The Chosen Maiden, a novel by Eva Stachniak, is difficult to place. The “chosen maiden” of the title refers at one level to the young girl chosen by a community for ritual sacrifice in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The ballet depicting this ritual was choreographed by Nijinsky; and it is Nijinsky’s sister, Bronislava Nijinska, who is the protagonist of Stachniak’s book.

It appears from Stachniak’s account that Bronislava missed dancing the role of the chosen maiden in Paris despite longing to do so. She had become pregnant just as rehearsals for Rite’s opening began and so she was unable to fulfil perhaps the deepest of her many ambitious dreams: to dance the part of the chosen maiden under her brother’s direction and for its dramatic opening. However, as the novel portrays her, Bronislava’s often sad, even tragic, life somehow carried – bore sacrificially – the many painful experiences of her birth family, her country, her profession, her gender and her personal relationships. In this respect the rejections and losses of her life represent the painful submissions of the ballet’s chosen maiden.

Aside from its title, however, there is the question of just what genre of literature this narrative can claim. Perhaps The Chosen Maiden can legitimately be considered an historical novel; although its text based on actual diary entries is too congruent and too precise to sit comfortably with what one thinks of as fictitive narrative. As happens, I have to hand Bronislava Nijinska: Early Memoirs, which has been edited by her daughter, Irina. In her own words, Bronislava’s preface declares:

“In recounting…the story of our childhood and of the years when I danced with Nijinsky as a ballet artist and performed the choreography of his own ballets, I want to re-create for the reader my image of Nijinsky as a person and as an artist.”

In effect both Bronislava’s personal memoir and Stachniak’s novel do precisely this – only more. In parallel chronology, they introduce us to Vaslav’s genius, his temperament, his relationships within and outside his family and then sketch in unforgettably the cast of characters affecting him and his sister. A key difference between the Bronislava diaries and this novel is that the novel is attempting to re-focus the limelight away from Vaslav and shine it directly onto his sister. Having said this, however, it is evident in both accounts that Bronislava idolized her brother and believed dance would be forever changed by the inspired principles he brought to his art. She was deeply influenced by him, though I deduce from reading that whereas Vaslav’s approach often reflected his own particular talent of soaring as if with wings, hers was routed downward into the solid ground with the strength of earth bound physicality.

Both diary and the novel anchor the reader in the young Nijinsky household: the Polish dancer parents and the siblings, Vaslav, Bronislava and Stanislav. The children live and breathe dance from their earliest years and games. From this background, the reader follows along the trajectory of their complex international and artistic lives from the 1890’s until 1939 where approaching America aboard an ocean liner Bronislava’s chaotic journey as the chosen maiden appears to have come to an end. Once in America she is thrust headlong into opportunities to fulfil her dance and choreographic dreams, to make a name for herself and watch as her own ballets are mounted to much acclaim before returning to success in Europe and elsewhere. These later years do not form part of Stachniak’s narrative.

I like the attention Stachniak gives to those early Kiev years. “Mamusia” – Mother Nijinsky – is a continuing presence throughout the novel. Married to a dancer, a dancer herself and trainer of her childrens’ youthful dance beginnings – Mamusia establishes the loyalty that carries and strengthens Bronislava: “One for another through fire and water,” she instructs the young children. Mamusia’s values provide the glue; her daughter applies that glue throughout the harsh vicissitudes of the Nijinky’s family life. She is the witness to what befalls each family member; and she is the key support.

This is Stachniak’s plotting based on the stalwart voice of her protagonist observing, absorbing, recounting the emotional havoc she endures –first alongside Mamusia as their father deserts the family and Stanislav, the youngest sibling, is tragically committed for life to a mental institution. Later in the narrative, it is Bronislava supporting Mamusia as well as her own children when uncertain international events and personal trials unfold. The older woman is never left behind.

Under the tutelage of both Cecchetti and Fokine at The Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Bronislava struggles with the traditional conservative approach to balletic training; and, with Vaslav, she attempts to explore a freer physicality. Watching Isadora Duncan dance, provides a light bulb moment in which Bronislava sees clearly the path she wishes to follow. Her hope is that Vaslav will support her but in fact her thinking becomes more radical than his and he soon leaves to join Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Left behind, Bronislava is completely ignored by Fokine who seems never to have imagined what it is that she might offer the Imperial Maryinsky. Fortunately Mamusia understands the strong relationship between the two siblings and directs the above quoted imperative to Vaslav as he departs for Paris: “You must promise to persuade Diaghilev to take on your sister as well.”

In the early days of his work for Diaghilev, Nijinsky could have asked for anything – barring his own salary – and been granted it by the great impresario. And so Bronislava eventually joins her brother in Paris, then Monte Carlo with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. She assists her brother with his increasingly revolutionary choreography. She dances, as well, the ballerina doll in Petrouchka, the maiden in L’Apres-Midi d’un Faune, Bacchante in Narcisse, Almee in Scheherazade. But, heart-breakingly, not the chosen maiden in Sacre du Printemps.

Stachniak uses a first person voice in her narrative. This proves extremely valuable in depicting the emotional priorities and upheavals experienced by Bronislava in Monte Carlo. Even more, this voice suggests a woman routed in practicality and the business of survival in a chaotic and unkind world. She seems always to be “putting on her trousers.” She is wooed and won by “Sasha” (Alex Kotchetovsky), a soloist with Ballet Russes, who becomes her first husband. But we hardly notice his existence before she marries – or for that matter during their marriage. On the other-hand, by the lingering tone of her voice in descriptions, we are convinced of her abiding passion for the opera singer, Feodor Chaliapin, – a passionate love quashed by the combined efforts of her brother and Diaghilev. This juxtaposition of voices by Stachniak rings true as compared to accounts in the journal.

In the novel, Bronislava’s realistic perspective, her matter-of-fact tone of voice also applies to Stachniak’s depiction of her relationship to her young student and second husband, Nicholas Singaevsky, called only “Kolya” in the novel. He is the driver of the car carrying Bronislava and her two children from Deauville to Paris when it crashes and her son of sixteen is killed. In the novel we only hear Bronislava’s voice rebuking Kolya for driving too fast. But we are then given a description of her visit to Levushka’s grave before she leaves for America and it is in the reflections there that her heartbreak is fully revealed so that we wonder at the restraint in her as she holds onto this second marriage.

The novel covers the early 20th century. Political events are cataclysmic: the Russian revolution, the outbreak of World War I, the upheaval in Paris. But in themselves these circumstances go un-accounted even as they necessitate a return to Russia and uncertainty for the future of Diaghilev’s company. On the family’s return to Kiev during the Bolshevik revolution, Sasha – without notice – leaves Bronislava while she is trying to establish her own dream institute of dance. In this period, the novel gives a strong portrayal of Bronislav doing what she most of all wants to do with her life: she is anchored and supported by a community of artists – young writers, painters, musicians – all of whom share in the theatrical productions at her School of Movement. The novel quotes from one of her notebooks:

“I want my dancers to be well rounded, open to possibilities. Artists, not performers… Les, whom I admire…, said: “Theatre should reveal what is not visible. Theatre should create its own reality.” It struck me right away that this is precisely what I want for my students. A world in which everything I teach them will open their eyes to the invisible. … I’ve never felt more alive. I wake up singing.”

The protagonist’s voice hints that her own eventual departure from Kiev and leaving her dance institute is more heart-breaking than the desertion by her husband despite the recent birth of their second child, Levushka.  Her own departure from Kiev in 1921 is not long after Sasha’s and Stachniak’s account of that is immediate in detail:

“In these last days I’ve been looking at the apartment with the eyes of those who will come in after we are gone. It has to become mute, cleansed of anything that might hurt anyone who has helped us. I have burnt any papers I cannot take with me….My diaries of the past five years are the hardest to part with. Seven notebooks of my thoughts, plans, dreams. They have to be ripped apart, burnt slowly, a few pages at a time, so that I don’t choke the fire and fill the kitchen with thick, suffocating smoke.”

And so this chosen maiden is sacrificed yet again – her dreams, her work, her security. On her own, she executes the circumstances of her family’s escape. She draws on the help of her artist friends and along with her two children takes responsibility as well for her aging mother. They are helped to reach Vienna by the family of Vaslav’s new wife, Romola. The novel then begins tracing the unfolding tragedy of the breakdown in communication between brother and sister, mother and son as Vaslav’s mental state is monitored and addressed by his new wife, the Hungarian who has literally chased Vaslav until she successfully entraps him in a marriage with two children.

Without either her brother or her husband, Bronislava is welcomed back to Ballets Russes by Diaghilev. Throughout this novel the great impresario’s presence dominates the action. Stachniak is faithful in portraying his multifaceted effect on those around him. Bronia turns to him as to a father on some occasions and recognizes that without his artistic courage and vision there would have been no stage for the revolutionary works of her brother and herself. It is he who commissions her to choreograph Les Noces, sitting her down with Stravinsky and allowing her complete freedom of musical interpretation. It is he, also, who shepherds her along to Man Ray’s studio insisting she sit for her photograph by an artist from a different discipline. I love that Stachniak included this little incident. And also so nonchalantly sketches out the variety of masks, gestures, appearances belonging to Diaghilev. At one level he is a dynamic force with an unerring eye, a faith in the efficacy of art, courage to plan productions no matter how little money, belief in the talents of his loyal company members

Equally, Stachniak does not gloss over Diaghilev’s personal pettiness, his stinginess and disregard for salaries owed to his dancers – particularly Nijinsky. She sketches in his possessiveness, his pomposity, his often repulsive appearance, and his own ambivalent personal relationships. These command both humorous and rancorous comment. He is often depicted as the caricature he sometimes presented, and at other times in the novel as a last minute saviour of events and personal dilemmas. Our sympathies are drawn more strongly than our condemnation.

In summary, this novel captures the artistic and personal development of an exceedingly courageous, talented and sensitive woman – a woman way beyond her time in ideas about dance. It also portrays an entire period of rich artistry, complex shifts in political and international affairs and the men and women who to this day are legendary in the world of ballet, music and production design: Nijinsky, Pavlova, Karsavina, Fokine, Lifar, Cecchetti, Stravinsky, Benois, Bakst, Poulenc, Ravel and many others play their parts as satellites around Diaghilev and as touching on the fate of the woman who out-survived them all.   The only one, also, of all these colourful legends to be chosen as a photographic subject by no less than Man Ray and who, unlike Diaghilev, had no fear of water and the far reaching lands she could get to riding its waves. Stachniak does not emphasize the marginalization that was so much the experience of Bronislava – especially at The Maryinsky. Instead, she offers a portrait of determination, passionate commitment to family and dance.

Bronislava’s daughter knew how important it was to her mother to publish the diaries in which her philosophy is articulated and her brother’s talent re-visited. Irina would have been delighted to have read this parallel account of her mother’s life during a time when she, Irina, was a very young child. The great sadness is that because of the car accident which killed her own brother, Irina’s physical well-being was compromised sufficiently to bring a halt to what training she too had embarked upon. Yet it is due to Irina’s unstinting efforts that the record is there: the original notebooks of Bronislava have been preserved and are with the Library of Congress in the USA. Now we can only hope that trained dancers will have the vision to re-mount the extraordinary ballets that were Bronislava’s inspired vision among which are: Renard, Night on Bear Mountain, Les Biches, Les Noces, The Blue Train and divertimentos from Aurora’s Wedding.

Susannah Harris-Wilson

18th June 2017

Stachniak, Eva 2017  The Chosen Maiden  Doubleday Canada

You can buy a copy of this book here

 

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