At one point in ballet history, just the arc of Vaslav Nijinsky’s body caused absolute riots. Yet for all the frenzy he created on stage, Nijinsky’s life behind the scenes was even more dramatic—and for better or worse, he’s become one of history’s “mad geniuses.” From his transcendental heights to his tragic downfall, here are 45 facts about Vaslav Nijinsky.
1. Dance Like a Girl
In the early 20th century, almost no male ballet dancers could perform routines en pointe, but Vaslav Nijinsky could. Though many saw pointe as inherently feminine and few male dancers cultivated the hard-won skill, Nijinsky was determined to be the best at everything, even if it meant bloodying up his feet in “girly” pointe shoes.
In one of Nijinsky’s early student shows in 1905, his technique was already so sublime that the crowd gasped and clapped as soon as they witnessed his first jump.
3. Family Matters
Vaslav Nijinsky came from a family that ate, slept, and breathed ballet. His mother Eleanora was orphaned as a young girl and only survived by becoming a full member of a ballet company at the tender age of 13. Likewise, his father Tomasz, brother Stanislav, and sister Bronislava were all professional ballet dancers.
4. Frost Yourself
According to one of his high society friends, Vaslav Nijinsky owned lavish girdles set with diamonds and emeralds; they had been a gift from an Indian prince.
5. A Meeting of the Minds
One of Nijinsky’s most notorious relationships was with the shrewd, bombastic impresario Sergei Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballets Russes. The young dancer was Diaghilev’s protégé—and so much more. Although Diaghilev was a full 17 years older than Nijinsky, the two men quickly became lovers as well as collaborators.
6. Do You Want a Piece of Me?
Both women and men went wild for Nijinsky. During his performances, crazed fans would break into his dressing room and steal his underwear as a keepsake.
7. Rites and Riots
Today, Vaslav Nijinsky is most infamous for his ballet The Rite of Spring, one of the most notorious ballets in history. Igor Stravinsky’s score is stark and spare, and Nijinsky choreographed the performance to be angular and even ugly. Of course, that was only the beginning. When it premièred in Paris, the radical ballet caused audiences to riot.
8. Making the Grade
As a young boy at ballet boarding school, Vaslav Nijinsky was a brilliant dancer but a poor student. If he was interested in a subject, he pored over every detail and excelled, but if it bored him—which happened more often than not—he quickly dropped it. All of his teachers admitted he was a magnificent dancer, but his horrific grades still almost got him kicked out.
9. Party Pooper
When Nijinsky was on stage, he lit up the room, but behind the scenes was an entirely different story. Many people thought he was dull and reserved, and one dancer recounted that “He hardly ever spoke to anyone, and seemed to exist on a different plane.” At parties, you could often find him sitting in the corner, staring at his hands.
10. The God of Small Things
In Paris, his admirers called Nijinsky Le Dieu de la Danse, or “The God of Dance.”
11. Prince’s Pet
The glamorous world of Russian ballet hid some deep, dark secrets. At the time, it was common for dancers to be pressured into intimate relationships with patrons. According to dance historian Joan Acocella, Nijinsky entered into an illicit affair with Prince Pavel Lvov, a wealthy fan. It was likely his first bedroom experience.
12. We’re All Mad Here
Nijinsky’s family may have been bonded by ballet, but they also shared more disturbing traits. His mother Eleanora was frequently depressive just like her son Vaslav, while Vaslav’s older brother Stanislav became aggressive and mentally unstable after falling from a window as a child. Eventually, the imbalance got Stanislav committed to an asylum.
13. The Mighty Fall
As a schoolboy, Nijinsky’s extraordinary talents made him the target of brutal bullying—and one day, a fellow student took it much too far. In 1901, a jealous schoolmate caused him to fall in the middle of dance class. The trip was terrifyingly forceful: It gave Nijinsky a concussion and put him into a coma for four days.
14. Golden Boy
Russia was ballet-mad during Nijinsky’s time, and many members of the Imperial family came to his performances. The duty, however, came with a golden reward. When dancers performed in front of the Tsar or his family, each of them received a gold watch emblazoned with the Imperial Eagle. Not a bad perk, if you ask me.
15. Mother Knows Best
Nijinsky “enjoyed “the company of both men and women, but his mother Eleanora tried to discourage his heterosexuality and even approved of his relationship with Prince Lvov. After all, she didn’t want her little superstar to end up married and out of commission.
16. Red-Hot Bluebird
One of the dancer’s most celebrated performances was the Bluebird pas de deux in the ballet Sleeping Beauty. Whenever he took the stage with his partner, multiple people reported that the crowds went wild. As one witness described, “When those two came on good Lord! I have never seen such a public. You would have thought their seats were on fire.”
17. Bringing out the Best
Many of Nijinsky’s most famous ballets, including The Rite of Spring, were created while he was with Diaghilev’s touring Ballets Russes.
18. Naughty Boy
As a teen, Nijinsky could be a total wild child, and he often got into trouble with his teachers. In one incident, he and some other students were taking a carriage ride to the Mariinsky Theatre when they decided to start trying to shoot the hats off of people passing them on the street. His superiors were so outraged, they even briefly expelled him from the school.
19. Business and Pleasure
Nijinsky’s relationship with Diaghilev may have had a chilling side. The pair met through his older patron and lover Prince Lvov, and Nijinsky wasn’t always quite a willing participant in the match. As he wrote in a diary entry, Lvov “forced me to be unfaithful to him with Diaghilev because he thought that Diaghilev would be useful to me.”
20. Grade A
When Nijinsky trained under the renowned Mikhail Oboukhov, the ballet master gave the young dancer the highest mark he had ever given any student.
21. Bloody Sunday
In 1905, a teenaged Nijinsky got caught up in the infamous Bloody Sunday Massacre in St. Petersburg, where Imperial soldiers fired on a crowd of petitioners to the Tsar, killing hundreds of people. Nijinsky was right in the middle of the throng, and the charging cavalry gave him a nasty head wound. His friend’s sister wasn’t as lucky: She got lost in the crowd, and they never found her again.
22. Bowing out
There was always something a little to the left about Nijinsky. During his first season with the Imperial Ballet, he once stopped right in the middle of Act I of Swan Lake and started taking his bows, with the orchestra still playing behind him.
23. Single White Female
In 1913, Nijinsky met the young Romola de Pulszky, an ambitious Hungarian socialite, while touring for the Ballets Russes. De Pulszky looked harmless on the surface, but she was hiding her true motives. She had seen Nijinsky dance a year before in a rapturous performance, and she was now determined to make him her husband.
24. The Rough Wooing
De Pulszky went to truly obscene lengths to meet and woo Nijinsky. She had been engaged when she first saw him, but quickly broke it off. She then followed around the ballet, booking adjacent train cabins and asking Nijinsky’s masseuse to give her a rundown of his musculature. Nijinsky, though aware of her presence, was initially very cold toward her.
25. Do What I Want, Not What I Say
For all his choreography talents, Nijinsky was a pretty terrible coach. His communication skills had never been stellar, and he was horrible at explaining moves to his dancers. When rehearsals for his ballet Afternoon of a Faun began, his only instructions for dancer Lydia Sokolova were to move “through” the music instead of “to” it, making her burst into tears and flee the venue.
26. Lingua Franca
For the first months of their acquaintance, Nijinsky and de Pulszky shared no common language. They communicated mostly in French; she was fluent, but the dancer was not.
27. An Indecent Proposal
Just weeks after he met de Pulszky, Nijinsky made an incredibly rash decision: He actually married her. When he first proposed to her through an intermediary, she thought he was playing a trick on her and ran away in tears. He had to ask again, this time personally, by speaking in broken French and miming.
28. One Ring, You’re out
The dancer and his happy bride were married on September 10, 1913. When Diaghilev heard the news, he was apparently beside himself. According to one witness, he “gave himself to a wild orgy of dissipation”—and then hit back at Nijinsky with a devastating blow. He dropped the dancer from the Ballets Russes.
In his late 20s, a disturbed Nijinsky drew reams and reams of unsettling sketches, many of them unblinking eyes. Others, however, were spiders with Diaghilev’s face.
30. The Feeling Is Mutual
De Pulszky and Nijinsky’s wedding day might have felt triumphant at first, but it was far from happily ever after. Days later, Nijinsky offered to teach his bride how to dance, but she refused. It was then he realized his horrible mistake: He had married someone who didn’t love dancing, and so she could never love him.
De Pulszky, for her part, was none too happy either. Reportedly, the once enthusiastic girl “almost cried with thankfulness” when Nijinsky didn’t make advances to her on their wedding night.
31. Use Your Imagination
To the world’s great loss, no film exists of Nijinsky dancing.
32. I’ll Show You
Historians still speculate as to what drove Nijinsky to propose. Diaghilev wasn’t with him on tour at the time, and their relationship was faltering anyway. Isolated and vengeful, Nijinsky may have simply wanted to show his mentor he was no one’s puppet.
33. Take Me Back
Nijinsky was utterly blindsided when Diaghilev dropped him from the troupe, even as everyone else saw it coming a mile away. Heartbreakingly, he even sent Igor Stravinsky a confused telegram asking him to “please ask Serge what is the matter.”
34. Paying the Piper
One of the more outlandish theories about Nijinsky’s erratic behavior at the end of his career claims that his youthful concussion gave him permanent brain damage. The trauma, so the theory goes, slowly and tragically eroded his sanity.
35. In It for the Money
Nijinsky’s removal from the Ballets Russes was the beginning of his undoing. He was an experimental artist, and there were very few ballet companies in the world that could support his particular breed of talents. Indeed, his next shows were utter disasters. Audiences lamented that Nijinsky “no longer danced like a god,” and he flew into rages about everything from stagehands flirting with his wife to the orchestra playing music during intermissions.
36. Not What He Used to Be
In the last years of his sane life, Nijinsky did dance for the Ballets Russes again, but something was undeniably wrong. He was aggressive, unwieldy, and slipping into insanity. His last public performance was in September 1917 at the age of 28, and he was so confused during the routine that his pianist started weeping.
37. The Naked Truth
As a young dancer, Nijinsky got himself ejected from Imperial Ballet in a spectacular fashion. His costume for Giselle only had tights on the bottom rather than traditional trousers, and the well-to-do audiences were scandalized. Nijinsky typically refused to apologize, and the ballet fired him in response.
38. Girls, Girls, Girls
On June 19, 1914, Nijinsky’s eldest daughter Kyra was born in Hungary. His second and youngest daughter Tamara was born in 1920. Sadly, she never got to see her father dance in public.
39. Diary of a Madman
In 1919, Vaslav Nijinsky and his wife Romola were staying in Zurich, trying to let the dancer sufficiently recover his sanity. During this time, Nijinsky started keeping a diary. In it, he confessed fears about getting institutionalized, rambled about his god-like attributes, and described his relationship to Diaghilev in frank yet grotesque terms. Historians now see the diary as a record of his final descent into madness.
At times, he seemed to know it too. In one passage, he writes, “I am standing in front of a precipice into which I may fall.”
40. Professional Opinion
In 1919, Romola somehow convinced Nijinsky to sit down with psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler. Within 10 minutes, the doctor made a heartbreaking diagnosis: Schizophrenia. A few days later, Nijinsky’s worst fears came true, and he was put into a mental hospital. For the rest of his life, the great dancer was in and out of institutions.
41. Tell It Like It Is
In his diaries, Vaslav Nijinsky was brutally honest about his loved ones—emphasis on “brutally.” He described Romola as a dull, “untwinkling star” and recalled with disgust how Diaghilev’s black hair dye used to stain his pillowcases.
While locked up in his first institution, Nijinsky’s mental health declined with alarming speed. He began tearing chunks of his hair out and became convinced that the limbs on his body actually belonged to someone else. In his more lucid moments, he would simply scream, “Why am I locked up? Why are the windows closed, why am I never left alone?”
43. A Death Warrant
After Doctor Bleuler told him he was incurably insane, Nijinsky reportedly turned to Romola and said, “Little Wife, you are bringing me my death warrant.”
44. Return to Form
Though he lived for more than 30 years after his hospitalization, the rest of Nijinsky’s life was not always full of pain. In 1945, at the end of World War II, he was walking with his wife and came across some Russian soldiers playing folk music. The previously listless Nijinsky lit up and started dancing beautifully for them, still awing audiences after all these years.
45. Rest in Peace
On April 8, 1950, a middle-aged Vaslav Nijinsky died of kidney failure. His remains are now in Montmartre cemetery in Paris.