Reflections of a Post-Diaghilev Star

January 25, 2009

When 19-year-old George Zoritch first leaped out onto a London stage in 1936 with the Ballets Russes, dancing the poet in Massine’s Jardin Public, a breathless critic declared, “At last the company has found its pure classical dancer.”


Zoritch had a barrel chest, perfect lines and a face so dazzling that one of his partners, Maria Tallchief, called him the “most handsome man I’ve seen in my life.” His bravura grands jetés, beautiful port de bras, and engaging personality made him stand out in an age of strong male dancers. Critic Walter Terry declared that Zoritch embodied the “real spirit of the rose” in Fokine’s Spectre de la Rose. He was “poetic” in Fokine’s Les Sylphides, another wrote; in what became his signature role, the Faun in Nijinsky’s L’Après-Midi d’un Faune, he danced “with exquisite grace.”


He danced with nearly all the reincarnations of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes: Nijinska’s short lived Ballet Russe de Paris, Col. de Basil’s Ballets Russes, and Serge Denham’s Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. (He is featured in the Ballets Russes documentary; see After working in Hollywood during World War II, he returned to Europe to dance again with Denham’s group and with the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas.


Now 91, the grizzle-haired Zoritch lives in Tucson. “Russian dancers dance from the soul,” he declares in English still tinged by his native Russian. “Dance should live. If it doesn’t come from the heart it is not dancing.”  And by dance, he means ballet, “not modern,” he says with a wicked grin. “Anyone who’s not lying in bed can do Agnes de Mille.”


He was born Yuri Zoritch in Moscow in 1917, the year the Russian Revolution erupted. When his parents’ marriage broke up, his mother moved her two small boys to Kovna, Lithuania. After she took Yuri to see Coppélia, “I became intolerable, hopping around, menacing the furniture,” he remembers. So his mother hauled him to the ballet studio of Pavel Petroff, who had danced at the Maryinsky.


“I was lazy. I hated it. I didn’t want to dance. But in Europe mothers had the upper hand.” He pauses. “I owe everything to my mother.”


When Yuri was 13, the Zoritches moved to Paris, where he studied with Olga Preobrajenska, the luminary who taught Anna Pavlova among other greats. After just four years in her studio, at 17, he started dancing professionally, first with the Ida Rubinstein troupe in Paris, and then with the succession of post-Diaghilev troupes.


“I never saw Nijinksy or Pavlova,” he laments, but he danced for the great Russian choreographers who carried on their tradition: Michel Fokine, Bronislava Nijinksa, and Léonide Massine, who created 18 ballets on him. He calls Massine the “greatest choreographer I have ever known.”


He danced with all three of Balanchine’s “baby ballerinas” of the Ballets Russes, also trained by Preobrajenska: Tatiana Riabouchinska, Irina Baronova, and Tamara Toumanova. But his favorite partner was a Frenchwoman, Yvette Chauviré. “She was wonderful to dance with. She was such a great artist. She allowed you to have a ‘conversation’ with her.”


He put in years of grueling travel, to Asia, Australia, North and South America.  On one Monte Carlo tour the troupe performed in 120 North American cities in six months, many of them one-night stands. “We traveled in sleeper cars—one for the dancers, one for the musicians, one for the stagehands.” But the tours introduced classical Russian dance to new audiences, he says with pride, and revitalized ballet around the world. “From Podunk to L.A. to New York and Winnipeg, the crowds would come. They’d be cheering.”


Zoritch eventually opened a school in Los Angeles, but in 1973 he leaped at an offer to start a ballet program at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He retired in 1987 after 14 years.


Nowadays, he gets around his townhouse in a wheeled office chair, enjoying the view of the lush desert and mountains. And he keeps moving. Every morning at 7:30 he exercises in bed. “I lift one leg, then the other leg. Then I stretch them sideways.” Ever the dancer, he demonstrates, moving his limbs with grace and precision. He holds out his arms in an elegant gesture, then grins. “I was always praised for my arms,” he says.