Why Is Bronislava Nijinska Still Waiting in the Wings?
It is one of the most striking images in dance: Nine women lean in, creating an interlocking pyramid, their heads piled one on top of the other. The layering suggests geological strata, or the arrangement of skulls in a medieval ossuary. Around them, men and women form a tableau with strong religious overtones, like a crown of thorns or an angelic gathering. But the picture also points back to ballet history, evoking the final moments of “The Sleeping Beauty,” another wedding, another pyramid in which each dancer forms part of an architectural, symbolic whole.
This startling, allusive composition comes at the very end of “Les Noces” (“The Wedding”), a work created by Bronislava Nijinksa in 1923 for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Even in photographs, it offers a taste of the compositional genius of its creator.
In April, “Les Noces” is being revived by Ballet West in Salt Lake City, the first performances of the work in the United States since 2011. And on March 26, the company’s director, Adam Sklute, will be in New York with a group of dancers to discuss and show excerpts at the Guggenheim as part of the Works & Process series. They will be joined by the dance historian Lynn Garafola, whose “La Nijinska, Choreographer of the Modern,” published last year, is, surprisingly, the first major biography of Nijinska in any language.
The time has come to reconsider Nijinska, too often relegated to the more obscure corners of ballet history. “Nijinska’s work embraced the past yet hailed the future,” Garafola said in a recent interview, adding that its expressive freedom “allowed her to forge a powerful woman’s voice.” But her reputation suffered, Garafola said, as the companies that hired her disappeared and her “ballets were forgotten by dancers and audiences alike.”
Nijinska — who was born in 1891 in Minsk and died in 1972 in Pacific Palisades, Calif. — was the younger sister of Vaslav Nijinsky. His mythic status as a dancer and revolutionary choreographer has overshadowed her much longer, more productive career. Nijinsky, whose artistic life was cut short by mental illness at 29, composed four ballets, among them the epochal “Rite of Spring.” (The two were very close; he created the role of the Chosen One in “Rite” for her.) Nijinska made over 60. But only three of hers — “Les Noces,” “Les Biches” and “Le Train Bleu” — all from the Ballets Russes era, survive in full.
Why do certain choreographers, hailed during their lifetimes, fade from the repertory while others become deeply rooted in it? And why has it been difficult for women in general, and Nijinska in particular, to achieve artistic longevity, despite the quality and volume of her work? These questions hang over Nijinska’s life and afterlife.
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Garafola’s book charts the setbacks and triumphs of Nijinska’s career, which took her from Poland to Russia to Kyiv and Paris — braving a revolution along the way — and eventually brought her to the United States. She made dances for almost two dozen companies, but never stayed with any troupe for long, meaning her works fell out of repertory at company after company. She was often taken for granted and overworked by company directors, most of them male.
Garafola also considers Nijinska’s role in the development of modernism in ballet, with its focus on musical sophistication and rhythmic complexity, innovations in movement and the trend toward abstraction. These are all tendencies that Nijinska shared with her slightly junior colleague, and sometime competitor, George Balanchine, who, not without struggle, achieved the success and durability that eluded her, in part because a company was created around his talents.