The Fiery Natacha Nattova
Natacha Nattova came from the Paris Opera via Nice and war torn Russia to become one of Europe and America’s most daring and graceful adagio dancers during the Jazz Age.
Born 8th August 1905 in Petrograd, Russia, Natacha (real name Nathalie Schmit) and her parents, fled the Russian revolution and settled in Nice where the glamour of the Riviera coloured her childhood. She soon went to Paris and studied dancing under Clustine, the ballet master of the Opera and in time was admitted into the company in small roles. During this period she began painting and writing poetry and became interested in modern dancing. At first she just gave a number of recitals. She considered her adagio work at the time as conservative and mild yet observed ‘they had never seen anything of the sort in France, and it was hailed as being very thrilling.’
One of her first public appearances was for the wealthy philanthropist, comtesse de Bahague in February 1923, at a benefit event for the Albanian Red Cross in her sumptuous residence at 123 rue Saint-Dominique. This lavish gala was held in the concert hall, decorated in the Byzantine style and the largest private theater in Paris. One of the performances included three Russian ballet dancers representing the three graces: Mlle Iretzka, Rousanne and Nattova.
She was then engaged as a featured artist in Paris Sans Voiles, a revue designed as a showcase for the American Dolly Sisters, staged at the Ambassadeurs Theatre from May 1923,. She was seen in two scenes: Pompadeur Summer day and the Chinese tapestry. In October 1923 she was dancing with Mlle Yvonne Mongin and Trojanoff in a stage presentation entitled ‘Impressions Musicale’ at the Gaumont Palace, followed by ‘Les Merveilles de l’Amazone’ in November 1923.
Then, in early 1924, she teamed up with another dancer called Gene Myrio, who was in fact Henri J. Deltril born around 1899 in Le Buisson, France. Myrio had also appeared on the Parisian music hall scene in late 1923 with Nasidika in the Japanese tragedy La Tsune-ko at the Olympia Theatre, where they were described as ‘les Beaux danseurs plastiques’.
In early 1924, Nattova and Myrio became the headling act at the cabaret-nightclub Au Canari, at 8 Faubourg, Montmartre. Described as an artistic Russian cabaret-theatre, this elegant establishment had opened in late 1922. The new team evolved into what was considered to be a daring and yet graceful adagio team. Beautiful and yet diminutive Nattova had a magnetic personality and was very creative often designing her own sets and costumes. She had courage and a keen intelligence but was clearly afflicted by a volatile temperament, a feature that was to become very evident as the years unfolded. It was also thought that ‘to think of her simply as an adagio dancer does not comprehend her versatility.’
Nattova expressed her philosophy about dancing: ‘in the dance… it is not so much what you do as how you do it…That is another way of saying that personality is the chief factor. Many beautiful measures have been created. Thousands of dancers learn to render them with technical perfection. Only a few of the thousands are satisfying to watch. They only have the things which cannot be learned – personality.’
The British theatre impressario Albert de Courville secured Nattova and Myrio for his revue Whirl of the World staged at the London Palladium in late Spring 1924 appearing as the Tanagra statuettes in Treasures and a burlesque of the comedy duo Nervo and Knox. Dancing Times thought their operatic work was weak, the acrobatic work good, though poorly arranged but was positive about their burlesque routine thinking it ‘good and humorous’. Despite these reservations they were a smash hit and endured in their roles for over a year and in early 1925 Theatre World remarked that their dancing was ‘exquisite and of a quality rarely seen outside the Russian ballet.’
By the end of 1924 they had made such an impact that they doubled in cabaret for several months at the plush Embassy club in Bond Street. In early 1925, at the end of their run in The Whirl of the World, they visited Berlin and were part of the variety entertainment at the Scala Theatre before visiting the French Riviera and entertaining the guests of the Negresco Hotel in Nice during March 1925.
Back in London, they were cast in Sky High, the new Albert de Courville revue at the London Palladium. The stars of the show were the Australian sister act Toots and Lorna Pounds. Nattova and Myrio were featured in two full ballets – The Moth and the Flame and The Minaret. Theatre World thought that although their dancing was becoming too acrobatic but ‘the grace of every movement and gesture is bewitchingly beautiful.’
However, continuous alterations and readjustments to the show caused tension and at one point in the summer of 1925 there was an altercation and Nattova slapped Toots Pounds. Not long afterward Nattova and Myrio left the show. They immediately commenced a season at the Piccadilly hotel in the cabaret show Piccadilly Revels from 7th August along with Emile Boreo, formerly of the Chauve Souris and the American dancers the Lorraine Sisters. One of their delightful numbers was a cat and dog dance with Nattova dressed in white fur. They would have also doubled at the Kit Cat Club in the Haymarket.
One day as Nattova was walking down Bond Street, the actress Edith Kelly Gould, in the company of Albert de Courville, rushed up to her and smacked her so violently that she was knocked across the pavement. ‘Fancy behaving like that on Bond Street’ said Mr de Courville. Edith replied ‘it’s a good thing it was on Bond Street. If it had been on a side street, I’d have killed her.’
The American booking agent William Morris saw them perform in London and engaged them for the seventh edition of Jones and Green’s The Greenwich Village Follies in New York. They left London 31 October aboard Aquitania and arrived in New York 6 November. The show was rampant with satire and comedy and had a three-week out of town run from the end of November in New Haven and Boston and was finally launched on 24 December at Chanin’s 46th Street Theatre. Acrobatic and agile, Nattova and Myrio proved to be a dance sensation in their two sequences White Cargo and the Moth and the Flame and her 15 feet leap into Myrio’s arms was stupendous.
When the show concluded in May 1926 it then went on tour. However in August, Nattova was practising a new routine in a dance studio in New York with two male partners. One of the men threw her to the other and he missed. Nattova fell to the ground on her face and remained unconscious for an hour. She was later taken to hospital where it was revealed her nose had been broken and it was rumoured she might need plastic surgery.
It was not long before Nattova was back on tour and by October 1926 she was at the Apollo Theatre in Chicago. Here Myrio decided to leave and began his own dancing act (he later became part of a dancing trio called Desha, Myrio and Barte) and then Nattova got embroiled in another bout of ‘fisticuffs’.
Helen Carrol, her understudy and protégé, brought a charge of assault and battery against her and claimed she was insane. One of Carrol’s chores was to walk Nattova’s great dane Droushka. One day Nattova returned to her apartment at the Belmont Hotel to find Carrol crying and the dog missing. She was told that the dog had run off and had been run-over by a car. Grief stricken and in a rage, Nattova attacked Carrol. The case was subsequently dropped.
This certainly did not help Nattova’s profile because Jones and Green dropped her and appointed another dance team (Vlasta Maslova and Bayard Roth) to conclude the regional run of the show. Nattova’s minimum contract had expired and Jones and Green waived their renewal option after receiving the company manager’s reports of her various ‘fisticuffs’ with girls in the company. Equally, the departure of Gene Myrio as her partner may also have been a factor. Back in New York she headed straight to Jones and Green’s offices and made it clear that she would go to court against them if they retained the Moth and Flame ballet in their revue, claiming it was her property.
Nattova placed an advert in Variety on 10 November 1926, announcing that she was tired of imitation and had ‘just completed a new extraordinary and original dance idea – her own exclusive property – which will be the sensation of the dance world at its initial showing in New York.’ What this novelty was remains a mystery, although it may have been an acrobatic hoop that became a feature of her act in 1927.
In the meantime she acquired a new partner named Gritzanova Rodion, born in 1896 of Russian-Polish descent, who had resided in America since 1914. They immediately became headliners in cabaret at the plush Richman Club at 157 West 56th Street, New York assisting the charismatic Harry Richman and in early 1927 also appeared at the new Roxy Theatre. Through 1927 and early 1928 Nattova and Rodion continued to appear in vaudeville with the Moth and Flame ballet sequence being their main act. Taking audiences by storm, their work was regarded as being a shade more sensational than that of their rivals.
In April 1928 she was engaged to do a 25 week tour of the Publix circuit (a stage presentation in movie theatres) at $666 a week in a John Murray Anderson unit that would feature her Moth and Flame act but immediately landed herself in another altercation. Her manager William Horlick (an agent and former Russian dancer) claimed he had her under contract. She sued in him claiming that she was not under an exclusive contract. Horlick successful proved that Nattova had ignored her agreement with him and that the deal with Publix was invalid. Loosing the case Nattova had to settle and pay Horlick a $85 per week release fee in order to commence her Publix tour.
During the tour Nattova fell once again and broke her ankle. Not long afterward in June 1928, Rodion decided to leave and another court case emerged, this time a divorce case between Horlick and his wife Olga., Naturally, given the circumstance, Nattova lent assistance to the wife with an affadivit asserting that Horlick was a heavy spender, boozer and a general good–time charley who referred to his wife as ‘a big fat cow.’ Horlick asserted his wife was under the influence of a singing teacher called Leola Lucey who had forced the couple to become estranged. The judge decided against the wife in the case for alimony.
During her recuperation period Nattova began creating more novel ideas and designs for stage sets. With regard to one of these ideas she said ‘this machine age in which we live fascinates me, and I want to interpret it. You will observe that my stage set calls for a mechanical contrivance. It is supposed to manufacture men.’ Her drawing suggested a bizarre printing press. At one end there was a roller from beneath which would emerge a flattened human outline on paper or cloth. This would be sucked into the machine, to reappear in more solid form. A second vanishing would be followed by the seeming ejection of a completed man. ‘That is how my partners will come on the stage’ she said.
She would have three partners all costumed alike, but ‘as the machine feeds them to me in rotation there will appear to be a dozen or more. I am to represent electricity. I shall dance with each partner for a while, then give them back to the machine.’ The musical accompaniment was to imitate the sound of a piston and derrick and stamp.
Nattova expressed her gratitude to vaudeville for providing a large public and good pay but added that it was also like a factory with two appearances a day in the best houses and three to four elsewhere. ‘My dancing is usually in the tragic mood. One cannot die perfectly four times a day.’ She claimed that she had almost finished with adagio dancing but this was clearly not the case.
With her ankle mended she reopened at the Fox Theatre in Washington in late July. She must have had a new partner but it is not clear who this was. By September she was presenting her new act on the Keith vaudeville circuit with Has V. Sueral and Nicholas Daks as her male dancing partners. They featured familiar numbers and new styles of interpretive dancing that must have included the manufacturing men routine. Variety observed that Nattova ‘individually impresses as ever with her class and terpsichorean interpretations.’
In early October 1928, Nattova married Nicholas Gakkel Daks, one of her dancing partners, who was noted as being the premier danseuse at the Roxy Theatre in New York. Like Nattova, Daks was also born in Petrograd, Russia on 17 January 1899. He had arrived in America in 1923 and had been naturalised in 1927.
Through 1929, Nattova and her troupe continued to tour and at some point, in the spring of 1929, perhaps as they appeared in California, they were engaged to appear in The Hollywood Revue of 1929. With an all-star cast, and partially filmed in technicolour, this was MGM’s second feature length musical and was a lavish production. By the Spring of 1930 the act had changed. She was now accompanied by three men: Daks and Bogdan and George Ganjou in what was called a ‘Geometrics’ act, which included a novel number with a luminous painted skeleton. Nattova also gave a straight ballet solo number.
By late 1931 Nattova unveiled another new idea – a novel flower urn – and began a solo adagio presentation. This was unveiled at the Roxy Theatre in October 1931 in a classical stage unit called The Glory of Greece. Described as The Wind and the Grecian Urn, she used an enormous jardinière sprouting large stylized flowers with each blossom a firm metal platform upon which to leap with breath-taking abandon, Flying through space, she executed an arabesque on an azalea, a pirouette on a poppy and a toe-hold on a tulip. Nattova showed ‘great grace in movement.’ She was described as one of the first adagists to perform a 14ft leap and the first to use more than one partner. But she had ‘lost faith in animate assistance and thought up a grand novelty.’
In an advert in Variety 29 December 1931, Nattova expressed a warning forbidding any one from copying her novelty flower number now called ‘Dance of the Wind’ saying it was her own exclusive invention and fully protected and with patent. Anyone infringing this patent will be subject to immediate prosecution. Her act was so attractive that it was snapped up by the East coast production team of Fanchon and Marco. They incorporated it into their first ‘idea’ or stage show produced on the East coast by ex-Roxy producer Leon Leonidoff and temporarily entitled In Dutch (later titled Impressions) and launched at the Academy Theatre 15 December 1931. Nattova’s interpretative number was greatly admired and she gave ‘the impression of buzzing around the flowers made of metal like a bee.’ She toured through 1932 and in terms of class staging, costuming, novelty, scenically and all around entertainment, the show left little to be desired.
On 26 October 1932, Nattova left New York aboard SS President Harding for Europe. She remained for almost 11 months and visited her mother Mrs E. Busvlev at 137 Rue Lamark, Paris. But whether she was engaged to perform in Paris during this period is unclear. It is possible that her novelty flower urn act was used in a stage presentation at a movie theatre. A good possibility would be Jacques Charles’s Le Paramount theatre that had presentations staged by Francis Mangan. She arrived back in New York 2 September 1933 aboard Statendam from Boulogne Sur Mer. Since Nicholas Daks did not accompany her one can assume that this represented some form of separation and an indication of marital difficulties.
By the Spring of 1934 she was back on the vaudeville trail (February at the Orpheum, New York) with her novelty rose vase idea and another new ultra scientific concept – a simple routine adagio number with the theme of what would happen if a demon inventor created a radio ray that would control the thoughts of humans.
Yet another court case hit the news in November 1934 as Nattova sought a divorce from Nicholas Daks, accusing Tatiana Tuttle, Russian dancer and wife of the Hollywood film director Frank Tuttle of alienating the affections of her husband and naming her as correspondent. Seemingly the Tuttles, on a visit to New York, had been interested in helping the pair find work in Hollywood. Nattova charged that she and two investigators discovered Mrs Tuttle and Nicholas Daks in a room on 13 July at 53 West 73rd street. Frank Tuttle backed his wife and argued that Mrs Daks suit was an ‘old racket’ to gain money to avoid unsavoury publicity. Nicholas Daks supported the Tuttle claim. He also said his wife went to Europe in 1933 and when she returned, she refused to live with him in a one-room apartment he had, although she did later returned to him. Mrs Daks (Nattova) applied for financial support and legal expenses in her divorce suit. The judge denied her motion for $75 per week temporary alimony and $650 counsel fees on hearing the Tuttle’s case and seeing their affidavits.
Despite this fracas Nattova remained married to Daks and continued to work with him. In March 1935 she formed an adagio trio with Allen Noyes and Victor Ladd in a production at the Radio City Music Hall described as a ‘cavalcade of colour stage show in three parts’ with Nicholas Daks and a troupe of men who specialise in pirouttes in form fitting pants.
By 1940 she was still living with Daks at West 53rd Street, New York. He was then an assistant theatre producer and Nattova had seemingly ended her career as a dancer. By 1955 when she was naturalized, she was divorced from Daks and living at Living at 1500 and half, Sanborn Avenue Los Angeles and was involved in arts and crafts. She died in Pasadena 7 March 1988.
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
The Stage, Dancing Times, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Dance Magazine, Variety, the Sketch, the Encore, Theatre World Magazine, Comoedia, Figaro, Hollywood Filmography, Motion Picture Herald, Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Harry Richman clippings file NYPL
Programme Paris Sans Viole
25 Years of American Dance
Also please view the blog My Natacha Nattova Obsession