Xenia Borovansky & Tamara Tchinarova Finch

My recent tribute to Tamara Tchinarova Finch brought to light a letter Tchinarova wrote to Xenia Borovansky in 1980 in which she discussed, amongst other things, her thoughts on Xenia Borovansky’s contribution to the growth of ballet in Australia. With permission from the various stakeholders, I am publishing the letter in this post.

Tamara Tchinarova in costume for the Mazurka in Coppelia with Xenia Borovansky before curtain up, Borovansky Ballet, ca. 1946. Photo Jean StewartXenia Borovansky and Tamara Tchinarova on stage before a performance of Coppélia by the Borovansky Ballet, ca. 1946. National Library of Australia, Papers of Tamara Tchinarova Finch, MS 9733. Photo: Jean Stewart

It is an interesting letter from many points of view and was written just before the tribute to Borovansky, which I am assuming means the program that Marilyn Jones devised during her brief term as artistic director of the Australian Ballet in 1980. It was a triple bill and consisted of Pineapple Poll, Schéhérazade and Graduation Ball, with Les Sylphides being substituted in place of Graduation Ball in Adelaide and Perth.*

Gary Norman and Sheree da Costa in Scheherazade. The Australian Ballet 1980. Photo Walter Stringer
Gary Norman and Sheree da Costa in Schéhérazade. The Australian Ballet, 1980. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

It also mentions the lecture tour by Tchinarova and Irina Baronova, which apparently had been discussed (but initially dismissed) long before it actually occurred in 1994.

*Details of the program are on AusStage at this link.

Michelle Potter, 29 September 2017

‘The search for identity. Australian dance in the 1950s’

In March 2017 I was a speaker at the first BOLD Festival, an event directed by Liz Lea and held in Canberra. It set out to examine dance heritage in Australia.

BOLD press release detail

The paper I presented at the National Film and Sound Archive, The search for identity. Australian dance in the 1950s, had a narrow focus, despite its title. I made some comments on my paper in my Dance Diary for March 2017, but I have been wanting to publish the full text on this site for several months. Unfortunately, I cannot add the vision I used, which came from the collection of the National Film and Sound Archive, but here is the link to the text and PPT images.

In addition, here is the link to the audio I used from an oral history interview with Valrene Tweedie, and also the link to Dr Liz Conor’s article on Aboriginalia, to which I refer in the text of the paper.

Michelle Potter, 13 August 2017

‘The Eternal Lovers’. A ballet by Paul Grinwis

In its Treasures Gallery, the National Library of Australia currently has one display case devoted to a production by the Borovanksy Ballet, Les Amants eternels (The Eternal Lovers). When I looked a few days ago the display contained the notated score (Laban) for the ballet, the work of Meg Abbie Denton; a Borovansky Ballet program giving details of performers and creative personnel; a double page spread from The Australian Women’s Weekly published in the issue of 12 March 1952; and on the wall above the display case a costume design by William Constable for the character of Romeo in the ballet, and a drawing in pastel and charcoal on velvet paper by Enid Dickson of Paul Grinwis as Romeo. The Constable design is to be removed shortly (for preservation reasons) and will be replaced by photographs. The rest of the material will remain for a few more months.

'Eternal Lovers' display case, National Library of Australia, 2015

The Eternal Lovers was created by Grinwis, a dancer with the Borovansky Ballet in the 1950s. It received its world premiere in Melbourne in December 1951 and remained in the Borovansky Ballet repertoire until 1960. As Alan Brissenden has recorded in his and Keith Glennon’s Australia Dances:

Paul Grinwis conceived this ballet as a continuation of the story of two lovers, called for the sake of convenience Romeo and Juliet, when they awake in after-life. Its focal point is a struggle between the spirits of Love and Death, Love being finally victorious.*

At the premiere, Grinwis danced the role of Romeo, Kathleen Gorham that of Juliet, with Bruce Morrow taking the part of the Spirit of Death and Helene Ffrance the Spirit of Love. The ballet was danced to Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture.

Sadly, the National Library no longer has a dance curator. It has an extensive and wide-ranging dance collection, built up as a result, firstly, of the Esso Performing Arts and Oral History Archive Project (1988–1991); then Keep Dancing! a collaborative venture with the Australia Council, Ausdance and the National Film and Sound Archive (1997–2001); and between 2002 and early 2013 as a result of having an in-house dance curator. So it is good to see that at least a small gesture is being made to give a very tiny part of the material some visibility. The current display reveals, again in a very small way, the kinds of areas in which the dance material is held—art works, ephemera, notated scores, popular magazines are present, and photographic material is coming. The captions refer to interviews, although there is no sound capture from the interviews.

The dance collection at the National Library is incredibly rich, crosses eras and dance styles, and is supported by extensive material from other art forms and by organisational records, all held by the Library across its many formats. I can but hope that more material will be displayed, and even that eventually someone will take the trouble to add to out-dated records—at the very least a few dates of death need to be added to Trove records.

As an aside, in 2005 I had the pleasure of visiting Grinwis and his beauitful, ever-vibrant wife, Christiane Hubert, also a dancer with the Borovansky Ballet for a few years from 1954. I had hoped to record an oral history interview with Grinwis, but at the time he was not amenable to the idea. Another occasion never arose and Grinwis died about a year later in 2006. Hubert, I believe, moved back to Paris but I am not sure if she is still alive.

With Paul Grinwis and Christiane Hubert, Gent, January 2005

With Paul Grinwis and Christiane Hubert in their apartment in Ghent, Belgium, January 2005. Photo: Willem Vandekerckhove

 Michelle Potter, 10 January 2015

* Alan Brissenden and Keith Glennon, Australia Dances. Creating Australian Dance 1945–1965 (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2010), p. 20

Bill ‘Angel’ Akers

While preparing for my recent Spotlight talk at the Arts Centre Melbourne I had occasion to listen to an oral history interview I recorded for the National Library in 2002 with Bill Akers. One of the many positions Akers held across the course of his very full life was director of productions with the Australian Ballet. He was also an inspired lighting designer, worked in various roles with the Borovansky Ballet and, prior to that, worked in theatre and film and on radio as an actor.

Ultimately, I used an audio clip from the interview in the talk and an audience member commented at the end on how nice it was to hear Bill’s voice again. Well that’s one of the benefits of recording oral history. But apart from anything else he had a beautiful voice. It was deep, generous and cultivated. In his interview he had something to say about that voice, which relates to his first radio appearances:

I became a club leader and gymnasium instructor in the YMCA and one Friday night, having lost the National Table Tennis Championship, I was standing rather dejectedly in the boys’ division and the telephone rang. A man called Bill Arthur, who subsequently became a parliamentarian and went on to join the House of Reprehensibles [sic]—he ran a show called ‘Over to you’, said ‘Look Bill, an actor hasn’t turned up for an interview, would you do it?’

Well, with characteristic reluctance I rushed out of the YMCA, ran down Pitt Street at the rate of knots, rushed round into Market Street and was up in Studio 149 before you could breathe. I hadn’t the faintest idea what I was doing. They shoved a script into my hand and said: ‘Say anything after the letter A’. So I did the interview and I was ‘A’. I didn’t know who ‘A’ was but they would go out and interview a boy who was perhaps an apprentice plumber or an apprentice clerk or something or other and they would get the details of his job and what the prospects were and things like that. And an actor would come in and play that boy on the radio.

Well the following Tuesday they rang me up and said would I do it for a year, so I got a contract. At the end of the year, of course I wanted to go into the theatre and I wrote to Keith Wood who was the director of that program and told him this. And he rang me up and very kindly said to me: ‘Look, Bill, you’re very talented but if you’re going to become an actor, the first thing you have to do is do something about that terrible voice’. Well I did have a voice that was very high at the time and very nasal. So high that only dogs could hear it. It was very nasal and Australian and so on. So he sent me to Bryson Taylor who was a voice production teacher who listened to me for five minutes and said: ‘Have a cup of tea’. And he talked to me for a while and at the end he said: ‘Look, I’m sure you’re very talented but I don’t think anybody could ever do anything with that voice’. I’ve never drunk tea since.

Not long after this Akers became a student at the Rathbone Academy of Dramatic Art in Sydney and went on to appear on radio in episodes of the Lux Radio Theatre and the Caltex Theatre. He also worked with the John Alden Company playing Shakesperian roles, and with the J. C. Williamson organisation in a variety of productions.

'For better, for worse'. Photo Hal Williamson

Michael Duffield, Bill Akers and Joan Duan in a scene from For better, for worse, 1953. Photo Hal Williamson. Courtesy National Library of Australia

At the request of Harald Bowden of the J. C. Williamson organisation, Akers joined the Borovansky Ballet as assistant stage manager in the 1950s. His interview contains recollections of arriving at the theatre for the first time as ASM, his impressions of Borovansky and his thoughts on the Borovansky Ballet.

I walked through the stage door of Her Majesty’s Theatre at about 11:30 in the morning to be confronted by these fifty raging egos jumping up and down and whirling around in the air. They were rehearsing a ballet called Symphonie fantastique and Mr Borovansky was standing on a chair shouting imprecations at these people. He had a pair of baggy old corduroy slacks on … He had a Chesty Bond’s singlet, rather loosely flapping and ballet slippers and a beret on the back of his head, which fell off as he got down onto the stage.

To me, despite the fact that I think I’ve met lots and lots of very great people in my life—I’ve been very privileged for that—he is the greatest person I think I’ve ever known. I think he contributed more to Australian theatre, particularly to dance, than anybody else. He created a ballet audience. He made ballet in Australia … he was just a fantastic man [with] particular drive and charisma. When you worked with Mr Borovansky you were alive twenty-four hours a day. He was the most stimulating person imaginable.

The Borovansky Ballet was a great big, magnificent, glamorous rough diamond with wonderful ballerinas. Boro virtually created ballet in this country, which is supposed to be a sports minded country, a situation that led at one stage to us having the greatest per capita ballet audience in the world. And that went on for twenty years … In Boro’s day, of course, triple bills were tremendously popular but he knew how to plan them. He was a genius at planning triple bills. He would introduce a new work like Paul Grinwis’ ballet Eternal Lovers. He would sandwich it in between the second act of Swan Lake and Le Beau Danube, which he knew the public adored. His triple bills were wonderful.

Throughout the interview Akers tells many other anecdotes about people he met and people he admired. He has the following to say about Joyce Graeme when she toured in Australia with Ballet Rambert, 1947‒1949:

I’ve seen some magnificent Queens of the Wilis [in Giselle] but there will never be another Queen of the Wilis like Joyce Graeme. She was an icicle. It was just a magical performance. She wasn’t nearly as good a dancer technically as many of the others I’ve seen but the icy chill she brought to the stage … and of course she was very tall and very thin and she was an electric presence on stage.
Joyce Graeme, Ballet Rambert, 1947 or 1948

Joyce  Graeme in costume for Myrthe, Queen of the Wilis, in Giselle.  Ballet Rambert, 1947 or 1948. Geoffrey Ingram archive of Australian ballet. Photographer unknown. Courtesy National Library of Australia

And he recalls the arrival of John Cranko to stage Pineapple Poll for the Borovansky Ballet in 1954:

[Cranko] first came to Australia for Mr Borovansky to stage Pineapple Poll. Wonderful fellow he was. Great sense of humour. And he’d seen Symphonie fantastique the night before. We were all waiting on stage, breathless, for this great, new, young choreographer to arrive. And at five to ten I used to set off the alarm and class used to start promptly at ten … Well Mr Cranko wasn’t there and everybody was standing on stage thinking: ‘He would never dare to be late’. Then the two doors at the back of the theatre flew open and he came screaming across the stage doing grands jetés, which is what started the final movement of Symphonie fantastique. And he got to the centre of the stage and he said ‘Well there you are, I have proved to you that I can dance. Now let’s see if you can’.

And why was Akers called Angel? As he tells the story, during one of his engagements in a musical comedy show a well-known female actor (whom he declined to name) suggested he looked like the devil with his Van Dyke beard. As a result members of  the company started calling him Lucifer, who according to the bible disguised himself as the Angel of Light. ‘Angel Akers’ was the long term result.

Bill Akers died in 2010. The extracts above are a minute part of an interview that documents many aspects of a long and varied career in the theatre. And like all oral history, it’s the voice that encapsulates the man—no longer ‘high and nasal’ but beautifully modulated and able to express in the most amusing way the most serious of endeavours.

Michelle Potter, 2 May 2012.

Here is the link to the National Library catalogue for the Akers interiew. The National Library cataloguers have yet to add Akers’ year of death to the reord. [This has been rectified—MP, 11 May 2012]

Season’s Greetings, 2011

high-road-to-taosTo all those who have visited this site over the past year, and especially to those who have contributed what I have referred to elsewhere as ‘refreshingly honest’ comments, I wish a very happy holiday season.

A Christmas production of Nutcracker was always a much anticipated part of my childhood and recollections of Elaine Haxton’s designs for the old Borovansky production (reused in the early Australian Ballet production) surfaced a few years ago during a December drive through, of all places, the Kit Carson National Forest in New Mexico. I hope you enjoy the juxtaposition of images, despite the obvious differences in lighting and location!
snowflakes-nutcracker-2

‘Snowflakes’ in the Borovansky Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker, ca. 1957. Photo: Walter Stringer. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia

I also recently came across an interview with Elaine Haxton recorded by fellow artist James Gleeson in 1978 and held by the National Gallery of Australia. Her discussion of the work of the designer in the 1950s is worth reading I think.

I look forward to your visits and comments in 2012.

Michelle Potter, 18 December 2011

Postscript to ‘Graduation Ball.’ The sequel

On 9 July 1955, a short news article appeard in the Melbourne newspaper The Age announcing the engagement of David Lichine to produce Francesca da Rimini and Girls’ Dormitory for the Borovansky Ballet. Towards the end of 1955 Lichine did stage a new production of Francesca. It had designs by William Constable and featured Jocelyn Vollmar, Arvids Fibigs and Royes Fernandez in the leading roles. During the same engagement Lichine also created his very popular Nutcracker for the Borovansky Ballet. It premiered in Sydney on 19 December 1955 and became the highlight of future Sydney Christmas seasons by the Borovansky Ballet.

Girls Dormitory was never staged by the Borovansky Ballet. The suggestion that it was to be staged is interesting, however, and one wonders, given that the Buenos Aires staging (see previous post) had such a short life span, whether the Benois designs held in Boston, and dated 1949 (post Buenos Aires), were created for a new version that Lichine was contemplating.

© Michelle Potter, 18 March 2010

Note: The article in The Age erroneously gives the date and location of the world premiere of Graduation Ball as Melbourne 1939. It was in fact Sydney 1940.