Bronislava Nijinska: Early Memoirs
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 destructive.
It would be unfair not to remark on what is perhaps the most remarkable single fact about the Nijinsky literature of the last fifty years: that when it comes to speculation about what Nijinsky actually did on the stage our two most convincing witnesses are people who never saw him. Edwin Denby in 1943 and Lincoln Kirstein in 1975 worked from photographs, but we trust Mr. Denby’s intuition absolutely when he says that “in the case of Spectre, the power of the arms makes their tendril-like bendings as natural as curvings are in a powerful world of young desire; while weaker and more charming arms might suggest an effeminate or saccharine coyness. There is indeed nothing effeminate in these gestures; there is far too much force in them.”
We also believe Mr. Kirstein when he says of the lezginka that Nijinsky danced in Le Festin in Paris in 1909 that “it was not the imitation of a particular personage but the embodiment of a regional vitality.” That particular insight is confirmed, as it happens, by the early memoirs of Nijinsky’s sister Bronislava. She knew, as no one now living can know, exactly how, when, and where in his wandering boyhood Nijinsky mastered this or that regional dance. She was for many years the person who knew Vaslav Nijinsky best. And she knew, almost from the cradle onward, that people would think of her as “Nijinsky’s sister.” (“I cannot have two geniuses of the dance in one family,” Diaghilev said.)
She herself had many admirers—did not Igor Stravinsky say of her in 1912 that she was “a fascinating ballerina, fully the equal of her brother”?—and she made a distinct mark even in a company that included Tamara Karsavina, Anna Pavlova, and Lydia Lopokova. In the early 1920s, when Vaslav Nijinsky had withdrawn once and for all from the world of the living, it was she who gave Diaghilev what he needed: new stage works of historic quality. But during the period covered by this book (1890-1914) it is primarily as Nijinsky’s sister that she presents herself.
It takes a strong, unified, ungrudging nature to live in someone else’s shadow and not resent it. If we do not protest Nijinska’s subordination of herself, it is because we really do need to read what she has to say about Nijinsky, both on stage and in private life. We know how people were affected by his dancing, but what was it that he actually did, apart from jumping very high and seeming to stay there? No one tells us exactly, though Hugo von Hofmannsthal—no mean judge of performance—struck a new note when he told Richard Strauss that Nijinsky was “the greatest miming genius on the modern stage (next to Duse and, as a mime, greater than Duse).”
It is also true that we know remarkably little about what Nijinsky was like off the stage. Nijinsky in London and Paris was already a subject of universal curiosity whom people were “dying to meet.” When met, he said little or nothing, picked his thumbs till they bled, and looked like a coachman on his day off. Diaghilev liked at that time to take him round the way other men take an ocelot around on a leash. He was famously uncommunicative, and for a good reason. Not simply was he a matchless performer, with all that that entails in the way of inward and outward preparation, but he wanted to change the whole notion of what could be done on a stage. What happened elsewhere—and we may guess that this applied as much to bedroom as to drawing room—was just an incidental nuisance.
Some people—among them Lady Ottoline Morrell—understood this. Others didn’t. We do not need to believe Jean Cocteau when he says that Nijinsky was “a sort of middle-class Mercury, an acrobatic cat stuffed with acrobatic lechery.” It is Bronislava Nijinska’s account, and hers alone, that can help us to see Nijinsky not as an overdressed cipher in salons that bored him to distraction, but as he was in his formative years. Most biographers—and this applies even to Richard Buckle, who surpasses everyone in dedication to his task—naturally begin with Nijinsky’s first arrival at the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg in 1898, when he was nine years old. Was it not on that day that his professional life really began?
Undeniably that school to this day is very impressive. We tremble as we walk up those steps, pass in review those graduation photographs, and cavesdrop on classes that have changed hardly at all since Nijinsky was a student there. Mesmerized, we find it entirely conceivable that a student can walk into that school as nobody and walk out of it as somebody. All that he needs to know, he can learn there, surely. Guidance, comradeship, heroic emulation—all must be there for the asking.
Yet the truth is that long before he presented himself for admission to the Imperial Ballet School, Nijinsky was already Nijinsky. In fact, he was born Nijinsky: the son, that is to say, of Thomas Nijinsky, a dancer who on more than one count had quite astonishing gifts. A Pole, he performed across the length and breadth of Russia, causing astonishment wherever he went by his mastery of both classical and character dancing. Where other and much inferior dancers had tenure in this or that official company, Thomas Nijinsky lived from week to week and from town to town, like one of the street performers to whom Honoré Daumier had given a universal resonance. Set down in Tiflis or Baku, he did the lezginka better than those who were born to it. Taken to the Imperial Ballet School by his son and daughter as a privileged visitor in vacation time, he got up without preparation and showed them—in Nijinska’s words—“one dance after the other of a technical difficulty I had never seen before. To this day I cannot understand the mechanics of some of his dancing movements.”
Thomas Nijinsky was in his forties at the time. His was a hardy, independent, improvisatory nature, and the security and continuity of life in a state theater meant nothing to him. Experience had taught him that, no matter how nomadie and precarious his existence might be, he would never quite starve. In this way Vaslav Nijinsky learned from infancy to think of dancing in all its forms as fundamental to Russian life. Classical ballet was a superior distraction, administered by court officials under the direct supervision of the imperial family. Dancing as such was something quite different: a necessity that cut across all considerations of class, education, and financial position.
For these reasons Nijinsky in his student days brought to his work an urgency, a sense of projection, a depth of experience, and a technical precocity that were quite out of the ordinary. They did not, however, endear him to his classmates. “Are you a girl, that you dance so well?” they asked him. Quite apart from the fact that in a general way all Russians despise all Poles, Nijinsky was small for his age and had none of the worldly ways that many of his fellow students affected. (Some of them thought it bad form to try too hard in class.) So far from finding in the Imperial Ballet School a source of exalted companionship, he was the victim of systematic hazing. (On one occasion, when he had been challenged to jump over a heavy wooden music stand, his tormentors soaped the floor from which he had to jump, and for good measure caught him by the ankle at the crucial moment. He fell, hit his head on the floor, and was taken to the hospital, unconscious, after the others had run away and left him for dead.)
In view of episodes such as this, and of his later medical history, it is important to say that Nijinsky was not one to give in easily. Fundamentally he had a vast and healthy appetite for life. There seemed no limit to what he could master when he set his mind to it. Bronislava Nijinska tells us for instance that he learned to play the accordion, the clarinet, the flute, the mandolin, and the balalaika without taking a lesson in any one of them. When he went to the opera, he could come home, sit down at the piano, and play through what he had heard.