Igor Schwezoff’s book, Borzoi, is illustrated with three photographs of the author.
Igor Schwezoff photographed by Franz Ziegler c.1934
Igor Schwezoff photographed by Franz Ziegler, c.1934
The portrait on the frontispiece and the author as a dancer in costume were taken by Franz Ziegler, A.R.P.S, Court Photographer, The Hague.
Mr. Schwezoff was about 30 years old when these photos were taken.
Borzoi is the story of his life from the time he was born in 1904, through his early life, ballet training and dance career in Russia and his escape on foot through Manchuria into Shanghai and finally via train to Germany. The book covers the first 26 years of his life – from 1904 through 1930. It begins when he was born and ends when he arrives in Europe. Borzoi ends here with the author hoping for success and a new life in the West.
What follows is not in the book. I know these things from personal narrative. Igor Schwezoff was my teacher and wonderful friend for the last 20 years of his life. He lived another 52 years after writing Borzoi and there was certainly enough interesting material and life experience over those next years to fill another book or several of them, but he never wrote one. He told me, several times, when I asked him about it, “You will have to do that…”
After arriving in Europe he continued his itinerate career as a dancer, choreographer, teacher and occasional writer working with many well known dancers and ballet companies throughout the world.
He initially arrived in Germany where he had some family members and a small amount of money awaiting him from an inheritance. He acquired immediate work here and there as a ballet dancer in night club acts and in the German film industry, including a role dancing in the prologue of Leni Riefenstahl’s film Das Blaue Licht which was released in 1932. That filming job only lasted 4 days. It was interesting for the fact that Leni Riefenstahl selected him for the role and she choreographed it herself. It was initially shown as a filmed dance prologue to the story in the film. Leni was a dancer /choreographer herself. She played the lead role in this movie. An actor played the part of the male lead in the actual movie but Igor Schwezoff played him in the danced prologue. This has apparently been cut from currently available releases of this old film. I have not seen it and do not even know if the footage still exists. If it does it is probably the only film footage of Igor Schwezoff dancing, ( I am dying to get my hands on it if anybody knows anything more about it. Please contact me if you do!) Schwezoff is not listed in the film’s credits which is a common situation with dancers to this day. However I have seen mentions of his performance in the film in several historical dance references. He told me that, when he worked with Leni Riefenstahl, he had no idea who she was or what her alliances were. It was just a small dance job for him at the time and she was just a filmmaker and dancer/choreographer. He was appalled when he later found out how notorious she was and played down the fact that he had appeared in her film not often mentioning it. This film was extremely popular in Germany and catapulted Leni to fame as an actress and film director. And as Adolf Hitler’s ideal of womanhood. It was one of Hitler’s favorite films ever. It was after making it that Leni became strongly affiliated publicly with the Nazi party and it’s official filmmaker.
The film industry and active Berlin night club life assured him employment as a performer, but the political atmosphere made him exceptionally nervous. He was also anxious to join fellow Russian ballet dancers and get back to his real work in the serious ballet theater versus performing pick up work in films and club acts.
This led him to the Netherlands to find Bronislava Nijinska with whom he traveled to Buenos Aires where he became principal dancer at the Teatro de Colon under her direction. When she left he followed her to Paris, then back to the Netherlands where she was working with a group of Russian ballet dancers teaching and choreographing in Amsterdam. He performed with Nijinska’s group, took her daily classes and set up his own studio in The Hague teaching advanced students and assembling a small company of professional level dancers called Ballet Igor Schwezoff (1934 – 36) on whom he choreographed the initial version of his ballet, La Lutte Eternelle. The first version of this work was initially performed there.
From Amsterdam he and several other Russian expatriate ballet dancers traveled to London as war was too much in the air in the Netherlands and he eventually set up a studio in an old church basement with a piano in it in London, where he conducted daily classes and rehearsals. Some very famous Russian dancers who were in England at this time came to these classes for dancers must take daily class to stay in performing condition and Schwezoff offered the best pure classical ballet technique classes with the perfect amount of philosophical content.
He was a gifted teacher and the best dancers gravitated to his studio. Money was very tight for all of them. Many could not pay him for class, but he accepted them anyway. For the talented he practiced the Proletarian Method of Dance Class Payment: From each according to his ability, To each according to his need.
While on an earlier trip to London in 1934 he saw the notice for the £1000 award being offered by Hodder and Stoughton, Ltd. publishing company for the best autobiography in the English language. He thought people would like to know what the Russians had lived through in the last few years and he thought he had led a rather exceptional life people might like to read about so he decided to try for the prize. He was also driven by the extreme need for money.
Fortunately, although he had a heavy Russian accent, Schwezoff spoke fluent English because he had been taught both English and French by his mother and an English governess while a child in Russia. Over 500 manuscripts were submitted to this competition and his story, Borzoi, actually won the coveted prize!
Here is some of the backstory. The charming decorative designs and endpapers in the book illustrating scenes from Russian life and the day to activities in the life of a ballet dancer are from drawings by David Gray, a ballet loving artist whom Schwezoff befriended in London who also helped him do a preliminary edit of the book before submitting it to the competition. This was an important step in the preparation of the manuscript to be submitted to an English publishing company by a non-native English speaking writer who had only been living in England and speaking to English speaking natives in English for a couple of months. Schwezoff felt that David Grey’s contribution to the manuscript was so important to helping him win the competition that the book is dedicated to him with the inscription, “To David Grey who has helped so much.” David also believed in the book and kept him going writing it so that it would be finished in time to meet the entry deadline when the going got rough as it does for all writers.
Borzoi is also a marvel of a book not only because it is a good story and an exceptional read, but for the the fact that it was conceived of and completely written and illustrated in the course of a single month!
The prize money was much needed by the writer and provided him the motivation he needed to write his amazing story in record time. This was the first real money he had ever made in his life. In those days it was a great deal of money.
Borzoi was published in 1934 and immediately provided a great boost to Igor Schwezoff personally and to his career as a dancer. It was chosen by the London Book Society as a favorite and a sponsored read and enjoyed several reprints and re-editions over the next 20 years. Schwezoff was a notoriously charming guest speaker and enjoyed making appearances as a celebrity author which in turn brought audiences to see him perform as a dancer. And all this got him invited to a lot of delicious dinner parties where there was no shortage of tasty food which he thoroughly enjoyed. He was making up for lost time when he didn’t get enough to eat during his years in Russia.
Quite suddenly, due to the popularity of Borzoi, Igor Schwezoff was a well known writer and a famous dancer and he had more money in his pocket than he had ever had before. He was very appreciative of this. Best of all writing Borzoi opened doors for him socially and made people in the general public who read the book aware of him as a dancer. This book got him noticed.
He was now a famous Russian dancer and choreographer receiving offers of employment in dance companies all over the world. As a result of writing this book about his early life people outside of the immediate professional ballet world knew about him. Consequently, he was never out of work as a dancer, choreographer or ballet teacher again!
He was never out of work as a dinner party guest either! He was always a charming guest with his colorful Russian accent, fluency in several languages, delightful observations, spellbinding real life stories and genuine appreciation of good food!
Writing his autobiography at the early age he did it, instead of at the end of his life, turned out to be an important career move and wonderful publicity for him as a dancer/choreographer/teacher. There were many other Russian dancers in Western Europe and the United States at the time he was dancing. In fact the two Ballets Russes companies were full of them! As far as I know none of the others wrote an autobiography of their early years in Russia and about defecting at that time. Borzoi was a first in that genre.
He danced and choreographed in Monte Carlo taking some of the dancers from his London studio with him. After this, while in Paris, he and some of them, joined Col de Basil’s Original Ballets Russes as a soloist from (1939 – 1941) and traveled with them to Australia. More about this later! There is a fascinating story explaining how it happened in a successful attempt to get the ballet dancers to safety during the war. Initially planned for several weeks the tour to Australia essentially stranded the dancers there for two years due to WWII. That, in itself was quite an adventure ….. I have a collection of previously unpublished photographs of Igor Schwezoff’s work during this period which I intend to post on this blog soon.
After his Down Under experience , Schwezoff moved to New York ….. and a lot of other traveling and performing and choreographing to other places throughout the world ensued. More about that later, too ….
I knew Mr Schwezoff for the last 20 years of his life and he told me constant stories and life adventures that happened to him during the time that came after his arrival in Western Europe and after the publication of Borzoi, I kept asking him why he didn’t write a sequel to the book. He said he was, at this time, too busy to get to it. He really saw himself primarily as a dancer/teacher/choreographer who had happened to write a book about his early life. He did not really see himself as an author, although he did write the occasional article and treatise on ballet. The most important one is a self published booklet titled ” Quality Versus Quantity” about ballet dancer’s technique and artistry of which I have a copy. It includes reviews from his performances and performances of his ballets as well as the title essay.
Schwezoff was totally dedicated to the dance and in a way it is a shame he did not write more because he was such a good writer. He was extremely intelligent and fluent in Russian, English, French, Dutch, Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese. He spoke enough Japanese to get by in Japan and teach there. He traveled and taught in many countries and was a firm believer in learning and speaking the language of the people with whom he was working so that they could understand, fully, what he wanted of them. He picked up languages easily, initially because it was expected that one speak French in Russia if from an aristocratic family and it was spoken in his home from the time he was born as the day to day life language. As I mentioned earlier his mother and a pretty young English governess employed by his family taught him English and he was extremely motivated to learn English as a youth by his ardent crush on this lady just slightly older than he was, who would reward him with a kiss for every English word well learned. She certainly knew how to motivate her young student!
There were ballet dancers of every nationality in the ballet companies at this time, as there often are today, and it was common to hear them talking to each other in one native language, then turning and chattering with another colleague in another language. Conversations were easily conducted in three languages at once. Dancers picked up each other’s languages as they worked, traveled and lived together. It was an extremely stimulating and colorful environment. Ballet classes and rehearsals are traditionally aught and conducted in French to this day so all ballet people pick up a certain amount of French.
The photo above, in dance costume, with exotic head dress, is not identified as to what ballet it is from in the book and so far I have not been able to identify what role he was performing in it. I failed to ask him when he was alive, I do know the picture was taken during his tenure in Amsterdam where he worked with Bronislava Nijinska, performed and ran a dance studio and began preliminary work on his ballet La Lute Eternelle. If anyone who sees this photo has any further information on it, such as what ballet it is from, could they please contact me with it… Of course it is entirely possible that he threw the costume together for the photo shoot and it isn’t even a costume from a real ballet. That was done from time to time in a pinch. There is even a photo of Bronislava Nijinska wearing one of her brother’s costumes from Papillon for a totally unrelated dance publicity photo shoot.
Also, more photographs of Igor Schwezoff would be most appreciated. As would any other information and documents pertaining to his career and his life. ( Many thanks, here, to the people who have been answering my pleas in this regard and are sending me the photos and other materials they have pertaining the Igor Schwezoff .)
This photograph of the author “Taking a Dancing Class” is by Mono of Amsterdam.
Igor Schwezoff photographed by Mono of Amsterdam, c.1934
I put the title in quotes because it is more like the author posing in the ballet studio while taking a cigarette break from a dance class.
It was characteristic of this era to photograph an artist, dancer, or actor, elegantly posed with a cigarette whilst gazing dreamily into space. At this time the cigarette was considered a sophisticated prop.
The sophisticated and fashionable set was not worried about the health hazards associated with smoking in those days, if they even realized they existed.
It was also a characteristic of Mr. Schwezoff’s, throughout his life, to smoke a great deal. Cigarettes were a rare luxury in Communist Russia which he allowed himself to indulge in heavily once he escaped.
Food was a rare luxury too. Good food, especially so, and Schwezoff appreciated it for reasons beyond taste. He had not been properly nourished during his teen and young adult years due to extreme food shortages in Russia.
He was extremely health conscious regarding diet, but the consequences of cigarette smoking were of no concern.
As you will find if you read the book he suffered from extreme food deprivation and sketchy nutrition as a growing teenager and young adult in Russia which caused him nagging physical problems and health difficulties throughout his life. As a result he stressed proper nutrition and getting enough high quality food to eat to his students. The emphasis was on Quality Versus Quantity just as it was in dance technique. He never had a weight problem, nor did his students. I called it Thigh Quality Food meaning high quality necessary nutrition that would provide what a dancer needed but not put extra weight on your thighs.
Schwezoff loved good food and he became an accomplished cook. As a ballet teacher he stressed having a strong healthy body which included eating properly. He even cooked for us on a regular basis. Teaching us that we should work our bodies very hard during the week, but take one full day off each week from dancing to rest them and regain our strength. On that day we were to eat a high protein high calorie dinner. These dinners he often prepared himself. His ideas on diet as a dancer and building and maintaining one’s strength worked for me.
Once, Sol Hurok, the impressario, engaged Schwezoff to travel with the ballerina Tamara Toumanova from New York to Paris to prepare her for an important two week booking he had secured for her at The Paris Opera. Tamara and her Mamon who accompanied her everywhere, (even after she became an adult,) were in California when the arrangements were made. It was conducted by telephone and letter. A contract was signed and the Toumanova’s set out for NYC to sail to Paris.
Schwezoff was engaged to give Tamara daily class on shipboard during the sailing and rehearse her in her roles, especially as Odette/Odile in Swan lake, and get her performance ready during the 2 week sailing. She was to step off the ocean liner in France looking gorgeous for the paparazzi and ready to perform at the Paris Opera House the very next day. She was to be dressed up in couture and furs, and dripping with pearls when she disembarked for the waiting press. She was expected to play the part of the glamorous ballerina to the hilt – a role she enjoyed immensely!
When Tamara arrived with her mother at Sol Huroks booking offices in NYC to meet him and Igor Schwezoff and pick up her cruise ship tickets, they were in for a surprise. The glamorous dancer who was a one of the famous Baby Ballerinas and a fabulous technician, had changed drastically. She was 5′ 4″ tall and 40 lbs overweight! Her thighs were as big as the columns of the Parthenon! Tamara Toumanova was supposed to be a goddess, not a temple! This was a terrible emergency. Hurok discreetly asked the famous dancer and her mother to wait a few moments and he called a private conference with Scwhezoff in another office. He asked him, in utter desperation, “Can you slim her down to her previous girlish figure and get her Swan Lake performance ready within just two weeks on the cruise ship? ” Schwezoff agreed to try. The two men then went out to continue the conference with Toumanova and her mother in which Hurok very discreetly explained to Tamara that she would have to lose the weight she had gained while vacationing in California before the ship hit France in order to maintain her reputation as a beautiful woman and a ballet star. She understood and agreed to try. This was a grave situation and the careers and reputations of everybody involved depended upon her delivering the goods – that meant, appearing in Paris as the quintessential embodiment of a perfect ballerina. To this end she was told that Igor Schwezoff, the ballet master, would be put in charge of her every minute. He would train her physically, rehearse her for hours a day, and be in charge of approving her diet and every bite of food and drink she was allowed to consume. He would weigh and measure her every day to monitor her progress. This was not cruel. This was the necessary reality of being a ballerina. The body is a ballerina’s instrument and she must be responsible for maintaining it perfectly. Toumanova and her mother understood. Schwezoff got to work with her that very day. The next day they set sail for Paris.
Schwezoff worked like a sculptor reshaping Toumanova’s body and technique. She was a beautiful well trained dancer and a true artist. Both of them had tremendous powers of self discipline. And Schwezoff had tremendous powers of exerting discipline on his dancers in such a way that they enjoyed it and didn’t even realize it was happening to them until they began to feel and see the results. This journey was a success. Tamara Toumanova stepped off the ship looking beautiful, performed her two week booking in Paris to rave reviews and never gained too much weight to perform again. Incidentally, she was never a terribly thin dancer. She was extremely strong and had a womanly figure with a lot of muscle. She had been trained to become a professional ballerina since her birth. The reason she had made one slip and gained weight this one time, was that she was growing and developing as a woman, and eating a little too much while on a short vacation from ballet. It would never happen again. Tamara Toumanova was a great artist and totally dedicated dancer. She was also responsible for supporting her parents financially which was often the case in the old days. Whatever she learned from Igor Schwezoff on this trip about maintaining her physical condition she practiced successfully for the rest of her life. (I have rare unpublished photos of Toumanova that I will be posting on this blog in the near future.)
Among Schwezoff’s famous ballerina pupils were Yvonne Mounsey, Lupe Serrano and Yoko Morishita. ”It was as though he were carving a sculpture out of the human body,” Miss Morishita once said of his teaching. ”He showed me which muscles were not important, so that I could forget about them, and which were important, so I could learn to stretch them out and use them. His whole approach was to make a distinctive shape of the body.”
I myself, began to study with him when I was 12 years old. I had a naturally fine boned body and the perfect ballerina look, and I was very flexible, but I was not yet really strong. I had received a foot injury in another professional ballet school . I had broken a bone in my right foot and was having trouble getting back. Schwezoff brought me back quickly and taught me how to work my body so that I would become very strong and would never become injured due to dancing again. He told me that I would come across many teachers and choreographers with many working methods during my career as a dancer, so I must learn how to work, and how to protect, my particular body type myself, no matter what I was asked to do. He told me I, and I alone, was responsible for this. He told me I had to learn how to do it and to put that knowledge into practice every single day of my life. I did what he told me to do and it worked for me.
I also learned a great deal about how to teach other dancers from him as did many of his students. This is how dance is taught. The knowledge is transmitted, personally, from one dancer /teacher to his student, and then from him or her to another. I worked with another teacher, at the Joffrey Ballet, Maria Grandy, who had studied with him a decade before I did. She could instantly tell I was working with him. She could see it in the way I moved. She called me aside and told me, “He is a great teacher, perfect for your body.” Maria Grandy has had a long career as a ballet professor at The Julliard School in NYC. She is passing on what she learned from Igor Schwezoff to her students there. That is the way it is done! Classical ballet is taught and passed down, , essentially in narrative form and through physical contact, from one generation of dancers to the next.
For current dance students, teachers, performers, dance historians and balletomanes it is a wonderful thing that Igor Schwezoff wrote his early biography for us. Everyone interested in ballet or what life in Russia was like during the time it takes place, should read it. Everyone, interested in dance and the art of ballet, as well as people who do not think they are interested in it (yet!) will benefit from reading it. I think anyone reading it who knows nothing of ballet will still enjoy it and benefit from the story in many ways. And that will benefit the art of ballet because those readers will become curious about it and wonder what it is all about. Schwezoff was a great person as well as a dancer. Borzoi is a great book in general.
By the way, The book is sometimes also known as Russian Summersault! It is the same book.
I have many never before published photos of Igor Schwezoff working in the 1940’s that I will be posting on this blog soon.