The Russian dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky (1889–1950) is often cited as the greatest male ballet dancer of the early 20th century. His grace, style, virtuosity and ability to perform ballet techniques which most of his male contemporaries were incapable of earned him his unsurpassed reputation.
He is most famous for his work with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, where he started dancing in lead roles and later choreographing ballets, including The Rite Of Spring. Diaghilev took an interest in Nijinsky, briefly became his lover and managing his early career. The dancer later married a Hungarian countess, which lead to his dismissal from the Ballets Russes by an angered Diaghilev shortly after The Rite Of Spring premiere. Reconciliation came in 1916 and Nijinsky rejoined the company, but he was soon diagnosed with schizophrenia and his career ended prematurely. The great dancer spent the remainder of his life in and out of psychiatric hospitals and asylums, eventually dying in London in 1950.
Nijinsky amazed audiences performing in more traditional ballets like Scheherazade (1910) and Giselle (1910) by the Ballets Russes. In his first collaboration with Stravinsky on the ballet Petrushka (1911), choreographed by Michel Fokine, he brought his character and lead role of a puppet to life through his stunning performance. Though Petrushka was generally considered a more progressive work of the time, the innovative production managed to push artistic limits within the acceptable boundaries of traditional ballet. After Fokine’s departure from the Ballets Russes, Nijinsky assumed the role of choreographer and shocked modern audiences with contemporary and often appalling artistic interpretation. The first evidence of this was Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun (1912), choreographed to Debussy’s symphonic poem Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, depicting a young Faun’s erotic desire for a Nymph. Another Debussy-scored ballet, Jeux (1913), stirred controversy but was eclipsed weeks later with the riotous premiere of The Rite of Spring (1913).