A Committed Dancer

Vaslav Nijinsky was diagnosed with schizophrenia and involuntarily committed to a mental asylum in 1919. He spent the remaining three decades of his life in and out of institutions.

In the early months of 1919, as his psychotic break became impossible for those around him to ignore, Nijinsky kept a diary. He filled it with drawings of eyes and repetitive, rhythmic passages, like this one in which he obsesses over his former lover and boss Serge Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballets Russes: “Diaghilev thinks he is the God of art. I think I am God. I want to challenge Diaghilev to a duel so that the whole world will see. I want to prove that all Diaghilev’s art is sheer nonsense. If people help me, I will help them to understand Diaghilev. I worked with Diaghilev for five years without respite. I know all his tricks and habits. I was Diaghilev.”

What might his diary have looked like twenty years later?


Dance is the only activity of the body that doesn’t result in its violation. Eating, bathing, and the physical duties of marriage all sacrifice the body’s dignity. Eating or bathing while married, under the eyes of one’s wife and keeper, is particularly degrading. I do not like eating or bathing in front of my wife.

Without looking up from drawing my eyes, I know she is watching me. Watching and judging, the Red Cross nurse. She is red-haired beneath her Red Cross wimple. In her Red Cross wimple she studies me while I eat. The surveillance of one who has never watched a great ballet and learned to submit, humbled, to the spectacle before her. Her gaze appraises too coldly.

If she were carrying red roses beneath her red hair, I would run from her. I can’t stand red roses. So like beaded blood. I would run from red roses.

I peer closely at her. At certain moments she is familiar, her eyes like Romola’s or those of my brother, the crazy one. My brother was the one dancing the mad scene, ever since 1902. He terrifies me like a broken leg, a butchered foot. I have eyes on the backs of my ankles and they search for him. I search for him to make sure he is not, though dead, creeping close.

After an adolescent infatuation with ballet, I moved on to modern dance. I flirted with Graham and release techniques, had a one-night stand with the style of Isadora Duncan (silly, but I loved the filmy dresses), and enjoyed my longest affair with butoh, an avant-garde form conceived in Japan. I took classes, danced in amateur productions, and attended as many performances as I could.

I was enchanted by revivals of The Rite of Spring, originally choreographed by Nijinsky, and Les Noces, by his talented sister Bronislava Nijinska. Both boast raw energy and revolutionary movement, and even today, The Rite of Spring is startling in its violence. Dancers don’t try to hide their efforts in the piece. By the end, you feel like you are watching someone dance herself to death.

If I was drawn to butoh partly because of the stark difference between my own cultural background and the one that produced it, I was intrigued by Nijinksy because of what we shared: an eagerness to embrace both Western and Eastern influences, a struggle with mental illness, and a connection to Poland. Both sides of my family come from Poland, while Nijinsky was born in Kiev to parents who were ethnically Polish. Although he couldn’t speak the language well, he self-identified as Polish throughout his life.

I empathized with his longing to break down artistic forms while his own mind experimented with deconstruction, again and again and again.

Fokine loved to make me dance a slave. So did the other one. Diaghilev, the master and the devil. The doctors here remind me of him. They remind me of Diaghilev. They costume themselves as genial peddlers but they crack the whip over all of us. We are their beasts of burden. Like with Diaghilev.

The kindliest was the one at the Burghölzli, back when I thought all this would pass. Men without words would come entr’acte to whisk away the setting of a sanatorium and replace it with drawing room furniture and frou frou. Or better yet, a stage. A stage upon a stage upon another and another. I would never lose my way from it again. I would dance until death. (The sacrifice in The Rite of Spring is not the maiden danced to death but the dance itself, which expires when she does.)

The man at the Burghölzli once asked me why I drew eyes. He asked like he wanted to know and would accept whatever answer I gave. There was a piece of paper between us, rustling like tulle as I made it see. While I drew an oval to pair with its mate, I whispered to him, “They called me Japonczyk.”

“What does that mean?”

I put down the pencil and dragged my right forefinger across the lid of my right eye and upward, as if my finger were a stroke of makeup. “They said I looked Japanese. My eyes. In Russia. We were at war.”

“I see.”

I think his choice of words a poem to honor mine, so I just nod. He understands. His words show he understands. “But I was Polish. Though it’s too hard to speak. The language is hard. Everyone speaking Russian. Cannot trust language. Only eyes, because with eyes you see the body. And the body is always dancing.”

On the same day that Nijinsky started his diary—January 19, 1919—he gave an improvised and agitated performance. In the course of it, he shouted, “Now I will dance you the war . . .The war which you did not prevent.” He was presumably referencing World War I, but it was World War II that almost killed him.

We know now that the Nazis targeted, along with the Jews, other groups: homosexuals, Romani, Polish Catholics, and the mentally ill. The reality of these victims was driven home for me when I conducted research in Poland for a historical novel based on my family’s activities in the Polish Resistance during World War II. My family is Polish Catholic on both sides, although my father’s ancestors were Sephardic Jews forced out of Spain by the Inquisition, who ended up changing religion and nationality through intermarriage over the centuries. Several first cousins, twice removed, utilized their backgrounds as competitive skiers to escort people out of occupied Poland via the Tatra Mountains. One was caught and shot in the woods. Another was caught and sent to Ravensbrück, but she survived. A third was caught and sentenced to death, but he managed to escape from his Krakòw prison and hide out for the rest of the war in Hungary.

Even Catholic Poles who weren’t involved in the resistance were seen by Hitler as just an eventual slave race. Soon after the September Campaign, the Germans shut down educational institutions in Poland, because they thought it necessary for Poles to know just three things: how to count to 500, how to write their own names, and that God had commanded Poles to serve Germans.

Hitler’s plans for and acts against people suffering from mental retardation, physical deformities, and serious mental disorders like schizophrenia were far more barbaric. It is estimated that Hitler sterilized or killed around a quarter of a million schizophrenics and killed about the same number of psychiatric patients in total, all as part of the eugenics movement that cropped up earlier in the century. One eugenics-themed tract from 1920 was titled “Permission for the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life” and advocated the eradication of the mentally ill and mentally handicapped. On September 1, 1939—the day his armies invaded Poland—Hitler initiated Aktion T-4, his program to kill mental patients using such theories as justification. He insisted that the term “euthanasia”/euthanasie be used for these murders.

Nijinsky escaped death during the wartime liquidation of his asylum due to the timely intervention of a staff member, who warned his wife that he needed to leave it.

The doctor looks at me and asks, “Do you see yourself dancing when you close your eyes?”

“I never see anything else,” I said, eyes wide.

That was not true. Or maybe it was true then but it’s not true now. It is not true that I never see anything else. I have more dreams now, both sleeping and awake, and all kinds of things in them interrupt my dancing. Something must be interrupting my dancing because I’ve been planning performances for years. Outfitting myself for ballets like a girl being dressed for a fairy-tale ball. But they never happen. My dances never happen.

Could this be the ballet, this madhouse choreography of wandering in circles and being gazed upon? The movement phrases are not that interesting. They are not interesting, yet the doctors and nurses and my wife stare at me as if I were poised en pointe, horns growing out of my head like a faun.

The red-haired Red Cross nurse promises me I will perform in public again.

“When?” I ask, just to have something to say. I say it even though there is no point in debating what to stage with someone who wouldn’t understand the finer points of my planned program. She would not even understand how many rose petals should adorn my costume.

“Soon. When it’s safe.” I’ve heard whispers of trouble and threats but the doctors and nurses speak only in riddles. I worry for the safety of my Poland, my Russia. “Maybe you’ll perform in Paris again.”

I turn my feet inward at this mention of the scene of my greatest triumphs and most notorious failure. “My wife will take me home?” I turn inward.

The nurse thinks I mean the transient addresses at which I occasionally sojourn with my wife and daughters, before being committed once again. She thinks I mean with my wife. But I mean something else.

Nijinsky proved that there is an intricate relationship between creativity and mental instability, although I’m tired of the mad genius cliché, which posits that the best artists are crazy and their gifts the direct result of their mental disorders. Although I am not a genius, I can say that in my experience, one’s work usually falters during periods of despair or other extreme psychological disruption; the relationship is not so much causal as conditional, reciprocal. My writing was not a result but a casualty of my depression, anxiety, and other ills—when the latter peaked, I couldn’t write, and the less I wrote, the more depressed and desperate I became. This is why Nijinsky’s diary is invaluable: As dance critic Joan Acocella pointed out, many artists have gone insane, but few great ones have actually kept a diary as they descended into psychosis.

It is true that a mind battered by major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or another serious mental condition might be seeded by a vulnerability, sensitivity, and tendency toward collapsing boundaries that could indeed be useful in making radical art. In such minds, synthesis and dissolution tango in one another’s arms. Yet in chronicling the lives of creative geniuses such as Nijinsky, it seems like we are often trying to pit sense-making against madness, hoping against hope that there is some meaning in or compensation for the latter. We try to romanticize what is, simply and nearly always, dreadful pain.

We know that in Nijinsky’s case, he started to disintegrate after the breakdown of his relationship with Diaghilev, when he tried to run various ballet companies of his own and was able to devote less time to his dance. We can’t say whether he might have stayed his deterioration if he had continued to dance more unencumbered. It’s also impossible to judge what effect, if any, his brief commitment to diary-writing had on the progression of his disease, and how much art was in it no one knows.

I wouldn’t write in this journal if I could dance in front of others. I would much rather dance in front of others than write. Still, by writing things down, maybe I can hide from my jailers. Maybe I can keep something secret and within. Maybe, because the body is blessed with many hiding places.

Someone once told me that in Japanese, the words for “foot” and “leg” are the same. This might seem strange to other people, I don’t know. But it doesn’t seem strange to me. For me the vagueness is beside the point, because words in any language pale in comparison to the body’s own specificity. When I dance, I know something deep inside my fingers and toes, my joints and tendons, that I only know then and at no other time. Walking down the street, words like “femur” and “fibula” might be useful, but when I’m dancing Bluebird or Vayou, language dissolves. Language is replaced by inevitability, by the chase. A person once hunted bounds headlong into a chase that never ends.

Except it ends here in the asylum. Here it ends and ends, and the body in which I once ran and leapt and thundered betrays me before others’ eyes. My body betrays me. My best option now is to lie as still as possible, like an animal trying to trick a hungry predator.

One day I am napping in my room. I wake suddenly, as if accosted by an advancing army or the rise of light.

The red-haired Red Cross nurse is in my room, dancing. The red-haired Red Cross nurse is naked beneath her wimple.

“Come join me,” she says, beckoning, with a smile on her face I’ve never seen her wear while watching me.

I stretch out my body beneath the sheets. It is heavier than ever before. I think that there are limits. I think that time may win. Madness is nothing next to the conductor’s wand of the passing years.

“I’d prefer just to watch you,” I tell her, closing my eyes.

Copyright © Cynthia Gralla, 2019