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.
There was no end to his energy. When in the country he ran, swam, fished, climbed, ran off with gypsy boys, crept out late, and got into every kind of scrape. He mixed easily—above all with circus people—and he had a free, ardent, and inquisitive nature. Only in his exaggerated fear of being punished does it seem with hindsight that some form of psychic disorder threatened him. His elder brother, Stassik, “went off his head,” as people then said, around the year 1900. As against that his sister Bronislava was and remained all her life the personification of stability and good sense. But, as everyone knows, it was with Stassik, the sequestered invalid, not with Bronislava Nijinska, the lifelong worker and survivor, that Nijinsky finally sided.
Still, if the demons got him in the end, he gave them a very good run. On the stage there was never any question, whether in school or afterward, that he would set a completely new standard for male dancing. As is already well known, Nijinska in these memoirs tells us exactly what he did on the stage. We need only a minimal knowledge of the syntax of the dance to see him, as she describes him, in his first appearance outside of Russia. We are in the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on the evening of May 19, 1909. Nijinsky has appeared from the wings in “a prolonged leap, grand assemblé,” only to be halted by a huge outburst of applause.
Suddenly, from demi-pointe préparation, Nijinsky springs upwards and with an imperceptible movement sends his body sideways. Four times he flies above the stage—weightless, airborne, gliding in the air without effort, like a bird in flight. Each time as he repeats this changement de pieds from side to side, he covers a wider span of the stage, and each flight is accompanied by a loud gasp from the audience.
Nijinsky soars upwards, grand échappé, and then he soars still higher, in a grand jeté en attitude. Suspended in the air, he zigzags on the diagonal (three grands jetés en attitude) to land on the ramp by the first wing. With each relentissement in the air the audience holds its breath.
The next musical phrase is amazing for its dance technique—the modulation of the movement in the air, possible only for Nijinsky—executed on the diagonal from the first wing, grands jetés entrelacés battus.
Throwing his body up to a great height for a moment, he leans back, his legs extended, beats an entrechat-sept and, slowly turning over onto his chest, arches his back and, lowering one leg, holds an arabesque in the air. Smoothly in this pure arabesque, he descends to the ground. Nijinsky repeats this pas once more, like a bird directing in the air the course of its flight. From the depths of the stage with a single leap, assemblé entrechat-dix, he flies towards the first wing…. He ends the variation in the middle of the stage, close to the ramp, with ten to twelve pirouettes and a triple tour en l’air, finishing with the right arm extended forward in a pose révérence. The variation has been executed from beginning to end with the utmost grace and nobility.
It is in this workmanlike and unrhetorical style that Nijinska details one after another of her brother’s appearances. She also tells us how he worked at the barre and in his middle-of-the-floor exercises. Working at an accelerated tempo that allowed him to complete in forty-five to fifty minutes what would have taken another dancer three hours, he “seemed more intent on improving the energy of the muscular drive, strength and speed than on observing the five positions.” (Anyone who has studied Rodin’s little sculpture of Nijinsky in action can readily believe this.)
Certain other peculiarities emerge from her account: among them, that “in his adagio exercises, in the développé front, he could not raise his leg higher than ninety degrees; the build of his leg, his overdeveloped thigh muscles, as solid as a rock, did not permit him to attain the angle possible for an average dancer.” And as to the celebrated leap, she has this to say:
In the allegro pas he did not come down completely on the balls of his feet, but barely touched the floor with the tips of his toes to take the force for the next jump, using only the strength of the toes and not the customary preparation with both feet firmly on the floor, taking the force from a deep plié. Nijinsky’s toes were unusually strong and enabled him to take this short preparation so quickly as to be almost imperceptible, creating the impression that he remained at all times suspended in the air.
Nijinsky never stopped working. When other students at the Imperial Ballet School were walking around the town with their hands in their pockets, he clenched and unclenched, hour by hour, the hand in which he held a black rubber ball. In this way he brought to an ever greater perfection the fluttery wrist-and-finger movements that he used in the “Blue Bird” pas de deux.
As the “Blue Bird” is so familiar to today’s audiences it is of particular interest to learn from Nijinska of the way in which Nijinsky emended the original version. Dancing in London in 1911, he had Anna Pavlova as his partner. She was not the most generous of colleagues—Nijinska tells us that she once said, “I do not wish to see ovations being given to Nijinsky for a performance in which I too dance. Let the public that comes to see Pavlova see only Pavlova!”—but she did undoubtedly inspire him to surpass himself.
Nijinsky astonished the audience in London with the new technique he displayed in his variation of the coda, introducing a new step, pas volé, never seen before, in place of the series of brisés volés previously executed by the male dancer.
In the conventional pas brisé volé the weight of the body shifts from one leg to the other. Nijinsky felt that the movement of the body from side to side broke the impetus forward and impaired the thrust of the body upwards. In his new pas Nijinsky used a grand battement balançoire very effectively in combination with a cabriole (en avant and en arrière), and by developing a supreme coordination and synchronization of movements achieved a perfect balance of the body en l’air, rendering himself literally “weightless,” high above the stage.
As to the dedication involved in feats of this kind, Nijinska has this to say: “During his school days he had been allowed to bring home barbells, and he had practiced with them during weekends and summer vacations until, while still a student, he was able to lift seventy-two pounds with one arm.” While in Bordighera, ostensibly to rest, he went to a little room in the basement of his hotel that had a wooden floor and practiced there. “He would execute each pas or movement much more strongly than he ever would on the stage, thereby building up a reserve of strength so that, onstage, he could hide all the effort and tension required for his dances and make even the most technically difficult pas appear effortless.”
He could have done all this and been no more than an incomparable gymnast. But what actually happened from the moment of his graduation performance onward was that he said something about the expressive potential of the human body that had never been said before. And what he created was not “beauty” so much as awe, stupefaction, and something akin to fear. Like the soprano soloist in Schönberg’s second string quartet, he seemed to breathe the air of another planet. But, at the same time, he brought on to the stage a mysterious, unnamed, and entirely redoubtable something from the collective unconscious.
To do that is to bear a very great burden. Nijinsky in this was both favored and disfavored by his environment. There is a sense in which Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes was the natural home of the new. There was a great company, there was great new music to work with, there was an enthusiastic international audience, and there were none of the petty interferences that officialdom brings with it.
For Nijinsky the performer, the change from the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg to the Diaghilev company was virtually all gain. For Nijinsky the aspirant choreographer the comparison could hardly be mooted, for it is inconceivable that L’Après-Mid d’un faune, Le Sacre du printemps, and Jeux would have been accepted by the Imperial Ballet. It is thanks to Diaghilev that the history of ballet now sometimes seems like a garden in which Nijinsky stands at the end of every allée. It was thanks to Diaghilev that Nijinsky was able to bring to ballet what Lincoln Kirstein calls “a new intensity of psychological characterization” as well as the unprecedented technical accomplishment of which his sister writes. It was thanks to Diaghilev that in a mere four years (1909-1913) he who had been simply a stupendous performer became the originator of dance languages as radical as any that the avant-garde has produced since.
Bronislava Nijinska is as lucid, and as convincing, on the subject of Nijinsky’s own ballets as she is about everything else. As on all other occasions, she is the complete workman, to whom fancy phrasing is alien. (It is left to Edwin Denby, writing in 1943, to say something definitive about the dance language of the Faune: “In Faune the space between the figures becomes a firm body of air, a lucid statement of relationship, in the way intervening space does in…Cézanne, Seurat and Picasso.”) Nijinska keeps to specifics, here as in all things, and anyone who cares for dance will marvel at the way in which Nijinsky could invent and carry through three entirely different new idioms at a time when he was performing one arduous role after another on the stage.
No man can carry so great a burden if he feels unconfident of the conditions in which his work is going forward. Diaghilev could be uniquely “supportive,” in today’s language, but he was also volatility made flesh. With an unsubsidized company to pay for, with colleagues who thought only of themselves, and with a nature that thrived on intrigue and mischief, Diaghilev had at any given time a hundred things on his mind, of which ninety-nine were irresoluble. Nijinsky by contrast thought of only one thing at a time, and if Diaghilev wavered at any point it seemed to Nijinsky that the earth was opening beneath his feet.
There was also, of course, the sexual matter. Where that is concerned, Nijinska preserves a nineteenth-century reticence. If she thinks that Nijinsky was a “normal” man destroyed by homosexual intrigues, she never says so. If she thinks that he was fulfilled by homosexuality, only to be destroyed by the revisionist embraces of his wife, she never says that, either. In fact she never says anything directly on this subject, forthright as she is in everything else. If Nijinsky’s friend and protector Prince Lvov gives him a gold ring set with a large diamond and “at least twelve pairs of elegant shoes,” handmade by the best shoemaker in St. Petersburg, she makes no comment, any more than she does when Nijinsky stops wearing that ring and begins to wear another (“a massive, new platinum ring with a sapphire, from Cartier”) that he had been given by Diaghilev.
In general she does not suggest that Nijinsky had any marked sexual drive in either direction, let alone in both. In this, as in so much else, he was brutally teased by his fellow students. His first flirtations were broken off, for one lofty reason or another, and when he was finally persuaded to go with a prostitute he was at once infected with disease. As late as 1912 he said to his sister that if he ever married, it would be with one of Gauguin’s girls from Tahiti, so that their children would have beautiful brown skins. Neither in his diary—admittedly a dubious source—nor anywhere else does he seem to have been other than passive and acquiescent in his relations with men.
But Nijinska does say that “with Diaghilev and his entourage, it seemed to me that Vaslav was never himself.” And since she alone could crack the code of his famous silence it seems probable that a good deal lies behind that remark. “Vaslav seemed so much freer and more relaxed in his conversations with us in Monte Carlo, away from Sergei Pavlovitch,” she also says; and although nothing but catastrophe came of his attempt to break away from Diaghilev and set up a company on his own, we sense that Nijinska felt an overriding delight in the idea that her old, happy, easy relationship with her brother would forthwith be resumed.
It is difficult to read a life of Nijinsky without a sense of overwhelming oppression as the narrative nears the thirty years’ death in life about which nothing consoling can be said. If the early memoirs of Bronislava Nijinska are not oppressive in that way, it is because they are not “a life of Nijinsky,” but a double portrait of an exceptionally full, rich, and trustful relationship. Quite apart from that, they remind us implicitly that although we shall never know what Nijinsky’s Sacre du printemps was really like, it is still possible to reconstruct Nijinsky’s Les Noces, which in its way is no less remarkable as an evocation of ancestral Russia. And although we shall never see Jeux as Nijinsky conceived it, we have Nijinska’s Les Biches to show that as early as 1924 ballet could refer to modern life and modern ways as freely and easily as Nijinsky had hoped for when he saw Duncan Grant and his friends playing tennis in Bedford Square.
For Les Noces and Les Biches and for much else besides, we must hope that the editors of this book are at work on “The Later Memoirs of Bronislava Nijinska.”