Tamara Toumanova (1919-1996)

Toumanova was born on a train while her mother was trying to flee Russia in search of her husband. They had become separated during the Revolution. Tamara was 18 months old before her parents were reunited. The family escaped from Russia to Shanghai, where they lived for a year, then moved to Cairo. After spending time in various refugees' camps the family eventually settled in Paris. Tamara's very domineering mother arranged for her to take piano lessons. Her grandfather had been a great admirer of Olga Preobrajenska when she was the ballerina at the Maryinsky Theatre, and therefore it was decided that Tamara should also study with this famous ballerina who had opened a school in Paris. Tamara said, "Preobrajenska was my first and only permanent teacher. I think always of Mme, Preobrajenska not only as my beloved, never-to-be-forgotten teacher, but my immortal friend." Toumanova made her debut at the Paris Opera at the age of nine in L'Eventail de Jeanne.

George Balanchine saw her in ballet class and engaged her for the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo (at that time they still used the plural form of Ballet Russe), as one of the three "Baby Ballerinas." Although all three were beautiful, Tamara was also glamorous and a real "diva." She came to be called "The Black Pearl of the Russian Ballet."

Balanchine choreographed the part of the Young Girl for Tamara in his ballet Cotillon, and also starred her in his Concurrence and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.

Leonide Massine also worked closely with Tamara in the creation of many of his ballets. She played the part of the Top in his Jeux d'Enfants (which can be seen on film at the Library of the Performing Arts Dance Collection). Balanchine created a role for her in his Le Palais de Cristal (now Symphony in C) in 1947 at the Paris Opera. She also made many movies: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Tonight We Sing (where she played Anna Pavlova), Deep in My Heart, Days of Glory, and in Alfred Hitchcock's Torn Curtain.

As resident ballerina or as guest artist with many companies, Toumanova danced most of the classic ballerina's roles in the ballet repertoire, partnered by many of the great male dancers of her day.

She passed away Santa Monica, California, on May 29, 1996.

(First published March 1998)

I'm your teacher, not your baby-sitter.