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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Artist's Leap From Genius to Madness

In his biography of Vaslav Nijinsky, British ballet critic Richard Buckle sums up the legendary dancer's life thus: "ten years growing; ten years learning; ten years dancing; thirty years in eclipse."

It is a measure of the triumph and the tragedy that were this unique artist's destiny.

The fruit of meticulous research and interviews, Buckle's biography, "Nijinsky," first published in 1971 and issued this year in a fourth edition, remains the authoritative work on the great dancer and choreographer. One of the author's most difficult tasks was to separate fact from fiction, as several inaccurate accounts had been previously released.

The story begins on a day in 1898. Eleonora Nikolayevna Nijinskaya takes her 9-year-old son for an entrance audition at St. Petersburg's Imperial School of Ballet. Awkward and delicate, young Vatza seemed an unlikely candidate -- until he was asked to jump. Years later, it would be Nijinsky's phenomenal leap -- inherited from his father, an accomplished itinerant dancer -- that would be most indelibly imprinted in the memories of those who saw him dance.

In all his eight years of study, Nijinsky, taunted for being Polish and slow at book-learning, never made a friend. But teachers saw potential in the silent boy with the Tartar face and bulging thighs, and quickly promoted him.

It seemed that Nijinsky was headed down the usual path to princely glory, but fate intervened in the form of impresario Sergei Diaghilev and his creative enterprise, the Ballets Russes. Nijinsky became one of the key figures in Diaghilev's troupe. Because of his distinctive gifts and his sexual ambiguity, and because of the experimental nature of the Ballets Russes, Nijinsky would achieve his greatest fame outside the standard classical repertoire.

"The straightforward princely role, romantic or heroic, was not really in his line," Buckle writes. "Whereas most male dancers spent their lives being just that and nothing more -- cavaliers always at hand to lift the ballerina and take a secondary place -- he had begun to specialize in roles that were more fantastic."

Among these would be the rose in "Le Spectre de la rose." As he would do with most parts that he himself did not choreograph, Nijinsky used the steps of the choreographer, in this case Mikhail Fokine, as a starting point. "He instinctively sensed that for a man to be dressed in rose petals and to carry on in a giddy nonstop way, waltzing by himself ... was absurd," Buckle remarks. "That a sexless inhuman being should appear and dance thus was a different matter."

The dancer reshaped parts of the choreography, for instance, "curling his arms round the face and holding them, when extended, with broken wrists and curled-up fingers, so that they became art-nouveau tendrils."

As the Golden Slave in Fokine's "Scheherazade," the enigmatic dancer was described by reviewers alternately as a savage, devil, stallion, cat, snake, hare, panther and fish.

Buckle recounts in vivid detail the scandal caused by Nijinsky's "L'apr?s-midi d'un Faune" in 1912. The dancer's innovative choreography, with its frieze-like, angular forms and movements not coinciding with Debussy's music, and, of course, the suggestion of the faun's sexual awakening, caused a storm of protest. But this was nothing compared to the uproar at next year's premiere of the explosive, primeval "Le Sacre du printemps" -- derided by some as "Le Massacre du printemps." Police were called in to eject the most violent demonstrators. Over the din, Nijinsky from backstage continued to count out the complicated rhythms of Stravinsky's dissonant score to the dancers. With "Le Sacre" Nijinsky discarded the beautiful movements of ballet and, in a quest for a new truth, found a new way of expressing emotion.

Buckle writes: "I am convinced that even Diaghilev and Stravinsky did not entirely appreciate the power of Nijinsky's Blake-like vision or recognize how far ahead of his time he was, and I acclaim 'Le Sacre' not only as a masterpiece, the climax of Nijinsky's career, but also as a seminal work, a turning point in the history of dance, the ballet of the century."

It had not been easy for Nijinsky to give birth to his masterpiece. Frustrated with classically trained dancers, who found the new steps and Stravinsky's ever-changing, overlaid rhythms completely alien, Nijinsky -- who was prone to raging fits -- became so angry at one rehearsal that he "literally nearly hit the ceiling," according to one witness.

Like Nijinsky himself, "Le sacre du printemps" had a stage life that was cut short -- only seven performances were given. It perished not in artistic controversy, but in the aftermath of events in Nijinsky's personal life.

In 1913, Nijinsky suddenly married a stagestruck Polish-Hungarian, Romola de Pulszky, who had attached herself to the Diaghilev troupe. The jealous, homosexual Diaghilev, with whom Nijinsky had been living, never forgave him. After a brief comeback, Nijinsky was severed forever from the Ballets Russes. At 29, he danced in public for the last time.

The genius soon began to cross the line into madness. He would lapse into long silences punctuated by sudden, violent outbursts. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, he went in and out of asylums. During World War II, when the Nijinskys were living in Hungary, the great dancer was saved by an attendant who brought him home to Romola from the sanatarium one day, explaining that the Nazis had ordered all mental patients to be exterminated.

Through it all, Romola kept looking for a cure, but the best that doctors could offer was a treatment that induced insulin shock. In contrast to some other observers of Nijinsky's life, who vilify Romola for separating Nijinsky from his art, Buckle is sympathetic to the woman who heroically stood by him during three decades of mental illness.

With its beautifully crafted prose and wealth of detail, Buckle's evocative biography, even at almost 600 pages, leaves the reader wanting more, for Vaslav Nijinsky is a boundlessly fascinating subject, and Buckle's portrait of him endlessly compelling.

"Nijinsky," by Richard Buckle, 585 pages, Phoenix Giant Paperback, pounds 15.99 ($26.70).