Secret sibling

Bronislava Nijinska was hailed as the architect of dancing. Siobhan Peiffer shows how she emerged fr

History is full of unlucky artists less famous than they should be. Bronislava Nijinska, the greatest female ballet choreographer of the 20th century, had many obstacles to overcome: she was a woman in a man's field, a dancer in the shadow of her famous brother, Vaslav Nijinsky, and a patriotic Russian who survived revolution and exile. Great dance-makers need a permanent company to produce and then preserve their work. Nijinska never had one. Although she made dozens of ballets and parts of ballets on three continents, only two survive. Thanks to Frederick Ashton, who revived both in the 1960s, they flourish in the Royal Ballet's repertoire, and this season the company restages Nijinska's 1923 masterpiece, Les Noces. On a historical triple bill with Michel Fokine's Firebird (1910) and George Balanchine's Agon (1957), Les Noces proves the talent of its choreographer, and her influence on 20th-century dance.

Nijinska began as classical dancer, not revolutionary choreographer. Born in Minsk in 1891, she seemed destined for a long, steady career in Russian ballet. Both of her parents were itinerant character dancers, touring theatres, opera houses, circuses and fairs, and Bronislava arrived right in the middle of their world: her mother couldn't afford to stop performing while pregnant and she slipped out after a first act one night, delivered a daughter, and was back on stage the next day. However, the family wanted a more secure dance career for Bronislava and her older brother Vaslav, and, in late 19th-century Russia, that meant the Imperial Ballet: its artists were government employees, guaranteed prestige, a good pay cheque and a state pension. Vaslav entered the school in 1898, Bronislava in 1900, and they joined the company in 1907 and 1908 respectively. It must have been a relief to their mother, whose husband had by then left her, and whose eldest child, Stanislav, was already showing signs of mental illness.

But the security did not last. At school, Nijinsky showed evidence of his amazing physical abilities and artistry - but also his quick temper and rebelliousness. He got high marks in dancing, music and art, but couldn't be bothered with academic subjects. A couple of dangerous pranks nearly got him expelled. Nijinska was the responsible one - she graduated at the top of her class, and she often did her brother's homework for him or tried to smooth over conflicts with teachers and school officials. When Nijinsky was fired from the company in 1911 for flaunting a sexually suggestive costume on stage, Nijinska left too, in protest.

Leaving excellent jobs turned out to be a good career move: both joined Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, which combined the dancing and choreography of talents such as Nijinsky, Pavlova, Fokine and Balanchine with commissioned sets, scores and libretti by Picasso, Derain, Cocteau and Stravinsky. Its productions built an enthusiastic audience for dance in Paris, London and Monte Carlo, and its rosters included future directors of the New York City Ballet, the Royal, and the Paris Opera Ballet. Nijinska kept a detailed diary, and her later memoirs are one of the best accounts we have of what life in this storied company was actually like.

It wasn't easy. Diaghilev brought together temperamental geniuses and, usually on a limited or non-existent budget, managed more often by wheedling and whimsy than by consistency or fairness. Nijinska's modest prose reveals her as a dedicated artist who nevertheless was not afraid to stand up for herself. She danced injured, in bloody shoes, when she had to, but when Diaghilev asked her to dye her hair and dress "more like a ballerina", she refused. Above all, she was fiercely loyal to her brother. To many, Nijinsky was a superstar dancer who drew a large box office; but to Nijinska, he was a genius, a choreographer who could revolutionise ballet. Even before he had joined the Ballets Russes, Nijinsky had begun to choreograph L'Apres-midi d'un Faune, working with Nijinska in their living room. "I am like a piece of clay that he is moulding," Nijinska wrote in her journal. Nijinsky finished this ballet with the Ballets Russes in 1912 and went on to make Jeux and Le Sacre du Printemps (both 1913). Nijinska was still his favourite "human material", no doubt because of her strong technique, her faith in him, and her endurance.

"Unduly demanding" is how Nijinska describes working with Nijinsky. "He is unable to take into account human limitations." During the rehearsals for Le Sacre, several company dancers were so exhausted that they refused to continue. Nijinska was assistant and go-between, coaxing dancers to work with her brother, persuading Diaghilev that this new choreography was worth supporting, and assuring Nijinsky of his genius when his confidence lagged. Hers was one opinion Nijinsky trusted. Yet that did not stop him from flying into a rage at her when she couldn't dance the principal role at the opening of Le Sacre. Nijinska was pregnant.

The premiere of Le Sacre is now ballet legend, but even success, and Nijinska's diplomacy, could not keep the peace between Diaghilev and Nijinsky for long. When Nijinsky married the Hungarian dancer Romola de Pulszky in 1913 without warning Diaghilev (his lover as well as his boss), Diaghilev fired him. Nijinska left, too. After some work in London, she returned with her husband and daughter to Russia, where she stayed until 1921. Revolution and war isolated Nijinska from her brother and the rest of the ballet world. The school she founded in Kiev had to move after a bombing: it accepted payment in food or fuel, and worked without electricity. But it was a hugely creative time for Nijinska: she sketched, taught and wrote, she worked with avant-garde constructivist artists - and she began to choreograph.

Some of these early works were probably the first abstract ballets of the 20th century. Unfortunately we have only accounts, diagrams and sketches, but these all show Nijinska paring dance steps down to geometric units. Simplicity was an important departure. At the time, the most famous Ballets Russes style was Fokine's. His work told dramatic stories, often in exotic locations, full of "natural", flowing movements. Revolutionary then, his ballets look romantic and old-fashioned now - even in a lush, heartfelt production such as the Royal Ballet's Firebird. Nijinsky was already moving beyond Fokine in his rejection of dramatic expression and virtuosity. But Nijinsky's method - a neoprimitivism that cast aside conventional ballet steps in favour of a more elemental technique - was too idiosyncratic to ground a new tradition. Nijinska wanted to follow her brother, but she stayed loyal to her early training, too. Classical technique, she knew, could be more than filler for three-act fairy tales: used for its own sake, it could yield Fokine's emotion and Nijinsky's purity. "Why create a new scale of sounds?" she wrote. One could instead "expand the artistic possibilities of the classical dance". Her treatise "On Movement and a School of Movement", which she wrote in Russia during this time, is the first, and prescient, statement of neoclassical principles in ballet. Like all good creeds, it is simple: movement is both the end and means of dance. And, like many modernisms, it looks like retreat - a back-to-basics allegiance to material, a suspicion of "individualism", a turning away from narrative.

Les Noces is a paradigm of simplicity. Nijinska made the ballet for Diaghilev after the impresario invited her back to his company in the 1920s, this time as choreographer. The decor emerged from a long collaboration between Nijinska and Natalia Goncharova, who eventually abandoned the wild colour of her first sketches for the monochrome that Nijinska preferred. To Nijinska, such starkness was dictated by the score itself. When she heard Stravinsky's wedding rite, she remembered, it "took over, transformed itself within me into the form of movement-ballet-action". These "ballet-actions" are simple steps - bourrees, pas de bourrees, the occasional jete - repeated and amplified. Measure by measure, they gain energy and magnify patterns. Not acting or mime, but "movement alone enables the dance to affect the spectator", wrote Nijinska in her treatise, and in Les Noces she wanted each dancer to "blend through the movement into the whole". Her choreography exploits that instant when dance rhythm ceases to be a repeated step and assumes a larger, irreducible significance.

Balanchine, who joined the Ballets Russes a few years after Nijinska's return, took this kind of abstraction further than did any of her surviving ballets. Agon, created years later, helped to make neoclassical plotlessness the benchmark of balletic modernity. Without story, sets or costumes, it takes its power from the testing and stretching of movement ideas.

Balanchine moved to America in the 1930s, started his own company, and found the patronage and audience he needed for the most important repertoire of 20th-century ballet. Nijinska was not so lucky. When she left Russia in 1921, she planned to join her brother; together, she thought, they would found a new company, full of Nijinska's students, to further their choreography. She didn't believe the few news stories that reached her, those saying that Nijinsky was mentally ill and could no longer dance or choreograph. But when she arrived to see her brother in Vienna, he was already institutionalised. He never recovered, and died in 1950. "For many years," Nijinska wrote, "I continued to believe that Vaslav would recover completely."

She never founded the permanent, innovative company she had dreamed of. Instead, she left Diaghilev in 1925 and moved from job to job: in France, in Argentina, in Poland, on a struggling tour of English seaside towns, in Hollywood film studios, in New York. Between 1929 and 1939, she worked for more than 14 different organisations.

Eventually, she settled in California, where she became a noted teacher. She died there in 1972. It was in Paris in the late 1920s, however, that she met Freddy Ashton, an enthusiastic, somewhat clumsy dancer and aspiring choreographer who learnt discipline, technique and a love of music from her classes. "Mon fils", Nijinska later called him. Ashton admired her all his life. "Madame Nijinska might be called the architect of dancing," he wrote, "building her work brick by brick, into the amazing structures that result in masterpieces like Les Noces." In 1964 and 1966, he invited her to restage Les Biches and Les Noces at the Royal Ballet. Productions of the latter drew the same sorts of surprised raves ("Still brand new" read the headline in the Daily Telegraph) that the 1920s performances elicited from more discerning ballet-goers such as H G Wells - who wrote that it "will astonish and delight every intelligent man or woman who goes to see it".

This season's production keeps Wells honest. It also proves that the size of Nijinska's remaining repertoire will not limit her reputation. "What is really important," she said to her mother in 1911, when she left her homeland and a good job, "is to take part in the creation of new paths in art, in a new ballet theatre, whatever the cost or sacrifice." Nijinska lived that belief.

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