Madness and tragedy, onstage and off

08 July 2009 | By Lorelei Vashti

Ballet and tragedy complement each other powerfully onstage, but for some dancers the mad scene doesn’t end when the curtain falls. Forget Giselle – the real lives of ballet dancers are often more devastating than those of the characters they portray.

Nijinsky’s remarkable Diaries, scribbled just before he was committed to an insane asylum, chronicles the rambling thoughts of a man who is descending into schizophrenia. Isadora Duncan turned to drinking after the drowning deaths of both her children, and later died shockingly in an automobile accident. Gelsey Kirkland went through a harrowing battle with eating disorders and drug addiction, but lived to tell the tale in her 1986 memoir, Dancing on My Grave.

Sometimes a dancer’s unhappy life will come full circle and end up back on stage. Boris Eifman based his 1997 ballet, The Red Giselle, on Olga Spessivtseva , an exceptional dancer who was plagued by mental illness for most her life. Jiří Kylián wrote his 1987 piece, Heart’s Labyrinth, about the tragic suicide of one of his dancers at the Netherlands Dance Theater.

Whatever the reasons for their torment – mental illness, addiction, poverty or perfectionism – the paradox underpinning it all is that these dancers brought great happiness to their audiences, despite their own suffering. And in doing so they showed us that the fine line between joy and sorrow is more like a smudge; in fact, it’s hardly there at all.

Image01 Nijinsky in L’après-midi d’un faune, 1912. Photography Baron Adolf de Meyer
Image02 Karsavina and Nijinsky in Le spectre de la rose