Esmee Wright

One Hundred Years of Nijinska

Les Noces: The Departure at Woolwich Works, 13 – 14 January 2024
Our Voices at Sadler’s Wells, 21 – 30 September 2023

Few have contributed so much to the world of dance while remaining as overlooked as Bronislava Nijinska. This and last year mark the centenary of the two surviving works we have by this polish-born choreographer; Les Biches (1924) and Les Noces (1923), both created for The Ballets Russes. The centenary of Les Noces has been generally forgotten. The Royal Opera House, which has the original Les Noces in its repertoire, shows no signs of reviving it and marked its anniversary with only a single-day event for a limited number of in-person attendees. Les Biches has received even less attention. By comparison, the upcoming season is replete with male artists’ anniversaries. Manon celebrates both fifty years since Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography premiered and the centenary of Nicholas Georgiadis’ work as a designer at the Royal Opera House. Frederick Ashton’s one-act ballet The Dream is marking 60 years with an inclusion in two separate runs on the main stage. Outside Covent Garden, however, a new generation of choreographers are restoring Nijinska’s place in ballet history by drawing inspiration from her work.

New Movement Collective | Les Noces – The Departure – at Woolwich Works, dress rehearsal | © Photography by ASH

Until now, Nijinska has been introduced almost exclusively as the sister of Vaslav Nijinsky. If you spend any time in the ballet world, eventually you will find yourself subsumed in the mystique of Vaslav Nijinsky, dieu de la danse, tortured creative genius, and paragon of queer representation whose career ended tragically early due to mental illness. His brief choreographic career of the 1910s is often credited with entirely severing the connection between the old, academic style of the Imperial Theatres and the shocking modernity that Diaghilev and his inner circle sought to create with The Ballets Russes. In her memoir—which tracks more of Nijinsky’s dance career than it does her own—Nijinska describes how Nijinsky worked out his choreography using his sister’s body as a stand-in not just for the leading female cast, but for Nijinsky’s own parts as well.

Yet Nijinska did not live her life as a stand-in for her brother. She created ballets which were no less challenging and no less key to the artistic sphere of the 20th century than L’Après-midi d’un faune and Le sacre du printemps. Lynn Garafola’s recent biography of Nijinska, La Nijinska, the first of its kind, lists nearly 80 ballets which Nijinska choreographed in full or in part, not including all those which featured in operas, nor her two choreographic works for film. Of these, only Les Noces and Les Biches remain, with her choreography, in any company’s repertoire.

Choreographed after she spent six years in revolutionary Russia and the Soviet Union, Les Noces was more political than most ballets the European stage had seen previously. Opening on the morning of a peasant wedding, the ballet tracks the journey of the bride from her family home, through her preparations to become another family’s possession and into her husband’s bed. Inspired by the harsh realities of peasant marriage in Russia, Les Noces rejected the poetic convenience of classical ballet ‘wedding plots’, where everything culminates in a third act nuptials and a happily ever after. Although Nijinska returned the ballerina to her classical pointe shoe, gone was the airy grace of traditional pointe, where dancers float, fairy-like, across the stage. In its place was a harsh downwards stabbing of the feet: a link to the earth and a mimicry of the rhythm of rebraiding the bride’s hair from girlish double plaits into the single braid of a married peasant woman.

Les Biches’s chic soirée setting initially seems less conceptually and choreographically challenging than its explicitly dark sibling. However, in order to recreate the excessive atmosphere of French society, Nijinska developed a new ‘neo-classical’ style, using the ostentatious acrobatics of the ballerinas Nijinska had left behind in Petersburg to express the thoughtless flashiness of the time. Nijinska parodied the contemporary cult of health: both the men who idolised meaningless movement, and the women who lusted after them. Fashionable ladies mince along on pointe, looking less like the romantic ballerina of the previous century than the catwalk models of this one, while three lotharios in blue leotards undermine their own acrobatics with an obsessive need to gauge their ability against their fellow athletes.

It is perhaps no surprise that the focus from artists has been on the darkness of Les Noces, rather than the apparent frou-frou of Les Biches. As part of ‘Our Voices (Balanchine/Miller/Dawson)’ by the English National Ballet, which ran in Sadler’s Wells from the 21st to the 30th of September, choreographer Andrea Miller created a one-act reimagining of Les Noces. In the press running up to the event, Miller spoke about finding power and inspiration in Nijinska’s works and life: but in the performance sheet the ballet is described as ‘Stravinsky’s’, and in the scenario Miller writes that she was following from Stravinsky’s previous scenario of ritual sacrifice in his earlier Le sacre du printemps, rather than from Nijinska’s tragic, human, marriage. Nonetheless, the jerky, angular movements and constant driving down to the earth are reminiscent of Nijinska’s own symbolic movements.

The New Movement Collective’s version was performed for only two days in January 2024. Titled Les Noces – The Departure, it sought, according to the event description, to explore ‘what is at the core of human relationships and commitment’. In the staging, the marriage ceremony is abstracted even further, yet holds to the core of Nijinska’s ballet. There is the mourning mother, and drunken uncles of the wedding feast, though no one is exclusively committed to a role beyond each scene. At one point, a dancer wears a veil—or perhaps a rope—made of the jackets of the other dancers. Hidden, tied, held and pulled around by her community, it is reminiscent of the cloth braids worn by Nijinska’s bride. The jackets are blue, perhaps a nod to the fact that Nijinska actually wanted her plain peasant outfits to be blue, the colour of worker denims and the collective, rather than the brown of the earth which Goncharova instead settled on.

Both contemporary pieces seek to build on this revolutionary choreography rather than imitate it perfectly, yet both acknowledge that Nijinska’s work marked key developments in the world of choreography, bridging the gap between one century and the next in the world of classical dance. So how did it come to pass that now she is known primarily as a keeper of her brother’s career?

New Movement Collective | Les Noces – The Departure – at Woolwich Works, dress rehearsal | © Photography by ASH

Ballet, in the 20th century, went through an unusual reckoning for art. While the ballet of the Imperial Theatre was directed by men behind the scenes, on stage, women were uniquely powerful. Women like Marie Camargo and Marie Taglioni (thought to be the first person to dance en pointe), had reduced the role of the male danseuse to the extent that the French critic Jules Janin declared in the 1830s that “A man has no right to dance”. Mathilde Kschessinska reigned in the Imperial Theatre as a prima ballerina (almost literally, having had an affair with the Tsar before his marriage and was widely assumed to be involved with at least one of his uncles afterwards), while Anna Pavlova and Tamara Karsavina represented the next generation of female stars.

The rise of The Ballets Russes signalled a change in the world of dance. While scholars continue to argue whether it was because of the rising appreciation for neoclassical art, or the homosexuality of the men who idealised it, what is certain is that female performers found themselves increasingly shuffled out of the limelight. Early works of The Ballets Russes turned the eye of desire not on delicate female dancers, but on the animal sensuality and physical capability of Nijinsky in roles like the Golden Slave in Scheherazade and the Rose in Le Spectre de la Rose. Pavlova and Karsavina, despite being senior, couldn’t compete with the draw of Nijinsky.

Behind the scenes, men were only gaining more power. To quote Lynn Garafola, “Theoretically, the avant-garde companies should have welcomed women; as enterprises enunciating a male homosexual ideology, they did not.” Nijinska was the first, and only, female choreographer for The Ballets Russes. Though Diaghilev gave Nijinska her first great opportunity as a choreographer, he is also quoted as saying, “What a choreographer Bronia would have been if only she were a man!”. She fought and often lost to the strong personalities which made up the almost exclusively male cohort of artistic creators in the company. When, while choreographing Les Noces, Nijinska objected to the bright, heavy costumes designed by Natalia Goncharova to fit with composer Stravinsky’s vision of peasant festivities, Diaghilev simply fired her from the project (though he returned it to her after a year, and while Goncharova didn’t mention Nijinska as a reason for her change to the dark, simplistic outfits she designed instead, she certainly created something a lot closer to Nijinska’s vision than Diaghilev’s).

Even after the death of Diaghilev, Nijinska did not fare much better. She attempted to maintain her own ballet company several times, but the money was never there to sustain them. While she worked for the wealthy Ida Rubenstein, her patronage was never reliable enough to create repeat seasons of well-trained dancers. Nijinska worked for several national theatres, including the Teatro Colón in Argentina and the Polish Ballet, but the national and international crises of the 20th century meant she was never able to create a group of dancers well-versed enough in her work to continue to pass it on. And even when she worked for the Colonel de Wassily’s Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, she was repeatedly undermined, denied rehearsal time and saw her ballets dropped or even re-choreographed by Leon Massine.

New Movement Collective | Les Noces – The Departure – at Woolwich Works, dress rehearsal | © Photography by ASH

Ultimately, ballet is an ephemeral art. Diaghilev refused to have his performances filmed. Nijinska tried but was repeatedly unable to have hers filmed. Although choreographic notation systems exist, they are rarely readable to the uninitiated, and by dint of their static nature, cannot hope to express the full verve of a dance. Thus, unless consistently performed, ballets are easily lost to the sands of time. And in this lies a key issue for dance. André Levinson, fellow Russian émigré and dance scholar, might have lambasted the choreography of Les Noces as “Marxist”, for “slighting the individual for the masses”, but in its choreography, Nijinska was among the first to reckon, however obliquely with the fact that, like the peasant community, ballets can only survive with a whole community behind them, not just of dancers but also directors, designers, musicians and audiences participating in the ritual of dance. And the community was not behind Nijinska.

On this anniversary, a community is slowly coalescing behind her. With companies such as The New Movement Collective and the English National Ballet following in Nijinska’s footsteps as explorers of the potentials of movement, and with new writing about Nijinska’s life and choreography by academics such as Lynn Garafola, a catalogue is being created which will hopefully rouse the memory of her and her works from the obscurity they have sunk to. In an optimistic world, this growing interest might once again lead to a revival of Nijinska’s own works (however expensive it might be to stage a work which requires four grand pianos and a full choir). In the current one, however, the engagement of a new generation of dancers and audiences with Nijinska’s works and style can only be a positive for creating a community looking towards this unfairly overlooked choreographer.

Esmee Wright is a graduate from the University of Cambridge, currently working at The National Gallery, London. She has previously been published in Russian Art + Culture and Polyester Zine. In her spare time, she divides her interests between modernist dance and medieval art.

To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry.

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.