Irina Baronova, Ballet Star, Dies at 89
Published: July 2, 2008
Irina Baronova, an international ballet star who was one of three celebrated prodigies known as the “baby ballerinas” after George Balanchine discovered them in Paris in the 1930s, died on Saturday at her home in Byron Bay, New South Wales, Australia. She was 89.
Irina Baronova in “Les Sylphides” at the Met, around 1940.
Her death was confirmed by her daughter, the actress Victoria Tennant. Australian news accounts said she died in her sleep.
With her vivacious wholesome beauty, indelible classical style and virtuosic technique, Ms. Baronova was one of ballet’s most acclaimed stars until she chose to retire at 27 in 1946. The retirement may have seemed premature, but by that time she had already been a professional dancer for 15 years.
When she was 12, Balanchine cast her in a ballet segment of his 1931 Paris staging of the Offenbach operetta “Orpheus in the Underworld.” As André Levinson, the dean of Paris critics, wrote, “The sensation of the evening was the tiny child Baronova, who went through the final galop like a whirlwind.”
From 1932 to the early 1940s, Ms. Baronova, who was born in Russia, toured widely in Europe, the United States, Australia and part of Latin America with the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo as well as with Ballet Theater (now American Ballet Theater).
Like Tamara Toumanova and Tatiana Riabouchinska, the Ballets Russes’s two other “baby ballerinas” (reportedly so named by the British critic Arnold Haskell), Ms. Baronova started out in experimental works, including ballets by Balanchine, Léonide Massine and Bronislava Nijinska. Her range also extended to one -act versions of the 19th-century classics. She was a memorable Aurora from “The Sleeping Beauty,” and at 14 she danced her first Odette in “Swan Lake,” partnered by the British ballet star Anton Dolin.
When Balanchine recruited Ms. Baronova as well as Toumanova and Riabouchinska (who both died in recent years) for the 1932 debut of the company that became the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, he felt confident that the traditional training they received from Russian émigré ballerinas of the Maryinsky Ballet would be a springboard for his new works. Ms. Baronova and Toumanova were 13-year-old pupils of Olga Preobrajenska. Riabouchinska, 15, studied with Mathilde Kchessinska.
Balanchine left in 1933 to form his own troupe, Les Ballets 1933. But Ms. Baronova’s versatility served her well and came directly from Preobrajenska, who condensed her own seven years of studies at the Maryinsky Ballet’s school into three years for her Paris pupils. As Ms. Baronova told a 1995 conference of critics in St. Petersburg, “She knew we had to begin work soon to help support our families.”
Preobrajenska produced strong centered dancers who executed the mulitple fouetté turns that both Toumanova and Ms. Baronova tossed off effortlessly as spinning tops in the toy-room scene of Massine’s “Jeux d’Enfants.”
At the same time, as the American ballerina Sono Osato recalled in her 1980 memoir, “Distant Dances,” Ms. Baronova “danced flowingly, giving as much importance to the small steps that connected the larger ones as she did to the final pose.”
Among her early triumphs was the role she created as Passion in Massine’s celebrated 1933 allegorical ballet, “Les Présages.” Born in Petrograd (the former and present St. Petersburg), Russia, on March 13, 1919, Ms. Baronova emigrated with her parents to Romania in 1920 and to Paris in 1928. From 1932 to 1939, her career was identified with the Ballets Russes, under the management of Vassily Voskresensky, known as Col. W. de Basil. In 1936, at 17, she eloped in Newport, Ky., with de Basil’s associate manager, German Sevastianov. When Sevastianov moved over as manager to Ballet Theater in 1941, Ms. Baronova became one of its leading ballerinas, leaving in 1943. In 1940 she was a guest artist with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, a rival company headed by Sergei Denham, and in 1945, she danced with Massine’s Ballet Russe Highlights.
Along the way, she made two Hollywood films, “Florian” (1940) and “Yolanda” (1943), but retired from dancing after she married her second husband, Cecil Tennant, a British theatrical agent, who died in a car accident in 1967. They had three children, Victoria, Irina and Robert. Ms. Baronova resumed her relationship with Sevastianov in 1971. He died in 1974.
In 2000 she moved to Australia to live near her family. She is survived by her children, six grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.