Some time ago, Tatiana Leskova, former dancer with the Ballets Russes and with a significant career after those experiences, sent me a copy of her biography, Tatiana Leskova. Uma Bailarina Solta No Mundo. It was the original edition written in Brazilian Portuguese by Suzana Braga. Eventually an English edition was released, Tatiana Leskova. A Ballerina at Large, and I gave my Portuguese edition (which I couldn’t read!) to Valrene Tweedie (who could read it). But I kept the DVD that was part of the original edition. As for that DVD, there were moments when English and French were used by Leskova and the people with whom she was dealing, but the dialogue and commentary were basically spoken in Portuguese. But luckily for me there were English subtitles available (although they had not been created in very good English, and they also often featured incorrect spelling).
But a recent major clean-up of my study brought the DVD to light once more and I watched it again. It contains some wonderful images from Leskova’s early career, some footage (mostly fairly grainy) of her performances in works from the 1930s and 1940s as well as footage and images of her later career as a dancer in Rio de Janeiro. There are scenes of her various friendships, including with fellow Ballets Russes dancer Anna Volkova; scenes of her teaching at the school she established in Rio; and interviews with some of the Brazilian dancers she trained.
A number of aspects of the unfolding story stood out for me. I was interested, for example, to hear comments from Sir Peter Wright, who commissioned Leskova in the 1990s to restage Choreartium for Birmingham Royal Ballet, and Wayne Eagling of the Dutch National Ballet for whom Leskova also restaged Choreartium, this time in 2001. Wright said she was ‘fighting for everything and being so passionate about it.’ Eagling said of her work, ‘She demonstrates what feeling should be.’ And they both talk about how she never compromised and was ‘tough’. And many other words of wisdom come from them both.
I was also mesmerised by the way Leskova moved when she was coaching dancers. This was especially noticeable in footage showing her coaching dancers of the Dutch National Ballet. At the age of 79, she wasn’t just demonstrating she was performing with her whole body, and it was easy to see that dance was an inherent part of her being.
Leskova turned 100 in December 2022. It is nothing short of amazing to watch this DVD, which is actually available on YouTube (but with no subtitles). Leskova’s career extends way beyond the Ballets Russes, for which she is so well known in Australia, and I have nothing but respect for her approach to performing, coaching and teaching. She has built a reputation for being demanding and several of those who appear on the DVD say she made them cry with her comments and demands. But the outcomes she achieved are exceptional, especially in her restaging of the ballets of Massine, which she did across the world.
The DVD closes with Leskova saying:
I was born in Paris. French people don’t take me as one. The Russians don’t take me as Russian. The Brazilians don’t take me as one. So, I am a ballerina. Free in the world.
A DVD well worth making the effort to watch. For more about Leskova on this site see this tag.
Michelle Potter, 13 June 2023
Featured image: Detail of Tatiana Leskova as a young dancer. Image from the DVD Tatiana Leskova. Nos passos de uma bailarina solta no mundo. Full image below. Photographer not identified.
Note: I was unable (for reasons unknown) to embed a link to the YouTube video of the Leskova DVD but it is easily accessible via a web browser.
The Russell Kerr lecture for 2019 was delivered in Wellington, New Zealand, on 10 February 2019 by Dr Ian Lochhead. Lochhead is dance critic for The Press, Christchurch, and formerly Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Canterbury. His lecture focused on the tours to New Zealand by the Monte Carlo Russian Ballet in 1937 and the Covent Garden Russian Ballet in 1939.
While the lecture as a whole opened up a number of issues that perhaps have not been fully considered in previous writings about the Australasian Ballets Russes tours, for me the most fascinating moment of all came when Lochhead flashed up the image used as the featured image on this post. It is well known to most Australians interested in the tours of the Ballets Russes and shows (l–r) Serge Ismailoff, Anna Volkova, Oleg Tupine, and Tamara Tchinarova (later Tamara Finch) with bicycles. Paul Petroff stands to the right, hands in pockets. It belongs in the Papers of Tamara Finch (MS 9733) and it has always been considered to have been taken somewhere in Australia. But Lochhead showed convincingly that the image was shot in Christchurch in 1939 during the visit to that major South Island city by the Covent Garden Russian Ballet.
Lochhead introduced us (or certainly me) to Olivia Spencer Bower, an English-born artist who lived a large part of her life in New Zealand. Spencer Bower, it seems, was taken with the dancers of the Covent Garden Russian Ballet and the Spencer Bower collection at the Christchurch Art Gallery includes an album of photographs, which she may have taken herself, of the Covent Garden Russian Ballet during its 1939 visit. One, reproduced below, shows a row of at least seventeen dancers holding bicycles and lined up in front of a theatre identified by Lochhead (a Christchurch resident) as Christchurch’s Theatre Royal. It has a large poster advertising the Covent Garden Russian Ballet across its entrance and to the side of the line-up is the tobacconist and hairdresser shop seen in the featured image above. Ismailoff, Volkova, Tupine, and Tchinarova are wearing the same clothes in both images. There is no doubt that the featured image above is not from Australia but from Christchurch.
It is always a thrill to discover new information about material in archival holdings. And it is even better when new information allows us to revise previous assumptions. The featured image in this post celebrates Christchurch as a venue for the visiting Ballets Russes companies that had such an influence on the growth of dance in the southern hemisphere.
Ian Lochhead’s lecture was preceded by two danced items: a performance of the Prelude from Les Sylphides danced by Taylor-Rose Frisby, a second year student of the New Zealand School of Dance; and The Dying Swan performed by Abigail Boyle from Royal New Zealand Ballet. Frisby showed beautiful control and I look forward to seeing more of her work. Abigail Boyle has featured on this website on several occasions. Live music, and it was exceptional, came from pianist Hamish Robb and cello player Inbal Megiddo, both from the New Zealand School of Music, Te Koki.
It is with a certain regret that I add that Boyle will shortly retire as a performer. Recent news from Royal New Zealand Ballet indicates that Boyle will dance in RNZB’s forthcoming New Choreographic Series and will then pursue a teaching career.
A note on the first Russell Kerr lecture held in 2018 is at this link
Michelle Potter, 15 February 2019
Featured image: Serge Ismailoff, Anna Volkova, Oleg Tupine, and Tamara Tchinarova, Covent Garden Russian Ballet, Christchurch, 1939. Photographer not identified. Papers of Tamara Finch, National Library of Australia
Here too is an extract from an interview I recorded with Volkova in 2005 for the National Library of Australia’s Oral History and Folklore Collection in which she talks briefly about arriving in Australia for the first time. The full interview is not presently available online, but here is the catalogue record. I used this extract previously, with Volkova’s permission, in a talk I delivered at the National Gallery of Australia in 2011 called ‘We’re going to Australia: the Ballets Russes Down Under’.
I was saddened to hear that Anna Volkova Barnes, the last remaining dancer living in Australia from the Ballets Russes companies who visited between 1936 and 1940, has died aged 96. She danced her way out of this life on 18 August. An obituary is in process [now available], but in the meantime below are two non-dancing images that I especially like from Volkova’s dancing years in Australia and later in South America.
Left to right: Lydia Kuprina, Leda Youky, Tamara Grigorieva, Anna Volkova, Tatiana Leskova, 1945. Photo: Kurt Paul Klagsbrunn. Private collection
The photo immediately above was taken in Rio de Janeiro not long before Volkova agreed to move to Australia to marry Australian rower Jim Barnes. She came to Australia in 1945 and they married in 1946. The photo above was a promotional shot for a performance these dancers gave for a student organisation in Rio.
In addition here is a link to some footage (probably also classed as non-dancing to a certain extent) taken by Dr Ewan Murray-Will at Bungan Beach. It is a mini-performance, known amongst the dancers as the Bungan Ballet, featuring Volkova, Ludmilla Lvova, Anton Vlassoff and Paul Petroff. Volkova is the dark-haired lady clambering over the rocks in the early seconds of the footage in a story about a damsel in distress who is rescued from the sea.
I last saw Anna Volkova earlier this year when I went to visit her at her home in Belrose where she helped me identify some of the images in the Upshaw album, about which I have written elsewhere. She was as charming and generous as ever. A truly wonderful lady. Vale.
A recent meeting with Anna Volkova clarified one of the issues that went through my mind as I looked through the album assembled by James Upshaw, which was the subject of a recent post. I was interested in several photos that showed some of the dancers wearing sweatshirts with a logo for an organisation with the acronym F.A.E on them. F.A.E., it turns out, stands for an organisation in Rio de Janeiro called, in English, Student Assistance Foundation, and in Portuguese, Fundação de Assistêcia ao Estudante. Volkova explained that some of the dancers, including Volkova herelf, gave a performance for this Foundation while in Rio. She identified the dancers in the photos for me, with the exception of a Brazilian dancer who had only recently joined them and whose name she no longer recalled. At this stage I’m not entirely sure when the performance took place.
Update (1 February 2013): Tatiana Leskova has been kind enough to pass on some extra information about the photograph above and the concert in which the dancers performed. The Brazilian dancer was Leda Youky and the concert took place in Rio’s Teatro Municipal in, she believes, 1945. The dancers performed choreography by Vaslav Velchek—Anna Volkova danced to music by Mussorgsky (‘The Bumblebee’), Tamara Grigorieva and Tatiana Leskova to music by Rachmaninoff (Grigorieva to his ‘Prelude No. 2’, Leskova to his ‘Prelude No. 5’). Nini Theilade also performed, dancing her own choreography.
Grateful thanks to the irrepressible Mme Leskova.
I was a little surprised, but of course pleased, to receive a message through this website’s contact box from Latvia. The message concerned Vija Vetra, a dancer born in Riga, Latvia, who had studied in Vienna with Rosalie Chladek, had come to Australia in 1948, had joined the company of Gertrud Bodenwieser shortly afterwards and had toured with the company to New Zealand and around Australia. With Bodenwieser she performed in most of the repertoire from 1948 until the mid-1950s including as the Bride in The Wedding Procession (choreography Bodenwieser, costumes Evelyn Ippen, music Grieg), in which she is seen in the image below. She also danced one of the Aboriginal mothers in Beth Dean’s Corroboree during the Royal Gala season of 1954.
Vetra moved to New York around 1964 and is still living there giving classes, lecture-demonstrations and workshops. She returns to her native Latvia frequently and is seen in the image below with a young student, Rasa Ozola, after a concert ‘Dejas sirdspuksti’ (Dance heartbeat) in Riga in June 2012.
In January I was pleased to renew my contact with Barbara Cuckson, initially as a result of a request from the Dance Notation Bureau in New York relating to Gertrud Bodenwieser’s early work Demon Machine. Cuckson’s mother, Marie Cuckson, was responsible, with Bodenwieser dancer Emmy Taussig, for maintaining a collection of archival material relating to Bodenwieser’s life and career, which is now now housed in the National Library of Australia. Barbara Cuckson’s father, Eric Cuckson, filmed several of Bodenwieser’s works and this footage is now housed in the National Film and Sound Archive. Barbara Cuckson continues to promote the work of Bodenwieser in many ways.
The conversation turned to Errand into the Maze, which Bodenwieser made in Australia in 1954. German dancer/choreographer Jochen Roller is currently leading a project to investigate the ways in which Bodenwieser structured her ideas and themes, for which reconstructing Errand into the Maze is part. Cuckson provided me with the image below of a rehearsal conducted as part of the reconstruction process.
Michelle Potter, 31 January 2013
Featured image: Lydia Kuprina, Leda Youky, Tamara Grigorieva, Anna Volkova, Tatiana Leskova, 1945. Photo: Kurt Paul Klagsbrunn
I am delighted to have renewed just recently my connections with two of the dancers who performed in Australia with the Ballets Russes companies of Colonel de Basil—Tatiana Leskova and Anna Volkova. Both feature in the photograph album that was the subject of a recent post, James Upshaw and Lydia Kuprina in South America, sometimes together, sometimes alone or with others. They were and still are great friends.
Both remembered Upshaw and Kuprina quite clearly and Leskova was able to tell me that Upshaw died in France, although exactly when is still unclear.
Leskova celebrated her 90th birthday in December—’I turned 17 on the boat coming to Australia’, she recalls—and is still very active in the dance world. Her biography, written by Suzana Braga and published in Brazilian Portuguese (Tatiana Leskova: uma bailarina solta no mundo) in Rio de Janeiro in 2005, has recently been translated into English. In addition, the irrepressible Leskova has just published a book of photographs. I hope to write about these publications at a later date.
Igor Schwezoff was born in St Petersburg in 1904, the third of four children of a well-to-do family. His early life was, therefore, a comfortable one. But the Russian Revolution changed all that. In his autobiography, Borzoi, Schwezoff tells of the hardships he endured while living under the Communist regime until he finally defected, arriving in Harbin, China, in 1931. He had been initially smuggled over the border from Vladivostok where he was performing, and had then been detained in China in abject conditions and hidden by various supporters until he was finally free to travel to Europe. The story told in Borzoi concludes, however, in 1931 and, while Schwezoff’s early dance training and performing experience in Russia, and his burgeoning interest in choreography are covered, his Australian interlude with Colonel de Basil’s Original Ballet Russe between 1939 and 1940 is not.
In Australia Schwezoff created the role of the Old General in David Lichine’s Graduation Ball, which had its world premiere in Sydney in February 1940. The Sydney press commented after opening night: ‘Schwezoff’s enormous height was a primary asset. He added to it by a cleverly ludicrous make-up and a cumbrous severity of motion.’ Archival film footage taken of performances in Australia in 1940 by an amateur film maker, ophthalmologist Dr Joseph Ringland Anderson, shows that Schwezoff at 6′ 2″ (188 cm) did indeed tower over the rest of the cast. But nothing can detract from the quality of his performance. Later, when the work opened in Melbourne, Schwezoff’s performance was described as ‘highly diverting’ and the same film footage, now fading and in disconnected fragments, indicates that Schwezoff gave a well considered performance. What stands out is his ability to take on a role and imbue it with a strong feeling for characterisation. In the case of the Old General he created an idiosyncratic character, slightly daft perhaps. But evident too is an awareness that this character was in a particular situation that required that his day-to-day military precision be tempered with gentlemanly behaviour towards the Headmistress (Boris Runanine). The tall Schwezoff, and the much shorter Runanine complement each other beautifully. What also is noticeable, especially in the mazurka Schwezoff performs with the Headmistress, is his expansive way of moving—he uses his long limbs to great advantage. The role of the Old General became, to a large extent, his signature one and he continued to perform it into the 1940s in the Americas, including with Sergei Denham’s Ballets Russes.
But Schwezoff seems not to have danced in many, if any of the other works in the standard repertoire in Australia. He is described in the biography of his Ballets Russes colleague, Tatiana Leskova, as coming to Australia as a teacher and choreographer, although this is not corroborated by others who knew him then, including Anna Volkova who maintains that to her knowledge he did not teach company class in Australia. However, Schwezoff was 36 in 1940, which was relatively old compared with the other dancers in the company, many of whom were teenagers, so it is conceivable that Schwezoff did tour to Australia largely as artistic support staff rather than primarily as a dancer. His height may well have been a further factor that determined the nature of his role with the Original Ballet Russe in Australia.
The first piece of choreography Schwezoff made in Australia was probably a solo divertissement called Etude, which he performed himself to Chopin’s Etude No. 12. It was made for a midnight concert staged in Sydney on 12 March 1940 for a Polish Relief Fund and a program note states that the work expressed ‘the desperate struggle and fight of a man in his last attempt to life and freedom’, which may well have alluded to his long and arduous defection from Russia. The Polish Relief concert was mentioned the next day in The Sydney Morning Herald but without any critical discussion of the program. It was largely seen as a social event.
In terms of his Australian choreography, Schwezoff is best remembered for Lutte eternelle, a one act ballet that premiered in Sydney in July 1940. Lutte eternelle was a reworking of an earlier ballet in the symphonic mode called Elkerlyc, which Schwezoff had first staged in 1936 in Amsterdam where he had briefly directed a ballet school and a performing group. Elkerlyc is the name of a fifteenth century Dutch morality play thought by some scholars to be a precursor to the English Everyman and Schwezoff’s ballet, danced to Schumann’s Etudes symphoniques, was, according to a contemporary review, concerned with ‘mental struggle and the triumph of will’. Just how close Lutte eternelle was to Elkerlyc is a matter for conjecture but Lutte eternelle certainly followed a similar vein of exploration and used the same music as the earlier piece. It was an allegorical examination of man’s struggle against the temptations that confront him in life. In its premiere season, which consisted of just seven performances, it featured Georges Skibine as the Man and Nina Verchinina as the Woman with Tamara Toumanova as Illusion, Sono Osato as Beauty, Marina Svetlova as Truth and Boris Runanine as Will. The press intimated that there were similarities to be observed between Schwezoff’s work and the choreography for Les Presages, but nevertheless Lutte eternelle was well received. An anonymous Sydney reviewer wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald:
[Schwezoff’s] individuality expressed itself in a combination of emotion with formal abstract pattern. “Eternal Struggle”—to give “Lutte Eternelle” its English title—spoke from the heart. No matter how it grouped its symbolical characters, such as Truth, Illusion, and Beauty—no matter how it drafted cohorts of people to and fro across the stage—there was always warm, human feeling within the eye-filling design.
Schwezoff continued to stage Lutte eternelle in the Americas in the 1940s and, when Verchinina left the de Basil company in 1941, Anna Volkova took over her role as the Woman.
The Original Ballet Russe left Sydney in September 1940 headed for the United States. Schwezoff stayed with the de Basil company until 1941. His dance life post-Australia is recorded in a variety of sources including an article in Dance Magazine in 1969, ‘Around the world with Igor Schwezoff’ and in an online article in 1979 by Scott Highton ‘Igor Schwezoff—master of the ballet’. Schwezoff died in 1982.
With thanks to Pat Rader, Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and Anna Volkova.
Michelle Potter, April 2009
Featured image: Igor Schwezoff as the Old General, Boris Runanine as the headmistress, Graduation Ball, Original Ballet Russe, Melbourne 1940. Photo: Hugh P. Hall. National Library of Australia
Braga, Suzana. Tatiana Leskova.Uma bailarina solte no mundo (Rio de Janeiro: Lacerda Editores, 2005).
Schwezoff, Igor. Borzoi (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1935).
Walker, Kathrine Sorley. De Basil’s Ballets Russes (London: Hutchinson, 1982).
Russell, Nina. ‘Around the world with Igor Schwezoff’. Dance Magazine, June 1969, pp. 64-67.
Stoll, Denis. ‘I present a bouquet’. Dancing Times, February 1936, pp. 635-636.
Philipoff, Olga. ‘A Schwezoff ballet. A note from the de Basil company—encouraging Australian artists. Dancing Times, October 1940, pp. 8–10.
‘The Ballet. Gay world premiere. Lichine’s Graduation Ball’. The Sydney Morning Herald, 2 March 1940, p. 19.
‘Midnight ballet performance. Polish Relief Fund benefits ‘. The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 March 1940, p.5.
Burdett, Basil. ‘High spirited comedy in new ballet’. The Herald (Melbourne), 9 April 1940, p. 17.
‘A new ballet. Schwezoff’s “Eternal Struggle”. The Sydney Morning Herald, 30 July 1940, p. 11.
Obituary: ‘Igor Schwezoff, ballet dancer’. The New York Times, 30 October 1982, p. 35.