The Specter of Nijinsky

Composer of bullets and symphonies, NICOLAS NABOKOV was born in Russia in 1903. Much of his early music was written in Paris, where his first bullet, Ode, was produced by Diaghilev in the spring of 1928. Several months earlier he saw the famous dancer Nijinsky, then a broken man, and from that meeting he has drawn the following article. Mr. Nabokov first visited this country in 1933 and a year later wrote his ballet Union Pacific. He is nonliving in the United States and his music is played by the leading orchestras here and abroad.



OUTSIDE the City Center mosque a line of gentod pickets strolled among the late-comers in evening clothes. I took a leaflet from a pleasant-looking young girl — “It’s shocking . it’s appalling . . . Serge Lifar . . . to Russia in Goring’s private plane . . .”— and pushed my way past the Chevaliers de la Légion d’Honneur and the French Cultural Relations staff, with all their cultured relations, who efficiently blocked the narrow entrance. Seated inside the darkening theater, I could still see the Moorish delights which walled me in. Less Moorish really, I thought, than Caucasian: a monstrous specimen of one of those intricately worked enamel snuffboxes to be found in secondhand stores on Sixth Avenue.

I felt shut up in such a box, fixed before a red curtain, with French flags on either side of the stage, when the footlights harshly thrust my attention toward that land of medieval extravaganza so popular in France during the occupation, when ladies’ hats appeared to be châteaux foils, and playwrights had the King Arthur rash. Two knights dueled for fifteen minutes with a whole category of fighting utensils, beginning with halberds and ending with five and ten cent store kitchen knives. One of the knights fell down and was carried away.

The applause was sufficient to elicit several curtain calls from the two stars, Kalyujny and Cheviré, who bowed, bowed again, vanished behind the red curtain, and reappeared, thrusting Lifar firmly on the stage. In the orchestra, the applause remained polite, and a few people stood in order to see better, but the balcony audience, evidently more affected by Lifar’s reputation as an airman, made noises menacing enough to cut short his intrusion. But in that moment, I saw the miraculously wellproportioned body; the luminous white teeth; the hair, rooted in a semicircle low on his forehead, that still looked as unctuously combed as that of an Argentine gigolo. Only his Greek nose an invention of Diaghilev, who once took Lifar to a, plaslic surgeon — looked different, more artificial, like a marble relic set in an aging human face. And the sight of that gaunt, dark Tartar, almost unchanged, gave me my first instant of crystal-clear consciousness, and sent me stumbling over memories and half-forgotten associations.

When I first, knew Seryoja Lifar, he had no such aviatorial or choreographic pretensions. Sergei Pavlovitch Diaghilev, who then ruled the original of the original Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo like an eighteenth-century Russian potentate, would never have permitted him to misbehave. In fact, in 1928, when Lifar danced in my first ballet, Ode, he was the obliging, smiling, and somewhat childish young man who acted as the obedient show dog of Balanchine and Massine, the choreographers, Grigoriev, the stage director, Boris Kochno, Diaghilev’s secretary, Valitchka Nouvel, Diaghilev’s friend and factotum, and, of course, Diaghilev himself. Lifar trotted in awe after all the ballet old-timers, and loved to listen to their wonderful myth-making stories — especially stories about Nijinsky, for Lifar, having acquired a splendid technical skill as a corps de ballet dancer, had quickly risen to the position of a star, and thus had become a faute de mieux successor of Nijinsky.

I suspect that from Lifar’s earliest days he thought of himself as a kind of Adonisian re-embodiment of Nijinsky. There was no greater pleasure for him than to dance L’ Après-midi d’un Fauna and Le Spectre de la Ruse, ballets which, as the critic Levinson suggested, could just as well be called L’ Aprè’s-midi de Nijinsky and Le Spectre de Nijinsky. After Diaghilev’s death, Lifar danced them wherever and whenever he could, going so far as to wear bathing trunks under his evening clothes at private parties. After a little coaxing, he would strip off his clothes and lie down on the piano with his thumb in his mouth, fingers upraised in the drinking gesture that begins that erotic little number, L’Après-midi d’un Faune.

In fairness to Lifar, one should say that to most of the younger collaborators of Diaghilev’s enterprise, like Balanchine, Rieti, Tchelitchev, and myself, Nijinsky was also a kind of “Golden Age of Ballet ” myth. Most of us had never seen him dance except on photographic stills. Nijinsky had left Diaghilev’s company long before I came to France, and in 1917 he was stricken with an illness which made him a melancholy and mute wanderer from one Swiss sanatorium to another, and thus the most famous and the most romantic insane person of his time.

We young men of the twenties had to be content with the Nijinsky stories, to which the older men of the company would treat us on every possible occasion. The most voluble of them all was Diaghilev’s long-time servant and bodyguard, Vassily Ivanovitch Zuikin, a stocky copper-bearded Mongoloid whose behavior and appearance combined the features of an Al Capone minion and an NKVD colonel. Always hovering backstage and sneaking up from behind a prop at the most inopportune moment — during, say, a balletomanic flirtation — Vassily performed the role of His Majesty’s gossip collector and protector of his personal and bodily interests.

One day early in October, 1927, I went out to lunch with a friend, between rehearsals, in one of those tiny bistros with four round tables growing out of a frieze of boxwood which cluster around the Place St. Lazare. When I arrived, I spotted Vassily sitting in the darkest corner, obviously absorbed in a conversation with a “ballet mother,” one of those embittered and protectively jealous matrons who always follow ballet troupes, peddling gossip about their daughters’ closest rivals.

As soon as we sat down, Vassily came to our table, bent over as if he were communicating a state secret, and whispered, “Do you know that Nijinsky is coming tonight to the ballet to see Lifar dance? Diaghilev wants him to say something about Lifar’s dancing, and has persuaded the doctors to let him come.” He shrugged his shoulders. “But what can he say? He’s mute, isn’t her”

I knew that Nijinsky was in a sanatorium somewhere in the suburbs of Paris, and I had heard that morning that Diaghilev was bragging: “I’ll make him speak . . . you’ll see!” The elderly Russian painter Korovin, with whom I was lunching, was appalled at the notion. “Why be so cruel?" he said. “Why disturb a poor insane man only to satisfy Diaghilev’s colossal ego and his proprietary instincts? He likes people to admire his musicians, his painters, and particularly, his boys and girls of the ballet company. And he doesn’t really care if the admirer is the Bey of Tunis or an insane genius.” Korovin paused a bit and added, “Of course, this case is rather special. After all, both Nijinsky and Lifar were more or less his finds.”

After lunch I returned to the opera and found Diaghilev sitting on the stage watching a rehearsal. The whole company, in tights and tutus, was spinning around in a circle to the shot-like clapping of Grigoriev’s hands, “Raz, dva, tri, tchetyre — one, two, three, four ...” A little lady at the piano was turbulently banging out the Russian dances from Rimsky-Korsakov’s May Night. Diaghilev looked angry and bored. He leaned with both hands on the silver knob of his cane, his eyes half-closed, the monocle in his right eye in perilous position.

After about a half hour of this choreographic salade russe, Diaghilev suddenly stamped his feet, knocked on the floor with his cane, and shouted angrily in his babyish voice, “Enough of that! Where is Valitchka? Where is Karsavina? Where is Seryoja Lifar? I can’t sit around for hours waiting for Their Majesties to arrive. I must see their pas de deux before tonight. Tell them to come immediately.” He continued to rant until Karsavina and Lifar finally appeared in costume ready to dance.

As soon as the pair began rehearsing he quieted, his eyes glued to the movements of their miraculously precise and agile feet. “Boris, what time is it?” he asked in the midst of the rehearsal. “Six? My God, it’s time for you to go! I told the doctors you would be there at seven.” Vassily winked at me, and beckoned me to follow. “Don’t you want to come with us?” he whispered. I followed them to the backstage exit.


BORIS, Vassily, and I caught a taxi on the rue Auber and drove through the gentle autumnal evening light of Paris, across the rue de Rivoli, and past the Tuileries. As we drove through the Bois, past the stonewalls and bric-a-brac villas of the northern Parisian suburbs, I could not help thinking of what I knew and remembered of Nijinsky.

I was a child in Petrograd when I first saw his photographs. The old, foxy-looking Prince Sergei Volkonsky, the director of the Imperial Theatres, with his sixteenth-century beard and mustachios, brought the photographs to show to my mother soon after he had returned from Paris, He also brought a series of postal cards representing Diaghilev’s famous dancers, Pavlova, Karsavina, Bolm, Nijinsky, and others. I was particularly struck by two of them: Nijinsky in the costume of the blackamoor in Schéhérazade, his face brown, his eyes and teeth gleaming with a virile, sensual smile. He was in a panther-like pose, about to jump. And another: Nijinsky all covered with rose petals, his beautiful body stretched out in a languorously effete pose of an androgynal-looking youth. (I take it that in the hothouse atmosphere of Paris in 1911 this “spirit of the rose,” with its absurd rose-petaled costume and suave choreography, was the perfectly justified dream of a pre-Freudian ballet-soxer.)

It was perhaps because of these images that the shock of seeing Nijinsky that October night at the gate of a sanatorium in a dingy Parisian banlieu was more acute than I anticipated. The taxi stopped in front of the sanatorium compound, which was closed in by a quadrangle of high stonewalls. Boris jumped out and asked Vassily and me to wait in the taxi. After about a quarter of an hour, we heard footsteps on the pavement outside the compound; then an attendant in a long white smock and Boris appeared, leading Nijinsky to the taxi.

I cannot say that I did not recognize Nijinsky, but it was difficult to identify that baldheaded grayish little man (one always forgets how small dancers are) with expressionless eyes and a sallow, sick look on his face that was accentuated by the white lights of the sanatorium lanterns. He looked more like a commercial traveler out of a job, or a schoolteacher in a small Polish mining town, than the embodiment of a terpsichorean legend, He was dressed in an oversized, dark wool overcoat, with a neat white scarf tied around his neck. He did not. greet us, nor utter a sound.

Driving back to the Opera I felt uneasy, as it all of us — Boris, Vassily, the male nurse, myself, and even the taxi driver — were accomplices in a strangely unsavory crime. I was glad to sit near the driver, not to face the victim with his empty eyes and sick face. When we drove into the semicircular courtyard which surrounds the back entrance to the Paris Opera, I saw that a crowd of company members had gathered near the stage door. Vassily got out and began shoving people out of the way. Grigoriev came running up to the taxi, leaped inside, and embraced Nijinsky: “Vaslav Fomitch, what happiness! Kakaya radost, what joy!” The whole group started for the taxi and hauled Nijinsky out.

There was no response from the sick man. He remained mute, and his eyes retained their dead look. Only once did his expression change, when he stood at the foot of the staircase and his nurse urged him to walk up. He shook his head in a curiously vehement way, and his face twitched nervously. I think that it was Boris and Vassily who carried him in a hand-chair, up the narrow stairs leading to the director’s box. The theater was dark and the performance of Stravinsky’s Firebird had begun. Only a. few people in the audience could have seen the Ulysscan return of the famous dancer to his master’s box.

In the box were Alexandre Benois, the painter, Nouvel, a few ladies, and myself. Diaghilev stood behind Nijinsky’s seat, and leaned over to whisper in his ear. It seemed to me that a barely perceptible animation appeared on Nijinsky’s face. for the first time, at least, his eyes were focused in a definite direction, and he seemed to see the dancing.

Throughout the performance Diaghilev continued to talk to Nijinsky in a nagging, insistent whisper, and once or twice I heard him say, “ Skaji, skaji, tell me, tell me, how do you like Lifar? Isn t he magnificent?” He tweaked Nijinsky’s ear, poked him in the shoulder, chuckling in the tone with which elderly men, unaccustomed to infants, usually bring about a prolonged tantrum. To all of it, Nijinsky remained silent, but when the poking turned into actual pinching he mumbled something like, “ Aie, ostav, stop it!

I lost Nijinsky from sight immediately after the performance. He was surrounded by a crowd of old-timers; elderly Russian painters, designers, dressmakers, stagehands, ballet mothers, and aging ballerinas — all moved to tears by the sight of their idol. They whisked him on the stage where cameras began clicking and where a group was organized around him for the now famous photograph. It consists of Diaghilev, looking at Nijinsky with an oily smile, Benois, Grigoriev, Nouvel, Karsavina, and, as an exception to the rule of seniority, in special recognition of the princely heritage that had become his lot, Serge Lifar.

I was unable to observe Nijinsky’s reaction at that moment, but a few days later, looking at the photographs, I noticed that a vague and helplessly benevolent smile lighted his face.

A short while later, Diaghilev vanished, the crowd dispersed, and I found myself struggling through a group of dancers who were rushing out the backstage exit. Nijinsky had been carried downstairs, this time by two men in tights, and was waiting outside alone with Boris and the male nurse. On my way out I met Vassily, whose Oriental face was beaming with the pleasure of a prison warden who has just thwarted an escape. He whispered, “You see, I told you Diaghilev wouldn’t get a word out of him. Serves him right.”

This time we drove back in a large funereal limousine, and again I sat in the front seat, but squeezed in between the driver and Vassily.

It was past midnight when the limousine stopped at the sanatorium gate, and the ceremony of extracting Nijinsky from his seat began again. He looked paler than before, and because his body had become as limp as an oyster, it took some time to put him on his feet. Finally, a mere shadow of a prisoner between two jailers, he walked past me toward the gate. I watched him from the car, saw him stop, turn around; and although the car’s motor was on, I heard him say in a gentle, halting, and somewhat tearful voice, “ Skajite yemou chto Lifar horosho prygayet — Tell him that Lifar jumps well.”