Though a prolific and acclaimed 20th-century choreographer with an unusually long career, Bronislava Nijinska is not a household name. And that's easy to understand. She was no doubt eclipsed by the notoriety of her older brother, Vaslav Nijinsky, whose radical choreography revivified ballet and whose tortured life made him the subject of gossip and media attention.
Born in 1891, Nijinska reached the height of her choreographic talent during the 1920s with the Ballets Russes, the trail-blazing company founded in St. Petersburg in 1909 by the prickly impresario, Sergei Diaghilev. Often credited with paving the way for modern dance, the wildly collaborative avant-garde group gained fame in Paris and jumpstarted the careers of composers Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev, choreographer George Balanchine, artists Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro, and French poet Jean Cocteau.
This year, dance companies around the world are marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Ballets Russes, which folded upon Diaghilev's death in Venice in 1929. Earlier this season, the Joffrey Ballet remounted the infamous, 1913 riot-inducing Stravinsky-Nijinsky collaboration, Le Sacre du Printemps. And beginning this month at the Auditorium Theatre, the company presents Nijinska's equally provocative Les Noces, with Stravinsky's abrasive score for chorus, percussion and four pianos.
Nijinsky's dance dramatized the sacrifice of a maiden (The Chosen One) in order to bring forth spring in pagan Russia. His sister's ballet carried a similar sacrificial premise: the loveless, arranged marriage of Russian peasants (with special emphasis on The Bride) to ensure family survival. As choreographer and dance historian, Millicent Hodson notes, both works stress the "continuity of the larger community through the isolation of the individual." In Les Noces, the dancers' individuality is swallowed symbolically by architectural groupings. One of the most famous tableaux shows The Bride and her Bridesmaids forming a pyramid as their long, braided hair (looking like nooses) hangs down. The scene suggests imprisonment and submission, the women's stabbing footwork underscoring the misery of this nuptial dirge.
As a woman and as an artist, however, Nijinska enjoyed considerable freedom. Born to dancers of Polish descent in Minsk, Russia, she attended the Imperial Ballet School of St. Petersburg's Maryinsky Theatre and was later accepted into the company. But she and her brother broke away to join Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, where they performed mainly in Paris. Later, Nijinska spent a number of years teaching dance in Kiev. But the Russian Revolution made it increasingly difficult to stay. In 1921: around the time Diaghilev had a falling out with then-resident choreographer Leonide Massine: Nijinska rejoined Ballets Russes in Paris and filled Massine's post. Here she found her creative voice, especially in Les Noces, an abstract one-act ballet that the late critic Clive Barnes called, "startling in its stark simplicity."
Les Noces did not provoke the shouts and fistfights of Sacre. But it was no doubt a powerful sociopolitical statement for its times. Nijinska rejected opulent scenic and costume designs and insisted on an almost barren stage. The dancers are clad in somber browns and creams. "Les Noces is not pretty en pointe," says Ashley Wheater, the Joffrey Ballet's artistic director. "And they're brown pointe shoes. In this setting, marriage is something to be mourned. It's an act of immobilization, without the possibility for love."
Nijinska herself was deeply interested in the merging of primitive Russia and superstition with early Russian Orthodoxy. Les Noces harshly reflects these dichotomies through barbaric movements and somber groupings that make the dancers look like religious icons. Throughout, it's clear that marriage has become a ritual involving the loss of a daughter who: visually via the braided hair: "unwinds from her family into another to guarantee the survival of the community," according to Hodson.
Diaghilev was pleased with Nijinska's choreographic innovations, but he also worried that the Ballets Russes might get bogged down by too many heavy Russian-themed works. She assuaged his fears by creating two seemingly frivolous pieces the following year: Les Biches and Le Train Bleu. Frequently called "choreographic cocktails," these Riviera-set ballets are the dance equivalent of a jaunty Noel Coward comedy. Coco Chanel even designed the costumes.
Les Biches centers on a neurotic and sexually ambiguous Hostess, who strikes glamorous poses with her cigarette holder and a long string of pearls while executing fiendishly quick footwork. "Les Biches is one of the hardest ballets because it's so demanding of classical technique," says Adam Sklute, artistic director of Salt Lake City's Ballet West. "Yet it requires a complete lightness and chic sensibility. The ballet may seem like a frivolous party on the surface, but Nijinska is raising some daring questions about sexuality."
Nijinska continued to choreograph and worked frequently in Paris in the 1930s. She also choreographed the dances for Max Reinhardt's 1935 film version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. In 1938, she moved to America and opened a dance school in Los Angeles, where dancers Maria Tallchief and Cyd Charisse were among her students. She also had a direct influence on the choreography of Sir Frederick Ashton, inspiring his interest in concise, economical movement. In fact, Ashton is responsible, in large part, for keeping her work before the public. In the 1960s, he invited Nijinska to reconstruct Les Noces and Les Biches for London's Royal Ballet. Future reconstructions ensued at Oakland Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem and beyond: many of the later stagings supervised by Nijinska's daughter Irina, who also penned her mother's memoirs.
Today, Nijinska remains widely revered for her ability to perfect the one-act ballet and ground revolutionary ways of moving in strong classical-ballet technique. Ballet West's Sklute marvels at how "Nijinska didn't speak a word of English, but she set her ballets across the English-speaking world." That's quite a testament to the universal language of her choreography, whose meaning was encoded in gestures both elegant and harsh.
The Joffrey Ballet Spring Program plays the Chicago's Auditorium Theatre through May 10. Click here for information and tickets.