Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Curtain Closes and Opens Again: Irina Baronova and the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo

Irina Baronova and Anton Dolin in Le Fils Prodigue

I know we are called Critics At Large, but I thought I had better issue a disclaimer that the following piece will hardly be critical. My reason for wanting to write on Irina Baronova, the legendary Russian ballerina who died in 2008 at age 89, is because I am in awe. Her daughter, the Hollywood actress Victoria Tennant, recently published a sumptuous book about her mother (Irina Baronova and the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, University of Chicago Press). After I more or less stumbled across it (I found it languishing on a colleague’s desk, undeservedly gathering dust), I instantly fell into a state of rapture. Irina Baronova and Les Ballets Russes is a fittingly gorgeous tribute to a dancer whose glamourous blonde beauty was as celebrated as the precision of her classical technique.

At 256 pages, this biography in words and pictures features 335 colour plates documenting a brilliant life in dance and along way, and because Baronova was intrinsically linked with some of its greatest achievements, the Golden Age of Ballet as experienced during the first half of the 20th century. Just cracking the cover provides an insight into the electrifying mystique of an era dominated by such choreographers as George Balanchine and Mikhail Fokine, to name two of the principal architects of the modern ballet. Baronova had worked closely with these two giants of the dance, among many others, and wrote about them in her 2005 autobiography, Irina: Ballet, Life and Love. Tennant mentions that earlier book at the beginning of hers, describing how her mother’s failing eyesight in old age ultimately prevented her from reading the book she had written. Each day after breakfast, she would lounge on a divan to listen to her daughter read it to her, one thrilling page at a time. Tennant is one of three children born to Baronova and husband, the late British theatre agent Cecil Tennant who died in 1967 as a result of a motoring accident. After her mother’s death in New South Wales in Australia, where she had lived in 2000, she moved there to be close to her second child, her namesake Irina. She soon received a package in the mail from her sister in which were plastic bags holding countless photographs and other memorabilia from Baronova’s life at the eye of a ballet storm.

Tennant describes how she burst into tears when regarding a pair of her mother’s pointe shoes onto which she had written in ink, 'My Last Performance.' Baronova had been an international star when she retired from the stage in 1946 at age 27. That might seem premature to today’s audiences. But Baronova had by then already been dancing professionally for 15 years. Tennant saw instantly that another book was in order which would bring mother’s accomplishments more vividly into focus through these images which the dancer had had the foresight to keep throughout her lifetime. Tennant has richly succeeded. I knew of Baronova, of course. Any dance lover would. More recently, she as the subject of the 2000 film, Ballet Russes, screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. But this book is a true re-discovery, a reminder that artists can and will live on through the last legacy of their art.

Baronova had been one of the three so-called Baby Ballerinas – the others being Tamara Toumanova and Tatiana Riabouchinska, both of whom pre-deceased her – who toured with Les Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo from 1932 to 1939. Balanchine had discovered her  and the others – when all three, the extraordinary daughters of White Russians who had fled the Russian Revolution, were living in Paris, pursuing their dance studies with the greatest of the greats. Baronova and Toumanova had met as students in the Paris studio of the Imperial Ballet’s Olga Preobrajenska, also the teacher of Margot Fonteyn and Alexandra Danilova; Riabouchinska studied with Mathilde Kschessinskaya, the prima ballerina assoluta (the only Russian dancer with that title) who had been mistress to the last czar, Nicolas II. I will pause there, to let the importance of such a lineage sink in. Baronova, and other dance artists of her generation, in particular the Russians, arrived at an interesting time in history, almost exactly between two eras  the classical and the modern. Baronova, born in 1919, was the first generation of the new reality, a post Bolshevik baby who still benefited from the exquisite training given dancers by the Imperial Ballet Theatre School. She had been a direct link to past tradition even as her career was mostly on driving the art of ballet forward. Her devotion to ballet had been early on inspired by a performance by Tamara Karsavina whom she had seen dance when she was seven. Karsavina had also been an Imperial Ballet dancer; Balanchine, her choreographer and director, was the engine driving the ballet train forward through the 20th century.

Having been trained at the Imperial Ballet School, and also in the new futuristic art institutes of the new U.S.S.R, Balanchine had wanted a ballet for the masses, a ballet as nubile as the machine age churning out ideas about progress around him. What better way to harness the new energies of the new era than by hiring dancers who were practically children, just as green and full of promise. Baronova had been just 12 years old when Balanchine first thrust her into the spotlight for his ballet La Concurrence in 1932; Baronova also danced that same year in the première of his Cotillon, later in the repertoire of New York City Ballet where Balanchine ended up, as choreographer in chief. She was all of 13 when he hired her full-time to dance with Les Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, the company he had founded with Colonel Wassily de Basil and René Blum in 1932, and which was to pick up where Diaghilev had left off, presenting experimental work created in collaboration with the best artists from a variety of disciplines at the time. The impresario and founder in 1909 of the original Les Ballet Russes, Sergei Diaghilev, had mentored Balanchine when he had appointed him chief choreographer of his Paris-based company. nay the original Les Ballets Russes. He had died 1929 and Balanchine had hoped to carry on his vision. Baronova performed in work created for the brave new enterprise, including Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Cent Baisers, and Léonide Massine’s Jeux d’Enfants and Les Présages. The latter ballet, which Baronova performed with Anton Dolin, one of her favourite stage partners, included a sky-skimming lift so spectacular it is today known as “the presage lift,” in the annals of ballet. It was one of the techniques Baronova passed on when she became an associate of the Royal Academy of Dance in England following her retirement.

Baronova also performed the classics, dancing Odette in Swan Lake when she was just 14, for instance, and receiving rave reviews. She also appeared in two films, Florian (1940) and Yolanda (1943). Her first marriage, at age 17, to Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo assistant manager, German Sevastianov, ended in divorce. Her marriage to Tennant in 1946 resulted in the end of her dancing career. He would marry her only if she gave up the ballet. Remarkably, she did just that, hanging up her pointe shoes to become a devoted mother and wife. She said she had no regrets. But leafing through the pages of Tennant’s heartfelt tribute to Baronova’s great talent makes you wonder of what might have been. She had already done so much and at a young age. If she had stayed on dancing, even for a few more years, she’d likely be the ballerina we also talk of, in addition to the great Ana Pavlova, in describing the greatest ballerina of the last century. Certainly, Tennant’s book keeps you wondering.

– Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.

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