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.
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
Eva 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 –
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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“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!