How can we separate the dancer from the dance? Vaslav Nijinsky’s art was a vanishing act, and his mystique depended on gestures that lasted only a second, like his leap through a window in “The Spectre of a Rose,” or the slight but scandalous quivering of his thighs that mimed ejaculation when, performing Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun,” he rubbed himself against the captured drapery of a fleeing nymph. Offstage he was stolid — as blockish as Stravinsky’s wooden Petrushka or, according to the sniffy socialites who patronized the Ballets Russes, as unimpressive as a shop assistant, a plumber’s apprentice or a stable lad. After his mental breakdown, he spent decades in a state of blank-eyed mutism, interrupted only by inappropriate giggling fits.

NIJINSKY: A Life, by Lucy Moore. Profile, 2013, 320 pp., £25 (hardcover)

Lucy Moore retells the familiar story engagingly, with due deference to Richard Buckle’s completer account, but she can’t help expressing her bafflement about a man whose art denied him a verbal outlet while requiring him to work through a series of mysterious physical metamorphoses.

She feels she can smell Sergei Diaghilev, Nijinsky’s mentor, who moved in an atmosphere compounded of brilliantine and Sobranies; Nijinsky’s scent is more elusive. Moore sadly concludes that “no one can judge a work of art they have not seen.”

She sympathizes with what she modishly calls Nijinsky’s “sexual and moral issues”, though her psychological forays usually end in unanswerable rhetorical questions. Was he merely acting when he had sex with Diaghilev, whose body he likened to that of a frumpy old lady? Did he love his wife, Romola, to whom he proposed after a brief shipboard meeting, offering her cake but not consummation on their wedding night? And did he exist at all when obliged to be himself, not a flower or a bird or a gangling puppet? When his collapse into insanity occurs, Moore is reduced to invoking the “established trajectory of twentieth-century celebrity,” as if he were interchangeable with Wacko Jacko.

Admirers called Nijinsky a deity, marveling at his defiance of gravity, and in the diary written during his years of madness he agreed with them. “I am God,” he said, adding for good measure: “I am Everything.” But he could seem subhuman as well. Jean Cocteau called him “this little monkey.” In “Scheherazade” he resembled a slithery reptile, and in “The Spectre of a Rose” he made himself up like “a celestial insect.” When playing the faun, he wore real horns, using wax to add points to his ears. He was as unsocialized as a wild beast, and at one fancy reception distractedly began to eat his glass after drinking its contents.

Moore makes a cunning guess about the reasons for his existential disorientation. Russia deprived him of his citizenship when he shirked his duty of military service; stateless, he thenceforth belonged only on stage, and found it “impossible for his offstage self to match up to his ineffable experiences” when he danced. She is franker than Buckle in his 1971 biography could afford to be about the sexual abuse and exploitation he suffered, or perhaps volunteered for, in his early career.

As the choreographer Michel Fokine succinctly put it, “Ballet is pornography, plain and simple.” Diaghilev — a connoisseur of the male buttocks — ordered Alexandre Benois to shorten the tunic he designed for “Giselle” to show off the rondure of Nijinsky’s bottom; he also banned the trunks that smoothed the contours of obtrusive male organs. (I’m reminded of the pimp who parades Jodie Foster in those exiguous hot pants in “Taxi Driver.”) It’s apt that Nijinsky’s first roles were as slaves, in “Scheherazade” and “The Pavilion of Armide,” since dancers of both sexes in the years before 1917 were treated as serfs, to be used for the sexual gratification of their patrons. Now Russia has returned to despotism, the trade in terpsichorean flesh has resumed and a few weeks ago a ballerina fired from the Bolshoi called the company a brothel run for the benefit of the country’s oligarchs.

Moore wisely allows the ballets to act as Nijinsky’s “erotic autobiography.” Lincoln Kirstein thought that he graduated through the three stages of sexual development demarcated by Freud. Adolescent onanism in “Faun” is followed by homosexual experimentation in “Jeux” (a Debussy ballet about a tennis match in a Bloomsbury square), maturing into grownup fertility in “The Rite of Spring.” For the critic Arlene Croce, Nijinsky’s trilogy amounts to “a biography of the orgasm” — self-induced for the masturbatory faun, then perversely playful as the tennis ball ricochets to and fro, at last erupting in “a vast and sweated communal seizure” during Stravinsky’s primal rite. It’s not surprising that Nijinsky’s brain was blotted out by this dangerous succession of little deaths.

Debussy perceptively called him “le terroriste Nijinsky”: ecstasy is an explosion, a displacement of air like the leaps of a dancer, and it leaves only aching emptiness behind.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.