A Time to Dance
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“The idea of swans is lovely, and they have a beautiful shape, but they seem more romantic than they in fact are. I don’t think really they die like this. They just drop dead, hmm? But who wants to see that?”
— Karl Lagerfeld, on making a new tutu for The Swan (Guardian, Jess Cartner-Morley, May 2009)
Painting of Anna Pavlova
Anna Pavlova placed one satin-shod foot on the steps leading up to the stage at Melbourne’s His Majesty’s Theatre. She glanced behind her. There, in the wings, the dancer, Algeranoff, was watching, waiting for his entrance as Jack-in-a-Box, one of the toy characters in The Fairy Doll.
Pavlova smiled. “Algy”, she whispered, “perhaps they like, perhaps not, who can tell?”
They liked. They loved. They adored.
How could they not? The audience was already primed by an avalanche of advance publicity painting Pavlova as “the idol of the moment”, “as light as a snowflake”, “as dainty as a fairy” and “the embodiment of exquisite pathos, of unaffected joy, of poetic movement, of enchanting grace and glowing womanhood”.
(Programme notes on Pavlova gala in Sydney, April 17, 1926).
And now, here she was in person, The Fairy Doll herself. The curtain drawn across an alcove in the toyshop set swung open to reveal Pavlova, motionless. She took long, measured breaths, maintaining her doll-like pose. The slight rise and fall of her chest was sufficient to send tiny shivers through her torso. The tutu sequins glistened. The satin ribbons threaded through the bodice quivered.
Her long dark hair was tucked under a wig of pale auburn curls topped with a headdress that sparkled with pearls and diamantes.
The Fairy Doll, a saccharine ballet with little to recommend it, was her opening party piece around the world, from Rio to Rangoon.
As a child of 13, the future choreographer, Frederick Ashton, first saw her in The Fairy Doll in Lima, Ecuador, in 1917. From the moment she danced as the doll, “she injected me with her poison”, he wrote, “and from the end of that evening I wanted to dance”.
Pavlova knew the effect of first impressions and her first appearance as the doll was one of her most powerful.
Long after she lost much of her technique and her youthful élan, Pavlova’s entrances were a work of art in themselves, as were her curtain calls.
The lasting memory of the deep curtsy, the swift run into the wings, with her head flung back, the utter charm of the woman, swept away any niggling doubts about the dancing in between.
Her pirouettes might have been wobbly, as Ashton recalled, but they were done with a sort of flurry that gave the illusion of virtuosity.
Journalists and critics were as bewitched as the general public, with one Australian reviewer describing her entrance from The Fairy Doll’s alcove to centre stage:
“She came forth, tip toed down to the stage, and performed her first dance, a brilliant pas seul, in which she at once charmed and delighted her audience…she skimmed across the stage, she poised statuesquely upon one toe, and revolved with incredible rapidity…”
It amounted to “bewitching grace, fairy like lightness and technique so perfect it almost seemed unreal”.
In a sense, it was unreal. Pavlova had become a product, a commodity, a combination of a doll, a Russian icon and the personification of a dying swan, due to her signature solo, The Swan, choreographed for her by Michel Fokine in 1905.
Marketed by theatrical entrepreneurs, nagged into a vortex of contracts by her de facto husband, Victor Dandre, she travelled the world on a never-ending journey by steamer and train, burdened by grandiose claims and recalling the memories of her glory days in St Petersburg with the Imperial Ballet.
By the time she reached Australia in 1926, Pavlova was 45, the survivor of a marathon that saw her dance throughout Europe, Asia, and South America, and with numerous tours throughout the United States.
In a three month tour through the United States in 1924 she visited more than 50 cities, occasionally performing in a real theatre or opera house, more often in halls and at schools, such as the High School Auditorium in Fresco, California, the Textile Hall in Greenville, South Carolina, the Soldiers and Sailors Auditorium, Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the Syria Mosque, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
At high schools, Pavlova and her fellow dancers changed in schoolrooms, applied their makeup at students’s desks and had to rely on a runner to tell them what was happening on the stage a long way away.
Seasickness and appalling food blighted their voyages from country to country by steamer. On one journey to Singapore, the women slept in cabins but the men were relegated to trestle beds in the saloon, forced to listen to the scuffling of rats all through the night.
Dandre committed the company to touring schedules that no union or management would tolerate today. After a single matinee and evening performance in one city, the dancers would return to a train to sleep in their bunks as they travelled through the night to the next city.
In Mexico, their stage was a bullring. In Tokyo, they danced to an audience of more than 3000 men and women who all sat on the floor and smoked cigarettes. In one Californian theatre a fire broke out in an adjoining building. When the electricity was cut to the theatre, a fleet of cars was driven to the theatre. Stage light came from a mass of headlights, shining through the theatre entrances.
Pavlova’s missionary zeal brought ballet to corners of the world that had never seen the art form. In Japan, in 1922, the writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa, (author of Rashomon) became dizzy when he watched the performance.
“To watch Western ballet dancers turn like tops or soar in the air is not good for one’s health”, he wrote. “We Japanese have never seen such a freely flexible body other than that of a boneless man …”
(The New Stage Art, a Japanese journal, 1922).
Pavlova’s biographer, Keith Money, believes that after 1917, “the progression became a sort of divine madness…we can see Pavlova’s caravan falter, and then, like some pioneer group realising that its old base is irretrievably gone, move off again, knowing that the act of living is in the moving, not in the arriving at some new home or in the thought that the progression is finally curving back to hallowed territory”.
Pavlova thought of taking off a year, of renting a villa on the Riviera where she would do nothing but bask in the sun, tend her flowers, and cook delectable Russian dishes… she even talked some day of having a child.
But Dandre never took his foot off the pedal. The company’s American impresario, Sol Hurok, maintained that “it was always Dandre who egged me on, each season, to get the contract signed for the next.
“Dandre was always planning for the year to come, the tour, the repertoire. Even before the season was at the half way mark, he was suggesting it was time to discuss the next year’s business. …’Coming back next year?’ He would ask as we sat over supper in some American town. She would shrug, and her answer was without enthusiasm, ‘What else is there to do?’”
D – as he was known by Pavlova’s dancers – was Victor Emilianitch Dandre, a Russian-French aristocrat, 16 years Pavlova’s senior.
He steered Pavlova’s enterprise for close to 20 years, appearing to the dancers as a benevolent tyrant, an autocrat in evening dress, who liked to flick imaginary dust from the lapels of his coat with a white handkerchief.
For Pavlova, he was both a Svengali and father figure, representing the kind of stability she did not have as a child.
Pavlova herself, assumed, or retained, a child like manner, speaking in a high, chirpy voice, and picking at her food like a bird, talking to her swans as if they understood her.
The daughter of a laundress, Pavlova never knew her father whom, she said, died when she was 2. Her mother remarried Marvey Pavlov, and Pavlova appears to have taken his surname when he adopted her, aged 3.
By the early 20th century, Pavlova status and position in society rested on her position as a ballerina of the Imperial Ballet in St Petersburg, a company whose audiences were dominated by obsessive balletomanes, among them, members of the diplomatic corps and the circle of artists and aristocrats that clustered around Serge Diaghilev.
Dandre, who drifted into Pavlova’s life in 1904, met Diaghilev at the law faculty at the University of St Petersburg. While Diaghilev went on to work within the Imperial Theatres, Dandre joined the Czar’s diplomatic corps, was a member of the St Petersburg Municipal Council and became attached to ballet stars, among them Olga Preobrajenska, then Pavlova as she rose to become a prima ballerina in 1905 at the Maryinsky Theatre.
Described by Pavlova’s biographer as a kind of knightly protector in the background, he flattered her, spoilt her with gifts, and arranged private concerts on her behalf.
From 1909, they lived and travelled together, but did not share a bedroom either in Russia or later in London, according to Sol Hurok, who claimed, many years later that “I myself married her off in the press in 1925. The newspapers printed a story I gave them, announcing for the first time that she had been married to Victor Dandre”.
Pavlova danced in Diaghilev’s first Ballets Russes tour to Paris in 1909. She was to have danced in Paris once more the following year, but failed to do so.
The Russian dancer Serge Lifar found “a good many reasons for this, the chief one being that Diaghilev paid too much attention to Nijinsky, and Pavlova desired to shine alone”.
In publicity for the Ballets Russes tours to Paris, Diaghilev stressed the brilliance of Vaslav Nijinksy, his future lover, at the expenses of Pavlova who gave guest appearances for the Ballets Russes in London in 1911, but never again appeared with the company.
There was tension, too, between Diaghilev and Dandre. Pavlova asked Diaghilev to intervene on behalf of Dandre in 1910, when Dandre was accused of embezzlement by misappropriating municipal council funds in St Petersburg.
It was the old story of an official, with access to public funds, “borrowing” for temporary investments, with profits creamed off. As usual, the scam turned out badly with Dandre not being able to repay the money due to falling share prices.
Dandre was imprisoned, but rescued by Pavlova at the time she was dancing on tour at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.
There, she asked Max Rabinoff, the tour promoter, to send $US35,000 to Russia in order to get Dandre out of trouble.
(Katherine Ross Bowditch, Dance Magazine 1931).
When Dandre’s debts and legal fees were paid, he was released on bail, promising not to leave St Petersburg.
In the union of Dandre and Pavlova, the balance of power swung to her favour.
In 1912, after she had performed in London for Diaghilev, Pavlova moved to a comfortable ivy-covered brick home in Hampstead – Ivy House – her base for the rest of her life.
Dandre joined her there. Having forfeited his bail, he could never return to Russia.
Pavlova never returned after the outbreak of World War I. She yearned for her homeland. Before the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 she sent clothes, flour, sugar and coffee beans to the dancers she once knew in St Petersburg,
In interviews in the west, she talked continually of the extremes of the Russian temperament, from melancholy and sadness, to joy and laughter, and how “dancing enters into the life of the Russian people far more than it does the lives of an other nation. The Czars endowed the art of dancing”.
(Interview at the Hotel Australia, Sydney, 1926)
Pavlova supported a school for Russian orphans at St Cloud in Paris, perhaps identifying with the girls as she was, after all, a Russian refugee girl herself.
When she talked with yearning about going back to Russia, Hurok recalled, Dandre’s face “turned stonily pale”.
As the years rolled on, Pavlova learned how to shield her emotions behind a veil of indifference – her acting skills helped – yet in his memoir of Pavlova, the dancer, Andre Oliveroff, recalled the moments when her mask of reserve cracked, “unleashing outbursts of hysteria and inexplicable tears”.
Pavlova’s happiness, Dandre wrote, was like a child’s – “she could be made happy at sight of a flower or bird, and like a child, pass from happiness to despair and she was incapable of compromise”.
If the descriptions by her contemporaries can be believed, today, she might be considered a manic depressive, or bipolar.
Kathleen Crofton, who danced in Pavlova’s company in the 1920s, described how “she communicated her tension to everybody and suffered from mood fluctuations, veering from aggression to tears when she talked of her solitude and anxiety”.
Sheila Whytock, who danced with Pavlova in 1929, regarded her as impatient, impetuous, agitated and angry.
Walford Hyden, a conductor and pianist for the Pavlova company knew that “it was no use remonstrating with her, She would lose her temper and become an inferno of incoherence, abuse, insult and imprecation”. Her favourite term of abuse, he wrote, was to call one of the girls a cow.
Pavlova’s love of gambling for high stakes signalled the opposite, grandiose, side to her depression.
One night, the dancer Nicholas Legat had a bad run of luck at the poker table. Pavlova lent him a thousand roubles, he said, a huge amount at the time.
When she was particularly anxious, she bit her knuckle or sucked an amber bead from the long strand of one of her amber necklaces.
“Mile after mile”, Oliveroff recalled, “aboard a train, I have seen her thus, sitting alone, chewing on her hand or her amber pendant – staring out the window, with the vacant expression almost of one demented, tears streaming down her face”.
Her mood swings may have been triggered by perfectionism, homesickness, or innate emotional instability, but her unfulfilled personal life must have also added to Pavlova’s burden.
Only once, during their many years together, Pavlova and Dandre were apart. During an early tour to the United States, he sailed back to London while she continued her tour with her dance partner, Mikhail Mordkin, whom she adored.
Pavlova took “a great liking” to the “fine powerful figure” of Mordkin wrote Dandre. But her liking seemed to be more than that. The Russian writer, Gennady Smakov believed she was infatuated with Mordkin “who brought her near to himself and then humiliated her”. This infatuation, Smakov wrote, “reinforced her sexual insecurity and fear of men”.
Throughout the 1920s, Pavlova was sustained by a love affair with the artist, Alexander Evgenevich Yakovlev (1887-1938) whom she met in 1920.
A Russian émigré in Paris, working in that city at the same time as Diaghilev’s artistic collaborators, Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova, Yakovlev was a bachelor, a bohemian, an inveterate traveller who took part in motor rallies across the Sahara, into Africa (the so-called la croisiere noire) and into China, (la croisiere jaune).
The intimacy grew during a summer break in Paris that followed an American tour ending in October 1921 and before a new tour of Canada and Japan starting in August 1922.
During 1922, Yakovlev painted Pavlova in a Spanish costume, and using chalks, he drew her in the nude, revealing beautiful small breasts, relatively short legs in relation to her torso, and luxuriously dressed hair piled on top of her head in the Grecian manner.
Even before their affair, Pavlova’s relationship with Dandre was one of convenience. He was an excellent manager, albeit a very conservative one.
Dandre had a roadshow mentality, always ready to move on since 1913, when he first assembled a full company with costumes, and scenery, to tour the United States.
In business matters, Dandre “was coldly correct, with a stubborn concern for minutiae.”
For their money earning capacity, American tours worked best, in the words of Sol Hurok.
Pavlova admired his eye for minutiae but found it a “constant irritant”, Hurok wrote.
Contracts drawn up by Dandre stipulated how each dancer had to provide his or her own silk tights and ballet shoes. If a dancer was unable to perform due to illness, their pay would be deducted. If the illness continued for two weeks, management had the right to cancel the dancer’s contract. There was, of course, no payment to the dancers while the company was at sea.
While Pavlova’s first American impresario, Max Rabinoff, did not sell her name to be used to promote products, by the 1920s, Dandre seemed to have no qualms about doing so.
In 1921, she put her name to a wine, with Pavlova recommending that “le vin St-Michel est l’excitateur par excellence. Il developpe la vigeur, donne l’endurance , entretient l’elastitice et la soupless…”
Dandre kept a very tight rein on the repertoire of Pavlova’s company as Pavlova’s former dance partner in the United States, Howard Stowitts, pointed out when he wrote: “She was not permitted to experiment. She had marvellous ideas and wanted to do modern ballets that we outlined together. She had the money but the responsibility of her management, her music, even her choreography was all in different hands”.
(Howard Stowitts, The Dance Magazine, August 1931)
Dandre had but one aim – to present his star in the best possible light. The rest of the company was incidental.
As Fokine once wrote “ her ballet company was only used as the frame for a picture and she of course was the picture”.
The way in which Pavlova centred the entire performance on herself at the expense of the ensemble was a relic of the days of Marius Petipa, choreographer at St Petersburg in the late nineteenth century, wrote Novikoff.
“But Petipa did not glorify the ballerina at the expense of the production of the ensemble. Pavlova however carried the evil to an extreme”.
(Dancing Times, October 1935, new series No. 301)
Dandre sniffed that “the truth of the matter is that the public wanted to see Pavlova and only Pavlova”.
The focus on Pavlova was so pronounced that critics who might have been watching the whole ensemble tended to write, as one did in Australia: “There are many gracious and clever danseuses in the company, but when Pavlova appears they all pale their relatively ineffectual fires. …in solitary splendour, she stands peerless and incomparable”.
Very rarely, a critic might note that Pavlova’s technique was fading or never very strong from the start. As early as the years of the First World War, she had begun to lose her jump, so that her programmes were arranged to concentrate on her balances and slower movements.
In Russia, the writer and critic, Akem Volynsky, had already analysed Pavlova’s physique to find that her feet were “charming, small and narrow” while the “structure of her leg is right but somewhat concave at the knees. Her kneecaps almost touch, that is why Pavlova lacks the perfect turnout….her knee depressions do not give her a single line”.
(The Stock Exchange News, 1913.)
Close study of photographs of Pavlova show that the way she appeared to stand on very defined pointe was not true. The tiny pointes were drawn or painted onto the photos.
In action, Pavlova appeared to balance for a long time due to the solid platform she made in her shoes.
The dancer, Lydia Sokolova, explained why: “Taking shoes that were made somewhat too large for her she would insert an extra support of thin leather or cork in the forward part of the shoe, but some distance from the tip, then soaking them in water, she would tread down the padded pointes as far down as the support. When they were dry she cut a slit in the rear edge of the pointe. Finally she would darn all over and round the pointe in the normal way she thus contrived for herself solid platforms on which to balance”.
Such was the charismatic power of Pavlova that few if any audience members knew or cared.
At the end of 1925, following the company’s last American tour that year, Dandre turned his attention to South Africa and Australia where the audiences were even less likely than Pavlova’s European or American followers to spot any tricks, or shortcuts.
In Australia in 1926, they had only one real ballerina, Adeline Genee, to measure her against, and Genee’s tour had been 13 years ago.
The Australian audience was more accustomed to thinking of ballet as a bunch of showgirls billed, in one case, as a “Permanent Beauty Ballet”.
The dance teachers gave lessons in tap, “toe” dancing, “theatrical dancing”, singing and acrobatics and had little, if any, ballet training. When the ballet teacher, Marjorie Hollinshed, asked the veteran dance teacher, Jenny Brenan to explain the difference between an arabesque and attitude, Brenan replied: “My darling, I don’t know”.
Brenan’s students wore black tunics made of Indian cloth over baggy trousers. Their parents dressed their hair in corkscrew ringlets in the style of Shirley Temple.
There were no barres. The children held onto one another’s arms instead.
Brenan taught alongside her sister, Eileen, just as Minnie Hooper in Sydney taught with her sister, the tall and stern Ruby at the Minnie Everett School of Stage Dancing in Sydney. Minnie billed herself as “senior ballet mistress to J C Williamson” and kept an iron grip on what she called her exclusive right to have her girls in the JCW shows. Their assistant was a former Tivoli showgirl, Sheila Whytock, who had danced with Pavlova in South America as Sheilova which meant she had little patience with the Everetts’ teaching methods.
The most experienced ballet teachers were Frances Scully and her sister, Tess, (a third sister, Julie, played the piano) whose studio, reached by an antiquated lift, was in the Palings Building in Ash Street, Sydney. With her very thin legs, erect carriage, her long dark hair drawn back in bun at nape, and her dominating eyes, Frances cut a frightening figure. But if parents wanted their darlings to dance in musical revues or floorshows at society balls and at department stores, Scullys was the place to go.
Into this dance wilderness came Pavlova.
Months before she arrived, advance publicity stories heralded the dancer and describing her life in purple prose.
Reporters were given access to the Pavlova-Dandre home in London where they met the dancer with “that charming glow which seems to illuminate her dark eyes when she smiles”. On a tour of the gardens a reporter gasped at the pond where “glorious white and yellow water lilies float, their leaves star-spangled with diamonds from the fountains which, as it plays, reflects rainbow hues.”
(Stage and Society, 19 April, 1926)
A programme note written in advance for a Pavlova gala in Sydney epitomised the gushing enthusiasm of the publicity writers:
“Pavlova, the embodiment of exquisite pathos, of unaffected joy, of poetic movement, of enchanting grace and glowing womanhood, is a sheer delight to watch as she unfolds her wondrous art – art that ranges from fascinating deviltry to dainty coquettishness; from the fluttering of butterflies to a whirlwind of passion…she expresses the twittering of elves and the passion of sex. She is faun and she is wanton. She is the breeze of the mountain-tops and the vivid flames of love”.
Not only that, but “Australia, audiences will see these wonderful Dance Entertainments presented on exactly the same scale as in London, Paris and other Continental cities”.
The Tait brothers knew that Pavlova must be “sold” in the same way as movie stars, (and by doing so, they inadvertently sold the concept of the high art form of ballet to an Australian audience.)
In Australia, Pavlova was a captive of J C Williamson, the theatre owners and promoters led by the Tait brothers, John, Nevin, E.J. (Ted) and Frank, nicknamed Agi-tate, Irri-tate, Hesi-tate and Cogi-tate.
John, Nevin and Frank had founded the concert promoters, J& N Tait, in 1902 and by 1920 had combined their interests with the firm, J C Williamson. Their interest was stars, and lots of them, early 20th century celebrities such as Adeline Genee, Nellie Melba, Feodor Chaliapin, Percy Grainger, Jan Paderewski and Yehudi Menuhin.
?The heart of the celebrity marketing enterprise was the Comedy Theatre, in London’s Haymarket, home in the 1920s of the Cochran Revues and drama hits such Secrets, starring Fay Compton, Lavender Ladies and The Last Hour.
Nevin Tait’s base was a suite of offices in the Comedy Theatre where he drew up the artists’s contracts.
The Taits promoted the celebrities by their nationality, always emphasising the Russian-ness of the ballet stars or ballet troupes. But the entire celebrity shipment enterprise was a British imperial operation. Whatever their nationality, the stars often lived in London and departed for the periphery of the British Empire from a London railway station en route for a seaport.
This one-way traffic from London to Australia spanned six decades of the 20th century and encompassed the assembly of such companies as Adeline Genee’s “Imperial Russian Ballet”, Pavlova’s “Ballets Russe – the entire Paris and London Organisation”, Olga Spessivtseva with “the Dandre-Levitoff Russian Ballet” and the “Ballets Russes” troupes of the 1930s.
The Taits’s first major ballet celebrity was the Danish born, London-based Genee who toured Australia in 1913.
Genee was the ballet star prototype, promoted by the Taits as “the world’s greatest dancer” whose supporting dancers were merely the frame in which she sparkled. The Taits held her to a rigorous schedule of performances; contracts stipulated that she must dance in every performance and for a set number of minutes in each performance.
To maintain the starry façade, Genee, and those who followed in her footsteps, were portrayed as angelic, desirable, and very feminine.
The Taits’s publicity manager, Claude Kingston, described the blonde-haired, wide-browed Genee as a woman with “flawless skin and blue eyes as clear as a child’s”.
(Kingston, C, 1961. P110.)
Genee was charming, vivacious, excelling in doll-like roles such as the cheeky Swanhilda in the ballet, Coppelia.
Pavlova, in contrast, was melancholy in appearance, dark-haired, pale skinned, with a classic oval face and a long nose.
She was billed by the Taits as “the Greatest Dancer of All Time”, a claim that was impossible to prove and for Pavlova, a label that burdened rather than invigorated.
When Nevin Tait saw her dance in London in 1925, Pavlova had been travelling the world for 12 years and was not at all keen to make the long journey to Australia.
Dandre, however, committed her to the tour, and to the terms of the contract drawn up by Nevin Tait.
For her first Australian tour, starting in March 1926, she was to perform for a minimum of 12 weeks, appearing at least twice in each performance for a total of a minimum of 30 minutes during each performance. For this, she was to receive half of all gross receipts.
If she did not perform, or could, not, the Taits had the right to cancel the performance.
The contract was signed for Pavlova by Dandre, both her protector and her tormentor.
On December 12, her troupe took the boat train from London to Southampton to board the Armadale Castle bound for Cape Town, then, after a tour of South African cities, left Cape Town on the Ceramic for the three week journey to Melbourne.
By chance, a fellow passenger was the actress (and later Cinesound publicist), Nancy Gurr, who captured the inner Pavlova circle when she wrote in a press report: “I travelled by the same ship as this dark imperious looking woman with the magnetic smile. She came on board at South Africa where she had been to the district where the diamonds come from. And very interesting she must have found it as she adores jewellery.
“Almost every evening in the card room was the party of five – Pavlova of the sleek black head, the long cut-crystal earrings and the expressive hands which dealt the cards so swiftly. Novikoff, the premier danseur of the quite humorous smile; his vivacious Russian wife, Lucien Wurmzer, the musical conductor, dark and bearded, and Dandre, tall and blond – Pavlova’s husband and also her business manager.
“Every morning Pavlova and the entire company practised for an hour in the ship’s gymnasium, to which at that time no other passenger gained access”.
At Melbourne, her first port of call, and as she travelled through Australia for the next five months, Pavlova experienced a nation still resolutely tied to the apron strings of Britain.
She understood, she was a Russian expat who had lived in England for more than a decade and she knew how to play to a colonial English sensibility.
In one of her first interviews in Melbourne, Pavlova made much of her Russian mystique but suggested “there should be an English school of dancing which would “take the sadness out of the gait and manner of the English people”. Dancing should be taught in schools “so the workman and work girl may get more happiness in their lives.”
After a burst of nationalistic sentiment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Australians again regarded London as their metropolis. Britain was “home” and recognition and praise in Britain was the ultimate benchmark of talent.
Australian children were told that “great deeds won your Empire and great deeds alone can keep it.” The Empire had its own code of behaviour, to ‘play the game’ and ‘to seek, to strive but not to yield”.
Australia’s Prime Minister, Stanley Bruce, sported spats, took his place in the House of Lords as Lord Bruce of Melbourne and, at the close of the Imperial Conference of Great Britain and her dominions, declared that the British Empire was more closely knit than ever. On Australia Day 1926, he announced the imminent arrival of an “All Red [Empire] Air service” between Australia and Britain.
Australians described themselves as British on their passports and census forms and were urged by British manufacturers to buy British goods to help revive “the sick man of Europe”.
In one advertisement, the carmakers Armstrong Siddeley, Leyland and Morris demanded “Be British, Buy British. We must not let the foreigner get a stranglehold on our trade. To buy from a foreign country that does not buy from us is slowly but surely eating into our National Independence. As Britishers, DEMAND British goods. Refuse to be misled by insidious propaganda as to British cars being unsuited to Australian conditions. (Ad in Brisbane Courier March 1929.)
On Australian stages, audiences watched the productions of Allan Wilkie Shakespearean Company, Somerset Maugham’s East of Suez, and drawing room comedies set in English country house, complete with butler.
The dwindling voices of Australian nationalism, so strong in the late 19th century, could hardly be heard among the nostalgic longing for Home. The nascent Pioneer Players, created to present Australian plays and founded in 1922 by Louis Esson, Vance Palmer, and Stewart Macky, did not survive in the face of competition from American melodramas and musicals, and American movies.
In new movie dream palaces, one could gaze on the beauty of Greta Garbo, Mary Pickford, John Barrymore or Tom Mix while listening to the mighty Wurlitzer organ and all for a ticket price of between 2 to 6 shillings.
In the midst of this British-American society, the original Australians were in danger of being “forever condemned to be Nomads of the desert”, in the words of David Unaipon, “or stockmen, boxers, footballers, trackers, kitchen hands, cooks, wood-choppers, cadgers and cringers on the edge of the white man’s world”.
As late as the mid 1920s, massacres of Aboriginals were still taking place in the frontier regions of Australia.
During the time of Pavlova’s tour, in July 1926, the so-called Forrest River Massacre in the east Kimberley region followed the killing of a white station owner by an Aboriginal. A posse of police and hangers-on set off to find the murderer and in the search, either 11 Aboriginals were murdered or a hundred or more killed and their bodies burned by the police, depending on subsequent interpretation by various writers scouring evidence in the ensuing inquiries and a Royal Commission.
(Many years later, the tragedy was picked over as part of the so-called “history wars” concerning Australia’s past).
In the early 21st century, such an event would receive maximum daily press coverage but in 1926, visitors to Australia could hardly be expected to know anything of the nation’s past and its indigenous culture. But, by chance, Harcourt Algernon Leighton Sussex, a dancer in Pavlova’s company known as Algy, had an insatiable curiosity for curiosity for learning about the culture of the indigenous people in the countries he visited and in studying their dance.
As Algy wrote in his letters home and in his memoirs, when he arrived in Melbourne, he asked “everybody I met about the Aboriginals for I wanted to see their dancing but nobody seemed to know anything in Melbourne. The only sympathetic information I received was from a man who had lived in the country who presented me with a boomerang and woomera (spear thrower) which had been made by a tribe of Victorian Aboriginals who were now extinct. The only other help I got was from an elderly second generation Melbournian (sic) whose deceased aunt had remembered ‘mobs of blacks’ camping near where Fitzroy Gardens are now”.
Later in the tour, Algy was still seeking an introduction to “someone in Adelaide who can give me information about the dancing of the Aboriginals, which is what I want to find out about”. He decorated his rented apartment in Sydney with Aboriginal artefacts and, on a drive along a coastal road outside Sydney, was thrilled to see “A Blackfella, as black as black lead”.
(He was not the first ballet visitor who wanted to know more about Aboriginal dancing. When Genee toured in 1913, she, too, asked to their dancing but never had the chance, or was never given the chance).
For travellers in the Pavlova caravan, the “natives” of the countries they visited proved an entertaining diversion. For Algy, they meant much more than a tourist attraction In India, studied with Uday Shankar and in New Zealand, he worked on the words, gestures and movements of the haka until his thighs were purple with bruises and his tongue painful from”poking it out to defy the enemy”.
Japanese dance was Algy’s speciality. In Japan he studied with the Kabuki master, Matsumoto Koshiro V11 at the Fujima School in Tokyo and became so proficient that he gave lectures on Japanese dance in a number of countries including Australia.
Pavlova learned some indigenous dance as well, but Dandre suffered from a kind of cultural hubris, finding, for example, that tango dancers, African dancers and dancers in Puerto Rico were “boring” or lacked style.
During one press interview in north Queensland in 1929, Dandre and Pavlova, told a reporter that during their first tour to Asia, they “had not found the Hindoos very appreciative ….the Hindoos were never very appreciative of European art”.
Pavlova’s attempts to stage faux national dances in her repertoire verged on the embarrassing. She maintained that Egyptian Ballet, choreographed by Clustine and encompassing pointe work, ballet steps and stylised Egyptian arm movements, was popular in Cairo.
And while she was horrified by Dandre’s suggestion that she present the ballet, Oriental Impressions, in India but Dandre persuaded her to do so.
Algy’s curiosity, and his frank letters home to his mother in England (signed “With Fondest Love, Believe Me, Your Affectionate Son, Algernon”) make him an ideal guide to the inner workings of the Pavlova company, as well as a refreshing counterpoint to the publicity mystique spun by the Taits.
Born in London, Algy as he became known, successfully auditioned for Pavlova at Ivy House in the early 1920s.
When he was still in his teens, he partnered Pavlova in Russian Dance and also danced
Krishna to Pavlova’s Radha, in Oriental Impressions, various doll roles in The Fairy Doll but he believed his best dancers were the divertissements, Gopak, Buffon, The Bogey Man, and Yakko San.
As a young member of Pavlova’s company in England, he learned of the breakneck speed of her touring.
“I found out about flying matinees”, he wrote in his memoirs. “The company were to leave immediately after the afternoon performance and “fly” to Newcastle-upon-Tyne (by train) give another matinee and fly back again to Harrogate”.
In contrast, the 1926 tour to Australia was taken at a relatively leisurely pace, apart from an epic three-day journey from Brisbane to Adelaide interrupted by a gala matinee in Sydney. The tour as a whole took five months, with performances in four Australian cities as well as a side trip through New Zealand.
Algy was one of 10 male dancers who accompanied Pavlova in 1926. Many of the men, including the assistant ballet master, M Pianowksi were Polish, and many of the 16 women were British.
The two most important men in the troupe were Russian, Pavlova’s partner, Laurent Novikoff, and the ballet master and choreographer, Ivan Clustine, both of whom had danced at the Bolshoi Ballet. Novikoff left his homeland in the 1917 revolution to settle in London where he opened a school. Clustine left Russia in 1903 to move to Paris where he opened a school and became maitre de ballet at the Paris Opera before joining Pavlova’s company.
As the train carrying the Pavlova company dancers pulled into each metropolitan railway station in Australia, press photographers, would be waiting for Pavlova to emerge, be presented with a hefty bouquet of flowers and pose for the cameras, usually flanked by Dandre, Lucien Wurmer, the musical director and conductor, and one or two Tait brothers.
Pavlova, who usually managed a slight smile, wore fur coats, a cloche hat, ankle strapped shoes, while the unsmiling, grey moustached Dandre, wore a formal suit, and a shirt with a high detachable collar. Wurmser, in a winter overcoat sporting a white handkerchief in the breast pocket, usually looked mischievously at one of the Taits. All the men always wore hats.
The Taits were a vital element in the publicity, starting with the one-month season in Melbourne, where they were based in their headquarters within the Comedy Theatre, and where they planted a press item about which one of the brothers would carry Pavlova over the threshold of the theatre for good luck. In each capital city, Dandre and the Taits were photographed with Pavlova, gazing on her with a proprietorial air.
Either Dandre or the Taits or both entered contracts with MacRobertson, the sweets manufacturer, who marketed Pavlova chocolate boxes, Swallow & Ariel, which made “Pavlova Wafers” and Mercolised Wax, a treatment for sunburn, freckles and windchap.
Advertisements for the product – “the choice of beautiful women” – featured Pavlova’s portrait and a claim that “The Greatest Dancer of All Time” was “another of the wonderful women who use and advocate Mercolised Wax, the true complexion beautifier.” The product contained mercury and was dangerous.
The Taits might have looked avuncular, but as their publicity man, Claude Kingston, knew, they were “known to be as tough as Mississippi gamblers”.
After the train arrival, the next step in the Taits’ publicity machine for Pavlova was an obligatory interview in her hotel by one or two reporters from the metropolitan papers.
The reporters were overawed by the dancer, often dressing their prose in lists of superlatives romantic similes or literary quotations. Many critics followed suit, peppering their reviews with analogies – Pavlova’s tutu was set in a symphony of diamond sparklings on a fabric of snow and roses, and when she danced she was “a vision from elfland”.
Louis Esson began his review The Triad: “And now, here in Melbourne, is the Russian Ballet! Here is Anna Pavlova!…it seemed doubtful to me, at the great opening night at His Majesty’s, if anybody among the audience had any right to air an opinion at all”.
Who, Esson asked rhetorically, was “even competent to criticise Pavlova!”
After seeing her dance it was possible to understand the poet, Paul Verlaine, who once said “I love Shakespeare, but I love the ballet still more”. (April 1, 1926)
Following the opening night of the tour in Melbourne, The Age critic was lost in a purple haze of words: “Perhaps no form of expression could make a more direct appeal than the overwhelming spell of abstract beauty made visible; of the infinitude of intermingling lines of loveliness that Pavlova brings before her enthralled audiences. Pictures are motionless as well as silent, music, with all its promise of something divine beyond life’s horizons, does not speak — does not tell us all its secrets. Words fall back, baffled, from the radiance or the terror of supreme experiences – the last effort of our being is a gesture of despair – or of hope”. (March 15, 1926)
Algy, more prosaically, summed it all up when he wrote to his mother: “You’ll be glad to know that everything went well last night. ‘Russian’ was a great success. The house was of course crowded and the audience spontaneous in its enthusiasm”.
The Russian Dance was one of numerous national dance divertissements in the Pavlova repertoire. Most were based on European dances – the Spanish Dance, Gopak, Greek Dance, Obertass (Polish Dance), Bohemian Dance, Czardas, Caucasian Dance, Holland Dance, and Mexican Dances – but there was also a Chinese Dance and a Syrian Dance.
These dances came within the last third of Pavlova’s programmes, the divertissements, with the first two thirds comprising two abridged versions of full length ballets, including Walpurgis Night (to the ballet music from Faust), The Magic Flute, and The Fairy Doll.
Although Pavlova herself choreographed one ballet, Autumn Leaves, much of the repertoire was choreographed by Clustine, or adapted by him in cut and paste versions of ballets first choreographed by Marius Petipa, with whom Pavlova had worked as a young dancer in St Petersburg.
Purists did not complain, at least in print, when Clustine even re-jigged two sublime classics of the ballet repertoire, Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty and Mikhail Fokine’s Chopiniana.
Two more cornerstones of the ballet canon, Coppelia, and Don Quixote were shoehorned into condensed versions, the latter by Novikoff, who re-arranged the Alexander Gorsky staging of 1902 at Pavlova’s request.
After Pavlova died, Novikoff wrote of her repertoire: “Pavlova’s Russian ballets were mutilated beyond recognition; musical scores were chopped or changed, the music of other composers inserted. Her own native Russia would never have recognised Giselle, La Fille mal Gardee or The Fairy Doll”.
The writer, Gennady Smakov, was even more scathing, calling her ballets “sloppily” choreographed by Clustine, who “concocted or patched up odds and ends in order to emphasise Pavlova’s strong points”.
As time went on, Smakov wrote, she no longer looked for true diversity in the programmes but organised the dances “in a sequence that would guarantee immediate success.
She cut the intricate passages and mutilated the musical scores by adjusting the tempo”.
The divertissements always included Pavlova in The Swan, a solo that became her logo and one carefully cultivated by publicity photos of the dancer either in The Swan costume, resembling a giant powder puff within a cameo, or strolling by her pool at Ivy House, where white swans drifted on the lake, as if placed by an unseen artistic director.
The Swan solo induced a state of ecstasy in most observers.
The Japanese writer, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, lost his fear of ballet when he saw it, finding it “strange how the feeling of bonelessness disappeared suddenly. I had seen something beautiful”.
In the first Australian review of her 1926 season, The Age critic saw in The Swan how “Pavlova’s every step, gesture, glance or pose was a tone, or a cluster of tones, translated into physiological music. At the end a single white arm retained animation — it, too, became still, but the music went on – then the fingers alone fluttered, stopped, and a tornado of applause swept the theatre”.
At a time when Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes introduced much needed modernism to the art of ballet, the innate conservatism of Pavlova and Dandre meant that their company was forever looking backward. Why change the repertoire if it worked?
Their dancers wished it wasn’t so. As Algeranoff wrote they “loathed such ballets as The Fairy Doll, which the public adored”.
Few critics were perceptive enough or fearless enough to draw unfavourable comparisons with Diaghilev’s repertoire.
In Australia, A. L. Kelly in The Triad, remarked on the “thin, flimsy music for The Fairy Doll” and conceded that “Pavlova may not give us anything so modern as Stravinsky’s Petroushka” but, softening the blow, he concluded that “no other dancer of the present time has challenged her pre-eminence”.
(The Triad, May 1, 1926)
Australian critics occasionally damned the orchestra with faint praise and in Algy’s asides in his letters home, one can see why.
During the Melbourne season, the tempo for his Gopak dance was so slow it was “played like a funeral dirge”, he told his mother, “Really, Wurmser is the limit. You never really know what he is going to do”.
As time went on Algy’s letters became more and more critical of Pavlova and Dandre, revealing much more of the inner workings of the company and its tours than the work of any journalist or critic.
When he wrote his memoirs, My Years With Pavlova, he was careful, but his letters told a different story.
One of Pavlova’s new ballets, he told his mother “just nauseates me”. It reminded him of a carnival at Margate except that the Town Council would ban the “vulgar” costume.
But the real value of Algy’s letters is their record of how the Pavlova tour seeded Australia’s performing arts and left such an imprint on Australian artists, photographers, dancers and audiences, starting in Melbourne where the artist, Clarice Beckett, painted Pavlova in her swan costume and the Melbourne lawyer, Hugh P Hall, first set up his tripod camera at His Majesty’s, Melbourne to snap Pavlova and Novikoff in The Dance of the Hours.
As the company moved to Sydney, Algy and Aubrey forged much personal closer links with Australian artists and writers.
Those were the days when Sundays were earmarked for scenic drives and picnics. Algy’s new friends took each fine Sunday for a picnic, among them, the poet, Dorothea McKellar (who told Algy how much she loved his Japanese dance, Yokko San), members of the wealthy Cohen family, and Captain Max Coote, aide de camp to the New South Wales governor, Dudley de Chair. Coote gave him a copy of D. H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo, a novel “about Australians and English people in Australia, quite interesting and helpful to one’s understanding”, Algy wrote to his mother.
When the company left Sydney, the Cohens presented boomerangs to both Algy and Aubrey, telling them that a “boomerang must return, such a nice thought don’t you think?” Algy wrote.
Secluded with Dandre and their servants in rented harbour side houses, Pavlova, was much more isolated than her more gregarious colleagues.
We can, however, see glimpses behind her veils in some press reports of her moods and appearance.
Her dark eyes were often described as sad and, sometimes, magnetic, “like live coals”. While her street clothes were subdued, she liked to add splashes of bright colours, especially scarlet hats and shoes. Her jewellery expressed her travelling life – jade bracelets and amber necklaces including a favourite red amber string from Singapore.
Her most eccentric accessory, however, was a small cage packed with coloured birds that she collected in Asia, South Africa and Australia and carried with her, like she might a small a small dog, a toy, or a talisman. These childlike companions hinted at Pavlova’s state of mind. More revealing was the poignant description of Pavlova on her 1926 tour by Claude Kingston, the J C Williamson publicist. In his memoir, It Don’t Seem a Day Too Much,
Kingston revealed, through the eyes of Jennie Opie, the manager of Adelaide’s Botanic Hotel, that Pavlova kept in her suite, “a collection of live birds that she has made while touring Asia – 260 of them. A fire was kept going in the room day and night and Pavlova poured out her love over her birds. She was passionately devoted to one called Jacques. She would bath him and he would sit by the electric light at her bedside drying himself and preening his feathers.
“I think it was Pavlova’s love of birds and her deep understanding of them that gave the last touch of witchery to her portrayal of the dying swan…
“Miss Opie told me Pavlova ate practically nothing while staying at the Botanic Hotel. She would have toast and tea at 11 in the morning and toast and tea again at five in the afternoon. The meal she ate after the show never varied; it was always corned beef and salad. She would sometimes drink a little wine but her usual drink was tea with jugs and jugs of hot water to make the tea weak. She did not eat so little because she was indifferent to food. On the contrary, she had a healthy appetite and would not go into the dining room for fear the smell and sight of food would prove irresistible”.
Whether or not they were substitutes for the children she never had, there is evidence in Pavlova’s life of thwarted maternal instincts, not just because of her orphans’ home in Paris but also in the affectionate way she greeted children. On tour, especially in Asia, Pavlova liked to be photographed holding a baby.
On the train travelling from Melbourne to Sydney, she paid special attention to Dolour Meredith, the four-year-old daughter of the orchestra member, Dave Meredith.
Dolour, the only child on the tour, liked to play with the cash tins that doubled as the girls’s makeup containers and often, “Pavlova would call me over with a Russian endearment, take both my hands and show me some simple ballet steps, she gave me a pair of pink satin ballet toe shoes and told me to dance, dance, dance little devuchka”.
When the train arrived at Central Station, Pavlova’s eyes strayed to a little girl standing among the adults crushed together to see the star at the station entrance.
Encouraged by full houses and the Pavlova’s glowing reception in Melbourne, the Taits wound up the publicity a notch for Sydney.
Advance press stories painted Pavlova, once again, as a woman “light as a snowflake and graceful as a fairy, light as a feather and “the absolute personification of grace”.
On April 15, the day of the arrival at Sydney, the Taits alerted the daily newspapers and commissioned the freelance photographer, Sam Hood, to be ready when Pavlova’s train pulled into the station.
The welcoming party included John Tait, who had travelled from Melbourne with the dancers, the Russian Society’s president, and secretary, a representative of the Musical Society, George de Cairos-Rego and the general manager of J. C. Williamson Ltd in Sydney, Charles (“Westie) Westmacott
The men from the Russian Society kissed Pavlova’s hand and presented her with a bouquet tied with blue ribbons and inscribed with a Russian greeting.
A reporter from The Sydney Morning Herald conjured up bird like images to open his news report. “Out of the steam and scuffle, voices babbling and steam blowing, policemen pushing, porters running – Pavlova. Out of the cannon’s mouth, a wren. Around her men and women fought to line the path; a dozen cameras fed hungrily on her face; policemen saluted; a rope held back the populace. In the middle of it, her head thrown back, flowers pressed to her side, this little bird-like dancer. Anna Pavlova. It was like a universe revolving around a linnet.
“She was in a grey fur coat. Her mouth was very red, her eyes very bright, her hair very t. She had the smallest red hat imaginable. And her shoes were an even brighter scarlet. “The crowds on the station were remarkable…they had all been invited by Messrs J C Williamson”.
She and Dandre were whisked to the Hotel Australia where Pavlova described her style in fashion. Amber for the neck, jade for the wrist, red for the hats and shoes, and plain dresses, “no embroidery like you call it”.
The Sydney season at Her Majesty’s Theatre opened with a gala performance in which one critic again wreathed Pavlova in similes. “Ethereal as a fairy, flashing as a diamond, light as thistledown” she displayed “the delicate lines of a Watteau painting”.
(The Sydney Morning Herald, April 19, 1926).
In the audience was the Governor General, Lord Stonehaven and his wife, and the New South Wales Governor, Sir? Dudley de Chair and his wife, setting a social precedent that continued on future 20th century tours of ballet companies to Australia including, in the 1930s, the tour of Olga Spessivtseva and the Ballets Russes. Their premieres were always attended by vice regal representatives, usually British, the audience’s fashions were described in minute detail and usually listing dozens of people. (After a charity gala given in Melbourne by Pavlova in July, 65 people were mentioned as attending, among them the artist, Daryl Lindsay and members of the media dynasty, the Symes.)
During the one-month (April 17 to May 20) season in Sydney, Algy and Aubrey extended their social circles into artistic networks.
After a few days in Sydney, Algy met “a pale-faced young man with sleek black hair and rather prominent eyes. He wanted me to teach him Russian dancing”. The hopeful dancer was called Bobbie Helpman.
At Frances Scully’s studio, Algy gave Bobbie a dance lesson, then suggested he change his name to Robert and add a second ‘n’ to his surname to make it “slightly more foreign”.
(Algeranoff, My Years with Pavlova.)
Helpmann went on to take classes with the Pavlova company and travelled with the dancers later in the tour. In Adelaide, Pavlova told his mother he should train overseas. Eventually he became a star in London, finally returning to Australia to become co-director of the Australian Ballet.
Helpmann’s career trajectory was the most dramatic example of Pavlova’s overwhelming effect on the future of Australia’s performing arts, but his orbit went beyond the stage.
Algy’s circle encompassed the artist, Roy de Maistre, who explained to both Algy and Aubrey how he drew music in colour and his theory of “colour harmony” a concept “that’s too deep or me to explain…”, as Algy wrote to his mother.
De Maistre painted backdrops for the photographic portraits taken by Harold Cazneaux, the official photographer for The Home magazine. Both Cazneaux and Howard Hughes took highly romanticised portraits of Pavlova in Sydney.
The photographs taken of Pavlova in Australia set off a ripple effect; along with Sam Hood and Hugh P Hall, Max Dupain and Walter Stringer, went on to take hundreds of photos of the Ballets Russes tours in Australia in the 1930s, with Hall continuing his dance photography into the 1940s, capturing, in action, dancers in the Kirsova Ballet, Borovansky Ballet and Ballet Rambert.
Hall’s long infatuation with ballet had a parallel when the Pavlova troupe encountered the Brisbane artist, Enid Dickson, during its eight-day season in Brisbane in July. (July 12-20).
An art teacher and portraitist, Dickson was entranced by Pavlova’s performance. At home, dance, she took up her pencils and tried to sketch her from memory. It was impossible to capture Pavlova’s essence.
Dickson asked Dandre if she could go backstage to see her up close. Dandre agreed, although he warned that Pavlova would not pose. She could not sit still long enough. Dickson perched in the wings and sketched Pavlova as The Fairy Doll and in many other roles, then went on to sketch numerous ballet dancers over the next three decades.
Through Dickson, or Dik, as they called her, Algy and Aubrey, met her friend, the ballet teacher, 21-year old Marjorie (“Molly”) Hollinshed, a lively, insatiably curious teacher who had studied with Jennie Brenan in Melbourne and was just as frustrated with her methods as Sheila Whytock in Sydney was frustrated with the teaching of her boss, Minnie Everett.
Hollinshed was bewitched by Pavlova’s performance in Brisbane, how “she gave the impression of shedding her human form and reincarnating into whatever she represented in the dance…Of all her dances it was The Dragonfly that appealed the most. I remember her so vividly, the beautiful creature brimming with life, darting and quivering and flitting miraculously from one corner of the stage to the other”.
As for The Swan, “the soft lyrical pulsation of her dancing was incredible”.
Hollinshed and her mother had an introduction to meet Novikoff’s wife, known as Lisa, at the couple’s Brisbane hotel, and his wife, the Bellevue.
Hollinshed asked the question that Brenan could not answer: “So tell me, Madame, what is the difference between an attitude and arabesque?”
Madame leapt to her feet to demonstrate.
The next day, Hollinshed returned to the hotel for a lesson with Novikoff himself.
As Hollinshed later recalled, he looked very tired. “He sat down on chair and said ‘now tell me, Mollee, what do you want?’
“To my astonishment he talked first about art and colour and then holding the end of the bed, and using it, he explained as a barre, I learned my first real plie. He gave me his precious time from 2pm until 3.30pm and I went away with a head like a treasure chest and legs like feathers”.
Hollinshed’s students were also given lessons by Thurza Rogers, another dancer in the Pavlova company.
Among the most talented students was the 9-year-old, Laurel Gill, who, as Laurel Martyn, had a long distinguished career in ballet first in London, then Australia.
Laurel adored Hollinshed partly because “she didn’t think she knew everything under the sun. She was mad keen to learn from people who did know”.
As for Pavlova, the grown ups asked Laurel “was it a tremendous experience for you?”
“No”, she replied calmly, “that’s what I expected”.
“And it didn’t bowl me over because that’s what I thought it was all about, and so that was quite normal, that it should be like that…”
Then, as Pavlova left Brisbane for the long journey south, “I remember seeing her, poor darling little soul, at the railway station saying farewell to her and I remember looking at her and thinking you look so tired and old’. And she did, she, oh she looked tired and I was, you know, I just broke my heart for her. And she gave me a little rose out of her bouquet….which I kept for a very long time”.
The train was on its way to Adelaide, with the first leg of the journey, to Sydney, lasting 28 hours.
In Sydney the company performed a charity matinee, with the dancers rushing back to the train and continuing to Melbourne where they were to give another matinee the next day. On the way, everyone had to disembark the train at Albury at 6am and change trains, due to the change there in the railway line gauge. The scenery, props and costumes were delayed, delivered to the Melbourne theatre just before curtain up, at close to 3.30pm. During the long wait, singers entertained the audience and Lucien Wurmser played three piano pieces.
When the performance finally got underway, all was forgiven. In a canny piece of cross promotion, the Taits invited their other celebrity artist of the time, Chaliapin, to attend the performance and appear on stage at the final curtain.
He kissed Pavlova’s hand. Speaking slowly in English, he said “My dear friend, I am glad to meet you in this country. So far from our country. I am glad because you are my dear friend, and because we know that though we are very far from our country we are near to the kind and gentle hearts of the Australian people.”
Immediately after the show, the troupe rushed back to the station to continue the journey to Adelaide where, that evening, they opened their season in that city. (July 24-August 4).
By now, every member of the company was exhausted. From Adelaide, they sailed on the P&O liner, Narkunda, from Adelaide to Fremantle, and, after a day’s sightseeing in Perth, finally left Australia.
They said farewell to the dancers Thurza Rogers and Robert Lascelles who were contracted to perform in the J C Williamson production, Tip Toes, and to Alexis Dolinoff, who set up a ballet school in Sydney where his students included Hollinshed and Helpmann.
On board the Narkunda, Pavlova was accompanied by 120 birds. They lived in collapsible folding cages, invented by Pavlova.
“Ordinary passengers”, as Dandre called them, were allowed to keep their birds in the ship’s butcher’s quarters but Pavlova asked the captain’s permission to keep her flock in her own bathroom.
Dandre recalled how “a large cage was built and during the whole journey we did not lose more than five or six birds”.
Back home at Ivy House, “the birds thrived exceedingly well, but by an immutable law of nature these small birds do not live long. They die very soon when brought to another climate and they seem to die very suddenly. One day the bird appears perfectly happy and feeding well, next morning it is found sitting helpless somewhere on the floor of the cage and a few hours later it is dead”.
“I love to scatter beauty. We must distribute beauty”, Anna Pavlova, 1928
Pavlova on board the Marella at Townsville, 1929, photographer unknown, State Library of NSW
Pavlova reclined on a divan at the Hotel Plaza in Paris. To Serge Lifar, her visitor, the ballerina appeared capricious, coquettish, as she welcomed him to her suite.
But romance was not the reason for the meeting. Her proposal to Lifar was simple. Would he be her new dance partner?
Novikoff had long gone, to be replaced in 1928 by Pierre Vladimiroff, but now Madame was “not a little tired” of him. She fluttered her eyelashes at Lifar.
“I must tell you how much I admire you”, she said. “I hope you will not refused to be Anna Pavlova’s partner”.
Lifar was not so easily swayed. Maybe, but only if she would enrich her repertoire, add some fresh new works. Any chance of that?
“And for what reason? My God? Do you think my repertory is as bad as all that? It draws full houses. The public is accustomed to seeing me in certain roles and asks for nothing more. Why change anything at all?”
Pavlova’s partner and manager, Victor Dandre, entered the suite. After hearing the story so far, he huffed: “Idle fancies, illusions, chimeras, and moreover Monsieur Lifar, it seems to me that you came here not to make proposals but to listen to those made to you.”
Lifar pressed on: “Annoushka, what’s the use of these performances that have nothing true about them?”
“I love to scatter beauty”, the dancer replied. “We must distribute beauty”.
And so it was that Vladimiroff, having partnered Pavlova through South America, remained at her side, sailing with her for her next tour of Asia and Australia. A contract for the 12-week Australian leg of the journey was signed in November 1928, just two years and three months since she sailed from Fremantle after the five-month marathon of 1926.
Once again, Pavlova was contracted to appear at least twice during each and every performance of the tour. Those two performances had to equal a total of 30 minutes and there were to be no less than eight performances a week. For this, she would receive half the gross receipts.
JCW recruited a tour group of 43, including wardrobe staff, a conductor and three musicians. The firm offered £2500 towards the ocean fares and promised an orchestra of 22 musicians in Sydney and Melbourne, but only 12 in other cities.
The signs were not good for such a tour so far away. A month before the tour began, margin operators began jumping from the office ledges during the Wall Street crash that catapulted the world into the great Depression.
The cost of loans to Australia from both Britain and the United States skyrocketed, demand fell for Australia’s exports and eventually, unemployment soared.
The worldwide economic nosedive, combined with Dandre’s overexploitation of Pavlova, meant her theatrical career was about to come to a melancholy end.
Anna Pavlova, watercolour by Alexander Yakovlev
Her love affair, too, was over. In 1928, Yakovlev departed for yet another car rally, this time to Tibet. The journey didn’t kill him. He lived a further decade, and painted another dancer, the Ballets Russes star, Tatiana Riabouchinska, two years before his death.
Pavlova, now 48, and her band of dancers, set sail late in 1928, bound for Egypt, India, Burma, Penang, Jakarta (then called Batavia), Singapore and Java. Among the dancers were Algy, Aubrey Hitchins, Estelle Anderson and Eduoard Borovansky whose name appeared in the programmes as E.Borowanski.
By the time the company arrived at Penang, late in January 1929, Algy’s letters home took a new, cynical turn as his cheery demeanour turned to disenchantment with Pavlova and Dandre, sometimes known as DanX to the dancers.
“I don’t mind putting up with discomfort if needs be”, Algy wrote to his mother, “but…as is always the case with the Pavlova Co, it is just indifference on the part of the management for the comfort of the artists”.
Expenses were “terrible” and there was “no proper provision made in the way of anything except a surplus of unnecessary rehearsals! One can’t help feeling that we would like to see DanX publicly disgraced for their inhumanity”.
But mere grumpiness grew into outrage in the aftermath of a scandal that erupted on board the steamer taking the company to Penang. Two of the dancers, Elsa D’Arcy and Thadee Slavinsky, were caught cuddling and kissing by a prudish passenger who rushed to Pavlova to complain. Both the passenger and Pavlova blamed D’Arcy rather than Slavinsky.
Pavlova turned against D’Arcy. Cruelly, she took away some of D’Arcy’s roles.
(Back in London, after the tour, D’Arcy sued Pavlova for slander in the High Court of Justice, accusing of her jealousy over the younger woman’s age and beauty. D’Arcy won the case and was awarded costs.)
Slavinksky suffered too, but not as much. He quit the company at the next port. Dandre and Pavlova refused to pay his hotel bill and his roles were passed to Algy.
But Slavinsky’s absence was brief. He rejoined the company after its brief season in Batavia. Dandre told Algy he must share the roles with Slavinsky.
On February 18, Algy moaned to his mother: “I’ve never been quite so fed up with Madame Pavlova’s Ballet Company as I am now. It has been shown me as clearly as possible that my position is never to improve here. The road is closed, you must help me to find another. “Slavinsky has turned out a pack of lies…M. Dandre has asked me to share the number I did last week in Batavia with Slavinsky! This of course I will not do, my position may be small but I will not understudy anybody. Anyhow the four numbers were given to me and I see no reason why they should be taken away again to be given to this scoundrel who plays them up. I told Dandre in Rangoon that I was heartily sick of the way I was being treated and that I had had no new number for four years….”
For Dandre, the sensitivity and angst that comes with casting, or lack of it, was of no concern.
His big challenge was the forthcoming journey to Australia on the Burns Philp steamer, Marella, sailing from Sourabaya to Darwin. Bad weather, and the slow loading of cargo meant the steamer was held up in Singapore and there was a further delay at the Australian end.
The refurbishment of J C Williamson’s His Majesty’s Theatre in Brisbane was not complete and Pavlova was to be the grand opening attraction. Where would the company go until the theatre was ready? A few days of leisure was not an option for businessmen like the Taits who cabled Dandre: “Can you extend Eastern tour, arriving Brisbane second April stop failing this propose arranging Townsville, Mackay, Rockhampton, Bundaberg, Maryborough, before Brisbane, four hundred pounds night most could expect stop very difficult secure musicians those places. What is the lowest number you could manage under circumstances”.
Early in February Dandre replied: “Impossible extend tour must leave Sourabaya March 8 arriving Townsville 19th stop. Our good trio piano violin cello, advantageously replace orchestra as we doing here and Java. Stop. How many performances you think given in small cities. We could give two different programs composed of one ballet and two acts of divertissements. Without scenery in black curtains, stop. Agree reduce prices but suggest 15 shillings plus tax for best seats regards Dandre”.
John Tait contacted the Queensland Railway authorities, asking for a special train to transport the company and roped in Queensland theatre owner, Dan Carroll, telling him to arrange venues in the north Queensland towns, adding “I cannot for the life of me, see where we are going to break even”. The financial split, he added, would be 80 per cent to JCW, the remainder to Carroll.
When the Marella arrived in Darwin, the passengers were told not to go ashore where they might be in danger.
“We were advised not to land”, Algy wrote. “One of the passengers who arrived on board made straight for the bar where he boasted he had shot an Aboriginal”.
None of the dancers who had survived arduous whistle stop tours through North and South America, could imagine what lay ahead in the first few days of the last Pavlova tour to Australia.
It began slowly enough, with an uneventful sea journey to Townsville. On board, Algy and his colleagues met “some very nice people, including Bishop and Mrs Arundel. They are theosophists. She is Indian and the theosophists think she is a reincarnation of the Virgin Mary. We also met Lady Knox and her daughter. Her husband is Lord Chief Justice of Australia. And they have invited us out in Sydney”.
The Marella docked at Townsville on March 23. As suggested by the local mayor, through a press announcement, a small crowd gathered to greet Pavlova when she stepped ashore at 10am.
The biggest challenge of the day rested with the assistant musical director, Walford Hyden, who, in the space of a few hours was to meet a scratch orchestra assembled, it seems, by Carroll.
Where did they come from, and how did they rehearse the music for the ballets such as The Fairy Doll and Walpurgis Night and be ready to play in a few hours? There is no written record of this extraordinary effort except for a small note in the local paper that the show at the Wintergarden started “very late” and it was not due to problems with the sets. There were none. The sets for the ballets to be presented in the capital cities were on board another ship bound for Brisbane.
The Wintergarden chain, managed by the promoters, Birch Carroll and Coyle Ltd, took enormous pride in their theatres built mainly to screen the tsunami of movies arriving from Hollywood studios, culminating in the first talkies in 1929. The new picture palaces in Sydney and Melbourne may have been more ornate and lavish, but the Wintergardens stretching from Townsville to Brisbane had their own special charm and modernity.
Rockhampton was the first to open, in 1925, with a screening of The Thief of Baghdad, a suitably exotic movie for a theatre sprouting tropical palm groves, a stage with a false proscenium, and a silk poplin backdrop for a show of multicoloured lights.
The Wintergardens were all built for the hot and humid climate. The Bundaberg theatre had timber seats instead of plush velvet, to allow for better air circulation while the sides of the Townsville and Brisbane Wintergardens featured sliding walls.
Algy was entranced. “They let the air in when the evening was cool”, he explained to his mother, “yet there was no feeling of dancing outdoors”.
The Pavlova company was not the only attraction in Townsville that March. For a night at the movies the locals could chose “The Sundowner”, or “Detectives” – the latest MGM “Mirthquake”, but the two-night ballet season was the winning ticket, attracting full houses with special trains bringing patrons to town from the west. Other country folk drove for hours to see the show that opened with Walpurgis Night and The Fairy Doll, followed by the divertissements Dance of the Hours, Gopak, Pizzicato, Dutch Dance, Scene Dansante and, of course, The Swan, on the evenings of March 23 and 25.
On their one day off, Pavlova and Dandre explored the country outside Townsville – they were entranced to see fields of light blue lotuses – then sat dutifully for an interview at their hotel. Pavlova told the journalist from the Townsville Daily Bulletin, that she had never danced in a smaller town.
Dazzled by the star, the journalist declared that “Madame is a very great lady…when Madame talks one sits spellbound. One cannot move one’s eyes from the dainty figure so tastefully clothed. One senses that strange power which is hers, that strange vital magnetism”.
The dancers, meanwhile, went in search of a respite from the humidity in what Algy thought was a “quite nice little town”.
Warned of the sharks, he swam into the saltwater baths, sat too long in the sub tropical sun, got sunburnt and talked to the locals, all of whom were “very friendly and nice” except for the hotelkeeper who was extremely offended when asked if the water was safe to drink.
“Well, we’ve lived on it most of our lives”, he huffed.
Algy rather liked the plain food of provincial Queensland after too much Dutch and Javanese cuisine although the hotel boy shouting “tea” at 6am, while rattling the teaspoon against the saucer, was too much to take.
Not that he suffered too many early morning wake up calls as, on March 25, the company slept on board the train that travelled overnight to Mackay for one performance the following evening at the Olympic Theatre.
The Mackay Daily Mercury had promised Pavlova’s “entire Paris and London organisation of 50 dancers” so the Olympic was packed with both locals and those who had come by train from Netherdale, 75 kilometres west, and returned there the same night arriving after 2am.
They were lucky to be the only provincial Queensland audience to see Chopiniana and the virtuoso Bluebird pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty, along with the usual divertissements.
In Rockhampton the following day, it was back to the same programme as already staged in Townsville. The writer for The Rockhampton Morning Bulletin was so excited by the show at the Wintergarden that he, or she, began the review with Shakespeare’s lines from Venus and Adonis.
Bid me discourse, I will enchant thine ear;
Or, like a fairy trip upon the green,
Or like a nymph, with long dishevelled hair
Dance on the sands, and yet no footing seen.
Again, the house was full, despite the appalling weather. As soon as the curtain rose, the rain fell so heavily that it drowned out much of the music.
The dancers raced through the rain back to the station for their third overnight train journey, this time to Bundaberg where advance publicity in the local Daily News and Mail included an article headlined “How to Keep Thin”.
Pavlova, the writer confided, “never eats red meat, bread and potatoes. For tea she has Russian tea, with milk and dry toast, and for supper, just tea and biscuits”.
In Bundaberg for just one day, March 28, Algy met “some charming people – station [country] people. It is nice to meet the real Australians instead of the apers of European and American smartness”, he wrote to his mother.
The special train whisked the company to Brisbane where Enid Dickson, Algy and Aubrey’s artist friend from 1926, was waiting at the station to greet them.
That day, rehearsals began for Don Quixote, the first ballet of the Brisbane season, which opened on March 30.
It’s clear from a review in The Brisbane Courier just how foreign an art form ballet remained in Australia in 1929. Watching the “greatest living dancer” who was “elflike, fragile and dainty as Dresden china”, the critic noted how “it was distinctly novel to witness a play in dumb show, but so eloquent were the gestures and acting that the words were not missed”.
Over the next few days, Brisbane audiences were spoiled for choice. Offered a completely new programme at almost every one of 11 performances, fanatical balletgoers lined up from 6am each day to get tickets for each show in the revamped New His Majesty’s Theatre.
Apart from the Clustine-arranged old faithfuls, The Fairy Doll, Walpurgis Night, Egyptian Ballet, and Chopiniana, the company presented for the first time two loved ballets which remain in the classical repertoire worldwide, Fille mal Gardee and Giselle, the latter the cause of a contretemps during rehearsals when Pavlova stopped dancing during the Act One mad scene and approached the orchestra: “Listen! Here is like noises in mad girl’s head!” Algy noted a “marked improvement” in the expression of the music.
Among the usual divertissements was Champions, attributed to Boris Romanov, who was the ballet master of Pavlova’s company in 1927. Champions’ story and characters, a tennis player (Pavlova) and a golfer, mimicked Le Train Bleu, a ballet choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska for the Ballets Russes in 1924. Champions, created, like Le Train Bleu, at the same time as the French tennis player, Suzanne Langlan was winning championships, was a rare acknowledgement within Pavlova’s company that ballet might depict an athletic woman rather than the storybook characters of gypsies, sylphs, princesses and swans.
During the Brisbane season, Enid Dickson took up her usual place, sketchpad in hand, in the wings of the theatre, while her friend, Marjorie Hollinshed, marshalled her students for the experience of their young lives.
Ten of her girls were recruited as “supers” – extras – to dress the stage for Don Quixote. Honoured to be asked, they refused the money offered by Dandre who allowed them one dress rehearsal clothed in what they discovered were ragtag, unwashed costumes.
Algy and Aubrey had warned them. Holllinshed, in her memoirs, put it delicately: “They implied that some of the former inhabitants were not as particular as they might have been and of course at the pace Pavlova travelled at, the costumes did not get cleaned between one city and another. We took their advice and wore adequate underclothes”.
Later in the season, Hollinshed was thrilled to be cast as the lady in waiting to Princess Bathilde in Giselle. She was cautioned never to stand in front of Pavlova on stage.
The Queensland season was over in less than a fortnight. Pavlova stood in the train’s observation car waving farewell to her fans, among them the besotted Enid Dickson who, like a bridesmaid, caught the flower Pavlova plucked from her dress and threw towards her.
The season in Sydney opened with Giselle, the tragic story of betrayal in which a peasant girl falls in love with a prince who courts her in disguise as a village lad. He swears his love for her although he is already engaged to a princess.
As Pavlova made her entrance through the door of Giselle’s cottage, a great burst of cheering erupted in the Theatre Royal, as it did once again when she returned later in the evening for Gavotte and Dance of the Hours.
During the long, six week Sydney season, Pavlova and Dandre lived in a rented house near the harbour, while Algy and Aubrey rented an apartment in the city. From this central base, the two men set out on a round of socialising, taking up once more with their Sydney friends from the previous tour. There was coffee and sandwiches at the Australia Hotel with the Cohens, picnics every Sunday outside of Sydney, at Bulli or the Blue Mountains, tea with the ladies of the Fairfax family whose husbands controlled The Sydney Morning Herald, a visit to the zoo with Lady Knox and her daughter, and meetings after the show with Lady de Chair.
Algy was keen to know the “best” and the “right” people, and, as he told his mother, de Mestre was his passport to Sydney society. Parties at de Mestre’s studio in Burdakin House meant Algy and Aubrey could meet “some delightful people, very our style”.
De Mestre, who promised to paint Algy in his role as the Bogeyman, told the dancers
that he was going to live in Europe, as “Australia doesn’t understand his art. He is going to have a show at the Leicester Galleries and one in Paris…his colour harmony is so great and he composes his pictures like music”.
Algy found Sydney Ure Smith, the editor of The Home and Art in Australia magazines equally delightful and perhaps “very useful to us one day”. The Home network extended to the artist, Thea Proctor, who designed covers for the magazine. She posed Algy and Aubrey in costume for photographs taken by Monte Luke, who also photographed Pavlova dressed for Invitation to the Dance.
When the Sydney season came to an end, Algy was showered with farewell gifts, among them books from de Mestre, cigarettes from Lady Knox, and, from the Cohens, cups, saucers and plates for home and a picnic box of food for the train journey to Melbourne.
The Pavlova tour was, by now, a satisfying money-spinner for J C Williamson, earning more than any of the firm’s other shows. Fortnightly takings were £8358, beating by a long way the takings for the musicals The Girl Friend and This Year of Grace and even surpassing those of the hit, Desert Song.
But the tour was starting to pall for the artists. Algy found Melbourne “very dull” and despite weekend drives to Eltham for Devonshire tea and friendly get togethers with the Melbourne artists, Stanley Parker and Eileen Pearcey, Algy and Aubrey became even more upset by DanX. Disenchantment was soon to grow into fury.
A change of casting was one thing, but when the change happened just before curtain up, that was too much for any dancer. In Sydney one night, Pavlova decided to ditch Aubrey as a partner in one of her pas de deux. He knew nothing of it until a dresser came to his dressing room to collect the wig he wore in the divertissement.
In Melbourne, Algy sighed to his mother that DanX was now “damnably unjust”.
“God spare us another tour with these grasping, artless serf drivers”, he wrote.
During the Melbourne season at His Majesty’s Theatre, Pavlova’s experiments with films created more discontent.
“We’ve been doing a lot of tommyrot filming of the Ballets for Madame’s cine Kodak”, Algy wrote. This was “absolutely exasperating work” especially when the dancers had to be ready at 10.30am.
“They really are the limit the way they waste our time and their money”.
The four-week season dragged on as the company moved to Adelaide for a one-week season before sailing to Fremantle on the P&O liner, the Majola.
It was a sorry little group that limped through the final two weeks in Perth.
By now, Algy fretted over the condition of Pavlova, his own future and that of the company.
He found the atmosphere “disgusting” and the company “decaying”. He feared that if he continued to dance with Pavlova’s company his chance of finding another ballet job might be compromised. As for Madame, she looked very tired, an opinion confirmed by Pavlova in an interview with The Argus newspaper representative in Perth:
“Madame Pavlova, interviewed today before her departure for England with her company, said that she would rest in France for several months, as her Australian season had been very strenuous. She would take up dancing again in France or England when refreshed, and she did not intend to travel for many years. She did not know whether she would visit Australia again but she hoped to do so, people had been so kind to her”. [Argus July 23, 1929]
On July 22, two days after the final performance in Perth, the company boarded the P&O liner, the S.S. Ranpura.
Pavlova and Dandre came heavily laden with pots full of the native flower, boronia, and bushes blooming with purple, bell-shaped flowers, all destined for the Ivy House greenhouse.
They also smuggled on board a flock of birds that were hidden in cages fashioned by Dandre out of picnic boxes. Within the empty compartments, designed for dishes and tins, he placed cages for the birds that stayed very quiet within their dark homes.
Dandre described how “Pavlova was triumphant at the success of our ruse”, necessary due to strict new Australian government regulations against the export of birds.
Her bird collection had grown since it began in South Africa. This time she had more than 20 pairs of finches, and many other birds from India and Java.
Pavlova’s most loved birds were a species Dandre called “cadilans”, most likely yellow vented bulbuls that they bought in Java. One of these little birds with black heads and yellow undertails had escaped from their rented house in Sydney one night.
Pavlova was so anxious that she left for the theatre in a dreadful state, and searched for the bird for hours when she returned. She left the window open in the sitting room and the door of the birdcage open when she finally went to bed. In the morning, after the maid told Dandre the bird had returned, he took it into the bedroom, left, and soon after returned to find it lying on Pavlova’s breast covered by a cobwebby Russian lace shawl, purring, he said, like a kitten. Pavlova put her finger to her lips and whispered to him, “hush, he’s telling me…”
Pavlova told friends that from now on, she would give only concert appearances and certainly not perform every day.
Somehow, the message did not get through to Dandre who signed her up for a new British tour, starting early in September 1930 in Southampton and continuing to other English cities, then to Edinburgh with one night stands in Dundee, Newcastle, Halifax, Leicester, Hanley and Preston, ending at Golders Green.
The company was in poor financial shape. Most European audiences only wanted to see The Swan, or ballets as familiar as this old faithful, and some dancers had to fired. On November 5, Dandre told Algy the news.
“It is a sad necessity”, he wrote, “which forces us to part with you, after working together for so many years”. He hoped it would only be “au revoir”.
For all his complaining during the last tour to Australia, Algy admitted his heart was broken.
During the British tour, Pavlova suffered two major blows, one physical, one emotional. She began to notice a nagging pain in her left knee, one she could not brush away and she was devastated that the last of her pet birds, the one with the yellow feathers under its tail, had died.
After the last performance of the tour, on December 13, she returned home carrying an armful of flowers to put on its grave.
Later that month, she travelled to Cannes, in the south of France for a brief holiday, stopping in Paris to see doctors who told her to rest for five weeks. One writer, Genady Smakov, suggests they may also have told her she needed further surgery on her ribs where they joined the spine, but that she refused, as such surgery would have ended her career.
Back in Paris to rehearse with Vladimiroff for a new tour of Europe, taking in the Hague, Amsterdam, Utrecht and Rotterdam, then dates in Belgium, Germany, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Pavlova caught a chill in an under heated ballet studio. She left Paris on January 17, arriving in the Hague by rail for her season that was due to begin two days later.
There, at the Hotel des Indes, she was diagnosed with pleurisy. Her physician, Dr Zalevsky, travelled from Paris to attend to her on the following Wednesday.
Close to midnight the next day, Pavlova called to her maid, Marguerite Letienne, “get my Swan costume ready”.
Just after midnight on January 23, Pavlova died.
Her body was taken to London, where at a Russian church, her coffin was covered with the Imperial flag of Russia, with the Romanov coat of arms.
The grief around the world was intense.
In Australia, a woman wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald recalling how she had given Pavlova a bouquet of red roses, how the dancer had “pressed her white face into the red, kissing them, and sinking her head into the blooms.” (Maisie Sommerhoff, Sydney Morning Herald, January 31, 1931).
Enid Dickson wrote to Algy and Aubrey with the hope “that she would be reincarnated so that she could once more “worship at her feet”. Dickson was grief stricken that now she could never paint the portrait of Pavlova that she had planned for so long.
The artist, Stanley Parker, wrote to Algy to say he was “just benumbed at the news of Anna Pavlova’s death…I have wept for days …and I know how terrible you must feel”.
Parker begged them to send him the tambourine she had used in the ballet, Amarilla.
“I feel I cannot go on through life without something that was hers. Something that she has
touched and that has been part of the fabric of her life”.
Time magazine reported, most poignantly of all, something that may have been contrived yet was heartbreaking in its simplicity.
The last words of Pavlova, the reporter wrote, were “Play that last measure softly”.
Pavlova’s funerary urn, ballet dancer, swan
“Her face is usually focused in on itself…as if preoccupied with a presentiment of approaching darkness”. Akim Volynsky, 1923.
Spessivtseva arrives in Sydney, 1934
The third week in October1934 was exceptionally cold for a city on the fringe of summer. In Sydney, temperatures fell to record lows.
Olga Spessivtseva felt the chill of a southerly wind bite into her fragile body. As she had told the press on her arrival in the city – “I am not much weight, eh?”
To reinforce her remark, one journalist explained to his readers that the Russian ballerina was a shade under 7 stone (44 kilograms).
It was not her physical fragility, though, that caused a catastrophe during the tour, but her mental instability.
In the third week of a month-long season at the Theatre Royal, she appeared as Raymonda, the heroine of a ballet about love and abduction in the time of the Crusades.
One night, near the end of the performance, Spessivtseva began to improvise. She staggered, then lost all sense of where she was and who she was.
Voices in her head taunted her with dreadful threats. Spies were close behind her. She would be poisoned, her feet amputated.
Anatole Vilzak, the dancer she had partnered long ago at her school days in St Petersburg, was there to support her. He continued dancing as best he could but in the end, there was no option. The curtain had to be lowered.
Her mental collapse was the beginning of the end for one of the most talented ballerinas of the 20th century.
Within six years, the former prima ballerina of St Petersburg and Paris was admitted to a hospital for the insane in the state of New York, where she was incarcerated for 22 years, given shock treatment and regarded as incurable. Her continued insistence that she was Olga Spessivtseva, a former prima ballerina, was shrugged off as the hallucination of a mad woman.
Her crisis in Sydney and her eventual fate were never reported in Australia. She was simply the ballet star who followed the incomparable Pavlova – and one who was similarly betrayed by others who wanted a piece of her talent, her fame and her ability to reach an audience’s heart.
While Pavlova would always be known as the Dying Swan, Spessivtseva’s life echoed the fictional story of Giselle, a ballet in which she excelled. Giselle is a simple girl who is betrayed by her lover. Although she has a weak heart, she loves to dance. When Giselle learns of the deception she loses her mind, dies in her mother’s arms, then rises from her grave to dance one more time in order to save her lover’s life.
The link between the real and unreal worlds in Giselle is the heroine’s mad scene, a tour de force for any ballerina and one that Spessivtseva made shockingly real.
Her friend and fellow dancer, Dale Fern, believed that every Giselle who followed in the role patterned her performance either directly or indirectly on Spessivtseva’s.
Even before her own eventual descent into depression, Spessivtseva seemed like a weeping spirit, or an injured bird falling from a tree. She rarely smiled, was coldly beautiful, regal in manner, untouchable, and in the eyes of Sergei Diaghilev, “a creature much more delicate and purer than Pavlova”.
It was her fate to be falsely interpreted by men as a sylph – hardly human. Yet there was truth in their descriptions of her pale oval face, the way in which she looked as though she would break down in tears at any moment. She had many reasons to do so.
Spessivtseva’s fragility began in her early childhood.
One of eight children of a beautiful mother and a father who was a talented opera singer, Olga was born in Rostov-on-Don in 1895. Three of her sisters died young, leaving three brothers, Anatole, Leonide and Alexander and a sister, Zinaida.
Their father died when he was only 32, leaving little money. Olga was sent to an orphanage in St. Petersburg affiliated with the Stage Veterans’ House. Her salvation came through dance. At the age of 10, she joined her sister and one of her brothers, Anatole, as a student at the Imperial School of Ballet in St Petersburg. All three were accepted into the corps de ballet of the Imperial Ballet, with Olga becoming a soloist in 1916, three years after she joined the company.
The promotion came on the eve of the Bolshevik revolution that saw the audience change dramatically at the Maryinsky Theatre, the ballet’s home, and where Tzar Nicholas and Tzarina Alexandra, once watched such late 19th century ballets as Swan Lake from the royal box.
Spessivtseva’s exquisite artistry and strong technique drew many admirers, none more than the obsessive Akim Volynsky, a critic and author who affected a dandyish air, wore a large black bow tie and took ballet lessons himself in order to give advice to those he latched onto. This Svengali followed Spessivtseva to the theatre, watched rehearsals, visited her at home where she then lived with her mother, and droned on into the evening with his theories on art, philosophy and mysticism. Mama was not amused.
In 1923, he wrote an article that was both intrusive and saccharine, but also, uncannily, forecast the decades to come.
Volynsky saw “a little tear” glistening in her eyes and “just a note of weeping resounds in her voice, even in her laugh, to all those who know her. Nevertheless her face is entirely dramatic in the elevated, innermost meaning of this word…
“Spessivtseva is all promise, all upsurge to the unrealisable, all oohs and ahs of a kind of an insatiable sadness with which she is also able to captivate the public. She does not ignite the audience with the fire of her talent, but she extends over it the palpitating sheath of all those tears, as yet unborn but already tormenting her heart. Eternally young, she does not face the bitter fate of a flower past its bloom.
Giselle…what teary, childlike eyes, darkened with fiery specks of fright that are under her thickly coiffed hair that is now untangling! This is a wounded bird falling helplessly from a tree”. (From The Life of Art, 1923)
Among the many men who recognised and sometimes exploited Spessivtseva’s talent was Diaghilev, who invited her to tour with his Ballets Russes in the United States in 1916. Her partner on the tour was Vaslav Nijinsky, another dancer who descended into madness – much earlier than Spessivtseva.
During the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 one of her brothers was killed. A year later, Spessivtseva was promoted to the rank of ballerina at the Maryinsky Theatre.
Her debut as Giselle came in 1919. To prepare, she visited mental hospitals in order to see how the inmates walked and gestured. Her dance partner at the time was Pierre Vladimirov who said of Spessivtseva: “Her Giselle breathed a genuine insanity, not theatrical illusion. Giselle seemed to be an extension of her own existence”. In his eyes, her performance echoed Nijinsky’s portrayal of the abused Petroushka, in the ballet of the same name, in the way she completely inhabited the role.
Dale Fern, who cared for Spessivtseva in her old age, knew that” Giselle was her obsession and nightmare”.
Soon after her debut in the role, Spessivtseva began a lifetime of mental imprisonment, always looking over her shoulder at real or imagined terrors.
In 1920, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Friends remembered her melancholia, how many hours of her day seemed to pass in a reverie. She travelled to the Caucasus region to recover; no one thought she would ever dance again. Here, far from her birthplace, she left behind, but could not forget, the horrors that followed the revolution.
Lenin had ordered the Cheka, the Soviet state security police, to carry out mass arrests and executions of “class enemies”. From early 1918, more than 800 people were shot without trial. Worse was to follow with the “Red Terror”, in which inconceivable atrocities were inflicted on enemies of the state in their hundreds and thousands, with the hope that the perpetrators would leave “floods of blood of the bourgeoisie – more blood, as much as possible.” (September 5, 1918, the Red Army journal Krasnaya Gazeta).
Spessivtseva had barely recovered from her illness when Diaghilev asked her to travel to England for his lavish revival of The Sleeping Beauty in 1921. She danced in London as Olga Spessiva, her name shortened by Diaghilev who believed no one could pronounce her real name.
In the following year, Spessivtseva returned to St Petersburg to live with her lover, the Communist official, Boris Kaplun. He proved to be a disastrous choice. Kaplun was the secretary to Grigory Zinoviev who, with Joseph Stalin and Lev Kamenev, formed a troika to sideline Trotsky in 1923. Kaplun’s closeness to the ruling Communist regime and his knowledge of its machinations had a lasting influence on Spessivtseva.
What did she witness or overhear during these years? Spessivtseva may well have known Kaplun as early as 1920 when Russia’s first state crematorium and morgue was opened in St Petersburg. He was the chairman of the committee that oversaw the construction and his contemporaries believed that Spessivtseva was asked to cut the ribbon to open the building. Nearly 380 bodies were burned there before it was closed due to a lack of wood to light the fires.
Spessivtseva was not the only dancer to mingle with Communist party apparatchiks or members of the secret police. One of her colleagues and a potential rival was Lydia Ivanova, a talented young dancer who had also caught the eye of Spessivtseva’s former admirer, Akim Volynsky. (The critic was so bewitched by Ivanova that he had knelt before her after one of her performances.)
Members of the GPU – the Soviet Union secret police formed from the Cheka – also admired Ivanova along with other young dancers they invited to parties and receptions following ballet performances. Ivanova was warned not to attend too many of these events.
In 1924, she was due to tour Germany in a small troupe called the Soviet State Dancers, who also included the very talented choreographer, George Balanchine and the dancers, Alexandra Danilova and Tamara Geva. Balanchine came to believe that Ivanova was murdered by a member of the secret police or someone with connections to it.
In Balanchine’s view, she had signed her death warrant when she applied for a visa to Germany. Ivanova knew too much. In his account of the tragedy, Ivanova was invited onto a boat trip on the Neva by a person connected with the GPU and the boat was deliberately steered into the path of a passenger ship with which it collided. Her body was never found.
Footnote: On June 18, 1924, the following notice appeared in the Leningrad daily, Krasnaia gazeta, under the title The Death of a Dancer
“On Monday June 16, around 5pm, a motor boat belonging to the second labour collective had an accident. In the boat were engineer Klement, A. Iaszykov, (an officer of the former Mikhailovsky theatre) E. Goldshtein, (administrator of the Studio of the Akdrama), I. Rodionov (sailor) and Lidiia Ivanov, a dancer of the Academic theatre of Opera and Ballet (the former Maryinsky). All the passengers, who set off from the Anichkin Bridge, were going down river when they noticed that the motor had become seriously overheated. They began trying to cool it off and, engrossed in the task, they failed to notice the passenger ship Chaika bound for Krondstadt, was moving toward them. The ship collided with the boat and knocked all the passengers into the water. A tugboat of the State Baltic Steamship Line managed to save three of the passengers, but engineer (or “instructor”) Klement and the dancer Ivanova were lost. The bodies of the victims have not been found”.
Akim Volynsky wrote his own postscript to the incident:
“From her first artistic steps this young girl was enveloped in an atmosphere of anxiety. Two years ago a rumour circulated that a carriage had severed her leg. …this was right after she finished school….there gathered around her certain unstable elements , the air around her almost shook with anxious whispering, fearful pride, growing envy, and convulsed reputations, which was the way it remained up until the last minute. But not only the air shook. An epoch of intrigue began, toxins were prepared and Florentine knives were sharpened …I am ready to believe that the motor of the fateful boat really did malfunction. But I would also not be surprised if, with another group of passengers and in other circumstances, the catastrophe could not have been avoided”. (The Life of Art, 1924)
Rumours circulated that Spessivtseva had some role in the tragedy but this was totally discounted by Balanchine who thought that Ivanova posed no serious threat to Spessivtseva’s career.
Both Balanchine’s troupe, and, separately, Spessivtseva, left Russia. The incident was behind them, but the memory of it lingered forever.
Kaplun helped Spessivtseva travel to Paris at the end of 1924. Her nine-month contract to dance as an étoile (a star) with the Paris Opera was signed on November 1, 1924 but Spessivtseva never returned to Russia. She remained in Paris for eight years, becoming a member of that floating shadow nation of Russian émigrés that settled in Paris, the United States and China between 1917 and 1929, the “remnants of a vanished world”. (Orlando Figes).
She arrived in Paris with her mother, moving into a furnished flat in the Rue Chalgrin in the 16th arrondissement. Homesick for St Petersburg and without the support of her former lover, she feared her Paris debut in Giselle at the end of November.
When Spessivtseva arrived for the first time at the Paris Opera rehearsal studios she appeared to the writer, Andre Schaikevich, as “a thin slip of a woman, her gaze sad, sorrowful”. She wore a half tutu over her leggings, one black, one yellow. The corps de ballet girls wondered if she could even stand without trembling, yet after a few steps, “everyone was conquered, astounded”. When she danced the mad scene in Giselle, the other dancers were motionless, their eyes wide with admiration. Several wept.
The careers of Diaghilev and Balanchine took them to Monte Carlo then Paris, and Spessivtseva followed in their wake. She danced for Diaghilev in the ballet, La Chatte, and dined with his circle at the Ritz in Paris.
At a supper one night at the Ritz, she sat with the dancer Alexandra Danilova and one of Spessivtseva’s admirers at the time, Sir Saxton Noble, a London host of Diaghilev and a director of the armaments manufacturers, Armstrong Whitworth.
Danilova recalled how strange Spessivtseva appeared that night, but maybe she was just being playful when, after Diaghilev suggested: “Well Olga, of course you would like a nice cold glass of champagne?” She replied, “No. I would like a hot champagne”. A waiter was called. He brought a chafing dish on a silver trolley to warm the champagne for her.
After Diaghilev’s death in 1929, Spessivtseva continued to dance in London as Giselle, then in Paris under the Paris Opera directorship of the egotistical Serge Lifar.
Accustomed to the convention that the male dancer presented the ballerina rather than draw attention to himself, Spessivtseva did not appreciate the way Lifar built up the male roles in the ballets in which he danced, sometimes at the expense of the ballerinas.
Twice during her last years in Paris, Spessivtseva acted out her frustration and despair. She tried to jump from a window in the Palais Garnier, home of the Paris Opera, and then attempted to leap from a train travelling to Monte Carlo.
Within a few years of leaving the Paris Opera, she sought the comfort of a protector.
From the mid-1930s, Spessivtseva’s companion was Leonard Braun, a man much older than herself, with whom she lived in an apartment in the Boulevard St Jacques in the 14th arrondissement.
Braun, an American stockbroker who once had interests in oil wells and a seat on the Los Angeles Stock Exchange, lived at the Los Angeles Athletic Club. Shortly before the crash of 1929 he sold his stock exchange seat then spent much of his time in Italy and France. Braun had been married twice. Both marriages ended in divorce. He fancied young opera singers whose careers he nurtured and he maintained contacts with show business contacts in Hollywood.
Braun befriended the Italian dancer and ballet master, Richard Celli who introduced him to Spessivtseva in Paris.
By early 1939, Braun attempted to drum up interest in the art of Russian ballet in Hollywood. He approached Billy Clune, a Los Angeles showman, theatre owner and real estate developer, to gauge his interest in staging a show.
Spessivtseva’s choice of Braun as a de facto husband was oddly similar to the relationship between Victor Dandre and Pavlova. Both men followed the ballerinas around the world, both benefited from their talent.
Three years after Pavlova died, Dandre’s path crossed Spessivtseva’s when he formed the Levitoff-Dandre Ballet in1934. His partner was the Paris-based impresario, Alexander Levitov.
The company’s first international tour began in South Africa, led by the Russian ballerina, Vera Nemtchinova and her husband, Anatole Oboukhov.
For the next leg of the tour, Australia, Dandre exploited his connections from the Pavlova days. In 1934, he contacted J C Williamson in Australia, suggesting his company would be a better deal for the Australian market than the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, a troupe that JCW was also considering.
By May that year, Dandre was forced to tell JCW that Nemtchinova could not tour to Australia but suggested Spessivtseva instead. She was, Dandre wrote, a superior dancer. By June, the deal was done, with Dandre accepting a minimum guarantee of 450 pounds a week and a contribution to fares for the journey by ship.
After South Africa, the company reassembled in Singapore, with Spessivtseva, her dance partner, Vilzak, and Braun, now calling himself Leonard Brown, all arriving at that city at the beginning of September. Dandre and Harold Algeranoff also joined the company in Singapore, as did Pavel Petroff, the Russian ballet master who, Algeranoff confided to his mother, was “an absolute ass”.
Conditions were far from ideal for the dancers. The heat was intense, although it did not stop Spessivtseva rehearsing for six hours a day. As well, the musicians who played for the dancers on the Asian tour were hopelessly inexperienced. The company’s musical director, Vladimir Launitz, told the press later how difficult it was to assemble an orchestra.
“At Singapore I finally got hold of a jazz band containing a very decent German fiddler and that saved an awkward situation. In Java, we had to rely on amateurs”. (Sydney Morning Herald 26.10.1934)
After short seasons in Bundung and Surabaya, the company boarded the SS Nieuw Holland, calling at Bali before sailing south to Brisbane.
Advance publicity heralded the company as the “Russian Ballet Company” or the “Russian Classical Ballet”, a troupe of 40 artists many of them English and many who had danced in Pavlova’s company. Natasha Bojkovich, from Belgrade, was the second most senior dancer after Spessivtseva, who, in turn, was billed as Spessiva for the tour.
(Footnote: Dancers in the Dandre-Levitoff company included Molly Lake, Kathleen Crofton, Ann Stafford-Northcote, Elvira Rone, Juliana Enakieva, Eleanora Mara, Raisse Hirsch (whose stage name was Raissa Kouznetsova), Edna Tresahar, Audrey Wilson Williams, (dancing as Olga Valevska ), Harcourt Algeranoff, Travis Kemp, Stanley Judson, Dimitri Rostoff, George Zoritch, Slava Toumine and Stanley Judson. In Brisbane, the company recruited Leon Kellaway (who appeared as Jan Kowsky).
Once again, Spessivtseva was under pressure, this time having to live up to Pavlova’s starry reputation. In July, Nevin Tait of J C Williamson cabled his brothers to tell them that she was not only a charming personality but also a “replica” of Pavlova. JCW promoted her in Australia as “the great Olga Spessiva”, “the Supreme Offering of the Theatre…“with the thunderous applause of the entertainment centres of Europe still ringing in her ears we introduce you to Olga Spessiva, the greatest dancer of the Age …on her shoulders the mantle of the immortal Pavlova has fallen….”
On board the ship to Australia, Spessivtseva had the knack of hiding, wrote one of the dancers on the tour, George Zoritch. “We never saw her on board ship. She travelled first class and we in second”.
She chatted in Russian to the dancer Slava Toumine, and enjoyed the role of the ship’s celebrity, dressing for dinner each evening in one of her Paris evening gowns, made for her by the houses of Lanvin and Chanel.
Spessivtseva, though, was tormented by the thought of her mother’s plans to return to Russia, and feared the arduous tour through Australia, where she would be compared, unfavourably, she felt sure, to Pavlova. She anticipated the promoters’s demands, that she would have to perform too many times during the 15-week tour. Unlike Pavlova, she knew her limits and had already decided she would not dance in Petroff’s ballet, Venusburg.
The repertoire, although extensive, was not particularly challenging. Many of the ballets were abridged classics or a melange of divertissements from the Pavlova company and rearranged versions of short ballets from the Ballets Russes repertoire.
At the Australian premiere, at His Majesty’s Theatre in Brisbane on October 10, Natalia Bojkovich appeared in the leading role, as Lise in La Fille mal Gardee, while Spessivtseva and Vilzak danced Odette and Prince Siegfried in Act Two of Swan Lake. In the final third of the evening, the Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor preceded a sprinkling of divertissements.
J C Williamson’s Tait family was happy enough with the box office takings, especially as, in their view, the company was “not overstrong”, as the brothers cabled their London office.
There was, however, no disputing the genius of Spessivtseva who drew an audience from around the state of Queensland. One woman from Toowoomba could not believe her luck when the dancer gave her an orange and even a little caress, asking her to pass on the fruit and her good wishes to her mother.
The woman’s letter of thanks is preserved in a small cache of letters that Spessivtseva took back to France and which are now preserved in the Paris Opera library.
“I am so happy for all the joy you gave me”, wrote the woman. “I am back again in the country…in the hills with my green trees”.
Algeranoff caught up with all his old friends from the Pavlova years (the artist, Enid Dickson, had returned to her spot in the wings to draw a scene from Les Sylphides) and he continued in his industrious way to write home to his mother, praising, complaining, and passing on titbits of gossip. In Brisbane he found it “very embarrassing” to show Petroff what to do in rehearsals, and as for Bojkovich, she “talks and talks and talks. They called her Mortuary Annie … because she held an inquest over every number she danced, and is also quite difficult to manage”.
After two weeks, the company’s train travelled down the coast to Sydney. At Central Station on October 25, the photographer, Sam Hood, was waiting, ready to capture Spessivtseva. She posed with Dandre in a severely cut wool flannel suit. Her centre-parted hair was draped over her ears, in the romantic ballet fashion. Around her shoulders was a fox wrap. On one side, the bushy tail slid through a gap in the fur. On the other, the animal’s snout tucked into her breast. Spessivtseva’s mouth was pulled into a kind of grimace, masquerading as a smile. Dandre made no attempt to smile.
Spessivtseva was taken by car to a press conference at the Theatre Royal, close to the Australia Hotel, her home for the next month. The Sydney press seemed interested in her tiny frame. In broken English, she admitted: “I like chocolates, plenty of them”.
And, asked one reporter, did she smoke cigarettes?
“Oh, yes. But that is a secret, a very big secret. Yes I smoke, but so few”.
She told of her home in Paris where she said she lived with her little family of her mother, brother and sister.
And it was “for them that I work, work hard…I love my work. I am an artist and when I dance I feel and feel very deep”. (Interview in the Sydney Morning Herald, 1.11.34)
The Sydney Morning Herald reporter told his readers that “She has long, sleek black hair, which she dresses at the nape of her neck, and has the aquiline features typical of her country, and not unlike Pavlova’s own. She speaks but little English and what words she does venture upon are helped with pretty gestures. For the most she speaks through an interpreter in French…
“Spessiva loves painting, especially beautiful gardens, and is delighted with the trees and colour of Sydney. She said that Sydney was very nice and if she ever left Paris she would like to live here”.
Petroff promised the Sydney public that the ballets they brought with them were “in pure classical style. Popular taste in Paris and London is turning away from the modern dance and back to pure ballet: People are tired of futuristic spasms and jerks. Those things are a passing phase. They do not come from the heart”.
The Sydney season opened on October 27 with Fille mal Gardee. Again, Spessivtseva made her first appearance in Swan Lake. The production began with a procession of swans that seemed to float across the water. One critic found the procession unconvincing if not ridiculous as each swan was “riding on a little purple trolley”.
Finally, that evening, Spessivtseva danced Minuet, a divertissement to music by the Spanish composer, Albeniz. She looked exquisite in a spectacular, full-skirted gown of white and gold brocade with which she wore artificial plaits woven with ribbons attached to a coronet. The dress was created for her in Paris by Natalia Gontcharova, one of the designers who worked for Diaghilev. At the end of the performance, a photographer was ushered into her dressing room to photograph her in the Minuet costume as she posed behind an array of flowers.
In the audience that night were Sir Frederick Jordan, the newly appointed Chief Justice and his wife, the dancers, Madge Elliott and Cyril Ritchard, the publisher Sydney Ure Smith, and the Sydney Morning Herald critic who wrote:
“It must be said at once that the present company is not quite equal of the two which Anna Pavlova brought with her. Yet it is still decidedly worthwhile for all lovers of the dance to go and see it. If the number of accomplished principals is smaller than before, Mr Alexander Levitoff, the organiser of the ensemble, has provided at least one whose art attains a dazzling brilliance. This is Madame Olga Spessiva…on Saturday night she captured all hearts”.
Her technique was “utter perfection” and “in her art, she is to Pavlova what a falling snowflake is to an ascending iridescent bubble. One thinks of Raphael painting his calm remote Madonna”.
The Minuet was ravishing, with Spessivtseva resembling “a figure by Rossetti as she floated here and there in gentle gaiety or gentle sadness”. (The Sydney Morning Herald, 29.10.34)
On the surface, company life continued in an orderly way. In November, the programme changed each week -Swan Lake made way for Les Sylphides and Carnaval, Fille mal Gardee for The Magic Flute, and Visions for Raymonda. Petroff shuffled around the shorter ballets, giving Algy a chance to show off his specialty Japanese and Indian dances; Spessivtseva danced in Valse and Dance of the Hours.
By the end of the second week, the box office reached a respectable 1500 pounds.
The dancers settled into their social rounds. After morning class, Spessivtseva obliged the publicists by posing in her Swan Lake costume at the Sydney Fox Studio in King Street. She carefully saved letters from audience members, one of whom was an astrologer and wanted her date of birth. Another found her performance ‘a beautiful dream come true’, a third was ‘entranced by her exquisite dancing”.
Algeranoff, meanwhile, partied with his old friends, the artists, Thea Proctor and Stanley Parker, and with Sydney Ure Smith of The Home magazine. Ure Smith, Algeranoff decided, was “one of the cleverest men in Australia”. To supplement his meagre income Algeranoff taught dance classes for Minnie Hooper, worked on his lectures on Japanese dance, chatted with a new acquaintance, Arthur Sadler, a professor who taught Japanese studies, and made friends with Eric Baume, the editor of the Sunday Sun, who agreed to publish his article on Japanese dancing.
Algeranoff kept his mother up to date on his social life but made no mention of the major news event in Australia at the time, the tour of the nation by the Duke of Gloucester. And, until the crisis occurred, gave no hint of the turmoil that was brewing within the ballet company.
Week three of the season began. The weather grew colder.
At the Theatre Royal, the programme changed to Egyptian Ballet, Venusburg and the Australian premiere of the ballet, Raymonda, the last masterpiece of Marius Petipa, re-staged by Petroff for the Dandre-Levitoff company. Spessivtseva danced as Raymonda, a noble woman who is to marry a knight in medieval times. It was a ballet she first danced aged only 18, at the Maryinsky Theatre in St Petersburg.
The Sydney Morning Herald’s review of November 19 indicated for the first time that something was amiss.
“Olga Spessiva as Raymonda did some exquisite dancing of ethereal lightness”, he wrote, “but her delineation of the part was cold and not once did a smile brighten her face, not even when her knight returned”.
Spessivtseva’s icy manner concealed her inner turmoil, memories of her life in Russia, memories of her first lover, Kaplun, the secret police, and her increasing fears that neither her body nor her mind was strong enough to underpin the physical and mental effort she needed to dance.
In her hotel room, she wrote letters to her mother complaining that her feet and legs were numb, that her limbs were slowly becoming paralysed. There were people out there, she told Mama, dreadful enemies, who even threatened to cut off her feet.
During a rehearsal one day, she suddenly left the theatre, returning to the hotel where she saw Levitoff but seemed not to recognise him. He took her arm, leading her to a chair in the foyer. Spessivtseva told him her greatest fears. Some company members detested her, spied on her. Flowers meant for her were somehow diverted to other dancers’ dressing rooms. She must have a different dressing room, a new dresser.
A day later, Levitoff found her wandering in the street near the hotel. She seemed lost yet determined to hurry to rehearsal. But, Madame, he assured her, the rehearsal is finished. He watched her enter the stage door of the theatre and walk to the wings of the stage. She grasped the back of a chair, and began her usual barre exercises. But her grace and elegance vanished as her distorted body made a mockery of the ritualistic plies, tendus and battements.
The next day, at 4am, she ran through the corridors of her hotel, from her room to Dandre’s. She woke him, frantically knocking at his door, and seemed close to fainting as she told him that she was about to be strangled. Would Dandre let her stay in his room? She would leave the hotel at daybreak. He led her back to her room.
Later that week, on stage, she blanked out completely, drifting through random movements, unaware of the music, the steps, and as Vilzek improvised and the curtain was lowered. Fantasies and fierce anxieties combined in her mind to trigger a panic attack from which there was no escape. It seemed that Braun was incapable of help. He may, in fact, have added to her panic, as later events show. To dance again seemed unthinkable.
Levitoff and Dandre must have known that at all costs, they must keep the crisis a secret.
Press advertisements continued to announce Spessivtseva’s planned appearances in the last week of the season, beginning on November 24, in which she would dance Swan Lake, Carnaval and Dance of the Hours.
Dandre and Levitoff knew that a statement must be made. The ballerina, they decided, had been injured – a sprained ankle seemed the most believable event. They hinted that she might return to the stage, although this was a lie. (Box office takings had been steadily increasing near the end of the Sydney season and on November 24, J C Williamson issued a press statement emphasising that the public must rush to buy tickets if they were to see the company for the last time. They “would gladly prolong the season ….but the dancers must fulfil Australian engagements and the company will move on to Melbourne next week”.)
Sheltering from the storm in her hotel room, Spessivtseva received messages from her public. One Sydney fan, Grita Mason, wrote to her on November 27 how sorry she was that the dancer had “hurt her leg”.
Nevertheless, on the day the season was to end, November 28, a classified advertisement urged: “Hurry – last night tonight…The Russian Ballet – with Olga Spessiva”.
The next few days were explained and interpreted in four different ways – by the press, by a letter from Algeranoff to his mother, in Anton Dolin’s biography of Spessivtseva and by Spessivtseva herself, in her diary.
On December 1, The Argus in Melbourne reported: “Before the end of the Sydney season the company suffered a severe loss when the first ballerina, Olga Spessiva, sprained her ankle. Mme Spessiva is resting in Sydney and she may not be able to appear again for several weeks. Natasha Bojkovich danced in Mme Spessiva’s place during the last week of the season in Sydney”.
On December 2, Algeranoff wrote to his mother: “We had rather a blow as Spessiva is ill and although it is not known publicly, she’s sailed for Europe. She has promised to rejoin us some months hence when she is better. Bojkovich has stepped nobly into the breach and is doing very well, but of course it’s a worry for M Dandre and will mean a lot of extra work”.
Anton Dolin wrote that Braun took Spessivtseva to the Blue Mountains outside Sydney “for a complete rest”.
But the most reliable account is the diary of Spessivitseva.
“I was taken to a place of rest and my agent Braun decided not to go to India with all the other ballet people”, she wrote. “The doctor transferred me from one home to his own private rest home, with a great big lock on all the doors. They showed it to me, saying that no one would ever come here”.
It seems, then, that her retreat was not a convalescent home or hotel in the Blue Mountains or elsewhere, but a private hospital.
The only private mental hospital in New South Wales at the time was the 130-bed Broughton Hall in Rozelle, Sydney, whose superintendent from 1925 was Dr Sydney Evan Jones. Originally a hospital for returned soldiers, it re-opened in 1921 as a voluntary admission mental health clinic.
Broughton Hall, which cared for patients who wanted to avoid the shame of being certified, offered occupational therapies in the wards and within its large gardens which featured summer houses, fishponds and a small zoo with native animals and birds.
For the Melbourne season, Dandre, Levitoff and J C Williamson were forced to boost the publicity for Natasha Bojkovich who was then labelled “prima ballerina, Royal Theatre, Belgrade”. As well, they highlighted the international aspect of the troupe, which comprised 11 different nationalities.
After a month in Melbourne, during which Bojkovich danced all Spessivtseva’s roles, the company sailed for Western Australia, with their Perth season presented by the theatre promoter, Benjamin Fuller. On January 19, they began their sea journey home, via India.
Spessivtseva and Braun left Sydney just before Christmas 1934, with a nurse from the Red Cross accompanying the dancer on the ship, the RMS Orama that called at Perth on its way to London. Spessivtseva’s diary explains that on board “I was put to bed”.
As the company dispersed in Europe, Spessivtseva rested in Paris and on the Cote d’Azur. She danced once more in Paris and gave her last performance in Buenos Aires in 1937.
With Braun she settled into a leased apartment at 16 Rue Cernushci in the 17th arrondissement. Knowing she could not return to Russia, Spessivtseva tried to shape a new life for herself. She began to compose pieces for the piano and was often seen alone at the Café Flore in St Germain des Pres. She wrote to the English dance historian and bookseller, Cyril Beaumont, asking if he would edit a book of her memoirs.
With the approach of the war, Braun decided that they – or at least he – would be safer back in his home country, the United States. Arriving in New York at the outbreak of war, the couple began a peripatetic existence, moving from hotel to apartment and back to a hotel, before the world of Spessivtseva fell apart completely.
In Anton Dolan’s account of her life at this time, he tells of his visit to Spessivtseva at the Madison Hotel in Manhattan in October 1939. She told him she did not want to go to the United States, but was persuaded by Braun. They discussed Australia. Dolan had danced there in 1938 and planned to return soon. “I have bad souvenir of that place”, she told him.
Dolin believed she spent much of her time lounging in her suite in oriental kimonos and painting in the Japanese style.
From time to time, she travelled to a private hospital outside New York, sojourns that Dolin believed offered her a respite from Braun whom “she had grown to resent, if not to loathe, as another master in a life that had, from the beginning, been crowded with absolute despots”.
Dolin met her again at Christmas 1940 when she was living with Braun at the Salisbury Hotel further uptown.
“There in a darkened room, I found her sitting, by a small easel painting water colours”.
Spessivtseva’s demons had returned. The spies were back, outside the door, and they would poison her, kill her, if they could. All she wanted was to go home to her mother in Russia.
Would Dolan help her by spiriting her away to another hotel?
The next encounter was at the Hotel Roosevelt in the theatre district. This time, she told Dolan, Braun had hit her. She had called for help from the hotel’s doctor. After all, she told him, “I am Giselle, Olga Spessivtseva of the Paris Opera, prima ballerina”.
Dolan and Braun were in the room when the doctor called the ambulance. In Dolan’s account, they were asked to leave the room, when the attendant took her by the arm and forced her into the ambulance. Dolan recalled her saying “Save me, Anton. I am not mad!”
She was taken to the psychiatric wing of Bellevue Hospital, for assessment, until Braun had her transferred to what he euphemistically called a “private sanatorium” – the privately owned Bloomingdale Hospital at White Plains, close to New York City where she spent some part of 1941.
(Fern’s version of events, suggests that her friends called for medical help when Spessivtseva hid herself in a hotel room. “She refused admittance to her friends” he wrote, “She denied she even knew them. Friends intervened. They had to”. She had resented their interference and held “a relentless hostility towards those whose obligation was as inescapable as it was wretchedly unpleasant, as horrendous for them to recall as for her to bear its consequences”.)
In 1942, she was admitted to the gothic Hudson River Asylum for the Insane, (later called the Hudson River State Hospital), in Poughkeepsie, in New York State. Dolan was told that she had screamed for both Braun and Dolan himself when they took here there. Her cries were in vain. By then, Dolin was far away, on a visit to Mexico. Braun had died of a heart attack. In a final blow, he left his entire estate to his sister.
The Hudson River hospital was a dumping ground. Wives would bring in their alcoholic husbands, husbands would bring their troublesome wives, and children would drop off their aging parents. For most inmates, it was a one-way street. Easy to enter, it was very hard to exit, even if the patient had been subjected to a lobotomy.
Fern discovered Spessivtseva’s whereabouts after meeting Nijinsky’s wife, Romola.
Fascinated by a photograph of her as Giselle, he was compelled to find out as much about her as he could. They first met at the Hudson River Hospital in 1949. At the time, she was so withdrawn into her private world that she could not communicate with the staff who knew nothing of her background.
Fern recalled how their conversation rambled over many subjects. She talked of Faberge jewels, Lanvin, syphilis, the Romanovs, Italian opera, Charlie Chaplin and rose diamonds. Spessivtseva asked if she would die at the hospital and told him she might be a descendant of Egyptian royalty. Fern proved to be remarkably devoted, visiting her each week for a decade.
When Dolan was touring the United States, he too, went to see his old dancing partner. He recalled her hospital attire – a cotton dress, black stockings and slippers. Her face was ashen yellow, her hair unkempt and greying. Spessivtseva said she had been tied to the bed and given shock treatment.
Yet, she told Dolan: “I was not so sick”.
Letters written by her sister, Zinaida Papkovich-Spessivtseva, show how anxious she was to return to Russia but despite strenuous efforts, there was no possibility that she could be repatriated.
Fern’s constant care, as well as significant advances in psychiatric care, due to a new class of drugs, eventually meant Spessivtseva was able to recover from her years of torment. In 1962, she was well enough to travel to Manhattan to visit Balanchine, accompanied by Fern and the dancer, Felia Doubrovska, a former classmate of Spessivtseva, now a teacher at the School of American Ballet.
The following year, she was discharged from the Hudson River hospital. Her new home was the Tolstoy Foundation Farm, a rest home for the Russian community founded by Alexandra Tolstoy, the daughter of the novelist, in Nyack, north of Manhattan.
There, she wrote to her sister: “I go to church and during the service my anguish is less strong”.
Spessivtseva died in a cottage on the farm on September 16, 1991, aged 96.
?Among her papers and artefacts, donated by Fern to the New York Public Library, was a silk hand-sewn doll of Nijinsky in his Les Sylphides costume, one of a group of dolls made by her in the 1960s.
In ballet, there are many dolls, among them the three marionettes in Petroushka, the Nutcracker, and the sinister dolls of Dr Coppelius. Like Spessivtseva, some of them dance until they are destroyed, or until they destroy themselves.
“A town in the Balkans was one thing – that was Europe and Europe of course was civilised – but Australia!”
Arnold Haskell, August 1936, before the first Ballets Russes’ tour to Australia
Arnold Haskell stepped onto the platform at Sydney’s Central Railway Station camouflaged as a city gent. Underneath the double-breasted suit, white shirt, Windsor knotted tie and fedora was a man ready for war.
Slight in stature, with a pronounced Adam’s apple, he cultivated a moustache in the style favoured by Errol Flynn. His head sat like a jaunty balloon on his bony frame.
The 33-year-old was a man fighting to protect and promote his boss, the Machiavellian theatrical impresario, Colonel Wassily de Basil.
Haskell’s missions were to sell the idea of ballet to an apathetic Australian public, to act as a spy for de Basil, and to disguise the embarrassing mistakes and near catastrophes that accompanied almost any endeavour of de Basil.
By the time Haskell arrived in Sydney in the summer of 1936, he was adept at dealing with Australia and Australians. Sydney was the third Australian port of call for De Basil’s travelling company, one that been hastily cobbled together in London and sent on its way to Australia on the SS Moldavia.
De Basil himself was not on board. He had sailed instead from London to the United States with his original ballet company leaving Haskell as a spokesman and publicity warrior for the so-called “second company”, one especially crafted for the Australian market.
Voluble, articulate and productive, Haskell bombarded the Australian media with a stream of interviews, speeches and articles that all illuminate the way in which Australia regarded de Basil’s companies and how the dancers, in turn, saw Australia.
A much more revealing guide to the tour of 1936 is a bundle telegrams to and from the London-based and Sydney-based Tait brothers of J C Williamson, the promoters and presenters of de Basil’s Australian tours.
Through the terse and stuttering prose of telegrams – full of demands and instructions interspersed with Stop – it’s clear how the tours eventually came together despite the confusion, random changes in personnel and vicious knife stabbing in the ranks of management.
Miraculously, de Basil’s tours spanning 1936 to 1940 represented more than the sum of their parts. Together, they made a profound impact on Australian culture in the years leading up to the Second World War.
Pavlova had established an appetite for dance in Australia but de Basil’s companies, known by a bewildering variety of names emphasising the word ‘Russes’, did much more, surpassing any dance company that had gone before in the length of time they spent in Australia and the profound impact they made.
The first tour was the longest, an extraordinary nine months, during which the company also visited 11 cities in New Zealand. Two more tours followed, in 1938/9 and 1939/40. These three companies spent so long in Australia that the visiting dancers became de facto residents. Reluctant at first to sail to “Siberia” – as they called it – many were reluctant to leave. Some never did. Those who stayed were vitally important in the development of dance in Australia.
Many Australians fell in love with the dancers who were promoted as glamorous and almost other worldly beings. They saw dozens of shows, they learned, and they became true cognoscenti, not just fans.
Instead of the sweet soufflés presented by Pavlova’s troupe, the Australian audiences were exposed to the shock of the new and they loved it. The revolutionary spirit of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes had come to Australia in the works of such choreographers as Leonide Massine, Michal Fokine and George Balanchine, all of whom had collaborated with Diaghilev.
Here for the first time, was an example of modernism, in the ballets themselves and in the sets designed by the surrealists Joan Miro and Giorgio di Chirico and the cubists, Andre Masson and Juan Gris. Australian artists, composers, photographers and amateur filmmakers were enthralled and inspired.
Donald Friend, Sidney Nolan and the sisters, Kathleen and Florence Martin, were commissioned to design for the visiting companies. Daryl Lindsay and Enid Dickson sketched and painted the dancers, and the composer, Margaret Sutherland, wrote the score for one production.
A precious legacy of the tours is a collection of photographs taken by Max Dupain, the photographer commissioned by the magazine publisher, Sydney Ure Smith to take studio portraits of the dancers. Dupain glamourised the Ballets Russes’ dancers to such an extent that they resembled the stars of Hollywood in the 1930s.
The scale and scope of the Ballets Russes’ tours to Australia were both overly ambitious and foolhardy, especially considering the political climate in which they took place. The first troupe arrived in Adelaide in October 1936, a time when the company’s dancers and managers knew that the landscape of Europe was about to undergo immense political upheavals. At the beginning of November that year, Germany and Italy announced a Rome-Berlin Axis and the following month in Germany, a law was passed making membership of the Hitler Youth compulsory for all boys between 10 and 18.
In 1938/9, during the second Ballets Russes tour to Australia, alarming events unfolded rapidly in Europe, first the Munich Agreement in which the Allies agreed that Germany could have the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia in return for peace, then in November 1938, the Kristallnacht pogrom in which Jewish shops and synagogues were destroyed and 20,000 German and Austrian Jews sent to concentration camps
In March 1939, one month before the departure of the second Ballets Russes company from Australia, Hitler invaded and occupied Czechoslovakia. In September that year, a few months before the third and last tour to Australia, Hitler invaded and occupied Poland after which Britain and France declared war on Germany.
That meant the third company was stranded in Australia. Instead of a planned 10-week season, the dancers and staff remained until September 1940, observing from afar the invasions and occupations of Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France and then Battle of Britain.
In such times, the Ballets Russes’ tours had a soothing and distracting influence on Australia, a nation still recovering from the depression when the first tour began and facing the inevitability of war when the last tour was announced in 1939.
Remarkably, some dancers in that third company sailed to Australia from Europe after the Second World War began, and at a time when passenger liners were already in danger from mines and submarines.
As for de Basil, a man who loved danger and who dodged death more than once, a war was a mere distraction. Money and intrigue came first. The more tension, the more de Basil thrived. A menace behind the wheel, he survived a number of car crashes. The American impresario, Sol Hurok, summed him up as a man with “reckless courage, a stupid courage, compounded of equal parts of stubbornness and sheer bravado”.
Haskell wrote that de Basil’s favourite pastime was playing hide and seek with revolvers during the time he served in the Cossack army. The game involved each officer in turn firing at the others then running behind the nearest tree.
De Basil’s face revealed little and his eyes were hidden behind spectacle lenses as thick as the base of a Bunsen burner. Hurok described him as “a gaunt, cadaver of a man” yet with remnants of a powerful physique that he had shown from the time he was a military policeman in Russia before the Bolshevik revolution.
Born in Lithuania, his real name was Vassily Grigorievich Voskresensky. The ‘colonel’ label was added after his service in the Cossack army led by Lazar Bicherakov. Settling in Paris as a demobilised Russian refugee in 1919, he assumed the name Colonel W. de Basil.
He began his new life driving trucks and selling cars, but two years later de Basil built a springboard for his new life. As a concert agent working as an assistant to Nikolai Zeretelli, nominally a Caucasian prince, he also helped refugee artists find jobs and promoted opera seasons in Paris and London.
De Basil was one of a band of entrepreneurs who built their fame on the reputation of Diaghilev whose death in 1929 was a bullet to the heart of European dance and theatre circles.
Within a year, rumours circulated of a new dance troupe that could fill the gap left by Diaghilev’s company whose last home had been in Monte Carlo.
The first reincarnation came in 1931 when Rene Blum’s Ballet de l’Opera in Monte Carlo merged with the Opera Russe led by both Zeretelli and de Basil, to become the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. This company was led by the balletmaster, George Balanchine and the chief choreographer, Leonide Massine.
From the start, the company was fractured by factions, tensions, resignations and legal wrangles. Balanchine, who went on to become the life force of ballet in the United States, soon left the company, convinced that it over-emphasised a fake Russian identity, that the word ‘Russe’ suggested a stellar but dishonest link with the past and that the company failed to establish its own identity.
It didn’t take long for de Basil to outwit his partner, Blum, who avoided trouble of any kind while de Basil, wrote Hurok, was “one of the most difficult human beings I have ever encountered in a lifetime of management”.
The power struggle ended when Blum quit the partnership to establish his own Les Ballets de Monte Carlo while de Basil created his own company under the name Colonel de Basil’s Ballets Russe. (He loved his name so much that he carried a pocket ruler to measure the size of the words “Col W de Basil” on theatre posters and billboards).
De Basil alienated almost everyone he met. Balanchine held him in contempt as “an octopus…a crooked octopus, and with bad taste”.
But a crooked octopus can’t run a ballet company. What de Basil brought to his enterprise was charm and in his persuasive charm mode, de Basil became “a strange, suave, and impressively dignified man with his alarming, almost sinister occidental aura”, wrote the photographer, Gordon Anthony. “I found his manners so perfect they resembled a piece of antique French furniture”.
His virtues were many. He was patient, energetic, eloquent in three languages – Russian, French and Spanish – an excellent host, a cordon bleu cook and a born organiser.
Yet within his own companies, de Basil was both feared and distrusted. The dancer, Natalia Clare, recalled how “he cried poverty by wearing frayed shirt cuffs (it was said he kept several) or emptying the pockets of his pants. He also resorted abruptly to changing the subject, thereby confusing the dancer. He would bring up many other topics. It took an even more courageous dancer to ask him if they could understudy or dance a role. He would say ‘you are too tall, fat’ or ‘it doesn’t suit you’”.
When it came to signing a contract, “he would sit at a large table placing the contract on the table and then lean forward with the pen in the hand of one long spidery arm while the other arm sort of covered the contract except where the signature was visible. Naive young dancers, eager to dance, would happily sign having no idea what was written”.
Everyone agreed on one thing. De Basil was a schemer.
“He had all the makings of a dictator”, wrote Hurok. “Like Stalin, he was impossible as a collaborator”.
De Basil delighted in surrounding himself with “scheming characters consisting of lawyers, hacks, amateur managers, brokers, without exception third rate people who damaged and destroyed.
“He deliberately engaged this motley crew of hangers on, since his Caucasian Machiavellism was such that he loved to pit them one against the other to use them to build up an operetta atmosphere of cheap intrigue”.
Hurok maintained that de Basil would send the schemers overseas to stir up trouble. These “fussy, busy little cohorts cost him money he did not have and raised such continuous hell that the wonder is the company held together as long as it did. De Basil’s unholy joy would come from creating, through these henchmen, a nasty situation and then stepping in to pull a string here, jerk a cord there, he would save the situation, thus becoming the hero of the moment”.
Arnold Haskell agreed that de Basil had always surrounded himself with “second rate people, amateur impresarios and the like, who helped to create the comic opera atmosphere of Balkan politics, whispering in corners, distracting the dancers and working up cliques where a team was essential”. These conditions meant that many creative collaborators left the company. Creativity dried up and the company lived on revivals.
Two of the ‘little cohorts’ who travelled to Australia in 1936 were Jacques Lidji, a Bulgarian lawyer who the dancers despised and the roly-poly Russian, Alexander Philippof, a former editor of a Russian language journal. Philippof and de Basil were old friends yet they seemed to enjoy a punch up from time to time. De Basil once fractured Philippof’s arm while Philippof, in turn, “cheated de Basil regularly, rather to de Basil’s admiration”, according to the dance historian Kathrine Sorley Walker.
No wonder de Basil needed a third man, a conciliator and spin master, and he found him in Haskell.
A self confessed dilettante, Haskell gravitated to the theatre. His mother was artistic, his father a wealthy banker. An only child, he was educated at Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied law but failed to complete his degree.
Haskell’s first job as a reader at William Heinemann in London led to his career as an author and dance critic. Pop culture, he considered beneath him. His list of dislikes included what he called psychological novels, jazz, swing, crooning, tap dancing, comic strips, psychoanalysts, red lacquered fingernails and musical comedies.
Haskell was the epitome of the word he coined – balletomane. The world of ballet appealed to him in so many ways. Beautiful on the outside, it was on the inside, a labyrinth of political intrigue. When he sat front of house, Haskell could revel in the aesthetics. Slipping behind the curtain he could investigate the tensions, byzantine feuds and gossip.
His knowledge of life backstage was in conflict with his role as a critic. Haskell knew too much and wielded too much influence over the dancers.
He enjoyed his power. An Australian journalist noticed how his “sharp pen cuts though the ballet world like a knife, sometimes a caressing but always a keen blade. Exact, firm, and just, he is generous in his opinions and sometimes devastating. …I admire him for his courage”.
Haskell told the writer, “It’s not what I write about these artists that worries them. It is what I say about their rivals that unsettles their frail equilibrium like some earthquake”.
Haskell was already a ballet obsessive when he met de Basil at a party held in honour of Tamara Toumanova, one of three teenage dancers Haskell had labelled “the baby ballerinas”.
When he travelled with de Basil’s company to the United States in 1933, Haskell learned his marketing strategies by observing Hurok who presented the company in the United States throughout the 1930s.
Hurok was tireless, Haskell remembered. “Wherever we went newspapers were fed with material, clubs and organisations were given talks and lectures and the way was prepared not only for that season but for the future”.
Haskell joined de Basil’s staff without a salary or any well-defined position. He turned his hand to anything and everything, from programme articles, to taking care of feuding ballet mothers, to sorting out squabbles, to taking notes during performances and attending conferences and auditions.
It’s not surprising that de Basil recruited Haskell for the Australian venture. Months before the touring company arrived it was clear that trouble lay ahead for both de Basil and the Tait brothers of J C Williamson.
In July 1936, three months before the company arrived in Australia, cables to and from Nevin Tait in London and his brothers back in Australia reveal deep cracks in the fault lines.
The company itself was not the one that had danced to acclaim in London, but a cobbled together troupe that grew out of the ashes of a company founded in 1934 by Leon Woizikowsky who had once danced for de Basil.
When Woizikowsky’s ballet company ended in bankruptcy about 20 of his dancers formed the nucleus of de Basil’s second company, one that was supplemented by dancers from Rene Blum’s Ballets de Monte Carlo and some who were railroaded from the main de Basil company. They had just three weeks to rehearse 22 ballets before sailing to Australia.
Some resented their secondment into the new enterprise but their voices were weak in comparison to the strength of the management. De Basil made sure that his contracts with dancers were restrictive. A contract signed by one dancer in the new company – Harold Essex, known as Algeranoff – sets out his payment as 32 pounds a month. He received only half that rate before performances began in Australia. De Basil stipulated that dancers would not be paid when they were travelling by sea and that they had no rights to object to any role or place assigned to them. Disciplinary fines would be given if they were late for classes, rehearsals and performances, or for ‘faulty execution’.
In rehearsal and class, men had to wear black trousers, white shirts, white stockings and white dancing shoes while the women had only one choice of dress, a black Greek tunic. No smoking, drinking alcohol or gambling could take place in any theatre.
Haskell took a keen interest in the new troupe, watching rehearsals at the ballroom of the Tavistock Hotel in the Covent Garden.
As Haskell scuttled to and from his old stamping ground, the Royal Opera House in the Covent Garden Piazza to the hotel, some of the dancers told him they dreaded going to Australia, fearing it might still be a ‘penal settlement’. One dancer thought that Australia was populated by ‘savages’.
De Basil’s splinter group, known to the dancers as the Kangarussky Ballet, feared that they were going to the wilderness. Haskell summed up their resentment: “Going to a town in the Balkans was one thing – that was Europe and Europe of course was civilised – but Australia!”
Haskell was almost as ignorant. He knew that Sydney had a bridge and beaches, that the beaches were infested by sharks, that Don Bradman was the most famous Australian and that “kangaroos abound and so do ostriches”.
Back in Australia, the Taits’ publicity machine was in full throttle. The locals were told that the dancers soon to sail for Australia had performed to great acclaim at Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House in the northern summer of 1936, and they were Russian.
A few weeks before the new company sailed, the London-based correspondent for the Daily Telegraph in Sydney explained to his readers that “the most important ballet company to visit Australia since Pavlova was here will leave London on conclusion of the present ballet season at Covent Garden Opera House”. (1)
The dancers were not at the Opera House but rehearsing in the Tavistock’s ballroom.
The Sydney Morning Herald, in turn, told a triple lie, that the company bound for Australia had already appeared in most European cities, had twice toured the United States and had enjoyed two successive seasons in Britain.
A fuselage of press reports stressed the Russian nature of the company. Headlines included: “Intimate Glimpses of Russian Ballet Stars” and “The Russian Ballet Dancing Their Way to Sydney.”
The passports of the dancers told a different story. A minority were Russian with the remainder from Britain, Canada, France, Denmark, Latvia, Rumania, Yugoslavia and Poland.
Of the four principals, two were Russian – Valentina Blinova and her husband, Valentin Froman – while Helene Kirsova was Danish and Woizikovsky was Polish.
Every dancer with an Anglo-Saxon name was masquerading as a Russian. Those travelling on British passports included Gladys Godby who became Nina Golovina, Pamela Cater who was re-named Xenia Kalinowska, Lelia Russell who was given the surname Roussova, Annette Stafford-Northcote (Anna Severska), and Betty Scorer (Elisabeth Souvorova). The Canadian dancer, Mary Wilson-Williams was billed as Olga Valevska and the American, Madeleine Parker, was Mira Dimina.
Even a competent manager might have trouble in herding such a multinational assembly of egos, but in the hands of Lidji, who was officially the company director, and Philippof, officially “Colonel de Basil’s representative”, it was an impossible task.
Haskell knew his role was to keep the peace between the two men whose specific duties were a mystery to both of them.
As well, neither Lidji nor Philippof new of a third manager, Daphne Deane, an Australian dancer who had spent the last six years drifting between London and Paris, launching drama and dance ventures before she latched on to de Basil in Monte Carlo in 1932. The trio of managers, all completely befuddled and all in competition with one another, created such mayhem that the SS Moldavia became a comical ship of fools.
The voyage began at the end of August when the managers and dancers gathered at London’s St Pancras Station. The summer rain pelted down as de Basil and Nevin Tait handed out farewell gifts, chocolates for the women and cigarettes for the men. The touring group took the train to Tilbury and from there boarded the SS Moldavia, their home for the next five weeks.
Haskell joined them in Marseilles and began at once to keep a diary that reveals the constant bickering on board. Not long into the voyage, he wrote, “Lidji tried to give an order to one of the dancers and was told to shut up, but in much stronger language. There were some tough Polish boys in the company and it nearly led to a brawl. As a result Lidji rushed to the wireless office for a clear statement of his position as joint director, followed a few minutes later by Philippoff. This became a daily routine as de Basil refused to commit himself”.
Haskell took pride in being a disinterested observer who held the balance of power. He conducted business meetings in one of the ship’s bars and was amused to see “the whole ship” take an interest in the meetings and who loved to take sides in the disputes.
The dancers rehearsed every day from 9am to noon in a roped-off section on the top deck. Curiosity drew the passengers to the sidelines. At first they resented the loss of the deck space but as the days went by the passengers were entranced. Now they were fans, reserving deck chairs to get the best up-front view of class and rehearsals.
Haskell’s diary notes, and letters written home to the dancers’ families, describe the ebb and flow of shipboard life, how the heat seeped into their bodies and the sun burned their pale skin, how they played deck tennis and quoits and, in the evening, poker. Haskell liked to watch Woizikovsky play poker with his wife Helene and a group Haskell called “Woizikovsky’s ex-wives”. And at night on the boat deck he luxuriated in “the most glorious singing of Russian tsigane songs, accompanied by the balalaika”.
The Moldavia sailed into the outer harbour of Freemantle on 6 October. A cluster of photographers and reporters clambered on board. In the words of one journalist “gaiety was the keynote of the assemblage of the Russian Ballet Company”.
The liner rounded the Great Australian Bight, then, a few days before the ship berthed at Port Adelaide, the passengers were thrilled to witness a final melodrama when the excitable dancer, Froman, threatened to throw his wife, Blinova, overboard.
Betty Scorer wrote to her mother: “There has been a terrific to do. Blinova has finally left Froman – he tried to throw her into the sea from the boat, but Leon [Woizikowsky] stopped him. He then went to her cabin and threw all her clothes out of the porthole, silver foxes, jewels and all”.
On October 10, 1936, the dancers stepped ashore in Adelaide to be greeted by Ted Tait who then sent a cable to Nevin in London: “Ballet arrived all serene”.
Haskell, however, was far from serene. On the drive from Port Adelaide to the city he found Australia drab and tired, in “her very worst clothes”.
Depressed at the thought of being trapped for months he saw a billboard advertising the ballet tour. It seemed, he thought, completely out of place. Ballet in Australia?
Haskell silently asked himself: “Who will go or understand?”
(1) Kerwin Maegraith, Sydney Mail, December 30, 1936
(2) Telegraph, August 28, Neil Murray in London, September 16, 1936
(3) Wherever Deane went there was trouble. Her role was so ill defined that numerous legal battles followed in her wake, despite her skill at self publicity. In an article published in Australia before the tour, Deane was said to be “working with the de Basil company ever since its inception”. She would be “shepherding the company to Australia”. (Daily Telegraph, August 28, 1936). Not so much “shepherding” it turned out as clinging to a vague commitment that de Basil had made to Deane. She claimed she acted for de Basil in negotiating one of his company’s seasons in London and when she was not paid commission, took legal action against him. De Basil disputed the claim. When he met her in Monte Carlo, she had told him of her grand plan to get important Australians to guarantee him a season in Australia. This, however, had come to nothing and he had set up the London season himself.
By 1936, Deane was back on board the de Basil enterprise, having wrangled from Nevin Tait an advance for her fare to Australia.
Before and during the tour of Australia, Deane claimed? that she negotiated the tour, had selected both the repertoire and stars, and that the ballerina, Helene Kirsova, was her protégée.
“I feel sure that in time to come, Australia, a country with so much sunshine and natural beauty will develop a ballet of its own.” — Leon Woizikovsky, principal dancer, Ballets Russes, February 1937
Arthur Allen, Ted Tait, Allen’s staff and Ballets Russes dancers at Port Hacking, January 1937
Ted Tait slumped in his seat at Adelaide’s Theatre Royal. If one day in his life represented the essence of his nickname – ‘Agitate’ – this was it. The previous night, dressed in his usual working attire of singlet and trousers, he toiled at his desk until 11pm. And now he was condemned to watch a dress rehearsal for the first performance of the Ballets Russes in Australia, a company managed by a couple of Russians who couldn’t speak one word of English.
Ted Tait’s day began with some disturbing news. Two newspaper articles confirmed his worst fears, that the Russian troupe touring Australia was not, as they had promoted, “direct from Covent Garden”, but a masquerade. In the gloom of the theatre Tait knew the extent of de Basil’s lies. A company “direct from Covent Garden”? Rubbish. The original backcloth for Les Sylphides? Another lie. Tait thought it looked as if it was pulled from a basket where it spent spent the last 20 years growing mould. And how many bosses did this company need? More managers than dancers, he grumbled. No one seemed to be in charge. Tait turned to glare at Haskell. He didn’t like the look of him either. Haskell looked sinister, all forehead Tait thought and no chin. “I don’t think much of your scenery”, Tait barked. Haskell was prepared for Australian aggression. In his silkiest manner, he explained that the set for Les Sylphides was created by one of Diaghilev’s great collaborators and admired all over the world. “It looks like it”, Tait replied, “and dipped into the seven seas as well”.
If he knew what lay ahead, Tait might have cancelled the tour there and then. The next nine months would mean sleepless nights as Tait battled with his brothers, the ballet’s managers, a company engaged in personal warfare between both husbands and wives and rebellious Polish dancers who despised one another. Tait loathed Haskell on day one, but he would soon rely on his uncanny ability to flip a potential disaster into a public relations coup. He stayed in Australia for the first four months of the nine-month tour but he didn’t waste all his time wrangling the rebels and malcontents.
Haskell soon established a network of wealthy friends who eased him into the leather armchairs of gentlemen’s clubs in three cities, the Adelaide Club, the Union Club in Sydney and the Athanaeum in Melbourne. He wrote many articles and reviews during the tour but his words revealed little of Australian culture or politics at the time. More reliable accounts of both the tour and the nation in the 1930s can be found elsewhere, in letters written home by the dancers. Here, among their everyday news, their gossip and grumbles were insights into the lingering impact of British imperialism as it brushed against national pride in both Australia and New Zealand. One letter written by Betty Scorer to her mother described the ballet company’s visit to Rotorua in New Zealand. There, in the garden of a school, she saw “a totem pole covered with terrifying faces with teeth, and on top, a plaster bust of Queen Victoria with the order of the garter complete and painted blue.” (1)
Scorer was just as surprised to see a precursor of war, the many battleships crowded into Wellington’s harbour.
Her letters ridiculed Australians as either naïve or provincial. She laughed at the locals’ efforts to mark the coronation of King George VI. The celebrations, she thought, were “funny, cheap and silly”. (2) The disconnect between Britain and ‘colonial’ Australia at the time was later described by the author, David Malouf: “If there was a disease at the heart of colonial life, it was the haunting suspicion that nothing here was quite real”. It was only outside Australia “that the world was solid and experience authentic and real”. The Anglophile politician, Robert Menzies, found this to be so when he first visited England for the silver jubilee of the former king, George V. There, he found happiness in the way that England could “move the souls of those who go ‘home’ to a land they have never seen”.
Yet while Menzies rejoiced, something was stirring in Australia – a new, if tentative, wave of nationalism, evident in both politics and the arts. In 1935, all Australian states and territories adopted the words “Australia Day” to mark the celebrations of 26 January and in the same year, the writer, Vance Palmer, suggested that Australians must “discover ourselves – our character, the character of our country, the particular kind of society that has developed here”.
In 1937, Angus & Roberston published a collection of 20 one-act plays by Australian authors, among them Katherine Susannah Prichard, Louis Eason and Miles Franklin but mainstream theatre clung to a conservative path. The lingering effects of the Depression meant fewer new shows, more revivals and more sure-fire box office productions like the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. Of all the performing arts, dance was the most timid in cutting the ties that bound Australia with mother England. The London-based teaching organisations despatched ballet missionaries to Australia. Felix Demery, a teacher for the Royal Academy of Dancing, first toured Australia in 1935 and returned two years later to conduct examinations and award scholarships for further study in England. During an Australian tour, two years later, Edouard Espinosa, the British Ballet Organisation’s examiner and co-founder, boasted that English ballet dancers were better than those in any other country. Nevertheless, he told a reporter (at The Sydney Mail) he had plans for an Australian ballet company and would love to stage his work Pro Patria, which “showed the unity of the British Empire”.
Such bumble-footed attempts by the visitors to co-opt the locals were common. During the first Ballets Russes tour, the dancer, Leon Woizikovsky, told the press he was thinking of creating a ballet based on Australian colonial scenes and the life of Governor Macquarie. The company’s excursion to New Zealand in 1937 inspired a Maori scenario. In this ballet, the men would be the canoes, and the women would row on their backs through “imaginary waters, indicating the first arrival of Maoris in New Zealand”. The ballet would link romance and history with hakas and poi dances interwoven with the “acrobatics of Russia”. (3)
It was all just talk. Australia, for the most part, was still the exporter of talent, not the nurturer. Asked whether he had found any outstanding dancers in Australia, Woizikovsky replied: “I regret to say no, there is a lack of tuition and proper training. People, however, are very eager to learn. The demand for such tuition is so great that a small study group, which was organised here by myself, is attended by a number of aspiring dancers. I feel sure that in time to come, Australia, a country with so much sunshine and natural beauty, will develop a ballet of its own.” (4)
Woizikovsky was not the only company member entranced by the beauty of Australia. Sailing away from grey skies and crowded continents, the dancers found respite during the summer of 1936/37, from the parks of Adelaide, to the wild flowers in the mountains, from the beaches of Sydney to the immensity of the Blue Mountains and the red and blue parrots at Jervis Bay. The flora and fauna of Australia were as alien and weirdly beautiful to the dancers, as the dancers themselves were an exotic attraction to Australians. At the time, Australia’s marsupials and primary coloured flowers were one of the nation’s main points of difference within the British Commonwealth and were symbolically represented on Australian stages.
In Pageant of Empire, a show staged in honour of George VI’s coronation, the Sydney ballet teacher, Frances Scully, dressed 40 students in costumes depicting the fauna of Australia, among them gumnuts, waratahs, and flannel flowers. Scully’s star student, Audrae Swayn, danced a solo as Wattle. A year later, she sailed to England to further her career. For most ballet dancers who wanted a professional career, there were only two options – travel abroad to study, or stay in Australia and dance in revues that headlined comedians and magicians.
The novelty of welcoming an internationally acclaimed ballet company to Australia meant that both Haskell and local journalists could indulge in a fantasy description of a dancer’s life. The Advertiser’s reporter, Elizabeth George, explained that “the ballet lives in a kind of enchanted world of its own…[in a] spirit of happy and simple comradeship”. In an article headlined How We Live in the Ballet, written under the byline, Helene Kirsova, the dancers’ daily diet was described as “black coffee and a slice of toast for breakfast, bouillon and fruit for lunch, and nothing before the evening show except coffee”. In a report of a cocktail party for the female principals and soloists, held the day before the opening night, The Advertiser described each dress and every hat, from berets and tam o’shanters to a Breton sailor hat, although the fashion highlight of the party was Kirsova’s handbag designed in the shape of a football, in pale pink soft leather with a zip fastener.
Although the Ballets Russes was publicised as an ensemble rather than a cluster of stars backed by a corps, the names of leading dancers were used to promote products that promised either beauty or good health. Kirsova was recruited by a cosmetic company claiming “Mlle Kirsova uses and recommends Mercolized Wax, the world famous face cream, and also the Dearborn cosmetics”. In a Ballets Russes’ tour of Australia 18 months later, the ballerina, Irina Baronova, endorsed Paul Duval Personalised Cosmetics and De Reszke cigarettes that were “ideally suited to people like myself who must always keep perfectly fit and well”.
The illusion of beauty, glamour and robust health was far removed from the prosaic reality of life in post-Depression Australia, but the excitement of an international troupe of highly promoted dancers ignited a spark of middle class snobbery. Just before the tour began, Adelaide critics and music lovers lobbied the South Australian government to add a Ballets Russes’ visit to the list of events that would celebrate the State’s centenary year. The lobbying succeeded. For the Adelaide season the South Australian government bought 500 seats at a 50 per cent discount from J C Williamson, sparking an outrage in the press when word got out that the tickets would be free to a favoured few, including knights and those with the title “Honourable”. Why should the wealthy and well connected get complimentary tickets when the workers had no chance of such a gift? Letters to the local papers painted a dismal picture of the battlers and the “the diggers or widows of diggers”, who were living on rations, or reduced to “living in fowl houses”. The storm blew over, largely due to the persuasive tactics of Ted Tait and Haskell.
Despite the controversy, the premiere of the Ballets Russes’ season on October 13 was acclaimed as a runaway success. A review in The Advertiser, co-written by the dance teacher, Joanne Priest and the music critic, H. Brewster Jones, was headlined “Brilliant Premiere of the Ballet”. The Theatre Royal had “seldom seen such a colourful setting”. The auditorium was bedecked with flowers and coloured lights, and, along with the Vice Regal party, were “lots of sirs and ladies”, the South Australian Premier, Richard Butler, many members of the Bonython family and Robert Helpmann’s mother and sister.
The performance began with three ballets choreographed by Michel Fokine, Les Sylphides, Scheherazade and Spectre de la Rose, followed by Leonide Massine’s La Boutique fantasque. Priest singled out Kirsova for her performance in Les Sylphides and Igor Youskevitch for both Spectre and Les Sylphides. But the dancer who attracted the most acclaim was Woizikovsky who electrified the house with his performance as the Golden Slave in Scheherazade. Archival film footage of the company reveals how each of the principal dancers cultivated a distinct stage personality – there was no mistaking one for another. The dancers engaged with the audience with an overabundance of gesture and exaggerated upper body movements that today, would be seen as embarrassingly affected. As for their technique, the dancers could turn like tops but they sacrificed finesse and elegance for showmanship.
Critical reaction to the Adelaide season ranged from lightweight to erudite. The Australian premiere of Massine’s ballet, Les Presages raised the bar, inspiring debate and later scholarly essays, but at the other end of the scale, Smith’s Weekly, in June 1937, dismissed Swan Lake as “a slight ballet, negligible both in Tchaikowski’s music and Petipa’s choreography”. The critic for the weekly magazine, The Bulletin, was not afraid to dismiss Le Carnaval as inclined to drag and “danced against a severely plain background” (5), was unimpressed by Petrouchka, a ballet that “fell flat despite the missionary educational efforts of Mr Haskell” (6) and who ridiculed Balanchine’s Cotillon, describing the setting as drably bare, the effects as tawdry and the male dancer’s waistcoat a disaster that looked as though it might burst open in an “embarrassment never before witnessed on stage or off it”. As for the set “even Sydney’s night life is hardly more desolate”. (7) In Swan Lake “the lighting was bad, uniformly drab, and dark… it would need an enthusiastic imagination to see beauty in the cardboard figure of a solitary and very ordinary swan being dragged slowly across the stage by a colourless piece of canvas intended, presumably, to represent a lake – the designer could have got pointers from the ducks at any shooting gallery”. (8) The Argus critic ridiculed L’apres midi d’un faun, finding its erotic theme ‘foreign’ to the music and the profile poses in bas-relief alien to the spirit of the modern ballet and the Russian tradition. (9)
The most damning review of the tour came during the company’s Sydney season. The critic for Wireless Weekly, (by-lined JSP), dismissed the dancers as “dress rehearsing some of their roles in public and many were hardly better than good amateurs. The lack of precision in the ensemble work of the corps de ballet had frequently spoilt some of the best effects, though obscurantist critics led public opinion skilfully away from this essential weakness. The orchestra rarely rose above the level of a rehearsal…and many strange things happened with the décor. I will pass over Les Sylphides, about which a successful ‘see Australia first’ ballyhoo was worked up to substitute a back cloth of white gums trees for the tattered rags that served as scenery. Derain would have shuddered to see the backcloth of La Boutique fantasque; and whatever happened to his front cloth that that Diaghilev used for this ballet?” (10)
As for the drama backstage, not a word leaked out to the press of the friction within the touring company but cables and letters between London and Australia reveal an enterprise teetering on the edge of disaster. One of the earliest cables sent by the Tait brothers in Australia to Nevin Tait in London described the ballet company’s décor as ‘unsatisfactory’ and the managers as “absolutely impossible obstructing every reasonable effort…” (11)
In Adelaide, the Taits were so unnerved they planed to buy out the management altogether, but the idea was dropped as they lacked access to de Basil’s financial records and future commitments. Lidji was the biggest problem, infuriating Ted Tait. In October 1936 Tait threatened to shoot Lidji with an antique pistol he kept in his office. As he held the gun, he yelled: “Get the hell out of here. If you’re not out of here by the time I count five I’ll shoot you in the pants.” Lidji bolted.
While the dancers distrusted de Basil, the man they really loved to hate was Lidji. Soon after the Adelaide season opened, Scorer wrote to her mother: “Lidji our Jewish general manager and Philipoff too, I suppose, have tried to do the dirty on us over our salaries and are insisting that the money we signed for was Australian pounds which means losing 5 pounds a month and getting a perfectly ludicrous salary, however as he has refused to let us even look at our contracts, we know it is all hanky panky. And Miss Deane and the Australian management are going to create a fearful scandle (sic). (12) (By mid November, the salaries were settled. They were to be paid in Australian currency at the rate of £A26 a month.)
In his role as umpire Haskell extinguished the fires when he could and cultivated a circle of wealthy Australians who made his life more comfortable while also helping him promote de Basil’s company. The door to those networks opened on the first day of the tour when Haskell met James Hay Gosse, a pillar of Adelaide society, the managing director of George Wills & Co. Ltd and a director of Adelaide Steamship Co. Ltd, the Bank of Adelaide, and News Ltd. As the two men shook hands, Gosse told Haskell: “You have a letter of introduction to Ernest Watt of Sydney. Since you won’t be there for some time he has asked me to look after you. If you’d care to come now and spend a family Sunday with us I would be delighted”. As Haskell wrote, “Mr Gosse’s friendship brought me the freedom of Adelaide, and reached far beyond the borders of South Australia … He introduced me to Australian life, and, that very first morning, to Australian wine”. (13)
The avuncular Gosse was a member of five gentlemen’s clubs among them the Adelaide Club where he lunched each day. Wherever Gosse went, a party was sure to follow. As he raised his glass, he would beam at his guests always making his favourite toast, ‘On we go!’
Gosse’s connections led Haskell to Watt, a pastoralist, businessman and amateur actor, and the publisher Sydney Ure Smith whose two publications, Art in Australia and Home, had been partly financed by Watt.
Haskell wrote gushingly of Ure Smith as an “institution, a master propagandist, a born diplomat, and an intellectual” whose “value to Australia was incalculable”. Ure Smith’s main value to Haskell was Home, subtitled The Australian Journal of Quality. The monthly published a tsunami of articles on the visiting Ballets Russes and its glamorous dancers, many written by Haskell. In February 1937, the magazine’s special ‘Russian Ballet Number’ included a hagiographic article on de Basil by Haskell, and an article by Basil Burdett, another important link in the Haskell chain of control. Burdett was a former associate editor of Art in Australia but by 1936 was the art and dance critic of the Melbourne newspaper, the Herald. He was close to the Herald’s proprietor, Sir Keith Murdoch, who later commissioned Burdett to curate an exhibition of European modernist art. Murdoch, a director of Art in Australia from the early 1930s, was the most powerful figure in the Haskell network. A close friend of the artist, Daryl Lindsay, he was the link that brought Haskell into the orbit of the Lindsay family. When the ballet company moved from Adelaide to Melbourne, Haskell befriended Daryl Lindsay whose first sketches of the ballet company’s dancers appeared in Home magazine’s November 1936 issue.
Three weeks after the ballet company moved to Melbourne, Haskell was a house guest at Lindsay’s home at Mulberry Hill, at Baxter, about 50 kilometres from the centre of Melbourne. A month later, the dancers themselves were guests at Mulberry Hill. Lindsay became an outrider for the ballet company’s publicity, with his drawings of the dancers attracting much press coverage when his exhibitions were staged in the foyer of His Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne in December 1936 and the following month, in the Theatre Royal, in Sydney. (14)
While Lindsay was emotionally drawn to the ballet and the dancers, the photographer, Max Dupain saw his own role in promoting the Ballets Russes as simply a business commission. Nevertheless, he brought artistry to the assignment. His photos were dynamic and their physicality emphasised his interest in the body beautiful. The ballet company arrived one year before Dupain shot the photograph that would become his most famous, Sunbaker, one that emphasised muscularity and the line of the body. (15) The sensual photographs by Dupain along with Lindsay’s delicate, Degas-like drawings, the glowing reports in Home, and the proselytising articles by Haskell, reinforced the impact in Australia of the Ballets Russes dancers and their repertoire.
The opening night in Melbourne’s His Majesty’s Theatre followed the standard triple bill formula of Les Sylphides, Scheherazade, and Aurora’s Wedding, while the next triple bill program, was bookended by Massine’s Les Presages and La Boutique fantasque. The audience reception to Les Presages proved that Melburnians were not afraid of ballet modernism. In his Home review, Burdett saw its success as evidence of “a receptive and eager public here for new ideas in the arts” while The Argus critic was entranced with the “callisthenic abstraction [that] roused audience to a pitch of frenzy”. (16)
In Melbourne, the dancers were overwhelmed with party invitations not only from the wealthy and socially ambitious audience but also from the artistic circles of the city. An after-work haven for the dancers Helene Kirsova and Leon Woizikovsky was the newly opened Café Petrushka at 144 Little Collins Street, run by Minka Wolman and Jessie Sumner as a hideaway for writers like Jim Crawford, Hal Porter and Burdett, designers such as William Constable, the artists George Bell, William Dargie, Albert Tucker, Justus Jorgenson and Max Meldrum, and the newspaper proprietor, Theodore Fink. (17)
Every Sunday, the dancers were entertained by the Melbourne ophthalmologist, Dr J. Ringland Anderson, an amateur cinematographer whose films of the visiting Ballets Russes’ troupes remain a lasting record of the tours. The dancer, Tamara Tchinarova, captured the essence of Ringland Anderson as “lively as a cricket and as enthusiastic as an 8 year old looking at his first magic spectacle. He ran from the dress circle to the Gods and from the Gods to the boxes and from the boxes backstage; we could hear his presence by the brrrr of his camera”.
Such generosity tamed even the sarcasm of Scorer who wrote to her mother: “The last ten days in Melbourne were quite incredible. We attended altogether twenty-three parties during that time, & everybody in Melbourne appears to be quite broken up at our leaving -many of our friends were in tears at the station! Really we have met & become friends with some charming people … I felt really sorry to leave”. (18)
When the company left Spencer Street Station on 23 December the fans jumped onto the platform seats, waved their hats and showered their favourite dancers with flowers, champagne and Australiana gifts. Kirsova had arrived at the station carrying bouquets and an inflatable rubber kangaroo, a gift from the ushers at His Majesty’s Theatre. The dancers had only three days, including Christmas Day, to prepare for their Sydney opening on Boxing Day. Haskell had gone ahead to Sydney, settling in to one of the best clubs of the city where he wrote in his diary: “I have everything a man could desire – company, when I want it, a well-stocked and quiet library, with the deepest of armchairs, and, of course, excellent food”. (19)
Over Christmas and New Year, Haskell temporarily escaped the in-fighting and sulking within the company management but was alert to future dangers. The Polish dancers, Woizikovsky and Hoyer, remained at war while Lidji and Philipoff “found it quite impossible to agree in spite of the box office success. And to complicate matters their agent, a woman, [Daphne Deane] was at loggerheads with both of them and spoiling for a row. All three viewed me with marked suspicion…I liked them singly and was completely disgusted with them en masse”. Haskell knew that the Taits were sending daily cables to de Basil in the United States in a futile effort to find out whether Lidji or Philopoff was in charge. The cables, and letters written by Ted Tait to his brothers, reveal the near disintegration of the tour.
Their correspondence started calmly enough in November when Ted advised his brother, Frank, that the ballet took £2825 for six performances in the first week of Melbourne. This was nowhere near enough: “We would have taken £4000 on the week if not for Cup Week and the distractions of the public”, he wrote.
Nevertheless, Ted was pleased that JCW had not bought out de Basil in Adelaide, as Frank had earlier suggested. (20) But a few days later, in a cable to de Basil, Ted fumed that Lidji was creating “impossible difficulties”. (21) Feeling the pressure, Ted left his Sydney office in Williamson House, next to the Theatre Royal, to retreat to The Chalet at Mount Buffalo, where he wrote a long and querulous letter to Frank. The ballet had been “a nightmare for work and worry… I have had so much trouble in trying to get and keep the administration of de Basil in harmony with us and with Miss Deane who can help us a little, and very little at that…I have had endless trouble with Phil and Lidji. They are an ignorant pair of sycophants, cunning and very dangerous. They talk in Russian in front of me with masked faces. When I have Phil and Daughter [Olga Philipoff] to discuss matters I think I have reached agreement but when Phil and Lidji get together I get a different answer.
“I sent a cable to de Basil on Friday at Philipoff’s request that I could work with Phil but that Lidji was impossible and injuring the box office. On Saturday night I had two long sessions with Phil and Daughter and again thought I had some finality before I left for Sydney…
“My opinions are that both Phil and Lidji are incompetent and know nothing about theatre business. They are liars and cheats. There is a seething volcano of discontent backstage over the contracts. The members are being diddled. Lidji is short paying every artist owing to the devaluation of the franc. No artist appears to have their duplicate of their contract. They were signed in London in triplicate. Philipoff was to hand them copies on the boat, he has side tracked every request on the boat, in Adelaide and now in Melbourne…I went to Adelaide and made one or two friends. One is Kirsova, she is paid 15/- a week, Blinova, 16/-.
Neither dancer had duplicates of their contracts.
“I am advising Kirsova on how to get hers. And I’ll send it to you… with an authority to inspect the original in London which will not coincide with the copy if all I hear is correct.
We are dead lucky to have Haskell who is a tower of help to me. Keith Murdoch is being wonderful and he accepted 4 compts [complimentary tickets] last Saturday and I put his party in the Vice Regal Reserve. Did he fall? I’ll say he did. He has invited me to dine with himself and his executive when I return next week. Business, Monday night £360. Not good enough – I am still a bit scared. The public for ballet is limited and eight weeks is a long season for Melbourne”. (22)
Ted Tait, the most practical of all the Tait brothers, was also the most anxious. Molehills became mountainous and his mood flicked from fidgety to furious. Tait’s tantrums were legendary and his brothers were often the target of his anger, yet he often softened the harshness of his letters with a self-mocking sign off: “Your crazy, intemperate brother”. No one knew his mood swings more than Enid Bedford, his secretary for 35 years. Stoic in the face of his outbursts and eccentricities she sat with her head bowed over her shorthand notebook even when he dictated letters while peeing into a washbasin in the corner of his office. (23)
Twelve days after he wrote to Frank from Mount Buffalo, Tait suffered a double disaster when his elder daughter, Jessie, wife of the newspaper cartoonist Jim Bancks, died in childbirth on November 22 in a private hospital in Sydney. The same day, Madeleine Parker, a dancer in the touring company, died in Adelaide of leukaemia. (24) The deaths came one month before the company travelled from Melbourne to Sydney. That meant Tait was still grieving for his daughter when he was catapulted into the worst month of his theatre life – January 1937.
Ted Tait spent much of the Sydney season in the theatre’s green room where he smoked near a sign: “Smoking Prohibited, E J Tait”. He spoke to the Russians in the only two phrases he knew in their language: “I love you” and “go to the devil”. The first night reviews were positive, with special praise for Guerard, Woizikovsky, Kirsova, Blinova, and Youskevitch, although Haskell, with his eye on a publicity opportunity, wrote that Les Sylphides was “competent enough but with unsatisfactory décor, primitively lit. I suggest to the Russians to scrap it…why not give us a background of white gums?” Haskell’s gimmick worked. A day after his review was published, the Daily Telegraph sent a photographer to snap the dancers posing by some gum trees, while a reporter asked for comment from Philipoff, Woizkovsky, Kirsova, the conductor, Jascha Horenstein, Ted Tait and Sydney Ure Smith. They all loved the idea, of course.
Not content with the gum tree angle, the editor asked the Telegraph’s cartoonist, Lenny Lower, for his input. Published the following day on page one, Lower suggested an Aussie menagerie might be added to the Sylphides’ setting: “A nest of bullants on stage so everyone could get home earlier. A few black snakes might help too, what about a corroboree too and a gum leaf band. It would take the spectators’ minds off the ballet. It is almost impossible to watch those ballerinas standing on one toenail with the other raised in the air and convince your wife that you are more interested in the music.”
In the next few days, Haskell stepped up his publicity whirlwind, writing articles on the lack of decent theatres in Sydney and telling the guests at a Legacy Club lunch that he was not sure if “ballet girls” needed to be intelligent. (This drew a sharp response from the Sydney dance teacher, Misha Burlakov who replied: “The greater the intelligence, the more chance she has of becoming a great artist”). In the Sunday Sun and Guardian magazine Haskell praised the youngest dancers in the ballet company, the 16 to 18 year olds, and suggested audiences should keep their eyes on Tchinarova, Sonia Woizikovska, Vassileva, Bondireva, Grossen, Scarpa and Russova. He knew the anger this would create and couldn’t resist adding that “the star veterans of 30 or over will be furious as they read this. Who would be a ballet critic? A dangerous life…”
Haskell acknowledged the hazards later when he wrote in his memoir, Dancing Around the World, that “being closely identified with the ballet I had to take enormous pains both to be and to appear to be impartial, with the result that the ballet received from me the worst notices of the entire tour, and my position, already a delicate one, became still more aggravated…the Taits were delighted with the effect of a serious and balanced criticism, but many of the dancers were in open revolt and felt themselves betrayed. As few of them knew much English my mildest criticism was translated into a fierce attack”.
Yet his self-regard ensured he was always in the spotlight. Early in January 1937, Scorer wrote to her mother: “Every party we go to Haskell makes idiotic speeches. It is most embarrassing. On New Year’s Eve, Tait gave us a party on stage, it was absolutely deadly, nine people made speeches, Haskell for about 20 minutes, everyone was bored stiff”. (25)
In mid January, in a joke memo to a colleague, Ted Tait gave nicknames to the ballet’s management, to the dancers and J C Williamson staff. Haskell was “the Grand Arbiter”, Helene Kirsova was “Sweetness and Light”, his secretary, Miss Bedford was “Agent Provocateur”, and Tait himself, “The Rasputin of the Theatre”. The sidelined promoter, Daphne Deane, however, was listed only as “Daphne Deane played by Daphne Deane”. No one could play the role of the drama queen better than the lady herself. (26)
Haskell left Australia in late January after a farewell party at Arthur Allen’s country home, Moombara, on the Port Hacking estuary, 29 kilometres south of Sydney. Allen, the senior partner of the law firm, Allen, Allen & Hemsley, as well as a director of J C Williamson, was host to more than 80 guests among them Ted Tait, Ernest Watt, Daryl Lindsay, Eric Baume, (the Sunday Sun journalist), Mrs T K (Ethel) Kelly and her husband, Thomas Herbert Kelly, known as ‘Bertie’. Allen’s daughter, Margaret, photographed most of the women in the company, including an exuberant Nina Raievska in her bathing suit while the freelance photographer, Sam Hood, working on commission for J C Williamson, was busy all day taking shots of the dancers.
Ballet dancer cavorting at the beach
Arthur Allen noted in his diary: “The expense of the party was borne by JCW Ltd. I had no part in it except to fix my own table…JCW sent in all sorts of cakes, E J Tait arranged enough food (chicken, cold meats, asparagus) for everyone but in addition he asked everyone who had a car and was bringing a party down to bring a hamper also”. As the sun set, most of the dancers returned to Sydney by bus. On board, they imagined a crustacean ballet, L’Après midi d’un prawn, described in a press report by an anonymous writer (probably a dancer): “Out of paper bags came the prawns in their pink tights. They leapt from seat to seat, from deft fingers to cupped hands ready to ‘support’ them. They made their entrechats in the air in the approved Nijinskish manner, and executed fouettes and pirouettes like a ballerina assoluta … the corps de ballets caught them by the whiskers. Rose-tipped fingers decapitated them. Geranium lips attacked them. The frail bodies of the prawns squeezed upwards from their pink ‘tutus’ after the fashion that children manipulate bananas and demolish ice-cream cones”.
Ted Tait may have put aside his cares but within a week, the backstage chaos escalated. On January 25, Philipoff cabled de Basil: “Lidji definitely impossible Tait urges you cable me as follows – liquidate company termination Sydney season Feb 26th. Your accountants appoint Smith Johnson accountants, Sydney liquidators, they are Williamsons accountants. Stop. Authorise me enter fresh agreement on your personal account new tour commencing NZ March 3rd for balance of tour according to arrangements being made with Williamsons”.
Two days later, Ted Tait cabled be Basil: “Find Lidji impossible asserting right control productions dismiss artists refusing pay certain salaries generally attempting disrupt ballet. Strongly urge you cable us immediately cancelling his authority act for you financially and appointing Philipoff and Wolfenden chartered accountant high repute Sydney together receive moneys pay salaries other disbursements holding balance for you”.
Tait spend the few weeks in frantic consultations with Smith Johnson and Allen, Allen & Hemsley, trying to untangle the intricacies of J C Williamson’s contract with the ballet company. He wrote numerous letters to his brothers complaining that the Allens partner, Norman Cowper, had no understanding of the issues, despite asking advice from a Kings Counsel. In a much briefer account of the drama, Arthur Allen wrote in his diary: “Attended board meeting. E J Tait thinks everybody is wrong in regard to the ballet management except himself so the whole thing is hopeless…it has been suggested E J Tait take a 6 month break but refuses and his brother John Tait won’t intervene”. (28)
In February, Haskell sailed for the United States, taking with him a letter written by the Taits to de Basil, summarising the stalemate but when he arrived in New York de Basil was far too distracted to hear the news. De Basil was obsessed with a recent a car accident in which someone was killed. In Haskell’s report of the meeting, “he was not only full of it but would insist on showing me, with several repeats, a gory film he had taken. When I finally cornered him with the news he seemed highly delighted and in no way surprised that such things happened in his absence”. (29)
As the Australian summer came to an end the ballet company sailed to New Zealand while Lidji travelled to the United States to ask de Basil where he stood in the management debacle. De Basil, always the great bamboozler, never gave him an answer and the matter dragged on in legal argument until Williamsons eventually won their case against Lidji.
During the ballet company’s tour of New Zealand (from early February to the end of April), squabbles erupted and jealousies flared due to the hectic itinerary of 10 cities. Early in March, Scorer wrote home, describing Auckland as “a deadly place, very dreary and provincial. Even worse than Adelaide and the people are unspeakable, frightfully common. All the front rows of the stalls look like cooks, I haven’t seen one decently dressed person yet. (30) In Wellington she was so “sick of colonials. The country here is really miraculous if one could only blow up the people”, then when the company travelled to the South Island she was distressed to spend a night in Oamaru “which is even deadlier than Timaroo (sic)”. (31)
The infighting backstage began in Auckland when a press photographer was ushered into a dressing room to take some informal shots. He decided to focus his camera on Raiveska while she was putting on her makeup for Scheherazade. Branitska, sharing the dressing room, was enraged when the photographer ignored her. As the photographer left the dressing room, he was abused by Jean Hoyer, Branitska’s husband. (32). In Wellington, Branitska was still on the warpath. She insisted that Philipoff cast her in Spectre de la Rose. Her rival, Blinova was furious. This was her role and she demanded that Philipoff back down.
These petty squabbles, leaked to the press, were described by The New Zealand Observer as “childish outbreaks of jealousy and petulance”, but they were insignificant compared with the battle between Woizikovsky and Hoyer. By mid April, the dancers refused to talk to one another or to dance in any ballet when the other was cast in the same work. (Letter by Scorer to mother, April 13.) Each man had his band of allies and each warring faction called the other ‘Bolsheviks’. On April Fool’s Day, 1937, the J C Williamson representative travelling with the company in New Zealand cabled the Taits in Sydney: “Severe quarrel Woizikovsky, Hoyer, latter wanting to drop out, consequences complicated nature”.
The final drama of the New Zealand tour took place in Dunedin and once again, Scorer brought the company gossip in a letter to her mother. “The day before we left, Slavinsky, while completely drunk, drove a hired car head-on into a telegraph pole at 40 miles per hour. The car was more utterly smashed than I have ever seen a car, but Slavinsky and a friend were quite badly cut about the face. It happened just outside our hotel…Slavinsky was put in prison, but finally let out on 15 pounds bail that Philipoff paid”. (31)
When the company returned to Australia, the dancer, Roland Guerard, told The Sydney Morning Herald: “It was the hardest tour I have ever made. I do not wish to see New Zealand again in a hurry”. Kirsova summed up: “New Zealand was lovely but the people generally are comfortable but so dull”. (34)
In Brisbane, during the final few weeks of the tour, the dancers brawled almost every day. Raiveska slapped Hoyer’s face before a performance of Les Sylphides (32) and Hoyer was forced to take leave from the company. Ted Tait became ill with the effort of working 12 hours a day, wrangling the managers and dancers. In June, the company returned to Melbourne for a three-week season. The end of the Australian tour was in sight, yet the dancers weren’t all yearning for home. Kirsova told the press that “a romance” might mean she would stay in Australia. She did not name her lover, Erik Fischer, the vice consul for Denmark in Sydney, who she had met in Sydney at an after show party at the Danish consulate, but told the reporters that “there are difficulties. We are not engaged”. (34) Slavinsky, who had caused so much trouble in New Zealand, also decided to stay in Australia. He married Marie Doran, a dancer for the Tivoli circuit and signed a contract with J C Williamson to appear in the musical Balalaika.
On July 6, the final night of the Melbourne season, Frank Tait was proud to announce that half a million Australasians had now seen the Ballets Russes’ troupe. At midnight, the company boarded a train at Spencer Street Station for Adelaide. Thomas Armour danced on a station platform, then hurled himself onto the footboard of the last carriage. Betty Scorer cried. She had to leave behind the stray dog, Aspia. As Scorer wrote to her mother, Aspia was happy now in the Allens’ house “with immense gardens and two sweet Dalmatian puppies to play with … the whole company was in tears when we left her”.
As the tour came to its close, Burdett summed up the artistic successes and failures. In his opinion, the company lacked authoritative artistic direction, the details of lighting and décor were too often neglected and the dancing was often “uneven and immature”. Furthermore, “the orchestra seldom reached really respectable standards”. Despite his gripes, “the tour confirmed that the intelligence of Australians had been grossly under-rated for years”.
The company sailed from Adelaide on the SS Strathnaver on 15 July bound for Fremantle where Lidji, now back with the touring company having resolved the legal tussle, promised a return season to Australia in 18 months. “We spent a tremendous amount of money on the tour”, he said, “and actually we have not made any profit. But we feel that we have made something from an artistic point of view in this country. It has been an artistic crusade; we have had a victory”. (35) Lidji, for once, was right. There was no mention in the press that something much more precious than a dog, and more significant than any lingering memories, had been abandoned in Australia – the body of the dancer, Madeleine Parker.
“I must go on; but my head is burning, and I can scarcely breathe” — Mira Dimina, Adelaide, October 1936
Photo by Sasha, © Hulton Archive
Madeleine Parker was 25 when she danced for the last time of her life. She made her final appearance in the ballet, Les Presages – French for omens or destiny – and it was Parker’s destiny to die far away from her homeland and family just one month later. Her role was called Frivolity but her brief life was more like another role in which she excelled, the Prelude in Les Sylphides, a reverie in which the dancer gently lifts her hand to her ear, the gesture representing some far away sighs and whispers, or perhaps the sound of a distant bell.
Parker, an American, was given the Russian stage name Mira Dimina in 1935, when she joined the Monte Carlo Ballet Russe, one of the companies formed in the wake of the death of Serge Diaghilev.
She arrived in Australia in October 1936 as a member the Ballets Russes troupe newly assembled by the promoter, Colonel de Basil.
She spent just six weeks in Australia before dying of leukaemia on November 22 in a private hospital in Adelaide. The life and death of Parker is seldom recalled, but when it is, the emphasis is on the tragedy of a life lost at the age of 25 rather than the negligence and almost criminal lack of action on the part of others.
It seems inconceivable that a young woman, known to be physically delicate, pale and often listless, could be accepted as a member of the arduous tour when she was terminally ill and just six weeks away from death.
Despite Parker’s efforts to hide her pain on the sea journey to Australia, by the time the SS Moldavia reached Bombay, the critic and writer on board, Arnold Haskell, knew that Parker was unwell, showing signs of fatigue and pallor. Other symptoms of leukaemia were not so obvious, among them aching bones and joints.
A few weeks before Parker died she confided in a friend that her “every movement” had been an effort for a year.
Haskell first met Parker in 1935 on board the Ile de France, when they were both sailing from New York to London with one of the many Ballets Russes companies. He later recalled that the first time he saw Parker, “she was spraying her throat with a small atomiser”.
Describing the dancer in his memoir, Dancing Around the World, Haskell wrote that Parker was “pretty in a fragile manner, her features delicately modelled, but the first impression she made on the Russian Ballet was not a favourable one. With her long coils of corn-coloured hair she would have seemed more in place in Hollywood, and she dressed it in a singularly unbecoming fashion that dwarfed her small features and gave her a large head, a mortal sin in ballet. In contradiction to her appearance, she was timid, diffident, retiring and no one seemed to know her well or enjoy her confidence.
“Her first big role was that of Frivolity, in Les Presages, undertaken at a moment’s notice to replace [Tatiana] Riabouchinska, who had been left behind in New York with scarlet fever. The task was a formidable one, made more so by the fact that she did not yet belong to the large hypercritical family who asked nothing better than to keep an interloper outside until such time as she had proved herself beyond doubt. All this, together with the fact that she did not feel over strong, resulted in an indifferent performance. She knew it, and was worried at not having done herself justice. She felt an atmosphere of hostility. I was as sceptical about her abilities as any, but I liked the girl and consoled her, using arguments and excuses that I did not believe in myself. Also I plucked up courage and told her about her hairdressing, which she altered, now giving full value to her charming little head.” Parker was born in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, in 1912. She told Australian reporters in October 1936 that she began to learn ballet at the age of 8 (her first teacher was Michel Fokine, the Russian choreographer who had moved to the United States in 1919) and that she appeared on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House when she was 12. Her mother was widowed and moved to New Hampshire. Parker trained with different teachers in the United States and performed professionally, but by the time she reached her early 20s, decided to try her luck in Hollywood. She appeared as an extra in two films shot in 1934, the ballet-themed The Night is Young, starring Evelyn Laye and Ramon Novaro, and Midsummer Night’s Dream, starring Dick Powell, Olivia de Havilland and James Cagney.
In a fluffy white tutu surrounded by pointe shoes she was photographed by the London celebrity photographer, Sasha, (whose real name was Alexander Stewart). The photo’s date is given as April 25, 1929 meaning Parker would then be only 17.
Her film career was brief for early in 1935, she joined the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo in Los Angeles during its long tour of the United States, and returned with the company to England later that year. On that journey, she became friendly with a small group including Haskell, the dancers Jean Hoyer, his wife Natalie Branitzka, the teenage dancer, Lelia Russell and Lelia’s mother, Mrs Russell, known as ‘Pete’.
In Haskell’s account of the 1936 voyage to Australia he wrote that Parker was animated and happy despite her pale skin and evident fatigue. She knew, he wrote, “that her big chance lay ahead. Daily she bathed in the pool, rehearsed, and exercised, and at night, she was one of the few to wear evening dress, taking pleasure in the effect caused by her striking appearance, in the very fact of being young, pretty, and alive. Her cabin adjoined mine, and on the long, hot, sleepless, stifling nights we exchanged an occasional message through the ventilator, always concluding with, ‘Arnold’… ‘Yes’…. ‘What time is it?’
“She joined our excursion at Port Sudan, buying beads that would match her dresses with a childish unspoilt excitement. She was always a strange mixture of naivety and sophistication. I met her in the bazaars in Bombay, her arms full of silks and ornaments. She was enjoying every moment of the day, but already there she was not feeling well”.
By now, wrote Haskell, Parker began to miss an occasional rehearsal. Checking on her, he would find asleep in her cabin, dressed in her practice clothes. “Nevertheless, we thought little of it”, he wrote. “The heat had given so many of us minor indispositions”. By “we” did he mean “me”? Perhaps so, as there seems to be no record of him telling anyone else of Parker’s condition. If he did tell the management, then they did not pass on the news to the ship’s doctor however Parker did tell Haskell “I am glad Pete [Mrs Russell] is here; if anything happens she will look after me”. Haskell decided that Parker would be fine once they arrived in Australia.
When the Moldavia arrived at Freemantle on October 6, press journalists and photographers boarded the ship to interview some of the dancers. In one snapshot, Parker posed with Helene Kirsova and Valentina Blinova. Parker smiled broadly, looking directly at the camera. A reporter for the West Australian press described “Dimina” as “a classic type, her flawless skin enhanced by heavy plaits of golden hair” and quoted her as saying “I have worked in two motion pictures. My first was with Evelyn Laye in The Night is Young…Film work has none of the attractions of ballet.”
In Adelaide on October 13, the opening night of the tour, Parker danced the Prelude in Les Sylphides. The critic for the Adelaide News found “the American girl, Mira Dimina, gave the outstanding performance… Dimina might have been the original Sylphide. She is fair and unbelievably light; she danced a solo role in so effortless a manner that she was recalled to acknowledge the applause. Dimina’s work seemed totally spontaneous and free from all mental effort”. (Adelaide News, October 14, 1937).
Haskell thought that Parker danced “like one inspired. In the interval I dashed off to write of the unearthly quality of her dancing. I have the clipping by me, a proof to myself that what I now know has not caused my imagination to embroider”. On October 16, she danced role of The Daughter in Le Beau Danube. Haskell found her charming but listless and lacking in animation. “When I told her, she said: ‘But I have not the strength for such a role,’ and I replied, ‘nonsense’”.
Parker was thrilled with her reviews and delighted when the company managers assured her that she would soon dance in Le Spectre de la Rose. Yet Parker must have known she was very ill and needed help. Like many of the visiting dancers, she had made friends with a group of Adelaide society figures who included Ian Hayward (whose family members were directors of the John Martin department store) and the businessman, James Gosse.
The Gosse and Hayward families, among other wealthy and social Adelaide circles, helped Parker make arrangements for her mother, Norma, to sail to Australia so that, as she told Haskell, “we need no longer be separated”. Mrs Parker, who lived at Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, made arrangements to travel to Montreal to board the freighter, Port Alma.
On October 23 Parker appeared as Frivolity in Les Presages. “She danced it well”, wrote Haskell, “but the effort was apparent, and there was nothing to suggest frivolity. At times she seemed to be tottering, and when she missed an important cue I rushed round to the wings”.
She told him “I will be all right. I must go on; but my head is burning, and I can scarcely breathe. I have such a terrible sore throat”.
Haskell found her feverish and barely able to stand. Early the next morning he visited Parker. She struggled to talk and was as pale as the white frangipani her friends had sent to decorate the room. Parker told him that a doctor had told her to rest for a few days but she still believed she would be able to travel to Melbourne with the company. Haskell wrote that he met the doctor in the hotel corridor. He asked if Haskell was Parker’s closest friend. “I suppose so”, he replied, “at any rate as close as any”.
Later, at the doctor’s rooms, Haskell discovered the terrible news. A blood test showed that she probably had leukaemia. The doctor insisted that this news must not leak out “or it may easily reach and alarm her. I believe she has about six weeks to live”. Discovering that her mother was on board a ship to Australia, he told Haskell that she might arrive in time to see her daughter alive.
On October 25, Parker was admitted to Ru Rua Private Hospital where her large room overlooked a garden. With his mind fixed on the company’s planned departure in three days to Melbourne, Haskell decided “I would willingly have remained behind, but a man cannot be much comfort to a girl so desperately ill”. Instead, he told Mrs Russell the whole story. She decided to stay behind to care for Parker, leaving her then 15-year-old daughter, Lelia, to travel with the company to Melbourne.
In Melbourne, Haskell immersed himself in the city, finding the social life a distraction and dealing with ongoing dramas over the management of the tour. He received what he called guarded little notes from the doctor and long pathetic letters from Mrs Russell. Not surprisingly, news of Parker’s illness did leak to the press.
On November 9, under the headline “Ballet Dancer Reported To Have Rare Disease” a journalist at the Adelaide paper, The Advertiser, wrote that “little change is reported in the condition of Miss Mira Dimina of the Russian ballet, who has been in an Adelaide private hospital for two weeks since she developed a throat and mouth infection… Miss Dimina is suffering from a rare disease, leuchaemia [sic] which causes multiplication of the white blood corpuscles”.
On November 17, Betty Scorer wrote to her mother in England: “There is said to be no hope of Dimina’s recovery, she has pernicious anaemia and it’s only a question of weeks, maybe days. She has the blood transfusions, but all the blood turns white within 48 hours, so it is no use. Isn’t it frightful….”
Haskell, meanwhile, was asked by the Adelaide press to send a photo of Parker “just in case”. On November 22, when Haskell was staying with the artist and ballet lover, Daryl Lindsay at his property Mulberry Hill, Baxter, about 50 kilometres from the centre of Melbourne, he received a call from Jacques Lidji, one of the ballet’s two company managers. Lidji asked him to return to Melbourne immediately. Parker had died at 10.30am. Lindsay drove him to Melbourne and from there, Haskell travelled by train that evening to Adelaide along with the other managers, Alexander Philipoff and Daphne Deane and the dancer, Natasha Branitzka.
Haskell saw Parker’s body, surrounded by flowers and “sleeping just as she was when I peeped into her cabin at rehearsal time. Afterwards Pete told me that she had suffered comparatively little and had never known how desperately ill she was. Up to the end, she talked of her dancing and asked to be reassured that she would get her roles back again. The promise of Le Spectre de la Rose gave her infinite pleasure. Before she lapsed into her final sleep she made dancing movements the whole night long. Her courage and fine spirits had endeared her to everyone; the doctor and nurses are mourning her like friends”.
Back in Melbourne, Scorer told her mother in a letter home that Haskell would have to break the news to Norma Parker, who by now, was still 18 days away from Australia.
In a further dereliction of duty by the company managers, promoters and presenters of the ballet, J C Williamson, a radiogram was sent to the captain of the Port Alma asking him not to tell Norma Parker until the ship arrived in Australia. In reports of the death, the press stated that the news had deliberately been withheld from Mrs Parker.
In her last weeks in hospital, Parker had been supported by the Church of England’s Rev. L.A. Knight, the warden of Adelaide’s St Barnabas College. He conducted the funeral service that was attended not only by the Ballets Russes contingent, but also by James Gosse and Mrs Russell. Pallbearers included members of the touring Gladys Moncrieff Theatre Company. The South Australian Premier, Richard Butler, sent a wreath, as did Col. de Basil, then based in New York, and the Robert Helpmann, then living in London.
Parker was buried at West Terrace Cemetery, where, The Argus reported, “officials of the Monte Carlo Company were obviously affected with deep grief at the loss of one of their most promising ballerinas”.
On November 27 a memorial service was held in Melbourne’s St Paul’s Cathedral. The evensong service was led by Archbishop F.W Head, who read from the Book of Wisdom (“but the righteous live forever and in the Lord is their reward”). The choir sang Psalm 23 and Blessed Are They Whom Thou Hast Chosen, composed by Tchaikovsky.
The Argus published a letter from Philipoff the next day, expressing the gratitude of de Basil for the service. As Philipoff could not speak English the letter was probably written by Haskell.
The day after the memorial service, Helene Kirsova fainted on the stage of Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne while taking a curtain call after dancing the Bluebird variation in Le Marriage d’Aurore. Two doctors in the house went backstage to help the dancer and the press reported that her collapse was caused by both the heat that summer and by the death of her friend, Mira.
With the Port Alma soon due in Brisbane, Haskell and Mrs Russell travelled north. The ship docked at New Farm Wharf on December 9 but Haskell could not face Mrs Parker. He caught a glimpse of a picture of her daughter as a child in a dancing pose in her mother’s cabin, but fled, leaving Mrs Russell to greet the heartbroken woman. A report in The Argus on December 10 explained that Captain John Jack had broken the news when the ship was in the Brisbane River.
When Mrs Parker went to Adelaide on Christmas Eve, to visit her daughter’s grave and collect her belongings, she told a local newspaper that on the Sunday of her daughter’s death, “I felt as though all the strength had been taken from me and a queer unreality filled me. I cried. I seemed to feel Madeleine beside me comforting me. It was so real. I walked backward and forward on the deck but the premonition was insistent. I walked to the bridge knowing that the captain had a message for me but a notice said “keep out” and I hesitated. Then I climbed up and the captain spoke to me reassuringly.
“I went away, comforted but again that terrible feeling came…everyone was so strange on the ship. I know now that a radiogram was sent to the captain and he was asked not to tell me. I know that he knew when I went to the bridge that night that Madeleine had died. They were all so suddenly quiet when I spoke of Madeleine and her dancing and how I longed to be with her”.
When the captain drew her aside in Brisbane, “I could not believe it. I said there must be a mistake, the radio operator had misread the message. Then I was shown the message saying that she was ill, and finally that she had died. All the beautiful times that we had planned in this sunny country could not come.
“Sometimes on the way from Brisbane I have felt that there is nothing left for me to live for and then Madeleine’s voice seems to say to me ‘be brave, there is so much beauty in the world”’.
Meanwhile, Haskell’s account of the tragedy, first published in The Australian Women’s Weekly in 1937 was a selling point for his book Dancing Around the World, published in 1938.
His conclusion was not entirely generous. In his opinion, “Madeleine was not a genius, not even a great dancer, but she was an artist, every inch of her. She did not die for her art, but she served it when every effort must have cost her dear…. She will not be forgotten. A fund has now been completed and the Mira Dimina cot in the Children’s Hospital exists as a memorial to our friend”.
The money was not donated by de Basil, Haskell or any other manager or associate of the Ballets Russes, but by the general public.
In September 1938, when members of the second Ballets Russes’ company in Australia visited Parker’s grave at West Terrace Cemetery, the promoters, J C Williamson, used the occasion as another opportunity to promote the ballet. A report by The Advertiser gave more space to the ballets of the dancer and choreographer, David Lichine, included in the tour repertoire, than it did to the life and death of Madeleine Parker or, as she will be remembered, Mira, a name that means “peace” in the Slavic languages.
1. Letter, March 1937
2. Letter, 16 May, 1937
3. The Sun, 5 June, 1937
4. The Sydney Mail, February 1937
5. The Bulletin, 6 January, 1937
6. The Bulletin, 17 January, 1937
7. The Bulletin, 27 January, 1937
8. The Bulletin, 13 February, 1937
9. The Argus, 16 November, 1937
10. Wireless Weekly, 19 March, 1937
11. 17 October, 1936
12. 22 October, 1936
13. Haskell, Balletomane at Large
14. Lindsay travelled to Sydney for the exhibition that was opened by Haskell. (Sydney Morning Herald, 16 January 1937).
Arthur Allen, a director of J C Williamson’s noted in his diary that more than half of the drawings were sold on the first day of the exhibition.
During an interval in one performance, Allen “looked at Darryl [sic] Lindsay’s pictures in the foyer of the theatre. Most of them are very good and very attractive, though not the sort of pictures I want to own”.
By 1938, after Lindsay had visited Europe and sketched dancers at Covent Garden in London, his illustrations were collected in the book Backstage with the Covent Garden Russian Ballet in which the introduction was an open letter by Haskell to the artist.
“Perhaps”, Haskell wrote, “it is because you love and understand horses that this saddling enclosure of the Ballet world makes its great appeal to you”, he wrote.
“There is a strong analogy between the highly strung thoroughbred waiting for the race and the Blue Bird standing nervously in the wings; her body at rest, her imagination already dancing feverishly. It is that quality I find and admire in your backstage sketches; these are not just models costumed for the occasion, but dancer caught in poses that the public does not and should not see. For them the performance with all its enchanting illusion, for you the performance and its arduous preparation”.
15. Dupain oral history, National Library of Australia
Dupain’s role as a photographic glamoriser of the Ballets Russes had a precedent.
When the company toured the United States in 1934, de Basil spotted the photographer, Maurice Seymour, in the lobby of the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago. With his mane of hair, Seymour cut a striking figure, one that attracted the eye of de Basil. The colonel asked him if he was an artist.
“Not exactly”, said Seymour, “I’m a photographer”. De Basil replied: “I would like you to photograph my ballerinas”. Haskell was on that tour and, as a born publicist himself, would have taken note of Seymour’s role in the promotion of the company.
Seymour used flattering stage lighting effects to smooth the look of the dancers’ faces and to highlight their upper bodies. The women were draped over chairs, in seductive poses, often with their curled hair cascading over their shoulders and their dresses clinging to their curves.
16. The Argus, 8 November, 1936. In addition, the Sydney Mail and Guardian published a full page on the technique of ballet and the argument for and against using symphonic music in ballets, 27 January, 1937
17. Rebels and Precursors, by Hal Porter
18. Letter, December 1936. Betty Scorer’s sharp letters home reveal how little she first thought of her hosts and her gradual acceptance of their provincial ways. Scorer told her mother of a “most frightful tea party given by the dancing teachers of Melbourne – it was agony. I’ve never seen such frightful people.
“Really I think Australia is a frightful place, & the people are really worse than I thought they would be, they have no conversation or sense of humour whatsoever”.
But a month after the Melbourne season she was relieved to meet Dolia Ribush, a Latvian-born theatre producer, and his “specially nice” wife, Dusha, a talented designer of hand printed textiles Michael O’Connell and his wife Ella, and G. W. Caro, a director of the Herald and Weekly Times.
19. Dancing Around the World, Haskell
20. Letter, 6 November, 1936
21. Cable, 9 November to De Basil 100 Central Park, New York
22. Lady Viola Tait collection, H0003173. Letter, 10 November, 1936
23. Ian Bevan, The Story of the Theatre Royal, Currency Press
24. An account of her life and death follows in Chapter 6
25. Letter, 5 January, 1937
26. Deane worked the media from every angle. In January, Woman magazine backed her credentials by publishing a flattering article explaining how she met the famous choreographer, Michel Fokine in Paris in 1934. (Woman, January, 1937).
Smiths Weekly was not so impressed: “What an impressive, even regal figure these days is Daphne Dean (sic) our one Australian woman impresario of the ballet! No first night is now complete without our Daph parading in the foyer”.
Deane’s biggest media coup was published in Smiths Weekly in mid January, under the headline Shabby Treatment of an Australian Impresario. How could it be, asked the reporter, that “her name rarely if ever appears in the press as being in any way associated with the ballet”. She had received no publicity for her cocktail party for press women in Melbourne and now in Sydney “the same extraordinary policy of exclusion seems to be operating. Where possible, the press, hardly without exception, has ignored her existence… Where the mischief began and who started it is a matter shrouded in mystery. But it is significant that Sydney friends of Miss Dean (sic) who have wished to renew acquaintance with her and congratulate her on her successes have had difficulty even in obtaining her address from those who should know all about her”. (Smith’s Weekly, 16 January 1937).
The “mischief” was initiated by the Taits who were so infuriated by Deane that they issued a writ for the recovery of her fare to Australia from England. Cables between the Taits show that Deane told Nevin Tait in London that he advanced her fare with the understanding that she would repay it in Australia.
The indomitable Deane was still using the ballet as her publicity prop in March 1937, talking on many radio stations around Australia about the company in a series called Secrets of the Ballet, sponsored by Junipah Mineral Spring Salts. Her secret – the writ – was never revealed.
27. Letter, 27 January 1937
28. Diary entry, 15 February 1937
29. Balletomane at Large, p96
30. Letter, 8 March, 1937
31. Letter, April 1937
32. Article in New Zealand Observer, National Gallery of Australia, Helene Kirsova papers
33. Letter, 11 May
34. The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 May, 1937
35. Letter, 16 May 1937
36. West Australian, 20 July, 1937