Tag Archives: George Balanchine

Tamara Toumanova home, Beverly Hills

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We have discussed Tamara Toumanova (1919-1996) previously in this space. Today we’ll narrow the topic a bit, but not before doing a few preliminaries.
The future great dancer, a protege of George Balanchine, was born in the Siberian city of Tyumen, where her mother was located while searching for her husband, with whom she had lost contact during the Russian Civil War. The family was finally reunited and made their way out of Russia via Vladivostok, China, Egypt and Paris. Jason Edwards and Stephanie L. Taylor describe the situation briefly, but with flavor, in their book Joseph Cornell: Opening the Box: “Toumanova, like the ballet Sleeping Beauty, is also a relic of Russia and France. Tamara was conceived in the thick of history and born in a manger on railway tracks. Her father Vladimir was an army colonel and her mother Eugenia, gave birth to her on 2 March, 1919, among cavalry horses in a cattle wagon shared with army officers making a retreat through Siberia.”
This quirk of fate allows us to place this ethnic Armenian-Pole in the sphere of Russian culture. As a dancer whose early career was closely connected to Russian emigres – including Balanchine, Sergei Diaghilev and the great Russian dance teacher Olga Preobrazhenskaya, the Russian influence was strong anyway. In fact, at the end of her life, Toumanova donated some of her famous costumes to the Vaganova Choreographic Museum in St. Petersburg.  She made her first appearances on stage in Paris beginning in 1925 (yes, when she was six years old), later adding Brussels, Geneva, Monte Carlo, London, Mexico City, Barcelona, Havana, Montreal, and New York. Her U.S. debut in 1934 took her to Chicago and Philadelphia. Her final performances on stage were in 1956 at La Scala, in Milan,  with the exception of her absolute last performance, which was in Monte Carlo for a gala celebration of the wedding of Prince Rainer and Grace Kelly.
Today we look at the Beverly Hills house at 525 N. Foothill Boulevard, which Toumanova occupied at least in the early 1940s. (My cursory research does not turn up further dates.) She most probably lived here in 1944 when she made her first of six American films, Days of Glory. Debuting on screen with her in that picture was Gregory Peck.

We (thanks to the internet) have three artifacts that provide a glimpse into Toumanova’s life while she lived in this gorgeous home in Beverly Hills. (You can even take a look inside the place in a recent video tour posted by an L.A. real estate agent. Obviously the interior has been updated numerous times since Toumanova lived here, but you still get the old-time Hollywood feel for the Spanish-style home.) Toumanova was a friend of the ground-breaking American artist Joseph Cornell, and she had an enormous influence on his work. He dedicated numerous of his works to her, and included her image in many of them. He was an innovator in using found/stray objects in his work, and Toumanova, as we see in a letter she wrote to Cornell May 16, 1942, was willing to feed his need for objects. In a typed letter that bears the return address of 525 N. Foothill Boulevard, she writes:
Dear Mr. Cornell: I was so touched by your charming present and letter. I am simply crazy about it! It is really beautiful and very interesting. I am enclosing few (sic) bits from ‘Capriccio’ and I hope you will be able to use them. I am always glad to hear from you, and please do drop me a line or two, as I am permanently here. Thanking you once again, I am, Gratefully yours, Tamara Toumanova.
This letter, available online, reveals quite a bit. Clearly, this is not their first correspondence, and since we know about the beautiful boxes Cornell made under the influence of Toumanova and ballet, we can assume it was one of those boxes that he sent her. We also appreciate the comment that she is now “permanently here,” since it does suggest this remained her home for some time.
In a short letter of August 11, 1942, Toumanova acknowledges yet another gift, this time, specifically, a box: “This little box really looks like a bit of magique!” she writes.
A third letter dated March 11, 1943, this one handwritten on Tamara Toumanova stationary, but without a return address, provides a few more details of the Cornell-Toumanova friendship. He had sent her yet another gift, this time for Christmas, and this time consisting of a poem and, apparently, another box. In this letter she calls herself “your Snow Queen or Princess Aurora,” referring, of course, to two of her most famous roles which Cornell had reflected in his work.
Some, though not all, of Cornell’s boxes are quite like what we know as the art boxes made these days in Palekh and other Russian cities. One, Untitled (for Tamara Toumanova, 1940), can be seen on the website of the Art Institute of Chicago. The description tells us: “Like Hommage à Tamara Toumanova, this box (also known as Feathered Swan) was made for the ballerina Tamara Toumanova. Cornell saw Toumanova perform Swan Lake in 1941, and he subsequently often associated her with this role.”
Hommage à Tamara Toumanova may also be seen on this site, and the description gives us some nice details about the Cornell-Toumanova relationship:
Toumanova was “the subject of more than two dozen boxes, collages, and objects created by Cornell between 1940 and the 1960s. Introduced to Toumanova in 1940, he found in her the living counterpart to the Romantic ballerina Taglioni, as well as a woman with whom he remained deeply enamored until his death.” (Washington, D. C., National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Joseph Cornell: An Exploration of Sources, 1982-83, exh. Cat. By Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, p. 34)
The text continues: “He met Toumanova through Pavel Tchelitchew, a friend and fellow artist on the fringe of Surrealist circles in New York, who designed ballet sets and exchanged gifts with her (see Dickran Tashjian, Joseph Cornell: Gifts of Desire, Miami Beach. Fla., 1992, p. 111). This collage incorporates a photograph of Toumanova with printed images of butterflies, and sea plants and creatures, evoking both an aerial and underwater world. Cornell thereby suggested that Toumanova is a star who may take her place among the constellations, alongside such mythical figures as Andromeda.”

 

 

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Ballets Russes at the Lyceum Theatre, London

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The critics ate the Ballets Russes alive when they opened for a short, “low-priced,” season in London at the Lyceum Theatre on 21 Wellington St. at the end of 1926. All kinds of stuff about them going pop (in the local lingua of the time, of course). They’d lost their moxie. They were pandering to the public. That kind of stuff. Oh, really? I’ll bet you’d have a hell of a time finding a critic who didn’t fawn on The Lion King, which opened at this same venue in 1999 and is still running today! So much for critics, so much for standards, so much for taste! In fact, when you walk around London’s West End, as I did a few months ago, and you see all those cotton candy musicals gumming up the city’s stages, you wonder how London’s reputation as a great theater center has survived. But that’s just an aside. I’m here to think about the Ballets Russes today.
The show that really caught in the London critics’ collective craw in 1926 was The Triumph of Neptune. It premiered Dec. 3, 1926, and was composed by Lord Berners, choreographed by George Balanchine. It was the first work that Diaghilev ever commissioned from a British composer. It was considered populist and folkloric and decidedly beneath the great Ballets Russes. Here is what the critic for The Nation wrote:
The excited giggles that greeted some of the more bizarre elements of the newer ballets betrayed a large sprinkling of a less highbrow audience. The season which opened at the Lyceum Theatre in November 1926 brought out an even motlier public, an enormous army of admirers, who make up an audience as unintelligent as any other, and apparently quite incapable of discriminating between one ballet and another.”
Oh, yes, where have I seen this before? If only the stupid public and the talentless artists would listen to us, the genius critics! But I keep digressing today…
Still, the razzes were not unanimous. In a friendly contemporary essay about the ballet, one scholar dug up something resembling a positive response and put it into context:
In fact Diaghilev was as attuned to trends as ever,” writes Anne Witchard in “Bedraggled Ballerinas on a Bus Back to Bow: The ‘Fairy Business’.” “It was a craze for mid-century Victoriana among London’s so-called Bright Young Things that persuaded him to commission the eccentric peer and composer Lord Berners and his friend Sacheverell Sitwell to create the ballet score and libretto. The Triumph of Neptune was a combination of surreal pastiche, camp sentiment, and fierce nostalgia, and it prompted the normally anti-Diaghilev Daily Express critic, Hannen Swaffer, to state: ‘We saw at the Lyceum last night the beginnings of a British ballet.’ This was not quite what Haskell had meant. Where Haskell was referring to the artistic credibility of English ballet dancing as a nascent phenomenon thanks to Russian intervention, what Swaffer saw in The Triumph of Neptune was the rediscovery of an already credible native tradition. The flamboyant dandy-aesthetes of the 1920s embraced a ‘High-coloured Victorian England’ as wholeheartedly as pre-war Bloomsbury had rejected it, and Diaghilev’s company offered ways of making aesthetic connections to that tradition.”

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The Triumph of Neptune was joined in rep by, among other titles, Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird and Constant Lambert’s Romeo and Juliet. This latter work premiered in Monte Carlo a few months before London, and received a bit of a scandalous reception in Paris after Monte Carlo, but before London. The Parisians, apparently always quick to complain (or quick to give Diaghilev the publicity he craved) were unhappy that the pair of lovers in this version are swept away to safety on a new-fangled airplane rather than can kill themselves in the finale. Here, in a review of a CD containing both The Triumph of Neptune and Romeo and Juliet, is a description of the ballet as it unfolded on stage:
This Romeo and Juliet is perhaps an irreverent treatment of Shakespeare’s tragedy, taking less than thirty-one minutes for performance.  The first tableaux is ‘In a ballet classroom,’ in which the two principal dancers fall in love while practicing for the performance.  The second tableaux is ‘At a rehearsal of scenes from Romeo and Juliet‘ in which the first meeting of the two lovers  is depicted in a Sinfonia (3:03), the duel between Romeo and Tybalt by a Toccata (2:33), the balcony scene by a Musette (2:42), the death of Juliet by an Adagietto (1:59), and a Finale (3:22) after which the leading dancers do not take their curtain call—they have eloped by aeroplane.”
Romeo was danced by Serge Lifar (Serhiy Lyfar in transliteration from his native Ukrainian); Juliet by Alice (Alisa) Nikitina. You can see them in a photo on Pinterest.
A third ballet that played with the other two was a new version of Stravinsky’s The Firebird. As Alexander Golovin’s sets and Leon (Lev) Bakst’s costumes to the famous 1910 production had been damaged beyond repair, Diaghilev had Natalya Goncharova create a new environment for the piece. (You can see a nice shot of her backdrop here.) According to The London Stage 1920-1929: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel, The Firebird opened Nov. 22, 1926, and played 10 times through Dec. 11. It used the original Michel Fokine (Mikhail Fokin) choreography, and starred Serge Lifar  as Ivan Tsarevich and Lydia Lopokova (Lidia Lopukhova) as the Firebird. Chatty birds even today tell us that Lopokova did not like working with Lifar, but she put on a game face and did it anyway.
There were apparently several other works that joined these main pieces during the London “low-priced” season. The fine AusStage website informs us that on Thursday, Nov. 25, the following combination of ballets and symphonic pieces opened: The Three-Cornered HatThe Firebird,  L’Apres Midi D’un Faune, and Prince Igor, plus the interludes of Largo by Gemignani (first performance in England), Jeux en Plein Air by Tailleferre (first performance in England) and Scherzo by Borodin.
Look at all that cheap, populist stuff! Right here at the Lyceum, November and December 1926.

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Tamara Toumanova grave site, Los Angeles

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I’m tempted to just quote Jack Anderson’s New York Times May 31, 1996, obituary for Tamara Toumanova (1919-1996) in full. I won’t. But I’m sorely tempted. It’s chock full of the kind of information I love. Let me provide some snippets:
Tamara Toumanova, a child-prodigy ballerina of the 1930’s who became familiar to American audiences as one of the most glamorous stars of 20th-century dance, died on Wednesday at the Santa Monica Hospital in Santa Monica, Calif. She was 77 and lived in Beverly Hills…
“By the time she was 13, Miss Toumanova was internationally acclaimed as one of the three so-called baby ballerinas of Col. W. de Basil’s Ballets Russes. She and two other phenomenally gifted daughters of Russian emigres — Irina Baronova and Tatiana Riabouchinska — were discovered in Parisian ballet studios by George Balanchine…
“Adoring fans nicknamed Miss Toumanova ‘the black pearl of the Russian ballet.’ Even as a teen-ager, her beauty was as remarkable as her technique…
“A founding member of the de Basil Ballets Russes in 1932, Miss Toumanova inspired two of this century’s greatest choreographers. She created roles in Balanchine’s Cotillon and Concurrence and in Leonide Massine’s Jeux d’Enfants with the company…
“Miss Toumanova was born on March 2, 1919, in a boxcar in Siberia. She was the daughter of a czarist army colonel and his wife, who were fleeing the Bolsheviks. The couple settled in Paris, where their daughter became a pupil of Olga Preobrajenska, a Russian-born teacher…
And on it goes. Wow. Born in a train car in Siberia (just outside the city of Tyumen, for those who like details), fleeing revolution… Does that sound iconic, or what? With a beginning like that, Toumanova simply had to become a Hollywood star. Hollywood exists to capitalize precisely on such extraordinary biographies.
I mean, look at this little story that Wikipedia carries:
In 1936, while Toumanova was performing ballet in Chicago, an 18-year-old boy named Burr Tillstrom came to see her perform. Following the ballet, Burr went backstage to meet her. As they talked, Toumanova and Tillstrom became friends. Some time later, Tillstrom showed her a favorite puppet he had made and she, surprised by his revelation, exclaimed, “Kukla” (Russian for ‘puppet’). Burr Tillstrom went on to create a very early (1947) television show for children, titled, Kukla, Fran and Ollie.
Now, how many of us who grew up watching Kukla, Fran and Ollie had any idea that Kukla was a Russian word (I only made the connection just now, having read this blurb) and that it had been suggested by the great Toumanova, who was all of 17 at that point?
She began studying with the great Preobrazhenskaya when she was still nearly an infant. She made her first memorable appearance at the grand age of six, chosen out of a group to perform by the great Anna Pavlova. She broke in with the world-class emigres Balanchine and Massine (Myasin, in its Russian form) when she was not yet a teenager (she was 12). Throughout the core of her career she dazzled audiences in Paris, London, New York, Monte Carlo, Milan, while touring to Central American, Canada, Spain and Cuba. She made her film debut in 1944 in a picture, Days of Glory, that featured Gregory Peck making his own debut. Through 1970 she played in five more films, always playing a dancer. Everything about Toumanova sounds like a fairy-tale.
Virtually nothing tied the dancer-actor to Russia itself. I don’t know how long she remained within Russian/Soviet borders after her birth, but it may have been only weeks, it may have been months. It doesn’t appear to have been a year. And yet, before she died, she donated what costumes she had in her possession to the Vaganova Choreographic Museum in St. Petersburg.

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Ethnically, Toumanova was her own personal melting pot. Or so it would seem. You can find references to her alleged Georgian, Armenian, Polish, Ukrainian and Russian roots. The name Toumanova derived from her mother’s maiden name, Tumanishivili, which is a prominent Georgian name. There have been several great Georgian directors with that name. I don’t know if there is a relation or not, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find there is. On the other hand, one of Toumanova’s best friends apparently claimed she did not have a drop of Georgian blood in her. Sounds rather impossible with such a name, but I don’t make up the news here, I just report it. Her father’s name is usually given as Vladimir Khassidovitch. In a semi-backstage editing-war report at Wikipedia, you can read the following, which indicates how difficult it is to determine Toumanova’s blood heritage: “…She is of Polish/Ukrainian and Georgian descent, not just Georgian (or Armenian), her father was Khazidowich-Boretski, a Pole from Ukraine. Secondly, Tamara herself, her mother and her family and friends have stated that her mother is Georgian. These are primary sources and should be taken as facts, the rest is speculation and rumours.” I will add, as someone else does elsewhere in the long, often contentious report, that the name Khassidovitch or Khazidowich, might also indicate Jewish connections.
Whatever the sources that went into the making of this extraordinary woman, they worked.  As the British ballet critic A.V. Coton is reported to have said, “she was the loveliest creature in the history of the ballet.”
Toumanova is buried next to her mother Yevgenia (Eugenie) Dmitrievna Toumanova, at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles. Eugenie was her daughter’s constant companion, manager, make-up woman, costume-lady and what-all throughout the younger woman’s career.
I will tell you that Toumanova’s grave is located at Section 8, Lot 111, grave 7 in the Garden of Legends section of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, although that will hardly help you find it. I walked back and forth on the little hillside overlooking an artificial pond, not far from Fyodor Ozep’s grave, for well over a half an hour before finding the site. I hate to say it, but all of those graves begin looking the same at a certain point. Most are not like the Johnny Ramone memorial (straight across the pond from Toumanova), with a cheap look-alike statue and a guitar. If you make the trek yourself, look out for Toumanova’s whispering cherub. That’s what will help you find her.

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