In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf imagined “what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister.” She concluded that
any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at.
In the centuries since there have been gifted sisters whose lives were less anguished—Maria Anna (“Nannerl”) Mozart, Fanny Mendelssohn, Gwen John—but who were long overshadowed by their more eminent brothers. In our time, however, these sister-artists are being given fresh attention and revaluation. None is more remarkable than Bronislava Nijinska, the radical dancer-choreographer sister of the legendary radical dancer-choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky. Yet Lynn Garafola’s La Nijinska: Choreographer of the Modern is the first full-length biography of this singular creator.
Like Vaslav, Bronislava was a superlative dancer with a sensational jump and amazingly versatile acting. Like Vaslav, the creator of the ballets L’Après-midi d’un faune (1912) and Le Sacre du printemps (1913), in the 1920s she became a groundbreaking choreographer who collaborated with Stravinsky and other composers on premieres of their music. Like Vaslav, she made her most astounding works for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the company that managed both to stay in the vanguard of artistic modernism and to be a magnet for audiences. As with Vaslav, her services were suddenly dropped by Diaghilev after a very few years. Whereas Vaslav’s unorthodox looks infatuated many people, hers (protuberant teeth and lips, stocky body, flat chest, powerful thighs) alienated many. (Diaghilev sometimes took leading roles away from her, saying, “I need a ballerina.”) Unlike Vaslav, Bronislava then sustained a long career as a dancer, choreographer, and teacher, gaining international renown. Unlike Vaslav, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and permanently committed to an asylum at age thirty, she retained her sanity.
Their parents, Tomasz and Eleonora, were ethnically Polish dancers who toured the Russian Empire. Vaslav was born in Kyiv in 1889, Bronislava two years later in Minsk. Although Tomasz abandoned the family when they were children, Eleonora remained committed to them. Vaslav, who became Diaghilev’s lover just as he was planning the first Western season of the epoch-making Ballets Russes, swiftly became an international legend. Bronislava, though praised, was given no star roles while her brother was at his zenith. (Garafola, though she rushes over Bronislava’s early life far too fast, shows his eclipsing effect.)
After Diaghilev fired Vaslav for getting married in 1913, Bronislava was suddenly much needed by her brother, who scrambled to assemble an independent British tour. Among her other gifts, she proved to be a skillful and indefatigable rehearsal director. In 1912, however, she had married a fellow dancer, Alexander Kochetovsky, by whom she had children in 1913 and 1919. And unlike Vaslav, she assumed responsibility for their mother: in 1914, she returned to Russia. Work took her to Kyiv—or Kiev, as she always called it—in 1915–1917 and again in 1918. She was there while it changed hands more than a dozen times between 1918 and 1920—years described by Mikhail Bulgakov in his novel The White Guard.
Those were the years and that was the place in which Nijinska first became a powerhouse of inventiveness. The world was changing: she drew inspiration from the new and the old. She taught, she choreographed, she often collaborated with other women, creating intense bonds of loyalty. After 1921 she never returned to Russia or Ukraine; but in 1968, in her late seventies, she heard from several of the women with whom she had worked there with such enthusiasm. To one of them she wrote:
Your pictures of Kiev gave me such joy. You have barely changed!… To see you, even in a photo,…in my dear Kiev, which even now is fresh in my mind, on the shores of the Dnieper, with its Andreevskaia [Saint Andrew’s] Church.
Nine years after her death in 1972, Nijinska’s Early Memoirs was published. This is one of the peaks of autobiographical writing in dance literature, but it’s far less about her own dance career than that of her brother, whose genius she makes pulsatingly present. Vaslav had become the subject of so much inaccurate mythology, not least at the hands of his wife, Romola, that Bronislava needed to set the record straight. She expended so much energy on that, however, that she seems never to have made much headway with an account of her own career.
The final chapter of Early Memoirs races through the years 1914–1921, when she and Vaslav were separated by war, revolution, and other events. About her time in Kyiv, she writes:
Already I had begun to develop my own theory of the dance, and in February 1919, three weeks after the birth of my son, Leo, I opened my own Ecole de Mouvement to train artists for Nijinsky’s choreography.
What a curious juxtaposition! She’s developed her own theory, and yet she’s opened a school to train dancers for her brother’s work rather than hers. This is a crucial ambiguity in Nijinska studies—and probably a lasting ambiguity in her own mind. To what extent was her work the continuation of Vaslav’s, to what extent her own conception? Early Memoirs suggests that she could not have answered the question herself.
Modern dance, in the early decades of the twentieth century, was a genre largely made by women choreographers. Ballet, by contrast, tended to promote women as dancers or teachers, but not as dance-makers. Most of the few women who created ballets for top-level companies did so only for a few years (until this century—a deliberate movement to promote female choreographers in ballet has taken off in the last ten years). Even the formidable Ninette de Valois—founder and long-term director of today’s Royal Ballet, who loved making ballets above all else—quit choreography when she realized that she was best at running ballet companies.
Nijinska, however, created prolifically throughout the 1920s and 1930s for companies from Buenos Aires to Warsaw, continued to make some remarkable new work until 1960, and stayed active in dance into 1970, the year of her seventy-ninth birthday. Two of her greatest ballets, Les Noces (1923, with music by Stravinsky) and Les Biches (1924, with music by Poulenc)—both with sets and costumes by important female artists, Natalia Goncharova (Noces) and Marie Laurencin (Biches)—remain in the international repertory today. They’re fascinatingly unalike.
Noces (The Wedding), still astoundingly unlike any other ballet, was surely a reaction to all those joyous wedding festivities that ended many ballets in the nineteenth century. In this one, the bride and groom are the most passive characters onstage. Around them, traditional Russian folk society is shown as a thrilling, insensitive, relentless machine, with women’s pointwork hitting the ground percussively. Nijinska’s ballet wedding is bleaker than the one in Stravinsky’s score; he nonetheless admired the dark drama she made.
The fashionable and frolicsome world of Biches, one of the few ballets ever set in the period of its premiere, is light-years from the traditional Russian commune of Noces. Some of its characters are in beach attire, others in ostrich plumes. One sports pearl ropes and a cigarette holder. Ambisexuality is accepted. Machismo is parodied. Frivolity and gossip are rampant, not least in the women’s ebullient footwork.
Those two ballets, apart from their very different worldviews, are treasuries of modernist movement. (The choreographer Frederick Ashton, who danced for Nijinska in 1928, always remembered how, when teaching the daily ballet class, she required dancers to bend from the waist even in the most basic steps.) In Noces, the dancers tip their torsos violently forward, backward, sideways. The torso is also intensely active in Biches, where the body language of the two lead roles for women is startlingly contrasted. The androgynous Garçonne, a page boy role danced on point, is the embodiment of cool: her most exceptional step is a double pirouette beginning and ending on point without any arm movement to help the propulsion. The other is a Hostess whose brilliantly chattering footwork (with no pointwork), ropes of pearls, flourished cigarette holder, and endlessly pliant torso proclaim her sophistication.
When you’ve seen these two ballets repeatedly over the decades—the Royal Ballet revived them regularly between the 1960s and the early 2000s—you find yourself spotting Nijinskaisms in many ballets by other choreographers, notably those by the two men who, emerging after her in the 1920s, went on to gain sway over Western ballet between 1946 and 1983. One of them was Ashton, who always paid tribute to Nijinska as a vital influence on his work and with whom the Royal Ballet became the most celebrated ballet company in the West. It was at his invitation in the mid-1960s that Nijinska made the hugely important stagings of Biches and Noces for the company that are the main source of her renown today. In 1976, four years after her death, she was one of the two dedicatees of his immensely successful A Month in the Country, which is pervaded by her influence.
The other of these two male masters was George Balanchine, the architect of New York City Ballet and the most profoundly influential of all twentieth-century choreographers. Balanchine, keener to establish himself as hors concours, paid no tribute to Nijinska; he seldom even mentioned her name. Yet watch how the three Muses in his classic Apollo (1928), while keeping their arms like halos around their heads, tip their torsos from side to side—an obvious echo of Biches. Another echo occurs in his Prodigal Son (1929), as the Siren briskly struts across the stage on point with her shoulders rotating in drastic counterpoise to her legs. Serenade (1934), Concerto Barocco (1941), Stravinsky Violin Concerto (1972), and Scherzo à la Russe (1972) are other Balanchine creations that still carry the traces—unconscious, no doubt—of Nijinska. Her 1931 production of La Valse began with a motionless tableau that then came into dance life. That’s a choreographic device that Balanchine adopted for almost every ballet he made between 1934 and 1981.
Although Garafola’s La Nijinska surely underanalyzes this outstanding woman choreographer’s impact on those two world-dominating male choreographers who followed her, it has many other revelations. We see what a pioneer Nijinska was in choreographic responses to music. She staged the premieres of scores by Stravinsky, Poulenc, Ravel, Georges Auric, Jacques Ibert, and Constant Lambert in ways that put the dialogue of music and dance in the forefront of modernism and earned the respect of those composers. The critic-composer Roland-Manuel wrote in 1925 of her Les Rencontres, made to music by Ibert, “The choreographic element…enjoys a certain independence here. It does not slavishly fit the music; it scarcely follows it; it encounters it.”
Lambert was deeply impressed by her creation of an “astonishing choreographic fugue…to a purely homophonic passage” of his score for the ballet Romeo and Juliet (1926). For Ravel’s La Valse she threw out the composer’s scenario. Nijinska told a Viennese reporter in 1930, “I could even imagine a dance without any music!” In the same year, she wrote, “One must see and hear the musical line and flow into it or cover it with another dance rhythm.” It’s now widely taken for granted that Balanchine was the most musical of choreographers, but some of his composers disagreed, among them Poulenc, who liked Balanchine’s setting of his Aubade far less than Nijinska’s.
She was also a pioneer in matters of gender, though here she may have been carrying on her brother’s work. Vaslav did more to vary the idea of masculinity than any other dancer, creating roles from the near-animal and highly sexual Golden Slave of Scheherazade (1910) to the androgynous, airborne rose ghost of Le Spectre de la rose (1911). In Jeux (1913), he created a unisex style for himself and two women. (His first idea was to have all three dance on point, an idiom traditionally reserved for female dancers; before the premiere, he eliminated pointwork altogether.) In the 1920s, Bronislava went further with gender-bending. The Garçonne in Biches, though danced by a woman on point, was deliberately androgynous, designed to be seen as a boy. As the Dandy in Nijinska’s Les Fâcheux (1924), Anton Dolin—who became one of the world’s leading male dancers until the 1950s—danced on point.
Nijinska sometimes danced male roles, including the one her brother had created for himself in L’Après-midi d’un faune. She even created a Hamlet ballet and performed the title role. But she also created a broad spectrum of women’s roles for herself. The Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor, as choreographed by Mikhail Fokine in 1909, had been principally a vehicle for exuberant male dancing, but Bronislava reorganized this work to give a star role to herself (with a male partner). Once she took charge of it, her Polovtsian Maiden became all the more central. As she put it, this Polovtsian woman “walks, dances above them” (presumably “them” refers to the Polovtsian men). “They are beneath all the time—timid, devoted, scared, desirous, hot and numb in front of her, big and strong.” In Biches, she was the rapacious Hostess with the pearls and brilliantly loquacious feet.
Garafola demonstrates that Nijinska had to cope with even more hostility than might have been guessed; some of this was misogynist. She received startlingly negative and abrasive reviews from André Levinson, the most influential, most descriptively analytical, but also the most reactionary dance critic of the 1920s and early 1930s. (In 1991, Joan Acocella and Garafola brought out a first-rate collection, André Levinson on Dance—Writings from Paris in the Twenties.) And the boys’ club that did much to shape and run the Ballets Russes in the mid-1920s—Diaghilev, Jean Cocteau, Boris Kochno, Serge Lifar, Léonide Massine, and the new arrival Balanchine—wanted her out before she had finished four years with the company. (Diaghilev remarked that if he were to have a daughter, Nijinska would be what he would have liked. The problem was that he didn’t want a daughter.)
In 1930 she staged the first production of Petrouchka (1911) after Diaghilev’s death. Its original designer and cocreator, Alexandre Benois, said in an interview, “She possesses, alas, a dictatorial spirit—so feminine, I believe—that causes her to live a little too shut up in her own conception and barely listen to the observations, however justified, of anybody else.” (So feminine? The 1930s were to show him some men with considerably more dictatorial and less amenable spirits.)
One of the most startling revelations of Nijinska’s Early Memoirs was her passionate love for Feodor Chaliapin. This great operatic bass and singing actor—one of the most internationally admired of all stage artists, involved in the early years of Diaghilev’s work in the West—singled her out for attention in 1911. He was almost twice her age, a married man with a reputation for womanizing. Their affair went no further than a chaste kiss; the men around Nijinska made sure of that. He nonetheless opened up depths of passion in her that endured for many years. Garafola’s book goes beyond Early Memoirs in showing how Nijinska went on caring for Chaliapin much more than for either of her husbands. In 1928, by then the mother of two children and eight years after last seeing Chaliapin, she wrote in her diary:
I cannot escape this attachment,…[an] obsession, a kind of mania, a disease that destroys me…. They ask me where I get my strength and tell me that from the outside it is incomprehensible how so many ballets can possibly be made by one person…. “Only nerves and tension and desire.”…My art is love and a conversation with him.
She worked on those diaries, copying them and giving them such titles as Diaries of Gratuitous Pain, Rain on My Parnassus, or Love Madness, and Without Consciousness, Only Heart. In 1931, after she met him again, she wrote, “My art was a marriage to F” (Feodor). Garafola observes:
With their interminable scenes of self-abasement and humiliation, Nijinska’s diaries are painful to read. The suffering is so all-consuming and the sense of worthlessness so pervasive that one is hard pressed to find a connection between the love-struck adolescent of the diaries, fixated on a romantic interlude in an ever more distant past, and the driven, successful choreographer…. Because the romance of her life remained confined to her imagination, it survived intact, like a wound that never healed…. Chaliapin had no interest in being either her mentor or her lover. And even if he inspired her art, he also diminished it by withholding his validation.
In the absence of her father, Diaghilev gave her away at her wedding to her second husband, Nicholas Singaevsky, in 1924—as he had at her first in 1912. “How hadn’t it occurred to me that he brings bad luck to a marriage?” she wrote in 1926. Yet that marriage lasted until Singaevsky died in 1968. In public, she always treated him as a servant or assistant. Around 1960, she rebuked one male dancer for smoking. When he replied, “But madame, what about you—you’re smoking,” she turned to Singaevsky, who was carrying an ashtray, flicked her ash at him, and replied, “Yes, but I have an ashtray!” One male dancer felt that she tended “to emasculate men.”
Ashton and Dolin were among her many male devotees, however. And many illustrious ballerinas were lastingly grateful for Nijinska’s work with them: Alicia Markova, Irina Baronova, and Rosella Hightower were foremost as muses and ideal collaborators. Work took Nijinska from Hollywood—she made the dances for Max Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), in idioms far from traditional ballet—to Warsaw, from Paris to Buenos Aires. When American Ballet Theatre was founded in 1939 with ambitious plans, she was one of the six choreographers making premieres for its opening season.
Yet Nijinska was not by nature an artistic director. She never sustained a creative relationship with any ballet company for more than a few years at a time. Indeed, she never stayed long in one place. (Around 1930, she tried to negotiate contracts with three important troupes, the Vienna Staatsoper, the Opéra Russe, and Les Ballets Ida Rubinstein. Though she worked with dancers in Vienna to good effect, she left without signing a contract.) She was deaf—the warfare around Kyiv in her twenties had permanently impaired her hearing. (Just how deaf she was seems to have varied. Sometimes she heard more than she made out.) She never became proficient in the languages of the Western countries in which she mainly worked, though she often chose to pretend to understand French and English even less well than she did. In consequence, though she created and revived ballets with great success, they were often lost.
Fortunately, Ashton changed the perception of her work when she was in her seventies. When he ran the Royal Ballet, she made those important revivals of Les Biches and Les Noces for the company. Nijinska, who had lost her son in a 1935 car crash, even told Ashton, “Tu es mon fils.” Her ballets became crown jewels of the Royal Ballet repertory. In 1981, celebrating its fiftieth anniversary with three performances of a rich program of repertory highlights, it made the long, stunning, but dark final scene of Noces the concluding item, as if prizing it even above items by the company’s home choreographers, Ashton and others, and above anything by Marius Petipa, some of whose works had become the company’s international calling cards.
Garafola, a professor of dance at Barnard College for much of this century, leapt to the forefront of dance history writing in 1989 with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. There she scrutinized that company’s art and operations with multiple historical methods (gender, economics, and more) seldom previously applied in dance studies. Nijinska’s ballets have been Garafola’s terrain for over thirty years. It’s remarkable, though, that she now takes Nijinska’s side to the extent of avoiding her earlier book’s admired but controversial observation:
The real trauma of Nijinska’s life, one feels, was becoming a woman: exchanging, like the Bride of Noces, the cosiness of a mother’s arms for the uncertain comforts of a husband’s, discovering that what people regarded as feminine—grace, charm, beauty—she lacked. Only a plain woman could have made Les Biches.
Any reader of La Nijinska, however, will be impressed by the geographical and cultural range of her research over three continents. We see how Nijinska was at the forefront of the new waves of modernism, romanticism (or neoromanticism), and classicism (or neoclassicism). In her work—as in Balanchine’s and Ashton’s—these became far from mutually exclusive genres. Nijinska emerges as an important and visionary artist who transformed ballet.
I believe, though, that Garafola could nonetheless go further in parsing the choreographic connections and differences between Vaslav and Bronislava. His ballets of 1912–1913 certainly set ideas rolling that she would pick up, but in Early Memoirs she allowed readers to think she was merely continuing his mission. Not so. Although Bronislava’s Les Noces may owe plenty to Vaslav’s Le Sacre du printemps, I wish Garafola did more to establish the obvious stylistic differences between them. Vaslav, as photographs of his Sacre show, differentiated between individual dancers within the group, whereas Bronislava created a more uniform dance collectivism. And whereas he gave his dancers a radical spectrum of fragmented leg positions, she kept her dancers’ legs largely parallel.
Garafola’s feminism is a breath of fresh air; there’s no doubt that Nijinska met with misogyny. But Garafola doesn’t always prove her case against individual men. In 1954 the dance critic and historian Richard Buckle, a lover of celebrities, seems not to have invited Nijinska to his acclaimed Diaghilev exhibition in London. “It is hard to resist the conclusion that being a woman had something to do with this,” writes Garafola. Yet Buckle involved many women in that exhibition—several as colleagues in its planning and preparation, one to open it—made a fuss of many women who then visited it, and devoted pages to Nijinska’s ballets in his sumptuously illustrated book about the exhibition, In Search of Diaghilev (1955).
Levinson’s intelligent hostility to Nijinska is sometimes shocking to read—and shocked some at the time. Still, when he writes of her ballet Les Fâcheux that “nothing will lead me to believe that Mlle. Nijinska is the Molière of choreography,” Garafola is too quick to remark, “As if anyone had suggested she was.” The title and idea of Les Fâcheux had already set up a Molière comparison: in 1661, the playwright had collaborated with the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully and the choreographer Pierre Beauchamp to make the original Les Fâcheux, the first of a historically important series of comédies-ballets (powerfully scrutinized in Lincoln Kirstein’s illuminating survey of ballet history, Movement and Metaphor). Garafola, apparently unaware of the precedent, is unfair to both Levinson and Nijinska.
These are small cavils, though. La Nijinska realigns dance history and does long-overdue justice to one of the twentieth century’s great women artists. One of those still alive who worked with Nijinska is Robert Barnett, artistic director emeritus of Atlanta Ballet. He was trained by her before he became one of the early members of Balanchine’s New York City Ballet; now ninety-seven, he has always thanked her for the powerful technique she gave him and kept in touch with her until not long before her death. Garafola quotes him, but I can’t help wishing she included one of his most impressive tales. Early in 1950 Ashton came to make his first work for New York City Ballet, Illuminations. Spotting Barnett, Ashton exclaimed, “You’ve been taught by Nijinska.” When he said yes, Ashton said, “She is the encyclopedia of the dance.”
Ashton’s contemporary Dolin also applied the line “the encyclopedia of the dance” to Nijinska. We’ll never know with whom it originated. (It sounds to me like Ashton, the more naturally eloquent of the two.) What matters is that both of them, in an era when ballet choreography was dominated by men, singled out this woman as the dance encyclopedia—a tribute nobody ever thought of applying to Vaslav. The sister had added up to a far greater resource than the brother. And some men had the grace to admit it.