Monday, August 3, 2020

Once Possessed - The "Madness" of Vaslav Nijinsky (Updated 8/9/2020)

Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky in his 1911 role as the "Rose Ghost"
from the ballet "Le Spectre de la Rose." (Also here, and another related article in French).
Click all images in this post to enlarge.

"Ô toi qui de ma mort fus cause,
Sans que tu puisses le chasser
Toute la nuit mon spectre rose
A ton chevet viendra danser.
Mais ne crains rien, je ne réclame
Ni messe, ni De Profundis;
Ce léger parfum est mon âme
Et j’arrive du paradis."

("O you, who caused my death
Without the power to dispel,
All night long my fragrant specter
Will dance at your bedside.
But fear nothing, I require
Neither psalms nor sacred rites;
This delicate scent is my soul
And I’ve come from paradise.")

- From the poem Le Spectre de la Rose by Théophile Gautier which inspired Michel Fokine's ballet about a young woman haunted by the spirit of a rose she had received at her debut. Later that night, while she dozes in a chair, the spirit of the wilted rose visits her in a dream. (Note: So much tends to be lost in mere word translations of French poetry... specifically: the poetry! I've seen several translations of this particular stanza but found myself dissatisfied with all of them. So, I tweaked it. In other words, if this translation is also problematic, the fault is mine.)

The rose (inset right) is named for a man... as many roses are. Did you know that? It's name is Fantin Latour, named for the French artist who was known for his elegant paintings of flowers... especially his roses. More of his work can be found here. There might, in actuality, be a variety of rose named Nijinsky - well, there ought to be - but, if so, I haven't found it.

"His dancing has the unbroken quality of music, the balance of a great painting, the meaning of fine literature, and the emotion inherent in all these arts. There is something of transmutation in his performances; he becomes an alembic, transforming movement into a finely wrought and beautiful work of art. The dancing of Nijinsky is first an imaginative triumph, and the spectator, perhaps, should not be interested in further dissection of it..."

- From "The Russian Ballet and Nijinsky" by Carl van Vechten found in Nijinsky, an illustrated Monograph edited by Paul Magriel, 1946. Also found within the pages of the book are the 3 b/w photos of Nijinsky as the Rose found inset left, inset right (below) and below the jump.

"In December 1917, Vaslav Nijinsky, the most famous male dancer in the Western world, moved into a Swiss villa with his wife and three-year-old daughter and started to go insane. This diary, which he kept in four notebooks over six weeks, is the only sustained, on-the-spot account we have by a major artist of the experience of entering psychosis. Nijinsky's diary was first published in 1936, in a heavily bowdlerized version that omitted almost half of his text. The present edition, translated by Kyril FitzLyon, is the first complete version in English, and the first version in any language to include the fourth notebook, written at the very edge of psychosis. It contains Nijinsky's last lucid thoughts - on God, sex, war, and the nature of the universe, as well as on his own broken life."

- A description of The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky. The New York Times has archived a small portion of the newer translation of the diary here.

"Nijinsky's Diary was written during the six weeks he spent in Switzerland before being committed to the asylum, combining elements of autobiography with appeals for compassion toward the less fortunate, and for vegetarianism and animal rights. Nijinsky writes of the importance of feeling, as opposed to reliance on reason and logic alone, and he denounces the practice of art criticism as being nothing more than a way for those who practice it to indulge their own egos rather than focusing on what the artist was trying to say. The diary also contains bitter and conflicted thoughts regarding his relationship with Diaghilev."

- Excerpt from the Wiki entry for Nijinsky.

"The man who is right is the one who feels but does not understand."

- A quote from Nijinsky's Diary found here.


A Less Common Kind of Guy

If someone had told me years ago that one day in the far future I would fall in love with a man dressed as a flower, I would've probably just figured they (or I) had inhaled one flower too many. And, yet, that's just what I did one recent Pandemic night, as I gazed at a photo of the Russian dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky. The photo was found in a slim red book with the name "Nijinsky" written in a thin, black script on its spine; a book I might have easily overlooked had it not fallen under my creative radar earlier in the day. And what to my wondering eyes did appear, as I opened the book to a random page, but a photograph of Nijinsky in his role from the ballet "Le Spectre de la Rose"... that is, the ghost or spirit of the rose, which I learned had been inspired by a French poem of the same name.

Lovely, lovely, exquisitely lovely. As it so happens, roses (and spirits) figure prominently in a current art project of mine - a project devoted to the mysteries of the power of love - and, well, I'd be the last one to ignore the quirky habits of fate. Unfortunately, as I began reading the book (into the wee hours of the morning) it became apparent that I had another tragic artist on my hands and, worse still, another misunderstood "mad" artist. At which point I realized Nijinsky would eventually have to make his way to Trans-D... the home of the misunderstood "mad" artist.

As a young dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky (March 12, 1889 – April 8, 1950) was beautiful, graceful, luminous, beloved by both men and women, and considered the greatest dancer and most innovative choreographer of his time. This was during the latter years of the Fin de Siècle when all sorts of dark romanticism, spiritualism - and debauchery - transpired. Tragically, his life - and (allegedly) his mind - began to unravel around the age of 29 (apparently the shelf-life of many a brilliant flame). He was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia and was to spend his remaining 30 years in and out of mental institutions. Professionally, he would never dance again... reminding us (to our dismay), that, yes, for an artist, there are fates worse than death... and almost all of them are in some way related to institutions.

Nijinsky is and was most often referred to as gay: the stereotypical effeminate ballet dancer - and, while looking at his "Rose" photographs, you might've  thought so, too - as if grace and beauty (and some great eye-shadow) are exclusively found in feminine form. This a fairly modern misconception. The classical world entertained a broader, unbiased perspective, glorifying both their pretty boys and pretty girls equally in art and poetry. Then again, in ancient Greece and Rome, one's sexual orientation wasn't the socially definitive issue it became in the modern world. In fact, no precise Latin words for "homosexual" or "heterosexual" existed. As for Nijinsky, well, he married a woman, fathered two children and employed a number of female prostitutes, while his few documented relationships with men - specifically Sergei Diaghilev, the founder of the renowned Ballets Russes in which Nijinsky found his fame - seem to be based predominately on Nijinsky's artistic opportunism and his partner's egocentric, abusive indulgences. "Love" did not seem to have been the operative term in their relationship. But, for Nijinsky, love was all. And, his feeling was so strong, he believed he was love's personification. In a letter to Diaghilev, Nijinsky wrote:

"You are the one who wants death and destruction, although you are afraid of death.
I love love, but I am not the flesh and blood, I am the spirit, the soul. I am love..."

Ultimately, whether Nijinsky was gay, bi, straight - or some permutation thereof - doesn't really interest us here. I'm more inclined to agree with Dorothy Parker's remark:

“Heterosexuality is not normal, it’s just common.”

 So, let's just accept that Nijinsky was a less common kind of guy and move on...


Expressing the Inexpressible

Another beautiful photograph of Nijinsky as the Rose. Note: His costume was
designed by Léon Bakst and was composed of myriad silk petals. Apparently, the ballet
 - and Nijinsky's Rose - was so successful, his enterprising assistant, Vasili, 
after collecting petals which fell from the costume during performances,
sold them as souvenirs and was able to buy a chateau with the profits!

"I have eaten from the drum
I have drunk from the cymbal
I have carried the sacred dish
I have stolen into the inner chamber"

- A symbolic chant or verse attributed to the mysteries of Kybele, the Phyrgian Great Mother and her castrated lover, Attis,  performed during the Spring rites (March 15 to March 27). This "symbolon" was cited by Clement of Alexandria and found in The Ancient Mysteries - A Sourcebook, 1987, Marvin Meyer, Ed., as was the Dionysian quote found at the end of this quote section.

Nijinsky in Les Orientales, 1911.
"Nijinsky, one of the greatest dancers, used to say that there come moments when he disappears, only the dance remains. Those are the peak moments - when the dancer is not there and only the dance is

Even scientists were very much puzzled, because there were moments in Nijinsky’s dance when he would leap and jump – and those leaps were tremendous, almost impossible leaps. A man cannot leap that way; the gravitation does not allow. And the most beautiful and amazing part was that when Nijinsky would be coming back from the leap he would come so slowly that it is impossible. He would come so slowly as if a leaf is falling from a tree… very slowly, very slowly, very slowly.

It is not possible, it is against the physical law, it is against physics. The gravitation does not make any exceptions, not even for a Nijinsky. And he was asked again and again, ‘What happens? How do you fall so slowly? Because it is not within your power to control — the gravitation pulls you.’ He said, ‘It does not happen always, only rarely – when the dancer disappears. Then sometimes I am also puzzled, surprised, not only you. I see myself coming so slowly, so gracefully, and I know that the gravitation does not exist in that moment."

 - An excerpt from the online article: Nijinsky’s anti-gravity.

Nijinsky in Le Pavillon d'Armide, 1911.
"There are truly many forms of divine possession, and the divine inbreathing is set in motion in many ways. Hence, accordingly, there are many different signs of it. For on the one hand the gods by whom we are inspired are different, and communicate a different inspiration; and on the other hand, the mode of the divine transports being changed, it occasions another form of divine impulse. For either the divinity possesses us, or our entire selves become the god's own, or we are active in common with him...

From these diversities it follows that the distinctive signs denoting those who are inspired are of many kinds. Not only among them are the motions of the body and of specific parts, but likewise its perfect repose, and also harmonious orders and dances and musical voices, or the contraries of these. The body also is seen lifted up, or increased in size, or borne along raised up in the air, or there appear occurrences in relation to it the contrary of these. There is likewise to be observed an evenness of voice according to extent, or with many deviations with intervals of silence and irregularities. Again, sometimes, the sounds are augmented or relaxed after the rules of music, and sometimes after another manner."

- Excerpt from an online edition of Theurgia or On the Mysteries of Egypt by Persian philosopher, Iamblichus (250-325 A.D.), specifically: "Other Tokens - The Body Lifted into the Air." In the footnote section on that page we find: "If the polarity of the body can be changed by the will, this would be a physical possibility." Also, further on in his treatise, Iamblichus explains that the gods, in reality, describe essences of the "First Cause," and are formless, intangible and find their origins in the mind. Hence, the human mind was a conduit for the gods.

The two archival photographs of Nijinsky in action (above, inset right and left) were also found in Nijinsky, an illustrated Monograph edited by Paul Magriel. In the second photo in particular Nijinsky appears to be in the process of entering one of his "slow" descents.

"The history of ballet can be traced back to ancient Greek festivals and religious rituals, particularly, the rites of Dionysus that were marked by celebrations and wild dancing, when many of the worshipers would break into frenzy or a trance-like state...The festivals of Dionysus freed people temporarily from the burdens of civilization and even of individuality, and allowed them to release their pent-up impulses with the aid of music and dancing."

"In Le Sacre, Nietzsche’s view of modern civilization was translated into the sacrificial dance of the Chosen Maiden, who danced herself to death, similar to the way ancient Dionysian worshipers danced themselves into frenzy. In Le Sacre the dancers “trembled, shook, shivered, stamped; jumped crudely and ferociously, circled the stage in wild khorovods. At times the movement approximated the involuntary condition of trance."

"Nijinsky also wrote to his sister explaining his intentions in Le Sacre and describing the inspiration he received from Roerich’s paintings of Russian spring. “Do you remember it, Bronia?” he wrote, “the violent and purple colors of the vast barren landscape in the predawn darkness, as a ray of the rising sun shines on a solitary group gathered on top of a hill to greet the arrival of spring. Roerich has talked to me at length about his paintings in this series that he describes as the awakening of the spirit of primeval man. In Sacre I want to emulate this spirit of the prehistoric Slavs.”

- Three quotes sourced from a Suites Culturelles's article about the Ballets Russes. Centered above is an example of Nicholas Roerich's work, Battle in the Heavens (1912), possibly one of the backdrops he painted for the ballet, Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rites of Spring), the ballet cited in the quotes. Nijinsky's sister (mentioned in the third quote) was also a dancer, Bronislava Nijinska.

"Blessed, Blessed are those who know the mysteries of god.
Blessed is he who hallows his life in the worship of god,
he whom the spirit of god possesseth, who is one
with those who belong to the holy body of god.
Blessed are the dancers and those who are purified,
who dance on the hill in the holy dance of god...
Blessed, blessed are they; Dionysos is their god!"

- A portion of The Hymn to Dionysos from Euripides' play The Bacchaae. What I hadn't realized about the god Dionysos in the past is that he, too, was sexually ambiguous, appearing sometimes as a "mighty bull" and other times as "an effeminate boy with fair skin and long curls."


I would, however, be lying if I failed to mention my very first impression of the man in pink. Truthfully, I immediately identified him as a true androgyny... a throwback to those most ancient of gods, Eros and Phanes (see here), primordial gods of creation, love and lust. Give Nijinsky wings and he'd be Eros in the flesh; add a large serpent around his torso and, voila, he's Phanes. Both gods were men... and women, that's the delightful thing. Moreover, in passages he wrote within the pages of his infamous diaries - documents eventually used to "certify" his insanity (see here) - Nijinsky professed to be "God" and went on to also describe a marriage with "God." He also said: "I am God in a body. Everyone has this feeling, but no one uses it."

While most assumed he meant the Christian deity - and, perhaps, in ways, he did: at one period in his youth he entertained the idea of joining a monastery - he was also describing an almost Buddhist concept, a Gnostic spiritual experience, and, as we will see, an artistic work in progress, all of which were destined to be either overlooked or misunderstood... by his contemporaries, by the psychoanalysts, by his friends, his admirers, the public at large, and - most importantly - by Romola, his wife, possibly the key to his undoing... and, certainly an unreliable witness to his life, as we (also) shall see..

Meaningfully, one of the last ballets he choreographed was Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rites of Spring), using Stravinsky's musical score. In it he attempted to capture humanity's primitive roots in a story about pagan religious rites and the ritual self-sacrifice of a young woman. The ballet apparently caused riots in Paris and, sadly for Nijinsky, not because the audience was favorably impressed with its theme nor Nijinsky's unique and modernist choreography. He was ahead of his time... and he was made to suffer for it. And. yet, Diaghilev was heard to say that night: "This is victory! Let them hiss, let them cry! Inwardly they already feel its value and only the conventional mask is hissing.You will witness the results."

(Inset left: Nijinsky applying make-up to a dancer who appeared in his last choreographed ballet:Til Eulenspiegel 1916.)

That quote was found in a written tribute to Diaghilev (A Lone Fighter) by Russian Symbolist painter, Nicholas Roerich, who designed both the costumes and scenery for Le Sacre and a number of other Ballets Russes productions. It was he whom Nijinsky mentioned as having talked to "at great length," and, my guess is, had we been flies on the wall during that conversation we might know a great deal more about the workings of Nijinsky's mind.

After all, Nicholas Roerich was also a very interesting man: a mystic, a theosophist, an archaeologist, and a specialist in Russian prehistory. He wrote extensively. He was also well-versed in goddess lore, and might be considered an early male feminist. Moreover, he believed he was the reincarnation of a Tibetan Dalai Lama (and many Tibetans believed his claims were authentic!). Would he have found Nijinsky mad... or inspired? Because this is the operative question.

In so many ways his "condition" resembled that of one divinely possessed; a condition which, in ancient times, was more often interpreted as a gift from the gods rather than a psychological disorder. Regarding Nijinsky, there were many who remarked about his uncanny ability to metamorphose in his various roles. (Inset right is Nijinsky in his 1911 role as the tragic puppet, Petrouchka.) He could look tall or short, magnificent or ugly, fascinating or repulsive, young or old, fat or thin, and, as Edwin Denby remarked in the afore-mentioned Monograph: "he disappears completely and instead there is an imaginary being in his place..." which Denby later describes as Nijinsky's "phenomenally luminous dance intelligence."

Then, too, many of Nijinsky's contemporaries criticized his reserve, his remoteness, idiosyncrasies of his speech and/or the lack of it. Of course, a simple explanation may be his discomfort with foreign languages. On the other hand, as we read in Iamblichus' discussion of divine possession (in the quote section) Nijinsky's ability to morph into different forms, his speech difficulties and his supernatural abilities to hover in the air are all symptomatic of divine possession and/or inspiration, which was also referred to as enthusiasm. Needless to say, had he been born at any time in the long past, his "enthusiasm" would not have been interpreted as pathological... nor would a "chymical wedding" with his god.*

(Inset left is a 1912 interpretation of Nijinsky in L’Après-midi d’un faune by French sculptor Auguste Rodin found here.)**

Which is not to say Nijinsky wasn't a deeply troubled man. It certainly seems he was. It is to say, however, if his diagnosis was based on his religious/philosophical references alone, the  treatment he received was nothing short of criminal. Because, regardless if he was divinely inspired or not, he was inspired, and the source of his inspiration was sacred to him.

One of the best and truest statements I found written about Nijinsky was written by Josh Jones in 2019 and found in this article. He says:

"The intense religious fervor of his language - in which he seems, Wilson writes, “obsessed with the idea of becoming God” - can also be seen as the... only literary means of expressing the inexpressible: the incredible power he feels in a wordless physical state, his sole source of purpose and meaning.

There are many ways to describe Nijinsky’s god, invoked over and over on every page of the Diary. But it seems, above all, to be the name he gave to the creative energy he embodied, and without which he was forever lost."

"Expressing the inexpressible" is often the driving force behind the will to create. And it might also lie at the bottom of any understanding of an artist's "madness." But, ultimately, we're talking about the mysteries of the human condition, and to trivialize human expressions of creative energy is to trivialize humanity. (Inset right is another painting by Nicholas Roerich which is described here. Note the similarity between the symbol on the banner - the symbol of the Roerich Pact - and the symbol for a Chymical Wedding found here.)

“For man to be able to live he must either not see the infinite, or have such an explanation of the meaning of life as will connect the finite with the infinite.”

The quote above is from Tolstoy (1828-1910) written after an epiphany he had - after a particularly dreary "dark night of the soul" - as documented in "A Confession." Aside from Nietzsche, Tolstoy was the other writer most mentioned in Nijinsky's diary, and in many ways, Nijinsky tried to emulate Tolstoy. Which reminds me of (yet) another quote I found during my research, and one for which I've lost the source but will post anyway. Apparently, one psychologist quipped in reference to Nijinsky's psychological state: "Either he's mad or he's just Russian."

So, after countless words written in his analysis - including my own - perhaps, Nijinsky was "just Russian." ***


* For another Chymichal Wedding page featuring the drawings of Dutch artist Johfra Bosschart (1919-1998) see here.

Updated Material, 8/9/2020:

** Via Nijinsky's Wiki entry: "As the title character in L'après-midi d'un faune, in the final tableau (or scene), Nijinsky mimed masturbation with the scarf of a nymph, causing a scandal; he was defended by such artists as Auguste Rodin, Odilon Redon and Marcel Proust."

When researching any early 20th century European artist, it is likely that, at some point, you'll inevitably discover French sculptor, Auguste Rodin. It's a 6-degrees-of-separation kind of thing. And, so, I wasn't too surprised to learn that Nijinsky and Rodin had, perhaps, crossed paths. There is some controversy as to whether or not Nijinsky had actually modeled for Rodin's sculpture, but, even if he didn't, Rodin still managed to capture one of the darker, almost gnome-like aspects present in the dancer's shape-shifting repertoire.

(Inset left is a 1912 painting by Valentine Gross Hugo, who married Victor Hugo's son, became a surrealist and had an affair with Andre Breton; small world, indeed!)

But, there's more. Because no reference to Rodin is complete without the mention of his one-time lover (and sculptor) Camille Claudel... and no reference to Camille is complete without the unfortunate presence of her brother, Paul Claudel, who, along with their mother (kind of like the evil stepsisters in a modern Cinderella tale) threw Camille into a mental institution (in !913) where she died (in 1943) and was buried in an unmarked, mass grave. (See "Into the Madhouse," the last section from Part II of my For the Love of old Books series.)

The upshot is, Paul Claudel not only personally knew Nijinsky but intended to involve him in a ballet - L'homme et son désir - he "allegedly" devised in Brazil at the same time Nijinsky was there with the Ballets Russes (and directly before Nijinsky's breakdown). (See this page - in Spanish - where we find this quote: "Enchanted by the dance and the dancer, Claudel invites Nijinsky for long walks in the Tijuca Forest. I wanted to convince him to choreograph and stage his Brazilian ballet, L'homme et son désir, but I also wanted to make him understand the atmosphere of the rainforest." That last sentence was not put in quotes, but it implies that the ballet was Nijinsky's idea... and, as one reads further, the ballet seems like Nijinsky's idea. Google translation problem... or, yet, another glitch in the Nijinsky narrative?).

As it was, it was Paul Claudel who actually wrote the intro to Romola Nijinsky's first biography of her husband and the afterword to her publication of Nijinsky's diary! All things considered, how ironic (and creepy) is that? One suspects that they had more in common than meets the eye. Really, darlings, some narratives are weird and just keep getting weirder... like our present Pandemic, for instance! Speaking of which, Rodin is still making news. Inset right is a painting of Nijinsky - in his costume from "Les Orientales." - painted by Jacques-Emile Blanche (1910).

*** "For some Russian symbolists, including the woman writer Zinaida Gippius and the male writers Ivanov and Merezhkovsky, sex was a source of liberation with the potential to unite humanity with God. Furthermore, many male symbolists conceived of their own projects in feminized terms. Intuition, spirituality, emotionalism, loss of intellectual control - all these were characteristics commonly aligned with the feminine. Many symbolists... enacted the role of feminized aesthete in their public lives, constructing personae that rejected bourgeois norms of masculinity."

- Via a re-posted quote found in the "Two Symbolist Woman" section from the same post linked to in the previous footnote.


An Artist in Exile

A photograph of Nijinsky found on this page.

"While possession is a common experience in many cultures, in Western industrialized cultures, such experiences are not normative and may lead to inappropriate diagnoses of dissociative or psychotic disorders. Anthropologist Ruth Inge-Heinz, PhD, who has studied possession experiences in many cultures, has commented on the deleterious effects of mislabeling an individual in a state of dissociation as having a mental disorder:

'The concept of what constitutes a "healthy mind" differs considerably from one culture to another...How devastating it can be to affix the label of "mental illness" to any extraordinary state of consciousness! A dissociative state of mind does not necessarily qualify an individual for being put into a straight jacket. Many dissociative states occur in Southeast Asia, for example, in a culturally conditioned and controlled setting.'"

- Excerpt from the article: Possession and Psychopathology.

"What we need to know about Nijinsky is not what was on his mind but how he transformed this material into art – how this tongue-tied introvert managed to become not only a great, eloquent, and (by all accounts) surpassingly glamorous dancer but also the first modernist choreographer in the history of ballet. In other words, we need a psychology of creativity. And that is exactly what most psychobiographers do not concern themselves with. Creativity – the thing that actually distinguishes their subjects from the rest of humankind and therefore needs explaining – is to them a given. They work backward from there, to libido and aggression, the things that in no way distinguish their subjects from the rest of humanity."

Nijinsky as the slave in Scheherazade; another photo from the ballet can be found below.

"Nijinsky taps into a final myth, that of the genius-madman. He was tagged with this label long before he went mad, just on the basis of the contrast between his onstage mastery and his offstage ineptitude. Diaghilev’s friend Misia Sert called Nijinsky an “idiot of genius”. And after he went insane the formula was pumped for all it was worth. Some writers described him as a kind of Russian yurodivy, or “holy fool”, a man who, like Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin, was incompetent in life because his vision of divine truth was too clear. Others invoked the moth-to-the-flame metaphor: Nijinsky was a man who tested the limits – in dancing, in choreography, in sex – and paid the price; he went farther out on the limb than the rest of us, and fell off; he died for our sins. The shadow of Christ – and of van Gogh, that modern avatar of Christ – hovers at the edge of all these images. As with van Gogh, the metaphor is reflexive: he went mad because he was a great artist, and he was a great artist because he went mad."

- Two excerpts by Joan Acocella, the editor of the most recent English translation of  Nijinsky's diaries, found in this definitive Nijinsky article by Sheila O'Malley.

"In his 1975 book “Nijinsky Dancing,” Kirstein chooses to relate an apocryphal story that draws a connection between Nijinsky’s schizophrenia and World War I. In 1918, just before Nijinsky was admitted to an asylum, he gave a final performance at the Swiss resort of Sils-Maria. He appeared “disturbed” and he seemed increasingly obsessed “with battle, horror, catastrophe, apocalypse.” Before beginning the final performance, Nijinsky chillingly declared that he would enact for the audience “‘the war, which you did not prevent and for which you are responsible.’”

Kirstein describes Nijinsky’s disability as his “personal crucifixion,” but he also suggests that it has broader societal implications. After all, only “disturbed” decision makers would force an entire continent into a cataclysmic conflict due to their own obsession with battle, horror, catastrophe and apocalypse. Nijinsky may have schizophrenia, but to Kirstein, his schizophrenia elicited an epiphany from the audience: Europe’s leaders were mad because they chose not to prevent war. Nijinsky’s disability helps others recognize their own insanity. Just as Giselle’s madness seems frivolous, Nijinsky’s schizophrenia is simply a pretense."

- Excerpt from the article: "Hidden Struggle: Flaws in ballet’s disability narrative."

"A remarkable change occurred after the Red Army took over Hungary. Amid Russian soldiers, who
recognized him, Nijinsky experienced a notable recovery; for the first time in 26 years, he was
sociable and talkative, and at one point was even seen to ‘whirl and dance’ with them. This phase
was short lived, but somehow Nijinsky became less excitable during his final years. After the war,
he and Romola first moved to Austria, where hypertension was detected, and then to London in
1948. It seems he never saw a psychiatrist or required admission during his time in the UK. He
passed away on 8th April 1950 due to ‘uremia with chronic nephritis’. Initially buried in St.
Marylebone Cemetery in London, his remains are now at Montmartre cemetery in Paris."

- An excerpt from a source article found here.


"Variations and themes, applied with line, energize each page. A sense of urgency emerges,
as if the artist felt compelled to explore every possible configuration of one simple concept."
(Nijinsky's artwork and the above quote can be found here.)

Interestingly, while no longer free to express himself in dance, Nijinsky turned to drawing and painting. Posted above is an example of his work; what appears to be a free-form geometric drawing describing the relationship between the Vesica Piscis and the Flower of Life. Curiously, it and a number of Nijinsky's images were first exhibited in the United States - at the Waldorf Astoria - in 1932 by Romola Nijinsky. Below is the notice as it appeared in the New York Times:

; Paintings by Famous Russian, Star of Diaghileff's Ballet, to Be Shown Here by Wife. FREUD ADVISED THE EXHIBIT Stages of 13 Years of Mental Illness Illustrated in Works -- Psychological Value Great. ARTIST IN A SANITARIUM As Sickness Progressed, He Drew First Insects, Then Grotesque Masks, and Finally Somber Spaces."

To begin with, we might ask ourselves why Nijinsky's wife, Romola, would be holding this exhibit in the first place... ah, but wait! That's right, we are informed that no less than Sigmund Freud "ADVISED" it. In reality, this was not the case; it is a fabrication. In an unusual example of "truth will out," a letter from Freud was found (on this Antiques Roadshow, no less) which states, in no uncertain terms, Freud had never seen Nijinsky, let alone his art, at any time. The letter was written  in reply to a young woman, Berniece Stanley (the deceased relative of the woman who brought the document to AR), who apparently queried Freud about his opinion of Nijinsky's artwork after the exhibit. Freud replied:

"Your letter gives me cause (Motivation) for a warning which you certainly sometime will find valuable: Namely, never believe something just because it is (stands) in a newspaper. In reality I have never seen the dancer Nijensky [sic] and I have never had anything to do with his case."

Oops! And, so, we are presented with the first obvious flaw in the Nijinsky narrative. We can assume there are others. But, nowhere are there more flaws than in misinterpretations of Nijinsky's imagery. His entire oeuvre was considered nothing more than graphic examples of his deteriorating mind from the get-go, allegedly comprised of obsessive drawings of "eyes," or so we are told by Romola. Of course, in the Times' notice we were also informed of other examples: "insects...grotesque masks" and "somber spaces." Truthfully, I've identified several of his images (in red and black) which seem abstractly representative of a human eye, but nothing remotely portraying insects, masks, etc. Inset left, is (we'll assume) one of the misinterpreted "eyes" which, when analyzed, is actually a geometric array of lines and curves known as the Vesica Piscis, i.e., hardly evidence of "madness." In fact, read the text on this MOMA page.

But, there's more. Because we learn from Edwin Denby (via the Monograph again) that prior to his hospitalization (involving an alleged 10 minute diagnosis*), Nijinsky was developing choreography based upon "circular movement" which Denby surmises to to be in relation to a dancer's "point of repose." Later in the book, in a chapter regarding Nijinsky's artwork, Marsden Hartley drops a bombshell I've read nowhere else. He mentions that Nijinsky, in his last moments of sanity was determined to "perform the greatest of all dances": "Le Marriage avec Dieu" ("Marriage With God")!** Moreover, he interprets Nijinsky's later artwork as a series of images relative to this new, never-performed dance. Hartley, in keeping with Romola's narrative - and, as Joan Acocella reminds us here - Romola Nijinsky's narrative is all we have - writes under the assumption that this work must be symptomatic of Nijinsky's decline. But, ultimately, we are not convinced. Inset left is a drawing by Nijinsky dated 1919 and found in Hartley's section of the Monograph. Although my scan is not the best, the drawing itself is quite elegant, and is in keeping with a circular theme.

In other words, there was, indeed, method to Nijinsky's madness. He was working on something. He had a vision. He was employing a creative process. And, I find this problematic. Why are we to believe the opinions of the "experts" who psychoanalyzed Nijinsky, the artist, when they had little-to -no comprehension of artistic process? Even in the case of Nijinsky's diaries - trivialized as merely symptomatic of his diseased mind - one can't help but wonder if this deficit - an inability to understand and identify creative processes - contributed to the bias in their analysis and the wholly inept pattern of his failed "cure." The reality is, in the early stages of his breakdown, he may have been able to be assisted to some degree - assisted specifically to realize and fulfill his passion and potential in the art of dance. But, once he fell under the auspices of little more than a diseased specimen - and, during the course of one his "treatments" he was (allegedly) injected with insulin 224 times, not to mention other medical tortures of which we can hardly guess... especially after most records of his "treatments" have been conveniently destroyed - it was too late.

Well, almost. Because, you see, we are discussing a man who was traumatized at least twice during 2 consecutive world wars. In 1914, at the beginning of WWI, he, his wife (inset right) and first daughter were living in Vienna at the time and inevitably detained because, as Nijinsky was Russian, they were considered enemies and placed under house arrest (and/or in a detention camp... the narrative varies). During WWII, Nijinsky was forced to hide in caves as he was certified insane and the invading Nazis had a habit of exterminating humans with mental and physical disabilities.

The interesting thing is that at some point at the end of World War II, Nijinsky met up with some Russian soldiers... men who actually spoke his language, respectfully recognized him, and, most importantly, danced with him! And, this chance occurrence healed him to such a degree that in the latter few years of his life he was able to remove himself from the constraints of the medics and institutional life. At least, he died a free man.

And, who knows, maybe someday, someone may readdress, re-translate, and reevaluate his diaries, his paintings, his dance, his emergence, his genius, his eroticism, his tragic fall, in a completely different light. They'll realize that, once upon a time, Eros, the most ancient of gods, appeared in the flesh during the early half of the 20th century... for merely an instant... and then he/she was gone.


*"After what Romola says was an interview of 10 minutes, Bleuler described Nijinsky in his notes as 'a confused schizophrenic with mild manic excitement'. The doctor showed Nijinsky out of his office, asked Romola to come in, and told her that her husband was incurably insane. When she returned to the waiting room, the dancer looked up at her and uttered the legendary words: 'Femmka [Little Wife], you are bringing me my death warrant.'"

The above quote is found in the previously linked article by Joan Acocella. But, once again, we seem to find some flaws in Romola's narrative, that is, if the quote found here has any validity:

"In 1919 Nijinksy was also seen by Professor Eugen Bleuler, Director of the Burgholzli Institute in Zurich. Bleuler was an eminent and highly influential psychiatrist of his day and the doctor who first coined the term “schizophrenia”. Although the foremost diagnostician in his field, he was uncertain about a diagnosis of schizophrenia. The diagnostic interviews were made understandably more difficult by the language barrier: Bleuler spoke no Russian and Nijinsky no German so the conversation continued in French in which neither were particularly fluent."

** Apparently, Nijinsky was working on another dance as well. Found here: "During this time, Nijinsky’s erratic behavior, nervousness, depression, and paranoia increased, and upon his return to Europe toward the end of 1917, he and Romola moved to the Swiss Alps. There, in creative isolation, Nijinsky worked on a number of ballets that he wanted to make, including one called Papillons de la Nuit (Nocturnal Butterflies)"


Once Possessed

I was a beautiful woman,
I was a beautiful man...
I was a god of love and fire
When, in my youth,
I danced.

But, no god takes form
And remains a god;
No form contains a god
Without fracture...
And, no god is any god
Who cannot dance.

- 2020, DS


  1. A most incredible journey - both by Nijinsky and yourself. This is beautiful and astounding and sad and glorious. Perhaps the best and final moment is "Once Possessed". Bravo!

    1. Your enthusiasm is always a delight, BG. And thanks so much for mentioning "Once Possessed." It was a longer poem originally, until I realized that, not only did I like the first and last verses the best, they were the only verses necessary.