In 1978 the director Herbert Ross asked Kenneth MacMillan to choreograph the dance sequences for his film Nijinsky. In an interview for The Times, Ross told John Higgins: “We had to decide how good a dancer Nijinsky was. I suspect if we saw him today we would not be all that impressed. On the other had he was a marvellous choreographer, which is why Kenneth MacMillan tried to get as close as possible to the original, as we know it, of Jeux and Sacre du Printemps.” The film, which focused on the eighteen months between Romola de Pulszky’s introduction to Nijinsky and Diaghilev’s subsequent abandonment of him, was indifferently reviewed by cinema critics. For The Guardian’s Derek Malcolm it was “too long, too careworn and too lacking in directorial inspiration to survive its banal moments”.

One of the few dance writers to comment was Clive Barnes, who viewed it as an attempt at stylised biography by people “who know too much and care too much about the subject.” However there was universal praise for MacMillan’s reconstructions, which featured dancers from both The Royal and Festival Ballets.

Film poster for Nijinsky

Film poster for Nijinsky

In a column for The Times after the premiere Barnes wrote: “It (the dance) is exquisitely, and I use that word carefully, done. Time and again Ross and his dancers catch the precise image of one of those old Nijinsky photographs. Furthermore, with the exception of L'après-midi d'un faune, the visual reproductions by Nicholas Georgiadis of the original ballet designs are almost miraculous. Even more miraculous is the work of Kenneth MacMillan who, working from photographs, drawings and descriptions has produced “excerpts” from Nijinsky’s lost ballets – Jeux, which magically recreates all those photographs and Valentine Hugh drawings and Le Sacre du Printemps.” Monica Mason was cast as Maria Piltz, Nijinsky’s Chosen Maiden. MacMillan’s choreography was based on the archival evidence of the 1913 original and not on his own production for the Royal Ballet. However, the excerpts were just that, as Ross’s shot-list required short sections of choreography rather than sustained arcs of invention. Nonetheless, according to Jann Parry’s biography of MacMillan, Distant Drummer, his reconstructions of Jeux were particularly striking to those who watched them in the studio; MacMillan could not be persuaded to create a proper stage reconstruction afterwards.

Herbert Ross, the director, was himself a dancer and choreographer and married to the ballerina Nora Kaye, who was the film’s producer. In 1971 MacMillan had invited Ross to stage his choreographed version of Jean Genet’s The Maids for The Royal Ballet’s New Group.

  • Cinema release: 20 March 1980

  • Director: Herbert Ross

  • Screenplay: Hugh Wheeler

  • Cast: Alan Bates, George de la Peña, Leslie Browne, Alan Badel, Carla Fracci, Colin Blakely, Ronald Pickup, Ronald Lacey, Vernon Dobtcheff, Jeremy Irons, Frederick Jaeger, Anton Dolin, Janet Suzman

  • Dance sequences: Monica Mason, Valerie Aitken, Genesia Rosato, Ben van Cauwenbergh, Patricia Ruanne

  • Music: Igor Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring; Claude Debussy, Jeux

  • Design: Nicholas Georgiadis