1898 – 1974
Rina Nikova, a pioneer of classical and biblical ballet in Palestine, distinguished herself mostly in character dances, which had a nationalist style influenced by ethnic folklore. She was born on June 23, 1898 in St. Petersburg, where her father, Leo Rabinovich, a wealthy merchant and factory owner, had received special permission to live with his family although Jews were not as a rule allowed to live there. Her mother, Esther, was the daughter of Ya’akov Katz. Nikova began to dance relatively late, at the age of sixteen, because of her family’s objections. She first studied dance at the conservatory in St. Petersburg with Nicolas Legat of Moscow’s Great Theater and continued her studies with Eugenia Edwardova in Berlin after World War I. At this time she married a man named Sapoznikov, later adopting the second half of his name as her own.
In 1924 Nikova visited Palestine as a tourist together with her father. He returned to Russia but Nikova remained. In an interview from about that time she recalled: “I decided to remain in Palestine. Life in that tiny, desolate land charmed my heart. I made up my mind to develop ballet there against the exotic, captivating background that the country then seemed to me.” In other words, Nikova saw herself as an artist who would bring classical ballet to Palestine.
In August of that same year, she appeared at a ballet evening at the Eden Cinema in Tel Aviv in a program of classical ballet in which she danced en pointe, wearing a tutu and a headdress of white feathers. A similar performance took place in Jerusalem but in a schoolyard on a stage constructed of tables covered with rugs. The soloist of the Palestine Opera, David Brainin, and a company of three dancers from the Opera, founded by Mordecai Golinkin (1875–1963), appeared together with her. The program was comprised mostly of duets. Although Nikova was not the first to give dance performances in Israel, she was the first to perform as a professional dancer of classical ballet.
In 1924 Nikova established the first school for classical ballet and directed a studio in Tel Aviv. From 1924 to 1927 she appeared as the ballet mistress at the Palestine Opera together with ten of her students. She was the only one who danced en pointe since at that time it was impossible to obtain more ballet shoes in the country. Sarah Golinkin, the daughter of Mordecai Golinkin, accompanied the rehearsals. The opera in which Nikova first functioned as director and choreographer and performed as prima ballerina was Carmen, on November 10, 1925. In addition, Nikova appeared in Aïda, Russalka and The Huguenots. In 1927 Nikova appeared in Tel Aviv in a ballet evening with pupils from her school and was once more joined by the dancer David Brainin.
When the Palestine Opera ceased operations at the end of 1927, Nikova traveled to New York and appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in ballet pieces which, according to her, had a “Mizrahi flavor.” Meanwhile, in 1929, the conductor, Mordecai Golinkin, succeeded in raising some money in the United States and returned to the theater to mount Demon by Anton Rubinstein. He asked Nikova to perform in the opera.
At the beginning of 1933 Nikova founded the Biblical Ballet, which was based on Yemenite folklore and, at the recommendation of Saul Tchernichowsky (1875–1943), focused on Biblical subjects. Nikova had already thought of establishing ballet of this type during her youth abroad, after attending a performance in Poland by the Yemenite singer Brachah Zefira and the composer Nahum Nardi. This was how she imagined Israelite dance to have been in Biblical times.
Nikova began searching for girls of Yemenite extraction, especially from the Kerem ha-Temanim section of Tel Aviv. One of the heads of the Yemenite community, Yehudah Zadok, helped to persuade the girls’ parents and the girls themselves to join Nikova’s ballet company. Of the two hundred girls who signed up, thirty candidates were chosen, and of those Nikova chose seven for the company. The outstanding ones among them were Rachel Nadav and Zuriah Golani. Rehearsals were held in a basement auditorium in downtown Tel Aviv. One of the spectators watching the Biblical Ballet through street-level windows was Sara Levi-Tanai, later the founder of the Inbal dance theater and creator of a special language of dance, who also drew inspiration from Yemenite Jewish heritage.
In a 1953 interview Nikova defined the goal of the Biblical Ballet: “To bring the glorious heritage of our ancient history onto the stage. It differs from Israeli dance in that it is more theatrical, literary and decorative and less based on pure movement.” Nikova choreographed for the Biblical Ballet, together with the Yemenite girls and especially with Rachel Nadav, who taught her songs and dances of Yemenite Jewry. The pianist, Sarah Golinkin, notated the traditional melodies as Nadav dictated them.
The first national competition for professional dancers who performed original Erez Israel dances was held in 1937. Yardena Cohen won first prize and Nikova, together with her group of Yemenite girls, placed second. After the competition, the reviewer Batya Krupnik wrote in Haaretz: “Rina Nikova excels in instilling discipline in her young Yemenite women without affecting their temperaments or natural charm.”
The Yemenite dancers had an enormous influence on Nikova. Rachel Nadav recalls: “Because the Yemenite girls had such great natural talent in singing, drumming and dancing, Nikova was imbued with confidence in her belief that through them she would be able to create a program to her liking.” Though there were at first some men in the company they left because they felt that this was not a suitable profession for men.
At the start of the Biblical Ballet’s operation Nikova herself tried to appear together with the Yemenite girls. In 1935 the company traveled to the American University in Beirut at the invitation of the composer Arkady Kugel, whose melodies accompanied many of Nikova’s dances. This was the first and last time Nikova appeared with the other dancers. Returning to Palestine, the company found itself in great demand.
On November 5, 1937, Ha-Boker described the Biblical Ballet’s Erez Israel dance as follows: “The Yemenite girls danced Ha-Shomerim wearing white Bedouin costumes and The Well, in which dark-skinned girls wearing colorful garments sang and walked with pitchers.” The subjects of the Biblical Ballet’s dances centered mostly around Biblical figures such as Ruth and Naomi, Eliezer and Rebecca, dances from the Yemenite tradition such as In the Forest, which depicts young girls who went out singing and chatting to collect branches at night. There were also Arab dances such as the Kukiyah, in which a group of young Arab girls go down to the well, each wearing authentic dress typical of her dwelling place. Nikova based the dances on the natural, everyday movements of the Yemenite girls, using a great deal of hand movements, walking and genuflection, accompanied by the girls’ singing. The Yemenite girls sang in Arabic, the language in which Jewish women in Yemen were permitted to sing, while the men sang in Hebrew. After the outbreak of the riots in 1936, relations towards the Arabs changed and the Arabic-language songs were translated into Hebrew by Saul Tchernichowsky.
Nikova tried to improve the girls’ technical ability by giving them ballet lessons tailored especially for them, but did not try to change the authentic material of their dances or introduce them to ballet. Since Nikova was not allowed to install a barre in the basement where rehearsals were held, she moved the barre exercises to the middle of the auditorium. Later, however, she made an artistic decision not to teach barre exercises at all.
Through the good offices of the wife of the French consul in Jerusalem, who participated in ballet lessons that Nikova gave to the wives of foreign consuls in Jerusalem, the company traveled to Paris in 1937 as guests of Baron Maurice de Rothschild (1881–1957), who was enthusiastic about the group and arranged a series of performances for high society at his palace. Among the guests were the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Prime Minister of France Leon Blum (1872–1950). To prepare for the trip to Paris, Nikova made coats of white lambs’ wool for the members and gave them embroidered hats for daily use. This costume of “exotic princesses” made a strong impression. The well-known impresario Solomon (Sol) Hurok (1890–1974), who was in Paris at the time, took the Biblical Ballet under his wing, arranging a successful tour throughout Europe, including Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Poland, Finland and England. The ballet won rave reviews. The tour to the United States which Hurok planned for the company was cancelled when World War II broke out and the company returned to Israel, where it was disbanded.
In 1942 Nikova married Joseph Gizlat (d. 1948), a soldier in the Polish battalion of General Wladyslav Anders (1872–1970) who remained in Palestine. The couple moved to Jerusalem and Nikova returned to classical ballet. Feeling that the audience was now more willing to accept classical ballet, she established the Jerusalem Biblical and Folk Ballet, which was comprised mainly of young Ashkenazi women from Jerusalem. The company performed many classical ballets for soldiers and tourists at the Hebrew University’s theater on Mount Scopus.
Nikova sought to bring her dancers to the level of dancing en pointe, but the movements were too difficult and Israeli-made ballet shoes too clumsy. Ruth Eshel cites Galia Novi, Nikova’s principal dancer, who related that Nikova requested that Sol Hurok send her a package of ballet shoes, but they were all size forty and up, since Americans believed that Israeli dancers “walk barefoot in the desert, so their feet are large.” A newspaper cartoon quipped, “Have Nikova’s dancers got camels’ feet?”
At the end of the 1950s Nikova turned to artistic folklore, establishing the Rikudei Ofi (Character Dance) company in partnership with the Jerusalem Workers’ Council. Since this company comprised students and Jerusalem residents who danced in folk-dance ensembles of the Workers’ Council, men also joined it. Nikova presented Biblical-style folk dances, the Sailors’ Dance and even excerpts from Gayane by Aram Khachaturian (1903–1978). She did not introduce ballet into the company because the dancers were not capable of performing it. Instead she allowed them to express themselves as in folk dance. In 1960 the company traveled to South Africa for the International Folk Festival and was very successful, but when one of the dancers was killed in a road accident the company returned to Israel.
With the help of contributions from South African Jewry and the participation of the Jerusalem Municipality, the Rina Nikova House was established in Jerusalem’s Valley of the Cross in 1970, when Nikova was seventy-two years old. Thus she at last acquired a building that met the needs of a dance company: two studios and a small apartment for herself. Currently the building is used by Jerusalem’s Horah dance company.
In 1974 Rina Nikova was struck by a motorcycle and killed.
Eshel, Ruth. “The Ballerina and the Yemenite Girls.” Musikah (August 1989); Idem. Dancing with the Dream: The Development of Artistic Dance in Israel, 1920–1964. Tel Aviv: 1991, 14–16; Friedhaber, Zvi. “Rachel Nadav, Dancer and Choreographer.” Rokdim 10 (September 1991): 6–7.