CN D Magazine

#4 nov 23

From Brazil to France and Back Again: Two Ballerinas’ Transatlantic Journey

Callysta Croizer

Nora Esteve in The Nutcracker (choreography by Dalal Achcar), 1985, Rio's Municipal Theater © DR

The destinies of ballerinas Tatiana Leskova and Nora Esteves seem to both intersect and respond to each other. Born in Paris in 1922, the former became lead choreographer of Rio de Janeiro's Municipal Theater in 1950. Ten years later, Esteves began her career with the same ballet, only to continue it on the other side of the Atlantic. From company to company, they both built their careers between France and Brazil. Put side by side, the stories of these dancers and ballet mistresses shed light on nearly a century of transatlantic ballet history.

Paris, 1937. Tatiana Leskova is studying classical ballet at the Wacker studio with Rousanne Sarkissian and Lyubov Egorova, two famous Russian teachers who had settled in the French capital in the aftermath of the 1917 Revolution. At the age of fourteen, the young pupil was already training alongside some of the greatest artists: “Many soloists from the Paris Opera came to take class with Egorova,” Leskova recalls to this day, as she approaches her 101st birthday. Nora Esteves, a principal dancer with Rio de Janeiro's Municipal Theater Ballet, discovered an almost identical scene when she frequented Raymond Franchetti's Cité Véron studio while pursuing a career in Paris in the 1970s. “Everyone took classes there,” she says, “the stars of the Opéra, Zizi [Jeanmaire] and Roland [Petit], and dancers from visiting companies.”

In the first half of the 20th century, the classes of Paris's great ballet masters were at once breeding grounds for ballet companies and springboards for young dancers. In 1939, Madame Egorova's teaching led Leskova (and four other dancers) straight to the Original Ballet Russe, then in London, at the invitation of two attendees of the “11:30 class”: Serge Grigoriev and Lubov Tchernicheva. “It was at Covent Garden that my career as a dancer began,” says Leskova, who soon followed the company on tour, from New York to Sydney via Rio de Janeiro – where she took up residence in 1945, despite resistance from the Original Ballet Russe, which didn’t want to let her go. At that time, independent troupes and private schools were steadily being created in the former Brazilian capital, while the Municipal Theater Ballet was going through a difficult decade. But that was before the French dancer took over as artistic director in 1950, breathing new life into the institution.

Tatiana Leskova as « The girl with braids » in Graduation Ball © Maurice Seymour

Thirty years later, Esteves made the opposite journey, while still following in Leskova’s wake. Parallel to her training at the Rio de Janeiro Municipal Theater Ballet School in the 1960s, the Brazilian dancer took private lessons at Leskova's ballet academy. The two then met again in the professional company of the same Municipal Theater, while Esteves joined at the age of fourteen while Leskova was its director. Esteves soon embarked on an international career: after spending a year in New York with the Joffrey Ballet, in 1975 she was invited by choreographer George Skibine to dance the lead role in Robert Hossein's Scheherazade at the Théâtre Populaire in Reims. “It was very important for me because it was my introduction to the world of French dance,” she says today. But it was in Franchetti's studio that Esteves found an extension to her career in France, when Roland Petit invited her to join Les Ballets de Marseille. As she met more people and found new opportunities, she then moved on to Ballet-Théâtre Contemporain in Angers and the Ballet-Théâtre Français in Nancy. “There were lots of companies in France. The dance market was bigger [and] more international than in Rio de Janeiro,” she recalls.

Nora Esteve in Coppélia (choreography by Enrique Martinez), 1981, Rio's Municipal Theater © DR

While in the early 20th century the Franco-Brazilian pipeline was mainly used by French artists to go on South American tours, Carioca dancers began to join French companies as early as the 1950s. Beatriz Consuelo and Yvonne Meyer, both soloists with the Municipal Theater Ballet in Rio, were hired by the Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas, then respectively by the Ballet de l'Opéra de Bordeaux and three companies led by female choreographers. Unlike them, however, Leskova and Esteves have maintained close, long-term ties with French classical dance. In 1950, when the Paris Opera Ballet went to Rio de Janeiro, Leskova reprised Giselle with the help of Serge Lifar, in the version he had danced “in Russia with [Serge] Diaghilev, with [Olga] Spessivtseva.” In return, she taught Leonide Massine's first symphonic ballet, Les Présages, to the French company in 1989. “It was very different to revive a ballet in Paris and Rio,” Leskova says. “There were many more first soloists and soloists in France.” But it was this imbalance that enabled Esteves, back in Rio, to share the stage with several French stars, including Jean-Yves Lormeau in Coppelia in 1981 and Cyril Atanassoff in The Nutcracker in 1985 – “a dream” for the Brazilian dancer.

Over the past twenty years, Franco-Brazilian exchanges in the field of ballet have slowly dwindled. While professional prospects in the field are limited in Brazil, encouraging a Brazilian student to embark on a career abroad implies a substantial financial investment on the part of families. “It has to be someone very special,” Esteves says, referring to both technical and artistic potential. Today, international competitions have replaced studio scouting as the golden ticket for young dancers aspiring to be hired by prestigious institutions. However, the artists who made ballet shine in the last century remain a source of inspiration for them. A case in point is the gala organized this fall at Rio's Municipal Theater by the 2024 Youth Grand Prix Brazil as a tribute to – and in the presence of – Leskova.

Callysta Croizer is a student at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris (ENS-PSL), where she is working on a MA thesis in transnational history. Her research focuses on the formation of corps de ballet at the Municipal Theater of Rio de Janeiro. She has been chronicling dance performances and books on dance for the Culture-Tops website since 2021. In 2023, she took part in Springback Academy, a training program for emerging dance critics initiated by Aerowaves.