The Making of a Queer icon

Abstract: This essay analyses Nijinsky as a dancer with his ballet performances and the diary. The continuous use of queer themes in the ballet theatre is studied. Did the ballet performances really change Nijinsky the man to Nijinsky the queer? The Ballets Russes made Nijinsky get rid of his own self. Nijinsky’s identity was shaped by his performances. Nijinsky having expressed himself in writing four volumes of his diaries reveals his personal side.

Keywords: queer theory, sexual identity, sexual orientation, gay / lesbian studies, homosexual relationships, heterosexuality

Queer theory has effectively re-opened the question of the relations between sexuality and gender. It has created greater opportunities for transgender studies. It has pursued the task of detaching the critique of gender and sexuality from the narrowly conceived notions of lesbian and gay identity. It has dramatised the far-reaching theoretical promises of work in lesbian and gay studies. But with the institutionalisation of queer theory, and its acceptance by the academy, new problems and new challenges have come up.

Queer theory, defines itself in opposition to the concept of “normalcy”, challenging the normativity of heterosexuality and highlighting the effects of socialisation on sexual identity. It is interesting to find out how queerness is related to the earlier ballet performances by Nijinsky.

Vaslav Nijinsky was born in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1889 as the son of Polish dancers Tomasz and Eleonora Bereda. He studied under Enrico Cecchetti and Nicholas Legat in the Imperial Ballet School. He was short and sturdy and also very shy. The support and love which he gained from his audience at the Mariinsky Theatre was appreciable. Nijinsky created a sensation in the role of the Wind God Vayou at the age of 18. Nijinsky met Diaghilev, an ardent lover of arts who decided to promote Russian arts and culture particularly in Paris. Diaghilev was a law student. It was his love for the Russian arts that paved way for the Russians to have a ballet company in their country. Diaghilev really worked hard and never paid attention to the demotivating talks of his colleagues. Ballets Russes, the dance company of Diaghilev was established as an independent company in 1911. Diaghilev gained success when Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina joined his ballet company, Ballets Russes. “Le Pavillon d’ Armide”, “Cleopatra” and “The Feast” were the performances which made them renowned as the most exemplary artists of the time. Nijinsky was always surrounded by the queerness of his ballet performances.

“Queer” is a term which was so strange and unnatural. Now the term is used by almost everyone in this world to speak on lesbians and gays. The term “queer” has become complex now and it always catches hold of the attention of the critics. Teresa de Lauretis coined the phrase “queer theory” to serve as the title of a conference that she held in February 1990 at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she was the Professor of the History of Consciousness. She had the courage to pair the word “queer” with “theory.”

Lauretis didn’t want to introduce queer theory as something that is easy to come to terms with. She tried to challenge the heterosexist underpinnings and assumptions and to call attention to everything that is perverse about the project of theorising sexual desire and sexual pleasure. Queer theory includes both queer readings of texts and the theorisation of queerness itself. Gay/lesbian studies focussed its inquiries into natural and unnatural behaviour with respect to homosexual behaviour.

Nijinsky made an attempt to rejoin the Mariinsky Theatre but failed. He appeared on stage without wearing the modesty trunks. The scandal might have been created by Diaghilev because his success clearly rested on Nijinsky now. Nijinsky’s main project was the challenging categorisation of gender and sexuality. Identities are not fixed and they cannot be categorised and labelled because identities consist of many varied components and that to categorise by one characteristic is wrong. Nijinsky’s lead roles in the “Le Spectre de la Rose” as a rose and as a puppet in “Petrouchka” announced Nijinsky’s talents. Nijinsky was one of the greatest dancers of that time. His ability to play the gravitational force with his dance movements was famous.

Nijinsky also started choreographing which brought forth his creativity. His innovations astonished the audience. The famous ballets of his production were “L’ apres – midi d’ un faune” (The Afternoon of a Faun) in 1912, “Jeux” in 1913, “Till Eulenspiegel” in 1916 and “Le Sacre du Printemps” (The Rite of Spring) in 1913. For the first time his audience experienced dance performances that were never seen before. Nijinksy brought a new direction and traditional performances were forgotten by his audience. This created uproar in Paris.

Soon a performance was planned by the Ballets Russes in South America. Without the supervision of Diaghilev, Nijinsky and the dancers reached South America. There he came across a Hungarian Countess, Romola Pulszky. She was an ardent admirer of Nijinsky. She was able to make Nijinsky fall for her. After the performance, when they reached Europe, they got married. Diaghilev couldn’t control his rage and Nijinsky was dismissed from the troupe. Nijinsky’s attempt to reactivate his own ballet troupe failed due to poor administration.

Soon after this, Nijinsky rejoined Ballets Russes and he started performing for Diaghilev. At that time signs of dementia praecox were apparently evident to his co-artists. Nijinsky’s dancing career ended with a nervous breakdown which was diagnosed as schizophrenia. He was taken to Switzerland by his wife for advanced treatments. All their efforts to bring Nijinsky back to life were in vain. Nijinsky died at a London clinic on April 8, 1950 and was buried in London.

Nijinsky was the leading performer of the Ballets Russes. He overturned the second class status of the male dancers. His vision related to a dance was that it should be beautiful. Nijinsky and some of his co- artists really loved to elevate ballet dance from ordinary to something extraordinary. Nijinsky tried to dissolve the ballet’s status as a courtly performance. He wanted to give a modern touch to the ballet dance.

Nijinsky explored the traditional art form with his innovations. His attempt culminated in the queerness of his ballet performances.

The ballet companies at that time followed a full length dance performance model at a stretch. With Diaghilev’s entrance, it was changed to short and separate performances. The roles performed by Nijinsky for the Ballet Russes were specifically made for him. Diaghilev created roles specially for Nijinsky which helped in the huge success of Ballets Russes.

Diaghilev asserted himself a homosexual. The Russian lovers of art were fascinated by Diaghilev. The first and foremost thing which built up his success as a director was his personality and he was a nice handsome man. Diaghilev was always seen with one of his male dancers in the streets. Dancers at that time were from low family background and aristocrats like Diaghilev were not supposed to be in company with them. This really amazed the audience and rumours about his sexual orientation were discussed everywhere. It was also said that Diaghilev accompanied male dancers just to manifest his relationship with art which promoted his personality.

Diaghilev was candid about his homosexual relationships with his dancers. He was said to have a dominating personality. Diaghilev knew well to use his charming personality. He not only sold his own personality but also Nijinsky’s. Diaghilev’s sexual orientation was known to everyone. The talents hidden in him silenced the audience responses on his homosexual relationships. Diaghilev’s reaction on hearing the news of Nijinsky’s marriage roused his love and lust towards Nijinsky. Massine was his next prey. When Diaghilev appointed Massine in the place of Nijinsky, the ballet was labelled as a den of vice.

The aim of Diaghilev was to give ballet a queer iconography. Diaghilev reworked on the themes with same sex desire. His performances aimed at people who were interested in watching ballet with same sex desire themes. These audiences were ready to taste a new field in the ballet. Diaghilev opened a new path for Nijinsky but it was Fokine who introduced Nijinsky entrusting him with charismatic roles. The roles offered by Fokine confirmed that the homosexual and erotic ballet themes really heightened Nijinsky’s talent as a dancer. Golden Slave in Scheherazade (1910) was the first instance for his entrance to these queer themes.

The audience was really shocked to see these types of ballet themes. The Afternoon of a Faun was Nijinsky’s famous ballet performance in the Ballets Russes. In this ballet, Nijinsky tried to elevate Fokine’s erotically elevated theme even to a greater degree. Nijinsky during the performance climaxed on the top of a scarf which resembled masturbation in the final scene.

Nijinsky in “Scheherazade(1910) was dressed in loose, silken harem trousers and a jewelled bodice. He wore earrings, and he swaggered towards the camera. He exposed his throat and the inside of his wrists and forearms. He smiled, open-mouthed and welcomed all. Nijinsky’s appearance was that of a female but his character was of a Golden Slave. The company achieved success on Oriental themes. The oriental themes selected by the Ballets Russes Company were one of the reasons for their immediate success.

The Oriental themes were something considered by the Europeans as seductive and erotic. Arabian Nights and Kamasutra gave the orient an aura of eroticism. The Arabian Nights clearly tells the stories of male-male relationship and this attained a status for the homosexuals in the Eastern countries. The Europeans travelled to the East to experience these violent passions among the orients. These tales contributed a change in the Western taste regarding the homosexual relationships.

“Scheherazadetypically followed these experiences of the East. The story was from the Arabian Nights. While the Sultan was out hunting, his favourite concubine, Zobeide, persuaded the chief eunuch to release the male African slaves into the harem. The women of the court then had an orgy with the slaves, but this was interrupted by the return of the Sultan. He was furious, and with his men he slaughtered both concubines and slaves. The central figure of the domineering, sexually adventurous woman Zobeide was played by the strikingly tall Russian Heiress Ida Rubinstein. As the massacre was carried out around her, the cool, haughty Rubinstein remained still. She did not express anger at the Sultan, or grief at the slaying of her favourite slave. Before he could decide whether to kill or spare her, she took a dagger and stabbed herself to death.

Queer theory is in opposition to the normalcy and it tries to bring different meanings to sexual identity. This theory has been influenced by Foucault, Judith Mayne, Judith Butler, Diana Fuss and Monique Wittig. Queer theory gets completed with the three elements: power, knowledge and sexuality. Queer is defined as the one which is against the normal or normalising. It is an engagement with the relations between sex, gender and sexual desire. It gives priorities to readings of the representation of same sex desire in literary texts, films, music, images. Queer theory also analyses the social and political power relations. The studies of transsexual and transgender identification can also be seen under the queer theory.

Nijinsky as the Golden Slave was appreciated by many. He did the role of a heterosexual in the ballet. This scene which showed an excessive sexual hunger was against the church and its practices. It also questioned the racial differences. The Golden Slave and Zobeide did extremely well and the stage was that of two people who did the sexual act violently. Nijinsky and Ida Rubenstein acted forgetting themselves and amazed the audience with their brilliant performances. According to many, Nijinsky lacked masculinity and it was because of this reason that he could perform well in all those homosexual roles.

Here Nijinsky showed that sex should not be repressed as in the early days. In order to do away with this repression, we need to talk about it freely. Eastern culture sees “sex” as ars erotica, a sense of pleasure whereas the western culture sees it as scientia sexuali, a distanced scientific investigation. Foucault was not the first to argue that sexuality is socially constructed. From the 1980s onwards, his work undeniably had the greatest impact and influence on new developments in gay and lesbian studies and on cultural studies of sexuality. Queer theory employs a number of ideas from poststructuralist theory, including Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic models of decentred, unstable identity, Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction of binary conceptual and linguistic structures, and of course, Foucault’s model of discourse, knowledge and power. It may be best to understand the relationship of queer theory and gay and lesbian studies in Foucauldian terms as part of a dynamic network of different but overlapping fields of knowledge and discursive practice.

Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes renovated the dance techniques and styles. He taught the audience to focus on the body of the male dancers rather than on the female artists. Diaghilev introduced muscular male dancers with astonishing energy. Diaghilev rethought and completely discarded the traditional themes in the ballet. Diaghilev along with Nijinsky worked on the Oriental themes and gave them the idea of a queering self. The ballet themes have been associated most prominently with lesbian and gay subjects. Its analytic framework also includes such topics as cross-dressing, hermaphroditism and gender ambiguity.

The Ballets Russes was notorious for its homoerotic themes. This always caught the attention of the press. The Ballet Russes didn’t question the sexual orientation of anyone but it just showed the possibility of enjoying Nijinsky’s homoerotic ballet performance. Diaghilev challenged the validity and consistency of heteronormative discourse, and focussed to a large degree on non-heteronormative sexualities and sexual practices. At that time, heterosexuality was viewed as normal and any deviations such as homosexuality as abnormal or “queer”. Diaghilev and Nijinsky have come to view “queer” differently. Sometimes they considered it as an umbrella term for sexual self-identifications.

The heterosexual relationships and ballet were interrelated. Their sexual orientations influenced their opening as ballet dancers. Nijinsky with the blessings of his mother started his career as a ballet dancer. She purposefully rejected his heterosexual orientation for an excellent entry to the dancing field. Nijinsky had his first homosexual relationship with Prince Pavel Lvov. Later he introduced Nijinsky to Diaghilev. This meeting was beneficial for both men. Nijinsky appeared in shockingly exposing costumes under Ballets Russes production.

Nijinsky attained fame as a dancer as well as Diaghilev’s male sexual partner. The roles created by Fokine for Nijinsky was bisexual or strongly sexual. It was believed that these types of roles could be made perfect only by Nijinsky. Nijinsky was an energetic dancer on stage but at the same time shy and reserved offstage. Nijinsky’s role as a rose, wearing the costume of rose petals questioned his sexual identity. These roles revealed him as a homosexual man as well as an artist. Nijinsky fascinated audience with his own choreographic style. The movements in the performances were not ordinary. The dancers with their body were flung to the audience for their pleasure.

Taking into account the theories of Foucault on queerness, he wonders how sex can express one’s identity. And he explains that it is because of the relationship between power and knowledge. Foucault criticises the “juridico discursive” conception of power as something that simply represses and restricts, always taking a law-like form. He suggests that power is as productive as it is repressive, that it is multi- faceted and omnipresent. Power is everywhere, working in all directions. Sexuality, then, isn’t something that power represses, but a great conduit of power. Sex is a social construct; it helps us to control ourselves. Nijinsky used this power on the stage and this power attracted the audience all over the world.

Nijinsky’s dancing career came to an end when he was dismissed from the Ballet Russes for his marriage. Nijinsky knew that he was going to lose everything if Diaghilev didn’t support him. Nijinsky was not much social and this incompetency created Nijinsky more and more difficulty in his dancing career. Nijinsky’s dairy The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky provided so many life truths about Nijinsky. When everybody labelled him a “homosexual”, his diary tended to make us think the other way round.

Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity by Judith Butler, published in 1990, is arguably the most influential text in queer theory. Butler explicitly develops Foucault’s work in relation to feminist theories of gender in order to expose and explore naturalised and normative models of gender and of heterosexuality. She presents gender as a performative effect experienced by the individual as a natural identity as in the case of Nijinsky.

Gender, Butler argues, is not the conceptual or cultural extension of chromosomal/biological sex, but an ongoing discursive practice currently structured around the concept of heterosexuality as the norm of human relationships. Compulsory heterosexuality is installed in gender through the productions of taboos against homosexuality, resulting in a false coherence of apparently stable genders attached to appropriate biological sexes. This is why identifying a man as a gay seems preposterous. But the connections are not inevitable or natural. Gender performativity literally destroys the goal of the liberation of repressed or oppressed natures, whether gendered or sexual, but opens up possibilities of resistance and subversion closed down by identity politics. At the end of the 2000s, some academics have proposed a post- queer theory to resolve the inadequacies of queer theory, namely to have real-life impact on the queer and broader communities.

Nijinsky explicitly says that he always had sexual attraction towards women but his career demanded him to be a homosexual. The roles created by other choreographers opened his ability to dance in an effeminate way but at the same time Nijinsky choreographed masculine roles for himself. Nijinsky enthusiastically performed the roles of both female and male types. He was ready to experience every possibility in the dance. Theorists were always interested to find the shameful truths of sex. Confessions play an important role in sexuality. People like to share their experiences with others. They need to confess to get a peaceful mind. And these confessions can be related with one’s sexuality. It might be that through his ballet performances, Nijinsky attempted to confess his feelings.

Nijinsky who was surrounded by the artists also tried to reveal the homosexual or highly erotic Nijinsky. The painting drawn by a famous painter of those times portrayed Nijinsky showing the pubic hair but in reality it was covered with the costumes. At those times male desire for male was not spoken in public. So the males who were interested in expressing their desires got an opportunity during these ballet performances. Nijinsky was followed by a lot of homosexual figures who even found ecstasy by touching his thighs. Heterosexuality could be seen as a product of homosexuality, or rather of the same conceptual framework. Homosexual identity inevitably reaffirms a binary and unequal opposition between the homosexual and the heterosexual.

The juncture when the queer themes were put forward was an ambiguous period. Later it acquired an importance equivalent to Marxist theory and Psychoanalytic theory. The only problem was that no one knew what the queerness was. Soon Queer theory appeared on the shelves of bookstores and in advertisements for academic jobs. It also harmonised adequately with the contemporary critique of feminist and gay/lesbian identity politics. It brought the feeling that ‘queer’ was some sort of advanced post modern theory. It was also able to supersede both feminist and lesbian-gay theories. Queer theory thereby achieved what lesbian and gay studies, despite its many scholarly and critical accomplishments, had been unable to bring about: namely, the entry of queer scholarship into the academy, the creation of jobs in queer studies, and the acquisition of academic respectability for queer work.

Critics always co-relate the confessions with sexuality. The Law and the Church viewed “sex” as something not to be spoken about. The 16th century people considered “sex” as something not to be discussed and they don’t even like to be called heterosexuals. In the 18th century also the situation was not different. Nijinsky should have been congratulated for speaking on sexuality through his ballet performances. Nowadays people are frank to speak of sex with the same gender and they are happy to be known as ‘homosexuals.’

In December 1917, Nijinsky was admitted in a hospital at Switzerland ailing from schizophrenia. He had recorded his daily activities from January to March 1919 in his diary. No other public figure has gifted us with such a record of his life events. He was looked after by his wife Romola and Kyra, his daughter. The edited version was published for the public. The unedited version was edited by his wife Romola who removed almost most of the real incidents related to his sex- life. She wanted her husband to be presented to the public as a gentleman who loved his wife more than anything.

Romola presented Diaghilev as the person who destroyed Nijinsky’s life. She considered herself as Nijinsky’s mascot and protector. The original version was not published until Romola’s death. Nijinsky had very clearly stated his opinions on Diaghilev and Romola in his diary. It was written as a stream of consciousness narration in Russian and partially in French. He guiltily recalls his affairs and sexual relationships with prostitutes before and after marriage.

It can be believed that Nijinsky through his diary was trying to tell that he was not mad. He just achieved a higher plane of understanding with God. He just had a union with God. He tried to let the world know that “feeling” plays an important role in our life. It is necessary to feel than to think. In his diary, he speaks of things which are extraordinary. He talks about his eating habits, digestion and elimination. He longs to build a bridge between Europe and America for a better co-operation. He also says that he knows a cure for cancer.

Nijinsky repeatedly mentions the name of Diaghilev in his diary and he considers him as an eagle that kills small birds. Nijinsky knows that he is affected by something. He doesn’t know if it is madness or the union with God. Romola’s edited version casts Nijinsky as a person full of spirituality whereas his unedited version shows his sexual indulgences. Nijinsky at last hated Diaghilev for it was he who made Nijinsky a homosexual. It was out of necessity that Nijinsky became obedient to Diaghilev. In the last years of his life, Nijinsky tried to control his sexual urges. He even refused eating meat so that the sexual urges won’t irritate him.

While dancing Nijinsky would forget himself and become so much absorbed in the dance that there was only the dance and no dancer – he would jump so high that it was against gravitation. Through his diary, The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, we get a clear picture of what had happened to this real genius who had suddenly disappeared from the stage. The diary is a written document to analyze and understand Nijinsky through his own words. With the help of both sources – his dance performances and the diary, we could understand Vaslav Nijinsky as one of the greatest male dancers of the century. Nijinsky expressed himself through his dance performances. He was able to communicate with others through his dance. Diaghilev had seen Nijinsky kindle in the miracle ignited by Diaghilev.


Nijinsky, Vaslav. The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky.Trans. Kyril Fitzlyon. New York: Actes Sud, 1995. Print.

Nijinsky, Romola, ed. The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky. USA: California UP, 1968.



LITTY JOSEPH. Did her MA and M.Phil at the Institute of English and is currently pursuing higher studies in education.

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Did her MA and M.Phil at the Institute of English and is currently pursuing higher studies in education

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