Ballets Russes: ‘We’re going to Australia’

Talk given at the National Gallery of Australia in conjunction with the exhibition Ballets Russes: the art of costume, 12 March 2011

'We're going to Australia'-cover imageModified text and PowerPoint slides at this link

Some audio clips as used in the live talk and referred to in the text:

The full audio interviews with Baronova and Bousloff are available online from the National Library of Australia:

Michelle Potter, 1 January 2013

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‘It brought back so many memories’—Jill Sykes
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Olga Spessivtseva in Australia

Olga Spessivtseva, graduate of the St Petersburg Theatre School, famed interpreter of Giselle, star of Serge Diaghilev’s ill-fated 1921 London production of The Sleeping Princess, and legendary ballerina of the Paris Opera in the 1920s, was contracted to come to Australia in 1934 as principal dancer with the Dandré-Levitoff Russian Ballet. Spessivtseva, or Spessiva as she was officially known on the tour, joined the company in Singapore, along with her companion (the retired American businessman Leonard G. Braun), her dancing partner Anatole Vilzak and others who were to join the company. Following the Singapore season, in which she did not perform, she travelled with the company through Java, where she did dance, and on to Australia where the company was to fulfil engagements in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and eventually Perth.

The Australian component of the tour has generated a good deal of interest as a result of the fact that Spessivtseva left the tour in an apparent state of mental distress following the Sydney season, which ran from 27 October to 28 November 1934. Exactly what happened to Spessivtseva is unclear and although her performances were, on most occasions, reviewed more than favourably by the press, most other accounts present a story of wildly eccentric and delusional offstage behaviour on her part. Anton Dolin, for example, in his biography of Spessivtseva, The Sleeping Ballerina, records that she complained she was being spied upon and that she was in terrible danger from unknown forces, that on one occasion she was found wandering on a deserted highway miles from town and so on.

spessivtseva-swan-lakeOlga Spessivtseva in costume for ‘Swan Lake’, Sydney 1934. Sydney Fox Studio. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales. Reproduced with permission

The official story as given to Australian newspapers was that Spessivtseva sprained her ankle. Melbourne’s Argus newspaper reported on 1 December 1934, the day the Melbourne season was to begin:

‘A week 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 may not be able to appear again for several weeks’.

However, Harcourt Algeranoff, who also danced with the company on this tour and whose letters to his mother provide a wealth of information about the company, has a slightly different version of events. Writing from Melbourne on 2 December 1934 his inside information is that Spessivtseva had already left for Europe:

‘We’ve had rather a blow as Spessiva is ill and although it is no known publicly, she’s sailed for Europe. She has promised to rejoin us some months hence when she is better’.

Dolin, however, gives a quite different account of Spessivtseva’s movements. He maintains that Spessivtseva was sent to recuperate in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney for some weeks after her last performance in Sydney. Although no evidence for the Blue Mountains story, other than Dolin’s account, has yet come to light it does have a certain plausible aspect to it. In his unpublished work ‘For Olga Spessivtzeva. A memoir of loving’ Dale Fern suggests that what has not been fully recognised is that Spessivtseva was physically frail during her dancing career. He writes:

‘What was consistently overlooked, by managers and dancers alike, in 1916 [her appearances with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in the United States], in 1921 [her performances in Diaghilev’s Sleeping Princess], and in 1934 [her tour with the Dandré-Levitoff company], was Olga’s frail constitution, her delicate physical condition. She was not well. Tuberculosis visited her regularly’.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the crisp mountain air found in the Blue Mountains was promoted to Sydneysiders as a kind of health tonic for many ailments including, according to Blue Mountains Park historical information, tuberculosis, asthma, bronchitis, malaria, stress, anaemia, and heart troubles. In the early part of the twentieth century, the small town of Wentworth Falls in the heart of the Blue Mountains was the site of two very well known institutions — the Queen Victoria Home and Bodington Sanatorium — both of which cared for patients with tuberculosis. In addition, the Hydro-Majestic Hotel, located higher into the mountains at the village of Medlow Bath, was built by Mark Foy of the wealthy Australian retail family as a ‘hydropathic sanatorium’. Unlike the Wentworth Falls institutions, where conditions appear to have been spartan and somewhat unpleasant according to the patients who have reported on life there, the Hydro-Majestic and its surrounds were a prestigious and socially desirable health retreat and its guests often included those prominent in the arts. The kinds of treatments available were listed in one promotional booklet. They included electric water and massage, electric light bath, vibration massage, general vibration massage, local hot air, local general massage, and various medicated baths.

It is conceivable that Spessivtseva, if indeed she did go to the Blue Mountains, may have gone to the Hydro-Majestic. But if Algeranoff was correct, Spessivtseva had no time to recuperate in the Blue Mountains or anywhere else before boarding a ship. However, ships’ passenger lists from Sydney that include her name, or that of her companion Leonard G. Braun, that might confirm such a departure remain to be located.

With regard to the official account of a sprained ankle, it was more than likely simply a story concocted by company management to explain to Melbourne audiences the fact that Spessivtseva was not performing there as previously advertised. Her name appeared as star attraction in Melbourne advertisements up until 28 November. By 29 November all reference to stars had been removed and by 30 November it was Natasha Bojkovich whose name was being promoted in Melbourne.

Nevertheless, just exactly what happened remains a mystery at this point. Spessivtseva’s name continued to be listed in newspaper advertisements for the last Sydney shows but there is a curious absence of reviews of the last program in the Sydney season and the last mention of her name in a performance seems to have occurred in The Sydney Morning Herald on 19 November when her performance in Raymonda was thought to be ‘cold’. In a review of the new program that opened on 24 November, the weekly newspaper Truth reported:

‘Owing to a slight indisposition, Spessiva did not dance. Her place was taken by Natasha Bojkovich, second ballerina of the company … The management announced that Spessiva will appear as usual tomorrow’.

Whether she appeared at all during the last week is questionable. Edward Pask in his Enter the colonies, dancing writes that she danced on the last night of the Sydney season but he quotes as his source ‘an [unidentified] observer at that performance’. Dolin also maintains that she performed on the last evening in Sydney. But neither gives any sound documentary reference to support his claim and it has to be assumed that neither attended performances in that last week to see for himself since Dolin was not in Australia at the time and Pask had not been born. As a counter report to Pask’s and Dolin’s comments, Valerie Lawson notes in an article in Brolga in December 2000 an unidentified, undated press clipping in a privately-held scrapbook that states:

‘[Spessiva] strained her ankle during the third week of the Sydney season and was ordered a brief rest by her doctor. She struggled on bravely for a few performances but was obliged to retire from the cast during the final week of the season’.

This report does, however, sound a little like an elaboration of the explanatory story given to Melbourne audiences. But as 1935 began, a further reference to Spessivtseva appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald as part of a summary of the previous year’s theatrical highlights. It supports Algeranoff’s account that Spessivtseva returned to Europe and alludes to her ill health:

‘Spessiva, who had been billed as the leader of the company, danced at every performance at first; but made only brief appearances, and, as time passed it became apparent that she was ill at ease. Still she danced brilliantly in “Carnival” and dropped out of the cast only when she strained an ankle. Since then, it has been revealed that she was in ill-health during the whole of the Sydney season; and now she has had to return to Europe leaving Natasha Bojkovich as a highly-efficient substitute leader in Melbourne.’

The story of Spessivtseva in Australia continues to remain something of an unsolved mystery. Until further evidence emerges, her activities during and immediately after the Sydney season continue to raise questions.

© Michelle Potter, 25 August 2010
Note: My substantial article on the Dandré-Levitoff Russian Ballet tour to South Africa, Singapore, Java, Australia, Ceylon, India and Egypt during 1934 and 1935 is currently being considered for publication by Dance Research (Edinburgh University Press).

Update 5 December 2013: The article mentioned above was published in Dance Research, 29:1, Summer 2011. See also the tag Olga Spessivtseva for further posts and ongoing comments.

Algeranoff in Melbourne

The dance interests of Harcourt Algernon Essex, better known simply as Algeranoff, were extraordinarily diverse. In the earlier years of his career, as he toured the world with companies that included that of Anna Pavlova, the Dandré-Levitoff Russian Ballet and the Ballets Russes companies of Colonel de Basil, he was forever watching, taking lessons in, and lecturing on the dance of the countries he visited. A lot of his research fed into a series of divertissements that he performed while on tour, as special demonstrations or simply as part of the regular company program, which in the case particularly of the Dandré-Levitoff company each night always included a selection of about ten divertissements across a range of dance styles.

But it seems that Algeranoff was also an interesting character off stage. During some recent research into the Dandré-Levitoff company I came across the following in the Melbourne magazine Table Talk, now long defunct, and would like to share it with others who may be as surprised and delighted as I was by the evocative and personal account of Algeranoff.

‘I used to be a little in awe of Algeranoff: to see him walking down the street in his corduroys, with a paisley handkerchief about his throat, another round the waist, his typewriter, sachel [sic] packed to bursting point with costumes and make-up, and his sandals, that reveal feet stained with some indelible Oriental dye, one could hardly imagine him to be what he is, a fresh and unaffected chap, with lots of humour, and -ssshhhh – an English accent’.

— from Table Talk, 20 December 1934. Find more resources on Algeranoff in Trove.

algeranoff1 Algeranoff in one of his divertissements — The Faun. Photo by Gustav Thorlichen. National Library of Australia. Reproduced with permission.

Dandré-Levitoff Russian Ballet. Indonesia, September 1934

The Dandré-Levitoff Russian Ballet arrived in Brisbane on 8 October 1934 for the Australian leg of a tour that had begun in South Africa in May 1934. The company sailed into Brisbane aboard a Dutch ship, the S.S Nieuw Holland, part of the fleet of the KPM line (Koninklijke Paketvaart-Maatschappij or Royal Packet Navigation Company). KPM maintained sea connections between the islands of Indonesia, formerly the Netherlands East Indies, and also sailed between Indonesia and Australia and New Zealand. The ballet company had embarked for the trip to Australia in the east Javanese city of Surabaya on 28 September following a number of performances across Java.

kpm_1910

Poster for the KPM line

Scant attention has been paid to this Indonesian interlude, yet it was significant. It was in Java, for example, that Russian ballerina Olga Spessivtseva (known as Spessiva during her appearances in Indonesia and Australia) gave her first performances with the Dandré-Levitoff Russian Ballet. She had not performed with the company in South Africa but had joined them in Singapore although she had not danced there. Her presence was essential to the success of the company for she was perceived of as continuing the classical heritage of Anna Pavlova, whose popularity in the southern hemisphere was without any doubt.

George Zoritch, an American-born member of the Dandre-Levitoff Russian Ballet, is one of the few authors who has attempted to provide any form of documentation of the company’s performances in Indonesia. Zoritch wrote in his memoir, Ballet mystique, that the company performed in ‘Batavia (now Jakarta), Surabaya, Java and Borneo’. But, like many of those who have written about this company to date, Zoritch has relied on memory and some errors and misunderstandings are instantly discernable. Why, for example, does he include Java in his list as if it were a separate destination from Batavia and Surabaya, both of which are located on the island of Java? In addition, here is no documentary evidence that the company performed in Borneo, an island in the Indonesian archipelago not all that close to Java and not on the main routes of passenger ships? From a distance of 70 years or so perhaps he confused Borneo with Bandung, a city in Java where the company did perform?

The most reliable information yet uncovered about the Indonesian schedule comes from a Dutch newspaper—De Locomotief—published in Semarang, a city on the northern coast of central Java. According to De Locomotief, the Indonesian tour lasted from 8 September 1934 when most of the company arrived in Jakarta from Singapore on another KPM vessel, the S. S. Ophir, until 28 September 1934 when they sailed on the S. S. Nieuw Holland via the island of Bali to Brisbane. The proposed season dates as listed by De Locomotief on 7 September 1934 were:

  • Batavia (Jakarta): 12-16 September
  • Bandoeng (Bandung): 18-19 September
  • Semarang: 21 September
  • Soerabaia (Surabaya): 22-27 September

Subsequently it appears that the performance in Semarang was cancelled and Semarangers were advised to travel to Surabaya to see the company. On 18 September De Locomotief noted that if at least 50 people applied an extra train would be scheduled between Semarang and Surabaya especially for the occasion.

Little information about the repertoire as performed in each Javanese city can be gleaned from De Locomotief . The newspaper does note, however, that Swan Lake was performed in Surabaya and that Spessivtseva was a great hit. It also mentions generally that Les sylphides, La fille mal gardée and Polovtsian dances from Prince Igor were part of the repertoire. Dancer Harcourt Algeranoff, who joined the company in Jakarta, also mentions in his letters to his mother in England that the repertoire included La fille mal gardée, Prince Igor, Carnaval and various divertissements, including his own Indian-inspired piece Abhinaya. In other words, the repertoire was the standard Dandré-Levitoff one as performed in all cities visited during an extensive tour to several countries in 1934-1935. This repertoire was largely that performed by the company of Anna Pavlova and the media promoted heavily the links to Pavlova through this repertoire as indeed they also promoted Spessivtseva as a successor to Pavlova’s classicism.

It was also in Java that Victor Dandré, variously described in Australia as ‘manager’, ‘backer’ and ‘guiding spirit’ of the company, joined the troupe. The Brisbane Courier Mail notes on 9 October that Dandré had made a quick decision to join the company in Java and had ‘travelled by the air mail services’. In a letter from Bandung, Algeranoff confirms Dandré’s arrival and perhaps gives a reason for Dandré’s sudden appearance. He writes: ‘We’re all very glad he’s come. His presence was badly needed. The company is strong but there was no direction’.

There is much more to this company than we have yet discovered. Knowing a little more about its visit to Indonesia is a part of the puzzle.

© Michelle Potter, 13 January 2010

Discover more on Trove

Bibliography:

  • ‘Het Russisch Ballet’, De Locomotief (Semarang), 7 September  1934, p. 5
  • ‘Het Russisch Ballet te Soerabaia’, De Locomotief (Semarang), 18 September  1934, p. 2
  • Letter from Harcourt Algeranoff to Alice Essex from Bandoeng, 18 September 1934, Papers of Harcourt Algeranoff, National Library of Australia, MS 2376, Series 1, Item 445
  • ‘Het Ballet te Soerabaia’, De Locomotief (Semarang), 25 September  1934, p. 2
  • ‘Classical dance will return. Spessiva’s faith. Modern music too grotesque’, The Courier Mail (Brisbane), 9 October 1934, p. 21
  • George Zoritch, Ballet mystique: behind the glamour of the Ballet Russe (Mountain View, CA: Cynara editions), 2000

Travelling with Colonel de Basil’s Ballets Russes

Early in 1940 an article appeared in the magazine Australia. National Journal entitled ‘Ballet Business’. It was commissioned by the magazine’s editor Sydney Ure Smith, a great patron of Colonel de Basil’s touring Ballets Russes companies, and was written by Olga Philipoff. Philipoff came to Australia on the Ballets Russes tours as secretary to her father, Alexander Philipoff, executive manager for de Basil. She also acted as a kind of publicity agent for the de Basil companies and her articles and features about the Australian tours appeared in a variety of Australian newspapers and magazines and in England in the Dancing Times.

In ‘Ballet Business’ Philipoff sets out to inform the Australian public of the mechanics of moving a large company of dancers and other personnel around the world. She discusses, for example, the various lists that needed to be presented to customs and immigration officials on arrival in a foreign country and the procedures that were necessary when leaving the country.

She describes the kind of containers used for different items and notes that the de Basil companies carried their own library of ‘several hundred volumes, mostly Russian classics’. She discusses finances, including salaries and advances, taxes, royalties and costs of productions. And she notes day to day expenses including the laundering and repair of costumes and the supply of shoes to the dancers:

‘The next important question concerns the ballet shoes. It is always a point of disagreement between the assistant regisseur, who distributes them, and the dancers. Ballet shoes are very expensive and very difficult to get. In a performance that includes two or three ballets on toes the leading dancers require two pairs per night, between 50 and 60 per month – and then they often claim for more. The spinning, the fouettes and tours especially are very severe on shoes.’

Reading the letters of dancers on the tours provides an interesting counterpoint to Philipoff’s business account. Most collections of letters that relate to the Australian tours by the Ballets Russes, and that survive in public collections, begin by talking of the weather, company gossip and shipboard activities and shore excursions on the long journey to Australia from the northern hemisphere. Elisabeth Souvorova, a corps de ballet dancer with the Monte Carlo Russian Ballet on its tour to Australia in 1936-1937, gives a graphic account in one letter to her mother of a dramatic falling out between two of the company’s principal dancers:

‘There has been a terrific to do,’ Souvorova writes from Adelaide in October 1936. ‘[Valentina] Blinova has finally left [Valentin] Froman – he tried to throw her into the sea from the boat, but Léon [Woizikowsky] stopped him. He then went to her cabin and threw all her clothes out of the porthole, silver foxes, jewels and all’.

 

souvorova-cropped1

Elisabeth Souvorova (right) and an unidentified dancer as Nursemaids in Petrouchka, Monte Carlo Russian Ballet, 1936 or 1937. Photo: Athol Shmith. Reproduced by permisison of the National Library of Australia.

From Australia the dancers wrote home of their successes on stage, the trials of finding lodgings in the cities they visited, the local flora and fauna and the behaviour of Australians, which was often perceived to be alternately gauche and generous.

In another letter from Adelaide written in October 1936 Souvorova describes a picnic excursion:

‘Sunday we went on a picnic, about fifteen people in six cars, with various people I had never met! We went to the most lovely place in the mountains, and I have never seen so many fruit trees and wild flowers – and even paraqueets [sic] flying about. We had a marvellous lunch. They built fires and grilled chops and sausages, and [we] ate until we nearly died’.

She also recalls a business dispute over salaries and contracts, and suggests to her mother that the ‘management’ was attempting to underpay the dancers. She wrote a little later that ‘the financial question is finally settled – with the aid of Miss Deane we are to receive new contracts this afternoon [25 October 1936] with the correct amount (₤28.15.0 in Australian pounds) definitely stipulated’.

Letters from another dancer, Harcourt Algeranoff, cover similar topics. But Algeranoff also had his own distinctive interests and focus. He carried a typewriter and a gramophone (with a collection of vinyl recordings) with him as he set off for Australia in August 1938 for the tour by the Covent Garden Russian Ballet. He used the typewriter for many of his letters home, but he no doubt also used it for many of the articles and broadcasts on dance he was constantly preparing. Algeranoff regularly sent money to his mother in London and was always looking for extra work teaching, writing and broadcasting to supplement his salary as a dancer.

Algeranoff also used his typewriter to further his interests in Japanese and Indian dance forms. In another letter written from on board the ship to Australia he writes to his mother: ‘I’ve got all my notes typed out from the Indian Myth and Legend – an awful job – and so that book will now be able to be returned to it’s [sic] owner (the first inroad on the cardboard box)’.

algeranoff-japanese-cropped1

 

Algeranoff in costume for a Japanese dance, ca. 1940. Unknown photographer. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Australia.

As for his gramophone, he writes:

‘Please tell Julia the gramophone is a great blessing. Had I not had it with me I should probably [have] forgotten completely the Japanese dance Ūguré which I learnt the year before last. I’m also doing some improvization to the other records, although there’s not much space in my cabin’.

Even Algeranoff’s accounts of shore visits often relate to his intensive focus on dance matters. While he writes of the colour and bustle of bazaars, the need to fend off pedlars and guides, the heat of the Red Sea and so on, on many of his shore visits he particularly notes local dance activities. While on an excursion to Kandy from Colombo where the ship was docked in September 1938 he writes:

‘Further on on our journey we met the most lovely procession, elephants in coloured trappings and gold, musicians, and dancers who thrilled me more than anything I’ve seen since Elektra. I don’t know how I managed to restrain myself from dancing with them…I remember some of the steps so shall be able to show you when I come home.’

Olga Philipoff’s article paints a straightforward picture of company life beyond what she describes as the ‘harmony and beauty’ of the performance. Souvorova and Algeranoff remind us of the individual personalities behind the ‘harmony and beauty’.

© Michelle Potter, 13 October 2009

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Olga Philipoff,  ‘Ballet Business’. Australia National Journal, Autumn issue, No 4 (March-May, 1940), pp. 40-46; 94.

Maroussia Richardson Collection, National Library of Australia, MS 9915, Series 1, Items 31-33. http://nla.gov.au/nla.ms-ms9915

Papers of Harcourt Algeranoff, National Library of Australia, MS 2376, Series 1.1, Folder 15, Items 564, 568, 572. http://nla.gov.au/nla.ms-ms2376

Further material relating to Nina Verchinina’s marriage

In a letter written on 11 May 1934 to his mother, Alice Essex, in London the dancer Harcourt Algeranoff wrote:

‘Nina Verchinina is engaged to an American. I believe a rich one’.

The letter was written from Barcelona where Algeranoff was performing with Colonel de Basil’s Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo.

Read the full letter

All posts on Verchinina

Michelle Potter, 12 September 2009