Celebrating the legacy of Nijinska at the Royal Opera House
On Saturday 18 November, the Royal Opera House hosted Insights: The Legacy of Nijinska, highlighting the remarkable life and career of Bronislava Nijinska. Our students were thrilled to be asked to take part and rehearse an extract of Les Noces before a live audience. One of our Upper School ballet teachers, Nicola Tranah, spoke to us about the significance of the event.
Curated by Avatâra Ayuso, this special celebration was organised to remember the brilliance of Nijinska and discuss her place in the ballet world. There were several esteemed guests involved, including Dame Monica Mason, who worked with Nijinska as a dancer, Lynn Garafola, who has written several books about Nijinska’s life, and Hannah Grennell from The Royal Ballet, who came to demonstrate Nijinska’s style and movement. Nicola spoke to us about Nijinska’s particular technique:
Nijinska was arguably the most important female choregrapher of the 20th century. Her technical foundation was classical. However, creatively she was totally original and was hugely influential to Dame Ninette de Valois and Sir Frederick Ashton which can be seen in their work. She is said to have created her classes in order to prepare dancers’ bodies to enable them to dance her own distinctive ballets which was radical at the time. She worked closely alongside her brother Nijinsky as his collaborator and they were highly influential to each other. Nijinska, like her brother could jump high and beat fast. This can be seen in her works, particularly in Les Biches in the role of the Hostess which requires huge stamina and a strong execution of batterie.
Eight of our pre-professional students, four ladies and four men, worked on an extract from one of Nijinska’s most famous works Les Noces. We talked to Nicola about how the students prepared and found the piece:
Initially the students were taught the two-minute extract from the 4th movement by Christopher Saunders, rehearsal director of The Royal Ballet Company. The students also had the privilege of having Dame Monica Mason and Christopher Newton present in each rehearsal, both of whom had worked closely with Nijinska. Christopher was in the original cast as the Father and Monica had danced the Solo Girl. They were both able to impart their invaluable knowledge regarding the style and execution of the steps. Once taught, David Pickering (also from the Company) rehearsed the men and I rehearsed the women.
The students were quick to learn and embraced the style from the beginning although it was very different to anything they had previously studied. Particularly for the women, who are in pointe shoes and stylistically it is almost the total opposite to what is required in their daily ballet class. For example, Nijinska’s choreography for Les Noces has parallel feet, the weight is into the ground, bodies are hunched and the expression is unemotional. I showed them the DVD recorded from the 90’s to show them how it looked in performance, and I think this helped the students.
Set to the music of Stravinsky, Les Noces is a unique and demanding dance and Nicola touched on this:
The Stravinsky score is highly complex with the counts changing constantly. It was composed for four pianos, percussion and a chorus but was brilliantly transposed for one piano for the event by The Royal Ballet’s Head Pianist Robert Clarke. I thought that it would be interesting for the audience to see how difficult the counts are for the dancers so I suggested that initially they demonstrate the steps speaking the counts out loud and then perform it with Rob playing the piano whilst they counted in their heads as one would in a normal performance. The students did brilliantly because the counts are a real challenge.
When performed, the final movement requires huge stamina as it is long and strenuous, particularly for the Solo Girl and Solo Boy. It was interesting to see the amount of energy needed and displayed for only the first two minutes and good for both the audience and dancers to imagine how physically demanding it would actually be to dance the whole movement in one go.
Nicola has danced Nijinska’s work in her own career and has fond memories of the style. She reflected on what it was like teaching it to our students:
I danced the Hostess in Les Biches and the Solo Girl in Les Noces which were both roles that Monica herself had danced. Monica had rehearsed me as the Hostess and I was taught the Solo Girl by Christopher Newton, so there was a strong thread connecting us. It was wonderful to revisit the work after so long and then watch the future generation rehearse and execute the excerpt from this masterpiece.
She also spoke about the meaning behind Les Noces:
Les Noces is about a wedding, an arranged marriage in a Russian village. There are 48 dancers (the villagers) on stage for the final movement. It is a very serious affair with great energy and intention given to each movement and with extremely powerful music. All faces remain expressionless, as if scared to show any emotion, in case they are the next person to be chosen for this local ritual. It is a very different type of wedding to what one normally imagines.
Nijinska worked with numerous iconic dancers throughout her life, who were inspired under her direction. Dame Monica Mason and Christopher Newton both remember working with Nijinska and Nicola expressed how incredible it was to share the stage with them:
To rehearse alongside Monica was an honour and very special to me. Throughout my career with The Royal Ballet, she coached and rehearsed me a great deal and I hold the deepest respect and admiration for her. In the studio she was incredibly supportive and generous to the students, as she was to us all. Her brain and physicality are extraordinary. The same applies to Christopher Newton, who also has a fantastic memory. Nijinska had taught them both and they had retained the details with such clarity and after all these years could still visualise her teaching and rehearsing them.
Nijinska was one of the strongest voices of the Diaghilev era and her works are modernist master pieces. They spoke to the time in which she lived, portraying real stories covering a wide spectrum of subjects and styles which hadn’t been done in that way before. To lose these incredible works of art from such a rich era of music, design and dance would be a devastating loss. Even today it has stood the test of time and is as wonderful now as it was when first performed.