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Nijinska revival continues: restoring a lost work.

To the mesmeric rhythms of Maurice Ravel's familiar Bolero, a lone woman at the center of a large table paces in place. Around the table, men watch her, fascinated as by a snake. It may sound like Maurice Bejart's ballet of seduction, but in fact it is the more highly stylized and complex 1928 work of Bronislava Nijinska, an almost austere tour de force of sexual ritual by the choreographer whose protean body of work continues to reemerge from the shadow of her famous brother, Vaslav Nijinsky. Bolero was originally commissioned by Ida Rubinstein for the debut of her company. Ravel composed the music for her and conducted the first performance, in Paris.

The ballet is being reconstructed for Oakland Ballet by Nijinska protegee Nina Youshkevitch, who danced in it in 1934 with Nijinska's company in Monte Carlo. (The lead, known as the Dancer, was performed by Alexandra Danilova, who was borrowed from the de Basil company. Youshkevitch is working from Nijinska's own notations, which she describes as giving the complete steps. It will have its premiere this month, forty years after the ballet's last performance by the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas in Paris, with Marjorie Tallchief as the Dancer.

Under artistic director Ronn Guidi, Oakland Ballet has made a reputation for its early-twentieth-century revivals, as Lynn Garafola reported in these pages ["Tracking Down Le Train Bleu," April 1990, page 40]. This will be the Company's fourth Nijinska ballet. Her acknowledged masterworks, Les Noces and Les Biches, were staged by her daughter and keeper of the flame, the late Irina Nijinska, who, with Frank W. D. Ries, also reconstructed Le Train Bleu for the company. (Oakland's ballet master, Howard Sayette, recently set Les Noces for its St. Petersburg premiere by the ballet of the Mussorgsky Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet.

Marking Oakland Ballet's thirtieth-anniversary season, Guidi commissioned Bolero because, he says, he loves Nijinska's work and wants to see it live. He points to her as "the first great woman choreographer," adding, "the more places her work is staged, the more possibility that it will survive." Why Bolero? Guidi says that Nijinska's granddaughter Nathalie told him that it was one of Nijinska's favorite ballets. Its revival was also, he says, the last wish that Irina Nijinska expressed to him before her death in 1991 following a stroke. "The music is accessible," he continues. "Nijinska was always completely in control of her subject matter and how it worked with the music. And it shows a different style." He is very pleased that Youshkevitch is staging it; it is important to have a dancer who worked with the choreographer.

The section of Bolero seen in rehearsal on a videotape (mostly of the Dancer) shows that although Nijinska was not interested in reproducing Spanish dance, the choreography for the Dancer, wearing character shoes, stylizes certain Spanish shapes and qualities--the body's honest weight, the arms wreathing the waist front and back, quick turns, backbends, and skittering foot stamps. As seen on the tape, the Dancer suggests a catalog of Spanish qualities. She is iconic, hieratic, self-contained, proud, and restless, like a caged animal. Feeling is kept under tight rein.

The ballet is almost minimalist in its economy of steps and its architectural use of groups, a familiar Nijinska trademark. And yet the corps, like the Dancer, implies passion as it urges her on. Nijinska included women dressed en travesti, one of whom was danced by Youshkevitch in 1934, wearing a mustache. She feels that they represented "an idea for young boys," not a lack of male dancers, and therefore she has retained them. Perhaps they suggest an initiation into the mysteries of sex. The stylizing of emotion into geometric patterns--the men threaten each other with raised knives in facing parallel lines--reminds one of Antony Tudor's 1963 antiwar ballet Echoing of Trumpets, which has the same formality of unison movement depicting deep feeling.

Now a highly regarded teacher in New York City, Youshkevitch was chosen by Nijinska from the prestigious class of Olga Preobrajenska in Paris and danced in several Nijinska companies. Nijinska choreographed for her the virtuoso lead in Chopin Concerto, full of beats and turns. Youshkevitch recently revived its pas de deux at Goucher College [Teacher Talk, Dance Magazine, April 1995]. She also danced such roles as the mysterious La Gargonne (The Blue Girl) in Les Biches and the Princess in The Hundred Kisses (partnered by the late Igor Youskevitch--no relation--on an Australian tour in the mids). 1930She came to the U.S. because Nijinska invited her to take part in her Hollywood Bowl season in 1940 (which included Bolero); because of wartime disruptions, she arrived too late, but remained in this country. After being ballerina of the Metropolitan Opera Ballet and dancing Aurora in the first full-length Sleeping Beauty in the U.S. in 1945 (coached by Ludniila Schollar and Anatole Vilzak and presented in San Francisco), Youshkevitch began teaching in Nijinska's school under her tutelage.

Youshkevitch's first reconstruction of Nijinska's choreography was the Bride's solo from Le Baiser de la Fee, which she had danced; Irina Nijinska had asked her to try it out and was very pleased with the results, saying that her mother had liked working with Youshkevitch because she was so musical.

"Nijinska was absolutely amazing because she had so many ballets, and no two look alike," Youshkevitch says. "Bolero, Chopin Concerto--Baiser de la Fee is classical; Hundred Kisses is very sophisticated. Although there is a Nijinska style--I can always tell [her ballets] because there are some movements of hers that are just hers. A port de bras with the hands going to the chest--she had a feeling from the heart that comes out." She says of Bolero:

"It's a very exciting ballet. Very strong. There is a lot of feeling, a lot of feeling in it, in the poses." At a symposium on Nijinska she spoke of the crescendo of movement by the corps becoming "very fast and very exciting."

She also points out the stamina required of the lead woman, who dances for the full seventeen minutes of the ballet with very little break. "When they say dancers before were not as strong as the dancers now, it is a very big fallacy, because any ballet of Nijinska takes a lot of stamina. You have to be a very strong dancer to carry it. She was very strong herself. They have a much higher extension now, but my first teacher, Preobrajenska, would not let us do a high [one]. She thought it wasn't decent."

A look at Youshkevitch's copy of Nijinska's notebooks for Bolero--one just for the lead woman, two for the rest of the dancers--shows figures, either stick or three-dimensional, names of steps, and other notations in Russian and French, and counts. From these Youshkevitch mady one notebook for the reconstruction with parallel columns for the various dancers and groups. She first set the steps in New York City on Hilary Mitchell, who studies with her and has proven apt for the work. Because Youshkevitch recently suffered a heart attack, Mitchell went to Oakland to begin the staging process with the help of Youshkevitch's notebooks; then both went there in August to complete the work.

The company is reconstructing Alexandre Benois's original designs for the ballet, which are realistic and atmospheric, set in a tavern. (Later, sparer designs were created by Natalia Gontcharova.) Irina Nijinska told Ida Rubinstein biographer Lynn Garafola that the big table to dance on was her mother's idea. Guidi is delighted to be bringing back Benois's designs, and says that they are using all the elements of the Goya-like set, with its tables, large hanging lamp, and balcony. Some missing colors are being borrowed from Goya's paintings.

Youshkevitch, like Guidi, wants very much to see Nijinska's heritage preserved. She knew Irina Nijinska from childhood, and says of her death, "I still can't believe it. I think, I will call her. I would want to bring back Bolero for her. She wanted so badly to bring back her mother's ballets again, because she said she had been forgotten, which is true. It was very unfair because she was really a great choreographer."

One of the immediate results of Irina Nijinska's death is that although she had told Youshkevitch that she had found the notes for the complete pas de deux from Le Baiser de la Fie, they cannot now be located. Youshkevitch's old partner Igor Youskevitch had been interested in having the pas de deux revived for the New York International Ballet Competition, of which he was artistic director until his death in 1994. (Youshkevitch's reconstruction of the Bride's solo can be seen on videotape in the Dance Collection of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.)

Youshkevitch hopes that the whole of Chopin Concerto can be mounted this season at Goucher College, with the help of others who danced in it. She hopes, too, for a professional company to take it up. Nijinska's Hundred Kisses (which sounds like an intriguingly satiric fairy tale) might also be retrievable, and would be a high pri-ority, she says, as would be her 1932 Variations to Beethoven. It would be wonderful, she feels, if American Ballet Theatre, where Nijinska worked in its early days, would take up her work again, and she would also like to see Nijinska's papers organized in a climate-controlled archive.
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Title Annotation:ballet revival
Author:Hunt, Marilyn
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Oct 1, 1995
Words:1564
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