THE DAUGHTER of the most famous male dancer who ever lived, Kyra Nijinsky was destined to be known chiefly for that fact. Yet she was an unusual personality with distinctive qualities who might have had a fighting chance in a career other than dance. Her unstable childhood may also have damaged her potential.
Born in 1913, she was the first daughter of Vaslav Nijinsky and Romola de Pulszky (a second daughter, Tamara, was born in 1920). Vaslav was by then an international sensation; Romola was a Hungarian socialite, the daughter of a politician and a celebrated actress. Infatuated by Nijinsky, whose protector and lover was Sergei Diaghilev, she attached herself to Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and eventually captured Nijinsky's interest. Their sudden marriage in Argentina in 1913 took everyone by surprise, not least Diaghilev, whose fury led to Nijinsky's dismissal, and Romola herself, who hardly knew Nijinsky.
Visiting Vienna, the Nijinskys were awaiting Kyra's birth, which was overdue. Prince Montenuovo invited the couple to the premiere of Strauss's Elektra, saying: "If this modern music won't hasten the baby's arrival, then nothing will." The next day, Kyra was born and Vaslav became utterly devoted to the daughter who was to resemble him closely. "It was remarkable how the child changed the moment Vaslav entered the room," Romola wrote about an occasion when they were reunited with Kyra after a long ballet tour. "It seemed almost as though they had been one person split apart, and constantly wishing to be reunited."
Vaslav carved small wooden toys for Kyra and painted her nursery so that it was transformed into an enchanted Russian fairy-tale habitation. In a letter to the author Richard Buckle, Kyra remembered her father and his daily workout at a villa near St Moritz in Switzerland, where they were living in 1917, trapped by the first World War and the Russian Revolution. "My father leaped and danced joyfully on our terrace at Villa Guardamunt. He used to lift me up on to the terrace balustrade and teach me how to point my toes like a ballerina."
It was during this stay in Switzerland that Vaslav's mental stability broke down irrevocably. Kyra, obsessed by her father, determined to be a dancer. In 1931 she was in Berlin, dancing in Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman, directed by Max Reinhardt, with her aunt Bronislava Nijinska as choreographer. Vera Zorina was a dancer in the same production and the two girls became close friends. "Kyra came from an exotic, unhappy world," Zorina wrote.
She had led a nomadic life and spoke bitterly of her mother, Romola Nijinsky. She was constantly boarded out and, as a 17-year-old, was living alone in Berlin. Kyra was convinced that she had to act in a "crazy" manner, and even went so far as to throw fits, writhing on the floor. It was, she said bitterly, what they expected from her. She was very advanced intellectually, in a rather brilliant, manic way, and gave me long lectures, jumping from poetry to metaphysics to philosophy.
Like many people, Zorina thought Kyra's resemblance to her father uncanny.
Her face was beautiful, Slavic, with high cheekbones and green eyes. She had the same rather thick neck as her father and held her head in the same way, tilted in a slightly suspicious manner. Her body too resembled her father's, but that was a pity. It looked merely dumpy. To make matters worse, Kyra had a very large
bust. She imitated her father in every way. Her practice clothes were exactly like his: a white shirt with rolled-up sleeves, open at the throat; black tights held up by a leather belt; and the soft dance shoes worn by men.
Kyra moved to London where she studied with the famous Russian teacher Nicolai Legat. She appeared in a Cochran review, Streamline, where she featured in two sections: the first called "Impressions (Very Vague) of the Russian Ballet" in which she impersonated her father as the Spectre de la rose; and the other, which was the finale, called "Faster! Faster!" in which she led a "speed" dance. At the same time she fitted in ballet performances with the embryonic Rambert Ballet during their 1934-35 season.
Marie Rambert, who had been a friend of both Kyra's parents, was delighted to have her. She took the central role in Mephisto Valse, which Ashton had created for Alicia Markova. She danced the young girl in Spectre de la rose and a nymph in Rambert's revival of Vaslav's first choreography, L'Apres-midi d'un faune. Antony Tudor chose her for his new ballet The Planets (to Holst's music), casting her as the Mortal born under Neptune, a mystic figure, longing to unite herself with the Infinite.
She did not have a strong technique and, because of her shape, she could never have excelled in classical roles, but she had a compelling presence. As the critic Arnold Haskell wrote in 1935: "She is a dancer who understands, whether instinctively or otherwise, how to use dancing in order to express her emotions."
Kyra went on to Paris, to the ballet classes of Lubov Egorova, where Diana Gould (later Lady Menuhin) was also a student. At that time, Lady Menuhin wrote, the young composer Igor Markevitch was courting her. "Kyra was impulsive, jolly and straightforward, Igor sly and waspish and as conceited as might be a young man who as a boy prodigy had been commissioned by Diaghilev to write a ballet for his company."
Igor Markevitch had been Diaghilev's last lover. He and Kyra married at the Coronation Church in Budapest on 24 April 1936 and Tamara Karsavina, once Nijinsky's famous stage partner, was Kyra's witness. They had a son, called Vaslav Nijinsky-Markevitch, but the marriage did not last. In the early 1950s, divorced, Kyra Nijinsky was living in Rome and earning a living as a saleslady on the Via Condotti. In her later years she settled in San Francisco, returning to public view some years ago in an eccentric film, She Dances Alone, shown on British television, in which she played herself.
Kyra Nijinsky, dancer: born 19 June 1913; married 1936 Igor Markevitch (one son; marriage dissolved); died 1 September 1998.