By ALBERT TUCKER
The Library of Congress recently added to its significant dance holdings with the acquisition of the collection of Alexandra Danilova, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo's prima ballerina from 1938 to 1951. The Danilova collection joins the Martha Graham, Serge Diaghilev and Rudolf Nureyev collections in the Library's Music Division.
Lauded for her roles in Gaîte Parisienne, La Boutique fantasque and Le Beau Danube, Danilova also appeared in Swan Lake, The Firebird, Giselle, Coppélia and many other notable productions. Lifelong friend of and collaborator with famed choreographer George Balanchine, leader of her own world traveling ballet company in the 1950s and teacher at the School of American Ballet from 1964 to 1989, Danilova was a 1989 recipient of the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors in recognition of a lifetime of achievement and dedication in the field of ballet.
When Alexandra Danilova was born in 1904, ballet was popular in her native czarist Russia. In turn-of-the-century America, ballets were only rarely staged at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. These rare performances, invariably by European companies, failed to inspire the development of an indigenous ballet culture in America. Beginning in 1916, a series of innovative ballet companies, starting with Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, began touring in the United States. These companies built on a repertoire of standard Russian classics such as Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty. The last of these companies, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, finding itself stranded in America with the onset of World War II, toured more extensively than any of its predecessors. The company appeared to great acclaim in as many as 104 cities in one season. The many ballet schools and companies in America today owe much to the example of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and its outstanding performers, including the "waxen-legged" Danilova.
The Danilova Collection contains correspondence from renowned dancers Margot Fonteyn, Alicia Markova, Anton Dolin and Frederic Franklin, and choreographers Jerome Robbins, Peter Martins and Ruth Page. Also included are programs featuring Danilova performing Giselle at Covent Garden in 1949, dancing with her own company in South Africa in the 1950s, appearing in Raymonda in Japan in 1957 for her farewell performance and choreographing for New York's Metropolitan Opera in the 1960s.
The collection is particularly strong in photographs, including many beautiful prints of Danilova in her most famous roles, appearing with partners such as Frederic Franklin, Leonid Massine and Igor Youskevitch. Additional photographs capture other dancers, including Alicia Markova, Mia Slavenska and the "baby ballerinas," the teen-aged virtuosos Irina Baronova, Tamara Tamounova and Tatiana Riabouchinska. Also included in the collection are numerous newspaper clippings and magazine articles, primarily focusing on Danilova or Balanchine; drafts of lectures she presented in the late 1950s and early 1960s; typescripts of her autobiography; several dance awards and civic citations; videotapes, including one featuring the choreographer Bronislava Nijinska; and dance-related books from Danilova's personal library, many inscribed by the authors. Danilova's copy of the script for the film "The Turning Point" is also part of the collection. In this 1977 film about an aging prima ballerina, starring Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine, Danilova was cast as Madame Dakharova, a ballet teacher whose life was loosely based upon her own.
A Personal View of a Dancer's Life
By KIM ALEXANDRA KOKICH
Alexandra Danilova (1904-1997) was known in the tightly knit ballet world as Choura. Born in pre-revolutionary Peterhof, Russia, near the great city of St. Petersburg, she was an orphan reared by a wealthy aunt. As a child, Choura loved to show off in front of relatives by dancing on her toes. At the age of 8, she was accepted to study at the legendary Imperial School of Ballet, connected to the famous Maryinski Theater.
In 1912, when Choura attended its classes, the school was in its prime. The most lauded dancers of the 20th century, such as Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina and Vaslav Nijinsky, were its most famous graduates. The school's teachers were French, Italian and Scandinavian. Danilova's talent caught their attention, so they often overlooked the child's occasional mischievous behavior. The school provided the opera and ballet with students of all ages to fill out the casts of their various productions. Choura, who had earned a reputation for her musicality and ease of movement, was a favorite choice to appear in these performances.
Choura lived in a protected world until the Russian Revolution of 1917. At first, the revolution temporarily closed the school and theater as symbols of the Czarist regime, but then the communists decided to sponsor it on a limited basis while they decided which role the arts should play in the state.
By this time, the great impresario Serge Diaghilev had established his Ballets Russes in Paris. The company became a haven to many dancers fleeing post-revolutionary Russia. In 1924, Danilova and a group of fellow dancers, including the young choreographer George Balanchine, followed. It was one of the most exciting periods of ballet history and the beginning of ballet as we know it today. Diaghilev was the visionary who put a stop to the idea that ballets must be full-length or complement an opera. He commissioned and presented evenings of several short ballets of different contemporary styles, designed to whet the appetite of a growing ballet audience.
Diaghilev sought out talents in all the artistic media, such as Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso and Coco Chanel, to work on his productions. Choura was in the right place at the right time and possessed the requisite talent.
During this highly creative period, she and Balanchine lived together as common-law husband and wife. Still, her career always came first. She danced with Diaghilev's company until he died in 1929. By 1933 she was dancing with Colonel de Basil's Ballets Russes, and in 1938 she became prima ballerina with Serge Denham's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, which toured across America during World War II.
This artistic period ultimately connected my life to hers. In 1941, Choura married a young soloist in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Kazimir Kokich, my father. They fell in love when her career was at its peak and Kokich was also rising in the company. His strengths as a character dancer made him a favorite choice of choreographers. Leonide Massine cast him frequently in works such as Gaîté Parisienne and Le Beau Danube. Agnes de Mille created Rodeo with Kokich originating the role of Head Wrangler.
Those years were passionate and golden, Choura told me, but both of them, she said, suffered from terrible tempers, and their marriage wasn't without tumult. My father wanted children. Danilova did not. The rigors of touring and professional jealousies took their toll, and then, there was the war.
My father joined the army in 1942 and was in the infantry in the South Pacific. When he returned, he found that Choura had a lover, and their marriage was over. Kokich also discovered that all his roles had been inherited by other dancers and he was considered too old and too shell-shocked to continue with the Ballet Russe except as a teacher. But Agnes de Mille saw his potential and had faith in him, and so he joined the road company of Carousel in Chicago in 1946. It was on this production that he met my mother, Iva Withers, who was playing the lead role of Julie Jordan. For the next 20 years, my father performed in many successful Broadway musicals.
Improbable as it may seem, my parents maintained a relationship with Choura. It was, as they used to say, "very civilized." When I was born in 1957, Choura became my godmother. From 1964 to 1989, Choura was a teacher and choreographer at the School of American Ballet. Our personal relationship made my eight years at the school tense and stressful. She was tougher on me than on the other students, and yet I knew she loved me. She never wanted to be accused of nepotism and would often tell me that she was hard on me because that would make me stronger and more independent. Ultimately, she was right.
I left ballet in 1974, and in the 23 years between my departure and her death, she and I forged an intensely close, loving relationship. I moved to Washington, D.C., married and divorced twice, and had children. Throughout the years, we would commiserate about life, love and the nature of destiny. I would visit her often and we would talk about ballets we had seen and how dancers today seem to care more about job benefits than perfecting "nuance" and creating magic.
When she died in the summer of 1997, I felt a deep loss. When I was notified that she had named me in her will as a beneficiary, I was stunned. She bequeathed all of her paintings to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, but her personal papers and belongings were placed in my care.
While her estate was in probate, a number of personal items were stolen. A flood ruined at least two suitcases full of letters and papers. I salvaged what I could — personal letters and notes from her colleagues such as Jerome Robbins and Lincoln Kirstein, costume sketches, photographs, fan letters and clippings from newspapers throughout the United States, and the notes and interviews with Holly Brubach, who co-wrote Choura's 1988 autobiography, Choura: The Memoirs of Alexandra Danilova.
While her collection has a personal meaning for me, it belongs to the country she adopted as her home. I decided to give these items to the Library of Congress because of her cultural contribution to the nation. I kept the sentimental items I remembered from my childhood, but I donated the rest to America's library, where I knew they would be safe.
Mr. Tucker is a processing technician in the Library's Music Division.