Born in Kiev in 1890, Vaslav Nijinsky was the second son of Thomas Laurentiyevich Nijinsky and Eleonora Bereda; both his parents were celebrated dancers, and his father in particular was famous for his virtuosity and enormous leaps. The Nijinskys had their own dance company and performed throughout the Russian Empire. Nijinsky's childhood was mostly spent in the Caucasus, where he danced as a small child with his brother Stanislav and his little sister Bronislawa. His father, noticing the child's great disposition for dancing, gave him his first lessons.
At the age of nine, Nijinsky entered the Imperial School of Dancing in St. Petersburg, where his teachers, the foremost of the time, soon discovered his extraordinary talent. When he was 16 years old, they urged him to graduate and enter the Mariinsky Theatre. Nijinsky declined, preferring to fulfill the customary period of study. At the time he already had been heralded as the "eighth wonder of the world" and the "Vestris of the North". During his school years he appeared at the Mariinsky Theatre, first as a member of the corps de ballet, later in small parts.
Nijinsky was graduated in the spring of 1907 and on July 14, 1907, joined the Mariinsky Theatre as a soloist. His first appearance was in the ballet La Source with the Russian ballerina Julia Sedova as his partner; the public and the ballet critics burst out immediately in wild enthusiasm. As danseur noble, he danced all of the leading parts at the Mariinsky Theatre and at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, where he was a guest performer. His success was phenomenal.
In 1909 Sergey Diaghilev, former assistant to the administrator of the Imperial Theatres, was commissioned by the grand duke Vladimir to organize a ballet company of the members of the Mariinsky and Bolshoi theatres. Diaghilev decided to take the company to Paris in the spring and asked Nijinsky to join as principal dancer. Its first performance was on May 17, 1909, at the Theatre du Chatelet. Nijinsky took Paris by storm. The expression and beauty of his body, his featherweight lightness and steel-like strength, his great elevation and incredible gift of rising and seeming to remain in the air, and his extraordinary virtuosity and dramatic acting made him a genius of the ballet.
In 1912 he began his career as a choreographer. He created for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes the ballets L'Aprés-midi d'un faune, Jeux, and Le Sacre du printemps. Till Eulenspiegel was produced in the United States without Diaghilev's personal supervision. His work in the field of choreography was generally considered daringly original.
In 1919, at the age of 29, Nijinsky retired from the stage, owing to a nervous breakdown, which was diagnosed as schizophrenia. He lived from 1919 until 1950 in Switzerland, France, and England, and died in London in 1950. Nijinsky is buried next to Auguste Vestris in the cemetery of Montmartre in Paris.