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VERA NEMTCHINOVA, DANSEUSE—AND TEACHER

I RECENTLY came upon a marvelous characterization of “teacher.” My discovery evolved while I was learning about Madame Vera Nemtchinova. She was a prima ballerina and a part of the rich culture of 1920s Paris. Later in life, she transformed the lives of others by sharing her expertise.

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Vera Nemtchinova, 1900 – 1984, Russian ballerina, teacher. Image from National Library of Australia.

After private classes as a child in Moscow, Nemtchinova began her dancing career with ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. In 1923, Diaghilev commissioned French composer Francis Poulenc to compose a ballet. Poulenc, though an avant garde kind of guy, chose as inspiration the idyllic settings of 18th-century artist Antoine Watteau.

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The Love Lesson, painting by Antoine Watteau, 1717. The National Museum of Fine Arts, Stockholm.

The ballet in which Nemtchinova starred was eventually named Les Biches, the word biche being French for “doe.” In Poulenc’s era, the word also carried the connotation of a coquettish woman. Etymologically, it’s unrelated to the word for a female canine, which has German origin and a modern pejorative sense.

Briefly, Les Biches describes the goings-on of a largely androgynous group at what Poulenc called a “contemporary drawing room party suffused with an atmosphere of wantonness, which you sense if you are corrupted, but of which an innocent-minded girl would not be conscious.” Think Mick Jagger meets Mary Poppins.

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Nemtchinova in Les Biches, first danced in 1924. Image from Nalda Murilova.

Nemtchinova starred as La Garçonne (le Garçon being “boy,” with gender swapping). Wrote French polymath Jean Cocteau, “Nemtchinova’s entry is truly sublime (no Wagnerian would understand me). When that little lady emerges on points from the wings, with her long legs, a too-short jerkin, and her right hand, white-gloved, held up near her cheek as if for some sort of military salute, my heart beats more quickly….”

The ballet premiered on January 6, 1924, and was a triumph. Poulenc was no doubt delighted to write, “They had to give it eight curtain calls, something which is extremely rare for Monte Carlo.” Today, Les Biches is part of the modern repertoire and considered a milestone in ballet history.

Nemtchinova later danced with Léonide Massine and George Balanchine. From 1931 to 1935, she was the prima ballerina of the Lithuanian State Theater in Kaunas. In 1940, Nemtchinova and Anatole Oboukhov, her husband who excelled in classical ballet, moved to New York City. There, Oboukhov taught at Balanchine’s School of American Ballet. Nemtchinova began her own teaching career in 1947, a private practice she maintained until her death, at age 84, in 1984.

Madame, as she was known to her students, had a special way of sharing her expertise. Actress Carrie Nye, one of her students, said, “I felt I was not only studying ballet with Madame Nemtchinova but that I was in touch with the Diaghilev world.”

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Katherine Healy, born in New York City, 1969. American ballet dancer, figure skater, actress, teacher.

Katherine Healy was another of Madame’s students. A brief chronological mixing: Healy took up professional figure skating at age 11. Then she turned to dance and film. In 1982, when 13, her role in the movie Six Weeks earned her a Golden Globe Award nomination. At age 15, Healy joined the London Festival Ballet as senior principal dancer. Returning to the U.S. in 1986, she entered Princeton where, four years later, she was graduated Magna cum Laude in Art History.

Since then, Healy was principal ballerina with Les Ballets de Monte Carlo and the Vienna State Opera Ballet. She now teaches both ballet and figure skating.

At her blogspot in 2011, “Katherine Healy Random Thoughts,” she wrote of Madame Nemtchinova’s mentoring: “I curtsied to her after every lesson in addition to the formal révérence exercise that was a part of her class…. It was with Madame, in a private lesson on my tenth birthday, that I tied on my very first pair of pointe shoes and stood en pointe for the first time.

“Madame died in 1984. I grieved, but oddly, I never have felt as though she was actually gone. She got so thoroughly inside my artistry and technique…. Although there was a vertiginous corridor of seventy years separating the two of us, I never felt it—whenever we were together, it was as though we were suspended in time and space.”

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A lesson, New York City, 1979. Madame Nemtchinova was 79; Katherine Healy, 10. Video uploaded by bluehydrangeaa.

My granddaughter Lily is now about the age of Katherine Healy in her video with Madame Nemtchinova. I cannot lay claim to any dance gene for Lily; two left feet is too kind a description of my own terpsichorean skill. Whatever Lily’s passions, though, I would wish her a teacher like Madame. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016

2 comments on “VERA NEMTCHINOVA, DANSEUSE—AND TEACHER

  1. Larry Crane
    January 12, 2016

    Thank you Dennis. I have quietly collected stories of Diaghilev, Ballets Russes, Balanchine, Nijinsksky et al for much of a lifetime. It is fascinating to see a post from a scientist I admire on this subject. The Balanchine Foundation is a great resource for a curious fan.

    • simanaitissays
      January 12, 2016

      Thanks, Larry. No doubt you saw my earlier item on Diaghilev? Right now I’m reading “Ox on the Roof” about Paris in the 20s. Great stuff, and itself an upcoming item here.
      I learned about Madame Nemtchinova in that book; Blaise Cendrars too.

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