Why Is Bronislava Nijinska Still Waiting in the Wings?

It is one of the most striking images in dance: Nine women lean in, creating an interlocking pyramid, their heads piled one on top of the other. The layering suggests geological strata, or the arrangement of skulls in a medieval ossuary. Around them, men and women form a tableau with strong religious overtones, like a crown of thorns or an angelic gathering. But the picture also points back to ballet history, evoking the final moments of “The Sleeping Beauty,” another wedding, another pyramid in which each dancer forms part of an architectural, symbolic whole.

This startling, allusive composition comes at the very end of “Les Noces” (“The Wedding”), a work created by Bronislava Nijinksa in 1923 for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Even in photographs, it offers a taste of the compositional genius of its creator.

In April, “Les Noces” is being revived by Ballet West in Salt Lake City, the first performances of the work in the United States since 2011. And on March 26, the company’s director, Adam Sklute, will be in New York with a group of dancers to discuss and show excerpts at the Guggenheim as part of the Works & Process series. They will be joined by the dance historian Lynn Garafola, whose “La Nijinska, Choreographer of the Modern,” published last year, is, surprisingly, the first major biography of Nijinska in any language.

The time has come to reconsider Nijinska, too often relegated to the more obscure corners of ballet history. “Nijinska’s work embraced the past yet hailed the future,” Garafola said in a recent interview, adding that its expressive freedom “allowed her to forge a powerful woman’s voice.” But her reputation suffered, Garafola said, as the companies that hired her disappeared and her “ballets were forgotten by dancers and audiences alike.”

Members of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes rehearsing “Les Noces,” with its pyramid of bodies, in London in 1926.Credit…Collection of Robert GreskovicA portrait of Bronislava Nijinska in 1953.Credit…Collection of Marie Nugent-Head; Serge Lido

Nijinska — who was born in 1891 in Minsk and died in 1972 in Pacific Palisades, Calif. — was the younger sister of Vaslav Nijinsky. His mythic status as a dancer and revolutionary choreographer has overshadowed her much longer, more productive career. Nijinsky, whose artistic life was cut short by mental illness at 29, composed four ballets, among them the epochal “Rite of Spring.” (The two were very close; he created the role of the Chosen One in “Rite” for her.) Nijinska made over 60. But only three of hers — “Les Noces,” “Les Biches” and “Le Train Bleu” — all from the Ballets Russes era, survive in full.

Why do certain choreographers, hailed during their lifetimes, fade from the repertory while others become deeply rooted in it? And why has it been difficult for women in general, and Nijinska in particular, to achieve artistic longevity, despite the quality and volume of her work? These questions hang over Nijinska’s life and afterlife.

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Garafola’s book charts the setbacks and triumphs of Nijinska’s career, which took her from Poland to Russia to Kyiv and Paris — braving a revolution along the way — and eventually brought her to the United States. She made dances for almost two dozen companies, but never stayed with any troupe for long, meaning her works fell out of repertory at company after company. She was often taken for granted and overworked by company directors, most of them male.

Garafola also considers Nijinska’s role in the development of modernism in ballet, with its focus on musical sophistication and rhythmic complexity, innovations in movement and the trend toward abstraction. These are all tendencies that Nijinska shared with her slightly junior colleague, and sometime competitor, George Balanchine, who, not without struggle, achieved the success and durability that eluded her, in part because a company was created around his talents.

Left, Bynum and others rehearsing "Les Noces," which hasn't been performed in the United States since 2011; middle, Dominic Ballard; right, a page from Stravinsky's score. Credit…Michael Friberg for The New York Times

“Les Noces” is the one work by Nijinska that has been consistently revived, despite the challenges. With a cast of almost 40 dancers and a complex musical score by Stravinsky, it is a heavy lift for many American ballet companies. And then there is the unfamiliar style. In a recent rehearsal at Ballet West, the dancers looked alternately like jumping gazelles and figures in icons, their hands held out flat and heads tilted to the side. Sklute called out the shifting counts of the steps, which kept tripping up the dancers.

They’re tricky. Howard Sayette, who is staging “Les Noces,” said in a phone interview that the way the beats in the musical phrases are counted does not necessarily correspond to the way the steps are counted. “Some movements come right in the middle of a measure,” he said, “and no two measures are the same.”

It’s also hard for the musicians. The score is built on complicated, uneven rhythms and multiple moving parts that must function seamlessly together, as in a large, many-levered machine. “To conduct it,” said Jared Oaks, the company’s music director, “you have to build a lot of muscle memory, so the body knows as well as the ear.”

The score, which draws on Russian folk songs and liturgical chants, is written for four pianos — an oddity — and a hefty percussion section, in addition to a large chorus and four vocal soloists. In the Ballet West production, all the musicians and singers will be local. Even so, the ballet is expensive to mount and almost impossible to tour.

“Nijinska’s work embraced the past yet hailed the future,” said Lynn Garafola, the author of the first major biography of the choreographer.Credit…George Etheredge for The New York TimesAdam Sklute, the artistic director of Ballet West, says if all goes well with “Les Noces,” he would like to present an all-Nijinska program.Credit…Michael Friberg for The New York Times

Sayette, 87, has a long history with Nijinska, and is one of the very few who are authorized to stage her work. He has staged “Les Noces” multiple times over the years for ensembles as diverse as the Mariinsky Ballet and the students of SUNY Purchase. In 1969, when he was a member of the Ballet Center of Buffalo, he danced in Nijinska’s “Brahms Variations” under her direction. (The ballet is no longer performed, and Sayette doesn’t remember the choreography.) “She was very deaf,” he said, “and would kind of pound out the rhythms with her fist on your chest.”

In 2009, Sayette staged another Nijinska work, “Les Biches,” for Sklute and Ballet West. A cutting satire of 1920s bright young things that includes a killer solo for a woman, full of jumps and bends for the upper body, “Les Biches” seems to come from a different world than “Les Noces.” And yet they share an unconventional view of the dancing female body, a freer, more sculptural deployment of the torso and arms, and a powerful and percussive use of dancing on pointe.

“What Nijinska discovered,” Garafola said, “is that pointe work could be reincorporated into ballet in a way that made it strange and different.” In “Les Noces,” that pointe work is often done with the feet in parallel position, rather than turned out from the body’s center, as is typical in ballet. It gives the movement a plainer, almost mechanical look. That look is echoed by Natalia Goncharova’s basic, workmanlike costumes and set, which Ballet West uses in its revival.

Nijinska’s portrayals of gender, an essential part of her choreographic imagination, might have stemmed, in part, from her dancing. She was both a strong technician and a jumper (like her brother) and tended to shy away from the glamorized ideal of the ballerina. At times she even took on male roles. “I am not a ballerina,” she once told Diaghilev. This meant, Garafola said, that she did not identify with “this figure at the top of the ballet hierarchy that was all about female beauty as defined by the constraints and ideals of ballet.”

Ballet West's rehearsals; Vassos, middle; Sklute and dancers, right.Credit…Michael Friberg for The New York Times

In “Les Noces” it is clear that Nijinska’s sympathy lies with the women. The ballet, about a Russian village wedding, lingers on the bride’s sense of loss as she leaves her family to marry a man she barely knows, and on her mother’s sorrow. “It is possible that after being loved and cherished by her own kin,” Nijinska wrote of the bride in an essay that appeared posthumously in Dance Magazine in 1974, “she may be nothing more in her new, rough family than a useful extra worker, just another pair of hands.”

Nijinska, whose father had abandoned the family, and who had two difficult marriages and contentious relations with male colleagues and employers, saw the drama in “Les Noces” from the woman’s point of view.

Because of her experiences, and a natural prickliness, she trusted very few people. After her death, she left the dances to her daughter Irina. Sayette, who assisted Irina on several occasions, was later given permission to stage them on his own, one of fewer than a handful of people authorized to do so outside of the Royal Ballet. (Nijinska had revived “Les Noces” and “Les Biches” at the Royal in the mid-1960s, at the invitation of Frederick Ashton. “Les Noces” was last seen there in 2012.) This very slender line of succession is another reason for the infrequency with which Nijinska’s works are seen.

Perhaps Garafola’s book and Ballet West’s performances will spur a revival of interest. A new evening-length work inspired by her life, “Nijinska, Secreto de la Vanguardia,” is set to premiere at Ballet de Santiago in Chile in July. And if all goes well with “Les Noces,” Sklute said he would like to revive “Le Train Bleu” with a view to presenting an all-Nijinska program.

But “Les Noces,” with Nijinska’s endlessly shifting dance patterns and Stravinsky’s keening, thundering score, clearly retains its power. “It has such an effect,” Sayette said. “After the curtain comes down the audience doesn’t start applauding right away. They are just breathless. That only happens with certain works.”

Felia Doubovska as the Bride in “Les Noces,” in 1931.Credit…The Bodley Head, London, 1931