Vaslav Fomich Nijinsky (1890-1950) is regarded by some people as the greatest dancer that ever lived. Among the tributes lavished on him were "the eighth wonder of the world" and the "god of dance." Although his life was marked by tragedy and he was fired from his dance company at the height of his fame, he wowed audience in his brief 10 year dancing career with energy, creativity and eroticism, and also created the role of the modern male dancer.

The second son of two Polish ballet dancers, Nijinsky was born in Kiev. His mother, who had great aspiration for him as a dancer, tried to enrol him in the tsar's Imperial Theater School at the age of seven. He was rejected but at the age of 10 he was one of six selected from 150 applicants to the school.

Nijinsky graduated from the Imperial Theater School and the age 17 and became a member of the Imperial Ballet. Frustrated by the limited tolls for male dancers, who at that time were supposed to stay in the shadows of the ballerinas, Nijinsky began moonlighting with a group of dancers organized by Diaghilev. Nijinsky later got in argument over a costume with a director at the Maryinsky Theater, quit the Imperial ballet and joined Diaghilev's Les Ballet Ruses as the company's number one ballet dancer.

While Nijinsky was having a gay relationship with Diaghilev, the dancer later wrote, he used to sneak away from Diaghilev and roam the streets of Paris, looking for prostitutes (See Diaghilev above). Nijinsky married a Hungarian dancer named Romola de Pulzsky. They had two daughters, Kyra and Tamara. When Nijinsky visited Hungary during World War I he was interred there as an enemy alien.

Nijinsky, the Dancer

Nijinsky’s most famous roles were the title role in “Petrouchka “(1911) and Faun in “The Rite of Spring”. Audience were amazed by his expressiveness, emotion and ability to seemingly pause in the air when he leaped. In Diaghilev's”L'Aprés-midi d'un Faun” (1912) audiences were shocked by his blatant eroticism. See Diaghilev above.

Nijinsky said, in ballet "it should be the whole body that dances. Everything down to the last muscle must be expressive, be eloquent." Upon seeing Nijinsky dance in Petrouchka,, the famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt remarked, "I'm afraid. I am afraid, for I am watching the greatest actor in the world.”

Lydia Lopokova, who danced with both Nijinsky and Massine for Diaghilev, said, "Massine mimed...with his hands stiff and hanging...Nijinsky moved more with his whole body...Massine's was an intellectual creation, Nijinsky's of inward bodily genius, only half conscious."

Unable to arrange financing for a North American tour without Nijinsky, Diaghilev persuaded the dancer to return to the company with an understanding that he would surrender artistic control. The 1917 tour was Nijinsky' last.

Nijinsky Insanity and Death

Nijinsky always had a reputation of not being completely there but his eccentricity escalated to full-on psychosis in 1917 when started suffering from severe paranoia and hired a bodyguard to protect him from his "enemies" while his dance company was touring South America.

After returning to Europe, Nijinsky and his family settled in Switzerland. He began to withdraw into himself, going long period without saying anything and then babbling about God and wishing to return to a simple peasant life. In March 1919, when Nijinsky was only 29 and seven weeks after he last danced publically, he was committed to a mental institution and remained their until his death in 1950.

In notebooks written by Nijinsky shortly before he was institutionalized, he scribbled in a stream of consciousness about his identification with God and Jesus Christ, his distaste for money and meat, his love of humanity and his fantasies with both men and women. He also wrote: "I danced terrible things. They are afraid of me because they thought I wanted to kill them." And later said, "The won't put me away in an asylum because I dance very well and I make lots of money for those who want it." The notebooks were published in the mid-1990s.

Nijinsky's daughter, who was born in 1920 and was raised by her mother's parents in Hungary, told the New York Times on his trips to Budapest in the 1930s, he walked in the garden and lived the family life. He would mumble but I couldn't understand him." A reunion of the members of “Les Ballet Russe “was held in 1928 to try an help "spark a recovery" but Nijinsky failed to respond. Nijinsky died in London in 1950 and was buried in Paris.


Rudolph Nureyev (1938-1993) was one of the greatest dancers of the 20th century. He was known for his dazzling leaps and the single-minded intensity in which he approached his craft. He practiced like a Marine in training, tirelessly promoted himself and displayed his strangeness and sexuality on the stage for all to see.

Nureyev—like Nijinsky—was credited with bringing the male dance out of the background of the ballerinas and in the process giving ballet itself a much needed boost. David Gates wrote in Newsweek, "He was the most famous dancer who ever lived, and his celebrity and charisma helped transform ballet from a high-culture relic to something approaching a popular art form." When he defected from the Soviet Union in 1961, there were 24 ballet companies in the United States. By 1974, there were 216 and audiences had grown from less than a million to more than 10 million.

Nureyev won fame for his gravity-defying leaps and turns, charisma, and virtuosity. His prima dona attitude and temper tantrums and spoiled behavior off the stage also won him notoriety. Nureyev enjoyed sex and money and was regarded as a charter member of the jet set. He hung out with people like Jacqueline Onassis, Stavos Niarchos and Yves Saint Laurent. He was openly homosexual and had numerous lovers.

Book: “Nureyev: His Life” by Diane Solway (Morrow, 1998)

Nureyev's Early Life

The son of Red Army commissar, Nureyev was born on a train traveling between Lake Baikal and Irkutsk and raised in a one-room, dirt-floor shack in the bleak Soviet city of Ufa in the Ural mountains. His descendants included members of the Golden Horde.

At the age of seven Nureyev decided to be a dancer after watching a propaganda ballet called “The Song of the Cranes”. "From the moment I entered the magical place I felt I had really left the world, borne far away from everything I knew by a dream staged for me alone.” Nureyev got his start dancing in amateur children folk-dance clubs. He studied under Alexander Pushkin at the Leningrad State Vaganova Ballet School form 1955 to 1958. He was regarded a problem student.

Nureyev danced for both the Kirov and the Bolshoi. He was an unknown in 1958 when the great Kirov ballerina of the 40s and 50s, Natalya Dudinskaya selected him to be her partner in “Laurencia”. He was 20 and she was 46. Nureyev was always grateful to Dudinskaya for giving him this break. When the Kirov made its debut in Paris, London and New York in 1961, the Kirov artistic director insisted that younger dancer like Nureyev be showcased rather than the veterans. Nureyev caused a major sensation in Paris.

Nureyev's Defection and Career in the West

The 23-year-old Nureyev defected to the West in dramatic fashion in 1961 at the Le Bourget Airport in Paris during a Kirov European tour. He had been a recent addition to the Kirov tour and openly defied his KGB handlers by hanging out with French friends and doing as he pleased. Twice he had been ordered by Moscow to return home but the Kirov resisted because he was being hailed as the new Nijinsky.

After the third order came the Kirov had no choice but to obey. Sensing something was up when he was told that both his mother was ill and Khrushchev wanted him in Moscow for a special performance, he struggled away from his guards at the airport after receiving a cue from a friend and ran int to the arms of a pair of waiting gendarmes. Dudinskaya and Kirov director Konstantin Sergeyev were held responsible for the defection. Their careers suffered for a while.

Nureyev capitalized on the publicity surrounding the defection and became the lead male dancer for the British Royal Ballet, where he formed a legendary pairing with Dame Margot Fonteyn. He first appeared with the company in “Le Corsaire” in 1962. Nureyev and Fonteyn received a world record 89 curtain calls after a performance of “Swan Lake” in Vienna in October 1964. They performed together for 17 years. Nureyev once appeared on "The Muppets Show," dancing with Miss Piggy in a piece called “Swine Lake”.

In 1983, at the age of 45, Nureyev became artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet, a position he held for six tempestuous years. He choreographed elaborate revisions of classics like “Sleeping Beauty”, “Swan Lake”, and “Don Quixote” and starred in a number of premiers, including Roland Petits “Paradise Lost” and Murray Louis’ “Movement”.

Nureyev, the F.B.I. and the K.G.B.

The F.B.I. investigated Nureyev as being a possible spy. Their suspicions were aroused by a note found hidden behind a wall plaque at a hotel room in California that read, "Nureyev—I made contact with the agent at M.L.S. and he agreed that we should wait before we attempt to 3689001427. I hope you find the note as you requested. I put it here on 7-19. I really don’t approve of your hiding place, it is rather conspicuous." Nureyev never stayed at the hotel.

Nureyev believed he was followed by the KGB and one of his greatest fears was being sent back to the Soviet Union. His biographer Diane Solway told the New York Times, "the irony is that he was paranoid about being shadowed by the KGB and was terrified when people got to close to him. It now turns out that it was probably the F.B.I. that followed him. In the end, he trusted nobody."

Nureyev's Possessions

Nureyev never owned his own apartment until he defected to the West but made up of his impoverished years by spending heaps of money when he became famous. Nureyev owned seven homes, including apartments in New York, Paris (a 19th century salon on 23 Quai Voltaire), and London, an island in Italy and a farm in Virginia. His New York Apartment, in the Dakota, where John Lennon and other celebrities lived, sold in 1995 for $7.9 million. Of his homes he once said, they were "all strange, isolated places that would not appeal to society people. They are not presentable."

In 1995, Christies in London auctioned off a number of his possessions, including a Russian Karelian-birch library table ($116,475), a double manual harpsichord, made in 1627 ($59,014), 18th century gaming purses, a collection of obis (sashes used to tie kimonos), 18th century French and English formal dresses, court suits and waist coats, a large collection of 19th century Cashmere scarves, and his collection of ballet, symphony, Baroque, and chamber music.

Nureyev wore size 7EEE ballet shoes. He valued his old pairs so much that he never gave any away and always traveled with a bag of beat up pairs. Nureyev loved collecting oriental carpets. His tomb is covered with a mosaic intended to look like an oriental carpet.

Nureyev's Later Years

Nureyev was officially "rehabilitated" in the Soviet Union 1988. He continued to dance when he was past his prime and was ridiculed and pitied for it. Once when he was spotted being squeezed into his dance clothes by is masseur, he remarked, "Do you understand how much energy it takes to do all this. So I pay Luigi."

Nureyev died AIDS in January 1993 at the age 54. Nureyev continued to dance even after he was diagnosed with AIDS and decided to be an orchestra conductor. He never admitted publically that he had the disease.

After Nureyev's death, his $7 million dollar estate became the subject of bitter dispute between his lawyer, Barry Weinstin, and his sister and niece. In his will Nureyev left most of his money as a gift to the Illinois-based Rudolph Nureyev Dance Foundation, that Wienstein helped Nureyev set up shortly before he died.

Nureyev's family members claim that Weinstein took advantage of the dancer's impaired mental state during the illness, convincing the dancer to leave all of his money to the dance foundation, something Nureyev wouldn't have done were he healthy. Nureyev's family tried to block the gift and took the matter to court. In June 1998, a U.S. judge threw out the family's claim and said the gift was valid.


Mikhail Baryshnikov is regarded by many dance lovers as the best dancer of the 20th century. They rank him higher than Nijinsky and Nureyev because he was able to leap higher and show his virtuosity in a greater variety of styles. It is difficult to say unequivocally that he is the best dancer of all time because nobody living now saw the great dancers of the 19th century.

Baryshnikov was born in Riga, Latvia. His father was a Soviet military officer and his other died when he was 11. Not longer afterwards her death he began to study dance at Riga's prestigious School of Theater, Opera and Ballet.

Describing his first stage appearance, he told Newsweek, "I was 12, and I was on stage in the [Tchaikovsky] opera “Pique Dame”. There were a couple of us little children in Arab dress, sitting with our backs to audience. They put stockings over our heads, with holes cut in them, so not to waste makeup on kids."

At the age of 16, Baryshnikov left for Leningrad and joined the Kirov ballet, where he was recognized as a major talent and soon featured as one of the companies main dancers. Baryshnikov defected from the Soviet Union in 1974 by leaping into a waiting car after a performance in Toronto.

Baryshnikov, the Dancer

Baryshnikov made his reputation in ballet, with his breathtaking leaps and precise execution. Explaining what it takes to be a great dancer, he once said, "A ballerina needs taste and ego and determination. She should be a ham, looking at you and trying to provoke you. Beyond that, the secret is a in a fresh way of phrasing, of playing with the music." Baryshnikov most famous ballet roles were in “Giselle” and “Don Quixote” in which he performed dazzling turns and impossibly high suspended leaps. He did some of his best work with the American Ballet Theater, where he was director for ten years..

Unlike other great ballet dancers Baryshnikov wanted to experiment with new dance forms. "I decided from a very early age” that “dance was not just classical dance," he told Newsweek. "People say classical dance is the most refined and difficult thing to conquer. But for me that was about the end if it, because there was dance behind, in front, beside and about."

Sixteen years after his defection Baryshnikov turned his back on ballet and devoted himself to modern dance by founding White Oaks. Baryshnikov danced modern dance pieces choreographed by Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp, Jerome Robbins, Alvin Ailey and others. A low point was his appearance in a punk pierce called “The Mollino Room”.

Baryshnikov displayed his skill as a tap dancer in ”White Nights”, a 1985 film in which he played a Russian dancer who gets involved with a black American Communist tap dancer (Gregory Hines) in web of intrigue and betrayal after his plane is forced make an emergency landing in the Soviet Union.

Baryshnikov had surgery numerous times on his right knee, which required up to two hours of physical therapy in the morning, two hours after rehearsals and rigorous warming up before performances. When he could he wore a knee brace during performances and often performed on custom-built portable spring-wood floors that were laid down in two-inch-thick segments over any stage. If he stands still too long, Baryshnikov risks losing the looseness in his joints.

Baryshnikov’s Later Career and Private Life

In 1998, Baryshnikov performed a minimalist work by sound artist Christopher Janney and choreographer Sara Rudner in which a device was connected to his body that allowed the audience to hear his heartbeat. Describing one his early experiences with the device Baryshnikov told the New York Times, “I went on stage, and I thought was not nervous. But my heart was beating probably 145 to 150 beats a minutes. Your heart is very much connected to your mind."

Baryshnikov served as director the American Ballet Theater from 1980 to 1989. In the early 2000s, Baryshnikov disbanded the White Oak dance group and planned to open an arts center—the Baryshnikov Center for Dance—in Manhattan. In 2003 and 2004, Baryshnikov appeared in the television show “Sex and the City”, playing an artist and inattentive boyfriend, In 2004, he returned to the stage at the age of 56 to perform at the Barbican Theater in London, just after he was dumped by Sarah Jessica Parker in “Sex and the City”.

Baryshnikov had a much publicized relationship with the actress Jessica Lange. As of the early 2000s, Baryshnikov lived near New York City in a quiet town overlooking the Hudson River with former American Ballet Theater ballerina Lisa Rinehart, and their three small children. He has an older daughter (born 1991), who lived with her mother, Jessica Lange

Baryshnikov loves dogs. He told Newsweek, "Sometimes I watch dog shows on TV. Their dogs are fine, but the owners!" One his first trip to his hometown of Riga since his defection, he returned home with a boxer puppy named Maggie that he found there.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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