James Upshaw and Lydia Kuprina in South America

Recently I had the good fortune to be contacted about a photograph album believed to have belonged to James Upshaw, probably best known in Australia for his work as television producer for the ABC. The album was indeed assembled by Upshaw and the photographs largely cover a period from 1942 until 1946. During this period Upshaw and his then wife, Phillida Cooper, or Lydia Kuprina as she was known at the time, danced their way around Central and South America, first as members of Colonel de Basil’s Original Ballet Russe and then as an independent dance duo.

James Upshaw, ca. 1942

Cooper had been a pupil of Melbourne teachers Eunice Weston and Jennie Brenan and had left Australia in 1939 to study ballet in Paris with Lubov Egorova. She returned with the de Basil company for its third tour of Australia, 1939‒1940, and then left with them in 1940 for the United States. With de Basil she danced under the name of Lydia Couprina. Her birth name may have been Helen Phillida Cooper, although on some archival records she appears as Phillida Helen.

Upshaw was born in 1921 in Paris to an American father and a French mother and spent his childhood and youth in France and America. I have not yet been able to ascertain where he trained as a dancer but he appears to have joined de Basil in New York at the end of 1941 apparently, as did others, to escape military service. A letter dated May 1943 from Valrene Tweedie (whom Upshaw married at a later stage in Australia) to her friend Marnie Martin in Sydney explains:

 Phyllida married Jimmy Upshaw, one of the boys escaping the draft.

They married in Buenos Aires in 1942. It was probably in 1944 or 1945 that Upshaw and Cooper took on independent work dancing in nightclubs and casinos and later venturing into film. They later toured in Europe and danced on television in London before returning to Australia in the early 1950s.

Lydia Kuprina and James Upshaw performing in Rio de Janeiro, 1946

The album recalls other albums assembled by dancers while on tour and contains leisure shots as well as rehearsal and performance shots. It is especially interesting to see the repertoire that was being performed, and to see that it was sometimes being performed outdoors.

A performance of L’Après-midi d’un faune, Viña de Mar, Chile 1942

But what makes this album particularly significant is that it documents the activities of the Original Ballet Russe following the infamous strike of 1941, which resulted in a period of several months when the de Basil dancers were stranded and practically penniless. Looking at the album without the knowledge of the difficulties that the strike engendered, and which continued to plague the company for the rest of its existence, it would be easy to imagine that all was fun and games. The album nevertheless gives a wonderful insight into company life and will I’m sure yield more knowledge of this period of de Basil’s company.

On the beach in Rio, 1942

Michelle Potter, 5 December 2012

17 thoughts on “James Upshaw and Lydia Kuprina in South America

  1. Just saw an eposode on the History Channel
    that Lydia Kuprina and James Upshaw may
    have done a performance in front of Adolph
    Hitler in a theater in “1947” at Hotel Atlantico.
    in South America. Very Interesting
    I wonder if there still alive and would
    remember it???

  2. Well that is indeed interesting. Although I have no dates of death for either of them I am sure neither is still alive. The best I have re Upshaw came from Tatiana Leskova who told me that he had died ‘somewhere in France’. I have no definite (or indefinite) information about Kuprina, but she has never been mentioned as being still alive and, given the interest in the Ballets Russes a few years ago, I feel sure we would have known had she been alive.

    Nevertheless, thank you for passing the news on. The date 1947 is a bit odd though as Hitler died in 1945.

  3. Tatiana Leskova took part in that performance too. She was even mentioned in an article in a local newspaper. And she is alive. I wonder if she remembers those shows in early 1947 in Hotel Atlantico. And whether she heard anything about Hitler being in the audience?

    P.S. Michelle since there is no strong evidence that Hitler died in 1945, except for the interviews of Nazis who might as well said that to cover up his escape, there is a possibility that he escaped. There’s plenty CIA files on spotting Hitler in Argentina, Brasil and Colombia after the WW2. Hence the interest and the question.

  4. One would think that after all these years gone by,
    that someone would have come forward about
    seeing Hitler in South America. Possibly the fear
    of saying something would be unhealthy.
    Certainly it would be safe now to say ” I
    saw Hitler in the theater in 1947.” Seems history
    has ways of not remebering as we have found out that
    Columbus really wasn’t the first person to sail
    to North America.–Just say’n. T Rob

  5. Dear Michelle,,first of all I,We did’t dance in Rio,de Janeiro,,at The Hotel Atlântico ,as for myself,i know that Ania Vokova ,Tamara Grigorieva ,and Earlier ,Yurek Shabelevsky also,dancei ,at The Copacabana Palace “Golden “Room,……Maby Cuprina and Upshaw dancei at The Thereza Casino,CallesCasino,Atlantico ,also in Rio,as I don’t remember them dancing at the Copacana ,Till all the Casino,were closed ,and the game prohibited in Rio ,and elsewhere.
    We all took part in a group organized by N.Verchinina ,touring some city in the Southof Brasil,,with Cuprina and James,A.Volkova ,and Grigorieva have left Brasil at that Time .i never heart about Hitler being in Brasil ,though at one moment ,Brasil was pro,Germany ,but already in 1947 ,the war had already finished ,and Brasil ,was with the Allied ,and even had sent Trouls to Italy …..so there is something unbelievable …that story in Brasil.
    While we wherei Argentina in 1942 till 1944 ,we met at Party’s ,several Rich Nazys…
    As I wrote to you previously ,Jimmy wrote to me frequently from ,somewhere the Northof France ,he seemed very lonely and in a difficult position ,at the end,he probably was in a hospital,at I received the news of his death from there ,asking if I knew anyone
    From his relatives ,to give the news of his death…….As I didn’t know of his marry to Valery ,and Ania didn’t sympathies with Jimmy I don’t know if she spoke to Valery ..Hany how he was very lonely in France ,and made hits to Come to Rio,,I suspect to stay with me.
    Tatiana Leskova

  6. Thank you very much Michelle and Tatiana!
    And if you would like to see part of the documentary that mentioned a ballet performance in 1947 in Brazil, it was on History Channel. “Hunting Hitler” Episode 7. Thank you again.

  7. Thank You Michelle and Tatiana for responding back.
    I hope you get a chance to see the episode that Al & I
    where referencing to. It would explain why it
    seems so interesting and historical or maybe
    it would spoil History Channel’s series on ” Hunting
    Hitler.” Thanks again .

  8. Hi Mark,
    Please do. I was a student with Valrene Tweedie who was James Upshaw’s wife at one stage. He was influential in providing dancers, via Valrene’s school, with employment at the ABC before there were professional dance companies able to offer such things. Anything you can add re his later career would be welcome.

    Many thanks in advance.

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