La Nijinska: Choreographer of the Modern

Charlotte Kasner looks at the life of choreographer Bronislava Nijinska as seen through a soon-to-be-published new book by Lynn Garafola

Often, Bronislava Nijinska rates no more than an extended footnote in ballet history, eclipsed by her stellar brother, in spite of his relatively brief career, and with only a couple of her works still in the repertoire.

In La Nijinska, her hefty and well-researched volume that achieves that rare combination of being both eminently readable and in-depth, Lynn Garafola makes a reasonable case for this being an injustice. She takes advantage of newly-accessible primary source material, notably from the Nijinska Collection, which only became publicly available in the 2000s, that presents familiar material in a new context, thus providing new insights and adding greatly to current knowledge of the decades through which the choreographer worked.

Nijinska at the time of her graduation, 1908
Photo Karl Fischer. St. Petersburg State Museum of Theatre and Music

Born in Belarus in 1891, Garafola tells how Nijinska entered the Imperial Ballet School at age nine, graduating with the white dress of the “most improved” student and top marks, albeit in a cohort that the director Vladimir Teliakovsky described as weak. Working her way up from the corps, she would later, be marked out by critics for her technique in both classical and character roles.

At odds with Nicholas Sergeyev and Sergei Legat in the Maryinsky, she wanted to join her brother Vaslav who was dancing for Serge Diaghilev but he tried to prevent her. Garafola paints Vaslav as actively seeking protectors and as a sybarite. He was not above using his sister to work out his experimental choreography, though, making her dance on pointe in soft shoes and possibly being responsible for building her rather masculine elevation. She eventually resigned from the Maryinsky when Nijinsky was forced out over the Giselle tunic debacle (when he appeared onstage as Albrecht wearing only tights and a short tunic, the Imperial Theatre fired him for public indecency).

Nijinska as the Street Dancer in Petrouchka, 1911
Bronislava Nijinska Collection,
Library of Congress

Diaghilev used Nijinska on and off until his death, alternately promoting and sidelining her as it suited, as he did with all of his collaborators. Garafola notes that Nijinska had mixed feelings about him (along with her brother, he wrecked her romance with opera singer Feodor Chaliapin), but she did allow him to give her away at both her first wedding in a registry office in London when on tour and playing Covent Garden, and when she married for a second time.

1921 found her in Kyiv where she founded a School of Movement, funded by the state, that rejected classical ballet in performance but still used it in training. She refused entry to a young Sergei Lifar who was to usurp her as Diaghilev’s primary choreographer and with whom she crossed paths throughout her itinerant life.

Her work in Kyiv was cut short when Romola Nijinska summoned her to Vienna where Vaslav was in an asylum. Garafola uses material from Bronislava’s diaries to show how difficult she found it to pack up and leave. Indeed, it would be a year before she did so.

Vaslav was never to dance again. Nijinska saw him only once more when Romola brought him to a rehearsal for Le Train Bleu without warning after they had been living in Paris. He sat at the front of the stage, catatonic. The company were devastated. Anton Dolin records that Lyudmilla Scholler was in tears, Hilda Munnings ashen faced. Nijinska said “I cannot go on. It’s too awful”.

It was the last time that she was to see him and she didn’t attend his funeral in London, although she was able to attend his re-interment in Paris at the behest of Lifar. Garafola shows that his influence never let her, however and throughout her life, she strove to advance choreography from classical roots whilst never abandoning the grinding that it gave her and her fellow dancers. Garafola states, “By withdrawing from her life, Nijinsky had released her as an artist.”

“La Nijinska” as the Fairy of the Humming-Birds
in The Sleeping Princess, 1921
Ballets Russes souvenir program,
Paris Opéra, May-June 1922.
Private collection

“We must destroy ‘theatre’ as a background for the display of dancers in a painted ‘box’. Everything in theatre must action,” Nijinska wrote. Ironically, she ended up collaborating on the infamous Diaghilev production in of The Sleeping Beauty (presented as The Sleeping Princess) in London in 1921; it was Nijinska who put the Lilac Fairy on pointe. A decade and a half later, Dancing Times published an essay where she expressed shock at Diaghilev mounting the ballet, stating that it was at Stravinsky’s suggestion and motivated by the Tchaikovsky score. “Only Russians heard the ballet’s lament,” she stated, a sentiment that was to come back to haunt her near the end of her life.

Garafola explores Nijinska’s position career in a world dominated by male directors and choreographers. She was the first female ballet director at Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and often the only woman apart from the dancers in the other companies for which she worked. “I started my first work full of protest at myself,” she wrote.

She was as much the product of the New Economic Policy (NEP) years in the Soviet Union as she was of the Imperial theatres, aiming for the new at every possibility and fighting to see beyond the superficial in her dancers. On the Diaghilev Sleeping Beauty, she said, “All the dancers are ‘good and beautiful’ but these are the qualities of the department store…”.

Much is made by many of her own physique. Some think her being dumpy and decidedly unfair of face held her back but, in all likelihood, had she been a ravishing beauty, that would have been held against her too. She learned passable French, and had a better understanding of Polish and understood more English than she ever admitted to, but it was Russia for which she longed in her life of exile.

Pining in London in 1921 she recorded her feelings about the Ballets Russes in her diary, six weeks after the disastrous opening night “…a horrifying degradation of everything I expected to find here. It has turned into a brothel that ‘displays’ beautiful female dancers…I never hear that so-and-so is a good or bad artist, only that someone jumps or turns well…God give me strength. I want to go back to Russia so much”.

Nijinska as the Hostess in Les Biches, 1924
Photo Bridgeman Images

She never did, although in her final years she made contact with Soviet dancers on tour and with a dance historian with whom she corresponded regularly and eventually met in Paris. Like many choreographers, even those with their own company, most of her works failed to outlive her, only a few dances surviving her death, most notably Les Noces (1923) and Les Biches (1924),

Even that may be a quirk of fate. Frederick Ashton had been impressed by her as a youth (he once called her “an encyclopaedia of the dance”) and, on hearing that she was still alive in the early 1960s, invited her to recreate them for a receptive Royal Ballet. Les Biches in particular struck a chord with the times. As composer Poulenc observed, “In this ballet, one does not love for life; one goes to bed.” A sentiment that resonated well in early Swinging London which, in terms of fashions, looked back to the very era in which it had been created.

There have been other reconstructions from time to time, in particular by Nijinska’s daughter Irina, including Rondo Capriccioso (1952, her last ballet) by Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1989, and Le Train Bleu (1924) by Oakland Ballet in 1990. The Handsome Young Chap’s solo from Le Train Bleu occasionally also appears in gala.

Nijinska worked regularly for the dilettante Ida Rubinstein, at the Paris Opéra and for the de Cuevas Ballet, although never on a secure footing. She alternated between bankruptcy and luxury, sometimes travelling first class and sometimes struggling to find the fare back to wherever her family were residing. For many decades, her mother raised her two children while her second husband often seemed to be her devoted lackey as well as being a surrogate father to her children. Garafola describes how he would follow behind her with an ashtray, the ever-present cigarette burning in its holder even while she berated her dancers for smoking.

The outbreak war in 1939 lead to her abandoning her home in France and moving to the USA where she would live for the rest of her life. Many of the ex-Ballet Russes dancers escaped there too. Nijinska hated Balanchine but she saw the first performance of Serenade and taught in New York in and off. Like many west coast dancers and choreographers, she was furious when Balanchine arrived and stated that he would teach the locals about dance as if there had been no classical ballet outside of New York, although his attempt at empire building on the opposite side of his adopted country didn’t last long.

La Nijinska is a wonderful read; a window into the life of a woman who, for decades, was the world’s leading female choreographer. And yet, in spite of the detailed revelations, it remains difficult to assess Nijinska’s real legacy. She was not a comely woman. She was also outspoken, a trait which may have been inherent but which may also have been a necessity as she often found herself in straightened circumstances.

Bronislava Nijinska and Rosella Hightower,
late 1940s.
1949-50 Season Souvenir Program, Grand Ballet de Monte Carlo.
Bronislava Nijinska Collection,
Library of Congress

Whether it was this or her style of dancing that led to her often being left on the sidelines and being described as ‘masculine’ is a matter of conjecture. She certainly did not help herself on many occasions and could never be described as diplomatic. She was treated badly by companies but she too could be duplicitous, taking clashing engagements if it suited her. Like many before her, she threw good money after bad trying to get reparations from the post-war French government for her lost sets and costumes, leaving only the lawyers laughing. She adored her dancers but drove them hard until at last union regulations protected them, although she drove herself harder.

The limited opportunities to notate her works is maybe just one reason why they have not survived. Perhaps, even if they had been performed more often, they may not have lasted in a modern repertory, however valid they were in their time.

La Nijinska is a big but gratifying read. Garafola provides a previously, sketchy, monochrome account of history in colour for the first time. No doubt it will be a staple of students’ reading lists but it is unlikely that it will lead to a revival of the works which are, in any case, probably now lost forever.

La Nijinska: Choreographer of the Modern
Author: Lynn Garafola
Publisher: ‎Oxford University Press
Expected publication: June 1, 2022
Hardback and Kindle
512 Pages
70 figures
ISBN: 9780197603901
Cover price: £30