Q How come Vaslav Nijinsky is basically a household name, even to those not necessarily interested in ballet, when Nijinska, despite all her accomplishments, is so little known, especially outside of the dance world ?

A. Nijinsky was a once-in-a-lifetime talent, but his fame was largely the work of others. Serge Diaghilev, who was her lover, built the entire Ballets Russes repertoire around him, and did everything to advance his career as a brilliantly innovative choreographer. Nijinska, on the other hand, was a woman, whose choreographic ambitions Diaghilev at first rejected, although after the Russian Revolution, which she had spent in kyiv creating her first modern works, he hired her as a choreographer of the company.

By then, her brother was mentally ill and would spend the rest of his life in and out of hospitals. Nijinsky’s wife, Romola, had no qualms about sensationalising his tragedy in books that exalted him as a mad genius and the victim of Diaghilev’s Svengali-like behavior. After Stonewall, both men became gay heroes. Nijinsky’s life and legend left little room for a sister, no matter how accomplished. It has become a vicious circle: to talk about her in First memoirs, Nijinska had to invoke her brother; it was the riddle of Shakespeare’s sister.

Q What do you think Nijinska would think of the state of women’s lives today, both in the world of dance and beyond, particularly in light of the women’s movement, feminism and the Me movement? Too?

A. I think she would be thrilled with the progress women have made, but would notice the obstacles they still face as ballet choreographers. From the moment Nijinska left Soviet Russia in 1921, she fought for compensation that would allow her to support her mother and two children. One of the reasons she was considered “difficult” was that she demanded financial compensation commensurate with her experience and responsibilities, even though she was routinely underpaid compared to male choreographers.

Nijinska would certainly have applauded women’s efforts to break through the glass ceiling, opening up traditionally restricted jobs, and to challenge traditional definitions of femininity and feminine beauty. Finally, I think she would have also applauded the criticism of the sexual politics of the Me Too movement, something that flourished in the world of ballet, but which she scrupulously avoided.

Q What do you read when you are working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?

A. When I’m working on a book, I continue to research because the writing itself opens up new perspectives or poses new questions that I need to investigate. However, when it comes to fiction, I rarely read anything new, but re-read books that I know so well they can put me to sleep, even though I am aware of verbal echoes and phrases.

When I write, I often listen to music, sometimes because it produces a certain atmosphere, sometimes because of its rhythm. Music and movement are very close, and sometimes I have the impression that, thanks to music, writing can become a form of dance.

Q Have you attended any live dance performances during the pandemic? If so, what are you expecting this spring, in person and online?

A. I started attending indoor shows last fall and, like so many others, I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude to the dancers who risked themselves day after day for us. Long before that, I went to museums and, again, I felt extremely indebted to everyone who made my visits possible. This spring, I look forward to New York City Ballet and the Paul Taylor Dance Company, now directed by former Columbia student Michael Novak. In the summer I attend performances at Jacob’s Pillow in the Berkshires.

Online highlights have included Kyle Abraham When we fell, a beautiful piece recorded on the boardwalk of the New York State Theater (as we old timers still call Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater) with a diverse group of young dancers from the New York City Ballet; and some of the short pieces produced by the Guggenheim Museum’s Works & Process series when live performances were discontinued. I also loved the mat dances choreographed by Gabrielle Lamb in the West Side parks.

Q You are hosting a dinner party. Which three scholars or scholars, dead or alive, would you invite, and why?

A. I would like to host a dinner with Nijinska, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and Saint Catherine of Alexandria, whose attributes are the pen and the wheel of martyrdom. All three overcame enormous difficulties to win; they had triumphs as well as nadirs, and although Saint Catherine – if she really existed – came from Alexandrian nobility, Nijinska and Sotomayor came from extremely modest backgrounds. All three were Catholic, but none – even the martyred Saint Catherine – has anything to do with the hard-line conservatism of today’s American Catholic hierarchy.

I would like to go back in time with Sotomayor, who grew up, like me, in a working-class neighborhood in New York within an extended Catholic family. I would also like to know the meetings which, like the fatal kiss of the Muse in the ballet The Kiss of the Fairymarked the dawn of their creative or intellectual awareness, the moment of their birth as remarkable women.


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