When the baby ballerinas took a detour to the silver screen

How many ballet dancers these days become actors? There are some, of course, including Baryshnikov, but I think the peak years of the ballet-to-actor transition were in mid 20th century, the golden age of movie musicals.

The professional dancers who made a successful transition to the screen included Cyd Charisse who trained with Adolph Bolm and Bronislava Nijinska and then danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in the United States.

Audrey Hepburn trained in Amsterdam and was awarded a scholarship at Ballet Rambert before her acting career began.

Brigitte Bardot trained at the Conservatoire de Paris from the age of 13 to 16 where she was taught by the Russian dancer, Boris Knyazev.

Renee (Zizi) Jeanmaire (Roland Petit’s wife) and Leslie Caron both danced in Petit’s Ballets des Champs-Élysées.

Moira Shearer, a principal at the Sadler’s Wells Ballet (later the Royal Ballet) appeared in six more films after her famous debut in The Red Shoes.

Irina Baronova and Tamara Toumanova began their brief movie careers soon after they travelled to Australia with Colonel de Basil’s touring companies.

Baronova was a principal in the second company that toured in 1938/39 and the Tait brothers of J C Williamsons, the firm that presented the tours in Australia, believed they had contracted Baronova for the third tour that began in Sydney in December 1939.

The Taits were furious when they discovered that Baronova was not returning to Australia. Instead, she moved to Hollywood.

Three weeks after the outbreak of the Second World War, she had travelled from Southampton to New York on the SS Orcades, a ship that carried more than 20 dancers who eventually travelled from Los Angeles to Sydney for the tour.

In her memoir, Irina, Ballet, Life and Love, she wrote that when she and her husband, Gerry Sevastianov arrived in New York, he persuaded her to sign a contract for the MGM movie, Florian.

Although she knew that de Basil was anxious for her to travel to Australia, Baronova made no mention in her book of any contractual obligation she had to be part of the third Australian ballet tour.

Cables between Nevin Tait in London, and his brothers in Australia show that they knew as early as July 1939 that she was unlikely to tour to Australia.

In mid-November Nevin sent a cable explaining there were “still difficulties over Baronova” as she had “accepted another film contract. Have taken strongest action with de Basil – informed him this would be in breach of contract”.

No legal action was taken, however, and Tamara Toumanova became the star ballerina for the tour.

Baronova’s first film was Florian, a story set in the court of Franz Josef I in the 1880s, and named after a Lipizzaner stallion named Florian.

The principal characters were a prince and princess, a dancer (Baronova of course) and a stable master.

In her memoir, Baronova described the story as “stupid”.

Florian, released in 1940, was followed by three more movies featuring Baronova, Toast of Love in 1943, Train of Events in 1949 and Toast to Love in 1951, a remake of the 1943 movie.

Toumanova featured in three films, Days of Glory in 1944, Tonight We Sing in 1953 and, in 1966, Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain, a political thriller starring Paul Newman and Julie Andrews.

Tatiana Riabouchinska, the third member of the trio known in the 1930s as the ‘baby ballerinas’, was cast in only one film, Disney’s Make Mine Music, (1946).

Live footage of her dancing with her partner, David Lichine, was turned into animated images of them dancing as silhouettes.

The saccharine scene called Two Silhouettes wouldn’t have been their proudest moment but they probably earned more from the Disney Studios than they ever did from the parsimonious de Basil.

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