Tag Archives: ballet

Women in History: The Great Russian Ballerina Bronia Nijinska

The Celebrating Women Series for 2017 continues with article #8 today. If this is the first article you’ve read so far, March was Women in History month and so I’ve been featuring writers and authors who sent in guest articles surrouding women and topics about women.  In fact, it’s now extending way past March we’ve had so much interest to feature strong, impactful women. You can find a main page for this with explanation and link to all articles here. I’ll add the articles as I schedule or post them. And if you still want to participate, send an article in!

Introducing Eva Stachniak and Her Russian Ballerina

I’m very excited to start this week off with my sweet friend (a truly wonderful person!) and fabulous historical fiction writer Eva Stachniak. Eva lives in Canada and is the award-winning and internationally bestselling author of four novels, several of which are my favorites, and her newest, is soon to add to this list!

This newest novel, The Chosen Maiden, is her fifth novel and features the life of Bronia Nijinska, a Russian ballerina – in fact one of the greatest to ever live…but not without fighting for that title. Read on and find out why.


Caption: Bronia Nijinska as a student at the Imperial Ballet School

Living in the shadow of giants: the story of Bronia Nijinska

By Eva Stachniak, author of The Chosen Maiden

The history of Russian ballet is full of extraordinary women, but for me Bronislava Nijinska or Bronia as she was known among friends, is particularly appealing. What drew me to her? First, the tantalizing connection to her beloved elder brother, Vaslav Nijinsky (1889-1950). Known as the God of the Dance, he was one of the best dancers of all times, especially known for his leap and his groundbreaking choreography of Rite of Spring—the one that caused now famous riots in Paris when it premiered on May 29 of 1913. I was also drawn by the powerful strength of her dancing roles in Ballets Russes of Sergey Diaghilev, the legendary impresario who transformed the face of modern ballet: Ballerina Doll in Petrouchkaor the Chosen Maiden in Rite of Spring, a dance Vaslav created especially for her. And last, but not least, I admire her fortitude in the face of obstacles and misfortunes which could’ve crushed anyone less strong and resilient than she was.

Growing up alongside her famous older brother meant that Bronia Nijinska had to stand her ground. Like Vaslav she was educated at the world-renowned Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg. Like Vaslav, she danced at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg and then, in 1909, joined the Ballets Russes which revolutionized modern dance and dazzled Paris with their Russian seasons. But whereas he was almost instantly declared a genius, she had to fight for recognition all her life.


Caption: Bronia NIjinska in Petrouchka

How did she manage to free herself from Vaslav’s shadow? It helped that Vaslav recognized her talent. He was not only her mentor and teacher, but also readily acknowledged that Bronia was the best interpreter of his choreography. Then the vicissitudes of European history intervened, for the siblings were separated by war and revolution. Vaslav never returned to Russia, and by the time they met again in 1921 her brilliant brother’s career (and life) was destroyed by mental illness. In the meantime, during the Russian Revolution and ensuing Civil War, in Kiev, Bronia created avant-garde experimental ballets which inscribed her name in the history of modern dance. And after her escape from the Soviet Union she became one of the very first female choreographers employed by a ballet company—for Sergey Diaghilev hired her as a choreographer in 1921. This is where she created her masterpieces: The Wedding, Les Biches or Le Train Bleu (for which Coco Chanel designed costumes). All of them achievements that are truly extraordinary.


Caption: A painting by Vadim Meller inspired by Bronia NIjinska’s modern ballet, Mephisto, that she created during her time in Kiev.

However, it was not only Vaslav’s shadow Bronia Nijinskahad to free herself from. She had to stand up to the misogyny of the ballet world, all her life. When she was a young ballerina at the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg she was faulted for her too strong and muscular body, her “un-ballerinalike” looks, her “too high” jumps. Then, in the Ballets Russes, she saw how male dancers and choreographers ruled supreme while women were mostly given supportive or transient roles. When, after her escape from Soviet Russia, she re-joined Ballets Russes, the same Sergey Diaghilev who hired her could not stop himself from telling her: “Oh, Bronia, what a great choreographer you would’ve been if only you were a man.” Yet, despite these obstacles, she had a long career as a dancer, choreographer and teacher, both in Western Europe and the US where she emigrated in 1939.

Les NOces pic

Caption: An arrangement from Les Noces (The Wedding) Nijinska choreographed in 1923. Music by Igor Stravinsky.

Where does it come from, such strength, such resilience? From early childhood Bronia Nijinska knew dancing was her vocation. She placed the art of ballet in the center of her life and never veered from it. But love of art would not have been enough to sustain her, not without the fierce support first of her mother, Eleanora, and then her daughter, Irina. The evidence of their loving, nurturing relationship is beautifully documented in the archival materials of the Bronislava Nijinska Collection, at the Library of Congress. Dairies, letters, and snapshots of family life show how the three generations of the Nijinsky women, grandmother, mother and daughter, stood by each other through thick and thin all their lives. This female solidarity gave Bronia the inner strength to be an artist, rooted her, and, in the end, shaped her who she was.

Links of Interest

Recreated ballets in which Bronia and Vaslav danced or choreographed 1913—35



Eva Stachniak, Biography

evastachniakEva Stachniak is a writer of historical fiction. Her latest novel, The Chosen Maiden, was inspired by the art and voice of Bronia Nijinska.  She lives in Toronto.

Find more out about her and her fabulous books on her website.


The Chosen Maiden, Synopsis –

the chosen maiden.jpg

Publisher: Doubleday Canada and US
Date: Jan 17, 2017

The passionate, sweeping story of Bronia, an extraordinary ballerina forever in the shadow of the legendary Nijinsky–Russia’s greatest dancer and her older brother.

Born on the road to dancer parents, the Nijinsky children seem destined for the stage. Vaslav is an early prodigy, and through single-minded pursuit will grow into arguably the greatest–and most infamous–Russian ballet dancer of the 20th century. His talented younger sister Bronia, however, also longs to dance. Overshadowed by Vaslav, plagued by a body deemed less than ideal and struggling against the constraints of her gender, Bronia will have to work triply hard to prove herself worthy.

Bronia’s stunning discipline and mesmerizing talent will eventually elevate her to the highest stage in Russia: the prestigious, old-world Mariinsky Ballet. But as the First World War rages, revolution sparks in Russia. In her politics, love life and career, Bronia will be forced to confront the choice between old and new; traditional and groundbreaking; safe and passionate.

Through gorgeous and graceful prose, readers will be swept from St. Petersburg and Kiev to London and Paris and plunged into the tumultuous world of modern art. Against the fascinating and tragic backdrop of early 20th century Europe, and surrounded by legends like Anna Pavlova, Coco Chanel, Serge Diaghilev and Pablo Picasso, Bronia must come into her own–as a dancer, mother and revolutionary–in a world that only wishes to see her fall.

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National Bestseller

“A tale of intrigue, love, betrayal and redemption set in the realm of art and artists, exploring the line between dedication and obsession, creation and madness. . . . Stachniak weaves together beautifully the myriad moments that bring this fascinating family and period to life.” —Toronto Star 

“Carefully researched and capaciously imagined. . . . More than just an absorbing historical account of an avant-garde artist, The Chosen Maiden is a fully-realized tale of family, love, loss and enduring resilience.” —Cathy Marie Buchanan, New York Times bestselling author of The Painted Girls

“Many works of fiction take as their inspiration true events and persons of historical significance, but few do so as lovingly and imaginatively. . . . The Chosen Maiden delves into the workings of an artist’s mind and reveals the resiliency of art in a time of worldwide political upheaval and war. . . . A remarkable work of historical fiction.” —Quill & Quire

“Exquisite. . . . Dance fans will welcome this graceful and entrancing foray into the recent past.” —Library Journal

“Reading The Chosen Maiden is like entering Aladdin’s Cave, where a vivid, strange and enchanting world awaits. It is the thrilling world of the Great Nijinsky and his passionate and unforgettable sister Bronia, whose discipline and talent rival her famous brother’s, but whose greatest genius may be her will to survive. Spanning two world wars and the Russian Revolution, Eva Stachniak’s sumptuous and evocative dance of the Chosen Maiden is the dance of 20th century history.” —Shaena Lambert, author of Oh, My Darling and Radiance

Thank you for following the series!

Women in History

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The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan: Astonishing and Amazing, It’s a Must Read


A heartrending, gripping novel set in belle époque Paris and inspired by the real-life model for Degas’s Little Dancer Aged 14 and by the era’s most famous criminal trials.

Following their father’s sudden death, the Van Goethem sisters find their lives upended. Without his wages, and with the small amount their laundress mother earns disappearing into the absinthe bottle, eviction seems imminent. With few options for work, Marie is dispatched to the Paris Opéra, where she will be trained to enter the famous Ballet and meet Edgar Degas. Her older sister, Antoinette, finds employment—and the love of a dangerous young man—as an extra in a stage adaptation of Émile Zola’s Naturalist masterpiece L’Assommoir.  Set at a moment of profound artistic, cultural, and societal change,The Painted Girls is a tale of two remarkable sisters rendered uniquely vulnerable to the darker impulses of “civilized society.” (from Riverhead Books)


The Painted Girls, by Cathy Marie Buchanan, is not just the story of the famous Impressionist Edgar Degas’ paintings and sculptures, or of the French Opera House and Ballet post revolution, but rather, a story of the depths of sociology, psychology, and the desire of human nature to judge and categorize.  However, it’s also the story of overcoming odds, circumstances, and even predestined labels, showing that humankind is redeemable and that people can overtake insurmountable boundaries.

The Painted Girls is an astonishing look inside the poignant world of art, dance, and the modern world of post-revolution France.  Intellectually, it made me contemplate and left a lasting impression, while emotionally, it broke my heart and then reclaimed it by the end.

I first wanted to read this book primarily not just for my fondness of history, but also my admiration for Impressionist artist Degas, as well as ballet. My youngest daughter, aged 5, dreams of being a ballerina and we have enjoyed several outings together to an art museum that features one of Degas’ works showcasing dancers. Immediately into reading this novel, I knew I would be absorbing a book that had so much more to it than I realized. Buchanan really delves into the heart of her highly developed characters with this novel and gives us a glimpse of humanity at its ugliest and at its finest.

The story is primarily told through the words of two sisters, Antoinette and Marie van Goethem, by alternating chapters between them to tell the story in each point of view.  Antoinette, not set to following rules and basing decisions on emotions, is kicked-out of the ballet early on, and though taking care of her two youngest sisters while their mother works and drowns her sorrows in alcohol, she finds romance with a street thug Emile who makes her feel “adored” and makes him her life’s goal.

Blinded by love, Antoinette and Emile are both are cast in a stage play of the time, L’Assommoir, historically well-known now as a production based on an 1877 book that showcased the lower rung of society and working class debauchery.  Much like Degas’ art of the time, the book’s author, Emile Zola, writes a realistic picture (as Degas paints it) of the realism of certain areas of France that were overcome with not enough money, too much drink, and too many seedy relations. Antoinette’s story shows her misfortune as a laundress, her tie to a criminal, and even her dreams of being someone with a life only money can bring.

Meanwhile, Marie begins dancing at the Paris ballet with her younger sister. She works tirelessly in worn tights, shoes and costumes for hours a day with no emotional support, while struggling with the prospect of having a suitor to pay for her progress, which was common place during this time. The grueling work leaves her overly fatigued, but her family needs money.  And she desires to progress to the next step up the ladder, which is to be on stage.  She wants to be remembered; she wants to be appreciated for her talent. Unlike most from her area, she can read and is intelligent as well.  She begins working at a bakery for extra income for private lessons and through hard work is promoted at the ballet.

Prior and during this time Marie also begins to model for Degas in his home studio, where he pays people to pose for him.  Marie, in real life and in Buchanan’s fictionalized tale, is his model for his famous Dancer Aged 14.  Featuring his work at the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition in 1881, Degas primarily gives an ode to how these lower class models are predisposed to crime and seedier ways, for instance that their facial structure in some way determines them as evil and not able to be morally sound.  His goal of showcasing the realism of these lower subjects is ironically turned to international praise for this little ballerina in today’s society.  The statue in wax that Parisians once called ugly and “marked by the hateful promise of every vice” is now an international icon in bronze to the beauty and discipline that is ballet.

Ballerinas Degas

Painting above of ballet dancers by Edgar Degas is an example of his work showcasing the life of a dancer. This one I enjoy seeing at the museum by my home in Ohio. On her website, Buchanan features many of his works, as well as the sculpture, that inspired her book. Take a look at www.cathymariebuchanan.com/art

Information for my photograph above:

Frieze of Dancers, c. 1895, oil on fabric

Edgar Degas (French, 1834-1917)
Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio

Buchanan, a ballerina and teacher of dance herself over her the course of her life, started at a young age admiring Degas’ portraits of dancers.  Later, she fully imagined this eloquent and touching novel, raw and intense, stemming from research on the Van Goethem sisters, the Paris ballet and the social climate, then mixed it with one of the notorious criminal cases of the time period.

The novel is full, rich, and emotional, both dealing with overcoming societal boundaries, sibling rivalry, and the dance that is relationships, yet also a touching glimpse at a sisterly love that overcomes all.

Cathy Marie Buchanan, Biography~

Cathy-Marie-Buchanan-by-Ania-Szado-223x300Cathy Marie Buchanan is the author of The Painted Girls and The Day the Falls Stood Still.

Published January 2013, The Painted Girls received a starred review from Kirkus and is a People Magazine Pick, a Good Housekeeping Book Pick, an Indie Next pick, a USA Today New and Notable selection, a Barnes & Noble Staff Pick, an Entertainment Weekly Must List pick, a Chatelaine Book Club pick and a national bestseller in Canada.

The Day the Falls Stood Still, her debut novel, was a New York Times bestseller, a Barnes & Noble Recommends selection, and an IndieNext pick.

Her stories have appeared in many of Canada’s most respected literary journals, and she has received awards from both the Toronto Arts Council and the Ontario Arts Council. She holds a BSc (Honours Biochemistry) and an MBA from Western University. Born and raised in Niagara Falls, Ontario, she now resides in Toronto.  (Photo of Buchanan by Ania Szado)

You can find information on Buchanan, her books, and her writing at www.cathymariebuchanan.com.


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