Nijinsky remembered with dance exhibit

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Feb. 19, 2003 at 12:11 PM
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NEW YORK, Feb. 19 (UPI) -- It has been more than 80 years since Vaslav Nijinsky danced in public, but a major exhibition of memorabilia illustrating the career of the greatest male ballet dancer of the 20th century attests to the evergreen fascination of the Nijinsky legend.

The show at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, an the important repositories of Nijinsky material, includes 250 artifacts ranging from the dancer-choreographer's famous diaries and some of his costumes to photographs, posters, set and costume designs, and Nijinsky's own abstract paintings. It can be seen through May 3.

Born in the Ukraine of Polish parents who were both ballet dancers, Nijinsky trained at the Imperial School of Dancing in St. Petersburg and joined the Mariinsky Theater as a soloist in 1907. In 1909, he was invited by dance impresario Sergey Diaghilev to be principal dancer in the new Ballets Russes, a traveling company of Russian dancers.

When the Ballets Russes made its Paris debut that same year with Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova, the company took the city by storm and made a world reputation for itself. By that time Nijinsky had been seduced by Diaghilev and they went about openly as a couple until Nijinsky's marriage to dancer Romola de Pulszky in 1913.

Feeling rejected, the angered Diaghilev fired Nijinsky from the company but allowed him to return as artistic director for a tour of 56 American cities in 1916-1917. By that time the dancer's mental problems, later diagnosed as schizophrenia, began to interfere with his performance. He ended his career in Uruguay in 1919 at age 29 while touring with the Ballets Russes and spent the next 30 years in and out of sanatoriums, dying in 1950.

He began the diaries - the most famous manuscripts in dance history and the highlight of the exhibition - in 1919 and the three notebooks handwritten in Russian and illustrated with sketches reflect symptoms of mental imbalance. His wife published an edited edition in 1936 and the full text was published in English in 1999, about the time they were purchased from the family by the New York Public Library.

Tamara Nijinsky, the surviving of the dancer's two daughter, came to New York for the opening of the exhibition, for which she was a consultant, from her home in Phoenix, Ariz. She particularly admired the display of costumes loaned for the first time by the Kirov Ballet and the Museum of Theater and Music of St. Petersburg as part of the city's 300th birthday celebration.

In addition to the costumes there are costume designs for Nijinsky, beautifully rendered in watercolor, by Leon Bakst and Alexander Benois, and photographs of him posed or dancing in these costumes by Baron Adolf de Meyer, Eugen Druet, Karl Struss, and L. Roosen.

All four of the ballets Nijinski choreographed for the Ballets Russes - "L'Apres-midi d'un Faune," "Jeux," (a contemporary ballet about tennis), "Le Sacre du Printemps," and "Tyl Eulenspiegel" - are represented in this wonderful photographic collection. "Tyl Eulenspiegel," about a Flemish liberator known for his pranks, had an American connection in that it was created in 1916 in collaboration with Robert Edmond Jones, a young New York theatrical designer.

The "L'Apres-midi d'un Faune" photos show Nijinsky in his spotted faun costume and "Le Spectre de la Rose" photos show him in a costume appliquéd with silk roses. A film of the faun ballet with Rudolf Nureyev in the title role, can be seen in a small video theater at the rear of the exhibition along with a film of Nureyev performing the Rose. No film footage of Nijinsky in performance is known to exist.

Other photographic highlights include pictures of Nijinsky in two of the exotic Persian-Indian ballets for which Ballet Russes was famous - "Scheherazade" and "Orientales." Druet caught Nijinski in a particularly feline, provocative pose in his "Orientales" costume topped by a turban.

Even more appealing is Roosen's photos of Nijinsky in his role of the tragic Russian puppet in "Petrushka" and De Meyer's impishly posed pictures of the dancer as Harlequin in "Carnaval" garbed in a diamond-patterned costume. All of the photos, especially those taken with Tamara Karsavina in "Giselle" show Nijinsky as handsome, amazingly long-necked, and muscular, a true "danseur noble."

There are two stylish posters designed by Jean Cocteau for performances of "Le Spectre de la Rose" dance by Nijinsky and Karsavina at the Theatre de Monte Carlo in Monaco in 1911. Karsavina was Nijinksy's favorite partner and left Russia at the time of the Revolution to found the Royal Academy of Dancing in London, where she became the mentor of Margot Fonteyn.

Also in the show is a marvelously sensitive bronze bust of Nijinsky by Una Trowbridge and a Cocteau cartoon of the dancer and Diaghilev together as a pair of boulevardiers carrying canes. A silkscreen print of Diaghilev pictures him in a long black frock coat looking at the world superciliously through his ever-present monocle. A lonely, dissatisfied man, he continued presenting ballets until his death in 1929.

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