Toumanova, Tamara (1919–1996)

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Toumanova, Tamara (1919–1996)

Internationally known dancer, choreographer, and Hollywood film actress who, as one of the three "baby ballerinas" of the 1920s, became the personification of a Russian prima ballerina. Name variations: Tumanova; Tata. Born Tamara Vladimirovna Toumanova in Siberia, between Ekaterinburg and Tyumen, on March 2, 1919 (some sources cite 1917); died on May 29, 1996, at age 77, in a Santa Monica, California, hospital; daughter of Vladimir Toumanov (a colonel in the Russian Imperial Army) and Evgeniia Khacidovitch (who came from a noble Georgian family); attended school in Paris as well as studying ballet with Olga Preobrazhenska; married Casey Robinson (a movie producer), in 1943 (divorced 1953); no children.

Danced at polka at the Trocadero in Paris for her first public performance, having been selected for the role by the great ballerina Pavlova; debuted in Paris in L'Evantail de Jeanne, a children's ballet (1927); signed with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (1932–38); appeared with the Original Ballet Russe and with the Ballet Theater (1940–45); danced with the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas (1949), with the Festival Ballet (1951–52 and 1956), and with the Paris Opera (1947–52 and 1956); became an American citizen and settled with her family in Southern California (1944); her father died (1963); her mother died (1988).


L'Evantail de Jeanne (1927); Cotillon (1932); Concurrence (1932); Le Bourgeois Gentillhomme (1932); Jeux d'Enfants (1932); Mozartiana (1933); Songes (1933); Petrouchka (1934); Symphonie fantastique (1936); Firebird (1940); Spectre of the Rose (1940); Aurora's Wedding (1940); Les Sylphides (1940); Balustrade (1940–41); Swan Lake (1941); Magic Swan (1942); Giselle (1944–45); The Nutcracker (1944–45); Le Palais de Cristal (1947); Le Baiser de la Fee (1947); La legenda di Guiseppe (1951); Phedre (1952).


Days of Glory (1944); Tonight We Sing (1953); Deep in My Heart (1954); Invitation to the Dance (1956); Torn Curtain (1966); The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970).

According to most accounts, Tamara Toumanova was born on March 2, 1919, in Siberia, somewhere between Ekaterinburg and Tyumen, in a boxcar of the Trans-Siberian railroad then occupied by artillery horses belonging to the fleeing remnants of the defeated anti-Bolshevik White Army; her mother had become separated from her husband during the chaos of the retreat. The problem with this account is that in March 1919, far from retreating, the White Army was on the offensive, rapidly advancing towards Moscow. Its rout and subsequent retreat did not occur until July of that year.

One of the most glamorous stars of 20th-century dance.

—Jack Anderson

In any case, eight months later, while mother and daughter were staying in the Far Eastern port of Vladivostok, they were reunited with Tamara's father, Colonel Vladimir Toumanov of the Imperial Russian Army, through a fortuitous accident. Shortly thereafter, the family left Russia forever on a freighter bound for the Chinese city of Shanghai. A year later, they traveled to Cairo, and from there to Paris, where they began building a new life along with the thousands of other Russian refugees in similar circumstances. Vladimir Toumanov managed to eke out only a modest living doing whatever menial jobs were available. It was her mother Evgeniia Toumanova 's strong character that helped keep the family together. Her determination to give her daughter the best education possible led to Tamara's first dancing lessons from Olga Preobrazhenska , a former ballerina. In later years, Toumanova remembered Olga as "the greatest guide and influence from the very beginning, my complete teacher."

Only a few months later, Anna Pavlova , one of the great prima ballerinas of the era, while visiting her former colleague's studio, noticed Tamara dancing and selected her for a guest appearance—a polka—on her Red Cross benefit program at the Trocadero, in Paris. This was the beginning of Toumanova's spectacular dancing career. At 11, she danced the leading role in the children's ballet L'Evantail de Jeanne at the Paris Opera. The ballet critic Andrew Levinson was enthusiastic, but wrote: "It is astonishing; it is also terrifying. The human body will not support without grave danger such forced hot-house development." In 1929, the ballet, with Toumanova dancing, was once again presented at the Paris Opera, and Levinson again expressed his amazement at her technical competence.

The first months of 1932 laid the foundation for Toumanova's career. W. de Basil, a former Cossack colonel turned impresario, had just reorganized the famed Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. During the next decade, his skillful management won worldwide acclaim for the company. One of his first acts was to hire George Balanchine as his new choreographer. It was Balanchine who convinced de Basil to sign Toumanova for several leading roles of the 1932 season, including the two new ballets that he had created, Cotillon and Concurrence. He also gave her the lead feminine role in Le Bourgeois Gentillhomme. Léonide Massine, another of de Basil's choreographers, created his ballet Jeux d'Enfants for her. The following year, Balanchine choreographed Mozartiana and Songes in which Toumanova danced.

It was probably Arnold Haskell, the well-known dance critic, who invented the expression "baby ballerinas" to describe the company's three young Russian girls who were then enthralling all of Paris: Toumanova age 14, Irina Baronova age 14, and Tatiana Riabouchinska age 17. Toumanova was generally considered to be the most gentle and least assertive of the trio, and it was she who embodied everyone's idea of what a Russian ballerina should be like. Exotic in appearance, with large dark eyes, raven hair and very white skin, she combined virtuosity with lyricism. She also had a grand manner which, coupled with youthful grace, was said to be truly magical. The three girls were close, despite their occasional rivalries over roles on stage, and also over the attentions of their partners. Through adolescence they had to work extremely hard in order to perfect their technical skills, their interpretations of numerous roles, as well as learning how to please their audiences. They danced almost every night, traveled all over Europe, attended social engagements, and gave frequent press interviews.

Balanchine's interlude with the Ballet Russe was a wonderful time for the young dancers. As he was attractive and easy to get along with, all three fell in love with him. Soon, however, he left the Ballet Russe Company and thereafter disappeared from their lives. Toumanova later spoke of him with great affection: he "taught me to understand what is beautiful in all arts and all people. He helped me to find the beauty of simplicity—and the simplicity of beauty." For his part, Balanchine emphasized the charm and flavor of her dancing, and revelled in her every pose and in her classic beauty.

The three young ballerinas also had to cope with their demanding mothers, women in their 30s, whose husbands were frequently unable to find work except that of military service. The mothers fought ferociously over every step of their daughter's careers. Of the three "ballet mothers," Evgeniia Toumanova was considered the most temperamental and acquired a reputation for passionate partisanship, as well as for shrewdness and eccentricity. But she was successful in advancing Tamara's career. Tamara was later to say, "What could be more beautiful and rewarding for a daughter than to have a friend in her own mother?" However, until December 1963 when he died, it was her father who was the dominant figure in their family. Only once did Toumanova interrupt her daily dance practice, or halt her professional activities, and that was after her father's death.

In 1933, when Balanchine left the Ballet Russe, Toumanova went with him, only to rejoin the company the following year and dance the title roles in Firebird, Petrouchka and Aurora's Wedding. It was then that Levinson pointed to Toumanova's "oriental languor," adding that in her technique she possessed a vigor and perfection that none of the Imperial Ballet sylphides of 1909 had. In 1934, Toumanova danced as the Puppet in Petrouchka which was staged in New York by Michel Fokine. In subsequent performances in London, Chicago, and Los Angeles, she danced in the role of the Ballerina under the baton of Igor Stravinsky.

Baronova, Irina (1919—)

Russian ballerina. Born in Petrograd, Russia, in 1919; studied at College Victor-Hugo, Paris; studied ballet with Olga Preobrazhenska in Paris; married German Sevastianov (divorced); married Cecil G. Tennant; children: three. Soloist at Paris Opéra (1930) and Théâtre Mogador (1931).

Discovered by George Balanchine while she attended the Preobrazhenska School in Paris, Irina Baronova became one of the three "baby ballerinas" of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1932; she was 13. In addition to Baronova, the triumvirate included Tatiana Riabouchinska and Tamara Toumanova . Baronova created the roles of the princess in The Hundred Kisses, Passion in Les Présages, Josephina in Choreartium, Scuola di Ballo, Boulotte in Bluebeard, Helen in Helen of Troy, and First Hand in Le Beau Danube. She also danced Aurora's Wedding, Swan Lake, Les Sylphides, Coq d'Or, Coppélia, La Fille Mal Gardée, Petrouchka, Le Spectre de la Rose, and Jeux d'Enfants. Baronova danced in the films Florian (MGM, 1939) and Yolanda (Mexico, 1942), in the musical Follow the Girls (1944), with Léonide Massine's Ballet Russe Highlights (1945), and in the musical Bullet in the Ballet and the comedy Black Eyes (both in England in 1946). Retiring from the stage in 1946, she lived with her husband and three children in England where she was a member of the Technical Committee of the Royal Academy of Dancing and taught mime in the Teacher's Course of the Academy.

Riabouchinska, Tatiana (1917–2000)

Russian ballerina. Name variations: Riabouchinskaia; Riabouchinskaya; Riabuchinskaya. Born in Moscow, Russia, in 1917; died on August 24, 2000, in Los Angeles, California; studied dance with Olga Preobrazhenska and Mathilda Kshesinskaia ; married David Lichine (a choreographer and teacher), in 1943; children: daughter Tania Lichine Crawford.

A member of the "baby ballerina" triumvirate, Tatiana Riabouchinska made her debut at age 15 with Nikita Balieff's Chauve-Souris revue in Paris. She had arrived in Paris as an infant after her family managed to flee Russia during the early stages of the revolution; her father's erstwhile position as banker to Tsar Nicholas II had meant they were lucky to escape. George Balanchine saw Riabouchinska dancing, and she went from the Chauve-Souris revue to Colonel W. de Basil's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. She danced with the company from 1932 to 1941, creating Frivolity in Les Présages, the Daughter in Le Beau Danube, the Child in Jeux d'Enfants, Florentine Beauty in Paganini, Junior Girl in Graduation Ball, and the title roles in Coq d'Or and Cinderella. Considered among her best performances were those in Michel Fokine's Les Sylphides and Le Spectre de la Rose. She was known for the airiness and joy of her movements, and in 1940 she provided the model for the dancing hippopotamus in Walt Disney's classic Fantasia. Riabouchinska left the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo the following year to work as a guest artist with companies including the London Festival Ballet and Ballet Theater. She married David Lichine, a choreographer and dancer from the Ballet Russe, in 1943. They had a daughter, and after their retirement from the stage in 1950 began teaching dance in Beverly Hills, California. Riabouchinska continued teaching until her death in November 2000, at age 83.

The Dancing Times declared in 1935 that Toumanova had made more progress than any other member of her company; "she is rapidly developing into an ideal ballerina, both in appearance and technique." In 1936 all of London fell in love with de Basil's dancers and the Ballet Russe repertoire. Massine presented Toumanova in Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, in the central role as the Beloved. After seeing their performance, the critic Haskell proclaimed that there was now a "Massine School" of ballet and that Toumanova was its finest interpreter. During the winter of 1936–37, she shared the first part of the American tour with Alexandra Danilova , but then, for reasons of health, and also in order to devote more time to her general education, she chose to remain in California.

When de Basil's dance company split in 1937, she joined Massine's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and added Giselle to her repertoire. That year the noted ballet critic A.V. Coton, editor of Dance Chronicle, wrote that Toumanova was "surely the loveliest creature in history to dance" and that she "had attained the utmost skill of mime and bearing so that one was rarely aware of the individual behind the characterization."

At the height of World War II in 1940, Toumanova accompanied the Ballet Russe on its Australian tour. In Sydney, she danced The Fire-bird, The Spectre of the Rose, Les Sylphides as well as Aurora's Wedding. Australian critics spoke admiringly of her poise, her elegance, and her romantic appearance. The critic Basil Burdett wrote that Toumanova was a great dancer and a fine artist, even though she was inclined to be slightly uneven. But he added that it was probably inherent in her style, "which is at once extraordinarily controlled yet nervous and sensitive."

During the 1941–42 season in New York, Toumanova introduced another Stravinsky ballet, Balustrade. In October 1941, she danced the Black Swan (Odile) in Swan Lake at the Metropolitan Opera House. That winter, and in the spring of 1942, Igor Youskevitch and Andrew Eglevsky alternately partnered her in the Magic Swan, and when New Yorkers first saw Massine's Le Tricorne, it was Toumanova who danced the Miller's wife. "Working with Massine," Toumanova said, "is stirring. Soul-expanding. There is even more than his artistic mastery and precision. There is great power in his intensity, in his emotional depth and range." In 1944–45, she was a guest star at the Ballet Theater, partnered by Anton Dolin. The two danced together in Giselle, The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and Aurora's Wedding. In 1945, she starred in Bronislava Nijinska 's Harvest Time and Lesginka.

Le Circle des Journalistes et Critiques de la Danse honored Toumanova in 1949 with Le Grand Prix de Giselle, a bronze sculpture whose replica was kept at her home in Southern California. That same year, she danced the role of Saint Saen's Dying Swan for Queen Juliana and Prince Bernard of Holland. She also danced Giselle for a de Basil Ballet post-performance gala at Covent Garden in 1952, in the presence of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon .

Toumanova was at La Scala, Milan, in 1951 and again in 1953. There, she created the ballet La legenda di Guiseppe for Margarethe Wallmann , as well as The Legend of St. Joseph, La Vita Del'uomo, and Setter Piccati. She returned to Milan again in 1956 to choreograph Herbert von Karajan's presentation of Richard Strauss' Salome.

By official request of the French government in 1952, she danced the Dying Swan for President Vincent Auriole at the Château Chambord. This performance was attended by government leaders, as well as numerous prominent cultural figures. Saint-Saen's music was played by a string quartet, while Toumanova danced the solo on a priceless Gobelin tapestry that had been borrowed from the Louvre for the occasion. In 1958, she danced for three consecutive weeks with the Sadler's Wells Theater in London, and, in 1963, she recreated Phedre in the West Berlin Opera House with Serge Lifar's choreography. Of the Toumanova Phedre, ballet critic Leandre Vaillat wrote in his La Danse de l'Opera de Paris that if for Racine's Phedre one required a Sarah Bernhardt , then the Phedre of Jean Cocteau called for a Toumanova.

In Artists of the Dance, Lillian Moore wrote of Toumanova:

[She] has a quality that is rare among classic dancers: originality. There is nothing stereotyped about her talent. She is forceful and intense and sometimes haunting, but always distinctive, and always she is, quite simply, Toumanova. It is impossible to remain indifferent to her work. This essentially simple and sincere artist has been forced to live up to such dangerous and glamorous epithets as "the black swan" and the "black pearl of the Russian ballet."

Despite an almost universal admiration from ballet aficionados, Toumanova received occasional criticism including that, at times, she produced "a mannered caricature of the grand Russian style." In 1959, Variety was even harsher: "Though her arteries obviously haven't hardened at 40, it is evident that Toumanova's technique and artistic sense have become rusty…. She tends to be too orthodox."

Besides being an outstanding prima ballerina, Tamara Toumanova also had a successful acting career. She first played on Broadway with

Jimmy Durante and Ethel Merman in Stars in Your Eyes in 1938. Her initial film role was in the Warner Bros. production of Capriccio Espagnol. Then in 1944, she co-starred with Gregory Peck in Days of Glory. She portrayed Pavlova in Tonight We Sing (1953) and the French music-hall star Gaby Deslys in MGM's Deep in my Heart (1954), opposite Paul Stewart, Walter Pidgeon, José Ferrer and Merle Oberon . Gene Kelly cast Toumanova as a demimondaine in his Invitation to the Dance (1957), and Alfred Hitchcock turned her into a East German police informer in Torn Curtain (1966). In Billy Wilder's film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), Toumanova played Alexandra Petrova, a 19th-century prima ballerina, in which role she danced the pas-de-deux from Act II of Swan Lake. Toumanova married writer-producer Casey Robinson in 1944. During the ten years of their marriage, she continued her dancing and film careers.

At Sol Hurok's after-theater party on the roof of the St. Regis Hotel in New York City on May 8, 1966, Toumanova and her mother met William Como, editor of Dance Magazine, who became her close friend and "adopted brother." This party followed the Bolshoi Ballet presentation at the old Metropolitan Opera House building. The procession of guests was led by the Bolshoi's prima ballerina, Maya Plisetskaya , followed by Toumanova, Dame Alicia Markova, Agnes de Mille and many other luminaries of the dance. Wrote Como:

Toumanova is strikingly beautiful. Her pale and regular features framed by smooth, gleaming, black hair, are marvelously expressive. Her great dark eyes are sometimes ominously shadowed, and expressive. There was and has remained a sense of mystery about her. She is a private person; and as I have learned over the years, a warm and gracious woman.

In 1983, at its 99th Annual Banquet and Ball, the Dance Masters of America presented Toumanova with a special award for her extraordinary and long-running career in dance. Said Toumanova: "Throughout all the artistic excitement of career, through the turmoil and turbulence of life altogether, I thank God for my opportunities. Always I look forward. Never back. Dance is my constant inspiration, all the arts my master—my guiding star."

"Simplicity in art is a goal more difficult to attain than technical bravura," Toumanova once said. "But simplicity must reflect a choice growing out of ability, knowledge and understanding—applied with judgment and taste. It should not be a consequence of limitations. Nor does simplicity mean drabness. One cannot take away the glamour that is ballet's natural heritage. Elegance and clarity, sparkle and illusion—these are a part of ballet. In certain ways, the ballet is like a crystal chandelier. Through it, beautiful forms may shine…. Without faith we cannot enter this crystal world of beauty…. [A]n artist of the ballet must have a very humble and sensitive heart, a searching mind. Without these we cannot reach beyond the footlights to share with others the art we love."


Anderson, Jack. "Toumanova," in The New York Times. May 31, 1996.

Como, William. "Editor's Log," in Dance Magazine. January 1979, December 1986.

Erni. "Tamara Toumanova," in Variety. Vol. 214, no. 79. April 22, 1959.

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Swisher, Viola Hegyi. "Tamara Toumanova," in Dance Magazine. Vol. 44. September 1970, pp. 47–61.

——. "Toumanova in Hollywood," in Dance Magazine. March 1966, pp. 26–27.

Vaillat, Leandre. "Tamara Toumanova," in Cyril Swinson, ed., Dancers and Critics. London: A&C Black, 1950.

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Dr. Boris Raymond , Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada