Sydney friends of the Ballets Russes. The Repin family

It was the photographer Max Dupain who referred to the Ballets Russes dancers who toured in Australia between 1936 and 1940 as ‘very interesting people, very interesting for Australia at that stage’ and who noted that they were ‘taken into the bosom of Sydney and feted and entertained’. Even a cursory glance at newspapers of the time indicates the excitement that their visits generated and deeper investigation reveals sound artistic reasons why these artists from the other side of the world inspired so many. But what of the ‘feted and entertained’?

Each city the companies visited had its complement of Australians who made it their business to find a way to entertain the dancers on weekends. Usually they also made a significant contribution to how we now understand those tours. In Sydney there was dermatologist Dr Ewan Murray-Will, for example, who entertained many of the dancers at his beach house at Bungan Beach just north of the city, and who recorded some remarkable film footage of dancers performing on the beach. His personal photograph album also shows the dancers off duty on picnics and at animal sanctuaries enjoying an Australian look at life. There was publisher Sydney Ure Smith whose archival collection of letters indicate his many personal kindnesses to the dancers and their entourage and who published so many articles and photographs about the ballet in the various magazines and journals for which he was responsible in some way. There was lawyer Arthur Wigram Allen whose large homes, ‘Merioola’ in Woollahra and ‘Moombara’ at Port Hacking, were venues for lunches and parties, sometimes of extensive proportions. Allen’s diaries now provide an interesting background to the weekend exploits and activities of the dancers.

There was also the Repin family whose highly successful commercial coffee business is well known, but whose friendship with a group of dancers and others from the Original Ballet Russe tour of 1940 has not been so well documented. Ivan Repin, born in Novgorod province, Russia, arrived in Australia with his family via Shanghai in 1925. He opened his first coffee shop in King Street, Sydney, in 1930 and, following the success of that enterprise, quickly opened other ‘coffee inns’  in the main business area of Sydney. Ivan Repin’s entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography notes that Repin’s coffee shops:

‘brought to predominantly tea-drinking Sydney a little of the sophistication that characterized the city of St Petersburg in Tsarist Russia. They were the antipodean counterpart of the Russian Tea Room in coffee-drinking New York and the precursors of Australia’s Italian espresso-bars’.

Repin’s coffee inns were also to some extent a home away from home for Russian speakers in Sydney, including those of the visiting Ballets Russes dancers whose first language was Russian. George Repin, Ivan Repin’s son, has noted that his father employed many Russian speakers, including Estonians and Ukrainians, in his shops. He has also explained that the head office of Repin’s Pty Ltd was at 130 King Street, just around the corner from Castlereagh Street and in close proximity to the Theatre Royal where the Ballets Russes companies performed when in Sydney. The Russian speaking dancers enjoyed coming to the Repin’s coffee shops not just to drink coffee but to speak Russian, which they did between matinee and evening performances and whenever the opportunity arose.

Ivan Repin and his wife also enjoyed socialising with members of the company and entertained them at their home in Bellevue Hill in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, occasionally inviting other members of Sydney’s professional Russian community to share the occasion. What now remains of those occasions is a small collection of photographic portraits taken by Ivan Repin and some casual shots of the dancers arriving at the Repin home. Those portraits of which Ivan Repin was especially proud he printed in sepia tones and framed: Sono Osato, Serge Grigorieff and Dimitri Rostoff. They are serious studies in contrast to the casual arrival scenes. But they all add to our understanding of the out-of-hours moments enjoyed by the Ballets Russes dancers.

Photos: Ivan Repin, 1940. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Australia.

(Top row left to right) Serge GrigorieffSono OsatoDimitri Rostoff
(Bottom row) Dancers arriving at Bellevue Hill: left; centre; right

© Michelle Potter 29 August 2009

8 thoughts on “Sydney friends of the Ballets Russes. The Repin family

  1. My father was a Russian,who knew the Repins well..As a painter /decorator he worked in the house at Bellevue Hill..I remember him telling me that although Ivan Repin was rich,he didnt waste money…My father had drilled holes in the wall to instal shelving,and mr Repin sat there and carved the wooden plugs by hand himself..Mr Repin had three pictures on the wall of his was St John the Baptist,another was Joe Stalin and the third was his dog..Geiege Repin was studying to be a doctor and had bought a microscope..My father asked why he hadnt bought a later model with a binocular eyepiece which would be easier to use,and was told it cost thirty pounds more…The Protopopoffs who were friends of the Repins used to live at Palm Beach,which Father being a “local” sort of a person regarded as the “ends of the earth”… He visited them several times…My fathers sister Olga Brandt had a dental clinic at Collaroy Plateau,we would have a big family day out to visit them,by publuc transport,as cars werent so common then..

  2. I am writing a book about Australian doctors who served in WW2. One of these was Dr Nikolai Protopopoff. Apart from the picture of him and his wife Vera arriving at the Repin home, I have not been able to find anything else about him. Was Vera a member of the Ballets Russes company ?
    You have indicated that they lived atPalm Beach. I would appreciate any other scraps of information you can provide.

  3. Dear Robert, Unfortunately I can’t help you with any more information other than to say the only dancer named Vera who danced in Australia with the Ballet Russes companies, at least to my knowledge, was Vera Nemchinova. She was married but not to Dr Protopopoff. I suspect the Protopopoffs were visiting the Repin home, which was in Bellevue Hill, because of their Russian heritage. George Repin, the son, was a doctor but he was just a child when the Protopopoff’s visited so the visit would probably not have been specifically a result of medical connections.

    The other Australian doctor with ballet connections who served in WWII was dermatologist Dr Ewan Murray-Will, but I am assuming you already know of him. His films of the Ballets Russes dancers in Australia are held in the NFSA.

  4. Hello Michelle, I have only stumbled on this site by chance (and it is excellent). I, too, have been searching for information about Dr Nikolai Protopopoff, actually as part of my family history research, as Dr Protopopoff had nominated my mother, and her parents (my grandparents), to emigrate from the Displaced Persons Camps of Europe to Australia. He was also a witness on my mother’s wedding certificate when she got married in Sydney in 1951. My limited research has shown that he was employed at the Randwick Chest Hospital around this time. I did note that Robert Likeman was also searching for information on Dr Protopopoff and I was hoping you may be able to email him this tiny bit of information that may help him in his further research. As I have learnt, any bit of information can open up whole new areas of investigation. Thank you

  5. Hi John
    Thanks for your comment. Stumbling accidentally is a feature of life these days. It happens often and usually unexpectedly! And you are right that any small piece of information can go on to have significant consequences. I have notified Robert Likeman of your comment and am sure it will hold interest for him. The Repin family was quite extraordinary I think. I met George Repin at one stage and he handed on most of the information about the family that I have on my website.
    Thanks again.

  6. Thank you all for your information.
    What I would like to know is where and when Dr Protopopoff graduated, and wnen he migrated to Australia. Does anyone know ?

  7. I have just stumbled on this site and the Dr Protopopoff you are seeking information on was my grandfather. Happy to connect if you want to talk.

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