have a language in common, succeeded in marrying him before the end of the voyage.

Diaghilev was stunned (as was the world) and Nijinsky's career took a deep nose dive. The first of his two daughters was born, Kyra, and he and Romola were trapped in Hungary at the start of the First World War. He then lost his mind, writing his famous diary as he did so.

Romola never gave up on a cure for her husband, or on trying to keep the legend of Nijinsky alive. She tirelessly roamed the world, serving lawsuits and meeting impressarios, trying to get books and films produced.

The tomb in Montmartre
Nijinsky died in 1950 and was buried first in London and then later interred in Montmartre, Paris.

Romola continued to try to get her mother's villa back from the Hungarian government and to get Mikhail Baryshnikov cast in a film abnout Nijinsky. Meanwhile she was scarcely speaking to her mother or either of her daughters, now living in America, and they weren't speaking to each other. Tamara was estranged from her own daughter Kinga for years on end.

When Romola died, she was buried in a different country to her husband when she had desperately wanted to be buried with him. Tamara didn't go to her funeral.

Her dream of a film about Nijinsky was fulfilled in 1980, two years after her death, but it was horrendous and sank without trace. Baryshnikov was not in it.

She would have been happy to have been at London's V&A museum recently. An exhibition about the life and times of Diaghilev featured many original drawings and costumes of Nijinsky, and these drew the largest crowds. His legend still lives on.In April I will see his famous ballet, L'Apres Midi D'Un Faun for the fourth time in London in a Diaghilev Festival, plus the role he made synonymous, Le Spectre de la Rose (top).

Further reading
Nijinsky: Richard Buckle. The definitive biography.
The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky
Nijinsky, a Leap Into Madness: Peter Ostwald. A modern study of Nijinsky's madness and how it would be treated now.
Romola and Vaslav: Tamara Nijinsky
Early Memoirs: Bronislava Nijinska. His sister's autobiography which portrays a different Vaslav, mischievious and fun loving.


Georgia said...

I haven't been able to find Nijinsky and Romola by Tamara Nijinsky anywhere! Where did you get it?

Gail said...

I got it on Amazon, it looks as if it is still available there:

Paul Heller said...

I knew Tamara Nijinsky, having worked at a business where she was a regular customer in Phoenix. Classy lady.