Part biography, part memoire, this very enjoyable book gives an account of the life of a dancer about whom we know relatively little in the UK, and offers a new perspective on the history of classical ballet since the 1920s.

Tatiana Leskova was born in Paris in 1922 of “White Russian” parents.  Chance, talent, war and romance led her to settle in Brazil, where she was instrumental in developing ballet at the Theatro Municipal of Rio de Janeiro.  A pupil of Lubov Egorova in Paris, she missed her opportunity to join the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo because her father thought her too young, but a year later joined the rival company that became de Basil’s Original Ballet Russe.

The book tells a complex story, and gives a lively account of Leskova’s entertaining, uncompromising and volatile personality and behaviour.  Braga has organised her material into a series of topics, linked by a loose chronological thread, grouping together reminiscences in chapters.  The very detailed accounts of the feuds, rivalries and frustrations of the Brazilian ballet world are sometimes difficult for an outsider to follow;  there are many names that are not widely known in the UK, and even familiar titles can represent unfamiliar works, such as Symphonic Variations, which is Leskova’s ballet, not Ashton’s.  On the other hand, the account of Leskova’s 40-year love affair with Luiz Reis is highly readable in itself, while the early chapters that include her journey back to visit her father’s family home could come straight from the TV programme Who do you think you are?

For me, the most interesting chapters were the ones that shed light on the dancers, ballets and productions that are familiar from other contexts.  The accounts of the restagings of Léonide Massine’s symphonic ballets are fascinating.  Leskova herself took the initiative in proposing a restaging of Les Présages (the choreography of which had actually been forgotten by Massine himself), and it was a chance meeting with Massine in Paris that resulted in the remounting of Choréartium for Balletto Europeo de Nervi, and subsequently in 1991 for Birmingham Royal Ballet.  These immense achievements in reconstruction were only possible thanks to Leskova’s exceptional professional experience, her formidable memory and her connections with other former Ballets Russes dancers.

This book explains why Leskova was able to play such a significant part in the development and preservation of twentieth century ballet.  She joined the Original Ballet Russe at a critical period.  The rift between the rival heirs to the Diaghilev heritage meant that de Basil’s company retained the rights to much of Massine’s work, and the services of Mikhail Fokine.  Luckily, Leskova had already met Massine, George Balanchine and Serge Lifar, laying the ground for future collaborations, and the departures of other more senior ballerinas, such as Tatiana Riabouchinska, from the Original Ballets Russes gave her the opportunity to dance a huge range of roles.  Leskova’s phenomenal memory has enabled her to pass on this vast experience to later generations.

It is easy to see why Leskova has sometimes fallen out with her colleagues.  She is refreshingly direct in her comments:   to describe Alicia Markova as a “hoist dancer”, because of her requirement that her partner should lift her without any effort on her own part is not tactful, any more that it is flattering to say that Yvette Chauviré and Galina Ulanova “had no waist” and Zizi Jeanmaire “no neck”.   However, with this clear sighted frankness goes a vision that has enabled her to recognise talent and also bring new productions to Brazil such as Pierre Lacotte’s reconstruction of La Sylphide and Peter Wright’s Giselle.

The book gives a vivid and entertaining picture of how demanding Leskova is as a colleague, although she seemed finally to meet her temperamental match in Rudolf Nureyev.  I should have liked to learn more about her as a dancer.  The fact that as late as 1960, when she was approaching 40, Harald Lander left a written recommendation that only she should be allowed to dance the lead in Etudes must be testament to her gifts as a performer, but this book gives little idea of what she was like on stage.  Leskova’s academy helped to shape generations of Brazilian dancers, and it would be fascinating to know more about the teaching methods of this disciple of Egorova.  Her many students have included, for example,  Deborah Colker (whose company visited the Barbican earlier this year), and the Royal Ballet’s Roberta Marquez.  Leskova’s work is significant for us in the UK, and her heritage will continue to live on in the work of the younger dancers with whom she has shared it.

Maggie Watson

15 March 2013

Tatiana Leskova:  a ballerina at large, by Suzana Braga, translated by Donald E. Scrimgeour.  Quartet Books, 2012

Buy it on Amazon here.

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