The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers

Written by Kerri Turner
Review by Marina Maxwell

The title says it all: this is a novel about the fading glory of the famous Imperial Ballet of Russia. You can anticipate drama and tragedy but also glimpses into that lost world of opulence and dissipation that hallmarked the downfall of the Romanov dynasty.

1914. Enter stage Luka Zhirkov, a recent ballet school graduate, son of a factory worker, brother of a soldier fighting at the front. He is thrilled to be in the corps de ballet, although his father Vladimir calls him a coward and is ashamed of him and his “precious ballet slippers and dancing feet” that let him “hide away in his borrowed, gilded life”. Already basking in the limelight is ballerina, Valentina Yershova, who also has humble beginnings but the benefit of a protector, the cruel art critic, Maxim Illyn, who controls her life both on and off the stage. When Luka and Valentina begin an affair, they know the risks they are taking.

Real individuals have their own roles: the Grand Dukes and Duchesses, Grigori Rasputin, and former mistress of the Tsar, prima ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska. The historical background is exceptionally well-researched, with the rich sumptuousness of the privileged classes contrasting with the desperation of the starving proletariat. In spite of growing unrest in the streets, the ballet goes on as if nothing will ever change; the champagne flows and although bread is scarce the caviar remains plentiful. Finally comes the reckoning, and the last chapters make for particularly exciting reading.

Also for any balletomane, this book will bring added pleasure in its descriptions of choreography and librettos and the subtle analogy in the rivalry between Mathilde and Valentina as to who is best suited to dance Odette or Odile. A bravura debut from Australian author Kerri Turner.