Olga Spessivtseva. Leaving Australia

Inspired by a comment on my August 2010 post regarding Olga Spessivtseva in Australia, I went back to that amazing National Library of Australia resource, Trove, and began looking again for passenger lists around the end of 1934 that might contain the names Olga Spessiva or Leonard G Braun.

It appears that Spessivtseva and Braun left Sydney on board the London-bound R. M. S Orama, a ship of the Orient line, on 22 December 1934. A passenger list including both names appears in The Sydney Morning Herald for that day. The ship passed through Fremantle on 31 December and news of Spessivtseva’s departure was reported in The West Australian on 1 January 1935 in a brief article headed ‘A famous dancer. Olga Spessiva leaves Australia’. In that article the story of the injured leg surfaces again with the reporter noting that her withdrawal from the company was the result of ‘An injury to her left leg, occasioned through over-work’. The article also reports that Spessivtseva was anxious to return to Australia ‘with the object of establishing a school of instruction and of producing ballet with entirely Australian casts’!

What makes this information particularly interesting, however, is that there was almost a full month between the last Sydney performance by the Dandré-Levitoff company on 28 November and the sailing date of 22 December. What did Spessivtseva and Braun do during that time? It appears on the one hand that the Blue Mountains story discussed in a previous post may indeed have a grain of truth, and also that Algeranoff’s information about Spessivtseva having already left by 2 December, also discussed previously, is wrong. Do we assume that there was an effort to cover-up what appears to have been more than an injured leg not only to the press but even to other members of the company?

Michelle Potter, 27 September 2010

With many thanks to Boris Fedoff for spurring me on to keep looking. Read his comment about Spessivtseva and her early departure from a US tour. And here is the full tag archive relating to Spessivtseva and the Dandré-Levitoff Russian Ballet tour to Australia.

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

Dandré-Levitoff Russian Ballet. Perth, Australia, 1935

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).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • ‘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).