Articles from Ballet2000

Souvenir d’Irène Lidova

Irène Lidova was a dance critic and organiser, a personality who was important in various fields and over many generations, and, besides, an especially faithful and affectionate contributor to our magazine; and, lastly, for as little as it matters, my friend and absolute adviser on all matters throughout this activity that I have chosen, or that has fallen to me.

Irina Kaminskaya – Lidova after her marriage to Serge Lido (a French adaptation of the Russian Sergey Lidov) – was born in Moscow in 1907. Therefore, her loss should have for us the serenity of a natural conclusion, and of a nature that was very generous not so much in granting her a long life as in preserving (and even increasing) up to the last an intelligence of life and such a great love for it (to that extent, perhaps being cruel) that no-one who did not know her well could believe.

It would take more than this note, but I will give a brief account of what I learnt about her in twenty-seven years of friendship, in person in Paris or around the ballet world, or through our daily telephone conversations.

As a child, during the years of the Bolshevik revolution she emigrated from St Petersburg to Paris, leaving Russia in a state of devastation by crossing a frozen lake in Finland, hidden in a sledge. In the French capital, where she was awaited by relations, the family was installed in a quiet flat in rue Chernoviz, where Irène lived, later with her husband, and finally alone, until now.

Like many daughters of Russian émigrés, she had lessons in classical ballet in the small Paris studios where, in order to survive, some of the ex-Imperial ballerinas, including the great Olga Preobrajenska, taught. She was only an amateur student, but the passion for dance took hold of her for ever. After studying art and literature, she entered the world of journalism as a sub-editor of a news magazine, Vu. There she managed to slip in her first dance pieces, in that way beginning to get to know the artists. Serge Lifar, who reigned over the ballet at the Paris Opéra, was her first idol (she once said to me, "I’ve been a fan of a lot of dancers, but Lifar was the only one I adored"), and it was the first sign of that symptom of balletomania that is the dedicated and passionate falling in love with dancers (which she not only recognised but cultivated, with a strange mixture of lucidity and abandon). She met a compatriot who was studying economics, they got married, she infected him with her passion and transformed him into one of the most famous dance photographers of the 20th century. The twenty-five albums of photographs, one a year, by Serge Lido, with the comments (and above all, the choices) of Irène Lidova are an extraordinary witness to a whole ballet epoch.

There were hard years - the war, the Occupation, the immediate post-war period - but they were full of life, and creative. One day at the Paris Opéra school, she chose three boys to be photographed by Serge Lido: they were Roland Petit, Jean Babilée and Jean Guélis. An infallible eye was one of her most important gifts: at the theatre, even in her last year, when she had limited sight, she would immediately pick out a talented youngster from a whole corps de ballet - even in the back row; and the evening was illuminated by the enthusiasm of her discovery.

She placed beside Roland Petit an infant prodigy of a dancer and choreographer, Janine Charrat, she took them round to her friend Jean Cocteau, and they thought up a group, with Jean Babilée, Ethéry Pagava, then Renée (later Zizi) Jeanmaire and other protégés of Irène, and thus the first masterpieces of French 20th century ballet were born. Later on, among those she worked with was the Marquis de Cuevas’ famous and adventurous company.

She was faithful in her artistic loves, but her judgments were very decided. One day, many years after those poor and happy beginnings, she asked Roland Petit at the end of a performance, "Well, Roland, when are you going to make a real ballet for us?". I can understand now what she meant, but he took it badly and never spoke to her again. Artists are like that, all the best you do is taken for granted, one unwelcome word is an irreparable betrayal. Irène knew that better than anybody; she went on loving him and saying and writing that Roland Petit was the greatest talent she had ever met with.

In her circle there were also lasting friends, and in the rue Chernoviz flat large numbers of people from the dance world called their regularly, while the telephone was the remedy when there were no visitors in the sitting-room. Nina Vyroubova, Yvette Chauviré, Janine Charrat, Joseph Lazzini, Mario Porcile (the director of the Nervi Ballet Festival - a place that Lidova loved, and where we spent memorable summers), the impresario Paul Szilard, Lilavati and Bengt Häger, John Taras, Carla Fracci, the critic John Percival and the film director Dominique Delouche were among the most assiduous visitors, up to the last days. Even Rudolf Nureyev, in his early Paris days, was a regular guest for Irène’s Russian suppers; but he soon forgot. She had a particular passion for Russian ballet and Russian artists; perhaps it was a way of rediscovering her roots, at least in the art that she loved, feeling herself to be Russian and speaking her native language. She was proud of being to a certain extent their "ambassadress" in the West, above all in the years during which contacts were rare and difficult. She became friends with some of them: Maya Plisetskaya, her beloved Katia and Volodia (Maximova and Vasiliev), then the younger Vladimir Derevianko and Vladimir Malakhov, one of her discoveries.

Among her closest friends, there had come into being a family of chosen members, above all after the unexpected death of her husband in 1984, which distressed her greatly. There was above all Milorad Miskovitch, another protégé of hers in the happy times, an admired dancer and a friend for ever; he was a kind of son, and as such he received the friends at the funeral on 31 May, in the Russian church in Paris. The other "son", more recently acquired, was myself. And another Italian, of a later generation, Toni Candeloro, who lived in the same house in the years when he danced in Paris, forming with her whenever she went out, a strange couple; as we all know, you can sometimes get irritated with children, but with nephews the understanding is absolute.

I nearly forgot to mention, because it was so well-known, that she possessed an uncommon intelligence, an intelligence that was not conventional, cultured but intuitive, that went straight to the heart of things in art and life and was solidly based on her formidable memory. At ninety, she was able to remember the complete cast of a performance that had taken place fifty years earlier, or she could tell you in a few precise strokes about the career and personality of a dancer who had been forgotten by everyone else. But hers was not the old person’s eccentric memory, fixed in the past; she remembered a day from fifty years ago as she remembered the day before, she was interested in the present and curious about the future. To discover a young choreographer or a gifted dancer was more important to her than having known Lifar or Robbins or having often seen Alicia Markova dance. On the other hand, she did not, like some pathetic elderly people, have the affectation of always wanting to seem up-to-date; in her last years, she really was above all such things, secure in her ancient wisdom and very aware of the present. Classical, modern, contemporary seemed to her senseless words. She loved Giselle but had encouraged and defended the young Merce Cunningham in France when nobody was yet taking any notice of him.

I realise that I am writing one of her "rencontres": the speciality that she had devoted to Ballet2000 for so many years. Perhaps it is because I read, translated and corrected so many of them that I have now written one myself. I shall miss it a great deal - and I am sure, dear reader, that you will also miss - that page towards the end of the magazine, with that old spectacled, smiling face ("c’est votre journaliste américaine", she would joke), with her tightly written piece, all short, incisive sentences, framed by one of Serge Lido’s lovely pictures. I can’t imagine not being able to life the telephone every evening at about seven o’clock, to discuss our little dance matters, or to ask her something that from now on I’ll have to look for, to no purpose, in books. There is one more void, in the dance world, and in the world.

Alfio Agostini

BALLET2000 n. 67 – July 2002