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?

Nijinska is as partisan as anyone: more so, because of her closeness, and defensive loyalty, to her brother. It is perhaps significant that when her daughter showed the manuscript of these memoirs to Richard Buckle, who was preparing the Penguin edition of his life of Nijinsky, he did not think it necessary to change his own evaluation. But he was fascinated by Nijinska’s memories of her brother’s hitherto unrecorded early childhood. One sees why: they are so vivid you can smell Eleanora’s cooking. In spite of this, however, not all of them are entertaining to read, and only someone already hooked on Nijinsky and Nijinska could read every syllable. She records not only every single thing that happened, almost hour by hour, but also many things that did not happen: Pavlova not dancing Giselle with Nijinsky because he had flu, and Kshessinska not partnering him in Paris because the visit was cancelled.

Nijinska followed her brother into the Ballet School, from the School into the Maryinsky Theatre, from the Maryinsky into Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and from there, in 1914, into the wilderness of his disastrous Saison Nijinsky at the Palace Theatre in London. During all those years they were never separated for more than a few weeks at a time. The outbreak of war caught Nijinska in Russia, where she had gone to await the birth of her first child. Nijinsky was in the West. She did not see him again until 1921, by which time he had become incurably insane.

Both the Nijinsky parents were Polish and had graduated from the Wielki Theatre in Warsaw, which occupied more or less the same position in Poland as the Maryinsky did in Russia. Neither of them joined the permanent company: they worked, instead, in touring ballets all over Poland and Russia. They were married in Baku; Stanislav was born in Tiflis, Vaslav in Kiev and Bronislava in Minsk. The parents danced in cafés chantant and circuses as well as in theatres and opera houses, and not only in large provincial cities but also in summer resorts, mainly on the Baltic, where the children would lie half-awake in the white nights waiting for their mother to return from the theatre with a sweet or a cake for them, Sometimes they lived in quite luxurious flats with their own furniture: then Eleanora would proudly entertain her colleagues. At other times, they were cramped in squalid rooms with bugs in the walls. When they could afford servants the children had a niania to look after them; when not, they were simply locked in while their parents were out rehearsing or performing. No wonder they grew up very close to one another. Stanislav was quiet and gentle; Vaslav high-spirited and adventurous, always getting into scrapes; and Bronislava was serious, well-behaved and studious. Almost from the moment they could walk they appeared on stage whenever children were needed or could be worked into the programme. Eleanora hated the peripatetic life. Her ambition was that her children should enter the Imperial Ballet School, then the Maryinsky Theatre: that they should have an assured salary, a pension, and always dance ‘on a big stage’.

She never had any doubts about Vaslav’s exceptional gift for dancing. He was also extraordinarily musical. He had piano lessons and taught himself to play the accordion, clarinet, flute, domra and balalaika. He never learnt to read music, but his ear and memory were so good that his teachers never found out, and he could play the overtures of all the operas he had heard and sing all the arias. What he could not do was ordinary lessons, and Eleanora was afraid he might fail the academic part of the entrance examination to the Imperial Ballet School. But the examiners did not miss his amazing talent, and he was accepted in 1898, aged eight. He was always top of the dancing class, but he did not get on with the other boys and was in constant trouble about school work and behaviour. He was kept down, demoted from being a boarder to being a day boy, expelled, taken back, and finally made to finish his school course in the same form as Bronislava after he had already graduated as a dancer and was partnering prima ballerinas in the company. All these vicissitudes are accompanied by a running commentary of excuses, as though Nijinska were still the little sister defending her brother to her classmates.

Two tragedies befell the Nijinsky children: in 1897, after a painful run-up of which they were fully aware, their father left their mother for another dancer. This was the point when Eleanora settled in St Petersburg – though ‘settled’ is a misleading word. Every summer they moved to the country because Eleanora and later Vaslav and Bronislava had engagements in summer theatres, or just to save the rent by living cheaply. Once they nearly starved for a whole summer because Thomas had not sent the allowance. And when they returned to the city it was often to a cheaper and nastier apartment than the one they had left. Bronislava grieved for her father: but Vaslav grew hostile and refused to see him when he happened to turn up in St Petersburg.

The second tragedy was the realisation that Stanislav was mentally ill. By 1899 he had become too difficult for Eleanora to manage, and was sent away, eventually to a hospital. Eleanora and Bronislava visited him whenever they could; Vaslav turned pale at the idea and refused to go with them. Did he feel a premonition? Nijinska does not say what was the matter with Stanislav: was it schizophrenia, the disease that claimed his brother 20 years later?

The story of the Nijinskys’ childhood takes one into the heart of the Eastern European petty bourgeoisie at the turn of the century. Eleanora was an archetypal mamasha or mamoussia (according to whether they happened to be speaking Russian or Polish): she was perpetually anxious that the children would get wet, cold, hurt, ill, dirty, into bad company or disgrace. She fussed on and on, yet they adored her. As Bronislava grew older, her mother and brother protected her virtue and its appearance like tigers. Still, the conventions were flexible up to a point. The children loved visiting their mother’s sister, who lived in a fine apartment in Vilno, where, on the wall, there was a large portrait of General K, the Governor of the city. ‘He had been Aunt Stephanie’s friend and protector for many years. Because of his high rank he could not marry Stephanie, a dancer, without handicapping his military career. Stephanie left the stage for him, and through his influence ... she had been appointed to teach dancing in the government high schools.’

Dancers were only precariously members of the bourgeoisie, and yet they were proud to be artists. Nijinska always spells Art with a capital A, and it was always spoken of with a capital in the Nijinsky household. Paradoxically, Art conferred respectability because it conferred a definite status. The Nijinskys were good Catholics, with Mamasha perpetually on her knees to the Virgin for good examination results for her children. But in a stage family such as theirs, Art also was a religion: something to which to dedicate your life. And lastly it was a work ethic which made them all labour with obsessive perfectionism.

Nijinska kept diaries throughout her life, and also a dancer’s notebook, as pupils of the Imperial Ballet School were taught to do. She did not start putting her memoirs together from this material until the Sixties, and they show how much she remained a child of her age and class. She comes across as a solemn idealist, and also somewhat prim and prudish: there is a certain helpless stubborn hypocrisy – more than mere reticence – about the way she treats delicate subjects such as Stanislav’s illness and Vaslav’s sex life, and the fact that his first protector, Prince Lvov, payed Eleanora’s debts. Her own affair with Chaliapin is modestly and touchingly draped in the gushing prose of quotations from her diary, which, like Cecily Cardew’s, ‘is simply a very young girl’s record of her own thoughts and impressions’. Not many hard facts.

But what makes her book important, even sensational, is the revelation of Nijinsky’s secret as a dancer, and that does depend on fact. She is able to explain exactly how he achieved the extraordinary elevation and lightness that made him legendary, and even caused people to believe that he was not quite as other humans, that he had, for instance, the feet of a bird. It is true that his physique was unusual. His sister calls him handsome (though she does mention that his thigh muscles were so over-developed that he could not raise his legs above an angle of 90 degrees as other dancers could): but the photographs show him – and her – to have been dumpy with very short legs. He had an exceptionally long thick neck, which makes him look a bit like Alice growing.

During the summer of 1906 when he was still a pupil at the Ballet School he was asked to coach one of the younger girls: Bronislava joined in the lessons. Vaslav began by refusing to teach her in blocked shoes, and made her buy a pair of boys’ soft ballet shoes instead: by the end of the summer, her feet had become so strong that she could dance sur pointe in them. Vaslav was only 16, but he seems already to have invented a technique of his own:

A great deal in Vaslav’s lessons was new to us, especially preparation for jumps. In the School we all took the power for the jump from the knees, from the demi-plié, and only as we left the floor were the instep and foot stretched. Vaslav taught us to feel the floor not only with the foot but also with the toes, and then, simultaneously, the quickly stretched body and the power of the arch and instep would throw the body upward for the jump.

For Nijinsky’s graduation performance in the following year ‘Fokine mounted a new rendering of the classical ballet pas, changement de pieds’:

Nijinsky surprised everyone when, after jumping straight up in the air from the fifth position, he did not return to the same spot but instead leaped sideways across the stage. Immediately he repeated this amazing sideways changement de pieds that had never been executed in this manner before, jumping from side to side several times. With each pas he covered a wider span of the stage until with his fourth and last jump he flew more than fifteen feet.

  The audience was amazed ... but I was more surprised by the préparation, which was not the customary glissade or pas couru (the gliding or running steps that usually impart force to any wide leap). For his sideways changement de pieds he used a demi-pointe préparation.

Later on, when they were both touring with Diaghilev, Nijinska watched her brother rehearse: ‘he executed all his exercises at an accelerated tempo ... in the allegro pas he did not come down completely on the balls of his feet, but barely touched the floor with the tips of his toes to take the force for the next jump, using only the strength of the toes and not the customary preparation with both feet firmly on the floor, taking the force from a deep plié. Nijinsky’s toes were unusually strong and enabled him to take his short preparations so quickly as to be imperceptible, creating the impression that he remained all the time suspended in the air.’

Nijinska is at pains to stress that her brother was not only an exceptional technician but also a great creative artist. When she describes him from this point of view, her normally terre-à-terre writing begins to soar. Nijinsky had only just entered the Maryinsky Company when he was given the Blue Bird pas de deux in The Sleeping Beauty. ‘I never knew how Vaslav, only 18 years old, persuaded the Administration of the Maryinsky Theatre to alter the original design and make a new costume for him. Instead of the full-skirted coat, Vaslav wore a regular ballet tunic and short trunks over his tights.’ This was because, without altering a single step in the choreography, he had decided to dance the Blue Bird as a bird, and not as a prince dressed up as a bird for a fancy-dress ball. ‘The birdlike wings were part of his dancing body; his arms did not bend at the elbow, but the movement as in the wing of a bird was generated in the shoulder; the movements of the dancing body were the movement of a bird in flight. A flittering motion of the hands at the wrist and the Blue Bird’s wings trembled and fluttered; the Blue Bird was soaring and singing its bird’s song, and Nijinsky’s body was singing in his dancing flight.’

It is difficult to think of any description of a dancer as detailed and as vivid as this. The book is full of such things: Nijinsky in Les Sylphides, in Pavillon d’Armide, Schéhérazade, Le Spectre de la Rose, Petrouchka, L’Après-Midi d’un Faune. L’Après-Midi was Nijinsky’s first step into choreography, and Nijinska was in the original cast. (This is the only one of Nijinsky’s ballets to survive. Nijinsky invented every pose and every movement in this ballet from scratch: his dancers had to forget all their classical technique, and never, not even in transition, let their bodies deviate for an instant from the prescribed positions. It was a completely new approach for them: ‘Up to then the ballet artist had been free to project his own individuality as he felt; and he was even expected to embellish it according to his own taste, possibly neglecting the exactness of the choreographic execution. The artist simply had to comply with the following rules: keep a line straight or a circle round; preserve the groupings; execute the basic pas.’ So here is a turning-point in ballet: the choreography becomes more important, and the dancers less so: except for those upon whom the first performance is mounted and who therefore have a part in the creative process.

Perhaps Nijinska slightly overemphasises her brother’s part, as against Fokine’s, in rescuing choreography from its late 19th-century doldrums by treating it as a serious art and not just as a groundplan for the dancers to display themselves. But this is only because at the time of L’Après-Midi Nijinsky and Fokine had become rivals. Earlier on, when she describes Fokine creating Les Sylphides, or rehearsing her as the first Papillon in his Carnival, she clearly admires him and is perceptive about his work. She herself was one of the most eager of the progressive Fokinisty in Diaghilev’s company who were ranged against the conservative Imperialisty back in St Petersburg.

Nijinska takes one into the ballet workshop as only a dancer could and no other dancer has – not even Makarova in her highly articulate and analytical autobiography. Most ballet memoirs are full of anecdotes and sweat and aching feet, of bouquets and the smell of resin and the sound of applause: you may get the feel of the theatre and the rehearsal room, but rarely the feel of dancing. Nijinska explains exactly how she conceived a role, and then how she set about realising her conception, step by step, movement by movement; how she discovered special difficulties of balance or acceleration, and how she had to think and plot and experiment to get round them; and she conveys the exhilaration she felt when finally everything came right. The illustrations in this absorbing book are a bonus: some of the snapshots are unfamiliar and touching as well, especially those of the author dressed to kill in her graduation gown and hat, and then, at 74, rehearsing Les Biches at Covent Garden. She died, aged 80, in 1972.