Ballet News Reviews | Tatiana Leskova : A ballerina at large
Tatiana Leskova is one of the last surviving pupils of dancers from the golden age of the Imperial Russian Ballet; the daughter of exiled Russians whose mother, Helena, conceived her in Venice, Italy, and born in Paris in 1922.
This biography, first published in Brazil and written by Suzana Braga and now updated and translated from the Brazilian Portuguese original into English by Donald E Scrimgeour, charts the life and times of this important ballet dancer, ballet mistress and artistic director.
Engagingly written, the author takes you on a journey of Leskova’s life via Balanchine, Rudolf Nureyev, Massine, Serge Lifar, Marcia Haydée, Sofiane Sylve, Samira Saidi, Peter Wright and Dame Alicia Markova. You’ll encounter the Original Ballet Russe, Paris Opera Ballet, The Joffrey Ballet, The Australian Ballet, Ballet Society, Het Nationale Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Ballet do Theatro Municipal in Rio and you’ll travel across continents.
Tatiana Leskova, as Russian as vodka, as French as Champagne and, for us, as Brazilian as a Caipirinha, has always been an atypical and irreverent cocktail
Leskova began her dance training with Lubov Egorova and her professional career in 1937. There is a tale of coincidences surrounding this. Leskov’a father, Georges, served his country in the Second World War alongside Prince Nikita Troubetzkoy. They became friends and the prince later married Egorova (one of the principal dancers of the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg).
At nine years of age she lost her mother, and she experienced difficult times when her father, Georges Leskov, had custody. Nevertheless, Georges had been exposed to dancing from a young age and had attended the Mariinsky Theatre as part of Russian education. He wanted his daughter to be an industrial designer, but dancing was no poor second. Georges had financial problems and couldn’t afford to pay for his daughter’s dance classes, but what he had were good contacts – his friend the Prince, who by now was married to Egorova, who agreed to teach Leskova, and she began aged nine, which was already quite late. At the time, Paris had three dance schools all run by Russian exiles, and Egorova directed the school favoured by professional dancers : Danilov and Markova among them. Olga Preobrazenska taught a more technical style where the baby ballerinas Toumanova and Baronova were trained. The third was run by Matilda Kschessinskaya, and was ‘La mode’ of Parisian society.
Leskova developed mumps and the doctor prescribed ballet as a way of strengthening her breathing and protecting her lungs, and it was during this time that her relationship with her father improved, and her love of dance was cemented, and she also painted on Saturday mornings, where she was able to earn a little money by sometimes posing for artists; money that was much needed for the basics such as food.
The first ballet Leskova saw was Swan Lake, with Marina Semionova and Serge Lifar at the Paris Opera, and she was spellbound. Egorova suggested that Leskova take extra classes with Nikolai Kremnev, which she did, and it was here that she frequently ran into George Balanchine.
Do you know the Russian saying, “to put your teeth on the shelf?” Well, times were hard for Leskova and this phrase is fully explained in this context. She tried for her first job at thirteen, partly because her father struggled to get work. He was intelligent and spoke five languages, but the aristocracy of Russia were still trying to figure out how to make money, once exiled in Paris. She got into the Opera-Comique de Paris, the second most important company in Paris, as an apprentice on half the wages of the other dancers. She was considered one of the greatest interpreters of Swan Lake, and danced the first version of Raymonda, chosen by Marius Petipa.
I was born without a nationality. Russia was in a transition to the Soviet Union.
Leskova toured Europe with Egorova’s Ballet de la Jeunessein 1938 and she chose French nationality for her first passport. Her father wasn’t keen for her to tour internationally, when she was offered a place with the Ballet Russes. Nevertheless, she later became the official re-stager of Léonide Massine’s works.
This is a grand tale – Leskov’a great love was Luiz Honold Reis; a married man whose wife, Giselle, came to be friends with her, and for whom she exiled herself in Brazil in 1944. Reis didn’t provide for Leskova in his will; upon her death, Giselle left donations to her friends including Leskova.
The writing gives you a detailed understanding of Leskova’s character; her determination, fierce passion and creativity, her humour, her demanding perfectionism and also her tendencies towards provoking discussion, fighting and her unwillingness to suffer fools. She lives a simple life and is superstitious.
There are a series of black and white photographs and a couple of line drawings in the book, which overall is a lesson in hard work, discipline and belief.
Leskova was ninety in 2012 and the publishers have been told that she is about to commence work with the Sao Paulo Companhia de Danca to stage the grand pas de deux from The Nutcracker (the version she used to dance).