By the age of fifteen, Tatiana Riabouchinska had achieved worldwide renown as one of the celebrated trio of “Baby Ballerinas” of the newly formed Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. After the death of Serge Diaghilev in 1929, Europe was left without a major ballet troupe, and interest in the ballet had declined. Hoping to fill this gap, Colonel Wassily de Basil established his Ballet Russe, pinning all his hopes on the Baby Ballerinas, so called because none of them was over fifteen.
The Baby Ballerinas were a sensation. Crowds flocked to see them, and audiences discovered that they were not just lovely novelties, but truly fine dancers. Of their 1933 London debut Agnes de Mille wrote, “London was knocked into a heap. Nothing so fresh and hopeful in ballet had happened since the war.”1 Clive Barnes credits the Baby Ballerinas with reviving interest in the ballet, stating, “The year of the Baby Ballerinas was 1933, and they aroused the interest of nations, and in a very real sense started the cult of balletomania in the Western world.”2
Riabouchinska reached artistic maturity between 1937 and 1939 working with the great choreographer Michel Fokine. Critics and audiences were impressed with her quick footwork, the height of her jumps, her expressive arms, and her ethereally light movements. Fokine created several roles for Riabouchinska, including those that would become her most famous: the Golden Cockerel in Le Coq d’Or, the title role in Cinderella, and the Florentine Beauty in Paganini. Some consider the last of these to be her finest work, due to a nearly impossible set of whirling pirouettes that she executed before collapsing at the feet of Paganini. Dance critic Arnold Haskell called her performance, “among the most moving I have seen on the ballet stage.”3
After leaving the Ballet Russe in 1942, Riabouchinska continued to make guest appearances with her husband, choreographer David Lichine. They also made two Walt Disney films, first serving as the models for the dancing hippopotamus and her alligator partner in Fantasia, and later dancing in silhouette in Make Mine Music. In 1953, the couple founded the first Los Angeles ballet company.
Riabouchinska will be remembered for her highly individualized style, a quality that made it difficult for other dancers to attempt her roles. Haskell commented that when Riabouchinska was replaced by another dancer, “something positive was missing. The feeling of spontaneity that Riabouchinska had, a lightness of mind equal to her lightness of dancing. The understudy acted, Riabouchinska lived.”4