Taina Elg

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Taina Elg Pencil Portrait
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Actress and dancer Taina Elg, born in Helsinki, was for her generation of the 1930’s – amongst the population’s 10% fluent in both Finish and Swedish. Swedish had been the language of the elite in Finland since the 12th century and the ruling and affluent middle classes tenaciously clung to this traditional way of speaking when Sweden ceded Finland to Russia.

At a very young age, she began her training at the Finnish National Opera and Ballet. Taina’s international reputation began to grow when she received a scholarship to study at the famed Sadler’s Wells ballet company (The Royal Ballet) in London before subsequently joining the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas in Paris. Discovered by MGM Studios in London and signed to a Hollywood contract, she would appear in various films, notably Gene Kelly’s last musical “Les Girls,” winning two Golden Globe awards along the way. Kelly enjoyed working with Taina and rated her highly. The athletic dancing star was 45 when he made “Les Girls” and would leave MGM soon afterwards. “He always said he bowed out when he could no longer jump over the tables and do what he did. He wanted to get out of the musicals because he didn’t want audiences to see him in decline like that,” his widow Patricia Kelly has said. “In many ways, that was a very smart move. As a result, he remains pretty evergreen. His audiences see him very young and vibrant, and very athletic. Kind of on top of his game. That’s how he wanted them to remember him.” A perfectly understandable decision but had Taina been born a decade earlier, it is fair to assume her musical career would have soared.

The move to America was, nevertheless, an exciting one and an opportunity relished by the young Taina and her newly wed husband, Carl Björkenheim. He was an economist for a family shipping firm but ultimately, was unable to find similar work in the States, ultimately electing to operate as an importer of Scandinavian furniture. She has never discussed the reasons for her marital breakup, but her husband’s thwarted professional ambitions may have been a contributory factor. In any event, by 1958, the five year union was over. For a period of time, Taina was handsomely salaried by MGM and happily attended many celebrity parties. Ever the diplomat, she has always denied observing any of the more salacious side of Tinseltown which is unsurprising given her rather demure and dedicated personality. During this period in her life, she would become the first Finnish model to appear on the cover of vogue magazine.

She appeared set for a lengthy career in Hollywood musicals except for the grave misfortune of being the right face in the right town at the wrong time. Musicals, with notable exceptions – “The Sound of Music” and “Sweet Charity” – were all but moribund by the turn of the 60’s. The new breed of directors, integral to “The Hollywood Renaissance,” were intent on securing a fresh young audience as Middle America opted for nights in and the new medium of television. It was during the period of transition in her career that she came to the UK to film a remake of Alfred Hitcock’s “The 39 Steps” with the evergreen star Kenneth More. The part of Miss Fisher, the best netball coach in the land, is the role for which she is best remembered. It should never have been that way.

Taina would return to the stage, appearing in “Redhead,” “Silk Stockings,” “Irma La Douce,” “Sound of Music” and “A Little Night Music.” She made her Broadway debut with the musical “Look to the Lilies” and would be nominated for a Tony award for her performance in “Where’s Charlie?” She appeared in the acclaimed original Broadway production of “Nine” with Raul Julia and as Mrs. Straus in the national tour of the musical “Titanic.”

In addition to her work in the movies, Elg appeared on popular television shows and earned a Tony nomination for her work in “Where’s Charley?,” one of her many theatrical performances.

She is a proud recipient of the Order of the Lion of Finland, but these days rarely watches her own films, whilst admitting that “Les Girls” remains one of her all time favorites. Old dance movies and a selection of French films are also close to her heart.

Elg has lived in New York for over 30 years, and loves her home city. “In New York you have the opportunity to meet people from all around the world; this gives New Yorkers a magnificent possibility to learn from one another,” she says.

Taina visits her son, the gifted jazz musician Raoul Björkenheim, and her old friends from the days of the Finnish National Ballet in Finland almost every summer and she feels proud of her country of birth. “There is something so decent about how for instance schooling is valued. It is also great that young people today have more opportunities to travel and put their education to use in an international context.”

Over the last three decades, she has always been ready to volunteer at events of the Finnish community in New York; she has read poetry at many an Independence Day celebration of the Finlandia Foundation New York as well as appearing at the Sodankylä Film Festival in northern Finland as a star guest and was introduced to the Finnish film historian and director Peter Von Bagh. He will soon visit New York to attend the screening of his film, The Story of Mikko Niskanen, as well as the screening of director Mikko Niskanen’s Eight Deadly Shots at MoMA’s International Festival of Film Preservation.

When we ask Elg how she would advice aspiring Finnish actors and actresses dreaming of an international career, she emphasizes the importance of having fluency of the English language. “The inability to produce a certain kind of dialect, in this case American English, can be a major hindrance,” she says.