Tatiana Stepanova (1924-2009)

Tatiana Stepanova, who arrived in Australia in December 1939 with the third of Colonel de Basil’s touring Ballets Russes companies—the Original Ballet Russe—died late last year in Florida. The company’s Australian debut was in Sydney on 30 December 1939 and on that night Stepanova danced in Les Sylphides and was partnered by Serge Lifar. Her performance was noted as an ‘astonishing debut’ by ‘a sixteen-year old girl, who had never before had a leading part’. One reviewer applauded her ‘floating serenity’ and ‘technical fearlessness’.

But even before she had set foot onstage in Australia, news of a potential star was being reported by the Australian press. The Orcades, on which a large contingent of company members had travelled from London, docked first in Fremantle, Western Australia, and The Argus newspaper reported from there that Stepanova was said ‘to show promise of surpassing Pavlova’.  De Basil was recorded as saying ‘She is the kind of dancer one finds once in 50 years. She has created a sensation in Europe’.

Stepanova also appeared in early performances of David Lichine’s Graduation Ball, which had its world premiere in Sydney on 1 March 1940. She danced the Sylphide in the divertissement ‘The Sylphide and the Scotsman’ partnered by Michael Panaieff. She did not created this role—opening night was given to Natasha Sobinova and Paul Petroff, but cast sheets indicate that Stepanova danced it at least as early as 5 March. A number of photographs of her as the Sylphide were shot by Melbourne-based photographer Hugh P. Hall and many show the expressiveness of her upper body and her long and exquisite line.

Hugh P. Hall, Tatiana Stepanova and Michael Panaieff in ‘The Sylphide and the Scotsman’, Graduation Ball, Original Ballet Russe, Melbourne. National Library of Australia.

An obituary of Stepanova appeared earlier this month on the ballet.co.uk site. It was written by Renee Renouf Hall who had also been working with Stepanova on her memoirs.

UPDATE: Unfortunately the link to this obituary is no longer available

©  Michelle Potter, 28 January 2010

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10 thoughts on “Tatiana Stepanova (1924-2009)

  1. On looking through nightly cast sheets for Stepanova’s appearances, I am worried, yet again, about the perennial topic of who dances the pas de deux in “Sylphides” . Stepanova danced the Valse and pas de deux. In the last Australian Ballet revival the Prelude girl danced the pas de deux. Over the years in the various Australian Ballet performances it has alternated and during Maina’s years even during the same run they alternated. Do you know the history of all this ?

  2. It is an interesting issue and one with which I struggled as I wrote the post. I did not have access to an opening night cast sheet when writing the post. The first one I could find was for the second performance. I relied on newspaper reviews of the opening night and on Renee Renouf’s comment that Stepanova was partnered by Lifar at the opening. Renee says that Stepanova insisted that she was partnered by Lifar ‘until he disappeared’. I take ‘until he disappeared’ to mean until Lifar was recalled to Paris from Australia by the French Government some time in February or March 1940. The really interesting thing in the light of your comments, however, is that cast sheets for future performances in Australia show that Stepanova most usually danced the Mazurka. It is hard to imagine that she danced the Prelude or the Valse on opening night in Sydney since newspaper reviews record that Riabouchinska and Toumanova also danced in Sylphides that night. I assume that Riabouchinska danced the Prelude (her signature role) and Toumaonva danced that Valse. But of course anything is possible.

  3. My understanding is that originally it was the Mazurka girl who danced the pas de deux, but I don’t know when the possibility of the Prelude girl dancing it began. I would imagine that Markova danced the Mazurka initially, perhaps in her latter years changing to the Prelude? I haven’t met the situation of the Waltz girl dancing the Pas de deux.
    It is an interesting topic, and I will try to find out more.
    Of course there are changes in the order of the beginning and finale of the ballet also in accordance with which solo is danced by the girl who dances the pas de deux…
    At ENB recently also, there were alternating casts.
    It is well known that Fokine changed the choreography during his lifetime many times -so this is another ballet which has many many ‘original’ versions!!

  4. Yes, you are right of course about the original production. Beaumont’s book on Fokine’s ballets states that the first valse is danced by a “premiere danseuse”, the first mazurka by the “danseuse etoile”, the second mazurka by the “premier danseur”, the Prelude by another “premiere danseuse” and the second valse by the “danseuse etoile” and the “premier danseuse”. He is here talking about the first Paris perfs. of what we now know as “Les Sylphides”. Somewhere I have the info. relating to the casting for these first Paris perfs. and will seek it out. I would love to hear Maina’s thoughts on any differences between Markova’s staging and Baronova’s staging. I felt that this last Aust. Ballet revival was the best ever for me. Markova’s had always seemed so slow and dreamy, often inducing sleepiness ! However this last staging seemed so alive and the underlying strength of the choreography was really brought out. So much seemed to be being “pointed” effortlessly. All the romantic references were still in place [arms, unity of corps movement, a sense of an unbroken unfolding throughout]. Perhaps I am just maturing and have finally learnt how to appreciate instead of dreading this ballet !

  5. Just going back a little to the origins of this thread, a quick scan of de Basil programs for the Australian Ballets Russes seasons indicates that it was always the Mazurka girl who danced the pas de deux and usually one of the star ballerinas, especially in the early parts of each season – Kirsova in 1936-1937, Baronova in 1938-1039 and Toumanova in 1939-1940. That de Basil was staying with the very first arrangement is not surprising of course!

  6. Oh my goodness. I have just reread my original post and must humbly apologise. What I meant to say was that Stepanova danced the Mazurka and pas de deux. [Toumanova danced the Valse and Riabouchinska danced the Prelude]. The Melbourne weather must be frying my brain. My subsequent remark concerned the alternating of Mazurka and Prelude dancer in the pas de deux. So I am sorry for throwing the discussion off course with my slipup.

  7. The discussion isn’t thrown. There are just two things going on. I am still interested in exactly what Stepanova danced and whether in fact she did perform with Lifar because none of the cast sheets I have seen actually says that. But the question of who dances the pas de deux and how that has changed over time remains the more interesting of the two I think.

  8. In her book “Markova Remembers” there is a chapter “Working with Fokine 1941-1942”. She describes first working with him at Ballet Theatre. She says that at various times previously, she had danced all 3 variations. Fokine then retaught her all 3 variations and decided that for the Ballet Theatre run she should dance the Prelude. She then talks about rehearsing the reprise of the pas de deux. So I take it that she would have danced the Prelude and the pas de deux. Whether she danced the pas de deux on the previous occasions when she danced the Prelude is not mentioned. And whether this was the first officially sanctioned [by Fokine] occurrence is also not stated.

  9. An addendum to my last post : here is a quote from the little A & C Black pocketbook [publ. 1954] devoted to Les Sylphides : when Alicia Markova appeared as a guest artist with the de Cuevas ballet [circa. 1953] she danced the Prelude and in the pas de deux, and on this occasion, the Mazurka in D Major [the one for a premiere danseuse] was danced between the Prelude and the pas de deux.

  10. Interestingly, at both the premiere of Les Sylphides and when Fokine restaged it the last time, for Ballet Theatre, the pas de deux was danced by the Mazurka dancer (Pavlova in 1909 and by Karen Conrad in 1940) and the same two roles were taken by Lydia Lopokova when the Diaghilev company had appeared in New York in 1916 However, in her Borzoi Book of Ballet, Grace Robert says that “When Alicia Markova dances Les Sylphides [with Ballet Theatre] she usually takes the Prelude as her solo” and later says that in the pas de deux her “thistle-down lightness is unforgettable” (p. 319. I can’t find any other role than the Prelude for her with this company in the listings for Les Sylphides in The American Ballet Theatre, 1940-1960, Dance Perspectives 9, which unfortunately doesn’t give cast changes for the pas de deux.). So the Mazurka and the Prelude would seem to have been the usual pairings with the pas de deux in American companies in the 1940s, as when Toumanova danced the Prelude and pas de deux with Ballet Theatre in 1944. However, when Mme. Fokina staged the ballet for the Marquis de Cuevas’ International Ballet in 1944, Marie-Jeanne “was delicate in the valse and pas de deux,” according to Edwin Denby (Dance Writings, p. 262.) Clearly the pas de deux ballerina’s role was being passed around by dancers coached by Fokine or his wife at a time when the tradition was still strong. Where that leaves current stagers is another matter!

    On another subject, I’d like to add that although I never had the pleasure of seeing Tatiana Stepanova dance, when I met her in 2000 in New Orleans and again in New York a few years later, I could imagine that this intelligent,gracious lady would have been a lovely dancer, even fifty-five or more years after her retirement to become a fixture of Boston Society. It was surely my loss!

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