Irina Baronova: Balanchine 'baby ballerina'

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Irina Baronova was one of the original "baby ballerinas" recruited in 1932 by the choreographer George Balanchine to be the stars of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. She was just 13 at the time and for the next 15 years she danced all around the world, winning admirers everywhere for her blonde beauty, polished technique and radiant smile.

Baronova was born in Petrograd in 1919, the only child of an upper-class family. Her father was a naval officer and her maternal grandfather, a general in the Russian Imperial army, was shot by the Bolsheviks. The family fled to Romania when Irina was still a babe in arms, following the requisition of their estates. They lived in considerable poverty, surviving on the meagre wage Irina's father earned as a factory worker.

Her first ballet lessons were given by a former corps de ballet dancer at the Mariinsky, with the kitchen table standing in as the barre. Her teacher recognised the child's exceptional promise and urged her parents to move to Paris where she could receive proper training. There she studied with Olga Preobrazhenskaya, one of the most popular and accomplished of the former ballerinas of the Imperial Ballet. It was hard work. Preobrazhenskaya condensed the seven-year training of the Imperial school into just three years because, as Baronova said, "She knew we had to begin work soon to help support our families." But she produced strong dancers able to cope with the demands of a varied repertory and constant performance.

Balanchine first used Baronova in 1931 when he staged the Offenbach operetta Orpheus in the Underworld. The critic André Levinson described her as "the sensation of the evening". Later in life Baronova herself wrote: "At the age of 12 I found myself in the magical and hardworking world of ballet. In the years to come I found out that the hard work was always there but the magic was not always present". Working with Balanchine she described as "sheer joy".

The following year he picked her, along with her fellow pupil Tatiana Riabouchinska and Tamara Toumanova, who was studying with Mathilde Kschessinska, for the début of the company which would become the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. From then on her life became one of constant touring and performance, in which she was chaperoned everywhere by her strong-minded mother. In one four-month period, the company danced in 125 cities.

In her first season she appeared to great acclaim in Balanchine's ballets Cotillion and La Concurrence and also appeared as the Top in Léonide Massine's Jeux d'enfants where she was able to toss off the multiple fouetté turns required with the air of one who did not know they were supposed to be difficult.

She danced her first Swan Lake when she was 14, partnered by Anton Dolin. Her fellow dancer Sono Osato describes her Odette as regal, but retaining a human warmth. "Her voice", recalls Osato "was unusually low and musical. Her arms and hands were very long, her waist tiny, her breasts full; her body already had a womanly voluptuousness. She danced flowingly, giving as much importance to the small steps that connected larger ones as she did to a final grand pose. At 15 she was already a remarkable actress, each portrayal of her different roles skilfully thought out."

In addition to dancing the leads in all the Ballet Russes versions of the classics, Baronova created roles in Massine's Les Présages, and Le Beau Danube, Bronislava Nijinska's Les cent baisers, and appeared in major roles in the ballets of Michel Fokine.

In 1936, chafing under her mother's strict discipline she eloped with the company manager, German (Gerry) Sevastianov. The couple left the company in 1939. Sevastianov subsequently became manager of the Ballet Theatre, and Baronova joined the company as one of two principal ballerinas, alongside Alicia Markova.

Before long, her marriage effectively at an end, she embarked on an ill-fated affair with her fellow dancer George Skibine. But late in 1942, illness forced her to leave the company and rest for several months. After that, her career seemed to lose momentum. She danced in a music hall, and appeared in musicals and plays. She was reunited with Massine for a tour of A Bullet in the Ballet, a satire on the world of the Ballets Russes.

While making the 1945 film Train of Events, she met the theatrical agent Cecil Tennant. They fell in love and married in 1948. As a condition of their marriage, Tennant insisted that she give up the stage and sever all connection with her friends in the ballet for five years. She agreed and subsequently devoted her life to her husband and family. Asked in 2005 whether she regretted the decision, she replied that she had had "the most blissful, wonderful 18 years with the most wonderful husband who made me very happy. We had three children, a wonderful home and family life and that is the end of it all. It was the most precious thing in life."

An exception to Tennant's rule was her Ballets Russes colleague Tamara Tchinarova, then married to the actor Peter Finch, who was a protégé of Tennant's client Laurence Olivier. Baronova's favourite partner, Anton Dolin, also escaped the ban and Margot Fonteyn charmed Tennant into allowing his wife to teach a course at the then Royal Academy of Dancing, of which she later became a vice president.

In 1967 Tennant was killed in a car accident which also injured their two younger children, Irina and Robert. (Their eldest child is the actress Victoria Tennant.) Some years after Cecil Tennant's death Baronova moved to Switzerland where she renewed her relationship with Sevastianov, caring for him until he died. She then returned to England and resumed teaching. In 1986 Maina Gielgud invited her to Australia to work with the Australian Ballet on Les Sylphides and in 1992 she returned to Russia to collaborate on an archival project.

In 2000 Baronova went to visit her daughter Irina, who had settled in Australia, and decided to make her home in Byron Bay. That year she travelled to New Orleans for a reunion of the Ballets Russes, the starting point for the successful film Ballets Russes (2005), in which Baronova featured, together with many of her former colleagues. Although her sight was failing she wrote her autobiography, Irina: ballet, life and love in longhand, and it was published in 2005.

Judith Cruickshank

Irina Baronova, ballerina: born Petrograd, Russia 13 March 1919; married 1936 German Sevastianov (marriage dissolved), 1948 Cecil Tennant (died 1967; one son, two daughters); died Byron Bay, New South Wales 28 June 2008.

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