Roman Jasinski: A Gypsy Prince from the Ballet Russe
By Cheryl Forrest and Georgia Snoke
book review by Leland Windreich
Published April 2009
Few readers of this review are likely to know much about the subject of this biography. Roman Jasinski was one of a score or more of principal dancers of the Ballet Russe companies who flourished on world stages before settling in America to start a school and a regional ballet establishment. He is still cherished in his selected home base, Tulsa, Oklahoma, where two of his most dedicated students spent hundreds of hours capturing his memoirs on tape, the last of which was recorded a few weeks before his death in 1991.
One of his statements reflects the shocking anonymity that becomes the fate of a dancer once he retires from the stage. He notes that in Europe the artist is longer remembered, but in the United States he is soon forgotten. “They remember you when you are dancing but when you are finished they forget. It is very sad but it is true.” Modest and loyal, Jasinski contributed great riches to the dance resources of Oklahoma, bringing to Tulsa the training and essence of a European art form. His life story lives on in this remarkable study of a fascinating career in the years of transition of ballet from an exotic import to a stable American institution.
Jasinski was born in Warsaw in 1912. As a ten-year-old boy he was discovered by an outdoor party guest while he idly played, displaying a remarkable arch and instep. She recommended the upcoming auditions of the Warsaw Opera Ballet, where he was taken in immediately. The training was free. Coming from a poor family he was obliged to walk the three miles to the school twice a day so that he could have his mother’s soup at noon, returning for an arduous afternoon of further study and academic courses. Within the year, he was performing children’s roles in the operas.
Then a letter was received at the academy from Bronislava Nijinska, who requested three male dancers for a new company in Paris. The company was the brainchild of the Diaghilev mime, Ida Rubinstein, whose wealth enabled her to create a magnificent project with some of the most celebrated artists in Europe. The opportunity to visit his dream city and to avoid the inevitable conscription into the Polish Army could not be ignored. His career as an evolving ballet artist and his life as an itinerant began.
The Ida Rubinstein company was remembered mainly for the debut of Ravel’s “Bolero” in which choreographer Nijinska placed Rubinstein on a huge round table, surrounded by a ring of young men aroused by her sensual dance. When she abruptly closed down the company, Jasinski was left to his own resources. His main objective over the next few years was to get a decent meal. He joined a number of short-lived troupes, which took him to small theatres in various parts of Europe and North Africa, as well as a motion picture production in Italy. Even in this unstable period, he sent money to his family in Poland. Little was left for his own survival, and in the interims between performances he often went hungry.
The issue of money is rarely discussed in a biography of a dancer. Jasinsky does so without bitterness, making it clear how ballet dancers of his era suffered. On one occasion he stayed in his derelict Paris hotel room for three days without food. While working with Nijinska he was denied a salary raise because she believed that adequately paid male ballet dancers would squander their wages on drink. Between engagements he lived on the tea and biscuits offered after a class with Lubov Egorova as his daily nourishment. In his many short stage appearances he existed below the poverty level but managed to hone his ballet technique. Soon, he was becoming known, and choreographers such as Leonide Massine and Boris Knaisev hired him for short assignments. For the latter he worked without pay but earned a daily meal at Knaisev’s expense in a local restaurant.
His first potentially stable job was with Colonel de Basil’s Ballets Russes, a new company launched in Monte Carlo in 1931 with a mandate to restore the glories of the Diaghilev era. George Balanchine was hired as Ballet Master and choreographer, and he produced three extraordinary new ballets, recruiting teen-aged dancers to perform them. But when Leonide Massine was appointed as his unannounced replacement, Balanchine made other plans.
He greatly admired Jasinski’s work and spirited him away for a new venture in Paris. The 21-year-old dancer was rewarded with an appointment as premier danseur in Les Ballets 33, but he and the 14 other young artists joined without contracts and covered their own expenses until the English director Edward James purchased the company as a showcase for his wife, Tilly Losch.
The company offered six extraordinary new ballets by Balanchine, and Jasinski partnered both Losch and Tamara Toumanova. During the year, Balanchine met the American entrepreneur Lincoln Kirstein, who became determined to launch an American school and company. In the discussion stage, Jasinsky and Toumanova were to be installed as principal dancers. But there was no money, and Kirstein appealed to his rich friends at home for subsidy. By the time he had acquired the $6,000 needed for transportation of his dancers, Toumanova had been tricked into returning to de Basil by a false report that her beloved Balanchine would be coming back as well. This chicanery was typical in the ballet world, as was Balanchine’s last minute decision that Jasinski was no longer part of the proposed plan.
Serge Lifar, who was then head of the Paris Opera Ballet, was enchanted by Jasinski’s dancing and hired him for a brief junket in the United States with a pickup troupe. There he was infatuated by the American milieu and was determined to return. Unemployed again, Jasinski received a surprise communication from de Basil, who offered to reengage him with the Ballets Russes. Back with the company and assured of a viable salary, Jasinski began a career spanning 17 years, in which he danced principal roles in remarkable ballets on four continents, inspiring audiences with his elegant line, impeccable technique and sensitive dramatic performances. He also acquired two romantic attachments.
The first was Chicago-born, Japanese-American Sono Osato who was taken into the company at the age of 16. Her exotic appearance and name relieved her from having to acquire a Slavic pseudonym, which was the fate of most non-Russian dancers. The handsome, well-mannered, intense and respectful Pole became her idol, and despite the ten years difference in their ages, they became lovers. In her biography, “Distant Dances” (Knopf, 1980), she describes their relationship:
“Roman was naturally polite to everyone. I was as drawn to him by his courtesy as by his fair hair and beautiful body. He treated me so protectively that I felt totally serene and secure in his care. His attention to me was quiet and unaggressive.”
They were a devoted couple for the next seven years. In 1941 Osato, feeling that her future with de Basil had become static, left the company with outrage and Jasinski with sadness to follow a new career in the American musical theatre.
The years with the itinerant de Basil troupe are told with charm and candor, and Jasinski revels in the many anecdotes he recalls: the shenanigans of Mama Toumanova, the shifty dealings of the Colonel and the myriad of legal procedures undertaken over rights to the Massine repertoire, the romances of the dancers—some passionate enough to inspire crises, the drama of the pre-war and wartime insecurities, and the legendary dancers’ strike in Cuba, which grounded them for months. A sensitive observer and a man who remained loyal to his company, Jasinski was capable of respecting the achievements of the Ballet Russe as well as the nitty-gritty of its operations.
In 1941, a beautiful sixteen-year-old Oklahoma girl named Moscelyne Larkin was taken into the company and was shortly given the improbable name of Moussia Larkina. Born to a Russian mother and a Peoria-Shawnee father, she was soon smitten by Jasinski and made her presence known to him. During the company’s six-year residence in Latin America they began a stage partnership and were married in Buenos Aires in 1943. They remained together for 47 years.
When de Basil’s enterprise folded in 1950, the couple concluded their performing career with an engagement with Serge Denham’s Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and performed as well in its more intimate touring company. Jasinski’s dream of living in America came true. He and Moussia settled in her home state, where they established a ballet school and developed a thriving regional company, the Tulsa Ballet.
Never a glittering superstar, Roman Jasinski was adored by audiences in South America and Australia, admired by his temperamental colleagues in the Ballets Russes, and cherished by the hundreds of pupils who attended the Tulsa Ballet School. Two of his most devoted charges, Cheryl Forrest and Georgia Snoke, felt obliged to collect the lore of his career on tapes, from which they were able to create a remarkably intimate narrative. The interpolation of his own thoughtful statements with the documentation of their historical research makes this one of the most informative and readable studies of the Ballets Russes written to date.
Published by the Tulsa Ballet, 2008. 336 pp. illus. ISBN: 978-0-615-22160-1. $24.95.