Obituary: Ludmilla Chiriaeff

Ludmilla Chiriaeff was a handsome woman of noble mien with a stamina that was truly Russian. Creator of the Grands Ballets Canadiens in 1957, she was a leader who did much to establish a virile ballet in a country where - at the time - art was a rare commodity and ballet an unmentionable word. She must be placed alongside Gweneth Lloyd of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Celia Franca of the Toronto Ballet as one of the most prominent pioneers of this epoch. Over two decades she built her company from scratch in French-speaking Montreal and developed it to world-class standards.

The distinguished Canadian ballet critic Michael Crabb wrote of her in 1982:

Ludmilla was and is a lady of vision and courage. At 58 she remains a stylish woman of great beauty with a personality wrapped in a slightly wistful almost tragic air. The aura entirely belies the tough core without which its owner could never have endured the heartache and exasperation inevitably involved in building a ballet company . . . Ludmilla Chiriaeff had to be a fighter and a survivor.

Born in Riga, Latvia, the daughter of a well-known Russian writer, Serge Corin, Ludmilla Chiriaeff spent her childhood in Berlin after the family had fled from the Soviet regime. She studied ballet with Alexandra Nikolajeva, an ex-Bolshoi ballerina, and such was her progress that by 1936 she was dancing with Colonel de Basil's Ballet Russe.

Returning to Berlin to dance at the Stat Oper, she studied with and danced in the ballets of Mikhail Fokine and Leonide Massine, which formed the basis of her choreographic development. The Second World War checked her career as a dancer, but with the cessation of hostilities she went to Switzerland and became leading dancer and ballet mistress at the Lausanne Theatre. Discovering her ability to organise, she opened her own school of ballet in Geneva and formed a performing group, Ballets des Arts, in 1948.

In January 1952 she emigrated to Montreal, where she formed a group to present television ballets under the direction of Jean Brievert. From these beginnings she developed a permanent touring troupe from which Les Ballets Chiriaeff emerged in 1955 and to which she dared give the extravagant title Grands Ballets Canadiens two years later. She married her company manager.

Her repertoire was based on the Russian classical heritage, but to bring it in line with contemporary trends she adapted folk dance and modern idioms. She made numerous acceptable ballets but never produced a masterpiece. Realising that a sole choreographer may limit the scope of a company, she engaged other choreographers including Anton Dolin and the Canadian Fernand Nault, who created some brilliant works of which perhaps the most outstanding was Carmina Burana. The company built up their prestige by touring Canada and later the United States; eventually it undertook world tours.

I met Chiriaeff at the Varna International Ballet competition in 1972. She was serving on the jury and some of her dancers won prizes. Later when her company was appearing at Sadler's Wells I met her several times and was impressed by her humanity, her beauty of soul and total conviction.

Chiriaeff always valued the importance of schooling as the basis of the company's style and after retirement from directing in 1974 she spent her energies developing the Academie de Danse which she had founded in 1957. That school became the Academie des Grands Ballets Canadiens in 1966 and eventually L'Ecole Superieur des Danses and, in 1984, L'Ecole Superieur de Danse de Quebec.

Her last years were blighted by illness, but to the end she continued to take a keen interest in her school and in all things balletic. In 1993, she was one of six Canadians given a Governor General's Performing Arts Award for lifetime achievement.

Ludmilla Chiriaeff, dancer and choreographer: born Riga, Latvia 1924; married; died Montreal 23 September 1996.

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