Dancing in Kyiv – The American Conservative
A new biography of one of Russia’s greatest choreographers says as much about the society she lived in as it does about the subject itself.
A rehearsal for the ballet ‘Les Biches’ or ‘The Hinds’ with music by Francis Poulenc and choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska, at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London, UK, 3 December 1964. From left, Robert Mead, Svetlana Beriosova and Keith Rosson. (Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
La Nijinska: Choreographer of the Modern, by Lynn Garafola, (Oxford University Press: 2022), 688 pages.
In 1938, patron Lincoln Kirstein observed that Americans viewed all ballet as “Russian ballet” (one word), so closely that they identified the art form with nationality. Vaslav Nijinsky of the famous Ballets Russes company had captured the attention of Americans with its spectacular jumps, erotic choreography and career-ending madness. But while Nijinsky had studied classical ballet in St. Petersburg, he was born around 1889 to itinerant Polish performers 1,055 kilometers from kyiv, then part of the Russian Empire. And his lesser-known sister, Bronislava Nijinska, like him an important dancer-choreographer, worked in kyiv for most of 1915-1921, a period of both political upheaval and artistic flourishing.
Like Lynn Garafola’s new biography La Nijinska: Choreographer of the Modern clearly shows that at the beginning of the 20th century kyiv was a heterodox city that lacked the sophistication of Saint Petersburg, but not its cultural richness. Garafola, the eminent scholar of the Ballets Russescompleted his 661-page book long before Putin invaded Ukraine, and his sections describing Nijinska’s time in his capital provide an unbiased and timely historical perspective.
When the choreographer arrived there with her first husband in 1915, before the Russian Revolution, the city boasted not just “glittering monasteries atop an onion-shaped hill”, but also comfortable, modern hotels. . The Kyiv City Theater, where the couple had been hired to conduct the ballet, had been rebuilt in the style of the French Renaissance, projecting “bourgeois confidence and ease”. The couple worked in partnership, showcasing a mix of traditional Russian favorites and innovations from the Ballets Russes to the grateful public of Kyiv.
When Nijinska returned to kyiv in 1918 after an interlude in Moscow, she and the city had changed. By then Ukraine had won its independence and the Bolsheviks had usurped the Tsar. No longer an imperial outpost, the city became a hotbed of multi-ethnic creativity and modernist experimentation as various factions vied for political control. As Garafola explains, “To counterbalance the influence of Russian culture, the new government proclaimed the national-cultural autonomy of the minorities, which included Poles as well as Jews and Ukrainians.”
It proved a hospitable environment for Nijinska, who this time had come without her husband – the couple would soon be divorcing – and with a desire to realize her own choreographic vision. Over the next three years, she developed theories of movement that culminated in her enduring 1923 masterpiece, The wedding, a semi-abstract treatment of a Russian peasant wedding to music by Igor Stravinsky. But the ongoing civil war has thwarted his progress. The explosions ruined her hearing and she needed government food and firewood to get by. The Bolsheviks searched his house, “looking for weapons in his son’s cradle”. She fled to Poland via the Southern Bug River.
Much like her parents, Nijinska moved frequently to make a living in dance, eventually settling in California, where she taught leading American ballerinas such as Maria Tallchief and Allegra Kent. While Garafola meticulously chronicles her subject’s turbulent career, emphasizing her ballets, criticisms, and unstable state of mind, she downplays Nijinska’s exotic childhood and ballet training in St. Petersburg, when her close relationship with his brother Vaslav was forged. . The siblings were kindred spirits before he abandoned her, first for the Ballets Russes the impresario Serge Diaghilev, who became his mentor and lover, and later as he succumbed to an impenetrable and permanent psychosis. Garafola is probably downplaying this phase of Nijinska’s life because the choreographer herself covered it emotionally in her autobiography, First memoirs.
Published nine years after Nijinska’s death in 1972, First memoirs had a long, convoluted gestation that included major revisions by the choreographer’s daughter and others. Despite her collective authorship, Nijinska’s voice animates the work, exuding a humanity that Garafola’s scholarly approach typically lacks. More importantly, Nijinska delves into her conflicted relationship with Vaslav, who more than anyone influenced her modernist sensibilities. First memoirs shows that Nijinska is a soft-hearted but principled girl, whose emotional wounds at the hands of Vaslav and others led to the abrasive and wronged woman we know from Garafola’s book. While reading First memoirs is essential to fully understand The Nijinska.
In first memoirs, we also learned about the history of the Nijinsky family in Kyiv. Nijinska relates that when her mother appeared in a Russian opera season there as an eleven-year-old Polish orphan, the older Russian dancers tricked her into repeating obscene Russian phrases. Later, Nijinska’s parents danced together in kyiv for several seasons (when Vaslav was born), and her father returned to work there after separating from his family to live with his mistress. He tells his daughter that a pantomime he staged at the Hippodrome Palace for the benefit of the city’s firefighters was inspired by one of his youth circus performances. “You were sensational,” he praised. Nijinska clings to his words as proof that he “really cared for his kids and missed us too.”
In The Nijinska, Garafola synthesizes vast amounts of research into a readable narrative, but once again it’s Nijinska’s own voice that draws us in, this time through excerpts from her diary. The most convincing of these concerns the Russian opera singer and lothair Fyodor Chaliapin. After a handful of chaste encounters when Nijinska was a young dancer, Chaliapin became her romantic obsession for decades. When he ignores his ballet performances in Paris in 1932, she despairs: “It would have been better not to be alive.
However, Nijinska de Garafola does not reveal such inner pain to almost anyone and overwhelms herself in her creative activities. For the better part of seven years, she chose to do so in the dynamic and familiar Kyiv. “Nothing could ever replicate those terrible but immensely thrilling moments,” Garafola says. Nijinska lived to be 81 and worked until the end. Like her adopted city, she suffered deeply, but carried on.
Sharon Skele is the author of Catherine Littlefield: A Life in Dance (Oxford University Press, 2022).