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Alexandra Danilova - More Resources

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Alexandra Danilova (1903-1997)

By Nancy Reynolds

The great ballerina Alexandra Danilova’s singular importance to ballet in America is the legacy of her travel across the length and breadth of the United States for nearly twenty years, performing leading roles in two influential touring companies—Blum and de Basil’s Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo and Denham’s Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.  In so doing, she helped introduce Russian-style ballet to America, where it took firm root.  Danilova was not the first Russian to tour America—Anna Pavlova and Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes preceded her—nor was she the only ballerina touring in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. But year in, year out, her infectious personality, charm, and warmth, coupled with her Imperial Russian heritage and the imprimatur of Diaghilev and his modernist sensibility, made her by all accounts the most beloved and enduring.  She and her dance partner of long standing, the ebullient Frederic Franklin, called themselves “theatrical rats,” because despite their excellent dance training, both had spent time on commercial stages.  This gave them the ability to roll with the punches, in the grand old theatrical tradition of “the show must go on.”

Danilova’s style was shaped by her refined taste, a well-schooled (though not virtuoso) classical technique, and her complete devotion to her art.  In the early ‘80s she remarked, “Maybe I lasted longer because my dedication went deeper.  My dedication, like Balanchine’s, goes very, very deep” (Tracy 19).

She was born in Peterhof, near St. Petersburg.  At eight she entered the ballet section of the Imperial Theater School, where one of her schoolmates was George Balanchine, with whom she was to maintain a personal and professional relationship throughout her life (Danilova, Choura 15).  The school was known for its rigorous classical training, and as a student she appeared on the Maryinsky stage in The Sleeping Beauty, Paquita, and La Fille Mal Gardée, among others.  Such experience in classical productions stood her in good stead throughout her career, including her later career as a teacher.

Surviving the hardships of the Revolution, Danilova graduated in 1920 and was taken into the Maryinsky company, where she was promoted to soloist in 1922.  The repertory included works by Marius Petipa, Lev Ivanov, and the experimentalists Mikhail Fokine and Fedor Lopoukhov  (the company’s artistic director), in whose Dance Symphony both she and Balanchine appeared.  (It is considered the first work in which the choreography was composed entirely to reflect the structure of the music.)  Danilova danced leads in both Lopoukhov’s unconventional Firebird and Fokine’s non-classical Une Nuit d’Egypte.  In 1923, she was also a member of the Young Ballet, a small group independent of the theater that performed modernist works by Balanchine and others.  The group was denounced by the authorities and soon dissolved. Later Danilova would remark, “I have been so lucky: all my life I have worked with the avant-garde.  That developed me enormously as an artist, much more than if I had done just Swan Lake and Giselle” (Anderson 203). 

In 1924, she, Balanchine, Balanchine’s wife Tamara Geva, and Nicholas Efimov received permission to visit Western Europe; when the time came, they refused to return to the Soviet Union.  All were taken into Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, a company renowned for its progressive ideas. There, the two most important choreographers of Danilova’s career, Balanchine and Léonide Massine, began creating leading parts for her.  She appeared in two of Massine’s experimental ballets, the multi-media Ode, with its lighting projections and radical costume of leotards alone; and the Constructivist-inspired Le Pas d’Acier.  Balanchine composed roles for her as a non-classical Black Dancer in Jack-in-the Box; in the mystical Le Bal, with its “angular positions, syncopated steps,” and the off-balance movements Balanchine later became known for; and as Terpsichore, muse of the dance, in Apollon Musagète, which she recalled as “the beginning of neoclassical ballet.”  Danilova also danced the Chosen Virgin in Massine’s Rite of Spring, thereby being exposed to one of Stravinsky’s most difficult scores.

When Diaghilev died in 1929 and his company collapsed, Danilova recalled, in her inimitable English, “it was crash—boom—crash” (in Balanchine, 2004).

After some rootless years, in 1933 she signed with the new Blum-de Basil Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, at Massine’s invitation.  When the company opened in New York the same year, a new era in the dance consciousness of America began.  The Ballets Russes undertook five cross-country tours in the United States.  Although the three teen-aged “baby ballerinas” received a good deal of publicity, Danilova and Massine were indisputably the company’s first dancers.  A critic wrote, “Experience still tells.  Danilova has all her own the grand manner, which can shine equally brightly in the comedy of wit and in romantic comedy, and can scale the highest points of drama” (Sorely Walker, 27).  As for Massine, he was the most famous dancer and choreographer in the ballet world, a brilliant mime and dynamic character dancer.  He was also Danilova’s nonpareil partner in two of his escapist bonbons, Le Beau Danube and La Boutique Fantasque, ballets she considered her “signature roles” with the company.  These two ballets were later joined by Massine’s Gaîté Parisienne to form “a triptych of that magical gaiety of which [Danilova] alone posses the secret” (Robert 70).  It was Massine who likened her personality to champagne. Ever versatile, Danilova danced several of her old roles from the Diaghilev company as well as the classics Swan Lake and Aurora’s Wedding (Act III of The Sleeping Beauty), and she later appeared in Massine’s audacious “symphonic ballets,” Les Présages and Choreartium. Once again, as with Diaghilev, she was involved with the realization of radical ideas.

In addition to her winsome personality, Danilova was an excellent actress.  She also understood the value of fabric as a theatrical tool and became known for her way with a skirt.  She wrote, “My skirt in Boutique was part of the choreography; it was part of my character.  When I played with it, the ruffles looked frothy, like foam. . . . When I used to prepare to play a character, I would arrive at the theatre two hours ahead of time and get into make-up, then into my costume. . . . By the time I got on stage, I would have become my character; I would see everything through her eyes” (Danilova, Choura, 123).

In 1937, Massine asked her to come with him to Sergei Denham’s new Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, of which he would be artistic director, maitre de ballet, chief choreographer, and lead dancer.  The company made its debut in 1938 and after a season in London, set sail for an engagement in the United States.  Wartime conditions made a return to Europe impossible, and after the war, Denham did not want to risk losing his American audience by touring abroad, so his Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo never traveled to Europe again.  Notwithstanding its name and its mission as a continuation of the Diaghilev tradition, the company became increasingly Americanized, touring the country annually for months at a time until it disbanded in 1962.  

The influence of these two Ballet Russe companies on the spread of ballet in America can hardly be overstated; for not only did they introduce audiences to a new art form, but the dancers, as they retired, settled down throughout the country (which they knew rather well after hundreds of one-night stands), and in their new homes they often opened ballet schools, spreading Russian-oriented ballet technique and visions of exotica.  Danilova was quite aware of this.  She wrote, “In a way I regard American audiences as my children, because I helped to educate them.  Every year the ballet audience was growing.  Most of the big Broadway stars . . . thought [touring] was beneath their dignity.  But we went all over the United States and Canada, bringing productions with beautiful scenery and modern music.  That is why my name is so well known, because I spent so much time on trains, touring the country . . . . I didn’t feel that it was a burden . . . this was my life” (Danilova, Choura 156).

In 1942, Massine, after several failed ballets, resigned from the Ballet Russe.  Until the end, he had continued to be Danilova’s most frequent partner.

During World War II, with many of the male dancers drafted, Danilova began a partnership with the English “jeune premier” Frederic Franklin, a partnership that grew to veritably define the Denham Ballet Russe.  The two were first paired in Gaîté Parisienne, one of Massine’s light-hearted, flirtatious ballets set in a Paris café.  The ballet brings to life a series of amorous encounters among patrons from society high and low, climaxing first with a ravishingly airborne waltz for the Baron (Franklin) and the Glove Seller (Danilova), and again with a can-can.  It became the most beloved work put on by the Ballet Russe.  Over the years Danilova and Franklin’s partnership ran the gamut of the diverse Ballet Russe repertory, from Swan Lake to Coppélia (one of Danilova’s greatest roles—she made the heroine “incomparably brilliant in coquetry, wit, warm feminine graces and warm intelligence” [Denby 296]), from Massine’s Saratoga to Ruth Page’s Billy Sunday, from Balanchine’s Night Shadow to his Danses Concertantes, from Schwezoff’s The Red Poppy to Raymonda, based on Petipa, to Frederick Ashton’s Devil’s Holiday.  Of the ten Balanchine ballets in the repertory, eight featured Danilova and Franklin as the leads.  On tour, they were such draws that management had them dance almost every night, night after night.  Their enthusiasm, artistry, versatility, tirelessness, and sheer devotion set a high standard for the company, an inspiration to the others to never perform at anything less than their best.  Offstage, Danilova was a mentor and “mother hen” to many of the young female dancers.  She was always elegantly dressed herself and required high heels and dresses for the young women in public.

After nearly fifteen years on the road with Denham’s Ballet Russe, Danilova left the company in 1951 at the age of 48.  She continued her stage career, however, giving her farewell ballet performance in 1957 and later appearing in a musical.

In 1964, at Balanchine’s invitation, she began teaching at the School of American Ballet, the official academy of the New York City Ballet.  To advanced girls she taught numerous variations from Coppélia and The Sleeping Beauty—especially Coppélia, her calling card (which she and Balanchine also co-staged for New York City Ballet in 1974)—and a handful of Fokine ballets, concentrating on Les Sylphides.  For the annual school performance she staged excerpts of ballets from nineteenth-century Russia, thus returning to her origins despite her many years’ exposure to modernist currents. Even in her late years she arrived for class at the School draped in mink, with hair perfectly coiffed and in full make-up.

Toward the end of her life she appeared in two films, The Turning Point, a commercial hit starring Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Reflections of a Dancer: Alexandra Danilova, Prima Ballerina Assoluta, a documentary.  She died at the age of 93, after having received many honors.  In a final gracious gesture, she bequeathed her theatrical possessions to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.


Nancy Reynolds, a former member of the New York City Ballet, is director of research at The George Balanchine Foundation, where she conceived and continues to direct the video archives program.  Her books include Repertory in Review: 40 Years of the New York City Ballet and No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century (co-authored with Malcolm McCormick).

 

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books and Articles

Anderson, Jack. The One and Only: The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.  New York: Dance Horizons, 1981.

Danilova, Alexandra.  Choura: The Memoirs of Alexandra Danilova.  New York: Knopf, 1986.

---. “A Conversation with Alexandra Danilova, Ballet Review (Brooklyn, N.Y.), 2 parts: vol. 4, nos. 4 and 5, 1973.

Denby, Edwin.  Dance Writings.  New York: Knopf, 1986.

García-Márquez, Vicente.  The Ballets Russes: Colonel de Basil’s Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, 1932-1952.  New York: Knopf, 1990.

Robert, Grace.  The Borzoi Book of Ballets.  New York: Knopf, 1949.

Sorley Walker, Kathrine.  De Basil’s Ballets Russes.  New York: Atheneum, 1983.

Terry, Walter.  I Was There: Selected Dance Reviews and Articles, 1936-1976.   New York: Marcel Dekker, 1978.

Tracy, Robert.  Balanchine’s Ballerinas: Conversations with the Muses.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983.

Moving Image

Balanchine. Prod. Judy Kinberg; Dir. Merrill Brockway. DVD. Kultur, 2004. Two-part documentary with excerpts of more than thirty Balanchine ballets. 

Gaîté Parisienne.  Choreography by Léonide Massine.  Prod. John Mueller; Dir. Victor Jessen. DVD. VAI (Video Artists International), 2006.

Reflections of a Dancer: Alexandra Danilova, Prima Ballerina Assoluta. Dir. Anne Belle.  VHS.  VAI (Video Artists International), 1990.

The Turning Point.  Prod. Nora Kaye, Arthur Laurens, Herbert Ross; Dir. Herbert Ross.  20th Century-Fox, 1977. DVD 2005.

A number of performance tapes (most containing only brief excerpts) are housed in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the Newberry Library, Chicago.

Archives

Manuscripts, correspondence, photographs and audio interviews with Danilova are held by the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library.