Today is the birthday (1891 [O.S. December 27, 1890]) of Bronislava Nijinska (Polish: Bronisława Niżyńska; Russian: Бронисла́ва Фоми́нична Нижи́нская), a Polish ballet dancer, and an innovative choreographer. She was part of a well-known family of professional dancers, including her brother, Vaslav Nijinsky with whom she frequently collaborated.
She began her training in various dance techniques, which included traditional Slavic dances, ballet, and some circus acrobatics, at home with her parents. At age nine she entered the state ballet school in St Petersburg and in 1908 she graduated as an Artist of the Imperial Theatres. From there she followed her brother into the Ballets Russes, where he had become a virtual overnight sensation, and assisted him in his creations of L’Après-midi d’un Faune and Le Sacre du Printemps. It is, however, all too common for dance historians to write of Nijinska as “Nijinsky’s little sister” which, apart from its obvious sexist implications, seriously undervalues her contributions to dance throughout the 20th century.
Nijinska appeared in Sergei Diaghilev’s first two Paris seasons, 1909 and 1910, and became a permanent member of his company thereafter. Here initially she danced in the corps de ballet, e.g., in Swan Lake (the Czardas), in Les Sylphides (the Mazurka), and in Le Spectre de la Rose, but as she developed on the professional stage she was promoted, and eventually given significant parts. Her brother coached her for the role of Papillon [the butterfly] in Fokine’s Carnaval (1909), in part danced with feet and hands fluttering in a coordinated rhythm at an accelerated prestissimo tempo. She also transformed the role of the Ballerina Doll in Petruchka (1912) by changing the doll’s demeanor from theatrical in a tutu to realistic in street clothes, thus modernizing the role. She also steadfastly kept in character rather than slipping back into the default look of classical ballet.
In the 1912 production of Cléopâtre, she at first danced the Bacchanale (replacing Vera Fokine). Then she switched roles, being given Karsavina’s role of Ta-Hor. “Karsavina danced the role on toe, but I would dance it in my bare feet.” The next year she performed in her brother’s Jeux (Games), and then assisted him in the creation of Le Sacre du printemps. She helped create the Chosen Maiden role, but when she became aware she was pregnant, she told Nijinsky she’d have to withdraw and miss its opening performance, causing a rift between them.
Subsequently she worked on developing her own art in Petrograd and Kiev during the years of WW I, the Russian Revolution and the subsequent civil war. During the war years she danced in experimental works as well as in classics. In Petrograd the 1915 theatre program listed her as “the prima ballerina-artist of the State Ballet.” The program included music by Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and Borodin. She performed in her own choreographed solos, Le Poupee or Tabatierr, and Autumn Song. Then in Kiev in addition to dancing, she established her ballet school and began to choreograph programs. She danced in solos while costumed in tunics, e.g., Etudes (Liszt), Mephisto Valse (Liszt), Nocturnes (Chopin), Preludes (Chopin), and in company performances, e.g., Twelfth Rhapsody (Liszt), Demons (Tcherepnine), March Funebre (Chopin). In 1921 she left Russia and never returned.
From 1921 to 1924 with Ballets Russes, Nijinska reprised several of her old roles including those she helped her brother create. More and more, however, she took prominent roles in her own choreographies and designs, such as, the Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty (1921), the Fox in Le Renard (1922), as the Hostess in Les Biches (1924), as Lysandre in Les Fâcheux (1924), and as the Tennis Player in Le Train Bleu (1924).
Subsequently, for her own ballet companies and for others, she danced in roles of her own invention: in Holy Etudes, Touring, Le Guignol, and Night on Bald Mountain (all 1925); for Teatro Colón in Estudios religiosos (1926); in her Capricio Espagnole per Rimsky-Korsakoff in 1931; and in the 1934 ballet based on Hamlet per Liszt. Throughout the 1930s she played various roles in Europe and the Americas. As Nijinska reached her 40s, her performance career neared its end. What caused her trouble, and hastened the close of her performance art, was an injury to her Achilles tendon suffered in 1933 while at el Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires.
Due to the outbreak of war in 1939 she relocated from Paris to Los Angeles where she continued working in choreography and as an artistic director, as well as teaching at her studio. In the 1960s she staged revivals of her Ballets Russes-era creations for the Royal Ballet in London. In her last years she assembled a life’s worth of notes which she began casting into her Memoirs, but on her death in 1971 she left 180,00 pages of notes for her daughter, Irina, to edit into a manageable volume.
In among Nijinska’s Memoirs are numerous references to food as a general topic, including her careful control of her brother’s diet because he tended to love carbs and gain weight. She tried to keep him trim on steak and vegetables. Once in a while she mentions exquisite banquets she had attended but rarely says more than something like, “the dishes were exquisite,” but spends page after page on describing the place settings, the room décor, the outfits of the footmen serving the food, and whatnot. But she does describe one dinner in a palace in St Petersburg, and mentions that one of the hors d’oeuvres was marinated mushrooms. That hint gives me a chink to widen into a recipe. Marinated mushrooms are not an especially “exquisite” dish normally, but I would expect that in the Frenchified Russian court of pre-revolutionary Russia, the chefs would have taken pride in their offerings. First, and foremost, I would imagine that these mushrooms were hand-picked wild mushrooms and not the tasteless, white, cultivated things that get called mushrooms in Western supermarkets. These would have been rich, black, woodland specimens – morels even. Certainly something with a robust flavor. So, for this recipe hunt down the most succulent mushrooms you can find, and make sure they are small. Here is Asia I am spoilt for choose – do your best. Then turn your attention to the marinade.
Typical marinades begin with a 50-50 mix of oil and vinegar. The oil part is no problem – the best extra virgin olive oil you can get your hands on. More often than not I use lime or lemon juice (freshly squeezed) rather than vinegar because I do not care for the rough edges of most commercial vinegars. I do use well-aged Asian rice-wine vinegars in my cooking and something of the sort would be all right here also, but citrus juice is my first choice. Now consider your flavorings. Finely chopped garlic is standard, as is chopped onion (which I use chopped leeks for). Freshly ground pepper is also common. After that the default is something like fresh thyme, rosemary, parsley and the like, but we can be adventurous. I like freshly chopped young ginger root, a little allspice, and a hint of powdered cloves.
Preparation also varies considerably. Blanching the mushrooms as a first step is common, but I find this process to be the opposite of what you want – extracting rather than adding flavor. I add ½ cup of olive oil to my skillet, add in the mushrooms so that they form a single layer (you need a wide skillet, or other vessel), and then gently heat the oil over low heat. Your goal is not to cook the mushrooms but to bathe them in warm oil for a few minutes. Turn off the heat and add an equal quantity of citrus juice (or vinegar of your preference) to the oil, plus the seasonings of your choice. Gently mix everything together, cover, and let cool. Once cool, place the mushrooms and marinade in a suitable jar with a tight-fitting lid (with the marinade covering all of the mushrooms) and leave in a cool place for at least 24 hours. Longer is better. These mushrooms can keep for a week or more.