Barbara Newman reviews a beautiful new book that chronicles the rise of modern ballet in the early 20th century.

Irina Baronova and the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo
Victoria Tennant
(University of Chicago Press, £38.50 *£32.50)

It reads like a fairy tale. In 1931, a pretty Russian student named Irina Baronova was plucked out of a ballet studio in Paris and thrust into a brand-new company run by a former Cossack. She was 12 years old. Within months she was dancing leading roles alongside experienced performers and two other gifted teenagers. The three girls were called “the baby ballerinas.”

After Baronova’s death in 2008, her daughter, the actress Victoria Tennant, organized her mother’s letters and photographs into this splendid memoir of her extraordinary career. Tennant’s straightforward comments tie the chronological narrative together; Baronova’s incisive observations flood it with her personality and impudent style.

Though the great artists who inspired her and the ballets that brought her stardom have largely been forgotten, during the 1930s they sustained classical ballet’s finest standards and secured its future. Five-month tours of one-night stands crisscrossed America and Canada, which had no ballet companies of their own. Dazzling choreography by Balanchine, Fokine and Léonide Massine attracted the London audience Diaghilev had developed; the 1937 season of this new Ballets Russes broke Covent Garden box-office records.

A natural chameleon onstage, Baronova became ethereal, saucy or dramatic at will, a lyrical swan or a mischievous soubrette. Her interpretive range shines from these photographs, and her voice vividly illuminates her private and public history in the world she inhabited with such dedication. “The first time I had to join a union,” she wrote, “was with [American] Ballet Theatre [in 1941]…and none of us could understand, how can you be an artist and do creative work and look at the clock all the time?”

When she and her remarkable colleagues represented ballet to the public, artistry produced celebrity, not the other way around. This elegant, informative book documents the path of a memorable dancer from anonymity to international acclaim.

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