The tempestuous and troubled relationship between the powerful impresario and the fragile genius was central to Nijinksy’s life – for good and ill. In John Neumeier's Nijinsky, Diaghilev is a dreamlike figure, both sinister and erotic, stalking through Nijinsky's memories and hallucinations.
07 Nov 2016
Sergei Diaghilev, the charismatic and relentlessly energetic force behind the creation of the Ballets Russes, was much older than Vaslav Nijinsky when he met him in St Petersburg. He took an instant shine to the explosively talented dancer, and they became lovers. Although Nijinsky would later write in his diary that the older man disgusted him and that the affair was for him a matter of career advancement, it is impossible to guess at the complexities of their relationship. As well as employing the young Vaslav in the Ballets Russes and taking him to Paris, where he became a sensation, Diaghilev acted as his mentor, introducing him to paintings, music and the leading artists of the day. He encouraged Nijinsky to create works for the Ballets Russes, including The Rite of Spring, which gratified Diaghilev by causing a storm of controversy (and publicity). The balance of power between the two must have been interesting. Nijinsky had youth, talent and fame; Diaghilev had cultural clout and held the purse strings (he didn't pay his star dancer a wage, merely picked up all his bills). He was also furiously jealous, and when Nijinsky married his number-one fan, Romola de Pulszky, it caused a rift between the two men that led to Nijinsky's expulsion from the Ballets Russes. His career never recovered from it. Not long afterwards he succumbed to the madness that would devour the rest of his life.
In Neumeier's ballet, Diaghilev first appears as a shadowy figure in a balcony, slowly clapping. Nijinsky scales the balcony and leaps into his arms. This image - Diaghilev cradling Nijinsky like an infant - will recur throughout the ballet, along with moments of cruelty, coercion, rage, tenderness and melancholy farewell.
At the outset of the ballet, we see Diaghilev entranced by Nijinsky's sensual and confident onstage personas, the Spirit of the Rose and the Golden Slave. Entwined with him, holding him in his arms like a precious treasure, the impresario is obviously smitten.
In the studio, without the glamour of stage make-up, costume and character, Vaslav seems more innocent and vulnerable. We see Diaghilev's overbearing side, as he towers over his dancer, pressing him to the floor, delighting in his power over him. Now Nijinsky is the supplicant.
The idea for Nijinsky's ballet Jeux, a sexually charged short work for two women and one man, originated with Diaghilev, who had pictured it with a cast of three men. John Neumeier crafts a moment based on this ballet in which Diaghilev dances with a Young Man who represents both Nijinsky in his Jeux role and Leonard Massine, the dancer who would eventually replace Nijinsky in the Ballets Russes - so this scene is electric with echoed emotion as Diaghilev ignores Vaslav to concentrate on the Young Man.
In the second half of Nijinsky, in which Vaslav's visions become darker and darker and he hallucinates himself as the sad puppet Petrouchka, Diaghilev walks by with the Ballerina, both of them dreamlike and aloof. But in the final moments of the ballet there are softer nuances, as Nijinsky holds his lover in his arms and Diaghilev, at the last, bids him a sad and gentle farewell.