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Bronislava Nijinska - More Resources

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Bronislava Nijinska (1891-1972)

By Maureen E. Maryanski  

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One of the most important female choreographers of the 20th century, Bronislava Nijinska created modernist, abstract, and neoclassical ballets for multiple companies around the world, in addition to arranging and setting her own ballets and those of other choreographers. Through collaboration with other avantgarde artists and musicians from Igor Stravinisky to Max Ernst, she sought to create a new ballet, one with a foundation in classical tradition, but constantly evolving into the future. Her focus was movement, for as she said, it “gives life to dance. Movement alone enables the dance to affect the spectator.”1 This principal element enfused her work, from her 1923 masterpiece Les Noces for the Diaghilev Ballet Russes and her first abstract ballet, Etude-Bach in 1926 to La Valse (1931) for the Ida Rubinstein Ballet and her Chopin Concerto (1937) for the Polish Ballet. She continued to share her passion for and knowledge of ballet until her death, travelling around the world as a teacher and restager of ballets.

Born in Minsk, Russia on January 8, 1891 to Polish dancers, Nijinska was the youngest of three children. Her childhood was spent in the theaters where her parents danced, until she entered the Imperial Theater School in St Petersburg in 1900, two years after her brother, legendary dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky. An incredibly strong, athletic, and versatile dancer in her own right, Nijinska was hired in 1908 as a company member for the Imperial Ballet (Maryinsky Theater), where Nijinsky was already making a name for himself. Also with her brother, she joined Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes inaugural seasons of 1909 and 1910, both eventually becoming full members of the company the following year. The Ballets Russes traveled and performed outside of Russia, most notably in Paris, and introduced Russian ballet to western Europe. This new Russian ballet included the progressive ideas of Michel Fokine, chief choreographer of the first season, and the dramatic, powerful dancing of its stars, Tamara Karsavina, Anna Pavlova, Adolph Bolm, and the unparalleled Nijinsky. During her time with the company, Nijinska worked closely with her brother on the choreography of his ballets L’Après-midi d’un Faune (1912) and Le Sacre du Printemps (1913), acting as his “piece of clay that he [was] molding,” his assistant, the go-between with the dancers, and his confidence builder. Fiercely loyal to Nijinsky, Nijinska believed in the genius of his revolutionary, experimental work and would return to similar themes when she began her own choreography in the 1920s and 1930s.

After leaving the Ballets Russes and returning to Russia at the beginning of World War I, Nijinska opened a school, the École de Movement in Kiev in 1919. While there, she choreographed her first abstract ballets and laid the foundations for neoclassicism in her own choreographic work. Isolated by the Russian Revolution and the war, Nijinska worked with avant-garde Russian artists and focused on geometric traits and simplicity in her choreography. Her treatise, “On Movement and a School of Movement,” developed during this period, centered on movement as the essence of dance. She focused on “the movement that links these discrete points into a continuous action, breathing life into pauses and transitions.”2 Thus, she treated each of her sequences as a single entity, paying equal attention to both movements and the spaces between them. She sought to create a contemporary dance art by adding new ideas to the existing school and theory of dance. Nijinska also experimented with her musicial choices, using the music of Liszt and Chopin in the solo concert of her first abstract choreography, as well as performing one piece, Fear, in silence.

After leaving Russia in 1921, Nijinska was invited by Diaghilev to rejoin the Ballets Russes as a choreographer. During her tenure with the company from 1922 to 1924, she created seven major ballets as the company’s first and only female choreographer. These include Les Biches (1924) and Le Train Bleu (1924), both of which examined the shallowness and decadence of modern fashionable society, and the piece considered her masterpiece, Les Noces (1923), set to a catanta by Stravinsky that depicts Russian peasant wedding rituals.

Nijinska’s innovative and modern choreographic work continued after she resigned from the Ballets Russes. With successive companies, including several attempts at her own, she worked throughout the 1920s and 1930s as a ballet mistress, teacher, artistic director, and choreographer. Her students included Serge Lifar, Anton Dolin, Irina Baronova, Tamara Toumanova, and Maria Tallchief.

Affected once more by the outbreak of world war at the end of the 1930s, Nijinska moved to the United States, settling in California. She established a school there in 1941, which continued until 1955. She obtained US citizenship in 1949, continuing to choreograph throughout the United States and Europe. Invited by Frederick Ashton in the 1960s, Nijinska recreated Les Noces and Les Biches for England’s Royal Ballet. Her daughter Irina worked as her choreographic assistant and, after Nijinska’s death in 1972, continued to preserve the legacy of her mother’s contributions to the dance world through restagings and recreations of her ballets by companies including the Joffrey Ballet, Oakland Ballet, and the Paris Opera Ballet.

Although she was only based in the United States during the last three decades of her life, Bronislava Nijinska influenced the development of American ballet through her own dancing in Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, her assistance to her brother Vaslav Nijinsky, and her own choroegraphic production in Russia, for the Ballet Russe of Monte Carlo, and for various companies throughout the world. As a teacher and choreographer, she sought to keep her work vital to successive generations and to share her passion for movement and her idea of ballet, what she termed “music through the eyes.”3


NOTES:

1 Bronislava Nijinska, “On Movement and the School of Movement,” ed. Joan Ross Acocella and Lynn Garafola, Ballet Review, 13, no.4 (Winter 1986), p. 77. 

2 Nancy Van Norman Baer, Bronislava Nijinska: A Dancer’s Legacy, (The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1986), 19.

3 Jack Anderson, “La Nijinska,” The Dancing Times, April 1972, p. 361.


Maureen Maryanski is a reference librarian at the New-York Historical Society. She also has worked for the Dance Heritage Coalition as an Archival Fellow since June 2012, first at the Dance Notation Bureau and most recently at the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company. A former modern dancer and choreographer, Maryanski continued to study and write about dance history while earning an MA in History and an MLS at Indiana University. 

 

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

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Anderson, Jack. “La Nijinska,” The Dancing Times, April 1972, p. 361

Baer, Nancy Van Norman. Bronislava Nijinska: A Dancer’s Legacy. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1986.

Banes, Sally. Dancing Women: Female Bodies on Stage. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.

Carnes, Mark, ed. Invisible Giants: Fifty Americans Who Shaped the Nation but Missed the History Books. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Garafola, Lynn. Legacies of Twentieth-Century Dance. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2005.

Johnson, Robert. “Ritual and Abstraction in Nijinska’s ‘Les Noces.’” Dance Chronicle, 10, no. 2 (1987), p. 147-169.

Kisselgoff, Anna. “Obituary.” The New York Times. February 23, 1972.

Nijinska, Bronislava. “On Movement and the School of Movement,” ed. Joan Ross Acocella and Lynn Garafola, Ballet Review, 13, no.4 (Winter 1986), p. 77.

Nijinska, Irina, and Jean Rawlinson, ed. Bronislava Nijinska: Early Memoirs. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1981.

Peiffer, Siobhan. “Secret Sibling.” New Statesman. Vol. 130, Issue 4538, 21 May 2001.

Severn, Margaret. “Dancing with Bronislava Nijinska and Ida Rubenstein.” Dance Chronicle, 11, no. 3 (1988), p. 333-364.

Archives

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Library of Congress Bronislava Nijinska Collection Includes manuscripts, books, diaries, choreographic notebooks, correspondence, moving image materials, music scores, photographs, posters, programs, set and costume designs, and scrapbooks.

http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/ihas/html/nijinska/nijinska-home.html

Ballets Russes Archive University of Oklahoma School of Dance

http://www.ou.edu/brarchive/about.html Jerome Robbins Dance