Tamara Geva, the Russian-born dancer and actress who in 1936 galvanized Broadway audiences with On Your Toes' "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" -- the first ballet to integrate dance into the storyline of a musical -- died Dec. 9 at her home in Manhattan. She was 91 and there are no imediate family survivors.
Geva, the daughter of a wealthy manufacturer, studied dance at the Maryinsky Ballet School, where she met the young choreographer Balanchine; they were married in 1923. In 1927, while dancing with a touring revue featuring Russian emigres, Geva introduced Balanchine's choreography to New York balletomanes; by that time she and Balanchine were separated, but the best years of their artistic collaboration were still to come.
In 1936, on the opening night of Rodgers and Hart's On Your Toes, she and Ray Bolger danced Balanchine's "Slaughter On Tenth Avenue" sequence, which was bursting with sensuality and high kicks. The following morning, Geva was the toast of Broadway.
She went on to give memorable performances in in Whoopee (1928), Three's A Crowd (1930) and Flying Colors.
She also appeared in films including Their Big Moment (1934), Manhattan Merry-Go-Round (1937) -- in which she played a temperamental opera diva -- and Orchestra Wives (1942). In addition, she choreographed the 1946 film Specter of the Rose. As her dancing career was winding down, Geva turned to straight plays. She starred with Raymond Massey in the London premiere of Robert E. Sherwood's Idiot's Delight in 1938.
In New York she appeared in Euripides' Trojan Women in 1941 and a revival of Shaw's Misalliance in 1953, in which she played a Polish acrobat with a biting sense of humor -- a role that ballerina Natalia Makarova played earlier this year in Great Britain. This is not the first time that Makarova has followed in Geva's footsteps. In 1983 Makarova took on Geva's role in a Broadway revival of On Your Toes -- and ended up winning a Tony Award for her efforts.
Geva saw Makarova in On Your Toes, and later told Playbill's Louis Botto, the noted theatre historian, that she was quite disappointed in the revival and that the choreography for "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" was not faithful to the original ballet that she and Ray Bolger had introduced to the world.
Geva's outspokenness was a large part of her charm.
"Tamara Geva had a marvelous and acerbic sense of humor," said Botto, who most recently talked with her three years ago at an exhibition at the International Center of Photography in New York, where a photo of Geva in Flying Colors was one of several on display.
"She was small -- with those long Balanchine legs -- and always elegantly dressed," said Botto. "She will be greatly missed."
--By Rebecca Paller and Louis Botto