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.
LRB 1 July 1982 | PDF Download