On this day March 12: Vaslav Nijinsky

Nijinsky march 12

Born in Kyiv on March 12, 1889 (or 1890), Vaslav Nijinsky enjoyed a brief but dazzling reign as the ‘God of Dance’ before mental illness derailed his career. Although not physically attracted to men, the androgenous dancer had physical and romantic relationships with at least three wealthy admirers at the beginning of his career.

Nijinsky’s Polish parents travelled to wherever they could find work as dancers. The pre-WWI Tsarist Russian Empire incorporated both Ukraine and most of Poland.

Nijinsky said his parents commenced his dance training as a baby.

“My parents considered it as natural to teach me to dance as to walk and talk.”

Nijinsky performed in public for the first time at 5, performing a duet with his brother. They danced the hopak, sometimes called the Ukrainian National Dance, with the brother taking the male role and young Vaslav in a dress as the female partner. His sister wrote later that “With his slightly dark skin, big brown eyes and long fluffy eyelashes, it was impossible to tell that he was a boy.”

After Nijinsky’s father abandoned his family to live with a mistress, his mother settled at St Petersburg with her children. She arranged for Vaslav to audition for the Imperial Ballet School. Although a poor academic student, his ability as a dancer quickly became apparent.

Prince Pavlov Lvov

As a teenager, Nijinsky lost his virginity to a sex worker who gave him gonorrhea. He wrote in his diary that he then began to distrust women but never stopped fantasising about them when he masturbated. However, his first serious relationship was with a man. At eighteen, he met Prince Pavlov Lvov, an admirer who showered Nijinsky and his family with gifts.

“He loved me as a man loves a boy. I loved him because I knew he wished me well.”

While many female dancers enjoyed the patronage of male admirers, Nijinsky’s not-so-secret relationship with the prince alienated him from his fellow dancers. He also had a brief dalliance with another wealthy benefactor, Count Tishkievitch. However, when he had to choose between the pair, he chose the prince.

“I loved the prince, not the count.”

Meanwhile, following his graduation from the Imperial Ballet School, Nijinsky quickly became a star of Russian ballet, renowned for his ability to soar into the air and seemingly defy gravity. He also danced en pointe unlike most male dancers of the era and caused a sensation by insisting on wearing revealing tights rather than trousers during performance.

Sergei Diaghilev

But then Prince Lvov introduced him to arts impressario, Sergei Diaghilev. Frozen out of the Russian ballet scene, probably because of his well-known homosexuality, Diaghilev planned to launch the Ballet Russes in the more broad-minded Paris. He engaged Nijinsky for the Paris season, and Prince Lvov, although distraught at losing his lover, financed the production. Diaghilev and Nijinsky began a 5-year relationship. The dancer had a love-hate relationship with his producer.

“I loved him sincerely, and when he used to tell me that love for women was a terrible thing, I believed him. If I had not believed him, I would not have been able to do what I did.”

By ‘do what I did’, he meant sex. He also wrote elsewhere that he only f_cked Diaghilev out of necessity.

“I realised one had to live, and therefore it did not matter to me what sacrifice I made. But Diaghilev liked boys and therefore found it difficult to understand me.”

Njinksy was an immediate sensation is Paris. In 1909, the London Evening Standard, among many others, called him “probably the greatest dancer in the world.”

But despite his many great triumphs — and the numerous men and women who desired the famously erotic dancer  — Nijinsky felt like Diaghilev’s kept boy — in his own words, a tart.

Affecting masturbation onstage

Diaghilev eventually allowed Nijinsky creative control and in 1912, he choreographed and starred in L’après-midi d’un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun). The sensational choreography and dancing was initially overshadowed by a sensation of a different nature. The ballet ended with Nijinsky in a skin-tight costume affecting masturbation onstage.

The sculptor Rodin described the performance more eloquently.

“Just after the climax, he falls with his face to the earth upon the cast-off veiling of the nymph, which he kisses and embraces with fervor.”

Nijinsky was more direct.

“I don’t know what happened, but I had an orgasm right there on stage.”

Although any publicity is good publicity, and the scandal ensured full houses, the end of the show was re-choreographed following opening night.


In 2013, Nijinsky married, apparently on a whim, while on a South American tour. Diaghilev sacked him. Nijinsky attempted to continue his career but had neither the organisational skills nor the capital to mount the spectacular productions audiences expected. Diaghilev had never paid him a wage.

The dancer’s mental health declined and he performed in public for the last time in 1917. Diagnosed as a schizophrenic in 2019, he spent the last thirty years of his life in and out of mental health facilities.

Some sources attempt to tie his mental health to his sexuality and even claim — without evidence — that he underwent conversion therapy. But Nijinsky wrote a diary in 2019 before his first committal to an asylum in which he forthrightly discussed his life and career, including his sexual experiences. He intended the diary for publication but the unexpurgated version did not see print until the 1990s.

He saw himself as straight and his gay relationships and sexual experiences as pragmatism. Justifiably critical of Diaghilev, he remembered Prince Lvov with gratitude and affection. Perhaps we could classify his sexuality as straight gay-for-pay, but with much greater rewards than usual.

Some people, of course, insist that any man who has sex with another man must be homosexual. Some even deny bisexuality. They’ve probably lived very sheltered lives. We’re all different. That’s what makes life interesting.

Sydney homosexualists, March 11 <— On this day —> March 13, Andrew Mercado on Number 96

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