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T. Toumanova; Ballerina and Actress

May 31, 1996|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tamara Toumanova, one of the legendary "Baby Ballerinas" of the original Ballet Russe who went on to become a screen actress and partner to Gene Kelly in "Invitation to the Dance," has died. She was 77.

Toumanova died late Wednesday of kidney failure at Santa Monica Hospital, former ballet publicist Betty Ferrell said Thursday.

The "baby" trio--Toumanova, then 14, Irina Baronova, 13, and Tatiana Riabouchinska, 15--were considered the jewels in the crown of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo when it was founded in 1933. The company, with its prize ballerinas, quickly became one of the reigning dance organizations in the world. It continued performing through strikes, revolutions and World War II, touring throughout Europe, Australia and the Americas.

Raven-haired Toumanova became an internationally known beauty, considered fiery but regal and nicknamed "the black pearl."

She was so popular she was even invited to christen the American puppet clown that became famous in "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" when it was created in 1936. The young Toumanova named him "Kukla" because it means "doll" in Russian.

" 'Baby ballerinas' was a publicity phrase of that period. It was like a knife in the heart," Toumanova told The Times in 1983. "What kind of 'Swan Lake' is a baby capable of? Is 'ballerina' a baby's achievement?"

Despite the sobriquet, critics raved about her mature and flawless approach to "Swan Lake" and other classic ballets.

After leaving Ballet Russe in the 1940s, Toumanova joined the Marquis de Cuevas Ballet and continued dancing professionally until 1969.

The daughter of Imperial Russian Army Col. Khassidovitch Toumanov and Georgian Princess Eugenie Toumanova, the future ballerina was born in a cattle car plowing through the heavy snows of Siberia in the closing days of the Russian Revolution. The family escaped to China, where the girl saw Anna Pavlova dance in Shanghai and realized that she wanted to become a dancer. The Toumanovs moved to Paris and the young girl began to study dance with veterans of the Russian Imperial Ballet.

Toumanova made her first public appearance at age 5--with her idol Pavlova. She later played Pavlova in the 1953 film "Tonight We Sing."

She danced many times in Los Angeles, including recitals at the Philharmonic Auditorium and the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, and eventually moved here.

But she also came to Hollywood to make movies--including "Days of Glory" with Gregory Peck in 1944, "Deep in My Heart" opposite Jose Ferrer in 1954, "Invitation to the Dance" with Kelly, released in 1957, and "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" in 1970. She was also a narrator in "That's Dancing!" in 1985.

"For ballet, I have always been cast in proud roles. Always the queen. The princess. The dramatic heroine. The Greek goddess," she said in 1970. "So I am used to holding a very proud head. But in 'Holmes,' Monsieur [Billy] Wilder kept telling me to be up, up, up, higher with the head. 'You are the queen of ballerinas in the grand old days!' he would exclaim."

Ferrell said services for Toumanova will be at Holy Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church in Hollywood.

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