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.
David Lichine choreographed close to fifty ballets during his lifetime. Graduation Ball, which premiered in Sydney on 1 March 1940, was probably his most successful. In Australia, from March to August 1940, the work was given 69 performances by the Original Ballet Russe, a statistic equalled only by one other ballet during the season—Les Sylphides, which also received 69 performances.
Lichine also created a sequel to Graduation Ball, scarcely known, apparently performed only in Argentina, and called Girls’ Dormitory. The Riabouchinska/Lichine papers held by the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts contain a letter from Lichine to the Director-General of the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, dated 13 March 1947, in which Lichine maintains that a sequel was in his mind ‘from the moment the curtain closed on the opening night of “Graduation Ball”‘. According to Anne Robinson, Girls’ Dormitory was planned for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1945, although it was never performed by that company. Its premiere performance was given in Buenos Aires in July 1947 by the Teatro Colón Ballet.
In the same letter to the Director-General Lichine writes ‘The ballet will have many comedy situations … and the corners filled to capacity with youthful abundance of virginal gaiety’, and he notes that the costumes will be similar to those of Graduation Ball. He writes: ‘The boys are all dressed as young cadets and all the girls in uniform with only slight alterations’.
Robinson records that the music for Girls Dormitory was by Offenbach, orchestrated by Antal Dorati, and that the work was designed by Mstislav Dobujinsky. However, a series of designs all dated 1949, clearly entitled ‘Girls Dormitory’ and signed by Alexandre Benois are part of the Manuscripts and Rare Books collection of the Boston Public Library. They appear to be for a different production entirely as the costumes for the girls are chaste night dresses rather than the uniforms mentioned in Lichine’s letter. They are labelled ‘Tenue de nuit de toutes les pensionnaires’. Other designs in the Boston collection are labelled ‘II—Le cauchemar’ and, according to Anna Winestein, in this second act ‘the protagonists find themselves in an exaggerated, nightmarish version of the school they attend’. In his letter to the Director-General Lichine also advises that he is enclosing a synopsis of Girls’ Dormitory but, frustratingly, this synopsis is not included as part of the Riabouchinska/Lichine papers. So the relationship between the ballet Benois designed and what went onstage in Buenos Aires remains unclear.
However, some of the Benois designs in Boston are of interest in the Australian context. Three of these designs are for teachers who appear in the Act II nightmare—’Le Maître de l’Histoire’, ‘Le Maître de Geographie’, and ‘Le Maître de la Grammaire’. While the designs for the professors of Mathematics and Natural History who appeared in the Australian divertissement ‘Mathematics and Natural History Lesson’ (see previous post) have not been located, the Boston designs give an insight into what they may have looked liked. They perhaps also suggest that the idea of the Australian divertissement may have been that of Benois rather than Lichine.
David Lichine’s light-hearted Graduation Ball, an audience favourite over many years, had its world premiere in Sydney on 1 March 1940. Vicente García-Márquez, in his 1990 publication The Ballets Russes, gives some clues to the origins of the work, including notes on the rehearsal process, the development of the musical compilation and on the designs.
An interesting slant is cast, however, on the unfolding of the design process and on Lichine’s early ideas for the storyline from an examination of the catalogue to an exhibition, Art for Theatre and Ballet: Australia. The exhibition, under the auspices of the British Council and arranged by Harry Tatlock Miller, was on display in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide in 1940.
Amongst the 500 or so designs in the show there were 20 by Alexandre Benois for ‘a new ballet to “Perpetuum Mobile” by Strauss’ with choreography by David Lichine. The catalogue notes that the Benois designs were ‘specially lent for the occasion by Colonel W. de Basil’. They were listed in the catalogue as:
385 Le Directeur
386 Convent Pupil
388 Senior Pupil in Sunday Dress
389 Senior Pupil in Sunday Dress
390 Senior Pupil in Sunday Dress
391 The General
394 La Sylphide
396 The Bearded Drummer
397 The Professor
398 The Governess
399 The Professor
400 The Lover
401 The Lover
402 The Major Domo
403 The Maid
404 Marquette [sic] and Plans of Scene
Not all the characters for which Benois had made designs eventually appeared in Graduation Ball, which this ‘new ballet’ clearly became. For example, the only design that appears to have stayed in Australia — no. 398 The Governess (La Gouvernante) held by the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney—does not represent one of the final characters in the ballet. The Sydney design remains of particular interest, however. Its catalogue record notes that it was a gift of ‘Col. W. de Basil’ in 1940.
But what is especially interesting about the list is that it contains designs for one divertissement that was only ever seen in Australia. The divertissement ‘Mathematics and Natural History Lesson’ was cut from the ballet, for reasons that are not clear, once de Basil’s company reached the United States after leaving Australia in September 1940. This divertissement was performed by two ‘Professors’—Australian Alison Lee (performing under the name Helene Lineva) who danced the tall, thin professor who manipulated a large mathematical instrument, and Maria Azrova who danced the short, well-padded professor who carried a butterfly net. They instructed a single pupil, danced by Marina Svetlova. It is tempting to speculate that nos 397 and 399 in the catalogue for Art for Theatre and Ballet: Australia are those for costumes worn by Lineva and Azrova. When the original designs are more readily available (at present they appear not to have been digitised and made widely accessible) they can be compared with photographs taken during the 1940 Melbourne season of Graduation Ball by Hugh P. Hall.
The Hugh P Hall material is of significant documentary value. But in addition to his archive, some of the most charming photographs of the world premiere of Graduation Ball were taken by Sydney photographer Nanette Kuehn. Kuehn herself was obviously happy with one particular photograph of Tatiana Riabouchinska, which she autographed to Riabouchinska and which Riabouchinska kept for the rest of her life. When in 2008 the Riabouchinska/Lichine Archive was acquired by the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Pubic Library for the Performing Arts, a beautiful print of the photograph below was part of the collection. It was inscribed ‘Many thanks for all the beautiful dancing. Nanette Kuehn 7-2-40’.
Postscript: On perhaps a less significant matter, but also relating to the ‘Mathematics and Natural History Lesson’ divertissement, it has always seemed something of an anomaly that in the well known photograph taken of Valrene Tweedie shortly after she had been accepted by de Basil into his company she has her foot resting on an old fashioned school desk. The school desk is in fact the prop used in ‘Mathematics and Natural History Lesson’, a fact confirmed by Tweedie in an oral history interview in 2004.
Art Gallery of New South Wales. Alexandre-Nikolayevich Benois (Russia; France, b.1870, d.1960, Costume study for Graduation Ball, 1939. Accession no: 6935.
García-Márquez, Vicente. The Ballets Russes: Colonel de Basil’s Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo 1932-1952 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990).
Miller, H. Tatlock. An exhibition of art for theatre and ballet: Australia (London: British Council, [1939?]).
Tweedie, Valrene. Oral history interview recorded by Michelle Potter, 4 December 2004. Oral History Collection, National Library of Australia, TRC 5350.