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Authors: Lucy Moore


BOOK: Nijinsky



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First published in Great Britain in 2013 by
Profile Books Ltd
3A Exmouth House
Pine Street
Exmouth Market
London EC1R 0JH

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

Copyright © Lucy Moore, 2013

Excerpts from
The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky: Unexpurgated Edition
translated by Kyril Fitzlyon, edited with an introduction by Joan Acocella. Copyright © 1995 by Actes Sud. Revised translation copyright 1999 by Kyril Fitzlyon. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC and Aitken Alexander Associates.

The moral right of Lucy Moore has been asserted.

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

ISBN: 978 1 84668 618 4
eISBN: 978 1 84765 828 9

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Printed and bound in Great Britain by Clays, Bungay, Suffolk

The paper this book is printed on is certified by the © 1996 Forest Stewardship Council A.C. (FSC). It is ancient-forest friendly. The printer holds FSC chain of custody SGS-COC-2061

for Otto

‘… yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits.'

John Keats,
, Book I


Author's note


Yaponchik 1889–1905

The Favourite Slave 1906–1909

Dieu de la Danse

Petrushka 1910–1911


Le Sacre du printemps

Roses 1913–1914

Mephisto Valse

Spectre 1918–1950

A libretto for a ballet based on Nijinsky's life

The Chosen One

Notes and references



List of Illustrations


Author's note

is – I hope – an acceptable mixture of common usage (for example, Tchaikovsky or Massine) and a standard transliteration. At the turn of the twentieth century, a rouble was worth sixteen pence or seventy-six cents.

I have not included descriptions of every ballet in which Nijinsky appeared because I thought it would interrupt the narrative to have too many long technical passages; I only used those that seemed to me to have been important biographically as well as artistically. However, Nijinsky's first biographer, Richard Buckle, was scrupulous about this, so any reader who wants to learn about the more minor roles would enjoy his detailed account of Nijinsky's career.

There are some small controversies (for example, the issue of exactly who was present at the dinner and carriage ride after the premiere of
Le Sacre du printemps
) into which, again for the sake of the narrative, I have not delved too deeply, preferring instead to present what I think is the most likely version of events. In these cases the sources I used (or did not use) and notes for further reading appear in the footnotes.

Sketch of Nijinsky as the Rose by Valentine Hugo,


The Premiere of
Le Sacre du printemps
29 May 1913, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris

he was backstage in his practice clothes, rather than in his dressing room trying to ignore the throng of admirers while he put on his costume and made up his face. He wore a full white crêpe de Chine shirt and narrow black trousers, buttoned down the calves. It was the first interval and the audience was restive, shifting and murmuring.
Les Sylphides
, their opening piece, had received the usual rapturous applause.

The dancers moved loosely around him, some warming up, some pretending nonchalance, a few grouped together, whispering. He avoided eye contact with them, but then he usually preferred not to look directly at people. Their brightly coloured costumes were heavy and unwieldy and the men had complained about their false beards. Some crossed themselves, lips moving silently. Like all experienced performers, he recognised how important the backstage mood would be for the success of his debut. On a first night, doubts in the wings, as his sister would observe, can lead to catastrophe. If only she were dancing the role he had conceived for her.

Most of them, he knew, disliked the ballet he had created, could not understand what he was asking of them or what he wanted to achieve. That was partly his fault: movement was his medium of communication,
not words. The dancers resented being ordered brusquely to move exactly as he instructed them, without any opportunity for interpreting their roles at all. The shuffling steps, flat-footed jumps, clenched hands, hunched shoulders and unsynchronised, deliberately primitive choreography seemed to them ugly and painful. He knew they asked themselves what ballet was for, if beauty and grace had been removed. It was a question he asked himself.

At least the theatre was packed, despite the fact that they had charged double the normal ticket price. For the past four years, all Paris had been obsessed by the Ballets Russes and by him, its star, Nijinsky – the young savage. Tonight, an unseasonably warm evening at the end of May, they were to premiere a daring new ballet billed as being created by three poets: Igor Stravinsky, its thoroughly modern composer; Nicholas Roerich, a distinguished student of pre-historical, pagan Russia, its set designer; and Nijinsky, its brilliant twenty-four-year-old choreographer. Although it was rumoured that their charming but ruthless impresario, Sergey Diaghilev, was not above giving away tickets to ensure a full house, the thought of empty seats on such a night was inconceivable.

Through the peephole in the curtain he could see his mother in the front row (her usual seat; her one evening dress), and then all around her the city's cultural and social elite. The diamonds on the bosoms and the bare, white arms of chic ladies from the grand
– the sort whose parties dapper little Monsieur Proust (his
Du côté de chez Swann
would come out in six months' time) schemed to get invited to – glittered alongside the soft jackets worn by self-proclaimed aesthetes, writers and artists, who scorned formal evening wear as bourgeois trappings of an outdated society, considering themselves guardians of the new wave. Igor in his element, four rows from the front, nervously anticipating the applause; glamorous Misia Sert, fanning herself against the heat, waiting for Diaghilev to join her in the box she had booked for every night of their season. Many of them were friends and acquaintances, here to defend their bold new work. The grandees, he knew, were here to be shocked by it.

Aware that some of the audience might find the new material
disturbing, Sergey Pavlovich had constructed the rest of the programme to pander to potential critics. The show had opened with the moonlit elegance of Chopin and tulle skirts and would progress, after their premiere, to the ethereal romance of
Le Spectre de la Rose
– his virtuoso role, the one that made audiences gasp, and the only part he would be dancing tonight – before concluding with the wild, warlike Tatar dances from the opera
Prince Igor
. Only
Le Sacre du printemps
could possibly be seen as controversial.

This was the Ballets Russes' third performance at the brand-new Théâtre des Champs-Elysées and he should have been encouraged by the knowledge that it was his image, alongside that of Isadora Duncan, that had inspired the decorative bas-reliefs on the exterior, almost leaping out of the marble into the air. All things considered, the dress rehearsal had gone well (as it ought to have done, after the nearly one hundred expensive practice sessions he had insisted upon) and that morning an early notice in
Le Figaro
had raved about the ballet's dazzling modernity. His sister Bronia thought he was calm, waiting to be judged but confident his art would not be found wanting.

But the nerves would not be silenced. Relentlessly they bubbled up into his throat.
L'Après-midi d'un faune
, his first composition, premiered the previous year, in which he played the faun, had caused such a scandal that the onanistic ending had to be altered for subsequent performances. Only two weeks earlier at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées' grand opening,
, the second ballet he had choreographed, had been greeted with hisses and derisive laughter. Despite its score by Debussy, the setting by Léon Bakst of a garden at dusk, and Nijinsky himself in the lead role, its slight premise – two girls and a boy in modern tennis clothes flirting with one another – had not impressed.
had been dismissed as immature and ugly. Beneath his arms, the thin silk of his shirt was already wet through.

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