La Nijinska | Choreographer of the Modern by Lynn Garafola
Oxford University Press | www.oup.com
Dance writer Lynn Garafola’s 2022 book, ‘La Nijinska,’ is essential dance literature as the first comprehensive biography of Bronislava Nijinska, the visionary dancer-choreographer who created over 60 ballets during her career and trained generations of dancers.
Nijinska is known for her ballets ‘Les Noces’ and ‘Le Biches,’ but the full extent of her influence as a dancer-choreographer is often overshadowed by the mythical specter of her brother, Vaslav Nijinsky. Vaslav’s groundbreaking choreography for ‘Le Sacre du Printemps,’ with its score by Igor Stravinsky, is frequently cited as the seismic event in Paris in 1913 that revolutionized contemporary ballet.
By 1920, Vaslav’s career faltered, but his sister not only honored his work but also expanded on his concepts both choreographically and through innovative training techniques. Garafola’s engrossing bio-history restores Nijinska’s rightful place as an architect of neoclassical ballet.
Born in Minsk, Belarus, in 1890, Bronislava Nijinska was the youngest child of Tomasz and Eleanora Nijinsky, Polish dancers who performed in opera houses and theaters in Western Russia. When Bronislava was seven, her father left, but her mother Eleanora remained in St. Petersburg with her daughter and two sons, Stanislaw and Vaslav. Eleanora wanted her children to attend the Imperial Ballet School, and both Bronia and Vaslav were accepted into the program and eventually became members of the Imperial Ballet and Opera.
Even as a student, Vaslav became a celebrated dancer and had private patronage from a Count who also became his lover. Nijinsky rebelled against the strictures imposed on all performers at the tsar’s Mariinsky Theater. Meanwhile, Bronislava was admired for her character dancing but treated as if she were too “ugly” to be cast in principal roles. Despite Vaslav’s occasional bossiness with his older sister, they were devoted to each other.
Bronia and Vaslav quit the company and fled Russia to join Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris. While Vaslav became the most celebrated male dancer in the world, he still considered Bronia his artistic muse, and together they created his choreography for his first ballet, ‘L’après-midi d’un faune,’ with Bronislava performing as the Nymph in its premiere run. The choreography, with its final scene of male eroticism, scandalized Parisian audiences.
But nothing compared to the scandal caused by Vaslav’s short run of ‘Le Sacre du Printemps,’ both behind the scenes and at its riotous premiere. Diaghilev could no longer control Vaslav personally or artistically. When Nijinsky married dancer Romola Pulszky while on tour with the company in Argentina, Diaghilev, who was furious, fired him via telegram.
By this time, Nijinska had already left the company and was freelancing as a teacher and dancer. She briefly returned to Russia, working with legendary theater director Stanislavsky, where she started developing new concepts for dance-theater.
When Vaslav established a company in London for a resident stay at a British Music Hall, he brought Bronia in to organize all aspects of company business, and she took on the roles of teacher, rehearsal director, and ad hoc manager behind the scenes. Her organizing skills essentially saved her brother’s standing in the dance world after he was fired by Diaghilev. Eventually, contract disputes with the theater presenting them and Vaslav’s erratic mental health ended the engagement.
By this time, Nijinska had married and had two young children. She and her husband were separated, and she moved to Kyiv (then Kiev) to establish her School of Movement, initially with almost exclusively female students. The city had become a nexus for modern artistic expression, including some Ballets Russes, and sought out Nijinska’s classes. Her choreographic signatures were evident in her early teaching and ballet style, such as jumps with no preparatory phrasing.
Before long, the Bolsheviks took control of the region, and Nijinska ensured her family’s safety. Diaghilev eventually lured Nijinska back to the company, essentially using her when he was stuck for material.
She was tempted with contracts in Italy and Britain but found the terms financially lacking. Nijinska was hired by the wealthy former Imperial Ballet dancer Ida Rubinstein to run her company and create works for Rubinstein’s fragile ego and body. Although there was a built-in formula for success due to Rubinstein’s fame, Nijinska found it artistically unseemly, and the collaboration survived for only two fragmented seasons.
Nijinska faced entrenched barriers, both known and unknown, as a woman emigre choreographer in the male-dominated field of the early 20th century. Despite this, her early ballets commissioned by Diaghilev, such as ‘Les Noces,’ ‘Les Biches,’ ‘Les Renard,’ and ‘Le Train Bleu,’ were artistic successes that rivaled any new ballets in the Ballets Russes commissioned repertory, showcasing her innovative approach.
Garafola explores Nijinska’s vision and courageous efforts to create work on her terms. She only backed down when she was financially forced to produce commercial work and always strategized strategically.
Even within modernist ideas, Nijinska was considered the specialist in all of the Russian ballet canon. She used classical training as the foundation that could be artistically useful.
In her many adaptations of Russian story ballets, she expertly retained the essence of classicism but with less decorum and more dance authenticity. She was a fusionist and preceded Balanchine in defining neoclassicism. She was also a leading proponent of contemporized Russian repertory from the classical canon in productions of ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ (Aurora’s Wedding), ‘The Firebird,’ ‘Swan Lake,’ ‘Giselle,’ and more.
Among the most revived of her original works by international companies throughout the 20th century were her ballets ‘Aurora’s Wedding,’ ‘Night on Bald Mountain,’ ‘Le Train Bleu,’ ‘Romeo & Juliet,’ ‘Etudes,’ ‘La Valse,’ ‘Aubade,’ ‘Bolero,’ ‘Brahms Variations,’ ‘Chopin Concerto,’ and others.
Fed up with being taken for granted artistically and being underpaid for her work, Nijinska became the director of Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. There, she not only gained respect for rebuilding a shattered dance company but also produced wildly popular ballets and dances for opera productions, another of her specialties. Nijinska’s productions at Teatro Colon were admired for their artistry and as a showcase for the company that she resurrected.
During her long engagements in Argentina, she personally suffered from being separated from her mother and children, but she continued working wherever she could to provide for them. Although she was separated from Vaslav and had differences with her sister-in-law about his medical care, she always kept the lines of communication open.
Nijinska eventually emigrated to the US and continued to create new ballets and collaborate with dance companies around the world. Millions of filmgoers have seen her work in Max Reinhardt’s 1935 film version of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ starring a 10-year-old Mickey Rooney as Puck.
She kept a journal for a memoir titled ‘Early Memories,’ which was published in excerpts by her daughter Irina in 1980. Garafola had access to the full manuscript, which had been archived in the Library of Congress. The material included Nijinska’s detailed notes and illustrations of her choreography, music charts, and descriptions of her productions. Garafola’s research extended to visits in Russia, Paris, London, and the South Americas, providing a backdrop to this finely crafted prose portrait of the life and tumultuous times of an all but forgotten dance legend.
Dance or Die | by Ahmad Joudeh | Forward by Robert Bolle
Ahmad Joudeh grew up as a stateless refugee in the Al-Yarmouk camp on the outskirts of Damascus. His harrowing journey from being threatened with death for dancing to becoming an international ballet star and activist for refugee children is chronicled in his 2020 memoir, ‘Dance or Die.’
Joudeh was first shamed for his dream of becoming a dancer under the strict control of his father, who refused to accept that his son aspired to be a dancer. At one point, his father tried to break his foot and kicked him out of the house. Joudeh had already been performing and teaching in a clandestine studio.
He had the support and encouragement from his mother, who knew he was secretly dancing so well even as a teen that he was already teaching dance to young refugees and special needs students. And his friend, a hip-hop dancer named Saeed, encouraged Ahmad to audition for the Middle Eastern version of ‘So You Think You Can Dance.’ Ahmad was a sensation with audiences, but was voted out during the quarterfinals for what everyone considered political reasons.
His path to citizenship and freedom stalled. He was forced to return to Syria to finish his academic goals. He would return to Syria, still stateless as a refugee and without a passport.
When ISIS began their reign of terror in Syria, messages were left on his phone threatening him with decapitation for dancing and teaching dance. At great risk, Joudeh was filmed dancing on the bombed-out streets in front of his family home and on the columned entrance of the historic theater that the terrorist group had destroyed and was using as a staging area for executions. Joudeh became a very public symbol of resistance; he famously had his manifesto ‘Dance or Die’ tattooed in Arabic on the back of his neck.
Since Joudeh was stateless and not able to obtain a passport, he couldn’t leave the country to pursue a life in dance. So, in Syria, he danced on roofs, in bombed-out buildings, and taught dance to refugee children to give them joy and help them escape the horrors of war for a few hours. A Dutch journalist reported on this, and The Dutch National Ballet invited him to join the company. He was able to travel there as a student.
Five years after he barely escaped death in Syria, he not only distinguished himself onstage as a unique lyrical contemporary dancer but also became a fearless advocate for refugee children in Syria and around the world. He also started choreographing dance videos with themes of overcoming oppression.
In his memoir, he writes his manifesto of dance liberation: “…my history danced with me… A grand jeté for every time I’ve been told not to dance, an arabesque, tight and firm, for all those who humiliated me. A pirouette for every time I’d risk death because of a stupid war. Take a look at me now. All of you… Do I look as though I’ve been weakened by your threats? Do you think my head is bowed with the weight of your weapons? Perhaps from tomorrow on, my life will be even more complicated, and your hatred for me will be even more violent. But if only for today, I am the Fire.”
Joudeh is now a Dutch citizen, and he was Amsterdam’s official 2022 Ambassador of Pride, sending a message of liberation and hope to millions of LGBTQ people living under oppressive regimes.
Joudeh is also a principal dancer at Teatro alla Scala, Milan. He has choreographed and performed in videos, collaborating with international stars including Sting and Yo-Yo Ma. His life has been the subject of the Emmy Award-winning documentary ‘Dance or Die,’ and he has been cited for his advocacy on behalf of refugee children by the United Nations.