Vaslav Nijinski’s notebooks


Vaslav Nijinski, born at the end of 1889, from Polish origin, was one of the most famous dancers of his time with the Russian Ballets. At the beginning of century in Paris, by the intervention of Diaghilev, this great show organizer, this famous company of dance crystallized all the creative forces of the time. The career of dancer and choreographer of Nijinski lasted hardly 10 years (1908 to 1917). He created ballets as famous as Petrouchka, Le spectre de la rose. He was also the choreographer of four ballets: L’Après-midi d’un faune, Jeux, Le Sacre du printemps and Tills Eulenspiegel. Vaslav Nijinski’s history is that of a patient suffering from a schizophrenia with schizo-affective features at the beginning and negative symptom afterwards. This disease made him meet the most famous specialists of the first half of the twentieth century (Bleuler, Adler, Binswanger, Sakel, etc.). He was treated with psychoanalysis, insulin shock therapy and institutional psychiatry. He died on April 8, 1950, from a kidney deficiency associated with arteriosclerosis and arterial high blood pressure. He is now buried in the Montmartre cemetery near Vestris, the other god of dance.

J.C.  Seznec

It was during winter 1918-1919, while he was staying in Switzerland, in Saint-Morris, with his wife Romola and their daughter Kyra, that Vaslav Nijinski wrote the four notebooks which constitute what has been  called his “Diary”. At this time, the choreographer was about to play the longest and the more pathetic role of his career, the one of the “the mad men”.

As attested by a document of the Mariinski theater of Saint-Petersburg – where Nijinski began his blinding career before joining the Ballets ruses – the dancer revealed quite early signs of great emotional fragility. In 1913, his marriage with Romola de Pulszki, following his separation with Diaghilev – affective separation, the two men are lovers, and artistic rupture, Diaghilev dismissed him of his company – accentuated his disorders.

Deprived of the lighting context of the Ballets russes, and of the artistic support of Diaghilev, Nijinski’s carer lowed. The following years were made of chaotic seasons, with however a reversal in 1916 and 1917.

At the end of 1917, back from a tour in South America, the last of his carer, Nijinski decided to retire in Switzerland. His doctors having recommended him to escape stressful situations, and his wife thinking the air of the Alps would be beneficial, he accepted, beside his aversion for the mountains, to settle in Saint-Morris.

During the winter, Nijinski began to behave more and more incoherently. His accesses of aggressively were terrifying his relatives. Practicing dance until exhaustion, sometimes during sixteen hours per day, his elation also forced him to run in the mountains, where he said he could hear God dictating him his orders. His craziness didn’t kept Nijinski from creating. He invented new choreographies, working on a system of dance notation, and drawing a lot. He notably realized an important quantity of abstract drawings, made with colored pencils, pastels or watercolors. Those drawing are mostly having the circle as a dominant pattern. For Peter Ostwald, an american psychiatry professor who produced an important research on Nijinski, we could “interpret the persistence of circular form in Nijinski art as an attempt to maintain a stable state of mine in front of the dangers of disintegration that were threatening his existence”.

On March 2, Doctor Fränkel who was taking care of Nijinski during his stay in Saint-Morris, wrote to the established Doctor Eugen Bleuler, director of the psychiatric hospital Burghölzli, asking him to receive the choreographer for a medical consultation. After having receive Nijinski, Doctor Bleuler diagnosed a “schizophrenic mental confusion, with a light maniac excitation”. Placed in Burghölzli hospital for two days, during which the medicines investigated Nijinski’s diary trying to study his disorder, he finally went to be interned in the Bellevue Sanatorium, in Kreuzlingen.

Nijinski’s writings constitute a real self-analysis, bringing out fantasies, souvenirs and free associations.

The first three notebooks is illustrated with ten pages of abstract drawings, and includes fifteen pages of choreographic annotations. The manuscript contains forty pages written with a pencil. Sensitive to the calligraphic aspect of his writings, Nijinski has a neat handwriting, and the text, mostly in Russian, includes very few crossing outs or corrections. The fourth notebook, a working book that can be considered as an annex to the others, is made of poems composed directly in French, and letters to diverse persons, in Russian, Polish and French. This notebook is preserved today at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (Igor Markevitch fonds).

Extracts of Christian Dumais-Lvowski preface to “Vaslav Nijinski, Cahiers”, Paris, Actes Sud, collection Babel, 1995

(my own traduction)


Julie Sas

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