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The Great Nijinsky
Cover of The Great Nijinsky
The Great Nijinsky
God of Dance
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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...
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...
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Description-

  • 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 gone mad, 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.

Excerpts-

  • From the book Prologue
    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

    PARIS
    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...

About the Author-

  • Lynn Curlee has a master's degree in art history and has both written and illustrated more than a dozen books for children, including Trains, Skyscraper, Ballpark: The Story of America's Baseball Fields, and Capital. His work has been exhibited in Los Angeles, New York City, and Long Island.

Reviews-

  • Publisher's Weekly

    February 18, 2019
    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.

  • Kirkus

    February 15, 2019
    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)

    COPYRIGHT(2019) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • School Library Journal

    April 1, 2019

    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

    Copyright 2019 School Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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