The visit to Australia by the Dandré-Levitoff Russian Ballet between 1934 and 1935 has largely been overlooked by Australian dance writers. Coming after the second visit by Anna Pavlova in 1929 and before the momentous Monte Carlo Russian Ballet visit of 1936 –1937, it was much shorter than either of those two tours. It lasted just three and a half months. Led by Victor Dandré, Anna Pavlova’s manager and common law husband, and the international impresario Alexander Levitoff, the company performed in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth.
It is the Perth season that is particularly interesting because the well known historian of early Australian ballet, Edward Pask, makes no mention of Perth. In his book, Enter the Colonies, Dancing, he writes that the company’s farewell performance in Australia was in Melbourne on 31 December 1934 and that on the following day the dancers sailed for London on the Strathnaver. So, a photograph acquired by the National Library of Australia in 2006 as part of the archive of photographer Axel Poignant raises more than one question. The photograph came with the curious title on acquisition of ‘Final curtain of Boris Godunov Ballet performed at the Perth theatre, Dandré’s company, 19 January 1935’.
Perth did indeed see the Dandré-Levitoff company. The Strathnaver left Melbourne for London on 1 January 1935 and sailed via Adelaide and Fremantle. There is no doubt the dancers were on board — on 2 January Algeranoff, a dancer with the company, wrote to his mother in London from on board the Strathnaver. That letter survives. But, when the ship docked in Fremantle early on the morning of 7 January, the dancers disembarked. Only Levitoff did not arrive in Western Australia by sea: he travelled by train taking the Great Western Express. He passed through Kalgoorlie on 3 January when it was reported that he was travelling ahead in order ‘to make arrangements for a large orchestra and prepare the stage for the ballet’s appearance in Perth’. The West Australian noted the arrival of the company at the theatre when ‘Halstead’ wrote on 8 January of ‘a large van discharging suit-cases, cabin trunks and immense wooden boxes’ in King Street, Perth.
Advertisements, articles and reviews that appeared in The West Australian during the first few weeks of January 1935 make it clear that the company performed for eleven nights and gave four matinee shows. It presented three separate programs beginning on 8 January and finishing on 19 January. There were program changes on 14 and 17 January. The ‘Perth theatre’ given in the title of the National Libary’s image was His Majesty’s, still in existence in King Street, and the home now of West Australian Ballet. The name of the company as it appeared on programs for the Perth season was the Russian Classical Ballet and the company was presented in Perth by entrepreneur Benjamin Fuller.
However, there was never a ballet in the Dandré-Levitoff repertoire entitled ‘Boris Godunov’ and looking closely at the National Library’s image it is clearly Michel Fokine’s Polovtsian Dances from Borodin’s opera Prince Igor. The company had already successfully staged this work in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, and in Perth it was part of the second program which opened on 14 January and finished on 16 January. The West Australian critic, ‘Fidelio’, wrote of the Perth staging that it was ‘exciting and vital’. His review included the following:
‘…a camp of a savage Tartar tribe (the Polovstzians) in olden-time Russia, with tents, the red glow of a fire, and, in the distance, smoke smudging an angry evening sky … Men leap and twirl, fling their bows into the air and catch them as they fall. The gyrating lines of figures interlace [and] recede as though a human tide, to surge forward at the end in a final wild triumph of physical, rhythmic energy, arms uplifted’.
The National Library image is accompanied by a slip of paper with the handwritten inscription ‘January 19 1935, Mr Axel Poignant in remembrance of his very successful work for the Russian Ballet Company’ and is signed by Dandré and company members. The date 19 January is the last night of the Perth season when the company appears to have made a presentation to Poignant. As the inscription is on a separate slip of paper, it is not absolutely clear if the presentation was of the image from Polovtsian Dances, or even what the relationship is between the image and the slip of paper. Would the company be presenting Poignant’s own image back to him? And what was his very successful work for the Russian Ballet company? Is there an as yet undiscovered archive of Poignant images from the Dandré-Levitoff season in Perth? Questions remain.
© Michelle Potter, 3 September 2009
Open the link to see the Axel Poignant image
(Note – 16 September 2009: The title of this image in the National Library’s catalogue has now been changed to reflect more accurately what is represented).
- ‘Russian ballet. Revival of classicism’. The West Australian, 4 January 1935, p. 18.
- ‘Halstead’, ‘Stars of the Russian ballet. Famous dancers of many lands’. The West Australian, 8 January 1935, p. 3.
- ‘Fidelio’, ‘Russian ballet. Vivid contrasts. The classic and the barbaric’. The West Australian, 15 January 1935, p. 14.
- ‘Letters to Alice Essex’. Papers of Harcourt Algeranoff, National Library of Australia, MS 2376, Series 1, Item 456.
- Programs, ‘Russian Ballet Company’, National Library of Australia, PROMPT Collection.
- Edward H. Pask, Enter the Colonies, Dancing (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1979).