The extreme political ferment of 20th century Russia’s early decades permeated every sphere of life and culture. The realism and classicism in painting, music, and architecture inherited from Belle Epoque Europe were thrown out and replaced by the avant-garde; abstraction, angularity, and disruption of form were the new order of the day. Ballet was no different, and dancer and choreographer Bronislava Nijinska, a Minsk-born Pole, was an instrumental force in redirecting the choreographic cannon towards a vision of process and motion. Despite her pioneering choreography, Nijinska’s legacy is often overshadowed by that of her brother, ballet dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky. An artist of prodigious talent, Vaslav’s dancing career was cut short by mental illness, but he remains remembered as one of the greatest male dancers of the 20th century.
The Nijinsky name, however, does not belong to him alone. In an era where static positions were the marrow of classical dance, Nijinska envisioned a modernist ballet, one which saw focus shift towards the movement which connected these positions. Ultimately, she believed it was not the final posture that encapsulated the beauty of ballet, but the spaces in between.
The daughter of two Polish dancers, Bronislava Nijinska was born in Minsk on 8 January 1891, and accompanied her parents to shows across provincial Russia even as a baby. It was through their parents that both Nijinska and her brother, Vaslav, first absorbed dance, learning movements outside of ballet’s traditional canon — Polish folk steps danced by her parents and acrobatics from the circus performers they met on their travels — which would influence the subversive, minimal choreography of their later years.
Later in life, Nijinska’s contributions to performance and choreography would be dominated by her brother’s, but at the turn of the century, the pair both joined the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg, briefly graduating from the Imperial Ballet (now known as the Mariinsky) in 1908 before leaving together for Paris to join the Ballet Russe. The radical, itinerant ballet corp, founded by Russia-born arts impresario Serge Diaghlev, became legendary, a crucible for the radical performance that encapsulated the strange daring seen across the artistic spectrum of the time. Nijinska helped her brother choreograph some of the Ballet Russes’ earliest controversial works: L’Après-midi d’un Faune, premiered in Paris in 1912, and 1913 ballet Le Sacre du Printemps. Marriage and pregnancy precluded Nijinska from starring in some of Diaghlev’s ballets, much to the dismay of her brother, but where her brother’s creative life was cut short by deteriorating mental and physical health, Nijinska’s endured alongside family life, until she had made her mark on both sides of the Atlantic.
To look at Nijinska’s dark choreography of Les Noces (The Wedding), a Diaghlev commission scored by Igor Stravinsky and performed in 1923, is to see Nijinska’s dance philosophy in action. After a hiatus from Diaghlev’s company during the First World War and Russian Civil War, Nijinska returned to Paris and was appointed the company’s choreographer. Her 1920s treatise on ballet, The School of Movement (Theory of Choreography), now lost to posterity, foregrounded the idea that movement is the essence of dance. Today this seems an obvious point, but it is so only because of the legacy of fringe luminaries like Nijinska; in early 20th century Europe, movement in dance was largely auxiliary, used in service to the final aim of achieving a complete position which could be held and admired. For Nijinska, motion became more important.
A filmed 2001 performance of Les Noces (The Wedding) featuring Nijinska’s choreography gives us a pleasing view of how this can be achieved. Here, the corps de ballet — the group of dancers traditionally moving in synchronised support around the prima ballerina — are often split between movement and static positions, marking the staccato of Stravinsky’s score with a dramatic leap or jerk of the head. Gone are the demure gestures of classical ballet, where faces are collectively angled to the side to avoid eye contact. Here, the women look straight out into the audience, a cadre of ballerinas unflinching as they face the loss of freedom suggested by the wedding nuptials. Nijinska’s feminist reading is hard to ignore.
At the School of Movement in Kyiv, Ukraine, Nijinska’s progressive but short-lived dance institution founded during her first break with Diaghlev in 1919, she could teach according to her principles, privileging abstraction and continuous motion in dance. Of the nine works she choreographed for Diaghlev in the 1920s, eight were to contemporary music. Even when choreographing more traditional scores, Nijinska never employed the classical ballet tropes. It was in the 1940s when American choreographer George Balanchine developed abstract ballet in earnest, but the notion of abstract ballet, in contrast to narrative dance, can be traced back two decades earlier with the emergence of Nijinska’s “plotless” compositions, which paired dance movements of a more interpretive style to the lyrical music of romantic composers.
In 1921, Nijinska left Kyiv and returned to Diaghlev in Paris for what would be a golden age of collaborative avant-garde cultural production. The radical perspectives of the time cut across almost every form, inviting deep and unexpected collaborations, evidenced by the 1924 production of The Le Train Bleu (The Blue Train). Choreographed by Nijinska, the Ballet Russe production had an almost all-star playbill; the music was composed by Darius Milhaud, one of the Montparnasse-based legendary group of composers “The Six”; the ballet libretto was devised by filmmaker Jean Cocteau; the scenery by sculptor Henri Laurens; and the dancers’ wardrobe designed by Coco Chanel. It is a lively dance that shares many of the same movements across the leading male and female roles. The production demonstrated to dancers, designers, and musicians that successful multidisciplinary culture can imbue work with a higher production value, and even after a rift between Nijinska and Cocteau precipitated Nijinska’s departure from the Ballet Russe the next year, such collaborations continued in Paris for many years.
Remaining in Paris for the next few years, Nijinska founded a number of dance companies, starting with the Théâtre Chorégraphiques Nijinska, for which she employed the skills of Russian avant-garde artist Alexandra Exter. Designing the costumes and set, Exeter would become a long-time collaborator of Nijinska, whose choreography during this period extended to not just ballet productions but also operas, for which Nijinska would devise the ballet sequences.
By the time Nijinska moved to the United States in 1939, much of her most influential work was behind her. Biographers point to the death of her son a few years earlier and the declining health of her brother, by this point long diagnosed with schizophrenia and living mostly in institutions, for exacerbating a mostly unsuccessful assimilation into American society. Towards the end of her life, back in Europe she took up a few directorships, including at the Royal Ballet School in Covent Garden, London in 1963.
Recognition did come for Nijinska in the United States, although somewhat later, in many ways confirming that her influence on dance had been felt far less in the United States than in Europe. Plaudits for the choreographer still flowed. An article by dance critic Anna Kisselgoff, published in The New York Times in 1969 with the headline “Nijinska’s Legacy To The Ballet”, describes that year’s exhibition, dedicated to Nijinska, at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. It only took place three years before her death, by which time a minimal and abstract style of dance had firmly entered the mainstream. But the article still describes the choreographer’s “re-emergence of one of this century’s magic names in ballet”. Ultimately, Nijinska received at least some of her due. As Kisselgoff wrote, abstract, movement-focused styles of dance were now no longer headline-worthy: “but Nijinska expressed them first”.