The Art of Nijinsky/The Art of Nijinsky

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As we saw in the last chapter, Nijinsky's technique is the result of a system of training which, however superior, is similar in kind to that found in several other European schools of ballet dancing. We know how high a standard of skill may be attained by almost anyone with an aptitude for dancing if trained on these lines. Indeed there are several dancers in M. Diaghilew's company, and we have seen others at various times and places, whom one would not hesitate to put in the very foremost rank. But about Nijinsky's dancing there is something altogether unique—an exotic quality which cannot be measured or referred to any standard of purely technical excellence. The word Genius, I believe, is rather out of fashion just now; but it has been used once or twice already in the course of this little book, and now it must be used again, if only because there is really no other word which at all expresses that peculiar element in Nijinsky's art which has here, somehow or other, to be explored.

Now, one of the principal marks of genius is the combination in one and the same person of talents, common enough in themselves, but rarely found together. Nijinsky's art is full of such combinations. One of them, for example, is that union of strength with lightness which is, perhaps, the most obvious feature of his style. Apart from the muscular development of hip and thigh, Nijinsky gives one the impression of being very slight in build. His body is slim as a boy's. His arms are delicate. His wrists and ankles almost dainty. While watching him dance it may not seem strange that a being so agile should be able to lift and hold, a hair's-breadth from the ground, another being like unto himself but frailer even than he—one of those Sylphides, perhaps, that sway like river-reeds in the breeze or hover like thistledown. Yet, thinking it over, you have to realise that after all it was a grown woman he held there, and that only the apparent ease with which he held her cheated you into the belief that she was light as air. Try for yourself a similar feat, and you will know how much of physical strength is needed to perform it even clumsily. And Nijinsky is nothing if not graceful. And graceful strength is strength twice over.

Les Sylphides - The Art of Nijinsky.jpg
Les Sylphides
Another fusion of qualities most noticeable in the art of Nijinsky, and most rare, is that fusion of utter freedom of movement with unfailing sense for decorative effect. Freedom of movement can be attained, no doubt, by practice. And a good "producer" may contrive that the main attitudes of a dance shall be correct in themselves and sufficiently beautiful. But with Nijinsky, pose, attitude, seems to be an instinct rather than a lesson learnt, and even in the wildest orgy of motion his feeling for outline never fails. At any given moment his silhouette, could one descry it, would be found, I believe, to form a lovely pattern. And not by any means is this a question of mere training, as may be proved by comparing Nijinsky's style with that of the other most competent dancers in the same company.

It must be, I think, this sense of outline which also endows Nijinsky's art with that exquisite neatness which some have actually interpreted as its limitation. Dancing, such people say, is of the essence of freedom. To restrain is to sterilise and to reduce the living body of man to nothing better than a mechanism of springs and steel. Well, there is this amount of truth in such a criticism: that Nijinsky's method does not actually seem so nicely adapted to express certain moods of natural abandonment as, say, Mordkin expressed in that famous Bacchanale he danced with Anna Pavlova. Still, no artist is at his best in every mood, and to expect him to be so is to deny to him the gift of personality. As a matter of fact, a feeling for outline like Nijinsky's allows a far wider range of effect than that possible to a looser method; implies, too, the possession of a far surer and subtler intellectual faculty. "The great and golden rule of art …," said Blake, "is this: that the more distinct, sharp, and wiry the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art. The want of this determinate and bounding form evidences the idea of want in the artist's mind."

Certainly there is no such void in the mind of Nijinsky. His mental vigour is as keen as his physical; and, richly endowed as he is with every perfection of technique, he is still the unerring master of his material, never its slave.

This brings us to the last item in our little catalogue of combined qualities—an item which can be easily expressed by saying that Nijinsky is not only a great dancer, but also a great actor. An opinion, this, which differs radically from that of so high an authority as Miss Ellen Terry, whose gaily intuitive essay on the Russian Ballet was so strangely cool in its appreciation of the dramatic side of Nijinsky's art. In the next chapter, however, I shall be giving some brief notes on the chief ballets in which Nijinsky takes part, which, if nothing else, cannot fail to emphasize the variety and the vividness of mood and atmosphere evoked. Several of the rôles are of a conventional and even abstract type, but even these Nijinsky has individualised to an extraordinary degree. And how else, one may well ask, can this be done, except by the force of a powerful histrionic imagination—or, at any rate, of something so nearly akin to that faculty as to be scarcely distinguishable from it?

Nijinsky's art, after all, is primarily imaginative. Dancing with him is an expression of mood, not of mere grace or rhythm. Even in the purely graceful ballets like Les Sylphides or Le Pavilion d'Armide, he shows us a mind at work creating gracefulness rather than a mere body being graceful. It is difficult enough to analyse, but one feels that all this splendid and apparently inspired resourcefulness must be bound up, somehow, with Nijinsky's own personal attitude towards life itself.

A man, of course, may be an excellent dancer, and at the same time only very moderate in his interest in or understanding of life as a whole. Such a negative attitude, however, will show itself at once in the quality of art resulting. That quality may be coldly beautiful, or hotly sensuous, or merely pretty. But its intellectual appeal will be nil. Nijinsky's dancing, on the contrary, is a thing as much of head and soul as of heart and body, and claims the rapt attention of all our faculties for its understanding.

To meet Nijinsky in private life is to gain a perfect confirmation of any belief you may hold as to the presence in such a great artist of intellectual power. At a first introduction you might experience, perhaps, a shade of disappointment. A far cry, it seems, from the glamour of a great theatre to the sudden seclusion of a London drawing-room. And this quiet little gentleman in immaculate English clothes, can it—can it really be Nijinsky? He is not tall enough, surely—and his hair looks so sleek and dark and normal. Not till later on, when you have had time to notice the fine and subtle modelling of the cheek, the narrow flickering eyes, the clean but rounded lips, will you begin to realise that this must be he. And after a while, when the first hesitation of his manner gives way to vivacity, when the whole face brightens with the thought that is a little difficult to express in a foreign tongue, then at last you come to know that all is indeed well. For here is a man who is intensely, sincerely, nervously alive. He has a brain—there is no doubt of it. And you feel you would like to know what he thinks about everything.