Spotlight: Irina Baronova

This week's Spotlight Saturday is the first of a three-part series featuring the 'Baby Ballerinas'; up first, Irina Baronova.

Irina Mikhailovna Baronova was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on March 13, 1919. She was the daughter of an officer of the Imperial Navy, Mikhail Baronov, and his wife Lidia Vishniakova, the daughter of a General. To escape the Russian Revolution, in 1920 the family dressed as peasants and fled over the border to Romania. They settled in Bucharest, where Irina's father found work in a factory. Since they had arrived penniless and unable to speak the language, the family struggled for the first few years of their exile, living in the slums near the factories.

Above: In costume for 'La Spectre de la Rose'; Below: In her dressing room, surrounded by her many pointe shoes

Irina's mother Lidia had always loved the ballet, and had frequently gone to see the Imperial Ballet perform in St. Petersburg. When Irina was 7, her mother sent her to Mme. Majaiska, a ballet teacher who had been in the corps de ballet of the Imperial Theatres before the Revolution, and was a refugee like her pupil. Mme. Majaiska had no proper dance studio; lessons took place in her two-room apartment. Irina would hold onto the kitchen table for a barre while her mother hummed music for her, since they couldn't afford a pianist or a gramophone.

Above: In 'La concurrence'; Below: unknown ballet

Irina's fortunes changed in 1929, when the family moved to Paris to ensure that Irina could have the best possible training. At 10 years old, she became a pupil of Olga Preobrajenska, and, occasionally, Mathilde Kchessinskaya. These two retired prima ballerinas had been the stars of the Imperial Ballet (and for the most part bitter rivals), but were now refugees from the Revolution. Irina made her debut at the Paris Opera Ballet in 1930 aged just 11.

Above: with Anton Dolin in 'Swan Lake', 1933; Below: as Odette in 'Swan Lake', 1933

In 1932, just before Irina turned 13, a man came to view Mme. Preobrajenska's class. His name was George Balanchine. He too was a Russian refugee, and he was looking for several young, technically brilliant girls to become the stars of the newly formed Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, the reboot of Diaghilev's famed Ballets Russes. He chose Irina, along with two other girls: Tamara Toumanova, aged 12, and Tatiana Riabouchinska, who was the oldest at just 14. Together the girls became the 'Baby Ballerinas', famous for their extreme youth and their technical perfection. Their name was coined by the English critic, Arnold Haskell, during the new company's first season in London.

Above and below: in 'Les Sylphides'

One of her first roles was as Odette in Swan Lake, when she was barely 14. Her partner was renowned dancer Anton Dolin. The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo was almost permanently on tour; all three girls were accompanied by their mothers, and in Irina's case, her two pet monkeys, Miky and Piki. Despite her chaperone, Irina eloped at 17 with an older Russian refugee, German ('Jerry') Sevastianov. Two years later they married in Sydney, where Irina was on tour with the company. Following this, and the devastating split in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Irina moved to Ballet Theatre in America under the patronage of Sol Hurok, who had been involved with her previous company. Her marriage did not last long, and she and Sevastianov quickly divorced.

In Thamar costume, 1935

In 1946 she met British agent Cecil Tennant, who asked her to marry him if she would give up dancing. At only 27, she agreed and retired from the stage. She did, however, appear in several films, including Train of Events (1949). In 1980, she served as ballet mistress on the film Nijinsky. In 1967, Cecil was killed in a car accident, and Irina moved to Switzerland, where she resumed her relationship with Sevastianov. He died in 1974. She taught master classes in Britain and America from 1976, including a class on teaching requested by Margot Fonteyn. In 1986, she staged Fokine's Les Sylphides for The Australian Ballet, and in 1992 she returned to Russia to help with an archival project for the Mariinsky. She received a Vaslav Nijinsky Medal from Poland in 1996.

In 'Les Sylphides'

Irina later settled in Australia, where her daughter Victoria also lived. She wrote her autobiography, Irina: Ballet, Life and Love, published 2005, and also appeared in the 2005 documentary Ballet Russes, which featured footage from the Ballet Russes reunion (a beautifully filmed documentary I fully recommend you watch). She was Vice President and a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) and the Australian Ballet School. She died in her sleep on June 28, 2008, aged 89.

Above: In 'La Boutique Fantastique'; Below: an older Irina teaching a masterclass

Here she is in an exceedingly rare piece of footage: as Princess Florine in The Sleeping Beauty while the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo was on tour in Australia:

The Baby Ballerinas: Irina Baronova, Tamara Toumanova, and Tatiana Riabouchinska in Les Sylphides:

Irina as the ballerina in one of her film roles: 'Florian' (1940):

I cannot find the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo documentary on YouTube (though I fully recommend you watch it if you have the chance). Instead, I have managed to find the most amazing documentary that I didn't know existed, consisting of interviews with Diaghilev's original Ballets Russes, including such dancers as Tamara Karsavina, Mari Rambert, Leonide Massine, and Ninette de Valois. I know what I'll be watching today!

Thanks for reading! Next week the Spotlight will be on Tamara Toumanova.

- Selene

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