The Great Nijinsky: God of Dance
The Great Nijinsky: God of Dance

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Annotation: Presents the life and career of the legendary Russian dancer and choreographer, describing his famous roles, his relationship with Sergei Diaghilev, director of the Ballets Russes, and his descent into mental illness in later life.
Genre: Biographies
Catalog Number: #209705
Format: Perma-Bound Edition from Publisher's Hardcover
All Formats: Search
Copyright Date: 2019
Edition Date: 2019
Pages: 112 pages
Availability: Available
New Title: Yes
ISBN: Publisher: 1-580-89800-9 Perma-Bound: 0-7804-7557-7
ISBN 13: Publisher: 978-1-580-89800-3 Perma-Bound: 978-0-7804-7557-1
Dewey: 921
LCCN: 2018019950
Dimensions: 26 cm.
Language: English
ALA Booklist
Attendees of the May 18, 1909, performance of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes were in for a surprise. Accustomed to a more staid, conservative ballet, they were shocked to their feet by the electrifying leaps and jumps of Vaslav Nijinsky, making his solo debut. Flamboyant, creative, and single-mindedly dedicated to dance, Nijinsky established himself as one of the greatest dancers in history, paving the way for dancers such as Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Curlee's biography incorporates his own lush paintings into a luxurious volume with creamy thick paper and crisp, clear type. Interspersed through the text are program-style pages, which describe the ballets performed and include quotes and commentary on the performances. Photographs of Nijinsky and the people in his life punctuate and amplify the text. Curlee's narrative is lucid and smooth, and source notes, a bibliography, and an index round out the book. This elegant volume has a place in any collection.
Horn Book
This heartfelt biography traces Ballets Russes star/choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky's (18901950) trajectory from lonesome childhood through his 1909 Paris debut and ensuing mega-stardom to his diagnosis of schizophrenia and institutionalization. Curlee sensitively explores Nijinsky's contradictions, including as a magnetic performer with little social grace and as a sex symbol tormented by his own sexual desires. The beautifully designed volume includes Curlee's striking jewel-toned portraits and archival photographs. Bib., ind.
Kirkus Reviews
The story of Vaslav Nijinsky's life—onstage and off, in all its glamour and tragedy—unfolds.Originally drawn to Nijinsky by photos of the ballet dancer in costume, Curlee (Trains, 2009, etc.) engaged in extensive research and details major events in Nijinsky's life, beginning with his birth to traveling Polish performers and continuing through to his eventual confinement in various asylums and death in 1950. While much of the content focuses on Nijinsky's art, both his dancing and choreography, time is also spent on his personal life. The text includes short biographical sketches of important artists, such as Diaghilev and Stravinsky, with whom Nijinsky crossed paths as well as explorations of Nijinsky's romantic relationships and mental health. These discussions are frank, and though they never devolve into titillation, they do occasionally include questionable descriptions ("He was…what some would term stark raving mad") and label Nijinsky's sexual orientation using modern terms. Interspersed between chapters are stylized programs detailing various ballets that Nijinsky performed or choreographed, including descriptions of the ballet's history and plot and paintings by the author. Quotations from contemporaries and occasionally the dancer himself breathe further life into the narrative. The photographs and illustrations add interest and points of engagement in what is an otherwise tragic tale of a brooding artist.A glossy introduction to the highs and lows of Nijinsky's life and work. (author's note, list of performances, source notes, bibliography, image credits, index) (Biography. 13-18)
Publishers Weekly
Riveting, richly saturated acrylic-on-canvas paintings highlight the latest from Curlee (Mythological Creatures: A Classical Bestiary), about the celebrated early-20th-century dancer Vaslav Nijinsky and his times. More than just a biography, this homage to the -god of dance- often strays from Nijinsky-s life story to introduce other great artists of the era-composer Igor Stravinsky, dancer/choreographer Mikhail Fokine, designer Léon Bakst, and, especially, impresario Sergei Diaghilev-whose combined talents made the Ballets Russes company, where Nijinsky made his name, a sensation. Curlee follows the dancer-s life from his birth in Kiev to itinerant Polish entertainer parents, through his early years at the Russian Imperial Ballet School, to his discovery by Diaghilev and spectacular 1909 Parisian debut, tracing his remarkable, brief career as well as his descent into mental illness. In frank accounts, Curlee discusses Nijinsky-s bisexuality, including his open affair with Diaghilev, seen as scandalous at the time, and his impetuous marriage to a Hungarian socialite. The book-s spacious pages-heavily illustrated with original paintings, vintage photos, and simulated programs-elevate the moving story, making for a memorable volume that captures the dancer-s singular talent, fame, and notoriety. Ages 12-up. (Apr.)

School Library Journal
Gr 8 Up Born to Polish parents who worked as traveling performers, Vaslav Nijinsky was raised to be onstage. After training at the Imperial Ballet School in Russia, Nijinsky began performing and his undeniable skills amazed audiences. He also began choreographing, bringing new and sensational pieces such as The Rite of Spring to the stage. In this biography, Nijinsky's accomplishments on the stage are detailed, accompanied by paintings by the author and archival photographs. "Programs" for Nijinsky's performances, including facts and summaries of the ballets, separate the chapters. The biography focuses on more than just Nijinksy's art, delving into his personal life, including his relationships, sexuality, and his mental health. Curlee provides context for Nijinsky's life and introduces readers to the art scene of the time, including brief biographical sketches of other figures such as Fokine and Stravinsky. Appropriate for preliminary research, and simply for those interested in learning more about Nijinsky, the included back matter provides readers looking to delve deeper with avenues to continue exploring. VERDICT While contemporary conceptions of sexual identity and mental illness cannot easily be superimposed over historical biographies, readers nevertheless are presented with a full picture of Nijinsky's life. Zoë McLaughlin, Michigan State University
Reviewing Agencies: - Find Other Reviewed Titles
ALA Booklist (3/1/19)
Horn Book
Kirkus Reviews
Publishers Weekly
School Library Journal (4/1/19)
Bibliography Index/Note: Includes bibliographical references (pages 104-107) and index.
Reading Level: 5.0
Interest Level: 7-12
Wonder of Wonders
My senses were all blurred that night. The familiar barriers between the stage and the audience were broken. . . . The stage was so crowded with spectators that there was hardly room to move. . . . Hundreds of eyes followed us about. . . . "He is a prodigy" and awed whispers "It is she!" . . . Somebody exquisitely dressed staunched the blood trickling down my arm with a cobwebby handkerchief -- I had cut myself against Nijinsky's jeweled tunic. . . . Somebody was asking Nijinsky if it was difficult to stay in the air as he did while jumping; he did not understand at first, and then very obligingly: "No! No! Not difficult. You have to just go up and then pause a little up there."
--   Tamara Karsavina
May 18, 1909
On a balmy evening in late spring, the Théâtre du Châtelet was booked to capacity, with nearly three thousand people in the audience. A troupe of dancers from the legendary Russian Imperial Ballet, the czar's own dance company, was about to appear for the first time in the cultural capital of the Western world, and this preview performance was the hottest ticket in town.
            As the theater slowly filled, the sophisticated crowd was keen with anticipation, chatting excitedly among themselves. The famous and the talented, the wealthy and the powerful, the fashionable and the beautiful--all in formal evening dress--filled the orchestra seats and the dress circle above. The crème de la crème of Parisian high society held court from their private boxes.  Middle-class patrons of the arts decked in their Sunday best occupied the lower balconies, while artistic young bohemians wearing shabby dark clothing and scarves around their necks found a place in the cheap upper tiers.
            The atmosphere was festive. Fresh paint had brightened up the old theater, along with new scarlet velvet hangings and crimson carpeting. The management had the inspired idea to seat only beautiful young women in the first row of the dress circle's sweeping curve, giving out tickets to selected actresses and dancers. As the audience assembled, the dazzling sight of all sixty-three young ladies seated in the "diamond horseshoe" created a sensation. Blondes alternated with brunettes and redheads, all with hourglass figures and low-cut gowns in the style of the belle époque. Pale bare shoulders were set off by glittering diamonds and lustrous pearls, and elaborate hairstyles featured egret and ostrich plumes.
            The year before, a Russian opera company had traveled to Paris and created a sensation with a lavish production of an opera never before seen in the West--Boris Godunov, by Modest Mussorgsky. This tragic story of a medieval Russian czar electrified jaded Parisians with its exotic subject, gorgeous music, splendid singing, and magnificent stagecraft. Russian opera had returned for a second season, and now Russian ballet was about to be added to the mix.
At exactly half past eight, after the traditional three raps from backstage, the lights slowly dimmed, and the restless audience settled down. The conductor tapped his baton on the music stand to cue the orchestra, and with a soft roll of the kettledrum, the music began.
            The curtain rose on The Pavilion of Armida, a confection of a ballet about a Gobelins tapestry that comes to life. Costumes and decor were in the style of the eighteenth-century French court, and for the second scene, two real fountains with water piped in from the Seine flanked the stage. The audience was swept away by the spectacle.
            Eventually a young man took the stage with two ballerinas for a pas de trois. The precision and beauty of the routine riveted the audience. They had never before seen dancing like this. In French ballet, male dancers, when they appeared at all, merely supported the ballerinas, but this dance was centered upon the youth, who moved with such passion and athletic power that a murmur swept the crowd. At the end, instead of gracefully walking off with his partners, the young man impetuously leaped offstage. The audience gasped as they saw him go up into the wings, where they could not see him come down--it was as though he'd taken flight. After a stunned pause, a tremendous wave of applause rolled across the footlights.

            Then the dancer returned for his solo--a thrilling series of pirouettes and high jumps, during which he seemed to float suspended in midair. The audience cheered. After solos by the two ballerinas, all three dancers returned for a reprise before taking their bows to a thunderous ovation. When the lights came up at the intermission, the audience scanned their programs to find out about the young man. His name was Vaslav Nijinsky.
The next performance that night was the hour-long second act from the opera Prince Igor, by Alexander Borodin. The curtain rose to reveal an encampment on the Russian steppes--an immense, desolate landscape of rolling hills beneath a golden sky with pink clouds and plumes of smoke rising from the tents of the Polovtsi, a Tatar tribe. After a lot of impassioned singing, the climax of the act featured the corps de ballet in an epic spectacle of choreography known as the "Polovtsian Dances." Colorfully garbed groups of warriors, slaves, men and women, boys and girls joined in a frenzied climax accompanied by chorus and full orchestra with pounding drums and clashing cymbals. The audience went wild.
            Everyone was aware that something extraordinary was happening. In France the ballet had come to be "regarded as a frivolous art form unsuited to serious artistic expression." The Russians were a revelation. During the second intermission, some bolder members of the audience invaded backstage to watch from the wings, wanting to see the dancers up close.

            The final act of the evening was A Banquet. The curtain rose on a magnificent medieval Russian banquet hall as the setting for a series of dances choreographed to music by different Russian composers. Nijinsky appeared in a segment of A Banquet called "The Lezginka," his face painted dramatically and sporting a rakish mustache. He danced the lezginka, a folk dance performed by a group of men in high boots. For the segment titled "The Golden Bird," Nijinsky returned with one of his partners from The Pavilion of Armida, Tamara Karsavina. They performed a lovely, intricate pas de deux, he dressed and bejeweled as a Turkish prince, and she as a bird with flaming ostrich feathers. Once again, the audience was dazzled by their virtuosity, and most particularly by Nijinsky's power, grace, and charisma. One spectator said about their impact, "When those two came on, Good Lord! I have never seen such a public. You would have thought their seats were on fire." To conclude the long evening, the entire company paraded to a march by Tchaikovsky, the best known of the Russian composers. This grand finale brought down the house amid a hail of cheers and bravos. The audience demanded seemingly endless curtain calls.
The legend of Vaslav Nijinsky as the greatest of all dancers began with that first spontaneous leap offstage in The Pavilion of Armida. It has been said of that glamorous night that "Nijinsky took off his costume, removed his make-up; and went out to supper and fame." When notices of the evening were published in the newspapers, the critics hailed the Russian ballet as spectacular entertainment--a triumph of Russian art--and compared the event to a royal fete at the court of King Louis XIV. The music, the costumes, the decor, and all the featured dancers were singled out for praise. Tamara Karsavina was astonished to discover that she was now "La Karsavina." And Vaslav Nijinsky was immediately hailed as a phenomenon--a "wonder of wonders," and even "God of the dance." He was twenty years old.

Excerpted from The Great Nijinsky: God of Dance by Lynn Curlee
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Dance prodigy, sex symbol, gay pioneer, cultural icon--Vaslav Nijinsky rose to fame as the star of the Ballets Russes in Paris before mental illness stole his career and the last thirty years of his life. A tragic story of a great genius, this compelling work of narrative nonfiction chronicles a life of obsessive artistry, celebrity, and notoriety.

With one grand leap off the stage at the 1909 premiere of the Ballets Russes's inaugural season, Nijinsky became an overnight sensation and the century's first superstar, in the days before moving pictures brought popular culture to the masses. Perhaps the greatest dancer of the twentieth century, Nijinsky captured audiences with his sheer animal magnetism and incredible skill.

He was also half of the most famous (and openly gay) couple of the Edwardian era: his relationship with Serge Diaghilev, artistic director and architect of the Ballets Russes, pushed boundaries in a time when homosexuality and bisexuality were rarely discussed. Nijinsky's life was tumultuous--after marrying a female groupie he hardly knew, he was kicked out of the Ballets Russes and placed under house arrest during World War I. Unable to work as he once did, his mental health deteriorated, and he spent three decades in and out of institutions.

Biographical narrative is interspersed with spotlights on the ballets the dancer popularized: classic masterworks such as Afternoon of a Faun, The Firebird, and of course, the shockingly original Rite of Spring, which caused the audience to riot at its premiere. Illustrated with elegant, intimate portraits as well as archival art and photographs.

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