The Two Nijinskys

Mon 23rd Mar 2015, 21:10

Emma in CoisCeim Dance Theatre's Faun
by David Bolger (Photo Pat Redmond)
Blog 6. If I were to ask you to use three words that would describe Nijinsky, what would your response be? You might say, awesome, powerful and well balanced perhaps? But, would you be talking about Vaslav Nijinsky, the Russian ballet dancer and choreographer of Polish descent, or would you be talking about Nijinsky, the Canadian born horse trained by Vincent O' Brien at Ballydoyle who won the Triple Crown in 1970? The language that dance professionals use about the dancer, and the language racing people use about the horse are strikingly similar.

The dancer Nijinsky made a declaration before he died that he would one day return reincarnated as a horse. So, either he did return some 17 years later in one of the most famous racehorses in living memory, or someone was very, very clever when naming him. Nijinsky, the dancer was known to be very withdrawn in company, almost showing reclusive qualities. It was only on stage that people got to see his true essence.

Like his namesake, Nijinsky proved to be a mysterious and whimsical character. Lester Piggott famously commented that the horse "would never talk to him". Ramsay Burt describes the effect Nijinsky has had in shaping the male presence in ballet and in modern dance in his book The Male Dancer, "Vaslav Nijinsky (1889 - 1950) is a key figure in the reintroduction of the male ballet to the stages of European theatres at the beginning of the twentieth century, and for initiating and developing representations of masculinity that have dominated ballet and to some extent modern dance throughout the century." Up until that point in history female dancers controlled the stage with their male counterpoints barely getting a look in. Nijinsky's magnetic power and influence in changing the landscape of dance was such that when he played the role of the spectre in Fokine's Le Spectre de la rose it was clear that the ballerina's role, played by Karsavina, was a supporting one and that she was sharing the stage with a star. A star who would be forever known as one of the most gifted dancers in history.

Nijinsky was a virtuoso dancer who was renowned for transforming himself into the roles he was performing. He rose to fame in 1909 when he joined the Ballets Russes, one of the most influential dance companies of the twentieth century in part because of it's ground - breaking artistic collaboration among contemporary choreographers, composers, artists and dancers. Coco Chanel was a private funder to the company and artists such as Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau created designs for Ballets Russes productions. Sergei Diaghilev, the genius impresario was the force behind the success of Nijinsky and the Ballets Russes. 20th century Paris was alive with the fame and notoriety of his extraordinary company. It drew the attention of the members of the prestigious Paris Jockey Club, which was initially organised as the Society for the Encouragement of the Improvement of Horse Breeding in France. The members who were male and young men about town weren't so interested in the virtuosity of Nijinsky as they were in meeting females in the grande spaces of the Opera House. Whether horse or human, the Nijinsky's of our world have left their mark with few to rival their accomplishments. But let us take a moment to look at who enabled their fame: Sergei Diaghilev was a significant figure in the life of the dancer as was Vincent O'Brien in the life of the racehorse. O'Brien trained Nijinsky to become the first winner of the Triple Crown (2,000 Guineas, Derby, St Leger) for 35 years. No horse has ever repeated the achievement. Both men were visionaries with the ability to recognise and facilitate talent whether it is racehorse or dancer.

Nijinsky choreographed L'apres- midi d'un faune / The Afternoon of the Faun in which he performed the main role himself. It was met with a mixed response. But one thing is for certain; he was definitely ahead of his time. I researched the work of Nijinsky in CoisCeim Dance Theatre's production of Faun, in which I performed. Faun was a response to Nijinsky's original ballet and score written by Debussy and poem bearing the same title written by Stephane Mallarme.

Nijinsky is a keen area of research for the WillFredd team in our upcoming show Jockey which will be performed at Visual, Carlow on 15th & 16th of May and as a part of the Dublin Dance Festival's exciting programme. It seems like the right area to be focussing our attention especially when talking to people like Guy Williams who would have watched Nijinsky race, as would my Grandfather Phillip. In fact, come to think of it, Nijinsky winning the Irish Derby at the Curragh in 1970 would be a race that Phillip definitely would have watched.

NEXT WEEK: A visit to Michael O' Callaghan's yard on the Curragh, and meeting with David Donohue, racing journalist.

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