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Spotlight: Alexandra Danilova

Today's Spotlight Saturday focuses on Russian ballerina Alexandra Danilova.

Alexandra Danilova and Frederic Franklin in 'Gaite Parisienne'

She was born Aleksandra Dionisyevna Danilova in Peterhof, Russia, on 20 November, 1903. She studied at the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg, under former prima ballerina Agrippina Vaganova. In 1920, she joined the Imperial Ballet, quickly gaining soloist roles. She was part of a small group of Russian dancers, headed by choreographer George Balanchine, who left to tour Western Europe in 1924. The group never returned to Russia, defecting in Paris. They joined Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.

Danilova toured for many years with the Ballets Russes. She created roles in ballets by choreographers George Balanchine and Leonide Massine, including Apollon Musagete, La Pastorale, and The Triumph of Neptune.

Serge Lifar and Alexandra Danilova in 'Apollon Musagete', 1928

After Diaghilev's death, she joined the new Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1933. The company had been started by Rene Blum and Colonel de Basil. She remained with the company until 1938 as its much loved prima ballerina.

Alexandra Danilova and Leonide Massine in 'La Boutique Fantasque', 1919

Whilst with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Danilova and dancer Frederic Franklin joined forces to create one of the most beloved dance partnerships of the twentieth century. Danilova had a sparkling personality and a vivacity that audiences adored. The company cultivated for her a glamorous, sophisticated persona, and Danilova was much admired for her hard work and professionalism. Members of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, at their 2000 reunion, remembered Danilova as a warm, compassionate woman always willing to help. 'If you had any problems, any at all, you could always go to her,' commented ballerina Nini Theilade.

Alexandra Danilova and Frederic Franklin rehearse outside for 'Gaite Parisienne'

She had a wide repertoire, able to dance both comic and dramatic roles. She shone in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo's production of Gaite Parisienne. On the opening night of the ballet's 1941 American season, when Danilova first stepped on stage, she was greeted with a spontaneous standing ovation. This soon became a tradition for opening night performances of Gaite featuring Danilova.

Danilova in costume as the Glove Seller in 'Gaite Parisienne'

In 1944, she made her Broadway debut in Song of Norway, a theatre production performed by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and choreographed by George Balanchine. In 1946, she collaborated once again with Balanchine in a rare full-length production of Raymonda. She also created the role of the Sleepwalker in Night Shadow.

Alexandra Danilova and Frederic Franklin

In 1951, Danilova left the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. She guest-starred with several companies, including the Sadler's Wells Ballet (later the Royal Ballet). She then formed her own company, Great Moments of Ballet (1954-56), which toured Japan, the Philippines, and South Africa. She made her last appearance in Tokyo in 1957.

Danilova duirng her time with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo

Danilova made an appearance in the musical comedy Oh, Captain! in 1958. She danced in a single scene with the show's star, Tony Randall. But the musical was something of a flop, and Danilova found herself in financial trouble. By chance, she ran into George Balanchine in the streets of New York in 1964. When he heard of her plight, he instantly hired her to teach at the School of American Ballet, the official school of the New York City Ballet. This enabled her to bring to American ballet both her Russian classical training style and the extensive Diaghilev repertoire that she had performed so many times.

Dancers Nathalie Krassovska as Carlotta Grisi, Alexandra Danilova as Fanny Cerito, Tatiana Riabouchinska as Lucille Grahn, and Alicia Markova as Marie Taglioni, Jules Perrot's 'Pas de Quatre', 1950

In 1965, she sought permission from Balanchine to stage a spring workshop performance for the students. She staged excerpts from a wide range of classical ballets, and the workshops became an important preview for many dancers. From 1974-1975, she staged with Balanchine a full-length production of Coppelia for the New York City Ballet.

Danilova coaches dancers for the New York City Ballet's 1974 production of 'Coppelia'

In 1972, Danilova staged a production of Les Sylphides for the New York City Ballet under the title Chopiniana. She made a small appearance in the 1977 film The Turning Point, in the rather nostalgic role of a ballet teacher for upcoming ballerinas. She staged ballets for various other companies, but remained at the School of American Ballet until her retirement in 1989. She had written an autobiography in 1986 entitled Choura, after her nickname. The book won the de la Torre Bueno Prize in 1986.

Danilova in the studio with dancers Finis Jhung, Helgi Tomasson and Lawrence Rhodes at the Harkness Ballet, 1966

Danilova had been in an extended relationship with George Balanchine between 1926 and 1933, but nothing came of it and Danilova never married. She is famous for her personality on stage and her extensive repertoire; she was able to dance Romantic roles as well as the difficult abstract Balanchine roles. Danilova was especially good at characterisation, and was particularly famous in the roles of the street dancer in Le Beau Danube, the glove seller in Gaite Parisienne, Odette in Swan Lake, and Swanhilda in Coppelia.

Here she is dancing with Frederic Franklin in Gaite Parisienne:

Danilova died in her home in New York City on 13 July, 1997, at the age of 93. She had a Russian Orthodox funeral service and is buried in Oakland Cemetery, New York, in the same cemetery as George Balanchine.

Danilova in 1979

Thanks for reading! Next week the Spotlight will be on ballerina Raven Wilkinson.

- Selene

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