A statue of Vaslav and Bronislava Nijinsky by Giennadij Jerszow
Did Nijinsky possess supernatural powers?
Vaslav Nijinsky was a legend even during his own time. There were several occasions where people were wondering if his performance was not helped by supernatural powers. His leaps, in particular, seemed to be so incredibly high, and lasted so long, that people felt he was flying, or floating, defying gravity.
It is most unfortunate that we cannot see any old films in which he appears – apparently Diaghilev did not allow anyone to film during Nijinsky’s performances – so the only evidence we have is word of mouth and memoirs. However, Nijinsky’s sister, a great dancer and choreographer in her own right, left some clues.
For example, his level of energy and his ability to focus were extraordinary. Here is how Bronislava described his practice habits:
“While Vaslav, apart from the others, practiced his dance exercises alone, I observed him from a distance. He executed all his exercises at an accelerated tempo, and for never more than forty-five to fifty minutes; that would be his total practice time. But during that time he expended the strength and energy equivalent in other dancers to three hours of assiduous exercises… Vaslav seemed more intent on improving the energy of the muscular drive, strength, and speed than observing the five positions… He worked on the elasticity of the whole body in the execution of his own movements. Even when holding a pose, Vaslav’s body never stopped dancing. “
Another point is, why couldn’t the greatest dancer of his time, perhaps even the entire twentieth century, lift his legs very high? Here is a paragraph by Bronislava that explains the one flaw he had exhibited:
“In his adagio exercises, in the développé front , he could not raise his leg higher than ninety degrees; the build of his leg, his overdeveloped thigh muscles, as solid as a rock, did not permit him to attain the angle possible for an average dancer.“
And the most important, here is the explanation for his supernatural leaps. Perhaps people should have taken a clue from the strange fact that he was one of the few male dancers, ever, who could dance en pointe, but no one connected the two facts.
“In the allegro pas he did not come down completely on the balls of his feet, but barely touched the floor with the tips of his toes and not the customary preparation with both feet firmly on the floor, taking the force from a deep plié. Nijinsky’s toes were unusually strong and enabled him to take this short preparation so quickly as to be imperceptible, creating the impression n that he remained at all times suspended in the air. “
Source: Nijinska, 1982, pp. 293-4
“Anyone here? Where are you?” The lady stood in the middle of the large, empty room, her chocolate-colored eyes flashing with anger as she stared at the incomplete renovations. Buckets of creamy white paint, brushes, and other painting paraphernalia were scattered around the cloth covering the floor. “Where is everyone?” she cried again. There was no answer. With a sweeping motion she flung her embroidered, elegant black shawl around her shoulders, and without removing her black fur hat, which added considerable height to her already slim and tall figure, strode up the stairs, negotiating her high heels with ease. “The pigs,” she murmured, quickly correcting herself and saying “Les cochons.” One must keep one’s style even when alone, as she was always trying to remember.
On the upper story’s little hall she burst into one of the rooms, then stopped suddenly and gazed at its perfection. The walls glowed with their fresh coat of paint; the parquet was polished to a deep shine. She sighed with relief and went downstairs again, reaching the empty room just as the two workmen returned from their lunch.
“Why have you not finished the house?” she asked, her voice shrill and accusing. “You absolutely promised to finish by tomorrow! I fully relied on you! The furniture is arriving on Friday, and where shall I put it? I will not pay! I will complain! You will be instantly dismissed!” She almost stamped her foot but must have remembered the danger it could present to her high heel, and stopped herself in time. Instead she decided to wring her hands, a most impressive gesture since it allowed the many rings she wore on top of the white gloves to flash and sparkle in the sun-drenched room.
She seemed to be a fairy, a creature made of light and air, not of this earth. When she appeared at the Maryinsky Theater, at the age of eighteen, the great ballet master, Marius Pepita, could not believe his own eyes. In his entire long career, he had never seen a ballerina perform quite like Anna Pavlova.
An overnight success, she went with the ballet to many countries in Europe, and then, in 1909, joined Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and went to Paris with him. She was as great a sensation there as Vaslav Nijinsky. How could the two greatest ballet dancers of all time be at the same place and the same time? How could such a coincidence happen? It seems impossible – and yet it did.
She did not return to Russia, particularly since the war prevented everyone from going back and forth. But she did not stay with Diaghilev, either. This ethereal creature had a mind of her own and she would not have anyone manage her career and dictate to her where and when she would dance. She became a true nomad, and traveled all over the world, appearing before royalty and modest dance halls with the same dedication to her art; she always danced as if possessed by a power higher than herself. Royalty saluted her. At the dance halls and second rate theaters, in company of jugglers and animal trainers, the audience gasped at the dark, exotic, delicate creature who seemed to make time stop as she danced. Her name was recognized internationally, in every continent. She made the dance look so easy, as if it cost no effort at all. The audience did not know that her muscles hurt so much that she had herself wrapped with tight bandages when she was not dancing. She never stopped hurting, but she would not stop dancing, either.
In 1931, at almost fifty, Pavlova was rather old for a ballerina; most dancers at that time stopped performing in their forties. But her power and magic did not diminish by age. She was expected in Brussels, at a royal performance the Queen was planning to attend. A few days before the performance, the theater manager received the shocking news that Pavlova died suddenly on her way, at The Hague.
The performance was not cancelled, and the Queen attended. When the time for Pavlova’s solo came, the orchestra played the music of her famous “Dying Swan” and a single, pure white ray of spotlight moved over the dark stage, following where Pavlova would have been moving as she danced. The Queen rose to her feet, and so did the rest of the audience, and their eyes followed the white light until the end of the piece. An other-worldly, eerie tribute, most fitting for the magical dancer.
These links connect to two dances by Anna Pavlova. We are so lucky they have survived.
Fashion changed greatly during the 1920’s, as we all know, and Madame Koska and the Imperial Brooch had the fashion scene as the background to the story. I did not have a proper fashion show in the book, since the action took place while Madame Koska’s establishment was preparing for its first London show, and was rudely interrupted by crime!
In the next book, on which I am working now, the fashion show will definitely occur. As I was researching for it, I found wonderful, authentic old films, showing elegant fashion shows, and I thought the readers might be interested in seeing them.
The venue was most important. It was essential for the fashion house to have the shows in large, beautiful, airy and brilliantly lit rooms. They had to be in a central and respectable area, so the great ladies would not hesitate to come, refreshments were served, and music might be unobtrusively played in the background. Often the flower arrangements, silverware, and decorations were stunning.
What I find extremely interesting is that the “mannequins,” as the models were called, were not always professionals. Often, young society ladies volunteered for the job, particularly if there was a charity involved, but even for regular shows, if the fashion house was sufficiently famous. It was considered a fun thing to do for a modern, emancipated young woman!
These links are only a few of the wonderful films available – there are plenty more if you are interested!
L’Après-midi d’un Faune : http://tinyurl.com/n4kceov
The first performance of L’Après-midi d’un Faune created a huge scandal. Nijinsky had caused scandals for what audiences perceived as indecency before, but nothing like this one. It was premiered in Paris, and one would expect sophistication from the Parisian audiences and critics, but it seems this ballet was just too much.
To begin with, this was no classical ballet. It was done in the style of a Greek bas-relief, as if it was coming to life. The choreography, by Nijinsky but with Diaghilev complete approval, was entirely innovative. The dancers were barefoot, moving heel to toe. Most of the dance was done in profile, like a Greek frieze, so the classical “positions” were eliminated.
The scenery and costumes, by Leon Bakst, were gorgeous. The Faun wore tights that were patterned after a dappled horse, and had vine clusters attached to it. He had a wig with short horns. The Nymphs who surrounded the Faun floated about in delicate fabrics for the dresses and veils. There were no white tutus and no pink shoes.
The story was based on Greek myths, but extremely simple. The Nymphs appear, dancing together and playing. The Faun observes them, proceeds to chase them, and finally tries to seize one of them. The Nymph manages to evade him, and runs away, leaving her veil. The disappointed Faun climbs a cliff in the background, lies down on the veil, and becomes immobile.
That is the end, and the curtain falls.
Except that on the first performance in Paris, Nijinsky did not remain immobile. As he lay down on the veil, he started moving in a sexual and suggestive way, and the audience began screaming, hissing, and protesting, while others were whistling and applauding. It was pandemonium.
As always, Diaghilev knew exactly what to do. Immediately, he gave the order to repeat the ballet, from beginning to end. The audience calmed down and watched for the second time – and ended with a huge, unanimous applause.
This did not end the story, though. The next day, the great critic, Calmette, wrote a scathing article in the Le Figaro newspaper. He was answered by the famous sculptor, Rodin, who not only loved the ballet but was also a personal friend of Diaghilev. The controversy spread, and Paris was divided into two camps regarding the scandal. The newspapers went on with many articles – and the result was a huge success of L’Après-midi d’un Faune.
When I first saw that there was a film that showed Nijinsky dancing L’Après-midi d’un Faune, I did not believe my eyes. What???? It is well known that Diaghilev did not permit filming Nijinsky, ever, under no circumstances. But here was this strange old video, and I watched with baited breath… all the while I was hoping that perhaps another video might exist, one that would show Nijinsky’s wild, almost unnatural leaps. No such luck – this was not real. It was nice to see Nijinsky moving, but the video is a modern work of combining still photographs, and making them move to the glorious sound of the Debussy piece. Nevertheless, even though you know it’s not real, the imagery is wonderful and enjoyable. The link, again, is http://tinyurl.com/n4kceov.