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Letter to a Man: Nijinsky by Mikhail Baryshnikov

In December 1917, Vaslav Nijinsky, at that time the most celebrated male dancer in the Western world, moved into a villa in St. Moritz with his wife, Romola, and their three-year-old daughter. His relations with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the company in which he had made his name, were now severed, and with a war on, it was impossible for him to seek other engagements. So he and Romola had decided to retreat to neutral Switzerland and wait for peace. By the time of the armistice, however, Nijinsky had begun to go insane. His famous diary, written in six and a half weeks, from January 19 to March 4, 1919, was the record of his thoughts as that was happening. To my knowledge, it is the only sustained, on-the-spot (not retrospective) written account, by a major artist, of the experience of entering psychosis. Other important artists have gone mad—Hölderlin, Schumann, Nietzsche, Van Gogh, Artaud—but none of them left us a record like this. The diary was first published in 1936, in a drastically expurgated English edition. For over sixty years now, this has been the only available English-language version. In February, at last, a complete English text will be published, in a new translation by Kyril FitzLyon.

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Secrets of Nijinsky

Nijinsky was born in Kiev around 1889 to a pair of Polish dancers who worked on the touring circuit—opera houses, summer theaters, circuses—in Poland and Russia.

Nijinsky may have been unstable from his youth. His older brother, Stassik, was mentally unsound and had to be hospitalized as a teenager. If, as Bronislava Nijinska suggests, Stassik’s troubles began when he fell out of a window onto his head as a child, his condition would have had little to do with Nijinsky’s. But there were other circumstances. Peter Ostwald, in his 1991 psychiatric biography, Vaslav Nijinsky, speculates that the dancer may have had a genetic predisposition to depression, through his mother. (Her mother, upon being widowed, had starved herself to death.) Ostwald also raises the possibility that Nijinsky may have suffered brain damage as a result of a serious fall that he took at age twelve.

In any case, it is clear that at least by late adolescence Nijinsky was not like other boys. At eighteen, during his first season in the Imperial Ballet, he stopped dancing one night in the middle of the Act I pas de trois of Swan Lake and began taking his bows while the orchestra was still playing. If he was unbalanced at this point, the fame that now began gathering around his name may have unsettled him further. And if he was able to manage celebrity at that time, what was the effect on this quiet boy when, two years later, upon his debut with the Ballets Russes, the Parisians began referring to him as le dieu de la danse? Theater artists must always have some difficulty factoring into their minds the fantasies that they excite in the audience, but in Nijinsky’s case the fantasies were more elaborate and the mind more vulnerable. It is not impossible that his idea, endlessly reiterated in the diary, that he was God began with the experience of being called a god by the Parisian audiences.

To most people who knew him as an adult, the oddest thing about Nijinsky was his social incompetence. The dancer Lydia Sokolova, who began working with him in 1913, says that “when addressed, he turned his head furtively, looking as if he might suddenly butt you in the stomach…. He hardly spoke to anyone, and seemed to exist on a different plane.”5 Sokolova’s statement, together with all other descriptions of Nijinsky written after he went mad, must be understood as colored by that fact. Still, by most accounts, he was remarkably introverted. At parties he would sit silently and pick his cuticles. Even his wife, so protective of his reputation, reports that the dancers called him “Dumb-bell” behind his back.

These social difficulties made his choreographic career a nightmare at many points. The Ballets Russes dancers had been trained in the academic style. To induce them to forget all that and move like figures in an antique frieze or aborigines around a campfire required tact, patience, and excellent communication skills: precisely what Nijinsky lacked. Sokolova recalls that when, in rehearsing Faun, he told her to move through rather than to the music, she burst into tears and ran out of the theater. Others stayed but loathed his work and let him know it. Faun, an eleven-minute ballet, is said to have required over a hundred hours of rehearsal. And Nijinsky had to deal with opposition not just from the dancers but also from his collaborators—Debussy, the composer for Faun and Jeux, disliked both ballets and said so—not to speak of critics and audiences. During the première of The Rite of Spring the uproar in the theater was so great that the dancers could not hear the music. Nijinsky stood in the wings, sweat coursing down his face, screaming the musical counts to the performers—a terrible image.

At the same time, his relationship with Diaghilev was deteriorating. By the time of The Rite of Spring, their love life was apparently over. Worse, Diaghilev seemed to be abandoning Nijinsky as an artist. The company’s next major ballet, The Legend of Joseph, with music by Richard Strauss, was to have been choreographed by Nijinsky. Diaghilev, perhaps dismayed by the scandal over The Rite of Spring—or, more probably, concerned over the strain that Nijinsky’s ballets imposed on the company—now reassigned The Legend of Joseph to Fokine, Nijinsky’s rival, who was also demanding to dance Nijinsky’s major roles. “Perhaps he [Nijinsky] should simply leave the Ballets Russes and not dance for a year,” Diaghilev blandly suggested to Bronislava Nijinska, who was delegated to carry such messages to her brother. Nijinska recalls that Nijinsky was now in a “heightened state of nervousness…, as if he felt that a net was being woven around him.”

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These last events help to explain the extraordinary thing Nijinsky did next. He got married. In the summer of 1913, shortly after the première of The Rite of Spring, the Ballets Russes embarked on a tour of South America. Diaghilev did not accompany them, but someone else did: Romola de Pulszky (1891-1978), a wealthy, headstrong Hungarian, twenty-two years old, the daughter of Hungary’s foremost classical actress, Emilia Márkus. Romola had seen Nijinsky dance in 1912. She thereupon decided to marry him and attached herself to the company, as a sort of groupie, for that purpose. On the ship, she made her interest in Nijinsky known, and two weeks out of port, without having exchanged more than a few words with her (at that time they had no language in common), he proposed. They were married in Buenos Aires two weeks later.

That was the beginning of a series of crises that culminated five years later in Nijinsky’s madness. First, Diaghilev fired him. This is understandable; whatever the state of their relationship, Diaghilev still considered Nijinsky his companion, and he was undone by the younger man’s defection. (Diaghilev’s friend Misia Edwards—later Misia Sert—was with Diaghilev when he received the news. He was “overcome with a sort of hysteria,…sobbing and shouting,” she later wrote.7 ) Nijinsky, on the other hand, was apparently mystified by Diaghilev’s reaction. He wrote Stravinsky begging him to “please ask Serge what is the matter.” “If it is true that Serge does not want to work with me,” he added, “then I have lost everything.” Stravinsky later described this letter as “a document of such astounding innocence—if Nijinsky hadn’t written it, I think only a character in Dostoievsky might have.”

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Nevertheless, Nijinsky’s assessment of the situation was correct: he had lost everything. In order to dance, he did not need the Ballets Russes. Any opera house director would have been delighted to engage this great star to dance the standard ballet repertory. But Nijinsky by this time was not a dancer of standard repertory. He had been through that stage with the Imperial Ballet. He was different now—an experimental artist. He needed roles that would extend his gifts, and above all, he needed to choreograph. For these things he did need the Ballets Russes, which at that time was the only forward-thinking ballet company in the world. While Nijinsky’s later psychosis was probably, in part, biologically based, even the firmest adherents of the biological theory of schizophrenia agree that constitutional vulnerability must be combined with some potent psychological stress in order for the illness to develop. In Nijinsky’s case, the major stress was unquestionably his inability, after his dismissal from the Ballets Russes, to do what he regarded as his work.

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Nor, with his personality, could he manage a company of his own, as he soon learned. The following March, with the help of the loyal Bronislava, Nijinsky undertook to mount a ballet season, with a company of seventeen, at a music hall in London, but he fell ill from overwork, and what was to have been a two-month engagement was canceled after two weeks—a humiliating and expensive failure. Ostwald believes that at this point Nijinsky suffered his first “nervous breakdown.” He couldn’t sleep, was plagued by fears, went into screaming rages—a condition that was probably made worse by an increase in his responsibilities: the Nijinskys’ first daughter, Kyra, was born in June 1914. Soon afterward, the family traveled to Budapest, to visit Romola’s mother, at which point World War I broke out and the Hungarian authorities declared Nijinsky a prisoner of war, placing him under virtual house arrest in the home of Emilia Márkus. There he remained for a year and a half—never dancing, trying to devise a system of dance notation, reporting to police headquarters once a week—while Romola quarreled with her mother. Emilia Márkus was a temperamental woman, and she did not relish the prospect of having house guests for the duration of the war.

In 1916 Nijinsky was released, thanks to Diaghilev, who now needed him for a season at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, but the reunion of the two men was poisoned by a quarrel over money. (Romola had decided that Diaghilev owed Nijinsky several years’ worth of unpaid salary. At her behest, Nijinsky had sued Diaghilev in 1914.) When that first American season was over, Otto Kahn, the chairman of the Metropolitan Opera board, engaged the Ballets Russes for a second New York season, to be followed by a cross-country tour (1916-1917), and he unwisely decided that the company should be directed during this period by Nijinsky, not Diaghilev. What followed was probably the most chaotic and demoralized tour the Ballet Russes ever undertook. A four-month journey, stopping in fifty-two cities, with over a hundred dancers and musicians: it was a huge administrative assignment, and Nijinsky had no administrative skills.

By this time, furthermore, he had come under the influence of two members of the company, Dmitri Kostrovsky and Nicholas Zverev, who were followers of the religious philosophy of Leo Tolstoy. Night after night he would remain shut up in his train compartment with these two moujiks, as Romola called them, while Kostrovsky, with shining eyes, called him to the faith. Born a Roman Catholic, Nijinsky had long had a religious turn of mind—Romola records that as a teenager he had dreamed of being a monk—and he had been studying Tolstoy for years. Now he embraced Tolstoy’s teachings with a whole heart. He became a vegetarian; he preached nonviolence; he tried to practice “marital chastity.” He took to wearing peasant shirts and told Romola that he wanted to give up dancing and return to Russia, to plow the land—an announcement that prompted her to abandon him for the last leg of the tour. He tried to run the company in accordance with his new beliefs. For example, he began to practice democratic casting, giving lesser-known dancers leading roles, including his own roles, often without announcing the cast changes to the public.

After this dreadful tour, on which the Metropolitan Opera lost a quarter of a million dollars, Nijinsky performed with the Ballets Russes for a few months more, in Spain and South America, in 1917. By now he was caught up not only in the quarrel between Romola and himself over his Tolstoyanism but also in a struggle between Romola and Diaghilev over what she saw as Diaghilev’s plot to destroy Nijinsky. When the dancer stepped on a rusty nail, when a weight fell from a pulley backstage, these events were not regarded as accidents. In September, the Montevideo newspaper El Día printed what seems to have been Nijinsky’s last interview. “After I left school,” he was quoted as saying, “webs of intrigue were woven around me; people who had no other reason than envy for their hostilities began to appear.”Since Romola often distributed typed “interviews” with Nijinsky to journalists, these may be her words rather than his.

On September 30, 1917, after the end of the Ballets Russes’ South American tour, Nijinsky performed with Arthur Rubinstein at a Red Cross benefit in Montevideo. According to Rubinstein’s memoirs, Nijinsky, who was to have been second on the program, delayed and delayed his appearance, while the management threw on hastily assembled acts—the municipal band playing national anthems, a local intellectual declaiming an essay on dance to give him time. Finally, after midnight, Nijinsky came onstage, looking, says Rubinstein, “even sadder than when he danced the death of Petrushka,” and performed some steps to Chopin. Rubinstein burst into tears. This was Nijinsky’s last public performance. He was twenty-eight. He then moved with his family to St. Moritz.

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According to Romola’s biography Nijinsky, all went well during their first year in Switzerland. Nijinsky, she says, did his exercises every day on the balcony of their house, Villa Guardamunt, just up the hill from the village of St. Moritz. He plotted new ballets, made drawings, and worked on his notation system. Then, around January of 1919, he began to fall apart. He took to closeting himself in his studio all night long, producing drawing after drawing, at furious speed. The drawings were mostly of eyes, Romola reports: “eyes peering from every corner, red and black.” When she asked him what they represented, he replied that they were soldiers’ faces. “It is the war,”he said. When he and Romola took walks together, he would stop and fall silent for long periods, refusing to answer her questions. One day he went down to St. Moritz with a large gold cross over his necktie and stopped people on the street, telling them to go to church. He also had spells of violence. He drove his sleigh into oncoming traffic. He threw Romola (holding Kyra) down a flight of stairs.

He also gave a final dance concert, before an invited audience, at a nearby hotel, the Suvretta House. As Romola describes the performance, Nijinsky began by taking a chair, sitting down in front of the audience, and staring at them for what seemed to her like half an hour. Eventually he unrolled two lengths of velvet, one white, one black, to form a cross on the floor. Standing at the head of the cross, he addressed the audience: “Now I will dance you the war…. The war which you did not prevent.” He then launched into a violent solo, presumably improvised, and at some point stopped. On that same day, January 19, 1919, between finishing his lunch and going to Romola’s dressmaker to pick up his costume for the concert, he began his diary.

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After the performance at the Suvretta House, says Romola, “I never felt the same again.” Apparently, she had already confided in a doctor, a friend of the family. She does not give his name, but Nijinsky’s diary does. He was Hans Curt Frenkel, a young physician attached to one of St. Moritz’s resort hotels. According to Ostwald, Frenkel’s specialty was sports injuries, but during his medical training in Zurich he had attended lectures by the renowned psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, who in 1911 had invented the term “schizophrenia.” Frenkel was also familiar with Jungian theories of psychopathology. Thinking to help Nijinsky, he began visiting him almost every day. He tried to induce him to reveal his private thoughts; he warned him that his behavior was upsetting Romola. But Nijinsky only got worse. Day after day, he would retreat to his study to make drawings of staring eyes or to write in his diary, which he would not let Frenkel or Romola see. (In any case, it was in Russian, a language that neither of them could read.) Finally, Frenkel wrote to his old professor, Bleuler, asking if he would see Nijinsky. Bleuler agreed. Meanwhile, Romola had apparently summoned her mother and stepfather to come from Budapest and help her take Nijinsky to Zurich. They arrived, and the group—Nijinsky, Romola, Emilia Márkus, and her husband, Oscar Párdány—departed for Zurich. The diary ends on that day, March 4, 1919, as Nijinsky is waiting for the cab to take them to the train station.

In Zurich Romola first went to Bleuler alone. After listening to her account of Nijinsky’s behavior, he told her, “The symptoms you describe in the case of an artist and a Russian do not in themselves prove any mental disturbances.” But the next day, when he saw Nijinsky, he changed his mind. After what Romola says was an interview of ten 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 words now famous in the Nijinsky legend: “Femmka [little wife], you are bringing me my death-warrant.”

Had it been a death warrant, it might have been more merciful. The couple returned to their hotel, and that night Nijinsky locked himself in his room, refusing to come out. After twenty-four hours, the police were called, and they forced open the door. Nijinsky was taken to the Burghölzli University Psychiatric Hospital, where Bleuler was the director. He went without protest. Three days later he was sent to nearby Kreuzlingen, to the Bellevue Sanatorium, a luxurious and humane establishment directed at that time by Ludwig Binswanger, one of the founders of existential therapy. After three months at Bellevue, Nijinsky was hallucinating, tearing his hair out, attacking his attendants, declaring that his limbs belonged to someone else, not him.

 

It is impossible to know whether this decline was part of the natural course of Nijinsky’s illness or whether it was the result of hospitalization. The hospitalization was clearly traumatic. In his lucid periods, according to the Bellevue records, he would cry out, “Why am I locked up? Why are the windows closed, why am I never left alone?” Romola later claimed that Nijinsky’s deterioration was brought on by the episode of the police breaking open his hotel room door and taking him to Burghölzli. She said that her mother had engineered this behind her back. But Nijinsky records at the end of the diary that when they were about to leave for Zurich, Romola came to him and asked him to tell Kyra that he would not be coming back. If that is true, then hospitalizing Nijinsky was part of Romola’s plan for the trip. Nijinsky does not seem to have understood this fully. He took his diary with him on the journey, for, as he says, he intended to find a publisher for it in Zurich. Instead, it was turned over to the doctors of Burghölzli, who copied out passages of it into their records to support their diagnosis.

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LETTER TO A MAN

ROBERT WILSON
MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV

“Letter to a Man” is not about Nijinsky the artist, but about Nijinsky the schizophrenic of his later years, from whose diaries the text, by Christian Dumais-Lvowski, is drawn. The script is a collage of confused thoughts that revolve around various themes: his hatred of his mother-in-law; his delusions of grandeur; his guilty thoughts about sex; his tortured past with the impresario Serge Diaghilev, who made him an international sensation with the Ballets Russes. The title comes from a letter Nijinsky addressed to Diaghilev with those words.

We see Diaghilev only as a two-dimensional puppet gliding by at the back of the stage, as Mr. Baryshnikov is the sole performer here, although the body of a soldier from World War I — Nijinsky’s pacifism is a theme in the diaries — is splayed across the stage at one point.

The text is almost all heard in voice-over. We hear Mr. Baryshnikov, speaking in Russian and English, but also Mr. Wilson and Lucinda Childs, who collaborated on the movement as well. (Is she meant to be Nijinsky’s wife, Romola, who edited the first published version of the diaries, heavily expurgated?) Supertitles appear above and on the sides of the stage, although they are generally not necessary, since the Russian and the English seem mostly to be the same repeated phrases.

Mr. Baryshnikov is a captivating presence. We first glimpse him as Nijinsky in a silvery box of light, straitjacketed in a chair, but he is soon at loose across the stage, engaging in fleet-footed movement, or enacting a ghostly pas de deux with a chair (meaning what, exactly?), or merely doffing one of his black jackets with a spellbinding intricacy that holds the attention fast.

Source: NYT

Review: Baryshnikov Explores the Troubled Mind of a Dance Genius

Espace Pierre Cardin Paris

Deux monstres sacrés à nouveau réunis, cette fois-ci avec le légendaire Journal de Nijinski.

Virtuose prodigieux, Nijinski renouvela l’art de la danse au sein des Ballets russes que dirigeait Serge Diaghilev dans les premières années du XXe siècle. Nijinski est aussi l’auteur d’un journal secret, tenu pendant six mois dans lequel il note ses préoccupations au sujet de l’art, de la religion et de ses relations avec ses proches. Ce texte fébrile rédigé par un homme troublé à la raison vacillante fascine depuis longtemps Mikhail Baryshnikov. À l’invitation de Robert Wilson, il interprète aujourd’hui ce témoignage bouleversant d’un artiste en train de sombrer dans la folie. Le titre du spectacle, Letter to a Man, renvoie à Diaghilev dont Nijinski fut l’amant avant de le quitter pour épouser Romola de Pulszky. Leur séparation fut sans doute le point de départ de sa maladie.

Hugues Le Tanneur

 

Vaslav Nijinsky

Vaslav Nijinsky (also Vatslav) 12 March 1889/1890– 8 April 1950 was a Russian ballet dancer and choreographer of Polish descent, cited as the greatest male dancer of the early 20th century. He was celebrated for his virtuosity and for the depth and intensity of his characterizations. He could dance en pointe, a rare skill among male dancers at the time and was admired for his seemingly gravity-defying leaps.

 

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