Vaslav Nijinsky was born in 1889 or 1890 in Kiev, Russian Empire (now Ukraine), as Wacław Niżyński, to ethnic Polish parents, touring Dancers Tomasz Niżyński (b. 7 March 1862) and Eleonora Bereda (b. 28 December 1856). Nijinsky was christened in Warsaw. He identified himself as Polish although he grew up in the interior of Russia with his parents and he had difficulty speaking Polish.
Eleanora, along with her two brothers and two sisters, was orphaned while still a child. She started to earn a living as an extra in Warsaw's Grand Theatre Ballet (Polish: Teatr Wielki), becoming a full member of the company at age thirteen. In 1868 her talent was spotted and she moved to Kiev as a solo Dancer. Tomasz Niżyński also attended the Wielki Theatre school, becoming a soloist there. At age 18 he accepted a soloist contract with the Odessa Theatre. The two met, married in May 1884 and settled into a career with the traveling Setov opera company. Tomasz was premier danseur, and Eleanora a soloist. Eleanora continued to tour and dance while having three children, sons Stanislav Fomitch (b. 29 December 1886 in Tiflis) and Vaslav; and daughter Bronislava Fominitchna ('Bronia', b. 8 January 1891 in Minsk). She suffered from depression, which may have been a genetic vulnerability shared in a different form by her son Vaslav. Both boys received training from their Father and appeared in an amateur Hopak production in Odessa in 1894.
After Josef Setov died about 1894, the company disbanded. Thomas attempted to run his own company, but was not successful. He and his family became itinerant Dancers, the children appearing in the Christmas show at Nizhny Novgorod. In 1897 Thomas and Eleanora separated after Thomas had fallen in love with another Dancer, Rumiantseva, while touring in Finland. Eleanora moved to 20 Mokhovaya Street in St Petersburg with her children. She persuaded a friend from the Wielki Theatre, Victor Stanislas Gillert, who was at the time teaching at the Imperial Ballet School, to help get Vaslav into the school. He arranged for the noted Teacher Enrico Cecchetti to sponsor the application. Bronia entered the school two years after Vaslav. Their older brother Stanislav had suffered a fall from a window when young and seemed to have suffered some brain damage. Vaslav and Bronia, just two years apart, became very close as they grew. As he got older, Stanislav became increasingly mentally unstable and would have fierce tantrums. He was admitted to an asylum for the insane in 1902.
In 1900, Nijinsky joined the Imperial Ballet School, where he initially studied dance under Sergei Legat and his brother Nicholas. He studied mime under Pavel Gerdt; all three men were principal Dancers at the Imperial Russian Ballet. At the end of the one year probationary period, his teachers agreed upon Nijinsky's exceptional dancing ability and he was confirmed as a boarder at the school. He appeared in supporting parts in classical ballets such as Faust, as a mouse in The Nutcracker, a page in Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, and won the Didelot scholarship. During his first year, his academic studies had covered work he had already done, so his relatively poor results had not been so much noted. He did well in subjects which interested him, but not otherwise.
Mikhail Oboukhov became his Teacher in 1902, and awarded him the highest grade he had ever given to a student. He was given student parts in command performances in front of the Czar of Paquita, The Nutcracker and The Little Horse. In music he studied piano, flute, balalaika and accordion, receiving good marks. He had a good ability to hear and play music on the piano, though his sight reading was relatively poor. Against this, his behaviour was sometimes boisterous and wild, resulting in his expulsion from the school in 1903 for an incident involving students' shooting at the hats of passers-by with catapults while being driven to the Mariinsky Theatre in carriages. He was readmitted to the school as a non-resident after a sound beating and restored to his previous position after a month's probation.
In 1904, at the age of 14, Nijinsky was selected by the great Choreographer Marius Petipa to dance a principal role in what proved to be the choreographer's last ballet, La Romance d'un Bouton de rose et d'un Papillon. The work was never performed due to the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War.
The 1905 annual student show included a pas de deux from The Persian Market, danced by Nijinsky and Sofia Fedorova. Oboukhov amended the dance to show off Nijinsky's abilities, drawing gasps and then spontaneous applause in the middle of the performance with his first jump.
In 1906, he danced in the Mariinsky production of Mozart's Don Giovanni, in a ballet sequence choreographed by Michel Fokine. He was congratulated by the Director of the Imperial Ballet and offered a place in the company although he was a year from graduation. Nijinsky chose to continue his studies. He tried his hand at choreography, with a children's opera, Cinderella, with music by another student, Boris Asafyev. At Christmas, he played the King of the Mice in The Nutcracker. At his graduation performance in April 1907, he partnered Elizaveta Gerdt, in a pas de deux choreographed by Fokine. He was congratulated by prima ballerina Mathilde Kchessinska of the Imperial Ballet, who invited him to partner her. His Future career with the Imperial Ballet was guaranteed to begin at the mid-rank level of coryphée, rather than in the corps de ballet. He graduated second in his class, with top marks in dancing, art and music.
Nijinsky spent his summer after graduation rehearsing and then performing at Krasnoe Selo in a makeshift theatre with an audience mainly of army officers. These performances frequently included members of the Imperial family and other nobility, whose support and interest were essential to a career. Each Dancer who performed before the Tsar received a gold watch inscribed with the Imperial Eagle. Buoyed by Nijinsky's salary, his new earnings from giving dance classes, and his sister Bronia's employment with the ballet company, the family moved to a larger flat on Torgovaya Ulitsa. The new season at the Mariinsky theatre began in September 1907, with Nijinsky employed as coryphée on a salary of 780 roubles per year.
During the winter of 1908/9, Diaghilev started planning for the 1909 Paris tour of opera and ballet. He collected a team including designers Alex Andre Benois and Léon Bakst, Painters Nicholas Roerich and Konstantin Korovin, composers Alexander Glazunov and Nikolai Tcherepnin, regisseurs Vsevolod Meyerhold and Alexander Sanine and other ballet enthusiasts. As a friend and as a leading Dancer, Nijinsky was part of the group. His sister wrote that he felt intimidated by the illustrious and aristocratic company. Fokine was asked to start rehearsals for the existing Le Pavillon d'Armide and for Les Sylphides, an expanded version of his Chopiniana. Fokine favoured expanding the existing Une Nuit d'Egypte for a ballet.
Nijinsky is immortalized in numerous still photographs, many of them by E.O. Hoppé, who photographed the Ballets Russes seasons in London extensively between 1909 and 1921. No film exists of Nijinsky dancing; Diaghilev never allowed the Ballets Russes to be filmed because he felt that the quality of film at the time could never capture the artistry of his Dancers. He believed that the reputation of the company would suffer if people saw their performance only in the short jerky films of the period.
In 1910, he performed in Giselle, and Fokine's ballets Carnaval and Scheherazade (based on the orchestral suite by Rimsky-Korsakov). His portrayal of "Petrushka," the puppet with a soul, was a remarkable display of his expressive ability to portray characters. His partnership with Tamara Karsavina, also of the Mariinsky Theatre, was legendary, and they have been called the "most exemplary artists of the time".
The tour party included Romola de Pulszky, whose Father Count Charles Pulszky was a Hungarian Politician, and mother Emilia Márkus was a noted Actress. In March 1912 the recently engaged Romola was taken to see the Ballets Russes in Budapest by her prospective mother-in-law and was greatly impressed. Nijinsky had not been performing, but she returned the following day and saw him: "An electric shock passed through the entire audience. Intoxicated, entranced, gasping for breath, we followed this superhuman being... the power, the featherweight lightness, the steel-like strength, the suppleness of his movements.." Romola broke off her engagement and began following the Ballets Russes across Europe, attending every performance she could. Nijinsky was difficult to approach, being always accompanied by a 'minder'. However, Romola befriended Adolf Bolm, who had previously visited her mother, thereby gaining access to the company and backstage. She and Nijinsky shared no Common language; she spoke French but he knew only a little, so many of their early conversations involved an interpreter. When first introduced to her, he gained the impression she was a Hungarian prima ballerina and was friendly. Discovering his mistake, he ignored her thereafter.
When the ship stopped at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the couple went straight to buy wedding rings. Adolph Bolm warned Romola against proceeding, saying "It will ruin your life". Gunsbourg hurried to arrange the marriage, getting permission by telegram from Romola's mother. A quick wedding could take place once the ship arrived at Buenos Aires, Argentina; the couple were married on 10 September 1913 and the event was announced to the world's press. Back in Europe, Diaghilev "gave himself to a wild orgy of dissipation...Sobbing shamelessly in Russian despair, he bellowed accusations and recriminations; he cursed Nijinsky's ingratitude, Romola's treachery, and his own stupidity".
Diaghilev started negotiations in October 1914 for Nijinsky to work again for the company, but could not obtain release of the Dancer until 1916. The complex negotiations included a prisoner exchange with the United States, and agreement that Nijinsky would dance and choreograph for the Ballets Russes' tour. King Alfonso XIII of Spain, Queen Alexandra of Denmark, Dowager Russian Empress Marie Feodorovna, Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria and Pope Benedict XV all interceded on his behalf.
Nijinsky arrived in New York on 4 April 1916. The tour had already started in January with a number of problems: Faun was considered too sexually explicit and had to be amended; Scheherazade, including an orgy between blacks and whites, did not appeal to Americans; and ballet aficionados were calling for Nijinsky. Romola took over negotiations, demanding that Diaghilev pay Nijinsky for the years he had been unpaid by the Ballets Russes before he would dance in New York. This was settled after another week's delay by a downpayment of $13,000 against the $90,000 claimed, plus a fee of $1000 for each performance in America.
His last public performance was during a South American tour, with Pianist Arthur Rubinstein in a benefit in Montevideo for the Red Cross on 30 September 1917, at age twenty-eight. Rubinstein wept when he saw Nijinsky's confusion that night. Nijinsky and his wife moved to St. Moritz, Switzerland, where he tried to recover from the stresses of the tour. It was around this time that signs of his schizophrenia had become apparent to members of the company. Also in 1917, Bronia and Vaslav lost their older brother Stanislav, who died in a hospital in Petrograd. Accounts vary as to the cause of death. He had been institutionalized for many years.
Nijinsky's Diary was written during the six weeks in 1919 he spent in Switzerland before being committed to the asylum to Zurich. It reflected the decline of his household into chaos. He elevated feeling and action in his writing. It combined elements of autobiography with appeals for compassion toward the less fortunate. Discovering the three notebooks of the diary years later, plus another with letters to a variety of people, his wife published a bowdlerized version of the diary in 1936, translated into English by Jennifer Mattingly. She deleted about 40% of the diary, especially references to bodily functions, sex, and homosexuality, recasting Nijinsky as an "involuntary homosexual." She also removed some of his more unflattering references to her and others close to their household. She moved sections around, obscuring the "march of events" obvious in the original version and toning down some of the odder portions, including trying to distinguish between sections in which he writes as God and others as himself (in the original all such sections are written the same.)
For the next 30 years, Nijinsky was in and out of psychiatric hospitals and asylums. During 1945 after the end of the war, after Romola had moved with him to Vienna, he encountered a group of Russian Soldiers in an encampment, playing traditional folk tunes on a balalaika and other instruments. Inspired by the music and hearing his first language, he started dancing, astounding the men with his skills. Drinking and laughing with them helped him start to speak again. He had maintained long periods of almost absolute silence during his years of illness. His wife Romola had protected them by staying for a time at the border of Hungary and Austria, trying to keep out of major areas of fighting.
From 1947 Nijinsky lived in Surrey, England with his wife. He died from kidney failure at a clinic in London on 8 April 1950 and was buried in London. In 1953 his body was moved to Montmartre Cemetery in Paris and reinterred beside the graves of Gaétan Vestris, Théophile Gautier, and Emma Livry.
In 1999, the first unexpurgated edition of The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky was published, edited by New Yorker dance critic Joan Acocella and translated by Kyril FitzLyon. Acocella notes that the diary displays three elements Common to schizophrenia: "delusions, disorganized language, and disorganized behavior." It also demonstrates that Nijinsky's thought was suffering from a "breakdown in selective attention;" his associations would connect in ever-widening circles. A New York Times review said, "How ironic that in erasing the real ugliness of his insanity, the old version silenced not only Nijinsky's true voice but the magnificently gifted body from which it came. And how fortunate we are to have them both restored."
On 11 June 2011, Poland’s first sculpture of the Polish/Russian Dancers, Vaslav Nijinsky and his sister Bronislava Nijinska, was unveiled in the Teatr Wielki’s foyer. It portrays them in their roles as the Faun and the Nymph from the ballet L’après-midi d’un faune. Commissioned by the Polish National Ballet, the sculpture was made in bronze by the well-known Ukrainian Sculptor Giennadij Jerszow.