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Dancing in Kiev

A new biography of one of Russia’s great choreographers reveals as much about the society she lived in as about the subject herself.

(Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

La Nijinska: Choreographer of the Modern, by Lynn Garafola, (Oxford University Press: 2022), 688 pages.

In 1938, art patron Lincoln Kirstein observed that Americans considered all ballet to be “Russianballet” (single word), so closely did they identify the art form with the nationality. Vaslav Nijinsky of the famed Ballets Russes company had captured Americans' attention with his spectacular leaps, erotic choreography, and career-ending insanity. But while Nijinsky had studied classical ballet in St. Petersburg, he had been born around 1889 to itinerant Polish performers 655 miles away in Kiev, then part of the Russian Empire. And his lesser-known sister, Bronislava Nijinska, like him an important dancer-choreographer, worked in Kiev for most of 1915 to 1921, a time of both political upheaval and artistic flourishing there.


As Lynn Garafola’s new biography La Nijinska: Choreographer of the Modern makes clear, early-twentieth-century Kiev was a heterodox city that lacked St. Petersburg’s refinement, but not its cultural richness. Garafola, the preeminent scholar of the Ballets Russes, finished her 661-page book well before Putin invaded Ukraine, and her sections describing Nijinska's stay in its capital city provide a dispassionate and timely historic perspective.

When the choreographer arrived there with her first husband in 1915, prior to the Russian Revolution, the city not only boasted “glittering onion-domed hilltop monasteries,” but also comfortably modern hotels. The Kiev City Theater, where the pair was hired to direct the ballet, had been rebuilt in French Renaissance style, projecting “bourgeois confidence and ease.” The couple worked as partners, presenting a mix of traditional Russian favorites and innovations from the Ballets Russes to appreciative Kiev audiences.

When Nijinska returned to Kiev in 1918 after an interlude in Moscow, both the city and she had changed. By then, Ukraine had won its independence and the Bolsheviks had usurped the czar. No longer an imperial outpost, the city became a hotbed of multi-ethnic creativity and modernist experimentation as various factions vied for political control. As Garafola explains, “To counterbalance the influence of Russian culture, the new government proclaimed national-cultural autonomy for minorities, which included Poles as well as Jews and Ukrainians.”

It proved a hospitable environment for Nijinska, who this time had come without her husband—the couple would soon divorce—and with a desire to realize her own choreographic vision. During the next three years, she developed theories of movement that culminated in her enduring masterpiece from 1923, Les Noces, a semi-abstract treatment of a Russian peasant wedding to music by Igor Stravinsky. But ongoing civil war thwarted her progress. Explosions ruined her hearing and she needed government handouts of food and firewood to get by. Bolsheviks searched her home, “looking for guns in her son’s crib.” She escaped to Poland through the Southern Bug River.

Much like her parents, Nijinska moved frequently to make her living in dance, finally settling in California, where she taught seminal American ballerinas such as Maria Tallchief and Allegra Kent. While Garafola meticulously chronicles her subject’s up-and-down career, emphasizing her ballets, her critics, and her volatile state of mind, she downplays Nijinska’s exotic childhood and ballet training in St. Petersburg, when her close relationship with her brother Vaslav was forged. The siblings had been soulmates before he abandoned her, first for the Ballets Russes impresario Serge Diaghilev, who became his mentor and lover, and later as he succumbed to impenetrable and permanent psychosis. Garafola likely minimizes this phase of Nijinska’s life because the choreographer movingly covered it herself in her autobiography, Early Memoirs.


Published nine years after Nijinska’s 1972 death, Early Memoirs had a long, convoluted gestation that included major revisions by the choreographer’s daughter and others. Despite its collective authorship, Nijinska’s voice animates the work, radiating a humanity that Garafola’s scholarly approach generally lacks. Most important, Nijinska delves into her conflicted relationship with Vaslav, who more than anyone else influenced her modernist sensibility. Early Memoirs shows Nijinska to be a tenderhearted but principled girl, whose emotional wounds at the hands of Vaslav and others led to the abrasive, aggrieved woman we come to know in Garafola’s book. Reading Early Memoirs is essential to fully understanding La Nijinska.

In Early Memoirs, we also learned the history of the Nijinsky family in Kiev. Nijinska recounts that when her mother appeared in a season of Russian opera there as an eleven-year-old Polish orphan, the older Russian dancers tricked her into repeating lewd Russian phrases. Later, Nijinska’s parents danced in Kiev together for several seasons (when Vaslav was born), and her father returned to work there after separating from his family to live with his mistress. He tells his daughter that a pantomime he staged at the Hippodrome Palace to benefit the city’s Fire Brigade was inspired by one of her youthful circus performances. “You were sensational,” he praised. Nijinska clings to his words as evidence that he actually “did care for his children, and was missing us too.”

In La Nijinska, Garafola synthesizes vast amounts of research into a readable narrative, but once again it is Nijinska’s own voice that draws us in, this time through excerpts from her diary. The most compelling of these concern Russian opera singer and lothario Fyodor Chaliapin. After a handful of chaste encounters when Nijinska is a young dancer, Chaliapin becomes her romantic obsession for decades. When he ignores her ballet performances in Paris in 1932, she despairs: “It would have been better not to be alive.”

Garafola’s Nijinska reveals such inner pain to almost no one, however, and subsumes herself in her creative pursuits. For the better part of seven years, she chose to do that in vibrant and familiar Kiev. “Nothing could ever duplicate those terrible but immensely thrilling times,” asserts Garafola. Nijinska lived to be 81 and worked until the end. Like her adopted city, she suffered profoundly, but pressed on.