‘Irina Baronova and the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo’. Victoria Tennant

Victoria Tennant is the elder daughter of Cecil Tennant and Irina Baronova, the latter so well-known in Australia where she first charmed audiences with her dancing in 1938 with the Covent Garden Russian Ballet, and where she also spent her last years in a beautiful house at Byron Bay, New South Wales. Victoria Tennant, of course, knew Baronova in quite a different role from her legion of Australian fans: ‘Our mother was devoted to us,’ she writes, ‘and not exactly like anyone else’s mum. No one else’s mum did pirouettes in the butcher’s.’ This observation perhaps encapsulates the tenor of this book: it is a very intimate memento built around a personal collection of letters, photographs and other archival materials.

What is especially attractive about this book is its extensive use of photographs, which have been drawn largely from Baronova’s own collection. Many have never been published previously. Some are glamorous shots from Baronova’s Hollywood years. Others are informal shots of family and friends. Yet others are lesser known shots and early images from ballets in which Baronova starred.

Images from Irina Baronova and the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo by Victoria Tennant: clockwise from top left, Baronova in the movie Florian, 1940; driving with friends from San Diego to Los Angeles, 1936; in costume for Le Spectre de la rose, 1932; in costume for Thamar, 1935.

The book also has a special quality because much of the text consists of quotes from letters, an oral history made for the New York Public Library’s Dance Division, and recorded conversations made by Baronova at various times, although, unfortunately, it is not always clear which source is being used. But the informal voice of Baronova is strong. Anyone who met her, however briefly, or saw her speak in public, or teach or coach, will recognise that the words are hers and will be charmed all over again. These sections are differentiated from the linking text, written by Tennant, by the use of a differently coloured font.

There are some beautifully insightful moments when Baronova talks about working with various choreographers in different ballets. I was especially taken by her comments on Les Sylphides.

Nobody realizes that in Les Sylphides the whole thing is a dialogue between the Sylphides and the invisible creatures of the forest. It’s a whispering talk. All the gestures are listening, questioning, whispering back. It’s a conversation, and the Sylphides turn in the direction of the voice they hear and run to it. If you don’t know that, there are no reasons for doing anything, it’s just empty and boring. The whole ballet should be acting and reacting. To do it any other way is not fair to Fokine.

The chapter on Baronova’s time in Australia, 1938–1939, is short. But much has been written now about that time in Australia’s ballet history (although the last word has not yet been said I am sure) and the book is balanced in its coverage of the many strands of Baronova’s life. From a reference point of view it is good to have a list of Baronova’s repertoire from 1931 to 1946, although it is a shame that her film roles are not included as well.

Irina Baronova and the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo has been beautifully designed and produced and, with its strong focus on imagery, makes a wonderful companion to Baronova’s autobiography.

Irina Baronova/ Victoria Tennant cover Victoria Tennant, Irina Baronova and the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2014)
Hardback, 244 pp. ISBN 978 0 226 16716 9 RRP USD55.00/£38.50.

Michelle Potter, 1 November 2014

‘Paganini’: an exhibition and reconstruction

I was delighted to hear that Sharon Swim Wing, who has devoted a considerable amount of time over the past decades to researching the 1939 Fokine/Rachmaninoff/Soudeikine ballet Paganini, has been able to mount a small exhibition relating to the ballet, its creation and its collaborators at the Napa Valley Museum as part of the Festival del Sole held in the Napa Valley, California. The exhibition runs throughout July.

Wing first became interested in the story behind Paganini while living in Moscow where she began intensive research into the life of composer, conductor and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff. Over the subsequent years she pursued that interest around the world and her research included meeting up with a number of former dancers who had performed in Paganini. They included Irina Baronova, Tatiana Riabouchinska, and Tatiana Leskova, all of whom created roles in the work for its premiere in London in 1939. From Riabouchinska, Wing acquired the Soudeikine-designed, soft pink dress worn by the Florentine Beauty, the role created in London by Riabouchinska and then danced by her throughout Australia with the Original Ballet Russe.
Balletomane's art book cover

Cover of Balletomanes’ art book: pictorial parade of Russian ballet 1940 (Sydney: London Book Co., 1940) edited by T. Essington Breen with hand-coloured photos by Nanette Kuehn. Cover photo: Tatiana Riabouchinska and Paul Petroff in Paganini. National Library of Australia.

The exhibition in California includes the Florentine Beauty costume, reproductions of the Soudeikine designs, some photographic material and items relating to the Rachmaninoff score, Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, including the piano reduction of the score used when the de Basil company was touring in South America. This item was kindly donated by Tatiana Leskova. In addition Wing has included portraits of the dancers in Paganini painted by Boris Chaliapin in 1941, which highlight the close friendship between Rachmaninoff and Boris Chaliapin’s father, the singer Feodor Chaliapin.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Wing’s achievements relating to Paganini, however, is that she has been able to have a small excerpt from the ballet presented as part of the Dance Gala that accompanies the Festival. The excerpt was performed on 19 July by Ballet San Jose. The performance was accompanied by the Russian National Orchestra under the baton of George Daugherty. There are plans for the ballet to be reconstructed in full at a later date.

See also my post dating back to September 2009 in which I set out some details of the production of Paganini and its Australian connections.

Michelle Potter, 20 July 2013

UPDATE 21 July 2013: I came across these two photographs of scenes from Paganini as performed by de Basil’s company in South America. Both come from the album of photographs assembled by James Upshaw. The first one is on a page headed ‘Cordoba’ so is most likely from 1942. The other is on a unmarked page and cannot at this stage be dated with any certainty.

Scene from 'Paganini', Cordoba, South America, 1942

Scene from 'Paganini', South America 1940s

UPDATE: 24 July 2013: Both photos were taken in Argentina in 1942 at the Teatro Politeama in Buenos Aires. They both show Tatiana Leskova as the Florentine Beauty, with Dimitri Rostoff as Paganini in the top image and Oleg Tupine as the Florentine Youth in the bottom image. Leskova took over the role of the Florentine Beauty in 1942. With thanks to Tatiana Leskova for this information.

Ballets Russes: ‘We’re going to Australia’

Talk given at the National Gallery of Australia in conjunction with the exhibition Ballets Russes: the art of costume, 12 March 2011

'We're going to Australia'-cover imageModified text and PowerPoint slides at this link

Some audio clips as used in the live talk and referred to in the text:

The full audio interviews with Baronova and Bousloff are available online from the National Library of Australia:

Michelle Potter, 1 January 2013

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‘It brought back so many memories’—Jill Sykes
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