Vaslav (or Vatslav) Nijinsky (French transcription; Polish: Wacław Niżyński; Russian: Ва́цлав Фоми́ч Нижи́нский / Vatslav Fomich Nizhinskiy; March 12, 1890 - April 8, 1950) was a Russian ballet dancer and choreographer of Polish descent. He grew to be celebrated for his virtuosity and for the depth and intensity of his characterizations. He could perform en pointe, a rare skill among male dancers at the time (Albright, 2004) and his ability to perform seemingly gravity-defying leaps was also legendary. The choreographer Bronislava Nijinska was his sister.
Vaslav Nijinsky was born in Kiev, Ukraine as Wacław Niżyński, to ethnic Polish parents, dancers Tomasz Niżyński and Eleonora Bereda. Nijinsky was christened in Warsaw, and considered himself to be a Pole despite difficulties in properly speaking the language as a result of his childhood in Russia's interior where his parents worked.
In a letter to a friend, Nijinsky wrote "My mother gave me milk and the Polish language, which is why I am a Pole. (...) I can not speak it well because I was not allowed to speak it". Polish was purportedly also the only language the famed ballet star would ever pray in.
In 1900 Nijinsky joined the Imperial Ballet School, where he studied under Enrico Cecchetti, Nikolai Legat, and Pavel Gerdt. At 18 years old he was given a string of leads. In 1910, the company's Prima ballerina assoluta Mathilde Kschessinska selected Nijinsky to dance in a revival of Marius Petipa's Le Talisman, during which Nijinsky created a sensation in the role of the Wind God Vayou.
A turning point for Nijinsky was his meeting Sergei Diaghilev, a celebrated and highly innovative producer of ballet and opera as well as art exhibitions, who concentrated on promoting Russian visual and musical art abroad, particularly in Paris. Nijinsky and Diaghilev became lovers for a time, and Diaghilev was heavily involved in directing and managing Nijinsky's career. In 1909 Diaghilev took a company of Russian opera and ballet stars to Paris featuring Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova. The season of colorful Russian ballets and operas, works mostly new to the West, was a great success. It led Diaghilev to create his famous company the Ballets Russes with choreographer Michel Fokine and designer Léon Bakst. The Paris seasons of the Ballets Russes were an artistic and social sensation; setting trends in art, dance, music and fashion for the next decade.
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