The Art of Nijinsky/The Career of Nijinsky

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Waslaw Nijinsky is a native of Warsaw. He was born some twenty-three years ago, the son of parents who were both closely connected with the branch of the Russian Imperial Ballet established in that city. His mother was a dancer. Likewise his father, who was early promoted to the rank of ballet-master, and took an honourable part in the development of a national school of dancing as opposed to the Italian school whose influence in Warsaw had previously been supreme. The young Nijinsky soon began to manifest the characteristics of genius, and at nine years of age he was transferred from Warsaw and enlisted as a scholar in the college of the Imperial Ballet at St. Petersburg.

A correspondent of the Manchester Guardian has given a neat précis of that famous system to which is owing so much of the supremacy of the Russian Imperial Ballet. "To-day," he writes, "the ballet is a vast State organisation with an annual budget of over a million roubles. The members of the ballet troups are Government servants, with the attendant rights and privileges of this class. Most of the corps du ballet are of quite humble origin, and are generally the daughters of small clerks, of the theatre attendants, who have naturally numerous facilities for advancing their children, and of former ballet-dancers. The training of a dancer is long and severe. After having passed through a process of selection and of physical inspection, girls are taken into the Government ballet schools from the age of eight to ten. At school they remain, on an average, about seven years. Then, after passing the final examination, they are enrolled as members of the corps du ballet. The step from corps dancer to première danseuse depends entirely on the dancer's own ability and talent. Sometimes, as in the case of Anna Pavlova"—and, he might have added, of Nijinsky—"promotion comes almost immediately, and usually it is easy to recognise the future ballerina before she has reached her twentieth year. Practice, however, is essential, and even to the end of her career the most talented ballerina must practise three or four hours a day."

Such is the course of training which in recent years has produced more than one dancing star of the first magnitude—a training whose principles are bound up with a tradition of art unequalled for strength and self-consistency. Never, indeed, has genius been more happy in its education than Nijinsky's. Never has it come upon the scene at a moment more opportune for its fruition. Only the very briefest résumé of the history of the ballet in Russia will be enough to make this clear.

Just as the beginnings of the modern literary movement in Russia are traceable, through Pouchkine, to the European and particularly to the French culture of the eighteenth century, so the art of the dance was originally borrowed by Russia from Italy, its first authentic home. Russian Ballet, then, is essentially one with a main trend of European expression, and, although certainly modified by the national character, is, by its very antecedents, perfectly fitted to take its place among the arts of a cosmopolitan as distinct from a merely native art.

The love of dancing is no doubt spontaneous among the Russian peasantry, and always has been. But the development of this natural impulse into art dates, for all practical purposes, from the patronage of the Empress Anna Ivanovna, who, in the year 1735, appointed a Neapolitan composer and a French ballet-master to preside over her newly instituted Dramatic School. Catherine II worthily carried on the work. A second theatre was established in Moscow, and the whole organisation was placed on a firm basis of relation with the bureaucratic régime. Throughout the eighteenth century the Russian Imperial Ballet must have maintained and, little by little, strengthened its position; although it was France, with dancers like Noverre and the great imigrant family of Vestris, that took unquestionably the lead. The Russian traveller and romantic, Karamzine, has actually recorded his impression of French dancing as he saw it in Paris in 1790, and later on in the same year at Lyon. "There is no one like Vestris!" he ejaculates, and leaves us in no possible doubt that he had never witnessed anything half so wonderful in the theatres of his own country.

Not, indeed, until well on in the nineteenth century did the Imperial Ballet at St. Petersburg begin to compete at all seriously with the art as practised in Paris or in Milan. But then advance was rapid, though the principal performers were still largely imported from Italy and the ballet-masters from France. Nor is it until the middle of the century that we come to a period of distinctively Russian control, with the advent of the first native director of real eminence, that Marius Petipa, to whose work in the 'fifties and 'sixties so much of the present supremacy of the Russian Ballet is undoubtedly due. The ballets produced by Petipa still conformed to the traditional type—three or four acts, and lasting a whole evening. But Petipa did work of enormous importance by assisting the emergence of a national feeling and by encouraging native talent to take its place in the highest grades of the ballet.

It was under his rule, at any rate, that Russian dancing began to achieve self-sufficiency, and to realise itself as equal, nay, superior, to the dancing of any other country in Europe.

Heir to this period of artistic expansiveness, Nijinsky began his career as a student in the Imperial School. A little senior to him was a whole galaxy of genius, which included such famous names as those of Mme. Karsarvina, Anna Pavlova, Mordkin, and Adolf Bolm. The scene was already crowded; but by his eighteenth year Nijinsky had successfully asserted his claim to a place beside these others in the very front rank of Russian dancers. And this rapidity of advancement was not due simply to the fact that Nijinsky could leap into the air a little higher than any of his fellow-students, nor yet that he was more proficient than all of them in the time-honoured tricks of entrechat and pirouette. From the first there had been evident in his dancing that promise of genius which no technical skill can simulate, but which through technical skill alone can blossom into its finest flower.

Now, in addition to the growing fame of Nijinsky, the first decade of the present century witnessed the rise of several novel

La Spectre de la Rose - The Art of Nijinsky.jpg
Le Spectre de la Rose
tendencies which were all of obvious and capital importance in the development of the art of the ballet. Now artistic impulses were coming to life all over Europe, and most of them had a definite relation with the art of the theatre in one or other of its numerous forms. The full history of these fresh developments, and of the resulting cleavage between the old ballet and the new, has yet to be written. Here we must be content to trace that cleavage in part to the influence of a new school of music which had risen to power within Russia itself, in part also to the more extraneous influences which came, via Moscow, from Prof. Reinhardt the German, and from Gordon Craig the Englishman. Nor must we forget the liberating force which sprang from the art of Isadora Duncan, whose heroic practice has done far more than any precept of philosophy to widen our ideas as to the intellectual and spiritual possibilities of the dance.

Such were a few of the influences which all appeared to be steadily converging upon the city of St. Petersburg. That something a little startling was bound to happen seemed certain. For on the one hand, you had the unique instrument of the Russian Ballet, an instrument quietly perfected through centuries of care and accumulating tradition; on the other hand, a whole new range of ideas and feelings, only waiting, it seemed, for a spark, to flame up into a new and wonderful life. Something however still was wanting—a tertium quid—and this was found presently in the person of M. Serge de Diaghilew.

It was in 1908 that M. Diaghilew first turned his attention to the Russian Ballet. Previously he had been engaged in producing Russian Opera—the masterpieces of Moussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, etc.—outside Russia itself and in a manner before undreamed of, save perhaps in the Imperial opera-houses of St. Petersburg and Moscow. He now conceived the idea that there was a future also for Russian Ballet, if only it could be produced at all adequately in the trying circumstances of a European tour. The difficulties in organising such a scheme were vast, and they were difficulties insurmountable by an artist pure and simple. But M. Diaghilew, above all things, is a business man, and before very long he was successful in arranging his great plan of a limited series of productions in Rome, Paris, Berlin, and finally England, with a company drawn from regular performers at the Imperial theatres, and including some of the finest dancers of the Imperial Ballet. Several entirely new ballets were soon added to the existing repertoire, and from the start a definite note of modernity was sounded which proclaimed the Diaghilew ballet as an exponent of the new revolution in the art of the dance. In accordance with this purpose the services of the most advanced producers and designers were secured—men like Michel Fokine, Benois, and Léon Bakst. While at the same time, with the instinct of a born impressario, M. Diaghilew also acquired the services of the young Nijinsky, at that time in the first hey-day of success at the Imperial Ballet. M. Diaghilew must have speedily realised that if he could only retain the exclusive services of the wonderful young dancer, he would also have gone far towards making his organisation a permanent one and altogether safe from the possibility of awkward competition. In a sense, indeed, Nijinsky was the key to the position.

From his own standpoint, on the other hand, Nijinsky himself was scarcely less clear-sighted in his view of the trend of affairs. The conservatism of the Imperial Ballet was becoming a byword among the more advanced spirits of the period, and having once tasted the joyous freedom of service with M. Diaghilew, he was not likely to remain content with the rules and regulations of an organisation which, in his view, was lamentably incapable of marching with the times. The result was that after one or two excursions with the Diaghilew ballet, Nijinsky's relations with the Imperialists became awkwardly strained. In the early part of 1911 the strain became intolerable, and on an unimportant pretext of costume Nijinsky received, and accepted, his dismissal at the hands of the Imperial authorities.

From that time onwards Nijinsky has thrown himself heart and soul into the new enterprise. As the leading male dancer in M. Diaghilew's ballet, he has naturally been obliged to undertake roles of every kind; but it would be hard to say in which of them all he has been most admired. There is a wide gulf between the sweet conventional charm of Armide's slave and the austere and subtle beauty of the Faune; but Nijinsky's art is as many-sided as a circle, and though no doubt he allows himself the luxury of having favourites, a mere spectator could scarcely guess which of all his many roles he liked the best.

During the last year or so the career of Nijinsky has developed suddenly in a new, but not altogether unforeseen, direction. He has enlarged his sphere of activity beyond the actual boards of the theatre, and has, in some sense, assumed the mantle of M. Fokine, who had previously been responsible for the choreographic arrangement of most of the ballets. Already Nijinsky has designed the dancing of three new ballets: the Prélude à l'Après-Midi d'un Faune, Jeux, and Le Sacre du Printemps; and in so doing has taken definitely his place among the great master-ballet-dancers of history.