How a ballet dancer inspired Eva Stachniak latest novel

Bronia Nijinsky was a pioneering Polish dancer and choreographer — and the inspiration behind The Chosen Maiden.
Eva Stachniak has written four historical novels, three of which were inspired by Catherine the Great.

Historical novelist Eva Stachniak is drawn to visionary women and how they challenge the status quo. In her latest novel, The Chosen Maiden, she turned to Bronia Nijinsky, a gifted Polish dancer, who transformed what it meant to be a female dancer during the early 1900s.

Choosing the story

 When I finished with Catherine the Great's novels  I wanted to look at the dissolution of Catherine's Russia and her legacy. That's why I thought, what happened to ballet dancers? Who among ballet dancers would be an interesting character to deal with? Immediately the Nijinsky siblings came to mind. The brother, Vaslav, was the one I knew about. Then I learned he had a sister. I found out she wrote early memoirs and that the book was available so I ordered it and read it.

I knew that I had to tell her story. Her voice was so compelling. That voice was extremely strong. I wanted to create a fictional voice that would be mine and hers at the same time. Her personality, her soul, her heart: she was so close to me and everything in her life pointed to me, saying, "You have to write about me." 

Who was Bronia Nijinsky?

She was a very talented writer. She not only left the memoirs but also archives in the Library of Congress. She left 160 boxes filled with diaries, letters, artifacts and snapshots.

She was a very formidable woman. A little bit scary, when I think about it. She was used to fighting for what she believed in and she had to fight with giants. She had to fight with her brother, she had to fight with art critic Sergei Diaghilev, who was a tremendous personality in the world of ballet. She had to fight with everybody — to stand her ground, to argue with them, to come up with arguments that would convince them to let her do what she wanted. 

Knowing your purpose

Both Vaslav and Bronia had this belief: "Our bodies can do it. We were born with this perfect instrument that we can train and we can do anything we really wish to do with the body we have. That's the talent that we don't want to waste." 

It's really enviable to be born with such a clarity, that impassioned with some one thing. Some people get lucky to have this sense of mission in life and I think that she had it from the very beginning. 

Eva Stachniak's comments have been edited and condensed.