Even if she was by nature a truculent rebel who could be rude and often proved to be her own worst enemy, Bronislava Nijinska had a courage, integrity and vision that redeemed her. The younger sister of Vaslav Nijinsky, whom she adored and defended, she fought her way with unquenchable determination through the thickets of the ballet world’s sexism to become one of modernism’s great choreographers.
Lynn Garafola, doyenne of ballet historians, has produced a scrupulously researched biography of a remarkable woman often reviled, cheated, marginalised or underrated by men only too ready to exploit her talent. Many of Nijinska’s creations have been irretrievably lost, but two of her works, Les Noces and Les Biches, have weathered a century, retaining not only their astonishing ingenuity but also their capacity to shock and subvert.
Born in Minsk in 1890 to Polish parents, she benefited from a rigorous classical training at the Mariinsky school in St Petersburg and then joined the diaspora of Russian ballerinas led west by Diaghilev from 1909. A dancer of forceful character rather than graceful polish, she was never prima ballerina material; having played a major role in her brother’s revolutionary creation of L’Après-midi d’un faune and The Rite of Spring, she found that her focus was drawn towards choreography and pedagogy.
After the outbreak of the First World War, she based herself in Kyiv, where she established a company and a school focused on a newly evolving aesthetic of movement, rejecting the elegantly stylised principles of plastique for something much more dynamic. She became fascinated by biomechanics, constructivism and