She was an old-fashioned ballerina with a sense of the dramatic that tied her to the nineteenth century, but she also had a vivacious charm that spoke directly to modern audiences. This combination proved irresistible, and Alexandra Danilova became one of the great ballet stars of her time. Her career spanned the twentieth century, from her childhood appearances in the opulent ballet productions of Imperial Russia, to years of acclaim as a prima ballerina in Western Europe, and finally to a ballet school in New York, where she imparted her artistry to young dancers. Part of her legacy is New York City Ballet's production of Coppélia, staged with George Balanchine in 1974, which the Company presents in the final week of this winter season.
Madame Danilova was born in Peterhof, Russia, in 1903, and she studied dance at the Imperial Theater School in St. Petersburg. One of her classmates was George Balanchine; the two would later share a four-year romance, and their professional lives would remain entwined until Balanchine's death. In the early 1920s, Danilova danced both traditional roles with the corps of the State Academic Theater for Opera and Dance (including Prayer in Coppélia), and avant-garde work with "Evenings of the Young Ballet," a troupe set up by Balanchine. In 1924, Danilova and Balanchine, along with several other dancers, left Russia to tour Germany; when the Soviet government summoned them back, the dancers resisted, and Danilova and Balanchine stayed in Europe and joined Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.
This was the beginning of Danilova's fame. Diaghilev, the celebrated impresario, put her in some of the great roles‹Odette, Aurora, Firebird‹as well as in the company's neo-classical work, including Balanchine's first masterpiece, Apollon Musagète, still performed today as Apollo.
Ballets Russes lasted only until 1931, but the time with Diaghilev proved to be a launching pad for Danilova, an introduction to a sophisticated world. In St. Petersburg, the students and dancers were isolated from the rest of the world; with Ballets Russes they met everyone, toured to cosmopolitan cities, and spent time in glamorous hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs. Danilova went dancing with Vladimir Horowitz, talked to Igor Stravinsky about his childhood, visited casinos with Coco Chanel, and received George Bernard Shaw in her dressing room. She danced with Massine and Lifar. And she had countless admirers, enthusiastic audiences, and the start of her reign as one of the world's leading ballerinas.
After Ballets Russes dissolved, Danilova remained in Europe to dance with the Monte Carlo Opera Ballet, in the operetta Waltzes from Vienna, and with de Basil's Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. Then, in 1938, Danilova became the prima ballerina of a new company, formed by Léonide Massine and Serge Denham and named, confusingly enough, Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. It was this company that paired Danilova with Frederic Franklin in what would become one of the great ballet partnerships, and it was here that she danced Swanilda in Coppélia, a role that became closely associated with her. In 1944, noted dance writer Edwin Denby said of her, "Miss Danilova… is one of the world's greatest dancers. Her wonderfully feminine charms, her wit and dance brilliance make of the Monte Carlo Coppélia a real event." She had successes in the tragic roles, but audiences loved her the most for roles that displayed her wit and vivacity.
Danilova remained with Ballet Russe until 1951, then danced for several more years, touring the world. After retiring as a dancer, she staged ballets she knew well for various companies, and in 1964, Balanchine invited her to join the faculty of the School of American Ballet. The curriculum at SAB was based on that of the old Imperial Theater School, and Danilova taught girls' variations classes, coached the students, and staged ballets for the school's annual workshop.
To many of her students, Danilova represented the elegant past of ballet; she was a true ballerina. Darci Kistler, now a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, was coached by Danilova in Swan Lake for an SAB workshop: "Madame loved the femininity of dance, what she called 'the perfume of dance.' She taught you the allure, the haughtiness‹she was a grande dame of ballet. For Madame, if you didn't look like a dancer, you weren't a dancer; she liked girls to dress well, to have their hair up‹the old aesthetic. She could be very tough, but she was very generous and kind to me."
In 1974, Balanchine decided to add Coppélia to the Company's repertory, and he took the opportunity to gently update the ballet, adding some male solos, more pas de deux, and a new third act. He enlisted Danilova to re-stage the dances she knew so well for the first two acts, and to coach the principal roles: Patricia McBride as Swanilda, Helgi Tomasson as Frantz, and Shaun O'Brien as Doctor Coppélius. In her memoirs, Danilova wrote,
I would show [Ms. McBride] the steps, and then Balanchine would come in at the end of our rehearsal and add a little, finishing up what I had started…. In my acts, the choreography remained basically the same as before, but sometimes we found it too simple‹there were empty spaces, and Balanchine filled them in. He made the dancing a little more up-to-date and complicated the movement, mostly in the variations and parts of the adagio. The dances between Swanilda and her friends and the business with Coppélius and the doll he didn't touch.
"Mr. B. always said that Madame had a great memory, that she remembered every step of the ballets she brought from Russia‹and that was definitely true of Coppélia," Ms. McBride recently reflected. "And she had such incredible energy: she taught Helgi, Shaun, and me our roles by dancing them all for us! This made the rehearsals such fun, and it also gave us a great view of her as a ballerina. We felt like we were part of history, watching Mr. B. and Madame working together. They worked so quickly, and they had great respect for each other."
Merrill Ashley was also in the original cast of Coppélia; Balanchine choreographed a solo for her (Dawn). For Ms. Ashley, who now teaches and coaches at NYCB, Coppélia has a special place in the Company's repertory: "I think Balanchine was doing Coppélia as a tribute to Madame‹he very much valued her knowledge and her artistic vision, and he wanted to expose us to those aspects of her, so that we could pass them on. He felt that she represented something precious that should not be lost."<