Nijinksy through the eyes and lens of E O Hoppé

Having just finished Julian Barnes’s compelling new novel, The Sense of an Ending, I’ve been thinking about the tricks that our memories play on us.

The book is a meditation on regret, aging, the way we remember and what we forget – what is lost to memory.

Who, today could describe how Pavlova danced, or Nijinsky or Karsavina?

Most of their photographs are carefully posed and glamorised, although not as much as those of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo dancers and there is little or no film of the legendary dancers of the early 20th century.

But there is this – a mysterious photo of Nijinsky by the great photographer, E O Hoppé, which was exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in London earlier this year.

It seems to tell us more than we could know by reading accounts of Nijinksy’s theatricality. Almost a hundred years after the photo was taken, the dancer’s sleepy eyes, sensuous mouth, and ambiguous sexuality seems to me to express the intangible scent of the rose he portrayed and the space he created between himself and his onlookers.

Here, to me, is the real Nijinksy – not the mad Nijinksy, or the leaping through the window Nijinsky, but a man who created havoc in theatres simply by entering the stage. Who was he off stage? No one can remember.

Lee Christofis, dance curator at the National Library of Australia, led me to an article about the photo, written by Hoppé himself in an unpublished memoir.

The description can be found on the website devoted to Hoppé’s work –

“Nijinsky was a most elusive person to get hold of, and one appointment after another was cancelled at the eleventh hour.

Like most of the artists who sketched or painted him, I had to be satisfied with glimpses of him obtained either from the stage wings or by hanging about in draughty corridors.

When eventually he sat to me, I found him the least cooperative of all other members of the Ballet.

I actually had to ‘waylay’ him, and had it not been for the invaluable help of my friend Bolm, and dear old Madame Marie, Nijinsky’s wardrobe mistress, it is doubtful whether future attempts would not have been entirely frustrated.

I had given up all hope of the dancer posing for me when, one Saturday, Adolf Bolm telephoned me.

He urged me to make one final effort as that afternoon’s performance was to be the last of the season.

With no high hopes I went to the London Coliseum and, with camera ready set up, posted myself outside Nijinsky’s dressing room and nervously awaited his return from the stage.

It was his final appearance in the Spectre de la Rose – the most famous of all his parts – and as usual the enthusiasm of the audience was overwhelming. As the last burst of applause died down, my nervousness increased.

I almost upset my camera as he came along the corridor wrapped in his dressing gown, his eyes unseeing. I stepped forward, but before I could speak, he dropped the gown and thrust it aside with his feet.

Then, slowly, silently as if in a trance, he raised his arms in graceful curve above his head and almost automatically it drooped down towards his shoulder – the exquisite picture of the enfolding of a rose. I made four exposures in quick succession.

At the time the episode seemed quite unreal. It was all over within the space of a few minutes, with no words uttered by either of us. I went away under the spell of an illusionary but very wonderful encounter.

Although I subsequently photographed Nijinsky in nearly all his roles, it was done either during rehearsals on the stage or during intervals in his dressing room. He would never come to my studio for this purpose.

Our conversation, if I can call it such, was sparing of words and faded into silences at frequent intervals. These sittings, exhausting though I found them, provided me with a unique opportunity to observe closely the physical features of this exotic being.

His body was slender though muscular, supple though vigorous; long curving lashes half-veiled sleepy sloe-tinted eyes.

His movements were of flawless grace, now noble, now sensuous; the expression at one instant eerie, unearthly, at the next impish, mocking.

Dancing and miming in widely differing roles were charged with dramatic intensity. One instinctively felt that the dancer lived the part.

But off the stage I never succeeded in breaking down the wall of conventionality behind which he sheltered”.

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