Mia Slavenska, glittering ballerina of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, was known for her explicit beauty and phenomenal technique. She was born Mia Corak in Slavonski Brod, Croatia on February 20, 1916. She was a child star at six; at age 18, she became the first Croat Prima Ballerina at the Zagreb National Theater. In Zagreb, She studied ballet first with Josephina Weiss, a former ballerina with the Vienna Opera, and with Margarita Froman, former ballerina with the Bolshoi and soloist with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and the founder of the Zagreb Opera Ballet. During her teen years, Slavenska studied modern dance with Gertrud Kraus in Vienna.
In Paris, she trained with the Russian émigré ballerinas Olga Preobrajenska, Matilde Kchessinska, and Lubov Egorova. In the 1930s, she danced in Paris with Bronislava Nijinska’s company and opposite Serge Lifar in David Triomphant. In 1936 Slavenska shared top prize with the eminent German modernists Mary Wigman and Harald Kreutzberg at the Berlin Dance Olympics. In 1937, she gave a solo recital at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, which launched her international career. Slavenska starred in Benoit-Levy’s prize-winning 1937 film La Mort du Cygne about backstage life at the Paris Opera, released in America as Ballerina. In 1938 she was invited by Leonide Massine to join the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo as ballerina.
Between 1938 and 1943, she toured in the USA, France, England, Canada and South America with the Ballet Russe. In 1948, she returned to the Ballet Russe for one season as guest ballerina. Here she danced all the classic roles including Swan Lake, Coppelia, Giselle, and the Nutcracker, as well as Michel Fokine and Leonid Massine works Scheherazade, Seventh Symphony, Capriccio Espagnol, Gaite Parisienne, and George Balanchine’s Le Baiser de la Fee. Marc Platt’s ballet Ghost Town, to a musical score by Richard Rodgers, was created expressly for her. During the 1940s, she retrained with Cechetti protégé Vincenzo Celli, whom she considered to be her greatest teacher.
Slavenska formed her first concert company, Slavenska Tihmar and Company in 1944, followed by Slavenska Ballet Variant in 1947. In 1952, Slavenska formed the Slavenska Franklin Ballet with Frederic Franklin. In this company she produced and starred as Blanche Dubois in the Valerie Bettis-choreographed A Streetcar Named Desire, based on the play by Tennessee Williams. It was one of the first times a contemporary play was turned into a ballet. In the late 1950s, Slavenska helped pioneer regional ballet in America, heading companies in Louisville and Fort Worth.
After many guest appearances on television and in musicals and a season as ballerina with the Metropolitan Opera, Slavenska retired at the top of her form in 1961 at the age of 45. She devoted the rest of her life to teaching. She was a “favorite teacher” to the cream of the avant-garde modern dancers in New York including Lucinda Childs, Deborah Hey, and Meredith Monk. She was a member of the founding faculty of the Dance Department at California Institute of the Arts and a member of the dance faculty at UCLA. Her protégé Yoko Ichino became a world-class ballerina who danced with major ballet companies in North America and Europe. Mia Slavenska was married to Kurt Neumann. They had one child, Maria Ramas. Mia Slavenska died in Los Angeles on October 5, 2002. Her ashes were interred in Mirogoj cemetery in Zagreb, Croatia.