In the corps de ballet of The Polovtsian Dances, on the Diaghilev opening night was an 18 year old woman, a recent graduate of the Imperial School in St. Petersburg, Bronislava Nijinska, the younger sister of the great male star of the company Vaslav Nijinsky. “That evening we were all inspired by the excitement in the Theatre and danced burning with the fire and spirit of wild untamed Tartars. In the finale, in the mad rush fowards as we made to “attack” the public, I remember that I had a strong feeling that I must restrain my elan or I would end the dance in the orchestra pit!”
Years later, matured by several seasons dancing with both Diaghilev and the Maryinsky Theatre, and having endured the privations of World War I and the Russian Revolution and more personally the loss to insanity of her beloved brother, Nijinska found herself the chief choreographer of the Ballets Russes. Diaghilev entrusted her with the commissioned Stravinsky score for Les Noces in 1923 and then gave her a very different score by Francis Poulenc in 1924. With decor and costumes by Marie Laurencin, the ballet, finally entitled Les Biches which premiered in Monte Carlo, was essentially very French and Diaghilev had qualms about giving the job to a Russian, although she was admittedly extremely talented. He wrote during the rehearsal process to a friend, “The choreography has delighted and astonished me. But then, this good woman intemperate and antisocial as she is, does belong to the Nijinsky family.” The ballet, whose ironic title means “the little darlings” was the hit of the season and speaks loudly of its time, the roaring 20′s. Nijinska herself was “the hostess” and a sofa was considered one of the leading characters. The simple velvet jacket worn by one of the female leads, created quite a stir at the time.
Bronislava Nijinska with Georgina Parkinson. Kate Crews as “The Hostess” – the role Nijinska originated.
Carol Shults was Company Instructor/Historian for Oregon Ballet Theatre from 1989 to 1997.