Consider Nijinsky

Michael Nolan

Switzerland is sick because it is full of mountains.

Nijinsky doesn’t speak. He doesn’t move from his little chair. He sits with his hands between his thighs and watches the master of the Paris Opéra Ballet perform a plié. It’s 1939 and his wife, Romola, has summoned the world’s press to this sanatorium in Switzerland to witness the moment when her husband, inspired by the performance of the ballet master, publicly demonstrates what she’s been maintaining for months: that Nijinsky has made a full and miraculous recovery. The resulting series of photographs, taken by Jean Manzon, shows what looks to be a more makeshift performance than Romola would have hoped for—several medical staff, one of whom is wearing a white coat, have gathered in the background, and are smiling—yet the desired effect seems to have been achieved. One photograph in particular strikes me. Shot from what looks to be the corner of the room, the image shows a fully suited Nijinsky hovering in the air, mid-jump. His black shoes are touching at the heels (I can see his laces). His hands are outstretched, preacher-like. Behind him on the wall, he casts a large shadow that stretches down to the floor. His face is pale in the brightness of the ceiling light, his mouth open, as if he isn’t sure how to get down from the great height from which he has found himself suspended.

My wife disturbs me because she feels.

At some point before the photograph was taken, while watching the Paris ballet master re-enact the choreography from his famous eleven-minute ballet, Afternoon of a Fawn, Nijinsky stood up from his chair. Those gathered watched with wide-eyed anticipation as the old, bemused dancer reached out to touch this other man’s calf, which is raised in one photograph for Nijinsky’s inspection. Even the doctor in charge, who is said to have been so infuriated by the commotion that he threatened to discharge Nijinsky from his sanatorium, must have changed his tone when one of the photographers called for the great dancer to perform a jump for them and Nijinsky obliged. Standing before the white wall in his badly fitted suit, shuffling from foot to foot, picking the nails of his trembling fingers, Nijinsky cut an utterly inadequate figure, yet was still somehow capable of doing something remarkable. Jean Manzon just so happened to have his camera ready.

I am feeling through the flesh and not through the intellect.

Beyond Manzon’s photographs of Xingu Indians, some of which are more incidental than others, his work, though pleasing in its artifice, often feels manufactured. His photograph of three Brazilian women getting ready for the carnival, for instance, all in traditional dress, headscarves and thick hooped earrings, could be a live action shot from a theatre production, or a still from a soap opera. His reputation as a photojournalist, though highly regarded in Brazil, has been tainted by his inclination to stage-manage; a group of monks once refused to have their picture taken for a news story, so Manzon got two of his friends to dress up in robes, took the photographs he needed, and sent them to the newsroom, which published them as authentic. Manzon would go on to direct and produce over 900 short documentaries, many of which were shown in cinemas across Brazil during that country's period of military dictatorship. During this time, it was mandatory for picture houses to show documentaries praising the policies and accomplishments of the regime before the main movie. Manzon’s work was no exception; several of his films were made with financial support from the IPES, one of the main organisations involved in the Military Coup of 1964. That’s not to say that his photograph of Nijinsky was orchestrated, or that Manzon has in any way tampered with it. More that this photograph has a particular function of which I’m sure Manzon was conscious. After all, there are no videos of Nijinsky dancing, no visual proof of his ability beyond numerous posed photographs taken during his time with the Ballet Russes, his lean body draped in extravagant dance costumes, his legs looking sculpted out of marble as he stands en pointe. As Joan Acocella, the translator of Nijinsky’s unexpurgated diary points out: ‘Never was so much artistic fame based on so little artistic evidence: one eleven-minute ballet, Fawn, plus some photographs.’

I loved everyone, but no one loved me, and therefore I became nervous.

To look at Manzon’s photograph is to know that he was there. He witnessed Nijinsky’s jump and decided that it was something worth recording. What we are left with then is not an interpretation of an event, but an instant that Manzon has chosen to isolate. The effect this has on me, and the bewilderment I feel when looking at it, is complicated by whether or not the photograph attests to what I want to believe was happening in the moments before it was taken, and if this corroborates the narrative I have built around it—that Nijinsky stood up from his chair and performed a graceful, floating jump; that he seemed to pause mid-air before landing lightly, his face breaking into a smile as the people gathered there watching, medical professionals and all, burst into applause. In reality, Nijinsky, at this stage in his life, was fifty-one years old. Every psychotherapy and rehabilitation treatment he had undergone up until then had failed. He had been overcome with bouts of mutism, regressive violent behaviour, catatonia, and rage, since 1919, and had physically deteriorated so badly during his twenty years of illness that he was incapable of brushing his own teeth, or tying his shoelaces unattended. The appeal of this photograph therefore has nothing to do with the kind of jump Nijinsky is performing, or his competence in performing it, but the fact that he is able to jump at all, that he is high enough off the ground for his face to be level with the ceiling light, that his feet are pointed horizontally, not downwards as they would be for a soubresaut, but looking as if they have been raised from the floor by some kind of paranormal force.

I am sorry for them because they think I am sick.

David Blaine first performed his levitation illusion in his 1997 television special, Street Magic. I was staying in my cousin’s house; he was my babysitter. It was past midnight when we landed on a channel showing David Blaine approach a group of men on a street corner in New York. After being wowed by a few card tricks, one man with blonde highlights asks David Blaine if he can really levitate. David Blaine smiles, says he isn’t sure, he was able to do it once but got sick out of his mind. He moves away from the group and turns his back to them: ‘I don’t know if I’ll be able to get off, it’s kinda hard.’ There’s a pause, a lingering shot. David Blaine raises his hands, his body like an upside-down pendulum as he rises up off the ground. The men squeal. They laugh. One man takes off running down the street. It didn’t cross my mind that any sort of trickery was going on, even when David Blaine performs for three women on a boardwalk in New Jersey and the camera obviously cuts to a shot from behind the girl with her jumper tied round her waist. My cousin pointed it out to me. We were sitting on his living room floor with our legs crossed under us, staring up at the TV. I was petulant. ‘He’s clearly doing it,’ I said. ‘Look.’

I have experienced nothing but horrible things.

If we had YouTube then, my cousin would have shown me the TV show he had watched a few days before: Breaking The Magician’s Code: Magic’s Biggest Secrets Revealed. Instead, my cousin positioned himself on the carpet in front of the fireplace, his white socks darkened round the soles, and stood in such a way that I could only see the back of his left foot and most of his right. He proceeded to hold his hands out lengthways as he leaned his weight on the front toes of his left foot while lifting the right foot and the visible part of his left foot off the floor. And it did look like he was levitating, if only for a second. I had a go at doing it myself. I glanced over my shoulder as David Blaine had glanced over his, and raised myself up. My cousin applauded. ‘That’s it,’ he said. ‘That’s exactly it.’

■ ■ ■