For want of an antipsychotic, the world in 1919 lost its best male dancer, its first contemporary choreographer. After a breakdown at 30, during which he produced this fabled diary (first published in a heavily edited and expurgated version in 1936 by his wife Romola), modernist innovator Vaslav Nijinsky lived another 31 years, most of them as a virtual prisoner in institutions.
Acocella, dance critic at The New Yorker, is especially well suited for this project. Apart from her fluency in French and exhaustive dance-historical information, she’s spent decades editing for psychiatrists, and recently co-authored a textbook on abnormal psychology. Approaching the material in a compassionate but levelheaded way, she’s produced a document heartbreaking in its simplicity, parts of which might have been recorded by a serious-minded college student alarmed by the perfidies of economics, politics, and culture, in 1969 or 1999. “I know that today it is impossible to do anything without money, and therefore I will work hard so that everyone can come and see me without paying for it.”
Restored here are the deletions concerning defecation and sex, unflattering references to Romola, and the real names of people she’d disguised. A newly released section— containing letters to Diaghilev and Cocteau, pacifist pleas to WW I politicians, and pun-filled poemlike compositions (really decompositions)— reveals Nijinsky’s humor and sophistication as well as his desperate heartbreak.
Nature, physicists say, abhors a vacuum; when he feels all is lost this brilliant young dancer, diagnosed as a schizophrenic, expands to become all, become God, to fill his (truly) abandoned psyche with a construct that lets life go on. As Acocella observes, “In the diary all the things besides profundity that made Nijinsky an artist— shaping, compression, the sense of rhythm and climax, the acts of control— are gone, or going. It is the same instrument, but unstrung.”