Crumbling Words

Hello fellow dancers and dance enthusiasts.

Please forgive my recent absence, however, I have provided a link to a recent blog post by me on another site for the Dance Critics Association.  I hope you enjoy it and I will be back with you all soon!




Nijinska: The Forgotten Master Part 1 (Costume Collaborations)

“The Sports and Touring Ballet Revue” Costume Design by Alexandra Exter, pencil and watercolor (1925)

The Library of Congress holds some of the most important and significant dance collections in the world. One such collection is the Bronislava Nijinska Collection. Most of us who have some semblance of dance history (and even those of us who don’t) have heard of Vaslav Nijinsky (1889?-1950). The infamous ballet dancer and controversial choreographer reportedly caused demure ladies to faint and created quite a scandal due to his “vile movements of erotic bestiality and gestures of heavy shamelessness” during the premiere of his work, L’après-midi d’un faune (1912) in Paris. And while Nijinsky will be the focus of an additional blog here shortly, this blog is written to praise his “less famous” but extremely influential and important sister, Bronislava Nijinska, and her deeply profound collection.

“On the Road” Costume Design by Alexandra Exter, pen, pencil and watercolor

A few weeks ago the Library of Congress began digitizing a hand full of the costume and set designs that are included in the Bronislava Nijinska Collection. This is an amazingly exciting venture and something that should be duly noted as a preservation and research tool for dance and music scholars. These designs are rare originals, monetarily valuable and stunning. However, these factors make them difficult to obtain permission to see as an individual scholar or researcher. Now with the scanning and web posting taking place on the Library of Congress’ website, I hope to bring attention to these extraordinary pieces of art and the efforts being made by the Library to make them accessible. I know that looking at your computer screen is not the same as viewing a tangible piece of dance history, but making the best of what is offered concerning research is the second step to becoming a great scholar (the first is to never stop digging).

“Danses Slaves et Tsiganes” Costume Design by Leon Zack, pencil and watercolor

Lets talk a little bit (very little as her career was long and illustrious) about Bronislava Nijinska and her role in dance. Nijinska (1891-1972) was born in Minsk, Russia. After graduating from the Imperial Ballet School in Saint Petersburg she followed her brother to Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes where she carved out a name for herself as assistant to her brother’s choreographic experiments and finally as a talented and progressive choreographer herself; creating her most well known works Les Noches (1923) and Les Biches (1924) which were later revered as early neoclassic inspirations. Taking care of her brother, Vaslav, during his interments and mental health episodes that plagued him for the remainder of his life after leaving ballet, Nijinska found herself in California, where she staged choreographic works for films (most notably Max Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream 1935) and taught. She remained a sought after choreographer and ballet mistress until her death.

“Bolero” Costume Design by Natalia Goncharova, pencil and pen (1925)

Like most artists during the early 20th century, Nijinska had famous friends. The circle of artists during this time period was a tight-knit group of talent and collaboration. These are not people who listened to Stravinsky on a recorded track; they sat in his presence while he composed. Nijinska herself choreographed Ida Rubenstein’s Bolero(1928) of which the music was commission for and composed by Maurice Ravel for the occasion (yes, that driving, haunting, sometimes annoyingly catchy music was composed for a dance). One colleague of Nijinska’s was the Russian-French painter, Alexandra Exter (1884-1949). Exter designed and sketched many of the costumes for Nijinska. Exter settled into a style that was both a mixture of Russian and western avant-garde influences including Futurism and Cubism. The artistic partnership between Exter’s patterns and linear lines paired with Nijinska’s neoclassic influences created some stunning visual masterpieces for both artists. Even looking at some of these costume designs today, they still portray something forward; modern; revolutionary.

“Jazz” Costume Design by Alexandra Exter, pencil and watercolor (1925)

However, there are also certain aspects of cultural stereotypes and pigeonholed portrayals found here, most distinctly in the designs for Nijinska’s choreographic piece entitled Jazz (1925).

“Night on Bald Mountain” Costume Design by Natalia Goncharova, pencil and watercolor (1925)

These sketches and costumes seem to stand on their own as works of art, let alone given the fact that these are two dimensional drawings that would later be constructed into three dimensional fabrics that draped, twirled and swung with a dancers body force behind it. Ironically, one of the most famous and reproduced designs by Natalia Goncharova (La Nuit sur le Mont Chauve, or The Night on Bald Mountain, 1924) with it’s shadowy purples and outstretched lines, was probably one of the worst costumes ever put on a dancer due to the fabric available during the 1920’s and it’s overall shape. However, on paper it is a striking idea.

“Le Mariage d’Aurore” Costume Desing by Natalia Goncharova, Siamese Butterfly, pencil and watercolor (1922)

Goncharova also designed the Siamese Butterfly costume worn by Njiinska in Le Mariage d’Aurore or The Wedding of Aurora (1922). As an artist Goncharova (1881-1962) also found an identifying style by melting aspects of Russian folk-art with fauvism and cubism, similar to Exter.

“Le Baiser de la Fee” Costume Design by Leon Zack, pencil and watercolor (1935)

Nijinska also collaborated with Leon Zack (1892-1980), a figurative painter who was known for his themes surrounding vagabonds, gypsies and biblical subjects. Zack created costumes that were both pedestrian and whimsical, most notably for Nijinska’s La Baiser de la Fee, created for Ida Rubenstein’s company between 1928 and 1929. The score was commissioned by Igor Stravinsky. Below are a few wonderful examples of Zacks work for Nijinska.

“Le Guignol” Costume Design by Alexandra Exter, pencil and watercolor (1925)

While the Library of Congress has yet to put all of these beautiful costume designs, sketches and set designs online to date, you can look at a few of them on the link below, as well as some that were placed online for a 2009 exhibition entitled “Serge Diaghilev and His World: A Centennial Celebration of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes 1909-1929”. Look for another blog shortly with more costume designs by other artists that collaborated with Nijinska in September!

I hope that this little bit of information about Bronislava Nijinska, Alexandra Exter, Natalia Goncharova and Leon Zack will encourage more research about these amazing collaborations and provide insight into the wealth of items and materials that are available at your fingertips as direct sources of research for dance. Also, I have provided a few interesting reads about Nijinska below for those of you who are interested.

“Holy Etudes” Costume Design by Alexandra Exter, pencil and watercolor (1925)

Items 1-16 Bronislava Nijinska Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

“Danses Slaves et Tsiganes” Costume Design by Leon Zack, pencil and watercolor