28 Oct For Mum, With Love | Victoria Tennant
Victoria Tennant sat teary eyed on the floor of her home office, as she sorted through boxes upon boxes of her mother’s belongings, soon after her death in 2008. She of course knew all about her mother’s life and career as one of the most celebrated and glamorous ballerinas in the world. But as she sat amidst the piles of photographs, letters and artifacts, she was both awed and bewildered by the bounty of memorabilia before her. She knew that she needed to put it all together somehow, at least for her family and their future families, to have as an incredible memoir, of a woman they all loved and admired so much. What she didn’t expect, was to become an ‘accidental author’ as she now refers to herself. What she started there on the floor that day, turned into something bigger than she could have ever imagined. Her meticulous sorting and organizing of each and every item, researching and identifying faces, dates, places, costumes, hairstyles, and ballet performances, would become a beautiful book of photographs and stories too good not to share with the world.
Irina Baronova’s life story is a riveting tale of a young girl and her family, fleeing St. Petersburg during the Russian Revolution, poor and struggling. Who at just the age of 12 was discovered by the legendary choreographer George Balanchine, becoming one of his ‘Baby Ballerinas” in 1932, and an instant star of the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo. It is a story of the pioneering ballerinas who brought ballet to America, as told through Irina’s personal photographs of the dancers and performances. It is written with love, from the letters saved over time by both mother and daughter, as well as excerpts from an oral history from Irina Baronova herself. Ms. Tennant graciously shared her own fascinating stories of her mother’s life, and the making of a book she could only wish to share with her today.
VICTORIA TENNANT: The book is a hybrid. It’s a photography book, but it’s also a memoir of a great artist, a Russian ballerina, and it’s a ballet history. It gives the chronology of the ballets, and it gives portraits of the choreographers, and it talks about how the work process is done. And I hope that I managed to make it understandable and interesting to someone who doesn’t know anything about ballet, and doesn’t maybe even care particularly about ballet but is interested in an interesting life, and, you know, how great artists become great artists. How anyone who’s really good at what they do becomes good at the personal sacrifices, and the learning, and how you develop your natural ability. And there are these staggering photographs! Not just the sort of professional photographs of, you know, dancers in their costumes and things, but these incredible images that the dancers took of each other, when they were on the beach, or when they were rehearsing, or in the wings. These completely candid, private, family album, on- the-scene photographs, of the inside view, of this extraordinary company, and as well as the Ballets Russe, my mother was one of the founding ballerinas of what is now American ballet theater, one of the great great ballet companies.
One of the things that I found in the boxes when I tipped everything out on the floor, I found this old faded silk pouch with a little zip at the top. And I thought, what is this? And I pried open the zip with difficulty, and inside, were a pair of toe shoes [gasps]. And I just choked up, I thought, oh my God, it’s my mother’s toe shoes! And I just sort of shlumped to the floor, and I got these toe shoes out, and in my mother’s handwriting in one was her name that she’d written, “Irina Baronova”. And in the other she’d written, “My last performance”. And I just sat there and wept. And then, by chance, we were going to St. Petersburg on holiday, and the Vaganova Ballet Academy is the great training academy where all the great dancers from St. Petersburg were trained. I mean Baryshnikov, Nureyev, Nijinsky, Fokine, I mean everybody. So I google them online and I see that they have a museum, and I saw a glass case with a starburst display of ballerina toe shoes, and I thought, “Mum’s toe shoes!” She never got to dance in St. Petersburg, but I could take her toe shoes there. I emailed them and I immediately got a response from the director of the academy and they said, “Yes, we’d love the toe shoes.” So when we went to St. Petersburg, I took my mother’s toe shoes with me, and we went to the academy and the museum and we were shown around, and I gave them my mum’s toe shoes. A very important part of her, went home.
So it’s a story of loss, it’s a story of searching for your home again, of finding your home, finding her home in a ballet company, because her real home had vanished and been stolen from her, and of finding a place for herself in the world. I think it’s a very moving human story, it happens to be about a ballerina, but it’s a very moving human story.
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