Many works of fiction take as their inspiration true events and persons of historical significance, but few do so as lovingly and imaginatively as Eva Stachniak’s fifth novel. The Chosen Maiden is a fictionalized account of the remarkable life and accomplishments of ballet dancer and choreographer Bronislava (Bronia) Nijinska, sister to the legendary Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinksy. Set in the years 1894 through 1939, and told from Bronia’s perspective, The Chosen Maiden delves into the workings of an artist’s mind and reveals the resiliency of art in a time of worldwide political upheaval and war.
As children of distinguished Polish-born dancers, Bronia, Vaslav, and their older brother, Stassik, find themselves destined for a competitive life in the all-consuming world of the ballet. Vaslav quickly emerges as a rising star in the Russian Imperial Ballet School, overshadowing his younger sister, who is no less ambitious or talented. For Vaslav, fame and accolades come easily and opportunities present themselves to dance on world stages with Sergei Diaghilev’s newly formed Ballets Russes. Bronia is swept along in her famous brother’s wake, given small roles to dance, but always dreams of moving beyond her classical training to newer, more modern and exciting ways of dancing: “Ballet needs a revolution, we say. Of colour, of music, of movement. Russian art needs freedom from the past.”
As the First World War grips Europe and Russia is torn apart by combating ideologies, Bronia’s life becomes increasingly complicated. She becomes burdened with broken relationships, children to provide for in desperate times, and fear for her family’s safety. Through it all, her art remains a polestar and an agent for change: “This is a time of boldness, of manifestoes that cannot wait. Our beloved question is: What if?” Even when her revolutionary School of Movement is closed by the Red Army and she makes the daring decision to flee her homeland with her children and mother, Bronia continues to dance, teach, and choreograph her own groundbreaking ballets. Her dedication to her life’s work sees her through unspeakable tragedy.
The scope of The Chosen Maiden, with its volume and intricacy of detail, and many references to historical figures in the ballet and opera worlds is at times somewhat overwhelming, though the attention to detail also makes the book a remarkable work of historical fiction.
The element that really grounds this story and captures the reader’s attention, however, is more intimate: the bond between the unrelenting figure of Bronia and her steadfast mother, whose love and unwavering self-sacrifice are essential to Bronia’s success. These are two women who have been outshone, betrayed, and abandoned by men in their lives, and who have suffered great loss. Together, they parent Bronia’s children, survive the war, commiserate over the sadness of Vaslav’s illness and decline, and understand each other through their shared devotion to dance.
The Chosen Maiden is both a tribute to a female artist who remained true to her vision despite numerous obstacles, and to the woman behind her who made it possible.