Nijinska, Bronislava (1891–1972)

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Nijinska, Bronislava (1891–1972)

Russian-born ballet dancer, choreographer and teacher. Name variations: Bronislawa Nijinskaya or Nijinskaia; (nickname) Bronia. Pronunciation: Ni-ZHIN-ska. Born Bronislava Fominichna Nijinskaia in Minsk, Russia, on January 8, 1891; died of a heart attack in Pacific Palisades, California, on February 22, 1972; daughter of Foma Nijinsky and Eleonora Nikolaevna Bereda Nijinskaia, both ballet dancers; sister of Vaslav Nijinsky (a ballet dancer); sister-in-law ofRomola Nijinska (1891–1978); attended Imperial Ballet School (St. Petersburg), 1900–08; married Alexander Kotchetovsky (a ballet dancer), in 1912; married Nicolas Singaevsky (a ballet dancer); children (first marriage): Irina (b. 1913); Leon.

Bronislava Nijinska, known as Bronia, was born to a ballet family and spent her entire professional life in the world of ballet: first as a ballerina, then as a choreographer, and finally as a teacher of ballet. Her parents, Foma Nijinsky and Eleonora Bereda , were both Polish by nationality

and dancers by profession. Her brother, Vaslav Nijinsky, was to become one of the greatest male dancers of the 20th century, and both of her husbands would be dancers.

Bronia was born in Minsk, where her father's troupe was performing, on January 8, 1891. She and her two older brothers spent their early years moving from city to city in European Russia, watching their parents perform. This nomadic existence came to an end sometime in the middle of the 1890s when Eleonora left her philandering husband and settled in St. Petersburg with her children. Their financial hardships were eased somewhat when Vaslav and Bronia were admitted to the Imperial Ballet School in the Russian capital. After eight years of rigorous training, entirely paid for by the state, Bronislava graduated "with distinction" in 1908.

In that same year, she joined the famed Maryinsky Theater and began the first of her three careers, that of a classical ballerina. She started in the corps de ballet but by 1911, when she left the company to protest her brother's dismissal, she was performing minor solo roles as well. During the Maryinsky's summer recess in 1909 and annually thereafter, Vaslav and Bronislava also danced with Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in Paris. While never gaining the stature of her brother, Nijinska was given major roles in Carnaval, Petrushka, and other modern ballets put on by Diaghilev. She also helped her brother form his own company in 1914, recruited dancers for him in Russia, and served as his principal ballerina during a brief season in London.

In July 1912, Nijinska married a fellow dancer, Alexander Kotchetovsky, and the following year their first child, Irina, was born. Bronislava and her family spent the war years in Russia where her son Leon was born. In 1915, probably without her husband whom she subsequently divorced, she moved to Kiev, where she opened a ballet school, served as ballet mistress for the Kiev Opera, and started to develop her modernist theories concerning choreography. These ideas undoubtedly were influenced by the avant-garde and collectivist movements which swept through the Russian artistic community before and after the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1921, she left Soviet Russia, more for economic than political reasons, taking her two children and her mother on a hazardous journey to Austria.

Shortly after their escape, Nijinska started her second and most notable career, that of a choreographer for the Ballets Russes in Paris and Monte Carlo. She was in fact the first woman ever to gain prominence as a choreographer. Between 1921 and the end of 1924, she choreographed eight ballets for Diaghilev. These were a curious and uneven mixture of classical Russian technique, Soviet collectivism, and French impressionism. Her insistence on pure dance form, abstract sets, and stylized movement put her in the forefront of what came to be known as "neoclassical choreography." Her two masterpieces, Stravinsky's Les Noces (1923) and Poulenc's Les Biches (1924), are "her enduring monuments" and are still performed by ballet companies.

In January 1925, Nijinska left Ballets Russes over Diaghilev's hiring of a new choreographer, George Balanchine. For the next 13 years, she worked for at least eight different ballet companies in Europe and South America, sometimes as a choreographer, but increasingly as a ballet mistress or director. For a brief period from 1932 to 1934, she ran her own company, the Théâtre de la Danse, in Paris. In 1938, Nijinska moved to California where she opened a ballet school in Los Angeles and started her third career as a highly respected teacher of dance. After the Second World War, she supplemented her teaching duties by serving as ballet mistress for the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas. In the 1960s, she assisted Sir Frederick Ashton in mounting revivals of Les Biches and Les Noces in London's Covent Garden; these performances, in the opinion of Horst Koegler, "confirmed her reputation as one of the formative choreographers of the twentieth century." Her last position, at the age of 76, was as the director of the Buffalo Ballet. She died in California, shortly after the death of her second husband, Nicolas Singaevsky, on February 22, 1972.


Buckle, Richard. Nijinsky. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971.

Garafola, Lynn. Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. NY: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Koegler, Horst. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Ballet. 2nd ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1982.

suggested reading:

Nijinska, Bronislava. Early Memories. Translated by Irina Nijinska and Jean Rawlinson. NY: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1981.

R. C. Elwood , Professor of History, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada