Irina Baronova, seen through the eyes of her daughter, Victoria Tennant

This article first appeared in the Good Weekend supplement of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

Tucked in a small silk bag, and hidden at the back the ballerina’s wardrobe was a memento she kept for more than 60 years.

The bag was nestled within a jumble of scrapbooks, albums, letters dating back to 1926, and thousands of photographs, all crammed into plastic shopping bags and shoeboxes, along with a packet of soil from Russia, where Irina Baronova was born in 1919.

After her mother’s death, her daughter, Victoria Tennant, unzipped the bag to find two pink satin pointe shoes.

“Inside the lining of one shoe in my mother’s handwriting was ‘Irina Baronova’. On the other, ‘My Last Performance’.

“I held them in my hands”, said Tennant, “sat down on the floor and cried”.

Baronova had lived in Romania, France, the United States and England, but spent the last eight years of her life in the hinterland of Byron Bay. She died in her sleep aged 89, leaving the physical remnants of her life unseen by her family.

Baronova had three children, but it was Tennant, the eldest, who trawled through the memoirs that told the story of Baronova’s life from her childhood in St Petersburg to her career as one of three famous dancers in their early teens who were promoted worldwide as the “baby ballerinas” of the Ballets Russes.

Tennant’s home is Los Angeles, where she married Steve Martin, and made a career as an actor in movies and TV series, and co-starring with Martin in the film, LA Story.

But in the last years of her mother’s life, she travelled twice a year to Australia where Baronova lived in a bungalow on the dress circle on the Byron Shire, the Coolamon Scenic Drive between Mullumbimby and Bangalow.

Tennant’s last visit was in May 2008. The two women spent one week together.

“Each day after breakfast she lay on the sofa in her sitting room”, said Tennant. “I sat in an armchair next to her reading her autobiography out loud”.

Baronova had spent four years writing her memoir, published in 2005, but her eyesight was fading so quickly, due to macular degeneration, that she was never able to read the finished book.

Tennant remembers: “As I was reading to her, I knew I was just a blur to her. She would look off in the distance, and I could see that as I was reading, she was visualising her life as she described it. Together we went on the journey of her life. A month later she died”.

That journey began in her birthplace, St Petersburg. After the Bolshevik Revolution the family fled to Romania where they lived in poverty. Her life in ballet began in Paris, where, aged 10, she trained with Olga Preobrajenska, a former prima ballerina who danced in St Petersburg in the last years of Czarist Russia.

In Paris, then the epicentre of ballet, Russian émigrés began to create a new Ballets Russes company after the death of the impresario, Sergei Diaghilev, in 1929. Among them was the choreographer, George Balanchine who set himself the task of finding young dancers for the nascent Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo.

He chose Baronova, then 13, and two other very young students in Paris, Tamara Toumanova and Tatiana Riabouchinska. As the ballet “babies” they soon became headline attractions.

In 1938, Baronova starred in a Ballets Russes tour to Australia. During the many months of the tour she grew to love Australia, making friends in Melbourne and Sydney where she married the dancer, Gerry Sevastianov. Although the marriage was short lived she took care of him years later when he was ill and close to death.

Her dancing career ended after the Second World War, when, during a tour to London, she met her second husband, Cecil Tennant, a theatrical agent whose star client was Laurence Olivier.

Cecil asked her: “Aren’t you tired of travelling? Wouldn’t you like to settle down and have a family? Wouldn’t you like to be married to me?”

He gave her 48 hours to make a tough decision because if she said ‘yes’ he told her she would have to quit dancing.

She did what he asked, giving her last performance with a company formed by the Ballets Russes choreographer, Leonide Massine.

The Tennants made their home in Surrey where their frequent visitors were Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable and Peter Finch, but the family’s peace and happiness ended in 1967 when Cecil was killed in a car crash near their home.

The children eventually built their lives on three continents with Robert remaining in England, Irina (named after her mother) in Australia and Victoria in California where she married the writer and producer, Kirk Stambler, after her marriage to Steve Martin ended in divorce.

Baronova returned to her life in dance, encouraged to take up a teaching career by the ballerina, Margot Fonteyn, then president of the Royal Academy of Dance in London.

And she never relinquished her emotional ties to Australia, often visiting to teach or lecture when she was appointed a vice president of the academy.

Australia in turn, loved Baronova. She staged Les Sylphides for the Australian Ballet in 1986 and was embraced by that company when she decided, on the insistence of her daughter,
Irina, to move to Australia to be close to where she lived in the Byron Shire.

People often asked if she was lonely. “Never”, said Tennant, “she was never alone, from breakfast time there was a revolving door of house guests”.

Baronova’s last public appearance was in Adelaide where she spoke as a guest of honour at a symposium on the Ballets Russes tours to Australia in the 1930s.

She entered the stage at the Adelaide Festival Centre with all the flourish and grace of a ballerina taking her final curtain call. Five weeks later she died.

As part of her estate, Baronova bequeathed her house and its contents to Irina, but her memoirs were left in the hands of Victoria who said: “I think my sister emotionally didn’t want to deal with it because it had fallen mostly on her shoulders to deal with everything else. I said ‘send the stuff to me. I’ll do it’.

“When the boxes arrived I had no idea there was that much stuff and I don’t think Irina knew either until she started packing it up”.

In Los Angeles, “as I sat there with the piles around me trying to make sense of it all, I thought this is a life, and an unusually well recorded life that happens to be a very interesting one. When I was sitting on the floor trying to sort through the 2000 photographs the idea really came to me that there was book there.

“There weren’t many pictures in her autobiography. This book I thought would show her life in pictures. I tried to conceive how it would be, how the story and pictures would work together, sort of a minuet trying to pick the best pictures and how I would use them”.

At first the book was to be a memoir for the family, but the University of Chicago Press offered Tennant a contract, asking her to broaden the scope, to tell her mother’s story in the context of the Ballets Russes. The book will be published next month (Nov 1).

When the research had ended Tennant sent the archived bundles of papers and photographs to the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library.

As for the pointe shoes, Tennant took them to St Petersburg as a gift for the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St Petersburg. Placed in the academy’s museum in a glass case, they’re in good company with the shoes worn by Vaganova graduates, among them Anna Pavlova.

In June 2008 Baronova was farewelled by her family and friends at a ceremony 15 minutes from her home. The view behind the pine coffin, encompassing the rolling hills, the beaches and Cape Byron Bay Lighthouse, mirrored Baronova’s description of her own favourite time of the day.

At the end of her autobiography she wrote: “Sitting on my veranda at the end of the day, I sip my bourbon and soda, always in awe of the vast view out over the valley below me, ending in the ocean…I count my blessings”.

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Victoria Tennant holds her mother’s pointe shoes, photo © Kirk Gambler

Irina Baronova in her Petrouchka costume, c 1932

Irina Baronova at the beach, Monte Carlo, 1932

David Lichine, Baronova, and Tatiana Riabouchinska in Florence, summer 1937

Unidentified group of dancers at Jacob’s Pillow, a dance compound in Massachusetts where Baronova worked while she was with the New York-based Ballet Theatre in the early 1940s.

Irina Baronova, aged 4, with her mother, Lydia