Russian Ballet History

Diaghilev's Ballets Russes 1909-1929

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Click here for a brief video of Serge Lifar teaching ballet.

Bronislava Fominitshna Nijinska (1891-1972)

Bronislava Nijinska was born in Minsk, the third child of the Polish dancers Tomasz and Eleonora Bereda Niżyńsky. Her brother was Vaslav Nijinsky. She was just 4 years old when she made her theatrical debut in a Christmas pageant with her brothers in Nizhny Novgorod. In 1900 she and her brother were accepted at the Imperial School of Ballet in St. Petersburg on a 7-year scholarship from the State of Russia. From 1900 - 1907 she studied dance and music at the Imperial School of Ballet, graduating with honors as a ballet dancer.  Her first teacher was Enrico Cecchetti. After graduating in 1908, she then joined the Maryinsky BalletShe and her brother joined Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1909. Some of the roles she created were in Fokine's "Carnaval" 1910, and "Petrushka" in 1911. Vaslav was dismissed from the Maryinsky Ballet in 1911, Nijinska insisted that she also be dismissed, and she was forced to forfeit her title "Artist of the Imperial Theatre." Nijinska danced in her brother's short lived ballet company in London in 1914. In 1915, she returned to Russia. Nijinska danced in Kiev, opening a school where she trained her most famous student, Serge Lifar.  In 1921 Nijinska rejoined the Ballets Russes.  While a dancer with the Ballets Russes, she also became the chief choreographer of the company.  One of her first pieces was "Three Ivans" for Petipa's The Sleeping Beauty. Her first ballets were Igor Stravinsky's "Renard" in 1922 and Les Noces 1923. The following year she choreographed "Les Biches", "Les Fâcheux" and "Le Train Bleu".   Bronislava later choreographed for the Paris Opéra, Opéra Russe à Paris, and her own company. Ocassionally she taught at the American Ballet Theatre School in New York City. From 1927 - 1929 Bronislava Nijinska worked for the Ballet of Paris, then in 1928 - 1929 she worked for the Ballet of Ida Rubinstein. During the seasons of 1930 and 1931 she worked with the Russian Opera in Paris, 1932 - 1934 directed her own ballet company, called Polish Ballets of Paris, then, in 1935 worked with the Ballet Russe of Monte Carlo. In 1935 Nijinska made her film debut as a choreographer in Max Reinhardt's film version of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935).  In 1938 Nijinska moved to America, settling in Los Angeles. There she opened her own school of dance. She established herself as a reputable teacher and choreographer, and worked with the touring company called "Original Ballet Russe.  She was married twice. Her first husband was Alexandre Kochetovsky, a fellow Ballet Russes dancer by whom she had two children-a son, Leo Kochetovsky, who was tragically killed in a car accident and a daughter, Irina Nijinska, a ballet dancer in her own right.  The true love of her life, but to whom she was never married, was the great Russian bass singer Feodor ChaliapinBronislava died of heart failure on February 21, 1972, in Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles, California.

Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art...........

Lifar was born in Kiev, Ukraine and studied under Bronislava Nijinska. He was accepted into Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1923.  Lifar was very handsome and known for his enormous ego. In his personal, life Lifar (photo below with Danilova) was as dynamic as he was controversial. He often partnered Alicia Markova.  Lifar eventually replaced Anton Dolin as Serge Diaghilev's favorite when Dolin left to dance in Cochran's Revues with another Diaghilev dancer Vera Nemtchinova. Lifar had to continue his daily classes with Enrico Cecchetti at Diaghilev’s insistence. While Anton Dolin did return to Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes as a star performer, Lifar was the last of the Ballets Russes' Premier Danseurs. 

 Two of Lifar's greatest achievements as a dancer in Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes were in Balanchine's Apollo and The Prodigal Son.  After Diaghilev's death in 1929, Lifar became Premier Danseur of the Paris Opera Ballet.   By 1933 he had become Paris Opera’s Ballet’s Director and Professor of Dance, helping it to regain its reputation which had declined post Victorian era. In 1939, Lifar joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo where again, he partnered with Alicia Markova at London's Covent Garden.

 Lifar held the position of Director at the Paris Opera Ballet for 20 years, creating the majority of the choreography and dancing most of the leading roles himself. Although Lifar was mostly Cecchetti trained, he replaced the Italian technique at Paris Opera Ballet with the Russian Vaganova training he had received while studying with Bronislava Nijinska.

Serge Lifar at Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum features costumes and items from their permanent Serge Lifar Collection .

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