Irina: Ballet, Life and Loves
Book review by Leland Windreich
Irina Baronova, the youngest of the celebrated three baby ballerinas who captivated audiences world-wide in the 1930s with the tours of the Ballets Russes, retired to Byron Bay, Australia in recent years. Neither Tamara Toumanova, who died in 1991, nor Tatiana Riabouchinska, who lived until 2000, ever considered telling the story of their brilliant careers. Baronova, the most gregarious and outgoing of the trio, waited until her arrival in a place which offered her the kind of peace she needed to contemplate her past. Her book was published in her 86th year
She has concentrated on the first 48 years of her life, preferring to deal with the era of her development, her career as a ballet artist, and her halcyon years in Great Britain as the wife of Cecil Tennant and mother of three brilliant children. Her presentation is, to say the least, copious as she recalls minute details and shares vivid descriptions of her observations and experiences.
Born in Petrograd during the Russian Revolution, at age three she escaped to Romania with her well-to-do parents, where the family lived in abject poverty. Ballet lessons with a local teacher convinced her mother that Irina had exceptional talent, and the family found ways and means to move to Paris. There they improved their lot, and Irina was enrolled in the classes of Olga Preobrajenska. She and her two teen-aged colleagues were hired by George Balanchine in 1931 as ballerinas for Les Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo, a new enterprise co-directed by Rene Blum and Colonel Wassily de Basil. Irina was 12 at the time, and stepped into major roles in Balanchine’s “Cotillon” and “Le Concurrence” and in ballets by Léonide Massine and Michel Fokine. At age 14, she made her first appearance as Odette in “Le Lac des Cygnes”, partnered attentively by Anton Dolin, who became a lifelong friend.
Indeed, friendship and loyalty became essential elements in her career. She was adored by all but a few rivals who were rendered insecure by her accomplishments. Her closest friends were members of the corps de ballet. She remained with the company through the years following de Basil’s split with Blum when he opted for an international agenda. Massine, Fokine, David Lichine and Bronislava Nijinska created unique and remarkable ballets on her, and she became a beloved artist for audiences on four continents.
During the World War II years, she performed with the nascent Ballet Theatre and triumphed in a new repertoire with the American troupe. She toured for a time in a small company organized by Massine called “Ballet Russe Highlights.” Her performing years were, in retrospect, amazingly brief. By 1945 at the age of 26, she had danced her last ballet. Her private life began to control her destiny, eventually eroding her loyalty and determination to return to what she calls her “tribe.”
Baronova was not so fortunate in her choice of men. German Sevastianov, manager for the de Basil troupe and twice Irina’s age, pursued her passionately until she finally agreed to an elopement. She was just 18. She admits having never loved him, but her trying relationship with a strict and domineering mother required desperate action. During the years of their marriage he replaced her mother in the role of controlling her personal life and made decisions relative to her work that went against her grain. After a falling out with de Basil, Sevastianov applied for and was hired into a management position with the newly formed Ballet Theatre, then under the auspices of Sol Hurok. As part of the package, he included the services of his wife as ballerina.
Determined to seek a divorce, Baronova became easy prey to a dashing young dancer named Yura Skibine, whom Colonel de Basil had helped to escape from wartime Europe by offering him a place in the company for the 1940 season in Australia. Handsome and randy, Skibine had already stolen the hearts of lesser soloists in the company, and his reputation followed him to Ballet Theatre where he and Baronova were colleagues. But theirs was her first truly romantic affair, and she put much faith in having a future with him. Drafted into the American army, Skibine was shipped to Europe. There he received a scurrilous clipping from an American gossip tabloid suggesting that Baronova was considering marriage to the film star Ray Milland. Crushed and disillusioned, Skibine broke off their relationship. Later when he returned, they terminated their affair in an emotional separation.
Naïve in her relationships and business transactions, Baronova let herself be manipulated by the men around her. During her ballet years she was talked into accepting contracts to appear in two films: a Hollywood production called “Florian” and a Mexican feature, “Yolanda”, which also offered employment to her Ballet Theatre colleagues in three scenes from her most popular ballets. Finally divorced from Sevastianov, she showed little discrimination in the jobs she accepted in lieu of ballet assignments: a season as a dancer in New York’s Roxy Theatre (her ballet colleague Igor Youskevitch chided her for “prostituting her art”) and as a featured performer in a tepid Broadway show called “Follow the Girls”. At the end of World War II, she joined Massine in London for a dramatic role in a new play based on the popular thriller, “A Bullet in the Ballet”. Always convinced that her career as a ballerina was still open and that a return to it was inevitable, she continued however to accept odd jobs as an actress, and for a month when she found herself destitute, she worked as a barmaid in a London pub.
Her meeting with the theatrical agent Cecil Tennant in 1946, dramatically changed the course of her life. They fell in love and were married, and the prospect of starting a new existence as a wife, mother and companion to a man wholly immersed in a rich social and family existence held great appeal. A condition of their marriage, however, was that Baronova give up all thought of returning to the stage and relinquish her ties with her beloved friends in the world of ballet. However painful this must have been, she agreed to his terms. Control of her own destiny was not in the stars.
They were married for 21 years, producing three lively and talented children. Her oldest daughter, Victoria Tennant, became an actress and worked for many years in Hollywood. Baronova thrived in her new milieu. Loving, trusting and naturally democratic, she made new friends as she hobnobbed with royalty and the rich and famous, also making deep attachments with domestics and associates working in positions of service. When Tennant died in a 1967 automobile accident, her life’s most tranquil and rewarding period came to an abrupt end. It is at this point that her memoirs stop, and she sketches an outline of her later years in the last few pages of the text.
Baronova tells her story with a friendly voice, pulling her reader into the narrative as a participant. One is struck by her celebration of loyalties—to her Russian heritage, to the world of ballet that gave her so many achievements, to all the friends she made as an artist, a colleague and a confidante. In an interview in the recent film, “Ballets Russes”, by Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller, Baronova offers a contrasting attitude to the arduous one-night stands in their 100-city U.S. tours that most of her colleagues deplored. “It was fun…it was great,” she recalls. “And sometime we even got paid.” In a later scene, dance critic Ann Barzel remembers Baronova arriving in Chicago in a snowfall, getting off the train with holes in her stockings, and pelting her colleagues with snowballs. A still photo of Baronova grinning with a saucepan on her head conveys some idea of her irreverence.
Penguin/Viking (Australia), 2005. 534 pp. illus.
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