Obituary: Alexandra Danilova

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The Russian ballet of the Twenties and Thirties produced some legendary dancers and one of the most remarkable was Alexandra Danilova. A performer of charisma and exuberant charm, gifted with an extensive range, she dominated the scene creating many roles in the ballets of Leonide Massine and George Balanchine. By her charm, elegance and generous nature, she captivated audiences and friends around the world.

Born in 1904 at Peterhof, of military stock, she was orphaned early and brought up by relatives who became aware of her natural aptitude for dance. She was trained in the Imperial Theatre School, Petrograd (St Petersburg), where her principal teacher was Elizabeta Gerdt.

During her childhood training, she had the benefit of watching the Maryinsky ballerinas Mathilda Kschessinska, Olga Preobrajenska, Anna Pavlova and the renowned Olga Spessivtseva perform. She remembered vividly Kschessinska and Pierre Vladimiroff in The Talisman, all of which deeply influenced her future outlook.

She graduated in 1921 and joined the Opera-Ballet at the Maryinsky Theatre, where she received encouraging words from Mikhail Fokine. In her second year she was dancing solos and duets and her first leading role was The Firebird choreographed by Fyodor Lopokov.

With George Balanchine, Tamara Geva and a small group of dancers and singers, she left Leningrad (as Petrograd had become) in 1924 to tour European spas in the course of which she performed at the Empire Theatre, London.

After the conclusion of the tour, the group went to Paris in search of further engagements. At the house of Misia Sert, Diaghilev's patroness, she, Balanchine and Nicholas Efimoff met the great impresario, who was always searching for replacements.

After auditioning for Diaghilev they were accepted into his company, where at first they were coolly received. At that time, at the age of 20, Danilova was a little plump and Diaghilev complained, whereupon she dieted and thereafter kept her figure in perfect trim. It was said she had the most beautiful legs in the world and is reputed to have insured them for pounds 200,000.

Her chance came when Vera Nemchinova left the company to appear in a revue. Danilova took over her roles with great distinction. She danced with Serge Lifar, Anton Dolin and Leon Woizikovsky in Fokine's Cleopatra, Carnival and Petruschka and worked with Leonide Massine on the ballet Zephire et Flore (to the music of Dukelsky) with decor and costumes by Braque.

During her five years with the Diaghilev Ballet, she established herself as a prima ballerina, creating many roles, the most outstanding of which were the Can-Can dancer in La Boutique Fantasque (Rossini), the Masked Lady in Le Bal (Rieti), the Fairy Queen in The Triumph of Neptune (Lord Berners), Terpsichore in Apollon Musagete (Stravinsky) and in Swan Lake Act 2 and Aurora's Wedding (Tchaikovsky).

After the death of Diaghilev in 1929, there followed a period of insecurity but by 1931 she was enjoying a long run in Waltzes from Vienna at the Alhambra Theatre, London. During this time she parted from Balanchine and married Giuseppe Massera, an Italian engineer. They were scarcely ever together and five years later she was widowed.

At the end of the run of Waltzes from Vienna, she studied with Nicolai Legat in London and was much refreshed by his classes. She then sought entry into the de Basil Company but at first the Colonel would only offer her a job without pay. By comparison with the immaculate manners of Diaghilev, she found de Basil somewhat uncouth; however, she eventually settled for pounds 40 a week and became a great asset. Massine liked her and created many parts for her, often dancing with her himself. It became a highly professional partnership.

Among numerous ballets created by Massine, she danced in Pas d'acier (Nabokov), Les Matelots (Auric) and Contes Russes (Liadov) but the two roles that established her supremacy were the Can-Can dancer in La Boutique Fantastique and the Street Dancer in Le Beau Danube.

Danilova tells in her autobiography, Choura, of visits to her favourite London restaurant, the Hungaria, where, whenever she entered, the orchestra struck up the waltz from Le Beau Danube in her honour. One night Prince Edward of Wales asked her to dance with him and in a state of nerves, she confesses, she found herself on the wrong foot. Possibly the only time in her life she put a foot wrong.

In 1934 she took a break from de Basil to reappear in the New York production of Waltzes from Vienna, now renamed The Great Waltz. It did not repeat its London success and she soon found herself back with the Ballet Russe but by this time de Basil had parted company with his co-partner, Rene Blum, and it was with the Blum ensemble that she returned to Monte Carlo.

This brought her the interesting experience of working with Bronislava Nijinska and she extended her repertoire by dancing in Nijinska's ballets Les Biches (Poulenc), Bolero (Ravel), Pictures at an Exhibition (Mussorgsky) and Les Noces (Stravinsky).

During this period when companies were continually regrouping, Danilova soon found herself back in the de Basil ensemble, but in 1938, when the company split once more, she left de Basil for the last time and returned to Massine's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.

She valued his choreographic genius and the opportunities he gave her. She danced Coppelia (Delibes), which was one of her greatest successes, and enjoyed immensely Gaite Parisienne (Offenbach) in which she was partnered by Frederick Franklin.

Caught in Paris at the outbreak of the Second World War, with other Russians Danilova made her way to New York. There Massine re-formed his company under the management of Serge Denham. Once again Balanchine came into her life, making several ballets in which she starred: Night Shadow (Rieti), Danses Concertantes (Stravinsky) and Mozartiana (Chopin).

Balanchine found her extremely useful in being able to piece together ballets from the old repertoire. When her retentive memory failed, she could always embroider the blank patches with her own invention. Together they reproduced Paquita in which she danced with Oleg Tupino.

The company enjoyed extensive tours in the South Americas, which opened up new contracts. During one of these tours, Danilova married again, Kazimir Kokic, a Yugoslavian dancer from the corps de ballet but, not long after the marriage, he was called up by the US Army. Three years later the marriage was dissolved.

With the end of the war, several stars left the Denham company to join Lucia Chase's American Ballet Theatre, whilst others left to go with Balanchine, who was setting up his New York City Ballet under the auspices of Lincoln Kirstein. Consequently, the quality of the Ballet Russe began to decline, but Danilova stayed loyal to the company. However, she did take long periods of leave to make guest appearances abroad.

Ballet audiences in Europe were eager to see one of their favourite ballerinas again and Danilova's name always ensured a full house. In 1949 with Frederick Franklin she made guest appearances at Covent Garden with the Royal Ballet and in 1951 with Festival Ballet at the Stoll Theatre.

Later that year, she finally left the Denham company when the curtain was lowered in the middle of a performance of Gaite Parisienne. The performance was running late and, to avoid a dispute with the Union of Theatre-workers, the management took this drastic action leaving the ballet unfinished. Such a happening was unacceptable to Danilova.

In 1952 Frederick Franklin and Mia Slavenska formed their own company with a group of 21 dancers. Danilova joined them as co-star. The repertoire was mainly excerpts from popular ballets and some novelties, such as Mademoiselle Fifi choreographed by Zachary Solov. The company carried out an extensive tour to the Philippines and Japan but within a year it folded and Danilova departed to Dallas, Texas, to teach.

After two happy years in Texas, Danilova returned to the ballet scene in New York and in 1954 with Franklin and two other dancers formed a group to perform mainly pas de deux from the classics.

Balanchine rearranged Mozartiana for four and a Dutch choreographer, Job Saunders, made a ballet to Faure's Dolly Suite. The company was taken up by Sol Hurok and toured the US, Canada, South Africa, Hawaii, the Philippines and Japan.

In 1957 Asami Maki, who had been her pupil in Dallas and now was director of a Tokyo-based company, invited Danilova to stage Coppelia, Swan Lake and Paquita.

For her farewell in Tokyo Danilova danced Raymonda. "At the fall of the curtain, there were flowers, confetti and tears." But her final exit from the ballet was in the same year at a Gala in her honour at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York.

Even in retirement she could not keep her feet off the stage for long and in 1958 she was in a musical called Oh Captain. During the run she took up teaching again at Carnegie Hall studios. After some months she received an offer to choreograph a ballet in the opera La Gioconda at the Metropolitan Opera House. It was so successful that othor offers followed.

She choreographed The Gypsy Baron, Boris Godunov, La Perichole and Adriana Becoutreur. After two happy seasons at the Metropolitan, she was replaced without warning. It was a hurtful shock but Danilova was used to hard knocks and very soon she set out on a lecture-tour arranged by Columbia Artists Agency.

After this she receded for a short time into the shadows but a chance encounter with Balanchine in the street led to a long collaboration with her old colleague. During the long years ahead at the School of American Ballet, she staged excerpts from Le Pavillon d'Armide, Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, Raymonda and other works.

She also gave Summer Seminars at Indiana University. With the School of American Ballet she became the most loved and revered of all the teachers.

In 1976 she appeared in the film The Turning Point. When she saw the finished product, she could not recognise herself and came to the conclusion that she was not destined for a Hollywood career.

She was very distressed when Balanchine died in 1983 and felt that she had lived too long. She had had a full life; probably one of the busiest and most popular of any ballerinas in the history of ballet. In her autobiography she summed up her life in these words:

"I put my dancing first. I sacrificed marriage, children and my country to be a ballerina and there was never any misunderstanding - I knew the price."

John Gregory

Alexandra Dionysievna Danilova, dancer and teacher: born Peterhof, Russia 20 November 1904; Diaghilev Company 1925-29; Prima Ballerina, Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo 1938-58; married 1931 Giuseppe Massera (died 1936), 1941 Kazimir Kokic (marriage dissolved 1949); died New York 13 July 1997.

John Gregory died 27 October 1996.