Nijinsky in the Siamese Dance from ‘Les Orientales,’ 1911

The Studio:  This striking photograph shows Nijinksy prowling, feline, dressed in the full costume of his role in Les Orientales in 1911.  It resides in the Studio at Charleston, and perhaps served for Duncan Grant as a prompt to old memories and inspiration, recalling a moment in time when the artistic world underwent a radical change.

Nijinsky in the Siamese Dance from 'Les Orientales'. Photograph by Penelope Fewster

Nijinsky in the Siamese Dance from ‘Les Orientales’. Photograph by Penelope Fewster

When Diaghalev’s Ballet Russes came to London in 1911, Grant was enthralled by its originality: powerful rhythms, sensual movement and androgynous shapes and costumes transformed the art of dance.  Central to the success of the Ballet Russes was one particular dancer: Vaslav Nijinsky.  Nijinsky was world famous, and renowned as much for his physical prowess and balletic virtuosity as for being one half of Europe’s most famous gay couple, living openly in a relationship with Diaghalev.

Coinciding with the discovery of freedom of form and colour in the work of Matisse and the Post-Impressionists, Grant was stimulated by these great modern changes in the arts and underwent a rapid development of painterly style.

Nijinsky and Grant met in 1912, and went on to see each other at several parties including those hosted by Lady Ottoline Morrell. Holroyd describes how Grant ‘had at once become what Ottoline called the “pet” of both Nijinsky and Diaghilev: “I saw Nijinsky looking him all over!” she reported (20 July 1913).’[1]

A Bloomsbury party during which Grant played tennis went on to provide the inspiration to Nijinsky’s Jeux (1913), a ballet exploring homosexual and heterosexual pairings and trios, set to a score by Debussy. As Millicent Hodson’s book Nijinsky’s Bloomsbury Balletreveals, the subject of the ballet is the ‘libertine manners and mores of the Bloomsbury artists [Nijinsky] and designer Leon Bakst observed at a nocturnal tennis party in London’s Bedford Square. The ambiguous coupling and tripling Nijinsky explored in Jeux startled the public as did Debussy’s music … Critics attacked not so much the ethics of Jeux as its post-impressionist aesthetics influenced by the French painters that Bloomsbury had revealed to England since 1910.’ [2]

Reciprocating the influence, Grant’s tennis player murals for Brunswick Square in 1913 then echoed the balletic shapes and costumes of Nijinksy’s ballet.

Bloomsbury’s links to the Ballet Russes were cemented in 1925 by the marriage of John Maynard Keynes to ballerina Lydia Lopokova. You can find out more about Ballet and the Bloomsbury group from a post in our Charleston Attic blog by our curatorial interns.

Nijinsky’s later life was plagued by debilitating mental illness. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic in 1918, after which he never danced again.

[1]Michael Holroyd, Lytton Strachey, The New Biography, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1995, p291.
[2]Millicent Hodson, Nijinsky’s Bloomsbury ballet: reconstruction of dance and design for Jeux, Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2008.

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