Theodore Kosloff: Dashing Dancer of Diaghilev and DeMille

Theodore Kosloff (Fyodor Mikhailovich Koslov, 1882-1956) had an exceedingly rare career trajectory…from international ballet star to Broadway choreographer to silent movie star to dance instructor and occasional movie choreographer.

Born in Moscow, he trained with the Imperial Theatre. He became a member of Diaghilev’s legendary Ballets Russes when it debuted in Paris in 1909, alongside Nijinsky, Pavlova, and Lopokova. Tamara Karsavina was his dance partner. The dashing, dark skinned Kosloff was a highly athletic dancer, capable of eighteen pirouettes in a row. He made all the ladies go ga-ga. It said that Lopkova and Karsavina vied for his affections, but fellow company member Alexandra Baldina won out. When he got Baldina in a family way, Kosloff married her.

Kosloff in Fokine’s “Scheherazade” (1913)

By 1911, Kosloff was in New York, teaching dance, and presenting his own company. One of his pupils at the time was Jeanie MacPherson, then an actress and dancer, and player in D.W. Griffith films at Biograph. She would return to Kosloff’s life a few years later in a crucial way. In 1912 Kosloff presented his Saison Russe in the manner of Diaghilev in New York. Around 1914 young Winifred Shaughnessy became one of his dancers. She was to change her name to Natacha Rambova, and became Kosloff’s live-in lover. Baldina was dumped. She moved to San Francisco and set up as a dance instructor.

At the same time, Kosloff was choreographing Broadway shows. He choreographed two editions of The Passing Show (1912 and 1916); Hands Up (1915) with Irene Franklin, A. Robins, Florence Walton and Alfred Latell; A World of Pleasure (1915-16) with Sydney Greenstreet, Lou Holtz, Kitty Gordon, Stella Mayhew, and the Mosconi Brothers; and See America First (1916) with Clifton Webb, William Warren, and Felix Adler. He also danced himself in The Passing Show of 1915 and A World of Pleasure.

In 1916 he toured big time vaudeville with a 15 minute version of Giselle. It was backstage at the L.A. Orpheum that he ran into MacPherson again. MacPherson was now working with Cecil B. DeMille and suggested he go into films. As it happened, Kosoff was also Agnes DeMille’s very first dance teacher, and she was also lobbying to get the good looking charismatic dancer before her uncle’s cameras. He did his first picture, the Aztec tale The Woman Who God Forgot (1917) on a lark, bringing Rambova with him as his “design assistant”, despite the fact the designs were hers and he took credit for them.

Then he returned to Broadway to act in the play The Awakening (1916) with Wilton Lackaye and Henry B. Walthall. Then he returned to Hollywood, where he would appear in 26 motion pictures throughout the 1920s, most of them DeMille’s, acting with such greats as Gloria Swanson, Nita Naldi, Bebe Daniels and Anna Q. Nillson. Rambova quickly got tired of Kosloff taking credit for his designs, broke up with him and began designing for Alla Nazimova. Enraged at her defection, Kosloff reportedly shot her in the leg with a hunting rifle. She apparently did not press charges, and even continued living with him for a while, but in 1923 she became the second Mrs. Rudolph Valentino and was out of his orbit completely.

In 1930, Kosloff danced the part of “Electricity” in DeMille’s Madame Satan, but otherwise his thick accent prevented him from acting in talkies. He began teaching again, and presenting pirated adaptations of Fokine ballets through the 30s in venues like the Hollywood Bowl and Shiners auditorium. He choreographed the 1930 film version of the Marilyn Miller vehicle Sunny, and the Satanic dance in the 1935 horror movie The Raven with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. He did have a cameo role in the all-star movie Stage Door (1937), in which he played a Russian dancing instructor. And he choreographed sequences in Demille’s 1949 Samson and Delilah. But mostly in his last years he was just a legendary, eccentric Hollywood dance teacher.