At the Margins of History:
Christine Fischer Guy In Conversation with Eva Stachniak
The brilliant, internationally-acclaimed Polish dancer Vaslav Nijinsky had a sister. As children, Vaslav and Bronia danced together. As adolescents, they both won places to hone their art at the prestigious Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg. As adults, they danced with the Ballets Russes throughout Europe and choreographed groundbreaking work. Vaslav eclipsed his younger sister in renown, but Bronia was a gifted dancer, choreographer and beloved teacher in her own right.
In The Chosen Maiden, Eva Stachniak brings Bronia out of Vaslav’s shadow. As Vaslav’s star was ravaged by devastating mental illness and the First World War sparked revolution in Russia, Bronia continued to work with grit and determination, creating dance that broke with tradition and challenged the expectations of what female dancers were allowed. In her fifth novel, Stachniak gives us an affecting portrait of a woman who was “strong enough to dance alone.”
Christine Fischer Guy: What drew you to the world of the Ballets Russes?
Eva Stachniak: It was not the Ballets Russes but the brilliant Nijinskys, Vaslav and Bronislava, brother and sister.
After my second Catherine the Great novel, I wanted to look at the end of Catherine’s Russia. At first I searched for an inspiring character among her descendants, but no one at the Imperial Russian court captivated me. Then I looked at the Artists of the Imperial Theatres, and I knew I’d found my people.
I have to confess I didn’t know of Bronislava Nijinska’s existence until I started researching her famous brother, Vaslav. Only then I learned that he had a younger sister Bronislava (or Bronia as she was often called) who was not only a talented dancer and a groundbreaking choreographer, but also a writer of Early Memoirs, a book that captivated my imagination. So it was Bronia’s voice — strong, powerful, inspiring — that led me to the world of Russian ballet and to the Ballets Russes. She was my inspiration, my muse, my guide and my teacher.
CFG: Her story is utterly absorbing, and I think that’s partly because it’s so embodied. Have you ever been a dancer? Did you take dance classes to help research this novel?
ES: I have never been a dancer, but I realized fairly early in the writing that I will have to learn how to become one — vicariously —in order to write from a dancer's point of view. I didn't try a dance class, but I read extensively: dancers' memoirs, confessions, biographies. Then I shadowed dancers and this has proven pivotal in absorbing a dancer's view of the world. I asked my new dancer friends what they see when they watch people passing us in the street. I discovered what they see when they watch movement. They taught me to pay attention to gestures and their flow. They told me that dancers are always aware of their physical proximity to others. I watched them rehearse and perform. I watched them go on stage and leave it. They were wonderfully generous and I took notes and paid attention.
When the book was published I anxiously awaited the response from dancers and was delighted how often I heard: "You must have been a dancer in your previous life."
CFG: That’s the highest compliment, isn’t it? Brava. I felt this story under my skin as I read — it moved out of the abstract and into my body. Did your dancer friends find it easy to articulate what they saw? I’m curious because I assume that this way of seeing might be quite unconscious to career dancers.
ES: Maybe not easy, but always possible.
It may have helped that I was patient and very persistent. I also asked many, many specific questions, all born out of my utter fascination with the creative process that brings forth the art of movement. The dancers I talked to, Veronica Tennant, Piotr Stanczyk and Caroline Niklas-Gordon, always found a way to make me see what they wanted me to see — but at times, frustrated with words they would stand up and demonstrate what they meant. They also made it very very clear to me that even though the body is their instrument, their power of expression, their art, comes “from the soul.” Very much like writing, isn’t it?
CFG: The mysterious provenance of creativity, absolutely.
I remember watching Pina, the documentary about modern dance choreographer Pina Bausch, and hearing that she’d give her dancers a question and ask them to dance the answer. As someone who deals in words, I’m fascinated by the idea of nonverbal expression of ideas. Bronia makes a reckoning with her life in words, both in your book and in her memoirs. Would you say she was doing that all along, through her choreography?
ES: As I see it, Bronia Nijinska’s choreography is a reckoning with her struggles as a woman artist in the misogynous world of ballet rather than with her personal life. Maybe because she began creating her choreography only after her separation from Vaslav, in 1914, or maybe because she was such an abstract artist, heavily influenced by modernist and minimalist forms of expression. Her first timid choreographic attempts in St. Petersburg quickly lead to bold, experimental, modern ballets she created in Kiev: Mephisto or Samurai. From what has been preserved of them I can see that they were artist’s manifestos, bold expressions of her struggle for the freedom of expression.
The same can be said of the ballets she choreographed for the Ballets Russes, after 1921: Wedding, Le Train Bleu, Les Biches. They project a female choreographic point of view, but they are not personal. Bronia is far more personal in her Early Memoirs, though, as she is in the letters and diaries preserved in the archives.
CFG: Mental illness was a feature in the Nijinsky family landscape, and Bronia observes that “art is an anchor for human salvation.” Is there a relationship between madness and art?
ES: Mental illness dealt terrible blows to the Nijinskys. Bronia’s two brothers, Stassik and Vaslav both died in mental asylums. Their illness was a tragedy neither Bronia nor her mother ever fully recovered from. For years after Vaslav’s mental breakdown, Bronia hoped he might be healed, but these hopes were severely tested and eventually dashed by their subsequent encounters.
When I was working in the archives, I looked for Bronia’s comments on Vaslav’s illness. They were all filled with regret and pain. Nowhere did I find a hint that Bronia considered Vaslav’s talent as related to his madness. Mental illness was a thief, an assassin. It took. It never gave. I tend to agree with her.
CFG: Bronia observed, “We have all become experts on what can kill us.” You mentioned that your mother referred to peacetime as “lucky times.” Can you say more about that?
ES: I grew up in post-war Eastern Europe, with war ruins still in the streets, with adults around me still traumatized by war memories. I grew up among the talk of betrayal and defeat; Eastern Europe did not willingly become part of Stalin’s spoils. These were the Bloodlands so well described by Timothy Snyder, the killing fields of Europe. My grandmother lived through two world wars, my mother through one. I did my math and concluded that this pattern applies to me as well. Peace was short lived, tenuous, always threatened.
There were consequences of this state of mind. In my childhood understanding of the world, history was immediate, its lessons swift and brutal. World War II and the Nazi occupation was the benchmark against which everything was measured: desires, hopes, fears. My mother and my grandmother taught me that moments of peace were fleeting at best, that material possessions could be destroyed by one bomb, while learning would serve me as long as I am alive. My mother repeated that it was better to invest in English lessons than in a new coat — and I am glad she thought so.
If it all sounds rather scary, it was. And yet, it was also empowering, for my mother never allowed me to despair or feel sorry for myself. “I lived through worse and never gave up, and you are my daughter!” carried me through a lot in life, as — I am sure — it carried Bronia and her daughter Irina. As I was writing The Chosen Maiden, I often felt myself transported into my childhood, recalling the dynamic of my own family: the traditional and religious grandmother, the professional daughter who is dedicated to her work, and the granddaughter who watches them both, figuring out her own way.
CFG: Bronia describes her love of Sasha as a “loving friendship,” not a great love. She wants love, but is often disappointed. Is there room in an artist’s life for a “great love”?
ES: If we asked her, she’d say she had her great love, and her love was Chaliapin, another artist. She would also tell us that she didn’t love him in an ordinary way. She never wanted to have a physical relationship with him. He was a man with a wife and five children, and a mistress with five children, and two hundred women around ready to sleep with him, at any cost. Being part of that harem was not what she wanted. She wanted from him what great love can do to an artist. Inspiration, energy, and the ability to go back not necessarily to him but to the idea of him to check her creations.
If she was having a choreographic problem, she would sleep and he would come to her in her sleep, years after he was dead. He would say, Dance it for me. And she’d dance the solution. If she were a man, we’d say he was her muse. I think she guarded it very, very carefully, to the point that nobody knew about this great love.
She wrote long, 5-6 page love letters that she never intended to send. Two years before her death, she confessed to her daughter, who’d had no idea that he was always her greatest love. She said, Now I hope to meet him, if there’s any afterlife. She had this ability to live in this idealized love. Her artist’s soul loved his artist’s soul. He was a great artist first of all. True Chaliapin was not the man who seduced everybody and slept around. True Chaliapin was the Chaliapin who came onstage and sang like an angel and brought out the best in everybody, including her.
CFG: Aldous Huxley wrote: “We read about the past, because the past is refreshingly different from the present. A great deal of history is written, whether deliberately or unconsciously, as wish-fulfilment.” Do you agree?
ES: Not quite. Wish-fulfilment suggests nostalgia, and I tend to agree with Hilary Mantel that “we carry the genes and the culture of our ancestors — what we think of them shapes what we think of ourselves and how we make sense of our time and place,” and that each generation needs to re-examine these genes.
I go into the past for my inspiration to help me put my life in a wider context and to escape the official history written in order to defend a particular myth. I like to poke at the margins of history, looking for unexpected points of view. My characters tend to be immigrants, cultural transplants, who have to re-write themselves, test their cultural and historical baggage, preserve from it only what matters to them the most.
Christine Fischer Guy’s debut novel is The Umbrella Mender. Her short fiction has appeared in Canadian and US journals and has been nominated for the Pushcart and Journey Prizes, and she’s an award-winning journalist. She reviews for The Globe and Mail, and contributes to the LA Review of Books, Ryeberg.com, Hazlitt, and themillions.com.