Obituary: Serge Golovine

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The Independent Culture
FOR MOST of his dancing career Serge Golovine was surrounded by many other glittering talents, but even among them he was outstanding. His floating elevation and fluttering batterie made roles such as the Blue Bird in The Sleeping Beauty supremely exciting. He was no mere gymnast, though: he allied his phenomenal technique with a classically pure elegance and rigorous musicality. Part of his gift was that rather than dancing on the music, he seemed to dance inside it.

As a small boy, he was musically gifted and studied the piano with his grandmother, who had been a successful concert pianist in her native Russia. Born in 1924, in Monaco, Serge Golovine had a Breton mother and a Russian father, a cavalry officer who like many emigre Russians had settled in the South of France and found jobless poverty. Serge also had a great- uncle, Alexander Golovine, a painter and stage designer who created the original Ballets Russes decor for Fokine's The Firebird in 1910.

But it was chance that took the ten-year-old Serge and his older sister Solange to their first dance lesson. One day their grandmother bumped into a ballet teacher, Julie Sedova, a former ballerina of the Russian Imperial Ballet. Sedova's pianist had fallen sick and she asked if Golovine's grandmother would fill in. "And bring me your little grandchildren if it pleases them," she added by way of thanks.

Golovine pushed himself hard in his training. In 1941, aged 17, he followed Solange into the corps de ballet of the Opera Ballet of Monte Carlo. Two years later, with Solange, he danced Le Spectre de la rose, in the role created by Nijinsky, whose leap through the window had staggered audiences. He was promoted to principal, but his prospects seemed to sour when Serge Lifar, exiled from the Paris Opera Ballet for alleged Nazi collaboration, took over as director.

In 1946, Golovine moved to Paris, accompanied by his whole family - including two younger brothers, Georges and Jean, also to become dancers - who lived crammed in a single hotel room. Accepted into the Paris Opera Ballet, he had to face being at the bottom again, but soon started leapfrogging ranks.

Lifar's return as director though was the signal in 1949 to go back to the Monte Carlo company, now appropriated by a Chilean-American, the Marquis de Cuevas. Backed by on-tap funding from his rich American wife, Cuevas transformed the company into an international star-filled machine called the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas, with Bronislava Nijinska, sister of Nijinsky and a remarkable choreographer, as ballet mistress.

Once more, Golovine found himself in the corps de ballet. This time, moreover, there was much male competition at the top. Yet his lucky break came quicker than hoped: on tour in Barcelona in 1950 he replaced an injured Andre Eglevsky in the Swan Lake Black Swan pas de deux, partnering Cuevas's leading ballerina Rosella Hightower. He scored a huge hit and from then on audiences adored him - in France, in the United States, in London.

He went on to display the diversity of his talent. In 1951 John Taras created Tarasiana for him and Hightower, a technical showpiece described as "the most difficult ballet in the world". In l952, dancing the titular roles in Nijinska's productions of Le Spectre de la rose and Petrushka he showed the expressive artist inside the dancer. He displayed a fantastical side in John Taras's Piege de Lumiere. He captured the dramatic complexity of Albrecht in Giselle and of James in La Sylphide. He threw himself into the character ballets of Massine and Lichine. He was the bewitched poet in Balanchine's Night Shadow and relished the pyrotechnics of the same choreographer's Pas de Trois Classique.

Golovine impressed Rudolf Nureyev who joined the Cuevas company on arriving in the West. The two men alternated as Prince Desire and the Blue Bird in the company's famously lavish The Sleeping Beauty, premiered shortly before Cuevas's death in 1961. In 1962, the company was dissolved and Golovine formed his own touring group, based in Geneva.

From 1964 to 1968 he was artistic director and choreographer of the Geneva Ballet where he staged the works he knew from Nijinska, Massine, Lifar and Balanchine. He mounted these ballets for companies elsewhere and was particularly admired for his production of Petrushka - the one Nureyev danced on television with the Joffrey Ballet.

His first marriage was to a dancer, Lilian van de Valde, with whom he had two daughters, Alexandra and Laetitia. In 1981 he accepted a teaching post at the Paris Opera Ballet School and there found not only pupils but romance. Decades earlier, as a 15-year-old ballet student, the school's principal Claude Bessy had been hopelessly in love with him. It had been a long wait, but they married two years ago.

Svelte and with a full head of white hair, Golovine was a delicious man with the graceful manners of old Russia. Although officially retired in 1997, he travelled widely as a guest teacher; and for the Paris school's annual programme last April, he had mounted Night Shadow and with Bessy had appeared in Lichine's Graduation Ballet playing the Old General to her Governess. On 4 June he received the Legion d'Honneur.

Nadine Meisner

Serge Golovine, dancer and teacher: born Monte-Carlo, Monaco 20 November 1924; married Lilian van de Valde (two daughters), Claude Bessy; died Paris 31 July 1998.