Arts Review Book Review

Shadow of a Spectre

André Eglevsky and ensemble in Brahms Variations, late 1940s. Marquis de Cuevas Collection, Henry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

Bronislava Nijinska looked a lot like her brother, the famous dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. This proved an advantage to her own career, and a disadvantage. They’d grown up together, studied at the Imperial Ballet school in St. Petersburg, and begun their performing careers in the Maryinsky Theater. Both were trained in the virtuosic skills of the time. Acclaimed as a prodigy from the first, Vaslav left the home company soon after graduation to join Serge Diaghilev, founder of what became the legendary Ballets Russes. Vaslav’s story—his relationship with Diaghilev, his meteoric stardom in the early ballets of Michel Fokine, his budding choreographic career fostered by the possessive Diaghilev, his expulsion from the company following his marriage to Romola de Pulzsky, and his long mental deterioration—has been told many times. It’s only a sideline in Lynn Garafola’s new book La Nijinska: Choreographer of the Modern.[1]

Garafola, a noted dance historian who’s concentrated on ballet experimenters of the early twentieth century, sets out to document the career of the long-neglected Bronislava, and to establish her impor­tance in the lineage of modern ballet. Nijinska’s contemporaries picture her in contradictory terms: she was variously reported as a loving mentor and a cruel taskmaster. I came off the book with my own feelings of sympathy and exasperation. Bronislava was immensely talented; world events and personal vulnerability worked against her. It was hard enough being the adoring sister of a prodigy. Onstage, Vaslav Nijinsky looked stocky, peasantlike. It didn’t matter. Before the advent of sleek, slim danseurs like Serge Lifar and Anton Dolin, his superb mime and technical mastery made him a star in classical and dramatic roles. As his look-alike, Bronislava failed to fit the delicate feminine image of a ballerina. Critics condescended when she danced the ballerina roles: she was more than a good dancer, but she somehow wasn’t light enough, or beautiful, or charming, compared to notables like Tamara Karsavina, Lydia Lopukova, or Felia Doubrovska.

Diaghilev balanced his enterprise on a financial precipice; without official sponsorship, he depended on a network of intimate co-workers and wealthy patrons. An astute judge of talent and novelty, Diaghilev created audiences over two decades, manipulating his favorites, eking out the resources to mount a celebrated repertory. Rivalries and intrigues swirled under the surface constantly.

Nijinska left the Maryinsky to join Diaghilev’s first ballet-centered Paris season in 1909. Dancing in the innovative ballets of Michel Fokine (Firebird, Petrouchka, Schéhérazade) and other works, she was on hand when Diaghilev assigned Nijinsky to make his first ballet, L’Après-midi d’un Faune, in 1912. She assisted her brother’s choreography and danced the leading Nymph in that work. A year later, she danced with Vaslav and Ludmilla Schollar in another Nijinsky-Debussy ballet, Jeux, a vignette possibly set in fashionable Bloomsbury. Two women and a man, dressed for tennis, played at an ambiguous sexuality. Neither of these first works of Nijinsky fit any preconceived idea of ballet. So his next work, Le Sacre du Printemps, could have been seen as a natural progression. But the Sacre was just too big and too unforgiving. The “riot” during the first performance was too juicy for the gossips to resist, and the Sacre’s reputation was forever linked to scandal.

Nijinska assisted Vaslav in choreographing Stravinsky’s knotty score. She helped create the drastic solo of the Chosen Maiden who danced herself to death, but she never performed the role. She was pregnant, having married dancer Sasha Kochetovsky. The offending Sacre was dropped from the repertory after eight performances. Vaslav continued with the company despite the Sacre’s toxic reception and a cooling of his intimate relationship with Diaghilev. Away from the master’s scrutiny on a South American tour, he met and married a Hungarian admirer, Romola de Pulszky. Mortally jealous, Diaghilev had Nijinsky dismissed.

Bronislava, still under contract, continued as a key dancer in the repertory until the 1913 summer break. She returned to Russia with her first child, Irina, and Kochetovsky. On the brink of the fall season, she learned that Diaghilev was bringing Fokine back to the company, and that his wife, Vera Fokina, would be taking over some of the lead roles Nijinska had danced. Breaking her contract on the grounds that Diaghilev had promised she’d keep all her roles, Nijinska remained in Russia. A few months later, Vaslav summoned her back to Europe: he was going to start his own company. She left Irina with her mother and joined Vaslav. Bronia scouted for dancers and rehearsed them in Vaslav’s craftily altered versions of the popular Fokine ballets. Both she and her husband appeared as dancers. But the venture was brief.

Cut off from the Diaghilev entourage and the Ballets Russes, Vaslav was totally unprepared for the responsibilities of heading his own company. It failed halfway through its run. Garafola tries to filter out the truth from the partisan accounts that followed. The so-called Saison Nijinsky, at London’s Palace theater—-more of a variety house than an art theater—-had been management’s dream of a profitable venture. But the star was incapacitated, with physical or emotional illness, and the management cancelled the remaining weeks. This disaster marked the public revelation of Nijinsky’s mental breakdown, but signs of his failing health had appeared much earlier. Under pressure to choreo­graph, for which he had no experience, he threw tantrums and arguments. Eventually the three ballets that made it to the Ballets Russes stage (Faune, Jeux, and Sacre) were provocative and not under­stood by critics. He and Diaghilev were coming to the end of their relationship. His marriage put an end to their affair and to Vaslav’s career.

Bronislava returned to St. Petersburg. She had begun what would be lifelong roles as balletmaster and teacher. It was 1914, and the Great War was approaching. Vaslav couldn’t return to Russia, having evaded military service during his years with Diaghilev. He was interned in Budapest as an enemy alien for the first part of the war, and his mental illness became permanent. Most of this story so far is well known, if told different ways. Nijinska’s Early Memoirs, published in 1981, describes their first artistic steps and ends after the Saisons Nijinsky debacle in London.
Back in Russia, Bronislava and Kochetovsky resumed their careers. Nijinska came under the influence of progressive artists in theater and design during that remarkable period of experimentation. Her work reflected constructivism’s suppression of decorative detail in favor of linear certitude, the submergence of individual choice into the collective will, the importance of ordinary people and modern life as a subject for art, and the exploration of folk art as spiritual renewal. She began thinking about what would become her own theory of movement. Like Rudolf Laban, Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, Isadora Duncan, Vsevolod Meyerhold and other reformers of the early twentieth century, she stressed the idea that movement has qualities and meanings of its own and provides a necessary connection between positions. Although never relinquishing the importance of classical ballet technique, she considered breath, line, color, and the dancer’s presence as syncretizing elements in dance work.

She opened a school in Kiev, where she staged classical ballets for theaters in the city and began choreographing her own work. In 1919 she and Kochetovsky separated. She kept on with the school despite worsening economic conditions and the growing threat of political disfavor after the Soviets took over the government. The secret police were after her, Garafola hints. As the school was being closed down (Garafola is uncharacteristically vague about this), she left her students behind and sneaked across the border into Poland with her mother and two children. It was a harrowing escape, anticipating the widely publicized dancer defections of the 1960s and ’70s. She headed for Vienna, where Vaslav was hospitalized at the Steinhof sanitarium. Given the uncertain nature of psychiatric medicine at the time, Vaslav’s diagnosis was inconclusive for years, but by 1921 he was believed to be incurable. Madness ran in the family: their older brother Stanislav had sustained mental illness years before; Bronia herself had a volatile disposition.

Nijinska accepted a job dancing her own solos and small pieces at a Vienna music hall for six weeks. She resented having to do it, but she needed the money. She quarreled with Romola over how to pay for Vaslav’s care and that of her own family. Without resources, Bronislava had turned to Diaghilev. He needed a choreographer, having lost Nijinsky and his successor, Léonide Massine. His latest project, The Sleeping Beauty (renamed The Sleeping Princess), was to be a huge, Imperial-style production. Reviving a famous classical ballet was an odd move, contrary to Diaghilev’s reputation as a rule-breaker, but he thought nostalgia for the pre-Revolutionary days would draw audiences in London and Paris. Bronislava choreographed new dances and divertissements for The Sleeping Princess. She performed demi-solo roles in the production, taught company class, and rehearsed the dancers. The work was a failure, and the company went on hiatus until Diaghilev could recoup his losses.

When they reassembled, she put together a suite of dances, Aurora’s Wedding, salvaged from the ill-fated Sleeping Princess. She danced principal roles in Fokine’s ballets and in works that had been made during the years of her absence, including the Chosen Maiden in Massine’s new version of Le Sacre du Printemps, the role that Nijinsky had choreographed on her in 1913. Little of Massine’s 1920 choreography survives, but Garafola quotes critics who found Nijinska’s perfor- mance more intense, even terrifying, than that of Lydia Sokolova, on whom Massine had set his Chosen Maiden.

In 1923, with the Ballets Russes now based in Monte Carlo, Diaghilev assigned Nijinska to make a new Stravinsky work. Les Noces became the first of three innovative ballets in which she extended Vaslav’s ideas and melded them with revolutionary Russian arts. Stravinsky was a reliable modernist, a favorite of Ballets Russes audiences since Firebird and Petrouchka of the earliest seasons. Le Sacre had broken this pattern. It wasn’t a story ballet with familiar characters and lush orchestration, but an uncompromising ritual. An ancient tribe sacrifices a young girl, in a dance of death, to bring an end to winter. Ten years after Le Sacre, Les Noces again revealed Stravinsky in sensitive territory, an arranged peasant marriage. Instead of a symphony orchestra, a chamber ensemble of four pianos, vocal chorus, and percussion played his dissonant, truncated phrases and shifting rhythms.

Although Diaghilev had commissioned folkloric designs from the artist Natalia Goncharova, Bronislava rejected a colorful setting and had her dancers costumed in dark brown and white peasant outfits with no decoration. Her choreography was equally severe, with narrow, upright bodies, legs in parallel position, feet stabbing or stamping into the ground. Arms and torsos made curving shapes only in order to create group designs. The drunken village wedding guests celebrated together in massed unison, and families parted in unsentimental poses that weren’t embraces but bodies pressed together. Visually, the work was a human constructivist design, of angles and curves, volumes and surfaces.

Les Noces was no Aurora’s Wedding. The rite it described was severe, even cruel, a danced analogy to Stravinsky’s pared-down score. Critics who were sympathetic to Stravinsky praised the ballet, but André Levinson, protector of ballet tradition, attacked it repeatedly as a Marxist outrage, with harsh words for Nijinska. Nearly 50 years later, Lincoln Kirstein, the avatar of classical ballet in America, declared Les Noces one of the century’s half-dozen great works.

Soon after Les Noces, Nijinska retrieved what Garafola has termed the “lifestyle modernism” first displayed in Vaslav’s Jeux. Les Biches proposed a chic house party, in a sophisticated mode aimed at Diaghilev insiders. Nijinska wasn’t part of this clique, but she was working with composer Francis Poulenc, who was. From the title alone—the name for female deer as well as a slang reference to girls targeted for seduction—Les Biches played out in double entendre. Instead of a plot, the ballet offered a series of dances for assorted characters of nebulous genders, who either were or weren’t engaged in erotic encounters: the two innocent girls who duet primly linked together and end in a sudden kiss; the boyish Garçonne who wears an abbreviated blue velvet tunic and dances an inconclusive duet with one of the three muscular athletes; and the overdressed Hostess, who commandeers the other two athletes and dances men’s steps.

Garafola points out that the female principals could have been aspects of Nijinska’s own “gendered self” as an independent woman supporting her family. Bronia danced several male roles in an era when cross-dressing only went in the direction of male-to-female, as in Sleeping Beauty’s Carabosse, the Witch in La Sylphide, and the Widow Simone in La Fille Mal Gardée. Onstage, Nijinska could look coarse. She could create grotesque moves and masklike expressions. I found myself wondering about Nijinska’s own sexuality on this borderline. She certainly was aware of Vaslav’s relationship with Diaghilev, and homosexuality was an accepted fact in the Ballets Russes and the arts. The male roles she performed were sometimes last-minute substitutions for injured dancers. She seems to have assumed them as a matter of simple expediency—-as if a woman like her could do anything.

The eccentrically chic atmosphere of Les Biches might have looked avant-garde, but Nijinska built the flirtations and chases on classical ballet steps. Poulenc was in his early twenties; his witty score romped across musical styles and propelled the dancers with fragmentary motifs and changing rhythms. Though a member of the innovative Les Six composers, for Les Biches Poulenc followed the dance forms of eighteenth-century classical music. Similarly, Nijinska’s suite of oddities reflects the structure of a classical ballet, with an introduction danced by a corps of women, variations for the athletes and solo women, duets, trio, and a coda where each of the featured characters makes a brief appearance framed by the corps.

Les Biches was a big success with the Ballets Russes’ cosmopolitan audiences in Monte Carlo and on tour. Soon after its premiere, Diaghilev needed a vehicle to feature Anton Dolin, his latest protégé. Dolin hadn’t had much ballet training, but he was young and athletic. To a score of popular themes and generously syncopated rhythms by another French composer of Les Six, Darius Milhaud, a group of bathers cavorted on the Côte d’Azur. Le Train Bleu had many little jokes, besides the fact that the Blue Train never appeared. The women of the corps danced steps from the Charleston and posed as fashion models, in bathing costumes designed by Coco Chanel. Among the characters were a female tennis player and a golfer—-never mind what they were doing on the beach. An invisible airplane flew overhead and dropped leaflets. Nijinska again employed classical ballet steps overlaid with gestures, this time associated with sport—-tennis strokes, golf swings, diving motions. Dolin was given muscular warmups, acrobatic stunts, high leaps, and somersaults into the simulated ocean. Audiences liked it, but later the ballet underwent many changes. The occasional revivals we see today are as dependent on the dancers’ interpretations as was the original, and Nijinska’s choreography has gone unnoticed.
As a private entrepreneur without official sponsorship, Diaghilev made his way with an astute combination of connoisseurship and the ability to cultivate an inner circle of wealthy patrons. He kept Nijinska busy making new ballets for the repertory—-there were four in addition to Les Noces, Les Biches, Le Train Bleu, and Aurora’s Wedding—-as well as incidental dances for the operas at Monte Carlo. After Le Train Bleu, she found his attention drifting away. He had new protégés, including a new lover, Serge Lifar. George Balanchine arrived from Russia with three colleagues. The dependable Massine came back. Bronia no longer could claim choreographic precedence; she felt little incentive to experiment. Having divorced Kochetovaky, she had married another dancer, Nicholas Singaevsky, and both of them left the Ballets Russes in 1924.

Diaghilev did invite her back in 1926, to do a modern-dress version of Romeo and Juliet. Broke again, he resorted to a production with virtually no scenic elements. The idea was to tell Shakespeare’s familiar story as a rehearsal for a stage production. The star-crossed lovers eloped at the end in an airplane. Balanchine set the movement for the entr’acte, in which the curtain was raised only high enough to reveal the dancers’ feet crossing the stage. Nijinska had left before the premiere. As the composer, Constant Lambert, angrily wrote to her, many changes had been made in her absence: among them cuts in the choreography and the addition of full-stage drops by the surrealists Juan Miró and Max Ernst. Artists in Paris staged a riot against Diaghilev and his elitist audience, but that failed to make the ballet a success.

Nijinska didn’t return to Diaghilev.

Olga Sławska (right) and Nina Juszkiewicz (Youshkevitch) in Chopin Concerto, 1937. National Digital Archives, Warsaw.

Her life after 1924 is known only in sketchy form, though Garafola does a tremendous job of resurrecting it. She became a freelance long before that was a common practice for choreographers in ballet. She worked for companies around the world but didn’t stay attached to any one. Alongside her advanced movement ideas, she insisted on a classical basis for dancers’ technical training. As she had done with Vaslav’s abortive 1913-14 ensemble, she repurposed famous ballets by Fokine to avoid ownership issues. The practice of remaking the ballets of others continues to be a common workaround in a field where an artist’s successful work escapes most legal protections, and borrowings are hard to detect or define. Tweaks and updates are routinely administered to out-of-repertory classics. Nijinska herself inserted new material for Diaghilev’s 1921 Sleeping Princess. Massine rechoreographed Le Sacre du Printemps in 1920 and again in 1930. Like Fokine before him, Massine became fiercely protective of his popular ballets. Nijinska revived her own ballets several times, but we don’t know how much rethinking went into them.

Over the years Nijinska tailored new ballets for the skills of unskilled groups. Called to help out well-financed pickup companies, like that of the famous dancer-mime Ida Rubinstein, she molded the dancers into shape and gained their loyalty. For several years she was a fixture at the Ballet Colón in Buenos Aires. After Diaghilev’s death and the dissolution of his company in 1929, she contributed to its heirs, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo under Col. Vassily de Basil and Sergei Denham, and the Grand Ballet de Monte Carlo under the Marquis de Cuevas. She worked with (American) Ballet Theater. She made pieces for former Diaghilev stars and collaborators. With Singaevsky’s indispensable help, she initiated groups of her own at least three times, according to Garafola.

Tragically, for all her half-century of work, almost none of her ballets survive. Her daughter Irina became a dancer and eventually a reconstructor. They kept Noces, Biches, and one or two others alive, but the rest survived only a few seasons. According to Garafola, there may have been three or four groundbreakers. Were any of them as consequential as those first two? We can rely on her own words in diaries, notes, correspondence. Garafola quotes from these and from contemporary critics, taking pains to point out their biases. Apparently no films of her late work exist. Rare published photographs show some of her dramatic groupings, but we can’t know how the dancers moved into and out of them without access to live dancers in real time.

Nijinska’s influence as a teacher and choreographic model can be seen in the work of Frederick Ashton, who joined the Ballets Ida Rubinstein in 1928 and became a devoted admirer. Ashton’s Symphonic Variations and Monotones reaffirm the effectiveness of abstract movement with a classical base. His other ballets give great importance to the upper body, with a cultivated use of classical steps. As artistic director of the Royal Ballet, Ashton brought Les Noces and Les Biches into the repertory.

Long-term institutions are where choreographic works get secured. Nijinska was unable to hang onto the institutional connections she made. Though she had the support of Singaevsky and others, she also had a difficult personality and a demanding temperament. These qualities might not have worked against her if she hadn’t been a woman trying to reform the ballet. It was George Balanchine who accomplished that, with the help of a wealthy and persistent American. Lincoln Kirstein persuaded Balanchine to emigrate, and in 1934 they founded the School of American Ballet. It became the choreographer’s training and testing laboratory. They established the New York City Ballet permanently in 1948. It took almost 15 years.

Nijinska was reviving her own works almost until her death in 1972. She didn’t live to see the publication of her Early Memoirs, or to continue with the chapters that would have followed. Garafola’s exemplary research fills in the record. Her fascinating book reminds us not only of dance’s ephemerality but of the lapses and personal spin that make dance history such a fragile subject.
[1] LA NIJINSKA: Choreographer of the Modern, by Lynn Garafola. Oxford University Press. $39.95.