Well, it happened again. Last night I went on a Wikipedia deep dive learning about the 20th century ballet revolution in Russia. Specifically, my rabbit hole concerned the artistic and sexual life of iconic male ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. As far as I can tell, if you know anything about ballet, odds are good you know a lot about Nijinsky already, so stop me if you’ve heard this one. But as someone who didn’t know anything (not even one thing) about ballet, I was pretty stoked to make Nijinsky’s acquaintance.
I came to Njinsky through reading about a delightful event: the time the Igor Stravinsky ballet The Rite of Spring was halted during its debut Paris performance when the crowd literally began to riot. Nijinsky choreographed that ballet and several others, both famous and infamous, but he was best known as the greatest male ballet dancer of his generation.
(Here are my CliffNotes on Nijinsky, summarized from his already-shortened Wikipedia biography: Born to a family of Polish dancers in late nineteenth century tsarist Russia, he spent close to a decade at the prestigious Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg and then, in 1907, graduated to the Imperial Ballet.
Less than two years later, he joined a new company: the Ballets Russes, founded by Sergei Diagheliv, an impresario about 18 years Nijinsky’s senior. The two were lovers and partners until 1913, when Nijinsky married a young, pretty Hungarian aristocrat, Romola de Pulszky, and Diagheliv subsequently fired him from the company. Nijinsky had two daughters and continued dancing for the better part of a decade while dealing with increasingly unmanageable schizophrenia, a condition that left him institutionalized for the last three decades of his life. While Nijinsky sat in a succession of mental asylums, his wife wrote several biographies of her husband and carried on a series of lesbian affairs of her own.)
All of this is to say that last night I learned there exists an unproduced screenplay about Nijinsky from 1970 written by Pulitzer Prize-winning gay playwright Edward Albee, the author of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
“That’s neat,” I said, and then obsessed about it a little. Albee’s screenplay was for a movie called The Dancer, a Nijinsky biopic focused on his relationships with Diagheliv and de Pulszky. Producer Harry Saltzman tried and failed to make the film in 1970, hiring dancer Rudolf Nureyev to play the lead in Albee’s script. Saltzman then pulled out of production and Albee’s script was, perhaps, lost to the sands of time…? I had to investigate.
Trying to follow in the footsteps of Seph, the visionary who made Truman Capote’s The Great Gatsby screenplay available to readers of The Niche, I was able to establish that Albee’s script exists in a complete form at the Academy Film Archive in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, Los Angeles is a city that I have little to no reason or desire to visit in the immediate future, so I went back to Google to track a little more of The Dancer’s production history.
The film was going to be directed by Tony Richardson, who apparently wanted Mick Jagger to play the title role. (Jagger had just starred in Richardson’s last movie, Ned Kelly, as an Australian cowboy; numerous people were injured on set and no one was impressed with the result.) I learn this from Tim Adler, who described the pre-production process in The House of Redgrave, his book about the theatrical dynasty of the Richardson-Redgrave family. Albee, Adler writes, joined the project once Nureyev was already attached to star.
Tony gave Albee some ideas of what he wanted to see onscreen. Albee then set to work. Tony also consulted Nijinsky’s biographer, Lincoln Kirstein, who thought Dustin Hoffman would be much better to star. Albee delivered his screenplay, which everybody seemed to like apart from Nureyev, who thought it was “terrible.” Nureyev believed there was too much emphasis on Diaghilev and not enough on him.
That was when Saltzman, the producer, pulled the plug on the project.
Albee said: “It was a happy collaboration. Then all of a sudden Saltzman pulled out.” Saltzman, trying to wriggle out of paying for work done this far, claimed Albee’s screenplay was amateurish because it contained some silent scenes.
Devastatingly, Adler offers no closure as to whether or not Albee was ever paid for his work. (According to Academy Film Archive papers which I previewed online, though, Albee later joined Nureyev, Richardson and others in suing Saltzman over the production process.)
Saltzman did get his Nijinsky movie made in the end. When the story did make it to the screen ten years later in the form of Nijinsky (1980), directed by Herbert Ross and scripted by Hugh Wheeler, it was not, comment dit-on, a smash hit. In The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote: “It reduces personalities of great complexity and fearful contradictions to the dimensions of people who, crazily, refuse to listen to their hearts.”
If I were slightly more committed to this quest, I would watch the movie and tell you whether or not I think Canby’s assessment was a fair one. It’s actually pretty neat that the gay love between Njinsky and Diaghilev was portrayed with apparent frankness in a 1980 movie, and the trailer is FUN. Wheeler may have won zero Pulitzer Prizes, but he did write the book for Sweeney Todd, one of the best Broadway musicals ever. Maybe the film that got made was fine.
And yet: I don’t know what Albee’s script looked like or if it would have been turned into a film that was even a little bit good (too much Diaghilev!) but I think it’s safe to say that he wouldn’t have skimped on character complexity in telling the story of Nijinsky and his lovers. Possibly there was even a zoo. God. I’d love to read it. Maybe I’ll look up plane tickets to Los Angeles.