Obituary: Svetlana Beriosova
Friday 13 November 1998
Many ballerinas were inspired by Svetlana Beriosova; audiences and critics enthused over her. Yet she was to remain rather elusive as a public figure. This was partly due to a natural reticence: of all the young upwardly mobile ballerinas in the company, she was probably the least extrovert and least pushily ambitious.
It is tempting to see in this a sense of her being on the outside. Born in Kaunas, Lithuania, in 1932, she was to live her childhood as a foreigner in different lands. Her father, Nicholas Beriosov, was a dancer of Russian origin (later a ballet master and choreographer, universally known as "Papa Beriosov") who had trained in Prague and in 1930 became a dancer at the Lithuanian State Opera. In 1935 he joined Rene Blum's Ballets de Monte Carlo and moved his wife and daughter to Monte Carlo.
When in 1936 Blum's company gave a London summer season, Beriosova went to a kindergarten school in Soho, which meant that she began to learn English, besides speaking Russian at home, and French. The company toured widely (later becoming the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo) but Beriosova mostly lived with her mother in Paris.
When the Second World War started and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo moved to the United States, Beriosova and her mother followed. Then aged seven, Beriosova had already received some ballet instruction from her father, but in New York her professional training began in earnest with Anatole Vilzak and his wife Ludmilla Schollar.
They were graduates of the Russian Imperial Ballet School, and had been in Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Schollar was respected for her knowledge of repertoire and her musicality; Vilzak encouraged, an American critic wrote, "a relaxed and eloquent sense of line" - a quality that was to emerge in Beriosova's dancing.
Beriosova's mother died in 1942. She began to make occasional appearances in child-roles with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. She made her professional debut in 1947, dancing with the Ottawa Ballet in The Nutcracker and Les Sylphides. When, the same year, her father returned to Europe to enter the Cuevas Grand Ballet de Monte Carlo, she joined too, as an apprentice dancer.
She came to Britain in 1948, dancing with the short-lived Metropolitan Ballet until their closure in 1949. During that time she was recognised already for a highly individual style, although only a "baby ballerina". She created leading roles in Frank Staff's Fanciulla delle rose and John Taras's Design with Strings, and danced Odette in Swan Lake Act 2 and the Bluebird pas de deux of The Sleeping Beauty. As the Street Dancer in Leonide Massine's Le Beau Danube she revealed a gift for comedy that was underused in her later career.
One impressed spectator was the Royal Ballet's director, Ninette de Valois. In her 1957 autobiography Come Dance With Me, de Valois writes:
One day in the foyer of Covent Garden I met a young girl with her father. I have seen her dance elsewhere and noted that such poetry of motion and feeling was rare in one so young . . . The personality is the same in private life; I hoped so much that one day she would be with us.
Beriosova joined de Valois's subsidiary company, Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet, as a principal in 1950. She was considered a valuable acquisition. "All the same," the critic Kathrine Sorley Walker believes, "she would never totally fit into such a closely integrated group. Her talent and approach were so unusual that she would always remain to a certain extent an outsider."
George Balanchine created the leading role of Trumpet Concerto (1950) on her and Frederick Ashton used her fine line as the Snow Queen in his 1951 version of Casse Noisette (The Nutcracker). She was a deliciously humorous Swanilda in Coppelia. Even so, Sorley Walker says:
It became increasingly apparent that, although technically she had an unfailing grasp of classical grandeur and lyrical power, in interpretation she depended greatly on the amount of self-confidence she could find from the encouragement of outside approval, something that could release the exceptional emotional qualities that were very deeply buried within her. Even in the late years of her dancing career I often felt that, could she be given at the start of a ballet the ovation that greeted her at curtain fall, she would have been sufficiently assured of her welcome to open out more completely. She seemed to lack the toughness that can allow an artist to express herself to the full in spite of unhelpful circumstances and depressing setbacks.
In the summer of 1952 she danced The Sleeping Beauty's Lilac Fairy with the Royal Ballet (then called the Sadler's Wells Ballet) and a few months later became a permanent member, from 1955 as a principal. She danced Coppelia, Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and Giselle. She created the central role in John Cranko's The Shadow (1953); the heroine, Princess Belle Rose, of his Prince of the Pagodas (1957); and the title part of his Antigone (1959).
She danced Ashton's Sylvia, Cinderella and Ondine. She created the leading part in his chic Rinaldo and Armida (1955). She declaimed (in French) Andre Gide's poetry in Ashton's experimental Persephone (1961) and at a 1962 gala danced a Raymonda pas de deux with Donald MacLeary which Ashton made for the occasion. Reviewing the latter, Lillian Moore wrote: "She is a glorious dancer. Moving with regal poise, unhurried in the hastiest measures, she bears no resemblance to any other ballerina. Everything about her dancing is rich and generous and grand."
She was fairly tall for a dancer and these qualities of majesty, serenity and expansiveness are the ones most often invoked in reviews of her dancing. They were also the qualities underlined by the variation Ashton made on her in Birthday Offering eight years earlier, celebrating both the Royal Ballet's Silver Jubilee and the individual talents of the company's seven ballerinas.
Ashton went on to choreograph roles for her in Jazz Calendar and Enigma Variations (both 1968). Kenneth MacMillan emphasised her pure-dance beauty in Le Baiser de la fee (1960) and Diversions (1961), as did ballets by Balanchine.
When Bronislava Nijinska mounted her masterpieces, Les Biches and Les Noces, in 1964 and 1966 respectively, on the Royal Ballet, she coached Beriosova in her own role of the Hostess in Les Biches. In Les Noces, Stravinsky's harsh, atavistic account of a Russian wedding, Beriosova was the Bride, a part with little dancing. Yet by her movements and her facial expressions, she became the focal point of the ballet's group architecture.
Even so her career will perhaps be most associated with the classics - as Aurora, Giselle, Odette-Odile - where her expansive shapes and smooth fluency could come to the fore. Talking about tackling these roles, she said: "I think it's better if you've really lived, seen the harsher side of life, if you've been hurt, if you've cried a little, if you've laughed a lot, if you've loved a lot."
She was said to be unhappy in her private life. She portrayed the Tsarina in MacMillan's new, extended version of Anastasia (1971), but by then was dancing less, through injury or illness. She retired from the stage in 1975, then made something of a comeback coaching on stage in Maina Gielgud's demonstration show Steps, Notes and Squeaks, in 1978 and 1980. She was an outstanding teacher, a gift which the Royal Ballet failed to exploit.
Donald MacLeary, her regular stage partner, remembers her exquisite line and dazzling smile. "It was difficult to return her kindness," he says, "as she was a very strong and independent person. She loved books, painting, children and animals."
Svetlana Beriosova, ballerina; born Kaunas, Lithuania 24 September 1932; married 1959 Mohammed Masud Khan (died 1989; marriage dissolved 1974); died London 10 November 1998.
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