Plate 12. Yury Annenkov, poster for “La Nijinska Ballets Russes.”

The Eternal Struggles of Bronislava Nijinska

Lynn Garafola on her new book, La Nijinska: Choreographer of the Modern

For over a decade, the eminent dance historian Lynn Garafola has been at work on a biography of Bronislava Nijinska, choreographer of “Les Noces” and sister of Vaslav Nijinsky. The wait is almost over—her book, La Nijinska, for Oxford University Press, becomes available in February. It is the first comprehensive biography of Nijinska, a long overdue, informative, and engaging account of one of the most important choreographers of the twentieth century. And a portrait of an artist who, though innovative, inspiring, and hard-working, was continually thwarted by forces beyond her control (revolution, war, the sexism of her milieu, and the chronic instability of the ballet world) as well as by her own intransigent personality. La Nijinska acknowledges and documents the difficulties of being a woman in a field dominated by men, responsible for the survival and wellbeing of her mother, husband, and children during one of the most challenging periods in history. And it is a cautionary tale about the impermanence of dance itself, when it is not backed by solid institutions and caretakers with an interest in something besides the glory of discovering the next bright young thing. Despite the odds, Nijinska emerges as an artist of immense creative energy and originality.

I recently caught up with Garafola to discuss the writing of La Nijinska, and aspects of Njinska’s creative life.

Your book is so rich. Nijinska is a subject one reads about in bits and pieces here and there, but to have it all together as a life and an artistic arc is extraordinary and long overdue. It makes it possible to see so many more connections, and to understand where things fit in.

The earlier part of her life and the Diaghilev period are known, and there’s a little bit known about her time with Ida Rubinstein, but not much else about her life is known, except bits here and there. Some large areas were completely unknown, like her experiences in South America.

Why do you think that is?

Part of the difficulty was having to wait for the Nijinska Collection, the vast archives of material that she collected and carted around with her entire life, to become available to the public. And that didn’t really happen until the 2000s. It took a long while for the collection to be catalogued, and for some kind of finding aide to be created. The finding aide still needs work, which is why it hasn’t been posted on the Library of Congress website yet.

How did it end up there?

I believe it was sold by the husband of Nijinska’s daughter, Irina Nijinska, after she died, in the early 1990s.

And is that where you did most of your research?

Yes, I did a lot of research there, but as you know, a lot of material is available in other places. Many French newspapers, especially from the interwar years, are online, thanks to Gallica. [Gallica is the digital library of the Bibliothèque Narionale de France.] And as time went by, more and more newspapers began coming online. One day I was looking something up on Gallica, and there was Comœdia, the daily theatrical newspaper, which was immensely important because it was the major paper that the critic André Levinson wrote for.

Bronislava Nijinska, 1953.

Incredible! But I imagine the research entailed some travel as well?

There was a conference once in Sweden, after which I spent a week at the Carina Library [a collection centered on dance] in Stockholm. They have a complete run of Diaghilev programs and a number of other programs. I photographed and photographed and photographed like mad. That made it possible for me to really see what Nijinska was dancing. I could see for example that she was doing Myrtha [in “Giselle”] day after day after day in Monte Carlo in 1913, when her brother said she couldn’t be in “The Rite of Spring.” And I was able to have a full sense of her career with the Ballets Russes, when and where her ballets were performed, her other choreographic assignments, and the large repertory she danced. I realized how exhausted she must have been—no wonder she became a chain smoker.

Another archive that was really important was the dance collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, because they too have a lot Diaghilev material. The V&A was also extremely helpful when it came to the Markova-Dolin company and the Marquis de Cuevas company [both of whom Nijinska choreographed for]. For the Cuevas Company, someone had just given them a whole lot of Xeroxes of reviews and other press materials. The New York Public Library had some Argentine newspapers that I literally scrolled through day by day.

You had written on the Russian émigré critic André Levinson before. Did the experience of reading everything he wrote about Nijinska change your way of thinking about him?

Absolutely. When Joan Acocella and I did our Levinson book, neither of us had a real sense of this Russia Abroad. We were really anxious to document Levinson, and the nearest we got was going to the Bibliothèque Nationale and literally turning the pages of Comœdia. At that point, I didn’t know of any other way of looking for his reviews. We were only there for a short time. How he fit into the Russian emigration was something that really came out through this last book. I was appalled as I began looking again through numerous reviews of his at how he was treating NIjinska.

Why do you think he had it out for her?

Politics. There was a wide range of anti-Soviet feeling in the Russian emigration of the 1920’s. I believe that Levinson was really at the extreme. He never forgave Nijinska for a couple of things. One was that she had remained in the Soviet Union, in Kyiv, during the period after the Revolution, that she did not immediately flee, that she had a school and held performances and that these were supported by the government. So to him that meant she had colluded with the Soviets. Secondly, the idea that this woman with quite radical ideas, especially when she first arrived, was the artistic head of the Ballets Russes, and thus of Russian ballet in exile, this he felt was very problematic. One of the first articles he wrote was about “The Sleeping Princess” in London. This for him was Russia. Not this other modern stuff. There was also the fact that she was a woman, but she wasn’t a “ballerina.” Nijinska even wrote to Diaghilev, “I am not a ballerina, I am something different.” She was aware of her uniqueness as a performer and in the way that she approached the classical language.

Nijinska in “Chopiniana,” Maryinsky Theater, 1908.

It seems that the thing that thwarted her again and again was the fact that she just simply did not fit in, as a woman, a dancer, or a choreographer.

She didn’t fit in and she didn’t want to fit in. She certainly could have fit in a little bit more but she didn’t want to yield. She did not want to conform. She also didn’t want to engage in the sexual politics that were rampant in the ballet world. It’s almost like she refused to marry the proper person, since she couldn’t have Chaliapin [the singer Feodor Chaliapin, with whom she had a platonic, largely imaginary, love affair]. So she married a soloist in the Diaghilev company, Alexandre Kochetkovsky, who was nothing really special, and, like her father, had an eye for the ladies. When it came to her second marriage [to Nicholas Singaevsky], once again, she does not seem to me to have chosen wisely.

This theme of her relationships with these three men (one of which is an illusion), runs through the whole book. The second betrays her and the third plays very much a wifely role.

Yes, he played a wifely role, but at times he caused her great problems, as he was also her manager. He took care of correspondence, he interpreted for her, but I don’t think that was always such a good thing. He only complicated matters. And he was not a very good manager.

As I read the book, it seemed that her story is the story of a series of very promising beginnings that eventually fail for one reason or another. In part it is a combination of her lack of flexibility and of her collaborators’ lack of confidence in her. They all seem to run off after the next shiny thing.

But that was also the way the ballet world worked, outside of the Paris Opera and other year-round, stable theatres. There was never any guarantee that a private company, like Ida Rubinstein’s troupe, would continue to exist. Nijinska would hire the dancers, and then she would have about five months to create an entire repertory. Again and again, Nijinska found herself in these enormously high pressure situations, forced to create very rapidly. I think that at times she got into a kind of bipolar cycle of intense, almost manic work, followed by emptiness and exhaustion.

Yes, we think of companies like the Ballets Russes or the Ida Rubinstein company as these cauldrons of creativity but in your book we see the other side, which is the constant push and pull of creation and then exhaustion and uncertainty. Someone like Balanchine managed to escape that cycle by having Lincoln Kirstein to protect him.

Also Balanchine was unencumbered by children or an aging parent. Vera Zorina was a movie star, Danilova always had a job. They weren’t dependent on him.

Poster, “Bailes Rusos Nijinska,” Teatro Nuevo, Barcelona, 1933, with cover art by the dancer Rudolph Andriassoff

And then there is the question of how a choreographer like Nijinska, who went from company to company, could ensure that her work might survive.

She would go to Buenos Aires, and set her works there at the Teatro Colón, as though by doing so she would be able to keep them in repertory. At the Colon in the 1930’s she had access to real ballerinas, so when she restaged her “Baiser de la Fée,” she was able to create a real ballet as opposed to a ballet with a protagonist like Rubinstein who couldn’t do ballet. She did the same with “La Bien Aimée,” which she restaged as “The Beloved One” for Alicia Markova in the 1930s. Once again, she took a ballet a that she had originally done for Rubinstein and reshaped it for a real ballerina.

What is it like to write about a choreographer whose work has mostly disappeared, and which you have to discover through descriptions and programs and correspondence and photos. How did you conjure her ballets in your mind?

There were various sources that were important to me: One was the reviews. In some you really get a sense of the affect, the emotion, the musicality. I kept trying to find dancers’ words and recollections. Sometimes that came through oral histories, sometimes through memoirs. Margaret Severn was such a good writer, and really able to describe what it was like working in Nijinska’s company. There is this one moment I remember very vividly. Nijinska began choreographing a variation for her, and began playing around with turns. She loved to play around with turns, and Severn’s turns were really wonderful. She began trying different versions, saying ‘try a little bit there’ and ‘try doing a little bit there.’ And grinning when she saw what Severn was able to do. Another was the oral history of Kira Abricossova Bousloff, a Russian emigrée who danced with her in the in the 1930s, who eventually went to Australia to the De Basil company and ended up founding the Western Australian Ballet. She loved the way, in class, if Nijinska didn’t like how the partnering was going, she would replace the man and do all the partnering herself. You get a sense of her power in class, her charismatic presence, and how she inspired a lot of women.

Nijinska rehearsing ” Pictures at an Exhibition,” Ballet International, 1944. Photo (c) Philippe Halsman Archive 2022

She was incredibly strong, wasn’t she? Where did that strength come from? Was it part of her St. Petersburg training?

She was very strong. She talks about how her brother would insist on her taking class if he was instructing someone privately. He wanted her to be able to go up on pointe without block shoes, which was intended to develop strength. And she was a jumper. It wasn’t just that she had a light jump, she had a strong, powerful jump.

Were you able to discover what kind of technique she was teaching when she opened her own studio in Kyiv, after the revolution?

At that point she wasn’t teaching pointework. Her students didn’t have pointe shoes. But I also believe she wasn’t interested in investigating pointe in that period. She was much more interested in developing creativity and developing what she called her system. Now, again, I don’t really know what her system was. Later it was definitely ballet.

Do the gaps in the record drive you crazy?

Absolutely!

She taught for a long time in Hollywood, where she lived in her later years. Is there a dancer that you feel really exemplified her teaching?

I think to some degree Maria Tallchief did. Tallchief was very strong and brought that strength to Balanchine. But she was already jumping and turning before she met him, and that came from Nijinska.

What were the principles or ideas or elements that you think really drove her work? It’s so hard to form an idea, when what one has to go on is “Les Noces” and “Les Biches.” I mean, they’re so different from each other.

Even though she had hearing difficulties, I think music was the key thing that she responded to and that dictated the style of a ballet. I think that when it came to anything resembling character dance, there was a real sense of weight and strength. I think that sometimes there were repetitions of certain petit allegro phrases, as in some of the choreography she made for herself in “Les Biches.” She incorporated those jumps into several ballets. I also think that there was a way in which she used the upper body that was different, that had more juice to it than you might find in an absolutely conventional port de bras. The épaulement and detailing were distinctive.

Do you think that came out of her experimentation in Kyiv? Was that the cauldron?

Yes. I think Kyiv was the cauldron. It allowed her to separate herself from Diaghilev and from her brother and to work with her own dancers and with her own body. Though I still think there was a connection to her brother, and that connection was the realization that you didn’t necessarily have to limit yourself choreographically to the classical vocabulary. I think that was the great breakthrough.

And that came to her from her brother.

I believe so. That was his gift to her.

Do you think that if she had been able to have her own company over an extended period of time, she would have changed ballet technique more profoundly?

I think she probably would have. She wanted dancers who were open to experimental approaches. She wanted a school, but she didn’t have a team who could teach her methods when she went off for eight months to choreograph. Even though teaching was a very important part of her life, the most important thing for her was to choreograph.

You end the book with a series of what ifs, of all the unanswered questions in her life. I wonder what the greatest what ifs are for you. What do you wish she had been able to have or obtain? What do you wish could have gone differently?

Sometimes I wonder, what if she had stayed in Kyiv? But then on the other hand, there were so many experimentalists of the post-revolutionary period, from Meyerhold to the Ukrainian director Les Kurbas, who ended up in the Gulag or worse. The idea of having her own theater is something that was very appealing to her. But what would have happened in the 1930s? That’s the big if.

One mustn’t idealize that path either.

No. I wish she could have founded a school in Paris, and used it as a basis for a company, instead of being so itinerant. I think that if she had had a school, forming dancers and using them as the basis for a producing organization, she might have found a solution to her conundrum.

What do you think was Nijinska’s most creative period?

The transformative period was the Kyiv years. I think the Diaghilev years were very creative, because up to a certain point he believed in her. I also think her period with the Rubinstein company was very creative, because she was working to new music and she had dancers who believed in her. It’s really with the Rubinstein group that she formed the core of the company that she wanted to build. Another creative period was in ‘32 and ‘34 when she was working with her own company, Les Ballets Russes de Bronislava Nijinska. “Hamlet,” which was performed only two or three times, sounds like it was an amazing ballet even though by then the critics were very predisposed against her. Her last really creative period was in 1937 when she created “Chopin Concerto” and “Legend of Cracow” for the Polish Ballet.

Why do you think the critics turned against her in such a dramatic way in 1934?

Some of it had to do with the uneven quality of the company. 1934 was particularly difficult because De Basil went off with a lot of the dancers she had expected to rely on. I also think there was considerable anti-Russian feeling; this was a period of rising nationalism in France. The Figaro review complained about “the Russians” using any kind of music for ballets, in other words, not programmatic music.

How many ballets did she make in total?

About 50, 60.

And how many are extant?

Two, “Les Noces” and “Les Biches,” in authoritative productions. A few other ballets have been reconstructed, such as “Le Train Bleu” by Frank W. D. Ries and “Bolero” by Irina Nijinska and Nina Youshkevitch for the Oakland Ballet. The “Three Ivans” from the last act of “The Sleeping Princess is also extant.” But that’s about it.   

It’s really extraordinary.

But it’s more typical than atypical. With so many extant ballets Ashton and Balanchine are really the ones who are atypical.

How many years did you work on this book, and what was the spark?

I would say I started seriously in 2008. I spent a little bit of time in the Nijinska collection at the Library of Congress. I wanted to see what there was. And I was overwhelmed. I was partly looking for what Irina Nijinska used to always call the “second volume” of Early Memoirs. And I discovered a lot of things but not the second volume. And then I wrote a first article that was published in Dance Research. It was about Early Memoirs, and I called it “Crafted by Many Hands.” Around 2009-2010, I went back to the Library of Congress and I began to realize what a truly fantastic collection it was. That’s when I decided I really wanted to start researching the Kyiv years. By then I had discovered a diary with a great deal of material about the Kyiv years, and I began to discover letters from friends and former students.

Were there unexpected discoveries?

Yes, there were a couple of finds that I never would have come across if I hadn’t just been looking through all the files in a particular box. For instance, there was this little book, written in French, by her son Léo. “To be given to my mother, Nijinska, in case of my death.” It was this terrible text that made it very clear that he felt he was going crazy. Not long after, he was killed in an automobile accident. It must have been terrible for her to read.

After reading your book, I think the biggest “what if” for me is this one: What if Nijinska hadn’t existed within such a sexist world that so consistently undervalued her talent, and never considered her to be in the same league as her brother, or Massine, or Balanchine, or basically anyone else who came along.

I think that is one of the great questions. When I think about Sergei Denham [Director of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo] and Colonel Wassily De Basil [Director of the Ballets Russes de Colonel W. de Basil], they were snakes! I can’t believe they would have acted the same way toward her if she had been a man. Her relationship with Diaghilev was far more complicated, although I think there were people in Diaghilev’s circle who had no respect for her at all, including Boris Kochno. Balanchine is a little bit different. I think he recognized her importance and her talent. But, you know, Balanchine looked after number one. 

Final question. What is something essential about Nijinska you want to leave the reader with?

I think it is that the life of the studio was the most important thing to her. It was her laboratory. And it was where she worked with dancers. She loved dancers, despite her tantrums. Choreography and ballet movement was at the center of her being. And secondly, that ballet was not static. It was in constant evolution.

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