Pas de deux

Bronislava Nijinska: Early Memoirs

translated and edited by Irina Nijinska and Jean Rawlinson, with an introduction by Anna Kisselgoff
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 546 pp., $22.50

Bronislava Nijinska
Bronislava Nijinska; drawing by David Levine

The early memoirs of Bronislava Nijinska have been highly praised, and rightly so. Even by the standards of the Russian nineteenth century into which she was born, they are remarkable for their charm, their substance, and their transparent integrity. They deal with a period in the history of dance that has yet to be surpassed for creativity. As autobiography, they impress by their modesty, their lack of malice, and their panoramic recall. As an index to the formation of the future choreographer of Les Noces (1923), Les Biches (1924), and Le Train Bleu (1924), they are clearly invaluable; and those three works are, after all, as fundamental to the dance history of their time as are the paysages animés of Fernand Léger to painting or the Diable au corps of Raymond Radiguet to the novel.

Bronislava Nijinska in life was too generous to resent it if people spoke of her as “Nijinsky’s sister.” She might not take it amiss, therefore, if I hazard that most readers will turn to her early memoirs primarily because they offer us—for the first time in the by now voluminous Nijinsky literature—a first-hand account of what Nijinsky said and did, on the stage and off, during the first twenty-five years of his life. When we close the book, we know him as never before. Nor can there ever be another book that tells us so much that is new, and tells it with so evident a truthfulness and so little regard for the writer’s own self. Bronislava Nijinska did not write this book to make herself seem interesting and important, but to set the record straight.

To say that we have been waiting for this book is not to decry the literature that has come into being since Romola Nijinsky’s pioneering biography was published in 1933. Colleagues and friends of Nijinsky’s, from Tamara Karsavina (1930) to Michel Fokine (1961), Lydia Sokolova (1960), and Marie Rambert (1972), have had their say. Richard Buckle’s biography of 1971 laps us in a voluptuous eiderdown of detail. There are key events in Nijinsky’s life—above all, perhaps, the first performances of L’Après-Midi d’un faune and Le Sacre du printemps—that we now know as well as many of the people who were actually there, so richly are they documented.

We also know—or think we know—what Nijinsky looked like in private life. Chunky in his person and oddly formal in his dress, he had none of the charisma that we find in the great male defectors of our own day. No Nureyev, no Baryshnikov he. No one was ever less “amusing” when asked out by strangers. No matter how we read and reread the documents, they all say the same thing in the end: that for Vaslav Nijinsky the working life was the only real life, with human contacts as a pastime that was probably pointless, possibly dangerous, and in the end entirely…

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