When I began to learn about ballet, the period that held the most interest for me were the Diaghilev years. There was a vast amount of his ballets still being performed in the 1940's and 1950's. During my first few years of attending performances I saw 'Prince Igor', 'Les Sylphides', 'Carnaval', 'Scheherazade', 'Firebird', 'Spectre de la Rose', 'Petrouchka', 'Afternoon of a Faun','Le Tricorne', 'Apollo', and 'Prodigal Son'. Later I would see 'Les Noces', 'Parade', and 'Rite of Spring'. It is no wonder that I immersed myself in those remarkable twenty years, and the few years preceding it in Russia. The first books I read were the Haskell/Nouvel and Lifar biographies and Alexandre Benois' Reminiscences of the Russian Ballet.
My favorite source was the New York Public Library's "Music Library" located on East 58 Street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan; this was many years before the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center was built. There was also a Dance Collection at the Main Branchof the Library on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, but it always seemed like a hassle to request an item. The Music Library was more accessible and cosier; there were mahogany bookcases with glass doors that had to be opened with a key. Here you could use a set of headphones and listen to music while you had a 'hands-on' experience with their memorabilia---and what memorabilia! There were original souvenier programs, newspaper articles about the Diaghilev tours in the United States and human interest stories about the dancers. (Alas, no latte; Barnes and Noble and Borders were still to come)
All this brings me to Alexandra Danilova. She was my link to the Diaghilev years and the Maryinsky.
I saw a great deal of Danilova with the Ballet Russe from 1944 until her re- tirement in the 1950's. At that time, the Ballet Russe had two seasons a year in New York, from four to six weeks. (I had a very good upper balcony seat at the City Center--Row H Seat 1. It was the last row and I could put the seat up and have a clear view, tickets were $1.10). During those years I saw Danilova perform 'Swan Lake' (Act II); 'Pas de Deux Classique '(Act III), 'Le Beau Danube', 'Gaite Parisienne', 'Coppelia', 'The Red Poppy', 'Scheherazade', 'Danses Concertantes', 'Mozartiana','Baiser de la Fee' (bride); 'Pas de Quatre' (Cerrito), 'Night Shadow' (sleepwalker),'Raymonda', 'Giselle' (Myrtha), 'Paquita', and a few prosaic ones---'Billy Sunday', ;Lola Montez', 'The Bells', 'Cuckold's Fair'.
Danilova has been celebrated for her 'Champagne' roles--'Gaite Parisienne', 'Le Beau Danube', and 'Boutique Fantasque', and rightly so. More than mere technique, she had the womanliness and sophistication for these ballets, and her interpretations were quite varied. In the one ('Gaite Parisienne') she was delightfully flirtatious, and there was a fragility in her Street Dancer ('Le Beau Danube')---here was a woman who was bruised by the vicissitudes of life. How unfortunate it is that the Warner Bros. film of 'Gaite Parisienne' in 1940 did not include her performance as the Glove Seller. Leonide Massine and Frederic Franklin are in the film, but she was considered "not photogenic". She was replaced by a soloist in the Company, Milada Mladova. (There is a black and white film that was surreptitiously recorded during many live performances, but it only works as a curiosity piece.)
Her Swanilda (Coppelia) had just the right amount of sensitivity and whimsey. She was the proper village girl in Act I; in Act II she was alternately stubborn, conniving and playful to poor Dr. Coppelius---her pantomime incomparable (especially in giving life to Coppelia when she batted her eyelids furiously); in Act III she was transformed into the resplendent Ballerina, no longer was she the Village girl. Her performance as Myrtha (Giselle) changed the dynamics of the ballet. Her unearthly phantom had the stature befitting a Queen, a quality too often missing in most interpretations. The role Balanchine created for her in 'Danses Concertantes' (Ballet Russe, 1944) captures the essence of her dancing--the musicality, wit, sophistication, playfulness. He exploited her sparkle and wonderful sense of rhythm in this work. A later version by New York City Ballet in 1972 failed to evoke the original work. Leon Danilian (who alternated partnering Danilova with Frederic Franklin in this work) said: "There's something of the feeling--not of the steps, but the atmosphere--of the old 'Danses Concertantes' in the Rubies section of 'Jewels'. I heartily agree. Danilova was a Balanchine dancer with "Soul".
It was her Odette that enraptured me. (she nurtured my conception of what the role should be) If, indeed there are few great Odettes, surely Danilova is in the top tier. Her portrayal was one of deeply felt emotion and a resigned sadness to her fate. In her 'Memoirs' she said, "Diaghilev had Balanchine make new choreograpy for Odette, with droopy hands and sloping shoulders to show that she is unhappy and in mourning...her dancing subordinated to one idea--her sorrow". The celebrated symmetry of her legs created a particularly beautiful line. She could be very fast in allegro. Her Act II Coda was very sharp and fast and she and the music were one. (Wendy Whelan's performance of this Coda brought Danilova to mind.)
Anatole Chujoy states: "Her virtues included elegance, simplicity, dignity, correctnesss of style...an absence of mannerisms and ostentation..." Edwin Denby said "...it is her feminine presence, her air of dancing for the delight of it..."
The heart of her dancing was, indeed, her lack of ostentation and above all, her femininity. She showed us the meaning of the phrase "Grand Manner":.