Lidia Ivanova’s death in a boating ‘accident’ in 1924 remains one of ballet history’s unexplained mysteries, but she did not disappear without trace. Elizabeth Kendall’s meticulously researched book does not solve the puzzle of how or why she died, but she does lift this remarkable dancer out of her shadowy existence as a tragic footnote in her contemporaries’ memoirs and place her centre stage.

A friend and rival of Alexandra Danilova at the Imperial Ballet School, Ivanova had early success of one kind or another both on stage and off. Danilova’s memoir notes that Ivanova was expected to inherit the roles of ballerina Elena Smirnova; Tamara Geva’s that Ivanova was rumoured to be on ‘intimate terms with some shady government official’ and that she was said to be ‘close to all the Communist biggies’.

Ivanova and Balanchine’s generation had trained under the Tsar, but began their careers in the heady, dangerous and politically volatile years that followed the Russian Revolution. Kendall vividly describes the period, which saw an astonishing level of change and creativity in the arts, teasing out the origins of Balanchine’s later work. Inevitably she must sometimes resort to speculation, but she draws clear lines between what is known and what is guessed at.

Ivanova’s death occurred just before she was to accompany Balanchine, Danilova, Geva and Nikolai Efimov on a tour of Germany. Would she have left the Soviet Union and joined Diaghilev with them? It seems likely. Had she done so, would the history of ballet been different?

Kendall has drawn together contemporary descriptions of Ivanova’s work that give a picture of a dancer with superb elevation and exceptional personal magnetism. Akim Volynsky wrote of her leap ‘it seizes the sky’, while Danilova described her as ‘very expressive, coquettish, earthy, beautiful in adagio, with a big extension’ and wrote that Ivanova’s jump ‘looked enormous because she could leap with her legs in a split’.

It is hard to be sure 90 years on that Ivanova is responsible for the Soviet-style grand jeté, but I greatly enjoyed Kendall’s discussion of Balanchine’s later work as she searched it for, and found, traces of Ivanova. I should like to think that she is right, if only because it seems fitting that the final memorial of a gifted dancer who died so young should be found in the choreography of her great contemporary.

Maggie Watson

14 May 2014

Balanchine and the lost muse: revolution and the making of a choreographer, by Elizabeth Kendall. Oxford University Press 2013.

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