Thoughts on choreographic lineage: Irina Baronova and the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo

9780226167169Victoria Tennant’s recent book Irina Baronova and the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo (2014) recounts her mother’s dance career with diary entries, institutional and personal ephemera and images, and recollections of conversations. Irina Baronova (1919–2008) was prima ballerina for the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo and later for Lucia Chase’s Ballet Theatre in New York, now known as American Ballet Theatre. She includes behind-the-scenes stories and events reflected upon with the passing of time such as the challenges of touring an international troupe on oceanic ships as World War II began, arguing for rights to perform works and luring dancers away from one director to another. Baronova had personal conversations with Igor Stravinsky and Bronislava Nijinska, had Hitler kiss her hand after a performance in Berlin, and posed for Disney’s ostriches in Fantasia.

For ballet fans, details of working with seminal artists and masterpiece works are exciting to read. The magnitude in which the Ballet Russes family tree contributed to and shaped dance history is awe inspiring. Archival items uncover new ways to consider aspects of originality for dances created in the early 1900s. In Baronova’s own words, she describes Fokine’s Les Sylphides:

‘Nobody realizes that in Les Sylphides the whole thing is a dialogue between the Sylphides and the invisible creatures of the forest. It’s a whispering talk. All the gestures are listening, questioning, whispering back. It’s a conversation, and the Sylphides turn in the direction of the voice they hear and run to it. If you don’t know that, there are no reasons for doing anything, it’s just empty and boring. The whole ballet should be acting and reacting.’ (Baronova, 2014, p. 118)

Contemporary performances of Les Sylphides still feature romantic dancing spirits in white, but the lineage of the artistic concept started in 1893 as Chopiniana. While not all of the versions of Les Sylphides can be listed, many include choreography after Michel Fokine (as opposed to the original Fokine choreography) and a popular reorchestration based on the Chopin score. In an interview, the world-renowned dance archaeologist Pierre Lacotte has said “I think authenticity and reconstruction is a very important issue. It’s important for people to agree what is right.” He also specifies the scholastic importance of noting if choreography is by Fokine, or after Fokine.

– Chopiniana Opus 46, music by Alexander Glazunov and choreography by Michel Fokine. Premiered December 1893

– Chopiniana, orchestration by Maurice Keller and new choreography by Fokine, ca. 1908.

– Les Sylphides (renamed by Diagnilev), music by Frederic Chopin reorchestrated by Anatoly Lyadov, Sergei Taneyev, Nikolai Tcherepnin, and Igor Stravinsky, omitting the Glazunov Waltz and creating a new Waltz composition. Choreography by Michel Fokine. Premiered June 1909.

Les Sylphides, music by Chopin, orchestrated by Benjamin Britten, choreography by Michel Fokine. Premiered by Ballet Theater on February 13, 1941. (A discovery made in 2013)

– Chopiniana, reorchestrated music by Frederic Chopin, omitting the Polonaise. Choreography by Michel Fokine and staged by Alexandra Danilova in 1972 for New York State Theater (NYCB).

Choreographic lineage and survival

In the summer of 2013 I had a fellowship at the Jerome Robbins Dance Division Moving Image Archive at The New York Public Library. While helping provide content for the digital collections interface, I watched famous ballet variations over time, and was intrigued to see what choreographic sections were kept, and which were changed. Earlier this spring, I watched Gilliam Murphy perform the Sleeping Beauty pas de deux, which was one of the variations I studied while at NYPL. I appreciated having the insight to appreciate the uniqueness of this particular performance’s direction compared to the three video recordings I watched at NYPL: Margot Fonteyn with Robert Helpmann (ca. 1950, NYPL identifier b12165245), 1974 Kirov Ballet performance by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Irina Kolpakova (NYPL Mikhail Baryshnikov Archive, 1960-2010, NYPL identifier b19832086), and Margot Fonteyn with Robert Helpmann (ca. 1930-1950, NYPL identifier b12158871~S1). The 2015 performance was danced at a faster tempo but it still included much of the Fokine choreography. One would hope that such a classic and well-known pas de deux should not change so easily.


What makes one version outlive others? In the Tennant book, the history of the Ballet Russes dancers was dependent on business and contracts. After Diaghilev removed himself from his company, two Ballets Russes companies emerged, both battling each other to be the more successful, to woo choreographers and dancers, and to tour as much as possible. Artistic temperaments, swapping of dancers between companies for various tours, and financial compensation influenced who would be available to create and perform works. Fortunately we are still graced with these works of art. Balanchine started a company in America with financier Lincoln Kirstein which ensured that his original choreography survived.

This excerpt from an interview with ballet restorer Sergei Vikharev exposes the business side of creation very frankly:

What is the threat to the art of ballet in this? If you establish the real Sleeping Beauty, the real Bayadere, or Petipa’s Coppelia – how does that threaten dancing? How does it threaten tradition? I can’t understand their argument.

Every balletmaster at the head of a company wants to make his own version of Sleeping Beauty. He becomes the author and he gets 5 or 10 percent from all the tickets.

So if you establish one “real” version of Sleeping Beauty then nobody gets any royalties!

No, then I’d get the royalties! Because I have to protect this product so that the dancers don’t change anything.

So it is not entirely an intellectual problem.

Ballet is a very deep business.

As much as things change, there is a respect for the creators in ballet, or at least what we know of them. Staging classic works shows a dedication to tradition, although performing and touring works requires a bit of marketing to current audiences. For me, becoming steeped in the historical context of a work or not is a choice to change my perspective. I may appreciate or enjoy seeing a performance more if I pretend I am an audience member seeing it as it premiered, not having awareness of the development of dance styles and technique over the decades. Or, I may appreciate a piece more in retrospect: realizing the genius of a work is that it can stand the test of time with universal themes and gripping movements that connect readily to audiences past, present, and future.

Irina Baronova and the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo took me into the ballet world. Victoria tells it how it is. Each person has a story but not everyone writes it down, or has them collected to produce a story in thematic timeline fashion. How very special that her mother’s story was made into a “picture book” as she puts it. Victoria’s journey to research and uncover evidence can provide new facts about previously unknown photos and dances is a reminder that thousands more stories are laying in wait in archives.


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