By being able to do so -- by actually doing so -- he also changed the role of ballet in society and the role of classical male dancers in society. This change was certainly not an enormous one, but in the context of gender relations and the role of high art in society during his lifetime, it was startling (Ramsay, 1995).
Audiences in Nijinsky's era rejected the legitimacy of masculinity in ballet; that is, they reject the possibility that true masculinity could ever be evident in the bodies of male dancers. Travesty performances, in which gender was treated with as much scorn and derision as race was in black-face performances (which come somewhat later than the travesty performances, but only just) were a society-wide affirmation that only certain gender expressions were acceptable and that the ones performed on the stage of classical dance would be considered acceptable to the audience at large (Garafola, 1999).
At the juncture between the 19th and the 20th centuries, modern dance began to challenge the gendered roles of ballet not by pushing back against them but by giving into them (Kopelson, 1997, 37). Nijinsky was the epitome of such a switch in gender presentation by classical dancers. While before male dancers had tended to be hidden behind tulle-fluffed ballerinas, playing roles that were the stereotypes of virility but which clearly were read as a thin and unsuccessful disguise of homosexuality, Nijinsky mixed modern elements with classical ones to create a man who needed no woman to express his sexuality (Garafola, 1999).
In both literal and metaphorical ways, Nijinsky became the focus of the spotlight when he was onstage, and he used this position to confront his audiences not only with a changing definition of what ballet can be but also what a man could be. When Nijinsky appeared on stage in a ballet such as L'apres-midi d'un faune, for example, he is never paired in a traditional balletic way with a woman. He did not need a woman choreographically, and this translated into the suggestion at least that he did not need a woman in any other area of his life at all (Garafola, 1989, p. 116).
Thus in many ways, Nijinsky confirmed through his embodiment of dance what had been suspected about and whispered about male dancers for decades. By this confirmation, he greatly lessened its effect, as is almost universally true for individuals who turn negative stereotypes back on themselves.
The audience for ballet has at least since the 19th century extended far beyond those who actually show up to sit in the theater on any given day. In the same way that the general public has a certain vision of opera singers even if they have never themselves seen an opera, the general public in the United States and Great Britain at least know that male dancers are all poufs. Nijinsky made this status not desirable, certainly, but he made is compelling. When he was onstage, he demanded that people look at him (Garafola, 1989, p. 91).
Nijinsky was able to escape the liminality that had haunted male dancers for so long. If dancers before him had been dismissed as not being real men, as individuals who should have been real men but who had let feminine traits invade them, Nijinsky celebrated his androgyny (Kopelson, 1997, 49). Nijinsky on stage was both man and woman, and this was a revelation both to other dancers and to the public. Nijinsky demonstrated that gender did not have to be an either/or proposition, but could be "both."
Ramsay, B. (1995). The Male Dancer: Bodies, Spectacle, Sexualities. London: Routledge.
Garafola, L. (1989). Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. New York: Oxford University Press.
Garafola, L. (1999). "Reconfiguring the Sexes." The Ballets Russes and Its World. Lynn Garafola & Nancy Van Norman Baer. (Eds.) New Haven: Yale University Press.
Garafola, Lynn. "The Sexual Iconography of the Ballets Russes." Ballet Review 28.3(Fall 2000): 70-77.
Kendrick, W. (1987). The Secret Museum: Pornography in…