Esprit de corps
Tulsa Ballet has roots in Russia but has evolved to produce its own brand of dance.
Roman Jasinski rehearses in Cuba with the Ballet Russe. Jasinski, who was born in Poland, joined the Ballet Russe in 1933 and was a star dancer for nearly 20 years.
Courtesy private collection
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When Tulsa Ballet dancers take the stage for “A Ballets Russes Evening” this month, the performances will be about more than technique or artistry. The dancers will honor the founders of Tulsa Ballet, Moscelyne Larkin and Roman Jasinski, and their roots in the Ballets Russes.
Both Larkin and Jasinski were leading dancers with two Ballet Russe companies before bringing their experiences to Tulsa in 1956, creating what is now — 56 years later — Tulsa Ballet.
Born to dance
Jasinski was born in Poland, a young boy who literally danced for food before becoming a classical ballet prince. He joined the Ballet Russe in 1933 and remained a premier danseur until 1950, performing works by the leading choreographers of the time: George Balanchine, Michel Fokine, Leonide Massine and Bronislava Nijinska.
Larkin is from Miami, Okla., the daughter of a Native American father and a mother who was a Russian folk dancer turned ballet teacher. Her mother schooled her in dance until she went to New York, where she studied under Vincenzo Celli, Mikhail Mordkin and Anatole Vilzak-Shollar. Then, in 1941, at age 15, she joined Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, where she’d meet her future husband, business partner and the man with whom she’d create a dance legacy.
A few more dates to remember: The couple married in 1943 and their son, Roman Larkin Jasinski, was born in 1954. A year later they retired from performing and moved to Tulsa. They chose Oklahoma because Larkin had a fond affection for her childhood home and wanted to spend time with her mother, Eva Matlagova. Larkin and Jasinski taught ballet with Matlagova; as instructors, Larkin was the stickler for technique, while Jasinski took the creative lead, pushing his dancers to move.
A ballet company is born
A treasure had come to Tulsa. Two treasures, really. It was a local doctor who urged the pair to share what they knew. He encouraged them to expand their efforts beyond the studio to start a civic ballet.
Roman Larkin Jasinski says his parents faced a major transition when they came to Tulsa to pursue teaching. Although his mother continued to dance with the Ballet Russe on occasion after her husband retired, they both invested much of their energy in sharing their expertise with students.
“They came to Tulsa and gave all they knew,” Larkin Jasinski says. “ ... They shared and shared and shared. It was a labor of love for my parents.”
On Dec. 15, 1956, a group of dancers they had selected from local ballet schools performed at Temple Israel. The event turned out to be more than a one-night stand. Instead, it was a debut. That success convinced the Jasinskis and pianist Rosalie Talbott to incorporate in 1957 as the Tulsa Civic Ballet, known as Ballet Arts Inc. Today, audiences know the organization as Tulsa Ballet.
Nothing glamorous at first. The Jasinskis started from scratch — training their own dancers, creating their own ballets, sewing their own costumes in their garage.
But steadily, the organization evolved. Through their contacts, the couple brought international artists to Tulsa to perform.
Larkin Jasinski says this practice was typical in ballet companies during this period, particularly those with Ballets Russes influences. When many of these dancers retired, they settled around the country, creating schools and developing dancers. They also invited famous colleagues to dance with their companies. He says star dancers who visited Tulsa included Melissa Hayden, Jacques D’Amboise, Edward Villella, Peter Martins, Helgi Tómasson, Scott Douglas, Margot Fonteyn and others.
“A who’s who of the dance world all came to Tulsa in those early days to help my parents,” Larkin Jasinski says.
Larkin was one of the five famed Oklahoma Indian Ballerinas who were born in Oklahoma of American Indian heritage and who became internationally known in the 20th century. She was devoted to encouraging young Native American dancers and helped produce two Oklahoma Indian Ballerina Festivals.
Jasinski developed and expanded his own choreography, creating new works and reviving great ballets that had been lost to the modern world. Major choreographers of the time shared their work with the young company. Local dancers grew in talent and professionalism. And, in 1978, the company began its transition to a fully professional organization under a new name, Tulsa Ballet Theater Inc.
Clearly, it was becoming a major company in the region, so it wasn’t surprising when, in 1983, Tulsa Ballet made its New York debut. In reviewing the performance, Clive Barnes of the New York Post wrote, “Tulsa Ballet is one of the best things to be associated with Oklahoma since Rodgers and Hammerstein.”