In 1948, my mother took me to my very first ballet performance. I was 11 years old, and the company was the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Before that evening, I had only imagined what ballet would be like, and I was left baffled and disappointed by the first part of the program.
But then Alexandra Danilova rushed onto the stage, holding a candle.
She was dancing the part of the Sleepwalker in George Balanchine's "Night Shadow," and at that moment I saw something that matched -- no, surpassed -- anything I'd envisioned. In this work, now called "La Sonnambula," the character of the Sleepwalker meets and loses the love of her life without ever waking up. After her newfound love is stabbed to death, he is placed in her arms and she exits -- slowly, walking backward. This haunting vision left me stunned and quiet. I couldn't believe what I had seen. Danilova's mysterious image and exquisite dancing left me transfixed.
I'd seen a great star of the ballet.
Danilova, who died last Sunday at the age of 93, was famous for her spontaneity, beauty and vivacity. For dancing isn't entirely about technique. It is an art form that has nothing to do with everyday life. Danilova, with her captivating presence, was able to draw her audiences into each fleeting moment.
Alexandra Danilova was born in 1903 in Peterhof, Russia, and trained at the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg. This was the school that had produced Pavlova, Nijinsky, Nureyev and Baryshnikov. In graduation photographs of the time, these special girls sit together in long, dark dresses with crisp white aprons. Their hands are held neatly in the center of their laps and their faces are serious.
This was an era when ballerinas were considered a breed apart, their lives held together by discipline and a sense of never giving in, never giving up. They combined deceptively fragile beauty with a four-star general's strength and determination.
After leaving the school, Madame entered the Maryinsky ballet . Then came the Bolshevik Revolution, and Danilova's world turned upside down. In 1924 she left Russia with Balanchine and a small troupe for a tour of Western Europe. Their ultimate destination was Paris, where they joined Sergei Diaghilev's legendary company. Here Balanchine created leading roles for Danilova in "Le Bal" and "The Triumph of Neptune" and gave her the starring part of Terpischore in his masterpiece "Apollo."
In the 1940s, ballet was just beginning to blossom in America. The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo was doing one-night stands through the country, and Danilova was touring with the company in such classics as "Swan Lake" and "Gaiete Parisienne." After each night's performance, while the crew packed scenery and the wardrobe mistress counted costumes, the dancers searched for food before boarding the bus or train that would take them to the next city. It's hard to imagine how tights and practice clothes were washed and dried.
But even when Madame wasn't clad in her swan costume, she always looked glamorous, immaculately put together. Even in street clothes, there was never a moment when she wasn't a prima ballerina assoluta.
This was part of her generosity to her public: She gave them dignity and style, both onstage and off. Audiences reciprocated by making her the best-loved ballerian of her time.
Her generosity was also manifest in the performances themselves. Ballet is hard labor. The body is not always up to the amazing amount of physical effort and mental concentration that a performance demands. Sweat isn't enough, and Danilova had the special quality that transforms mere gymnastic effort into a work of art.
Eleven years after seeing Madame Danilova in "La Sonnambula," I was cast in her role for a production at the New York City Ballet. I had come to know Danilova by this time, and one day I bumped into her at a Manhattan bus stop. She gave me a couple of pointers on the part, and then proceeded to offer advice on the costume. "Make sure that the sleeves are like this . . . ," she said, her voice trailing off as she plucked twice at the space underneath her wrist. As I stared at the empty air, I decided that she must be telling me that long sleeves were necessary.
The ballet's costume designer, Barbara Karinska, had made me a costume with short puffy sleeves, so I hurried back to her and authoritatively mimicked Danilova's plucking motion. Karinska stared at my wrist, just as I had stared at Danilova's; the result was a pair of beautiful, billowing sleeves. It wasn't until much later that I realized Danilova was trying to mime not long sleeves, but tassels.
Madame Danilova danced until she was in her fifties. After leaving the stage, she taught at the New York City Ballet's School of American Ballet, where she also staged many of the classics. In the '70s she helped Balanchine restage "Coppelia" for the City Ballet. When she taught the ballet "Raymonda" she wore a little babushka and instructed the students: "Go to this side of the stage and brood, brood, and then go to the other side and brood." These Russians knew how to brood -- both in art and in life.
Danilova was married three times -- the first was a common-law marriage to Balanchine. Although she never had children, it was clear that she loved them. When she spoke to her friends about their children, her voice would climb to a high soprano, as she exclaimed: "Oh, the little douchkis!" In Russian, a douchki is a "little soul" or "little darling."
This past June as she watched the children dance in the School of American Ballet performance of "Harlequinade," she bobbed her head along with the tiny dancers. They were giving to her what she had for so many years given to her audiences. She seemed to be smiling in her heart. Allegra Kent, the author of the memoir "Once a Dancer" (St. Martins Press), was a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet for most of her 30-year career with the company. CAPTION: Danilova teaches a move from "Coppelia," above, and dances "Swan Lake," right.