Russian ballerina who lifted even simple dance to a new plane

Tatiana Riabouchinska, who died on August 24th aged 83, will be remembered as one of the three "baby ballerinas" whose youth …

Tatiana Riabouchinska, who died on August 24th aged 83, will be remembered as one of the three "baby ballerinas" whose youth and exceptional artistry did so much to establish and ensure the success of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, the company which, after the death of its founder Sergei Diaghilev, kept the art of ballet alive throughout the 1930s and beyond.

The "baby ballerinas" - the others were Irina Baronova and Tamara Toumanova - were emigre Russians discovered by George Balanchine when he was helping to form the company. All three came from the Paris studios of those great teachers, all former ballerinas of the Imperial Russian Ballet, whose teaching formed generations of the best dancers in Europe. Baronova and Toumanova, the youngest, were pupils of Olga Preobrajenska, but Tatiana Riabouchinska was a pupil of Mathilde Kschessinska, former ballerina assoluta and mistress of the Tsarevich Nikolai, later Tsar Nikolai II.

Tatiana Riabouchinska's father was banker to the tsar and therefore not spared during the Russian revolution. The whole family was put under house arrest and tied up while the house was ransacked. They all expected to be shot. However, their servants released them and helped the mother and four children to escape. They left Russia via the Caucasus, arriving eventually in the south of France and thence to Paris.

Tatiana Riabouchinska's first teacher in Paris was Alexander Volinine, Bolshoi trained, onetime partner of Anna Pavlova, and a teacher famous for his ability to develop elevation. She then went to Kschessinska, an old friend of her family from tsarist days.


At 14, she was chosen by Nikita Baileff to join his fashionable Russian variety show, the Chauve Souris, and appeared as Diana the Huntress in a costume created by Schiaparelli. Balanchine saw her in this and signed her for Monte Carlo.

In the company's first season in 1932, she created the role of the Child in Leonide Max Massine's Jeu d'enfants, created roles in Balanchine's Concurrence and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, and danced the role of the Mistress of Ceremonies in his lovely and haunting Cotillon.

At the very beginning of her career, Tatiana Riabouchinska inspired first Balanchine and then Massine. She created roles in the first three of Massine's famous (at that time controversial) "symphonic" ballets: Frivolity in Les Presages (Tchaikovsky's Fifth), the third and fourth movements in Choreartium (Brahms's Fourth), both 1933, and Reverie in Symphonie Fantastique (Berlioz) in1936. She also danced an enormous number of roles in the Ballet Russe repertoire and when Fokine joined the company between 1937 and 1939, he made the roles of the Golden Cockerel in Le Coq d'or, the title role in Cendrillon, and the Florentine Beauty in Paganini especially for her.

Working with Fokine she was coached by the choreographer in Les Sylphides and Le Spectre de la Rose. Her dancing of the Prelude in Les Sylphides became legendary, and she was to retain this role throughout her career. Her lightness, her soft, soaring jump, her exquisite footwork, combined with her innate musicality, lifted the simple dance to a new, utterly poetic plane.

Tatiana Riabouchinska created many roles in ballets by David Lichine, the dancer and choreographer whom she married in 1943 - among them Le Pavillon (1936); La Creation, for Les Ballets des ChampsElysees (1948); and, perhaps happiest and most charming of all, the Romantic Girl in Graduation Ball (1940). With Lichine she made guest appearances with many companies after they left the Ballet Russe and, thanks to Anton Dolin, Tatiana Riabouchinska danced in London with the Festival Ballet in the early 1950s. Thus a younger generation was able to appreciate her rare quality.

In retirement, the Lichines devoted their energies to their dance academy in Beverly Hills and to founding several small companies. However, Tatiana Riabouchinska's dream of establishing a permanent company in Los Angeles was never realised - sponsorship simply was not forthcoming.

Described as "the most unusual dancer of her generation", Tatiana Riabouchinska won plaudits from the most distinguished critics of the day.

The American critic and poet Edwin Denby said of her: "Her naturalness in action comes from the fact that she shows you so clearly the sustaining impetus, the dance impulse which carries her lightly through from beginning to end. Because the impetus is exactly right she strikes you as dancing her whole number on an impulse, spontaneously for the joy of it."

Tatiana Riabouchinska: born 1917; died, August 2000