The Woman Who Was Written Out of the History of Dance

Choreographer of the Modern
By Lynn Garafola

It’s gratifying when a biographer and her subject are as perfectly matched as these two are. Everything in Lynn Garafola’s prior life — her authorship of a major work on Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, her investigations into other ballet and modern dance companies, her years of teaching in Barnard’s eminent dance department — prepared her to accomplish this challenging task. And for Bronislava Nijinska, the long-neglected sister of Vaslav Nijinsky, it’s nothing short of a resuscitation. Left out of the ballet history in which she actively participated from 1911 (when her brother choreographed “L’Après-Midi d’un Faune” on her) to 1970 (when she proposed restaging that famous dance for a new young Russian star, Mikhail Baryshnikov), she has now been brought to life by this first-ever biography.

The reasons for her neglect are manifold. Her uncompromising nature was no doubt a factor, as was the bitter competitiveness among ballet choreographers. (As one contemporary put it, “Nijinska hated Balanchine and Balanchine hated her, and Balanchine hated Massine, and Massine hated them both.”) But one reason is certainly that she was a woman. As Garafola emphasizes, the choreographic world that Nijinska entered in the early years of the 20th century was entirely male. In modern dance, where innovators like Mary Wigman and Martha Graham were able to form their own successful companies, things might have been different. But La Nijinska (as she called herself) chose to remain in the realm of classical ballet, where the mainstream story, leading from Diaghilev’s Russo-French company to Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, excluded the smaller organizations that employed Nijinska. Part of Garafola’s aim is therefore historical as well as biographical, in that she wants to rewrite that narrative to encompass companies like the Polish Ballet, the Teatro Colón, Les Ballets de Madame Ida Rubinstein, the Marquis de Cuevas’s postwar European productions, and the Ballet Center of Buffalo, to all of which Nijinska contributed.

Before she was a choreographer, Bronia Nijinska was a dancer — at first alongside her brother in Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and later with companies in Moscow, Kyiv, London, Paris, Vienna and elsewhere. Official reviews and informal accounts indicate that she was a marvelous performer, lean, expressive and powerful. In 1928, when she was already in her late 30s, the young Frederick Ashton, who had been recruited by Nijinska to join her in Paris, wrote to the dance impresario Marie Rambert that her jump “is wonderful & gives one some idea of ​​what Nijinsky’s jump was like in quality. She is a beautiful dancer & a dancer above all her ugliness.” (The incessant references to Nijinska’s ugliness — culminating in an unspeakable passage by Arlene Croce that alludes to her troll-like stature and “Mongoloid eyes” — contrast oddly with the photos Garafola includes in the book, which show her with strong but certainly not repellent features.)

Even Ashton’s warm praise suggests what she was up against. Not only was Nijinska a mere female, but her brother was a widely recognized genius. (Garafola, in a subtle aside, invokes Virginia Woolf’s essay on Shakespeare’s hypothetical sister.) Poor Nijinsky, diagnosed with schizophrenia, had been installed in a mental institution since 1919 and was to remain there for pretty much the rest of his life, but this did not prevent people from comparing her accomplishments to his. Bronia herself was devoted to Vaslav: She abandoned her own Kyiv-based company, at what might have been the happiest and most fulfilling time in her life, to join him in Vienna in a fruitless attempt to rouse him from his mental illness; When she finally wrote her memoirs late in life, she couched them as a tribute to her famous brother. But Garafola, perhaps resentful on her behalf, won’t let him usurp the story, and in fact he barely appears in these pages between the 1921 Vienna visit and 1950, when Nijinska, now living in California, learned of his death in a London hospital.

We have numerous reports and photographs of Vaslav Nijinsky’s astonishing performances, but what about the dozens of works created by Shakespeare’s sister? For all intents and purposes, they are pretty much gone. From “Aurora’s Wedding” (derived from “Sleeping Beauty”), “Night on Bald Mountain” and “Le Train Bleu,” which were among the dances she choreographed for Diaghilev in the 1920s, to works like “Brahms Variations,” “Bolero ,” “Étude” (to Bach) and “Hamlet” (the last piece in which she danced herself, taking on the title role), Nijinska’s vast catalog of works is now mostly irretrievable. Just two substantial pieces, “Les Noces” (to Stravinsky) and “Les Biches” (to Poulenc), have survived, and that’s only because Ashton invited her to restage them for the Royal Ballet in the mid-1960s.

Dance is our most ephemeral art. By comparison, literature, painting and sculpture are practically eternal. Even music and theater, though they too exist in the moment, can be written down and effectively reconstructed. But the dance disappears the minute it is performed, and only the careful handing-down of each individual piece, transmitted from one body to another, can ensure that the work remains alive and available. Dance notation has proved woefully inadequate, and even preservatives like film and videotape do not eliminate the need for personal instruction, because the camera isn’t always looking where you want it to: It might be focusing on the central couple’s lifts when what you really need to know is how the background dancers’ footwork went.

In “La Nijinska,” Garafola has triumphed over this problem to a degree I would not have thought possible. Sometimes she relies on written accounts by colleagues and critics; sometimes she has Nijinska’s own notes and diaries to refer to. Occasionally she can evoke a whole solo from a series of sketches or even a single expressive painting. Her descriptions of the dances are remarkably persuasive, and it is only when you come upon her masterly analysis of “Les Noces” — a dance she has actually seen — that you realize what you’ve been missing. But one is grateful for even the crumbs. Like Boswell, who ran around London checking facts about Samuel Johnson that no one would ever challenge, Garafola has turned over every piece of paper that passed through Nijinska’s hands, not to mention the hands of her friends and students (who were often the same people ).

It is in her role as a great teacher, in fact, that Nijinska comes across most strongly. Brought to Buenos Aires in the 1920s to whip the embryonic Teatro Colón into shape, she accomplished miracles, and the same happened 40 years later when she went to Buffalo to help a new ballet company. Ninette de Valois recalled the way she noted “the important relationship between breathing and movement”; Rosella Hightower remembered how Nijinska would constantly press her fist into Hightower’s back to encourage elongation; and Georgina Parkinson, whom the choreographer plucked out of the Royal Ballet to perform a key role in “Les Biches,” said that though at first she was “not good enough,” Nijinska “always looked at me… as if she knew it would be all right. And it was, finally.” Passages like these make one realize the tremendous spirit that was lost to the dance world when Bronislava Nijinska died at the age of 81 in 1972 — a loss that we can only now, with Lynn Garafola’s help, begin to address.

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