Obituary: Tamara Toumanova
Saturday 01 June 1996
Toumanova was called by some "the black pearl" of the Russian Ballet, not because she was black but because, as A.V. Coton wrote, "she was the loveliest creature in the history of the ballet", with black silky hair, deep brown eyes and pale almond skin. From her mother she had Circassian blood; from the gods the most divine classical nose. Along with her dazzling stage personality she was gifted with hypnotic acting powers. She was the most glamorous of de Basil's "baby" ballerinas who took London by storm in the Thirties. She was adored and beloved, but, for all that, much of her life was turbulent and fraught with crises. Throughout her dynamic career her mother was devoted companion, nursemaid, dresser, agent and manager - she was always at the helm.
Born in 1919, Toumanova was conceived during a period of terrible strife in the newly emerging Soviet Union and her parents, feeling for their lives, made for the East. She came into the world on a train bound for Shanghai. The Toumanov family eventually made its way to Paris and settled in the Russian colony where the little Tamara grew up with French and Russian and tasted early the excitement and the discipline of the ballet school. She studied with Olga Preobrajenska, a teacher whom she revered all her life. Preobrajenska bequeathed to her the priceless collection of jewelled tutus which she had worn when she was a leading ballerina with the Imperial Ballet at the Maryinksy.
Toumanova made her first appearance at the age of nine in a student performance at the Paris Opera in Eventail de Jeanne (music: Poulenc and others). George Balanchine was enchanted with her and in 1932 brought her to Rene Blum's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, where he created two ballets for her, Cotillon (Chabrier) and Le Concurrence (Auric). She joined Balanchine's company, Ballets 1933, in which she danced the leading part in Les Songes (Milhaud) and appeared in the Paris and London seasons, but in 1934 she returned to de Basil's company to make a trio of "baby" ballerinas, together with Irina Baronova and Tatiana Riabouchinska.
Those child prodigies of the Thirties marked an extraordinary development in Russian ballet. They could not have been more unalike. Tourmanova dark, intense, tragic . . . Baronova gentle, refined, blond . . . Riabouchinksa (not really a baby - three years older) ravishing, fey, ethereal. The strains put upon these remarkable children can hardly be imagined: an unnatural life of continual rehearsals, continual touring, continual first- nights. The endless striving for physical perfection, the late nights, the adulation of vociferous audiences, and, back-stage, the conflicts and jealousies.
Rivalries and feuds were a way of life in the Russian Ballet. The struggle for parts in the casting cauldron, the first-night appearances were at times wild-cat but Toumanova with her loaded talents and Momma's fierce pride were a formidable force. She matured quickly; she was always five years ahead of normality. On stage she retained an image of untarnished youth, but as a human being she was tough beneath the skin and cunning as a leopard.
During the first summer season at the Alhambra Theatre she received ecstatic acclaim. Arnold Haskell, author of Balletomania, hailed her extravagantly: "From the first moment she stood on stage, I knew a great artist had appeared again."
During the next four years she toured the world with the de Basil company dancing many leading roles, amongst them: Firebird (Stravinsky), the Miller's Wife in Le Tricorne (de Falla), the Ballerina in Petruska (Stravinsky), Aurora in Aurora's Wedding (Tchaikovsky), the pas de deux and Mazurka in Les Sylphides (Chopin) and the Beloved in Symphonie Fantastique (Berlioz).
When the company broke in two after the split between de Basil and Leonard Massine, she followed Massine to Monte Carlo and became one of his most treasured ballerinas. In the London season that followed in 1938, she danced Giselle with Serge Lifar in a deeply moving rendition. With Massine she danced Le Tricorne with exhilarating verve and with Igor Youskevitch she danced an evocative Spectre de la Rose. I remember that season vividly since I was a nightly visitor in the stalls, imbibing like a drug her exquisite enchantment. One night after a performance she came to dinner at Quaglino's and I was staggered that this radiant girl supped only of two poached eggs on boiled spinach.
How little did one realise the dramas that prevailed back-stage. There was a further shock when the company opened their autumn season at the Metropolitan in New York. I had looked forward to seeing her dance Giselle again on the first night but Sol Hurok, the impresario presenting the company, had received a rebuff to his unrequited passsion for the lady. He said "No", he would not let her dance and Massine was powerless to intervene. Toumanova left the company.
She was soon engaged to play the lead in a musical, Stars in Your Eyes (1939). She had many male suitors, but was inseparable from her mother and anyone who married her would have to accept mother as well. Casey Robinson, the film director, took the risk and they all settled in Los Angeles. There she made her first film, Days of Glory, in which she appeared as her heroine Anna Pavlova. Like all films about Pavlova, it was a disaster. She flew next to Australia to dance Balanchine's Balustrade (Stravinsky). Back in New York in 1941 she joined Serge Denham's Ballet Russe and Massine choreographed Labyrinth (Schubert) for her with decor by Salvador Dali.
After the war her marriage broke up, she returned to Europe to Paris and to Olga Preobrajenska, and formed a liaison with Serge Lifar, who was now Principal Choreographer at the Opera. For a time she danced with the Grand Ballet of the Marquis de Ceuvas, and led a hectic touring life guesting in many of Europe's opera-houses. I remember a gala at the old Empress Hall - long since demolished - a vast barn of a place which was apt to dwarf the brightest personality; but when she entered the stage to dance the pas de deux from Don Quixote you might have thought she was entering a drawing-room, so potent and vibrant was her power of projection.
When her technique was beginning to fade, she could still hold an audience by the sheer glitter of her personality, and she retained the ability to hold phenomenally long balances en pointe. She was apt to stay en arabesque or a la seconde for what seemed like minutes, to the chagrin of some conductors.
In 1950 Lifar staged his elaborate conception of Phedre based on a libretto of Jean Cocteau. Lifar wanted the film star Greta Garbo for the name part, but she decided it was not for her. There could be only one Phedre. It was the peak of Toumanova's extraordinary career. The following year she was at La Scala, Milan, to dance in Margarethe Wallmann's spectacular, Legend of Joseph.
Always inclined to overplay, there were times when Toumanova seemed almost a caricature of the grand style. During the later period, she enjoyed a continuation of her success in the South Americas. At the Colon Theatre, Buenos Aires, she performed her repertoire with the same rapturous gusto and bringing forth the resulting adulation that she expected and received throughout her dancing life. Towards the end of the Sixties, her physical powers were becoming diminished and she turned once again to films to extend her career. In 1966 she appeared in the Hitchcock film The Torn Curtain, and in 1970 in Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.
As she grew older bad health dogged her path. With her mother she retired to Los Angeles. Her amazing physical strength enabled her to live on, but eventually she was to lose her lifelong companion - her mother died leaving her alone and dependent upon nursing help. Before she died she gave her priceless Preobrajenska costumes to the Vaganova Choreographic Museum in St Petersburg, where her beloved teacher had once been a star.
Toumanova was a remarkable artist - a great personality who never stopped acting. It is impossible to think of Russian ballet without her.
Tamara Vladimirovna Toumanova, ballerina: born near Shanghai 1919; died Santa Monica, California 29 May 1996.
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