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Subject: Vera Zorina, Ballerina for Balanchine

Santa Fe
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Date Posted: April 12, 2003 2:19:11 EDT

Vera Zorina in a Balanchine dance in "The Goldwyn Follies" (1938).

Vera Zorina, a dancer and actress who starred in ballets, films and stage musicals choreographed by her first husband, George Balanchine, and whose mix of glamour and culture made her prominent in a variety of theatrical and musical fields, died on Wednesday at her home in Santa Fe, N.M. She was 86.

Ms. Zorina and the harpsichordist Paul Wolfe, whom she married after the death her second husband, Goddard Lieberson, the president of CBS Records, moved in 1990 to Santa Fe, where she continued a career as an opera director for several troupes, including the Santa Fe Opera.

Newer audiences saw her as a performer-narrator in dramatic oratorios. Public television captured her as the narrator in "Persephone" in the New York City Ballet's 1982 Stravinsky Festival, organized by Balanchine the year before he died.

Movie audiences, however, cherished other images of her. In the 1938 film "The Goldwyn Follies," Balanchine made use of Ms. Zorina's outright sex appeal as well as her arabesques when he cast her as a nymph in a wet, clinging tunic, rising out of a pool. Other audience favorites include her role as a dancer opposite Bob Hope in "Louisiana Purchase" in 1941, adapted from a Broadway show choreographed by Balanchine.

Although Balanchine was considered the genius behind much of Ms. Zorina's success onstage and screen in the 1930's and 1940's (they were divorced in 1946), she was better known to the general public than he was in 1938, when they went to Hollywood to work for Sam Goldwyn.

Goldwyn was smitten with Ms. Zorina, who had been Léonide Massine's protégée in the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. She had also starred in the 1937 London production of the musical "On Your Toes."

Whether Ms. Zorina insisted that Goldwyn hire Balanchine for "The Goldwyn Follies," or whether Goldwyn brought them together, the collaboration ended in Ms. Zorina's marriage to Balanchine in December 1938. By all accounts, it was an unhappy union. Mostly, it embodied an experiment that integrated high art into popular culture. Ms. Zorina's films, in which she often played a dancer, did much to introduce audiences to ballet as an art form, one that was witty and contemporary.

Ms. Zorina was herself a product of an artistic milieu. She was born Eva Brigitta Hartwig on Jan. 2, 1917, in Berlin. Her mother, a Norwegian, and her father, a German, were both professional singers. Her parents separated when she was 6, at the time she began studying ballet with Evgenia Eduardova and Victor Gsovsky. At 14, she played a fairy in Max Reinhardt's celebrated production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and she performed in Reinhardt's 1931 "Tales of Hoffman."

After moving to London to study ballet, she had her first success in the West End in 1933: Anton Dolin, the British ballet star, cast her opposite himself in "Ballerina," a play with ballet interludes.

Although friends called her Brigitta throughout her life, her professional name was changed to Vera Zorina by Colonel de Basil, as the director of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo was known. He invited her to join the company in 1934.

As she wrote in her 1986 autobiography, "Zorina," she became involved at 18 in an open ménage à trois that included Massine, then the world's best-known choreographer, and his wife, Eugenia Delarova.

Massine cast her in his ballets: she was the Street Dancer in "Le Beau Danube" and Action in "Les Présages." But Ms. Zorina also cherished her performances in Bronislava Nijinska's experimental masterpiece to Stravinsky, "Les Noces."

After leaving the ballet company in 1936 and succeeding in the London production of "On Your Toes," she divided her time between Broadway and Hollywood. While she was under contract to M.G.M. from 1938 to 1944, her films included a version of "On Your Toes, as well as "I Was an Adventuress" and "Star-Spangled Rhythm." Some, like "Follow the Boys," did not involve Balanchine, but she collaborated with him in Broadway musicals, including "I Married an Angel" and "Dream With Music," and for her role as Ariel in Shakespeare's "Tempest." In 1943, she tried to return to a serious ballet career and was a guest artist with Ballet Theater, where Balanchine cast her as Terpsichore, the leading muse in his "Apollo."

In 1946, Ms. Zorina married Mr. Lieberson, who died in 1977. They had two sons, Jonathan, a philosophy teacher, who died in 1989, and the composer Peter Liberson, also of Santa Fe. In addition to Peter Liberson and Mr. Wolfe, whom she married 12 years ago, she is survived by three granddaughters.

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