Bronislava Nijinska – “downright difficult and determined”

To be the sister of Vaslav Nijinsky would be a difficult role, firstly because of his immense fame and secondly due to his descent into madness.

But to be a female choreographer in the early 20th century must have been equally challenging.

Bronislava Nijinska, or Bronia, as she was known, suffered from the impact of male chauvinism for much of her life. She was, after all, a choreographer for Diaghilev whose protégés and lovers were men.

In his biography of Diaghilev, the author, Richard Buckle, quotes a conversation about Nijinska between Diaghilev and Boris Kochno, (who wrote scenarios for Diaghilev and was also his secretary).

Diaghilev told Kochno: “What a great choreographer Bronia would have been if only she were a man”.

She was, Buckle wrote “downright difficult and determined, characteristics that Diaghilev found unacceptable in one of her sex”.
Presumably Diaghilev preferred women to be docile and undecided.

A recent dancelines post on the portraits taken by E O Hoppé of Nijinsky led indirectly to a search for photographs of his sister, some of which appear to be in the State Library of New South Wales.

Six negatives labelled “La Nijinska” are part of a large collection of photos that was donated to the library through the Australian federal government’s cultural gifts program in 2002.

They are filed under the umbrella title of photographs by the Australian photographer, Max Dupain.

At the time of the donation, the photos were identified by the National Gallery of Australia.

So why is Bronislava Nijinska in the collection? She is very unlikely to have been photographed by Dupain and there is no record of her ever coming to Australia.

The portraits in the State Library of NSW contain a clue in the visible black frames around them – frames that may have been placed to enable Dupain to make copies for publicity or programs when Col. de Basil’s Ballets Russes came to Australia in the 1930s.

The Ballets Russes troupes brought with them a range of portraits of dancers and choreographers from overseas, among them the glamour shots of the American photographer, Maurice Seymour, and the moody photos of the English photographer, Gordon Anthony.

Two of Nijinksa’s ballets were performed in Australia, Les Cents Baisers in all three tours and Danses slaves et tziganes (Gypsy dances) performed in the second tour.

But two mysteries remain: are these photos really Nijinska and who took them? Robert Woodley at the State Library of NSW believes that the photographer could be Gordon Anthony, as they are similar to those in the National Portrait Gallery of London that the photographer shot in the 1930s of both Nijinska and other Ballets Russes’ personalities, such as Col. de Basil and Arnold Haskell.

Then again, as Adrian Ryan points out in a comment (below), the sitter looks similar to the Australian dancer Louise Lightfoot, co-founder of the First Australian Ballet.

Clues to the time the photos were taken can be seen in the tight waisted jacket, the scarf, dress ring, and pocket detail on the dress that the sitter wears. All of these are reminiscent of 1930s fashions.

Returning to Nijinska, she travelled briefly to London (home of Gordon Anthony) between the years she worked in Monte Carlo and Paris (the 1920s), and 1938, when she left Europe to spend the rest of her days in California where she established a dance school.

Nijinska’s most prolific years were the 1920s when she became the leading choreographer of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and created such revolutionary works as Les Noces and Les Biches.

Although Nijinska’s memoirs have been published, there is surprisingly little written about her life apart from the insights of the dance historian, Lynn Garafola, who wrote, in her book, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes:

“As with her brother, Nijinska’s art turned on deeply personal obsessions. In his case, these had reflected the ambiguities of sexual identity; in hers, they expressed a profound unease with established definitions of gender.

“There is no indication that Nijinska was a feminist. Nevertheless, the pessimism with which she views heterosexual physical relations, to say nothing of marriage, suggest that something akin to a feminist consciousness was at work in Les Noces.

“Consider the circumstances of her personal life at the time: her lack of physical beauty (for which she was taken to task by critics); her position as a divorcee (she threw out her husband after discovering his mistress was pregnant) supporting two young children and an aging mother; the fact that she was a woman doing a man’s job; the misogyny of Diaghilev’s immediate circle”.