by Romola Nijinsky
[Simon and Schuster, $3.75]
IT has been a long time in the West since (if ever) dancing has been considered the equal of the other arts of painting, music, sculpture, and poetry. That it was so considered in Greece is well known but seldom remembered. That it is still so considered in Russia we hear of vaguely, but it seems scarcely relevant. Nevertheless a human being, employing his most particular instrument, his human body, can achieve monuments in the field of motion, gesture, and physical action equivalent to those of the great masters of other arts.
Americans have seen as yet too little dancing to realize the full truth of it. A semiconscious puritan dislike of the body motive has crippled any possibility of a national American ballet, and we are permitted to see only occasional recitalists, small groups of self-trained dancers, or foreign troupes. Anyone who has any remote interest in dancing, the problems of the dancer, the past, present, and future of choreography, the composition in dancing, should read Madame Nijinsky’s life of her husband at once. This remarkable book has been widely advertised and widely sold as a sensational revelation of three tragic lives. It is that, but that is the least of it. Nijinsky was so great an artist that, although his personal disaster was on a major scale, it seems, in compari son to his all too brief life as a creative artist, incidental.
The form of classical ballet is as splendid a heritage of Western culture as the symphonic form in music. It is a very special idiom of gesture, a vocabulary, a grammar of movement for the use of the theatrical dancer. It is strict, brilliant, precise, accurate, and capable of exact repetition. In the history of ballet for the last four hundred years there are only some seven or eight names which stand as preëminent, not only as dancers, but as philosophers and technicians of their medium, who have affected the whole carriage and stance of the dancer. Nijinsky, with his objectivity of genius, bred in the most rigid school in the world and nearly impaled by precedent, looked clearly at what dancing had been, and in two years re-created what dancing might be. How seriously he has directly influenced not only the ballet, but music, painting, poetry, and even the dramatic stage of our time, is not yet determined, but it is apparent to anyone who reads his life.
As a book, Madame Nijinsky’s life has several charming faults — personal, of course, to her view as his wife. The record of his youth is incomplete. She only met him when he was a grown boy, and her memory, though almost miraculous, is not clairvoyant. She gives him not enough credit as a choreographer, since their tragedy seems more immediate. She has been far too generous in omitting incidents of the first documentary importance, for fear of hurting those enemies of Nijinsky’s who are still alive. They could not any longer touch him, and the full extent of the misconceptions of twenty years ago should at last be made plain by the one person alive who can still give a pretty close approximation to the truth. This book compels a reading, a rereading, and a keeping for constant reference.