THE TALENT OF LA NIJINSKA. Lynn Garafola is a dance historian and critic. Professor Emerita of Dance at Barnard College, Columbia University, she is the author of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and Legacies of Twentieth-Century Dance. A regular contributor of articles and essays to both scholarly and general interest publications, she is the former editor of the book series “Studies in Dance History,” the founder of the Columbia University seminar Studies in Dance, and the curator of exhibitions about the New York City Ballet, Jerome Robbins, and, most recently, the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Her latest book La Nijinska: Choreographer of the Modern is the first to document the full scope of Bronislava Nijinska’s creative work and rewrites the history of Euro-American ballet, beginning with Serge Diaghilev’s celebrated Ballets Russes in the early 20th century and continuing until the 1960s.

You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.

Lynn Garafola, can you tell me how it was to write this huge book of 512 pages, La Nijinska?

That’s the edited version, I cut 30% of it before publication! I became fascinated with Bronislava Nijinska after I read her Early Memoirs. It seemed to open this new vista on a way of looking at the sensibility and subjectivity of a young dancer who is growing up in the Ballets Russes and discovering new things every minute. Eventually she participates in the making of Nijinsky‘s first ballets, Afternoon of a Faun and then The Rite of Spring, and seems poised to carry on his work. I became increasingly interested in how she inflected certain kinds of very classical choreographies with her own sensibility. At that point I knew about her in relation to the Ballets Russes, but I knew next to nothing about what had happened to her during World War One and during the Russian Revolution, and what had happened afterwards when she pursued her own career in different countries.

Nijinska comes from a Polish Catholic family of dancers?

Yes, her brother Vaslav Nijinsky was born in Kyiv, she was born in Minsk and her first dance lessons were at home with her family. Her father would arrange for them to do a Christmas performance at opera houses in the borderlands of Russia where he was working, and then she grew up in Saint Petersburg, reading and writing in Russian, having a Russian dance and secular education. Even so, she and her brother would go to catechism class with a Polish priest, and there was always this edge of difference with whom she was. When she worked in Kyiv during the First World War and the Revolution there were Nijinsky relatives in Kyiv, which had a large (though declining) Polish population. Yet, when in Poland in the late 1930s she goes to this former imperial hunting lodge and writes in her diary, “After all these years, I am on Russian soil. How good it feels.” She felt the loss of Russia, which she considered her home. She never said, “I lived in Ukraine” or “I was born in Belarus.” She always said, “I was born in Russia.”

It was in Saint Petersburg that she learned from Marius Petipa, the influential ballet master and choreographer of the Imperial Ballet?

As a corps dancer and demi-soloist of Saint Petersburg’s Imperial Ballet, she danced ballets by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, and these ballets became part of her muscle memory, part of her imaginary, although at the time she disliked them intensely. She felt that she was just expected to be like everyone else, to jump the same height as everyone else, even if she had a higher jump. She was to be faceless, part of an on-stage mass within a massive hierarchical organisation. She also felt that there was a lack of creativity and musicality, that the dancers were not involved in any expressive way in what was happening. This body of work was in a sense her first mentor.

“Choreography was what she ultimately found most interesting and compelling, even though she continued to perform into her early forties.”

Lynn Garafola

Nijinska and her brother in “L’Apres-midi d’un Faune“, 1912.

Bronislava Nijinska Collection, Library of Congress.

Lynn Garafola, in the beginning, the big man working with Diaghilev was Michel Fokine, and then there were many others such as Leonide Massine and George Balanchine, artists like Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso, composers like Claude Debussy and Igor Stravinsky. Nijinska works alongside all these giants and she’s very good – but there is an issue: she’s a woman.  

Yes, although she did command a certain amount of respect. She had a genuinely collaborative relationship with Francis Poulenc.  She loved working with him. She loved his music for Les Biches and later choreographed a little ballet of his called Aubade for a salon performance organised by  Vicomte Charles de Noailles. Poulenc said he loved Nijinska’s version more than any other version of the ballet because her all-female cast caught the melancholy quality of the music. In 1923 she also had a very good relationship with Stravinsky, who certainly respected what she achieved in Les Noces (The Wedding). However, he had a very different vision of what the ballet should be. He wanted something much more folkloric, with Vera Soudeikina, his lover and future wife, as the bride!

Was Nijinska more important as a dancer or choreographer?

She became much more important as a choreographer. Obviously at some point she had to retire from active dancing.  However, choreography was what she ultimately found most interesting and compelling, even though she continued to perform into her early forties.

She was twice married and had children, one of whom sadly she lost in the 1930s in a car accident when he was 16. She also had a very important, almost fantasy, love affair with Feodor Chaliapin, the important basso that she met in Monte Carlo in 1911/12?

When she fell in love with Chaliapin, Diaghilev and her brother put lots of obstacles in her way.  Afterwards, she hid her infatuation from everyone except a single close friend. This fantasy affair sustained her for years afterwards. In her journals of the late 1920s she says, “I’ve done all of this for you, and you didn’t come to see my performance,” and by this she means all the choreography that she did for the Ida Rubinstein Company. Then, when she actually does work with Chaliapin on a regular basis in the 1930s, when her ballet company and his opera company performed together, he pretty much ignored her. She was desperate for his attention. This very important choreographer was like a thirteen-year-old girl craving a boy’s attention. When I first encountered those diaries I was stunned.

What about her relationship with her brother, the famous Nijinsky?

The older she got, the more saintly he became. She called her unpublished manuscript not Early Memoirs but My Brother Vaslav. Nijinsky can do almost no wrong, yet, again and again, he was cruel to her. He goaded her, neglected her, and even tried blocking her career. He didn’t want her to join the Diaghilev company. When she gets married, he’s furious. When she gets pregnant, he’s furious. He throws her out of the cast of The Rite of Spring. He throws her out of all his ballets, although all of them in some measure were worked out with her assistance and on her own body. It was a very complicated relationship. How she looked at him later on was always colored by seeing him in the sanitarium in Vienna in 1921.

Nijinsky had become mentally ill and in Vienna she met Romola, his wife who was the cause of litigation between Diaghilev and Nijinsky. How did all this happen?

There was a chemical imbalance in the Nijinsky family, an inherited predisposition to manic depression. Their mother had been extremely depressed. There was an older brother who was in an asylum for many years and then died during the Revolution. In 1914, during his season with a small company at London’s Palace Theatre, Nijinsky was already showing signs of mental instability. Romola made his life even more complicated when she sued Dhiagilev for a vast amount of money, which she claimed to be back pay to Nijinsky. Yet Nijinsky had been supported very generously by Diaghilev during their years together.

Diaghilev was both Nijinsky’s impresario and his lover, and they lived together. What happened with Diaghilev?  

Diaghilev was furious when he heard that Romola and Nijinsky had gotten married in Buenos Aires on a tour that Diaghilev decided not to go on, and he basically fired Nijinsky. At that point Romola was very anxious for him to find work, but it was quite difficult. Apart from directing a disastrous season at the Palace Theatre, Nijinsky  signed a contract with the Paris Opera, but World War One intervened, and the Opera closed.  Romola insisted that he return with her to Hungary, where he was stuck as an enemy alien – albeit married to Romola, who was Hungarian. While separated from Diaghilev he seems to have lost his bearings, the structure which had enabled him to live and to function. There were no classes in the morning unless he gave himself a class. There were no rehearsals. None of the things that had once been part of his life were present. When he rejoined the Ballets Russes in the U.S. with Romola, many dancers observed that he seemed to be different, to be doing strange things. He was sometimes paranoid, and the paranoia was abetted by his wife. It was not a good situation. As the war drew to a close, Nijinska left the Ballets Russes, and the couple settled in Switzerland, where his symptoms grew more acute and Romola began taking him to psychiatrists. He was then confined to a series of sanitoria and eventually a mental hospital.

“Her choreography was extraordinary in the very sophisticated way that she linked music and movement.”

Lynn Garafola, why was Nijinska accused of being a Bolshevik?

Nijinska never denounced the Revolution. I know from her diary there were things she didn’t like, but she didn’t say them publicly. For her the Revolution was a moment of utopian possibility. She had a studio. They had firewood. They had food rations. She was able to choreograph. She was able to perform publicly with her group. This was a wonderful period for her, in many respects the beginning of her future.

How strange that the misogynistic Diaghilev was so furious with Nijinsky yet still gave Nijinska another chance?

Diaghilev sent one of his friends, Walter Nouvel, to Vienna to talk to Nijinska, to see what was happening. She spoke to him very extensively, described her studio and the work she had done in Kyiv, and how she felt that she was following the line that Nijinsky had opened in The Rite of Spring. Nouvel reported back to Diaghilev, who hired her and then, to Nijinska’s shock, assigned her to do some additions and re-choreograph some of Petipa’s dances in The Sleeping Beauty. That was the last thing in the world that she wanted to do at that moment, after all the exciting things she had done in Kyiv.

At this point Diaghilev and his other Russian companions were refugees, outcast from the Soviet regime. They knew the old Russia, but did they know the new Russia? 

Not only did they only know the Old Russia, they had no interest in the new one, which in its early stages was very supportive of modernism. Meyerhold, Mayakovsky, Eisenstein, and other prominent artists were embraced in the early years by the Bolshevik regime. So when Nijinska turned up in the West, many of the dancers regarded her and her ideas as belonging to the new Russia. They just wanted to collect their paycheck. They didn’t care what they danced. Whereas for her, it was very important what you danced.

She produces two very important ballets, Les Biches and Les Noces (The Wedding). Was the latter her masterpiece? 

No question. And one of Stravinsky’s great scores as well, first conceived as something that was an extension of the Rite of Spring. Gradually it was transformed, becoming more and more stringent, reduced from a huge orchestral work to a work for four pianos, timpani, and voice.  When Nijinska heard the music, it touched a chord in her soul. She had a very clear idea right from the start that it should be stark, with architectural human masses that would represent the ballet’s marriage as profoundly tragic. This was not a happy wedding.

What was the relationship between Stravinsky and Nijinska?

At this point it was quite good. He had liked what she had done the previous year with his ballet Le Renard. He certainly respected her as a dancer. He may not have liked necessarily her vision of Les Noces. He had originally imagined something more folkloric, but ultimately he did not complain. He felt that her choreography was extraordinary in the very sophisticated way that she linked music and movement.

In 1925, because of the hostility of Diaghilev and his group, Nijinska left and became independent – with the parentheses that in 1928 she was engaged by Ida Rubinstein, a famous ballerina from a very wealthy family? 

She actually did have a number of commissions. Even before she was hired by Ida Rubinstein, she spent two nine-month seasons at the Teatro Colón, and she returned in the 1930s, so the Teatro Colón became an important repository of her works. She loved the young Colón dancers, and the fact that there was a symphony orchestra, a chorus, and a growing school of ballet. She had other encounters with state-supported theatres, one in Vienna that did not work out at all. She couldn’t wait to get back to Paris, to Chaliapin, to the émigré companies that she felt was her world. Even though she longed to have a theatre that offered stability, Vienna was not the place. Nijinska also had a long and productive relationship with the Polish Ballet in 1937-38. It ultimately ended unhappily, but she did two very remarkable works for that company, Legend of Krakow and Chopin Concerto.

In 1934 she did the choreography for Max Reinhardt’s first Hollywood movie, A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

Yes, California was a revelation to her, and when she arrived in the United States after the start of the Second World War, she settled there.  There are letters that indicate that she was unhappy in California initially, despite the blue skies and mild winters. She wanted to be in the New York area where she had many friends.

She lived in America for 30 years and yet you say she didn’t really speak English well?

That is absolutely true.  She even had a difficult time speaking with her two grandchildren, neither of whom spoke Russian. Actually, she did speak some English. There are reminiscences of dancers in her classes whom she particularly liked – one reminded her of her brother, another of someone else – and she would say, Shush, and then she’d speak to them in English. In class she would speak French, mixed with Russian and a few words of English, and have her husband translate. She was afraid, perhaps even a little ashamed, that she didn’t express herself as well in English as she might have wanted to. She spoke French fairly well.

You say that she was ruthless in this man’s world and that she was also sometimes very rude?

Yes, there are many testimonials about how rude she could be to people; and then also many testimonials about how nice she could be. There are testimonials about how she would make someone repeat a variation until they were dropping with exhaustion, but had finally got it right. After that she never bothered them. It’s like they had passed some kind of test. They had submitted to her.

Lynn Garafola

Nijinska at the time of her graduation, 1908.

All images: Bronislava Nijinska Collection, Library of Congress.

Lynn Garafola

Nijinska as the Street Dancer in “Petrouchka“, 1911.

Lynn Garafola

Nijinska at home, 1920s. Inscribed “A cher Serge,” 1966.

Lynn Garafola

Nijinska surrounded by dancers of the Teatro Colón, 1927.

Lynn Garafola

Rehearsing for the Hollywood Bowl, 1940: Cyd Charisse and William Hightower (left) in “Etude,” Maria (right) and Marjorie Tallchief in “Bolero.”

Lynn Garafola

Nijinska with Svetlana Beriosova at the dress rehearsal for “Les Noces,” The Royal Ballet, 1966.

“The only choreographer who truly exceeds her is Balanchine.”

Lynn Garafola, Nijinska stops performing on stage and in 1966 in London Les Noces and Les Biches are revived by Frederick Ashton. Is this her last hurrah?

It was immensely important, because she was kind of forgotten. She had left the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas company in 1960, not in the best circumstances. She went back to California  and basically hid for two years. She didn’t talk to anyone except her family, and then she gets a note from Frederick Ashton inviting her to come to London and stage Les Biches for the Royal Ballet. So she went to London, where the ballet was a great success. And then, two years later, in 1966, Ashton asked if she would come back and do Les Noces. She said yes, and that, if anything, was an even greater success.  These revivals were immensely important. The ballets were notated, they were filmed, they were kept in repertory, so that they had a long afterlife when Nijinska was gone. Because the Royal Ballet was so central in Europe, other companies began writing to her and asking her to stage Les Biches and Les Noces – less Les Noces because it was much more complicated and expensive to stage; she was even asked to choreograph something new. Unfortunately it all came a little too late, as serious illness began to plague her in the late 60s.

Because she was a compulsive smoker?

She was a heavy smoker. She began smoking, not in Russia, but with Diaghilev in 1922/23. I think he drove her to it. He worked her so hard.

Is she comparable to Martha Graham or other famous women in dance? 

She’s comparable to Martha Graham in that she was someone who had a definite point of view, the difference being Martha Graham created her own movement language. Nijinska did not create a movement language. She used the language of ballet, but she inflected it in a different way so that it came out looking more like a personal instrument than an institutional language. Her work stands comparison with Massine’s, and her use of classical language is far more sophisticated than his. The only choreographer who truly exceeds her is Balanchine, who lived a very long, productive life, and had a company for much of that life so that many of his ballets are still in repertory. There were many ways that modernism and neoclassicism developed in ballet, Balanchine’s was not the only one. Nijinska’s work shows there were other possibilities, different alternatives. It wasn’t just either or. She’s enormously important as an artistic figure, yet there were so many contradictory things about her.

What kind of contradictions?

People who would say, “Oh, she was so kind to me. She showed me X and Y.” And then others who would say, “She was just so mean, horrible, she was a witch,” and others who felt that she had really given them a gift in terms of their own career, in terms of where they were going. I was stunned by the number of women who came through her companies in the late 1920s or 1930s who were inspired by her and went on to found their own companies, but because of the dispersion of the Russian emigration after the Second World War it’s very hard to find evidence of that. In the 1920s and 30s Nijinska belonged to the very big, broad community of Russian émigrés centered in Paris.

Was her devotion to her work detrimental to her family life?

She was totally devoted to her work. Luckily, she lived with her mother who basically took care of her children, until she died in 1932. Nijinska’s daughter Irina told me it was really her grandmother who raised her, she barely saw her mother.  Nijinska’s guilt is very clear from her diaries. She was guilty about leaving her children, but she still left them. Later on when Irina was older, she would hire her to dance for the companies she worked for. She provided for her husband, who always had some job connected with whatever Nijinska was doing.

Was her relationship with Nijinsky’s wife Romola very complicated? 

Basically Nijinska disliked her sister-in law-intensely and blamed her for her brother’s condition, although, as I said earlier, I believe that his mental condition had a constitutional basis. Nijinska’s own son, before he was killed in an automobile accident, left a kind of diary describing the head pains he was experiencing and expressing the fear that he is succumbing to the family illness. This must have been terrible for Nijinska to read, and one imagines that she blamed herself for leaving him alone so much. But the other thing about Romola is that in the 1920s she seemed to be someone who could help Nijinska. Romola spoke several languages. She was sophisticated. She was able to conduct business correspondence. Nijinska didn’t have those skills, and at that point she didn’t have an agent. But Romola was also flighty, and in the end she was never able to do anything concrete.  She thought that through Nijinska she could sell some of her husband’s ballets to the Paris Opera or a similar flush institution, including ballets that only existed in the form of a libretto.  (Here’s where Nijinska’s choreographic skills came in handy.) Romola was always thinking about ways to make money, ostensibly to support her husband, but also to support a luxury lifestyle.  One day she writes to Nijinska, “You know, I have to go to America. Now, you as Vaslav’s sister, you must take him in and you must do it within two weeks.” Surely Romola knew this wasn’t possible. Nijinska had two children, and her mother lived with her, and to accommodate Vaslav and his attendants she needed to find a bigger apartment.  And it just went on.  When Nijinsky died in 1950 in London,  Nijinska only learned about it from a radio broadcast. She didn’t even receive a telegram from her sister-in-law, saying that her unhappy brother had gone.

Her sister-in-law kept on living with Nijinsky all his life?  

Yes, except for the long periods of time she was living in California or in New York, and Nijinsky was living with a nurse somewhere. Once Romola left him with her sister.

What kind of life did Nijinsky have for all these years?

He was in and out of care. He had to have some kind of nurse with him much of the time. In the mid-1930s he received a series of insulin shock therapy (IST), the idea being that he would bounce back to life and go back on stage. There was no way he was going to return to the stage even if he bounced back, but Romola had these delusions.

Did they have the money to live decently?

In the 1930s she used her social contacts to organize high-profile galas in London to raise money for Nijinsky. She was helped by people who felt sorry for Nijinsky, who remembered him as an extraordinary artist. During the Second World War there was a question of what should be done with Nijinsky. He was in a sanitorium in Switzerland, and they agreed that they would take care of him – for free – whatever happened, knowing the number of mentally ill people killed by the Nazis. But Romola decided to take him back to Budapest, where she still had family. And it was terrible. Again and again, she seems to make the wrong decision.

Nijinsky is a myth but he had a very short career, whereas Nijinska had a very long career and she is not so much known?  

A very long career, yes. But the romantic hero who dies young or disappears very quickly, the genius, this is very much the Nijinsky myth. Geniuses are not people who worry about feeding their families, and Nijinska had two children, a mother, and at various points, a husband to support. This is not what a heroic life looks like.

Did she remain close to her brother until he died?

No. She was in the United States beginning in 1940 and she worked in France from time to time with the Marquis de Cuevas Company after the war, but she wasn’t in England, although she certainly may have gone to visit him. She did see him in Paris in the 1920s and 30s. Once he was brought with his nurse to a Ballets Russes rehearsal.  It was in 1923 or 1924, and he didn’t recognise anyone. Nijinska was crying. The company dancers who had known him before the First World War were crying. He just seemed to be in some other space, some other place. Having a relationship with him that wasn’t one of being his nurse or caretaker, which later in life is what Romola became, was very, very difficult.

Did her relationship with Leonide Massine go on over the years?

No. The nearest they came to working together was in the De Basil Company in the mid-1930s when she choreographed a ballet that Massine had not okayed in advance:  Colonel de Basil had simply commissioned her. Subsequently, when she staged Les Noces for the company in New York with the idea that it would be performed the following summer in London, Massine did everything in his power to make it impossible for her to rehearse it, and it was never given. Which is pretty dramatic.

Did she have any relationship with Balanchine?  

A number of his early dancers studied at her studio on the West Coast, and his third wife, Marjorie Tallchief, was one of her students:  Nijinska choreographed for her and singled her out. And there were a number of others, including Allegra Kent. Nijinska felt that Balanchine had it easy.  He  travelled light and didn’t have a family. In November 1947, when Maria Tallchief‘s sister Marjorie, who had also worked with Nijinska, was married in Vichy, Balanchine and Maria came down from Paris (he was working at the Paris Opera).  Nijinska accosted Balanchine, whom she hadn’t seen for years, and accused him of stealing both her student and her choreography for Le Baiser de la Fée, bits of which she had taught in class. Balanchine protested, and then she said, “And you are not a gentleman!” At which point Balanchine became highly incensed, “But I am a gentleman. I am a gentleman.” And then the two of them ended up talking about Diaghilev for the rest of the wedding! So there was more between her and Balanchine, and certainly respect for him as a choreographer.  Nevertheless, she had to have been extremely angry with the way some of her works in the Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo repertory were then thrown out as soon as Balanchine became the artistic director. That included her plotless Bach ballet, Holy Etudes, which had its genesis in Kyiv.  Now it was replaced by Concerto Barocco, Balanchine’s Bach ballet. I’ve always thought that if Balanchine had not replaced her ballet with Concerto Barocco, a work I love very much, maybe Holy Etudes would have survived a little longer.

Thank you very much for the interview and good luck with the book and congratulations.

Photo of Lynn Garafola by Philip AnemaChristian Oth Studio.