The Chosen Maiden

Written by Eva Stachniak
Review by Anne Clinard Barnhill

In her fifth novel, Eva Stachniak tells the story of real-life dancers Bronia Nijinska and Vaslav Nijinsky, siblings who took the world of dance by storm in the early 20th century. In this fictionalized version, we see clearly the ambition of art juxtaposed against the need for human companionship and love. The role assigned to female dancers at that time was always secondary to the fantastic leaps and exuberance of the male, though the female dancers were expected to be skillful en pointe.

Born on the road to parents who are also dancers, brother and sister compete for parental praise. Vaslav, the son, devotes himself to art, to movement, to breaking with tradition. Always in his shadow as a dancer and choreographer, Bronia struggles to find a painful balance between art and domesticity.

Many tensions complicate the story of Bronia and Vaslav: the tension between the traditional and the new, between man and woman, between the idea of revolution and the status quo. The very nature of artistic expression and passion is gracefully discussed in a pas de deux between madness and sanity.

As events unfold around this talented family—the outbreak of WWI, the Russian Revolution, the beginnings of WWII—Bronia must find a way to express her art and protect her family. The sensitive nature of the artist and the constant pressure to out-perform oneself take a toll on Vaslav as he struggles to free the dance, to become the dance. His success is magnificent, but the cost is high.

This novel is thoughtfully expressed, conveying the darker side of ambition. Some readers might find the long discourses about the nature of art and the artist tedious. The plot follows real events, but the overall story lacks a narrative arc. However, for those who enjoy such discussions, they will partner well with this novel.