Wacław Niżyński – The Birdman
small, Wacław Niżyński – The Birdman, Wacław Niżyński, photo: East News, center, waclaw_nizynski_en_00054799_0012.jpg
A magnificent dancer, star of scandalous and remarkable ballets. He was called ‘the eighth wonder of the world’ and ‘the Birdman’, his charisma was legendary, and the conflicts of his life still hypnotise the minds of writers and directors of both stage and film. Here we tell the story of a man who changed the history of ballet forever.
A 'peculiar' boy
Niżyński was born into the family of Polish ballet dancers Tomasz Niżyński and Eleonora Bereda. The résumés of his parents include studies at the ballet school in Warsaw, work at Warsaw’s Wielki Theatre and nomadic life as visiting guest performers of various dance troupes. They christen two of their children, Wacław and Bronisława, on the same day (18th April 1891) in the Roman Catholic Holy Cross Church, where Chopin’s heart rests in a silver urn.
Niżyński knew how to speak Polish, though he wrote it with many mistakes. Much later, in a letter to the Polish opera singer Jan Reszke, he confesses that he considers himself to be a Pole. Wacław is very reserved and quiet as a child, living in his own world. After his father leaves the family, peculiarities in the boy’s character become more apparent.
While Niżyński is studying at the Imperial Ballet School in Saint Petersburg (where his mother brought him and his sister), he undergoes an examination at a clinic for the mentally ill. Regardless, newspapers begin to write about the young genius while he is still in his studies. They remark on his ability to ‘hang above the stage’ during a jump, his mimic prowess and his phenomenal gift for embodying different roles. They also note his small stature (all of 160 cm) and his ‘too-muscular’ legs. In 1907, Niżyński is accepted into Mariinsky Theatre troupe.
From star of the ballet to enemy of the emperor
Niżyński becomes a primary dancer almost immediately. His partners are such stars as Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina and Mathilde Kchessinka. His name never leaves newspaper pages and theatrical posters. However, the Mariinsky would be but a short phase in his life. In 1911 he is dismissed. The formal reason is for an indecently fitting costume in a performance of Giselle (at that time, male dancers would go out on stage in wide trousers, and Niżyński’s costume, according to the sketches of Leon Bakst, was believed to be a tight leotard).
However, there is another, unofficial, version of what happened: his success greatly irritated Anna Pavlova, who didn’t want to share fame with anyone. Furthermore, Niżyński is egocentric. He dances his roles exclusively for himself and takes no interest in his partners. Nonetheless, Niżyński wins over his audience with his unconventional physical appearance, masculine charisma, virtuosic dance and surprising elasticity.
The next Vestris
Right after Niżyński’s dismissal from the Mariinsky Theatre, Sergei Diaghilev takes him into his own company. Diaghilev, the famous ballet impresario and founder of the Ballets Russes, which thundered throughout all of Europe, falls in love with Niżyński in the most direct sense of the word. Their partnership came about thanks to Wacław’s mother Eleonora. Being a pragmatic woman, she figured that Diaghilev would be a grandiose catalyst for her son’s career. Indeed, they are the best years of Niżyński’s career.
He has unimaginable success, multiplied by the success of the Ballets Russes, and hundreds of adoring fans. It is then that Niżyński earns the nicknames the ‘Birdman’, the ‘god of dance’, the ‘next Vestris’ (the legendary French dancer) for his unique ability to jump so high in the air.
Jean Cocteau writes: ‘He refuted the laws of balance and turned them upside down. He resembles a human figure drawn on the ceiling. He is so comfortable in the air…’. Sarah Bernhardt declares him ‘the greatest actor in the world’. It appears as if everything is shaping up wonderfully, but Niżyński hated the lack of freedom. Diaghilev is overbearing and jealous. He throws insane amounts of money at Niżyński’s feet, shields him from critics (Niżyński’s intolerable nature is the talk of the town) and grants him complete artistic freedom, but in their relationship he demands obedience.
Stunned by failure
Niżyński tries out the role of choreographer in 1912. He sets his ballet Afternoon of a Faun to the music of Claude Debussy. Niżyński’s chief innovations in this work are profile poses, which he ‘copied’ from paintings on Ancient Greek vases, as well as athleticism and obvious opposition to the usual classical style with its grace and romanticism. Such expressionist choreography is unusual for most viewers, and the erotic scenes (the finale of Afternoon of a Faun) are very peculiar. As a result, contemporaries find the ballet too bold, chaotic and ‘incomprehensible’.
The same judgment is given to his second ballet, The Rite of Spring, with music by Igor Stravinsky and costumes by Nicholas Roerich. This stunning failure lights the fuse for the personal conflict between Diaghilev and Niżyński. The explosion occurs during a tour of South America: Niżyński suddenly marries Romola de Pulszky, a Hungarian aristocrat who greatly admires him and his work.
Diaghilev finds out and writes Niżyński an irate letter in which he informs his ex-protégé that the Ballets Russes no longer need his services. A little-known fact is that Niżyński never signed any contract with Diaghilev. He never received an official salary like the other artists of Ballets Russes; Diaghilev simply paid all of Niżyński’s expenses himself. Therefore, a sudden break was possible… and proved to be fatal for both men.
Niżyński is only able to enjoy his freedom for a short time: he forms his own troupe, but he fails almost instantly as a manager. Bakst, Roerich, Benoit: everyone refuses to work with him, fearing Diaghilev. Niżyński invites the then-unknown Pablo Picasso to work on the scenery for his ballets. He asks the also then-unknown Maurice Ravel to compose the music. Diaghilev does everything he can to prevent Niżyński from being successful. He sues Niżyński and while the litigation goes on, Wacław’s performances are struck from the stage.
The troupe breaks up and the critics are disappointingly silent. At the same time, Niżyński rejects an offer to lead the French Grand Opéra ballet. Then, World War I begins. The dancer, as a Russian citizen, has to move to Hungary. He lives there under house arrest, disliked by his wife’s relatives and disillusioned with his work and his life (at the same time he becomes fascinated with Tolystoyism, and begins to see himself as a sinner and professional dancing as satanic). In 1916, he is allowed to return to France, where he meets with Diaghilev once again. Diaghilev obtains permission for Niżyński to travel to America, where the former star would take part in a tour.
The dancer becomes a painter
The year the war ended, Niżyński takes the stage for the last time, and then settles in the Swiss city of St. Moritz. He spends most of his time alone. His wife later reveals that Niżyński would walk around nearby villages with a large wooden cross on his chest and preach Tolstoy’s ideas.
Unable to perform on stage, Niżyński keeps a personal diary (The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky was published in Paris in 1963), composes poetry and paints quite a bit. Gradually, painting replaces other hobbies. He studies painting under Leon Bakst, and despite the extreme abstractness of his works, they are painted fairly professionally. In the 1940s, one critic calls them ‘psychiatric schematics’ (Niżyński’s internal fracturing and mental illness were well-known at this point).
Experts today note elements of constructivism and suprematism in Niżyński’s artwork. Niżyński generally painted geometric compositions with lines and circles, and sometimes, strange figures with distorted faces and penetrating expressions. He tells his wife that he is painting the faces of soldiers and war.
The bronze jester
On the 30th September 1917 Niżyński is invited to perform at a charity event benefiting the Red Cross. The audience is composed of St. Moritz residents and tourists. According to accounts, in the middle of his performance, Niżyński stops abruptly, lays out two rolls of red and black fabric onto the floor and, standing in the centre of the cross he had made, announces: ‘I will now dance the War. The War you didn’t stop…’. After his performance he adds: ‘The horse is tired’.
His condition becomes much more serious, and in 1919, Niżyński moves to Surrey in England, where after a consultation with a psychiatrist, he is diagnosed with schizophrenia. Niżyński’s wife sends him to an asylum where he only becomes worse: he refuses to eat and falls into a dissociated state.
For the remaining 30 years of his life Niżyński is sent to various clinics. The great dancer dies on 8th April 1950 in London. His remains are returned to Paris and buried in Montmartre Cemetery next to the tomb of Gaétan Vestris. A bronze statue of a jester sits atop his gravestone.
Translated by Katherine Alberti