Nathalie Krassovska

Star ballerina of rare talent and charm
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The Independent Online

Natasha Leslie (Nathalie Krassovska), dancer and teacher: born Petrograd 1 June 1918; married; died Dallas, Texas 8 February 2005.

Natasha Leslie (Nathalie Krassovska), dancer and teacher: born Petrograd 1 June 1918; married; died Dallas, Texas 8 February 2005.

A ballerina of rare talent, physical beauty and personal charm, Nathalie Krassovska danced with many companies and became a star in America and Britain during the 1940s and 1950s.

She worked with most of the greatest choreographers - among them Mikhail Fokine, Léonide Massine and George Balanchine. And the fact that she danced the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo's 1948 company premiere of Anton Dolin's Pas de quatre at the New York Met is some measure of the esteem that she enjoyed. The piece may be slight, but it is an evocation of four legendary ballerinas from the Romantic era, and in this staging Krassovska was dancing alongside no lesser personalities than Alicia Markova, Alexandra Danilova and Mia Slavenska.

She was born Natasha Leslie (a surname under which she performed in her early days) in Petrograd in 1919. Her father was Scottish and her mother the Russian dancer Lydia Krassovska, who performed with Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Natasha began her ballet studies with her grandmother, a former member of the Bolshoi Ballet. But her formative training was in Europe. In Paris she trained with Olga Preobrajenska; in London with Nikolai Legat.

Her professional career started at a time of great ferment, when aspiring company directors were attempting to fill the void created by Diaghilev's death. She made her stage début in 1932, in the new company, the Théâtre de Danse, formed in Paris by the choreographer Bronislava Nijinska, sister of Vaslav. In 1933 she joined the short-lived Les Ballets 1933, headed by Balanchine; in 1934 she toured South America with Serge Lifar, then director of the Paris Opéra Ballet.

Nathalie Krassovska, as she had become, was one of the founding dancers of the Ballets de Monte Carlo when it launched its first season in Monte Carlo in 1936. What gave the company its distinction was its Fokine repertoire, staged under Fokine's personal supervision, so that she was able to gain at first hand the thinking behind works such as Les Sylphides, Petrushka, Carnaval and Spectre de la rose, as well as behind the new works he created. The same year the company opened a London season at the Alhambra; two further British seasons followed, both in 1937.

When in 1938 the Ballets de Monte Carlo was transformed into a vehicle for the choreographer Léonide Massine and renamed the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (one of several confusingly small titular differentations in those confusing times), Krassovska stayed on. So as a member of this newly dubbed Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, she appeared again in London in 1938. And when, the same year, with war imminent, the company emigrated to the United States, she went with them.

In North America, the company became committed to lengthy and exhausting touring the length and breadth of the continent, by train and (even worse) by bus. Krassovska, however, found herself among highly distinguished associates. Her fellow dancers included Alicia Markova, Alexandra Danilova and Tamara Toumanova. Promoted to ballerina, she danced a wide repertoire that included classics such as Swan Lake, Coppélia and The Nutcracker, Fokine pieces such as The Firebird and Balanchine's Serenade and Ballet Imperial.

She also danced many ballets by Massine, the leading choreographer of the day. (Balanchine was still getting himself established.) And she appeared in films of Massine's Gaîté Parisienne (1941) and Capriccio Espagnol (1942). Massine was a hard taskmaster. For her role as a debutante in his new ballet The New Yorker (1940), she had to take tap-dance lessons. When Tamara Toumanova unexpectedly resigned she had to learn several of his ballets virtually overnight. (To thank her, Massine bought her two evening gowns.) Balanchine was a less stressful choreographer, even if he led her into the unexpected experience of dancing on Broadway. Invited to create the dances for the 1944 musical Song of Norway, he commandeered the Ballet Russe company to perform.

A consummate professional, Krassovska overcame a fever to trudge through blizzards and wait in a draughty railway station in order to honour a scheduled performance in Chicago, then discovered after dancing that she had pneumonia. Years later, when she had moved back to Europe and joined the London Festival Ballet, she was eulogised by the company's founder director Julian Braunsweg in his memoir Braunsweg's Ballet Scandals (1973).

He tells one story about how the Marquis de Cuevas spotted her dancing Giselle with Festival Ballet and, impressed, invited her to dance the role with his own company in Paris. But, when de Cuevas's prima ballerina Rosella Hightower saw Krassovska's Giselle, she said, "Either she goes or I go." So Krassovska returned to Festival Ballet, yet even in her disappointment she remembered to bring back a small gift for every member of the company.

Giselle was one of her signature ballets, after her début in 1949, in Montreal, with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, when a reviewer described her as having "a purity of line not often seen nowadays". Not long after, she moved back to Europe and was engaged by Braunsweg for the new company he was organising with Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin. She was then 31, was always to be seen darning point shoes and went under the diminutive "Tata". She was a true beauty, with luminous blue eyes, and spoke English with a deep-throated Russian accent. That accent, Braunsweg claims, had one unintentionally obscene side effect on her (justified) pronouncement, "I am the best Fokine dancer." But he writes: "She was liked by everyone and she laughed all the time, usually when the joke was on her."

When Festival Ballet gave its inaugural performance at the Stoll Theatre in 1950, the critics praised Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin in The Nutcracker and hailed Krassovska and John Gilpin as new stars in Le Beau Danube. Charlie Chaplin was one of her admirers and would come backstage in Paris to congratulate her. On one occasion there was one of those awkward pauses in conversation, which Krassovska was heard to fill with the desperate question: "Are you still doing something in films?"

Despite her beauty, her dress sense was eccentric. When, for Festival Ballet's Canadian tour, she was designated the prima ballerina, the management insisted that she try to look the part, at least when the train arrived at its destination. She put on a ravishing black outfit that could not be faulted. "Wait until all the company get off the train and then you get out," the manager told her. "The photographers will be waiting for you, so pose in the carriage doorway." The train arrived, the company filed out, the photographers got ready and she appeared looking extremely exotic - except for a huge string bag full of onions. "I like onions," she replied in her husky voice when the manager furiously asked her why.

Her romantic life was reputedly eventful and she was briefly married to an Austrian count. She remained with Festival Ballet until 1955, and also guested with other companies, including Ballet Rambert. During her US tours, she had decided that Dallas in Texas was one of the nicest cities and, in 1963, she settled there. She opened a school and founded a student company, Madame Krassovska's Ballet Jeunesse.

Nadine Meisner