COULD THE UNHAPPINESS OF A YOUNG CANADIAN BALLERINA BRING ABOUT A MASTERPIECE?
Translated by: Vivian Villalón (U.S.A.)
It might be convenient to digress here a little bit to recall Denisova’s career. We first met in Havana in he Spring of 1941 when the 18-years-old ballerina arrived, after having just been married to Cuban dancer Alberto Alonso, when they both were members of the OBR. The wedding had taken place in Australia the year before, when forced by the second world war, De Basil’s company had to change its European itinerary in favor of the South Seas.
Soon after the newlywed’s arrival in Cuba, the OBR came to Havana from Mexico, for an engagement that almost didn’t materialize. Several members of the company had gone on strike, and the stay in the Cuban capital, supposedly for a few weeks, would end up lasting four months. Denisova and Alberto were recruited to take over their old roles in the repertory when the ballet season finally began, and Havana audiences were fortunate to enjoy their performances as well as those of famous dancers Irina Baronova (soon to leave for the U.S. with Denisova substituting in all her roles), Tatiana Riabouchinska, David Lichine, Roman Jasinski, and many more whose names bring to mind the unforgettable era of the Ballets Russes.
The other two Alonsos, dancers Fernando and his wife at that time, Alicia, also had arrived in Havana. Under contract with Ballet Theatre ( later known as American Ballet Theatre), they were compelled to take a leave of absence, due to the eye problems that Alicia had begun to suffer. Denisova remembers quite vividly that in September of that year, when she practiced daily at the old dance studio of the Auditorium Theater, Alicia would sneak in, without her doctor’s permission, to exercise with her and keep in good shape.
As it is probably easy to imagine, our recent conversations would keep returning to the past, specifically to the relationship between Denisova and Alicia, during a time when they had become related by marriage. “It seemed very friendly at first”, explains Denisova, “but when Alicia returned to the stage, the situation changed completely”. What caused the change? was the unavoidable question. Denisova replied that “perhaps she resented the competition. I was already known internationally, but Alicia’s stardom was yet to come”.
Denisova was an excellent dancer, with a very sweet disposition that enhanced her teaching skills. This became more noticeable when she assumed the direction of the Ballet School of Sociedad Pro-Arte Musical together with her husband Alberto. The students soon realized the wonderful opportunity they now had to learn the secrets of academic dance from a person with her background. Someone who had been trained by great masters of the Russian Imperial School – Lubov Egorova, Pierre Vladimiroff, Anatole Oboukhoff among others–, besides having had direct contact with some of the outstanding choreographers of the twentieth century, i.e. Bronislava Nijinska, Leonide Massine, and specially Michel Fokine. On several occasions, when Denisova substituted for Baronova in works of the legendary Russian master during the 1939 European and Australian tours, due to Baronova’s illness, the choreographer would spend precious moments rehearsing with the young dancer.
Denisova’s story about her close contact with Fokine is indeed revealing, specifically when referring to her interpretation of the Divine Genius in “Paganini” (set to the score of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini). On one particular occasion, Fokine asked her to sit in front of him, and in great detail explained what he expected of her interpretation of the role. As epilogue to this episode of her life, Denisova adds with a smile that while Fokine was lecturing, Vera Fokina, the choreographer’s wife, sitting next to him, would participate in the conversation endlessly
Denisova and Alberto separated in 1944, while on vacation in the United States, and she was never to return to Cuba. Subsequently she performed on Broadway, in the short-lived musical “Rhapsody”, with choreography by Lichine, and soon after left for Los Angeles, where she would live permanently. In 1946, when Ballet Theater (BT) was preparing its first London engagement, Denisova received an unexpected wire from Lucia Chase, artistic director of the company, offering her a contract to join BT for the London season. Janet Reed, one of the principal dancers, would not be taking part in the tour so there was an opening
Denisova was already known to the London audiences, and dance critics, specifically Arnold Haskell, had already written about Denisova´s talent:
As soon as Denisova joined BT and began rehearsals in New York, she recalled that “the atmosphere was very unpleasant”. There were a lot of expectations on the part of less important dancers who had hoped to take over some of the roles vacated by the departure of Reed. As a result, the arrival of a newcomer with such credentials presented a big challenge. Denisova attempted to overcome the unpleasantness of the situation by seeking refuge with her former family members, the Alonso couple, and was relying on receiving moral support from them upon their return from vacationing in Havana.
With sadness in her voice, Denisova recalls: “As I saw Fernando enter the dance studio, I approached him to say hello, but he was cold and distant, and practically turned his back on me. I immediately saw Alicia coming in, and with certain trepidation I approached her too. Silly of me… Alicia didn’t even glance my way… She continued walking forward to greet the rest of the dancers in the studio, who seemed to enjoy the situation”.
The lack of moral support from people she had known and loved brought Denisova´s unhappiness to its peak. With a great sense of purpose, she made a decision that was to change her life: She marched into Chase’s office and asked her to rescind her contract with BT, stating, to Chase’s surprise, that she was pregnant. “You know that you are not”, was Chase´s sharp comment. A visit to the gynecologist´s (dancer Muriel Bentley´s personal friend) was necessary in order to obtain a doctor´s note that substantiated her condition. The doctor agreed to provide her with the document stating that he would not be responsible for her health if she was to continue in the company. Ultimately, Chase was willing to let her go, but warned her that while her contract was in force, she could not perform in the United States
Denisova returned to Los Angeles, and on a day that seemed no different from any other, a knock on the door would again change her fate: There, standing in front of her was George Balanchine, coming to see her. “I was wearing a robe, had curlers on my head, and I almost fainted when I realized who this person was”, she remembers. “He was offering me a contract to participate in the national tour of the ‘ Song of Norway’ musical, with his choreography, that was playing Broadway with great success” the dancer explains.
“My answer was fast in coming: I told him that I felt honored to be approached, but that I could not accept his offer while my contract with BT was in force” Denisova states further. Balanchine´s answer was quick and short: “Chase does a lot of my ballets, so don´t worry. I’ll be seeing her in New York in a few days and I’ll see what I can do”. “I didn´t hear anything else on the matter”, she continues to say, “until I got a telephone call from Edwin Lester, the producer of the musical, asking me to leave immediately for New York to start rehearsals”.
After two years as The Maiden in the musical (1946-1948), Denisova’s career would continue in Los Angeles and Hollywood, where she achieved in the 50’s the position of Assistant to the Dance Director, in the powerful Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios . In this capacity she worked with Jack Cole (Kismet), Fred Astaire (Funny Face and Silk Stockings), Michael Kidd (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers), and Gene Kelly (Singin’ in the Rain). She was also featured as a dancer in several films using her real name. Among them “On an Island with You” (where she substituted for an ailing Cyd Charisse), “Two Tickets to Broadway”, “Singin’ in the Rain”, “Three for the Show”, and “Meet me in Las Vegas”. Pat also partnered Danny Kaye and Gene Kelly in dance sequences in “Knock on Wood” and “Marjorie Morningstar”, respectively, besides working in T.V. shows as instructor to Barrie Chase and Charisse, and teaching dance for several years in the well known studio of Stanley Holden, where Pat would eventually retire in the 90’s.
Are there any regrets for Pat/Denisova? The answer is, none.
ALEXANDRA DENISOVA AS THE MAIDEN, IN “SONG OF NORWAY”, WITH CHOREOGRAPHY BY BALANCHINE (Photo Maurice Seymour, ca. 1946, from CPV´s collection)
Denisova, in her recent visit to New York, had the opportunity to examine and an old Havana program with Célida P. Villalón.
© 2008 Danza Ballet