V&A museum acquires Nijinsky ballet costume designed by Léon Bakst

Published
28/12/2017 by

A silk costume designed by Léon Bakst and worn by Vaslav Nijinsky, one of the greatest ballet dancers, has been acquired by the V&A museum.

The costume was one of many Nijinsky left in Russia after he moved to the west. It was inherited by his sister Bronislava Najinska, who was also a renowned dancer and choreographer, though not to the level of her famous brother.

Jane Pritchard, curator of dance at the V&A, travelled to the Rocky Mountains in the US to view the costume, also acquiring a trove of other outfits and artefacts that had been in the family for more than a century. They include several personal objects, such as Nijinsky’s graduate diploma, and a lapel badge he wore as a student at St Petersburg’s Imperial School.

“I got a phone call one day asking if we would be interested in a Bakst costume worn by both Nijinsky and his sister Nijinska,” recalls Pritchard. “Would we? Would we!”

The green and yellow silk costume were remodelled for one of Nijinska’s experimental performances of abstract choreography in 1919 by radical young artists in Kiev, who darkened the bright colours and added a jagged Constructivist-style overskirt. Nijinska brought many costumes with her when she moved to the US at the outbreak of the second world war.

Nijinsky’s most glittering period was with the Ballets Russes, a company created by the impressario Sergei Diaghilev, often working with the choreographer Michel Fokin and the artist and designer Bakst. The company’s glamorous productions were viewed as sensational – and in the case of the sensuous L’Apres Midi d’un Faune, and the radical Rite of Spring, shocking to the point of provoking riots.

Nijinsky spent most of the first world war under house arrest in Bulgaria, formed his own unsuccessful ballet company, and in 1919 suffered mental health problems that lasted until his death in London in 1950. Nijinska died in California in 1972.

The Bakst costume was sold to the V&A with other costumes and memorabilia by the widower of Nijinskaya’s grand daughter. “The Nijinksy family archives had already been sold to the Library of Congress but they don’t do costumes and we very much do,” Pritchard said. “They knew we have one of the greatest Ballets Russes collections in the world, and they were delighted that these would join it.”

Some questions about the costume remain: the story in the family was that it was created for a character called the Moth, from a ballet in which Nijinsky danced with another legendary figure, Anna Pavlova. “There are two problems with this,” says Pritchard. “It doesn’t look at all like a moth, and would a pas de deux by Nijinsky and Pavlova have been entirely forgotten by ballet history?”

The restored costume – “the tights were particularly difficult; there were more ladders than fabric” – is now on display along with Nijinsky’s Imperial School artefacts. He only managed to graduate from the prestigious academy because his dancing was so dazzling it made up for his lacklustre academics.

The certificate is creased because when Nijinski’s mother left Russia, she folded it tightly to hide it among her possessions. At Pritchard’s insistence, the many creases have been conserved as a reminder of its poignant history.