Danilova, Alexandra (1903–1997)

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Danilova, Alexandra (1903–1997)

One of the leading ballerinas of the 20th century who combined a four-decade dancing career in Soviet Russia, Western Europe, and the U.S. with a subsequent career as a distinguished teacher. Nickname: Choura (pronounced Shura), Shura. Pronunciation: Da-NEEL-ova. Born Alexandra Dionisevna Danilova on November 20, 1903 (she sometimes claimed to be uncertain of the precise year and even admitted being less than forthright about it), in Peterhof near St. Petersburg, Russia; died in New York on July 12, 1997; daughter of Dionis Danilov and Claudia (Gototzova or Gototsova) Danilova (possibly servants of the imperial court); taught by governesses and in private schools to 1911, student at Imperial Ballet School, 1911–20; married Giuseppe Massera (an engineer), in 1931 (died 1935); married Casimir Kokitch (a ballet dancer), in 1941 (divorced 1948); no children.

Death of her parents (c. 1905); studies disrupted by revolution (1917); returned to ballet school (1918); joined Soviet State Ballet (1920); promoted to soloist (1922); joined friends for tour of Germany and remained in Western Europe (1924); joined Diaghilev's Ballets Russes (1925); began love affair with Balanchine (1926); promoted to star ballerina in Diaghilev's troupe (1927); because of death of Diaghilev, Ballets Russes dissolved (1929); joined Colonel W. de Basil's Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo (1933); toured the U.S. (1933–34); joined new Ballets Russe de Monte Carlo (1938); settled in U.S. (1939); became an American citizen (1946); left Ballets Russe (1951); formed own ballet troupe (1956); gave farewell ballet performance (1957); began efforts as choreographer (1958); joined faculty of School of American Ballet (1964); appeared in film, The Turning Point (1977); ended teaching career, received Kennedy Center Award (1989); returned for visit to Russia (1993).

Selected roles:

The Street Dancer in Le Beau Danube; Swanhilda in Coppélia; title role in The Firebird; title role in Giselle; Odette-Odile in Swan Lake.

Alexandra Danilova, called "Choura" by her close friends, was one of the most significant figures in the world of 20th-century ballet. Educated in the last years of the Russian Imperial Ballet School prior to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, she danced on the Soviet stage, brought her training and talents to Western Europe in the 1920s and, starting in the 1930s, toured the United States as well. She led the migration of top-ranking ballet talent to the U.S. at the start of World War II, and she continued to dance with distinction through the 1950s. Her tours made her the most famous ballerina of the time in America and helped to popularize ballet in much of the country. Following the traditional pattern, she then shifted her interests into teaching and played a significant role in the training of young dancers until the late 1980s.

As a performer, Danilova was famous for her combination of brilliant technique and visible pleasure in dancing. Moreover, she was a living testimony to the role of tradition in ballet. As Olga Maynard wrote at the close of Danilova's years on the stage, "She is the link with the Maryinsky in St. Petersburg and the theatre Diaghilev created

early in the twentieth century. … [N]ot a ghost, but a warm, sparkling, laughing woman."

The future ballet star was born in Peterhof, the site of one of the great palaces for Russia's monarchs, outside St. Petersburg on November 20, 1903. There is some uncertainty about the year of her birth. Orphaned at an early age, she had no clear information about her parents' background. It is possible her father was a servant or a low-ranking official at the imperial court. She was fortunate enough to be taken in by a wealthy woman, Lydia Gototsova , who soon married the prominent Russian general Mihail Batianov. The pair adopted her. Some sources refer to Gototsova as her aunt, but Danilova seemed unsure of this in her memoirs.

Danilova began her formal ballet training in 1911, when she was accepted into St. Petersburg's prestigious Imperial Ballet School. She was not yet nine years of age, but she entered the school in the rigorous category of a boarding student. It was an unconventional choice for a child of a privileged family, but the young girl's schoolteachers had noticed her physical skills. Moreover, young Alexandra herself had already become intrigued by the possibility of learning ballet. She soon became a student noted for her consistently high ranking in her class.

As her biographer A.E. Twysden has noted, Danilova experienced the Russian style of training in which a youngster was immersed for ten years of daily effort in learning the technique of dance. This was far different from the less extensive schooling of dancers in other countries. It was to give Danilova and other Russians of her generation an unmatched artistic range, technical ability, and ease of bodily expression. Part of the curriculum for the students included participating in children's roles in operas and ballets put on by the Maryinsky Theater. By the time young Alexandra was a second-year student, she was taking on such duties. Thus, she was able to see, at close range, the leading ballerinas of the era such as Matilda Kshesinskaia and Tamara Karsavina .

According to Danilova's memoirs, the young ballerina had a brush with violent death during the chaos of 1917. Despite orders forbidding students to look out from the school during times of unrest, she and her classmates gave in to curiosity and clustered in front of a window. A soldier fired, and the bullet nearly struck her. On the larger stage of Russian life, the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917 brought a radical Marxist government to power. For a time, Danilova and members of her family fled the capital for the Kuban.

Nonetheless, the ballet remained a respected institution, and her school reopened. She returned to it in 1918. Although food was scarce and the rooms could not be heated, the aspiring ballerina found that it was possible to continue her training without serious interruption. Upon graduation in 1920, she and her small group of classmates were taken on as professional dancers, becoming members of the old Maryinsky Theater, now renamed the State Ballet Company by the Soviet government.

The hardships of the time included a lack of transportation in St. Petersburg. Danilova had to make a round trip of nearly an hour and a half by foot in order to reach the theater. She soon made an impression on the ballet's directors, moving into the front row of the ballet corps for rehearsals. It was a significant honor for someone who had been a student only a few months before. She had the opportunity to work with the rising young artistic director of the company, Fedor Lopukhov. In the last performance

of her initial ballet season, she was given a solo role in Coppélia.

Despite the Soviet government's radical course in many areas after 1917, it did not encourage experimentation in the ballet. Instead, it clung to a repertory that Danilova described as "very Victorian." Since her days as a student, Danilova was the close friend of George Balanchine, who entered the Imperial Ballet School a year after she did. A talented choreographer, he reveled in the creation of new ballet possibilities. Balanchine arranged concert performances in his spare time, featuring his modern, acrobatic style of choreography and asked Danilova to join his group, the Young Ballet. She soon found that official disapproval of Balanchine extended to her. She was forced to leave the Young Ballet or face expulsion from the roll of the State Ballet. Nonetheless, she spent her free hours visiting theaters where imaginative leaders in the world of the arts, like Vsevolod Meyerhold, were challenging longstanding traditions.

First as a dancer and later as a teacher … she ran through our ballet century like a steel-tough thread of gold.

—Clive Barnes

Danilova's breakthrough to prominence in the Soviet State Ballet Company came in 1922, at the close of her second season. She was handed the title role in The Firebird and, in short order, was given other soloist roles. In her initial performance of The Firebird, she expended her physical energy so lavishly during the first part of the evening that she was exhausted to the point of fainting by the final curtain. It was a preview of the exuberance for which she was to become famous.

In June 1924, Balanchine, Danilova, and a number of other figures in the Soviet ballet world received permission to tour Western Europe. They went only for the vacation months of the Maryinsky's season, from June to September, intending to sample the freer and more lively artistic world outside Russia. Danilova later wrote that she left expecting to return to play a major role promised her for the next season in Don Quixote. But she never went back.

The small troupe performed successfully in Berlin and other German cities, although they were humiliated to discover they sometimes had to perform in vaudeville theaters. As Twysden put it, they were "sandwiched in between the performing animals and the clowns." They went on to London where Danilova was surprised to find that Communist speakers could orate in Hyde Park free of government interference.

Ignoring urgent telegrams from the Soviet government demanding that they return home, the wandering troupe decided to see Paris first. In the French capital, they received job offers from Sergei Diaghilev, the prominent Russian musical impresario who had centered his efforts in France and Britain since 1909. In their first meeting, Diaghilev had asked Danilova to dance for him even though she was wearing her street clothes and regular shoes. As a soloist and a veteran of the Imperial Ballet School, the young ballerina was offended at the suggestion she needed an audition but reluctantly complied. She passed the test and, with her small group of companions, was invited to join Diaghilev's company in London.

In joining the company, Danilova defied orders to return to the Soviet Union; in effect, she was choosing the permanent role of an exile. She soon discovered that Diaghilev was hard to please. After her first solo, he told her bluntly, "Well, you are much too fat and you danced abominably." In fact, she had gained 15 pounds since leaving Russia. As she put it, "Life in Russia had been a diet in itself."

Despite this shaky start, Danilova rose to stardom in Diaghilev's company. The sudden departure of the company's star ballerina, Vera Nemchinova , in 1927 created a vacancy that Diaghilev chose her to fill. Danilova's long legs, her small head, and her splendid carriage made her the natural center of attention on any stage. Some of her greatest successes, including the first ballet created for her, The Triumph of Neptune, came in works Balanchine choreographed. Years later, Anton Dolin, her frequent partner in these ballets, remarked that Danilova had been a bad influence on Balanchine. She was so talented that she could perform even the most extreme movements he required; thus, Balanchine was not prepared to revise his choreography thereafter for less capable ballerinas. Her relationship with Balanchine was also a personal one: they were lovers from 1926 to 1931.

With the death of Diaghilev in 1929, Danilova found herself without an institutional home. "The Diaghilev company," she wrote in later years, "was a big Russian family. We had our squabbles, but they didn't last long." Only in 1933, after a period of personal and professional disruption, including an end to her affair with Balanchine, did she establish a new tie with a ballet company. The Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo was an offshoot of Diaghilev's company, and gradually Danilova found her place in it. Initially, she was overshadowed by a trio of youthful female dancers known as "the baby ballerinas" (Tamara Toumanova , Irina Baronova , and Tatiana Riabouchinska ). Beside these teenagers, she seemed a veteran, and she found herself unable to gain access to the new ballets being developed for the company. In time, however, she emerged as its star, but she did so without Balanchine. He had originally been hired by the impresario, Colonel W. de Basil, but he was fired just as Danilova was arriving. She now established a lasting professional relationship with another gifted choreographer, Léonide Massine.

In 1933, the de Basil company came to America under the auspices of the American theater promoter, Sol Hurok. Danilova was pleased to find that she and her colleagues were introducing enthusiastic audiences to a new art form. "Most American audiences," she wrote in her memoirs, "had never seen ballet." The company returned during each of the next four years, each time with a more extended tour.

In 1938, Danilova took on a new tie, moving with Massine to the new Ballets Russe de Monte Carlo, an offshoot of the Ballets Russes. Here she stood as the unchallenged star. With the start of World War II, the Ballets Russe de Monte Carlo and Danilova immediately relocated to the United States. Their extensive tours of the 1940s and 1950s continued to promote an interest in ballet in large regions in the United States. American critics lauded her combination of impeccable technique and vivacious personality. Wrote Edwin Denby, "She seems suddenly to be happy to be dancing, with a pleasure like a little girl's." Leon Danielian, one of her younger dance partners, noted in 1992: from the early 1930s onward, "Shura was the first real ballerina I saw," and she was "the image of what every American girl who studied ballet looked up to and wanted to be."

In 1941, Danilova married Casimir Kokitch, one of the soloists in the company. Her earlier marriage to Italian engineer Giuseppe Massera, in 1931, had quickly led to a separation. Before she could get him to agree to a divorce, Massera died in 1935. Kokitch, whom she called "Koscha," was a Yugoslav. He soon departed along with most of the other male dancers in the company for military service. Over the next years, Danilova found herself involved in the war effort, performing for USO clubs throughout America. In the frantic touring of the war years, Danilova and her colleagues sometimes traveled to more than one hundred towns in six months. In 1946, she applied for American citizenship.

Within a few years, she found herself in a new (albeit professional) relationship with Balanchine; he was now a guest choreographer for the company, and he created a number of new roles for her. Meanwhile, her marriage collapsed. When Kokitch returned from his military service, Danilova found their life together strained by his drinking and his jealousy of her professional success. In 1948, they separated, then divorced.

Danilova left her permanent position in the company in 1951. By then, the Ballets Russe had lost many of its stars to other companies, and Sol Hurok had ceased to arrange their tours. Moreover, Danilova had grown impatient with the unorthodox interpretations of the new artistic director, a Polish dancer named Nina Novak . In 1956, Danilova formed her own small troupe of four dancers and took it on worldwide tours. Her last performance as a dancer took place in Japan in September 1957.

Her career took a new turn, appropriate to an aging but highly regarded figure in the ballet world. In 1958, she became a choreographer, starting with modest success in a Broadway show. She first made her mark staging the dances for the Metropolitan Opera's production of La Gioconda. Her success led her to a long-term relationship with the Metropolitan, as well as contracts with a variety of other companies.

Nemchinova, Vera (1899–1984)

Russian ballerina. Name variations: Nemtchinova. Born Vera Nicolayevna Nemchinova in Moscow, Russia, in 1899; died in 1984; studied with Lydia Nelidova in Moscow, then Elizabeth Anderson; married Anatole Oboukhov.

Engaged by the Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1915, Vera Nemchinova made her first appearance in the corps de ballets, rising soon to soloist, then ballerina. She created the female roles in Les Biches (1924), Les Tentations de la Bergère (1924), and Les Matelots (1925). Partnering with Anton Dolin, she formed the Nemchinova-Dolin Ballet company, which appeared in London and then toured England. From 1931 to 1925, Nemchinova was prima ballerina with the Lithuanian State Ballet, then joined the Ballets Russe de Monte Carlo in 1936, creating the lead role in L'Epreuve d'Amour. In 1943, she danced the title role of Princess Aurora with the American Ballet Theatre.

Novak, Nina (1927—)

Polish dancer. Born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1927; general ballet training in the school of the Warsaw Opera House; studied with Bronislava Nijinska , Leon Woizikowski, and others; married Roman Rojas Cabot (a Venezuelan diplomat), in 1962; settled in Caracas, Venezuela.

Beginning in 1948, Nina Novak danced solo with the Ballets Russe de Monte Carlo. She was promoted to ballerina in 1952 and continued working with the Ballets Russe for the next nine years.

Danilova had begun to teach ballet in the late 1950s; she now turned to full-scale teaching in 1964 when she became a regular faculty member for the School of American Ballet. In this position, her path again crossed that of George Balanchine, who was the director of the school. In 1974, he asked her to collaborate with him at the New York City Ballet in staging a production in which she had once starred: Coppélia. In a way that impressed the company's dancers, who must have been well aware of the couple's longtime relationship, Danilova and Balanchine, both in their 70s, demonstrated every part for the company. They also, it was noted, treated each other with comfortable informality.

In 1976, Danilova was offered a part in the film The Turning Point by director Herbert Ross, himself an erstwhile dancer, in which she portrayed a former prima ballerina who devoted her energies to training the young stars of tomorrow. Even so, said Danilova, "I wasn't about to pack my bag and leave for Hollywood." Instead, she threw even more of her energy into her teaching at the School of American Ballet.

Ten years later, now in her 80s, Danilova published her memoirs, Choura. In summing up her life as a dancer, she wrote that she had made her art her highest priority. To it she had sacrificed everything—without regrets. The final line of her book read: "I gave one hundred percent of myself to my art, and my art has repaid me." Her colleagues and institutions showered Danilova with honors. In December 1989, for example, she was presented with a gold medallion by the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. In 1991, the New York City Ballet helped her celebrate her birthday with an opening night gala performance.

Danilova retired from her teaching in 1989. Her advancing age brought her a variety of injuries: a broken knee cap in 1989 and a fractured shoulder in 1991. Nonetheless, she remained open to new adventures. In the summer of 1993, the veteran dancer made a return visit to Russia, the first time she had seen her homeland since 1924. That November, in New York City, she celebrated her 90th birthday. Alexandra Danilova died in New York, age 93, on July 12, 1997.


"The Ballets Russes, 1932–1962: A Symposium," in Dance Chronicle: Studies in Dance and the Related Arts. Vol. 15. Fall 1992, pp. 191–221.

Barnes, Clive. "Danilova at Ninety," in Dance Magazine. Vol. 68. March 1994, p. 90.

Clarke, Mary, and Clement Crisp. Ballerina: The Art of Women in Classical Ballet. London: BBC Books, 1987.

Danilova, Alexandra. Choura: The Memoirs of Alexandra Danilova. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986.

Maynard, Olga. The American Ballet. Philadelphia, PA: Macrae Smith, 1959.

Montague, Sarah. The Ballerina: Famous Dancers and Rising Stars of Our Time. NY: Universe Books, 1980.

Twysden, A.E. Alexandra Danilova. NY: Kamin Dance Publishers, 1947.

suggested reading:

Au, Susan. Ballet & Modern Dance. London: Thames and Hudson, 1988.

Mason, Francis, ed. I Remember Balanchine: Recollections of the Ballet Master by Those Who Knew Him. NY: Doubleday, 1991

Spencer, Charles. The World of Diaghilev. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1979.

Taper, Bernard. Balanchine: A Biography. NY: Times Books, 1984.

related media:

The Turning Point (119 min), starring Anne Bancroft, Shirley MacLaine , and Tom Skerritt, directed by Herbert Ross, 20th Century-Fox, 1977.

Reflections of a Dancer: Alexandra Danilova (52 min), directed by Anne Belle , Direct Cinema, 1990.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California