God’s Little Sister

Gabriele Annan on a ballet book such as there has never been

Bronislava Nijinska was born in 1892, not just in a trunk, but very nearly on stage at the Opera Theatre in Minsk. Her father danced with her mother in Act One of Glinka’s A Life for the Czar. During Act Two Eleanora Nijinska was taken to hospital and another dancer took her place. When the curtain came down on Act Three a messenger arrived to tell Thomas Nijinsky that he had a daughter. He already had two sons: Stanislav, aged four, and Vaslav, later le dieu de la danse, who was two. Bronislava Nijinska grew up to be one of the few choreographers of any period whose works are still performed all over the world. Les Noces (1923), to Stravinsky’s music, evokes a peasant wedding: remote and ritualistic, it has an undertow of desolation which recalls Tatyana’s nurse weeping bitterly when, at 13, she was married to another child. Les Biches (1924), witty and funny with music by Poulenc and a cast of Bright Young Things, would surprise anyone who knew Nijinska only from these memoirs: they are earnest, intense and quite humourless: but immensely important for the history of ballet and of Nijinsky in particular. It is he who occupies the centre of the stage. Nijinsky is one of the mystery figures of European mythology, almost like Caspar Hauser or the Man in the Iron Mask: something strange, weird, freakish attaches to his legend, as well as much glamour. Not many people are alive who saw him dance: the rest must either take it on trust not only that he was better than any other dancer ever seen but that his dancing was different in kind, or they can choose to believe that if he were to appear today, when dancers are more athletic and more scientifically trained, we should not be very impressed. Nijinska persuades one to take the former view.

The quality of Nijinsky’s dancing is not the only controversial thing about him: there is the question of his affair with Diaghilev, and whether Diaghilev was Pygmalion to his Galatea or else Faust to his Gretchen – first corrupting him and then driving him mad. Karsavina, who was Nijinsky’s senior in the Imperial Ballet School, and then in the Maryinsky Ballet, maintained in her memoirs that although everyone recognised that Nijinsky had an exceptional technique, he was not exceptional as an artist until ‘Diaghilev touched him with his magic wand. The guise of a plain, unprepossessing boy fell off – a creature exotic, feline, elfin emerged.’ Those who credit Diaghilev with a large share in Nijinsky’s phenomenal success also tend to present the dancer as dull-witted – educationally sub-normal, almost autistic. Both sides fight their corners fiercely; loyalties and disloyalties, whether at the Maryinsky or in Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, were always exaggerated. People were always flouncing out, cutting one another dead, weeping and gnashing their teeth over imagined or perfectly real intrigues, threatening to resign and actually resigning, if only to be wooed back the next day. In 1908, when Nijinska followed her brother from the Imperial Ballet School into the Maryinsky Company, he ‘would watch with great attentiveness to see with whom I was friendly, and would warn me about those I should avoid, and encourage me to associate with those artists he trusted’. Ominous.

At every turning-point in Nijinsky’s career a question-mark hangs over the matter of who was responsible for what happened: when he stalked out of the Imperial Ballet after being reprimanded for dancing Albrecht without trunks over his tights, had he really offended the sensibilities of an Archduchess, or had this story been cooked up by the prima ballerina Kshessinska, the mistress of one of the Archdukes (later his wife) and an enemy of Nijinsky’s? When he left Diaghilev’s company and set up on his own, was this because their affair had ended, or because Diaghilev had taken back Fokine, who had resigned earlier because he was jealous of Nijinsky’s being allowed to choreograph a ballet? And how much was Nijinsky’s failure to make his peace with the Maryinsky due to the fact that he could not return to Russia because he had failed to get exemption from military service?

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