Bronisława Niżyńska created legendary choreographies during the troubled times at the turn of the epochs. She performed in the tsarist Russia, fashionable Paris and in Monte Carlo. Niżyńska was one of the most important female choreographers of the 20th-century ballet and a remarkable interpreter of Stravinsky's pieces in the famous Ballets Russes.
She was born in 1891 in Minsk as the third child of Tomasz and Eleonora Niżyńskis from Warsaw. They were artists and the only Polish dancers in Łukowicz's wandering troupe with which they toured operettas, musical theatres and circuses of Russian cities and towns. Bronisława was a born dancer – almost literally, as her mother started giving birth while she was dancing a polonaise in Glinka's opera A Life for the Tsar. Bronia didn't have to wait long for success. She was four when she performed with her brothers, Stanisław and Wacław (the latter became famous later on) for the first time, in one of the children's theatres in Nizhny Novgorod. Niżyńska's Early Memoirs read:
We were born as dance artists. We accepted our dancing bodies that we inherited from our parents with no objections. Theatre and dance were a natural way of life since the day we were born. It was just as if the theatre was our natural environment in which everything harmonized with our souls.
Niżyńska was dubbed a ballet child prodigy. In 1900 she started taking dance lessons in the prestigious Imperial Ballet School. One of her teachers was Enrico Cechetti, an Italian mime artist, dancer and author of his own ballet method. In 1908 she started dancing for the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg and two years later (together with Wacław) she joined the Ballets Russes group led by impresario Sergei Diaghilev. First she was a dancer in corps de ballet and later – a soloist.
It was there that she met Mikhail Fokine, a remarkable 20th century choreographer. He quickly appreciated Bronisława's distinctive dancing style and aesthetics and cast her in his most famous choreographic works, such as Carnaval, The Firebird and Petrouchka. Wacław also became famous thanks to his roles in Fokine's performances and later became the choreographer's biggest rival. This is how Lucy Moore describes their cooperation in the book Nijinsky: A Life (Profile Books, 2013):
When Fokine gave Bronia (editor's note: diminutive for Bronisława) the role of Papillon in his new ballet, Carnaval, he had no time to do more than show her the basic steps, Vaslav (Wacław) helped her create the butterfly's fluttering lightness to match Robert Schumann's prestissimo tempo, working out the placement of the body and the flickering hand movements himself and then helping her to learn them. It was his first piece of choreography for another dancer.
The Niżyńskis siblings inspired and supported each other in their creative work. Bronisława helped her brother with his first choreography, Afternoon of a Faun to Claude Debussy's music, which was premiered in May 1912 in Paris. They worked after hours, with no pianist, and kept it secret from Fokine. Lucy Moore writes that every evening in front of the mirror of Bronisława's dressing table, Wacław arranged his and his sister's bodies in the shape of the Faun and his nymphs. They would spend hours composing one pose or just one movement. Before them, nobody had worked this way. They created something completely new, abstract and dramatically changing the existing approach to music and its relation to choreography.
They worked together on Jeux (Games), a ballet story about the daily life of contemporary people and the revolutionary ballet The Rite of Spring. Ewa Stachniak, the author of Bronisława's fictionalized biography, points out in one of the interviews that the mathematical precision with which Bronisława and her brother worked on the choreographies later influenced her style as a choreographer. 'She was famous for her perfectionism and accuracy in arranging every movement' – she sums up.
In 1913, Bronisława was supposed to dance the part of the Chosen One at the premiere of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring in Paris, but she finally didn't because of pregnancy. It made Wacław mad; allegedly he shouted out: 'Only you can dance it, only you, Bronia, nobody else! You want to destroy my work on purpose, just like everybody else does!'. And this is how she remembers the rehearsals to the legendary performance:
While I was dancing I imagined black clouds on the stormy sky above me that I remembered from a Roerich's painting. I imagined that the nature around me was absolutely silent before a strike of a hurricane. When I was thinking about the indigenous rites during which the Chosen One has to die in order to save the earth, I felt that I needed to hunch my body and absorb the fury of the hurricane. Strong, fierce, spontaneous movements seemed to fight the elements while she protected the earth from the dangerous skies. She was dancing as if she were possessed, she had to do it until she was killed by a frantic dance in the primitive sacrificial rite.
Bronia was replaced by Maria Piltz, but Paris was not yet ready then for such a performance. The Rite of Spring caused a scandal. The high-pitched sounds turned out to be unbearable even for sophisticated music lovers. One of the composers present at the premiere allegedly commented: 'If what I'm hearing is a bassoon, then I'm a gorilla'. The audience of Theatre des Champs-Elysees started whistling and shouting. A part of the auditorium did not understand Niżyński's innovative vision, others considered it a masterpiece. The performance is considered one of the most important events of 20th-century art.
In 1914 the Niżyńskis siblings went their separate artistic ways. Wacław started touring South America with his performances and Bronisława set up a ballet school in Kiev and made her first modernist works. She was fascinated by cubism and abstractionism, which was clearly visible in her choreographies. She returned to Ballets Russes for two years and it was there that her three big performances were created: Les Noces composed by Stravinski (1923), The Blue Train with costumes designed by Coco Chanel and the curtain painted by Pablo Picasso and Francis Poulenc's Les Biches (1924). The last choreography, as we read in Irena Turska's 'Ballet Guide', was a modern 'social idyll' consisting of witty scenes with slight erotic overtones. The neoclassical music combined the 18th-century style with modern dances such as foxtrot or the Boston. The imaginative choreography deformed classical dance poses, making Les Biches a typical example of a choreographic work influenced by cubism. However, there was also some criticism. Reviewers believed that Niżyńska's choreographies were too geometrical and intellectual and that they deformed the classic and made the lines irritatingly angular and ridiculous. Some thought Bronisława's dance was more of a sport than ballet art.
In the 1930s Niżyńska cooperated as a choreographer not only with theatres in London and Monte Carlo but also the Paris Opera and Ida Rubinstein's group, with which she put on Ravel's Bolero (1928) that was often reinterpreted later on. It was a free interpretation of Spanish folk dance. In the 1937/1938 season she took up the post of the ballet master and choreographer of the Polish Representative Ballet in Warsaw. She was awarded for the schedule of performances prepared for the Paris Exposition of 1937. She received the first prize in the art of dance for presenting Kondracki’s The Legend of Cracow, Chopin's Concerto in E minor and Palestra's Song of the Earth.
She also succeeded in the United States where she cooperated with the American Ballet Theatre in New York. She also ran a renowned ballet school in Los Angeles. She worked in USA until the 1960s. She had an immense influence on the development of ballet art in Argentina since she cooperated with Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires.
Originally written in Polish by AL, translated by MW, Jan 2018
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