Your Ultimate Guide to Nijinsky

The National Ballet of Canada in Neumeier's Nijinsky // © Bruce Zinger

What is it? An ode to “God of Dance” Vaslav Nijinsky by Hamburg Ballet Artistic Director John Neumeier. This epic dance-drama takes you into Nijinsky’s mind to see his genius—and his debilitating mental illness. Performed by The National Ballet of Canada in their first appearance in San Francisco in 10 years, this ballet is not to be missed.

Wait, who, who, and who?

  1. Vaslav Nijinsky: the most famous dancer of the Ballets Russes, a company founded in 1909 by impresario and arts patron Sergei Diaghilev.
  2. John Neumeier: an American-born choreographer who made his name creating epic dance dramas at The Hamburg Ballet. You may remember him from Hamburg Ballet’s 2013 and 2014 visits to San Francisco, or from SF Ballet’s performances of his dance drama The Little Mermaid in 2011.
  3. The National Ballet of Canada: directed by former Principal Dancer Karen Kain, the company is the preeminent classical ballet company in Canada and performs all around the world. The last time they were here in the Bay Area was for SF Ballet’s 75th Anniversary in 2008, so this is a once-a-decade event.

Who’s it for? Anyone who’s ever considered the fine line between genius and madness.

In short: Two creative geniuses, one fascinating true story, and an amazing Canadian ballet company.

What do I need to know? Two main things:
1) The ballet takes place during Nijinsky’s final performance on January 19, 1919. Nijinsky told Romola this dance was his “marriage with God” and it took place in the Suvretta House Hotel in St. Moritz, Switzerland. This performance was his last before spending the rest of his life in an asylum battling schizophrenia.
2) This ballet imagines that as Nijinsky dances, he remembers his life and his descent into mental illness. That means it doesn’t move linearly forward in time, but rather back and forth across the years to meet all the various people who were important to him in his life. You also see fragments of some of his most famous roles and of the ballets he choreographed.

These ballets and roles include:

Harlequin from the ballet Carnaval

Vaslav Nijinsky as Harlequin in Fokine’s Carnaval

Choreographed by Michel Fokine, this was one of the first ballets that Nijinsky performed with the Ballets Russes in 1910. In it he played Harlequin, alongside the other main commedia dell’arte characters Columbine, Pierrot, and Pantalone.

The Poet in Les Sylphides

Another Fokine ballet, this one is often considered the first ballet built on mood and dance alone, without a plot. The women in the ballet are dressed as sylphs in long white dresses and the single man as the poet who finds himself among them.

The Golden Slave in Scheherezade

Nijinsky as the Golden Slave in Scheherazade in 1911.

Choreographed in 1910, this ballet depicted Nijinsky as a slave who seduced one of the wives of the Shah. The orgiastic scenes were among the first to show explicitly sexual content one stage and this ballet began to move away from pure ballet technique.

Le Spectre de la rose

Vaslav Nijinsky in Fokine’s Le Spectre de la rose in 1911.

In this ballet also choreographed by Fokine, Nijinsky appears as the ghost of a rose that a young girl receives at a ball. His leap through the girl’s window at the end of the ballet made both him and the ballet famous.


Vaslav Nijinsky in Petruschka in 1911

In this ballet Nijinsky famously played Petruschka, a carnival marionette who is in love with a ballerina doll. Composed in 1911, this ballet was Igor Stravinsky’s second work for the Ballets Russes, the first being The Firebird.

The Faune in L’Apres-midi d’un faune

Nijinsky as the Faun in his L’Après-midi d’un faune in 1912.

As the first ballet Nijinsky choreographed, this piece established him not only as a dancer, but as a choreographer. It’s rejection of ballet technique (it’s pretty much all walking with almost no ballet steps) and its final moment (when the Faun masturbates with a nymph’s scarf) made this ballet controversial from the outset.

The Rite of Spring

Telling the story of a virgin sacrifice, this ballet caused a literal riot when it premiered in 1913. Audiences were shocked both by the score—which sounded like nothing ever heard before in 1913—and by Nijinsky’s choreography, which again fully rejected the conventions of ballet.

The people in Nijinsky’s life (and who appear in the ballet) include:

Sergei Diaghilev
The impresario of the Ballets Russes, Diaghilev was one of the most important art patrons of the 20th century. He was also, for many years, Nijinsky’s lover.

Bronislava Nijinska
Nijinsky’s sister who was also a dancer with the Ballets Russes and a famous choreographer in her own right.

Stanislav Nijinsky
Nijinsky’s brother. Also trained as a dancer, Stanislav was mentally unstable and died in an asylum.

Eleonora Bereda
Nijinsky’s mother. She was also a dancer and starved herself to death after her husband, Nijinsky’s father Thomas, died.

Romola de Pulsky
Nijinsky’s wife. Their marriage ended his relationship with Diaghilev and his career with the Ballets Russes.

The National Ballet of Canada’s Guillaume Côté (as Nijinsky), Heather Ogden (as Romola), and Carsten Jung (as the Faune) in Neumeier’s Nijinsky // © Erik Tomasson