Bronislava Nijinska (1891-1972) was one of the most innovative choreographers of the 20th century although her reputation now rests largely on two of the ballets she created for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Les Noces (1923) and Les Biches (1924). At the time, she was the only woman ever to have made an important career for herself as a classical ballet choreographer.

IN HER OWN WORDS

“Our parents were ballet artists, dancers. We were born artists of the dance. We accepted without question our birthright from our parents – our dancing bodies. The theatre and the dance were a natural way of life for us from birth. It was as if, in the theatre, we were in our natural element, where everything responded in our souls.”
On her and her brother (in her biography: Early Memoirs)

“You are supposed to be a goddess, but you look like a frog.”
to a maladroit dancer (as reported in New York Times, 1991)

“Nijinsky is always with me. He has inspired me as an artist. Even now as I write, I can see Nijinsky dance, feel the breath of the rhythm of each movement.”
(in her biography: Early Memoirs)

“Ballet is music through the eyes.”

IN OTHERS’ WORDS

“We have only now caught up with a work composed a generation ahead of its time.”
New York Times on Les Noces (1936)

“What a great choreographer Bronia would have been if only she were a man.”
Serge Diaghilev

“She was an amazing woman. I adored working with her. She really helped me perfect the classics.”
Alicia Markova

“She didn’t teach technique, but joy and savage energy.”
Dancer Allegra Kent (2012)

“She’s a marvellous old girl, a real genius.”
Frederick Ashton (1970)

“She believed classicism could stay alive only if it underwent change: this modernization was possible through choreography – that is, creativity on stage would extend the dancers’ capacities and training in the classroom.”
Critic Anna Kisselgoff (1986)

Lydia Sokolova, Anton Dolin, Bronislava Nijinska, Leon Woizikovsky in Le Train Bleu. Photo: Sasha 1924. © V&A Images

 

BIOGRAPHY

Born in Minsk, Nijinska was the younger sister of Vaslav Nijinsky, himself a major figure – and arguably the greatest dancer – of the 20th century. While his life and career has over-shadowed that of his sister, she was a talented dancer but more significantly a choreographer who provided a vital connection between the years of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and the global growth of ballet in the 1930s.

She evolved her style during the period of the Russian Revolution when she worked alongside Russian Avant Garde artists in Kyiv (Kiev). Hoping to work again with her brother, she left the Soviet Union. In the 1920s and 30s she created and was involved with a succession of companies that worked or performed in Britain including the Ballets Russes, her Theatre Choreographique, Ida Rubinstein’s Company (for which she choreographed both Bolero and La Valse), the Markova-Dolin Ballet and the Polish Ballet. She also created ballets for the Paris Opera, for Russian Opera and Ballet Companies in France and in 1935 the dances for Max Reinhardt’s film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. At the outbreak of War in 1939 she moved to the USA establishing her own school in Hollywood while continuing to create new ballets. During the 1940s she staged works for Ballet Theatre, Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and the Marquis de Cuevas company.

Nijinska regarded Anton Dolin (founder of Festival Ballet, now English National Ballet) as one of her finest dancers: they worked together in the Ballets Russes, and Nijinska welcomed further opportunities to work with him and his stage partner Alicia Markova in the 1930s. With Les Facheux, he became the first male dancer to dance on pointe. In 1964, Dolin recommended to Frederick Ashton that he invite Nijinska (then 73!) to mount Les Biches on the Royal Ballet. Two years later Ashton asked her to return to stage Les Noces leading to her rediscovery world-wide.

KEY CREATIONS
Le Train Bleu, Les Noces, Les Biches, Hamlet, The Hundred Kisses, Gypsy Dances, Brahms Variations, Snow Maiden, Rendezvous

KEY COLLABORATORS
Georges Braque, Jean Cocteau, Serge Diaghilev, Joan Miro, Pablo Picasso, Max Reinhart, Igor Stravinsky

TAUGHT AND CHOREOGRAPHED ON
Serge Lifar, Anton Dolin, Frederick Ashton, Maria Tallchief, Rosella Hightower, Ida Rubinstein, Ninette de Valois, Maude Lloyd

LEARN MORE
Bronislava Nijinska Collection, The Library of Congress
Read Nijinska’s Early Memoirs

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