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.
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
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- ‘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