At various times over the past year or two I have had some correspondence with Valery Voskresensky in Minsk and have posted a few items relating to Mr Voskresensky’s activities in his search for information about his grandfather, known to most as Colonel Wassily de Basil (various spellings are current). Just recently Mr Voskresensky contacted me again to pass on an article he had written. It contains, in particular, some interesting material relating to de Basil’s military background before his arrival in Paris in 1919, which seems to clarify the question of whether or not de Basil did have the military background claimed for him.
Here is a linkto the article. It is entitled The Return of the Legend: The Ballet Russe of Colonel de Basil. I am told it has been published in Russia and Mexico and is being translated for publication in Japan.
Victoria Tennant is the elder daughter of Cecil Tennant and Irina Baronova, the latter so well-known in Australia where she first charmed audiences with her dancing in 1938 with the Covent Garden Russian Ballet, and where she also spent her last years in a beautiful house at Byron Bay, New South Wales. Victoria Tennant, of course, knew Baronova in quite a different role from her legion of Australian fans: ‘Our mother was devoted to us,’ she writes, ‘and not exactly like anyone else’s mum. No one else’s mum did pirouettes in the butcher’s.’ This observation perhaps encapsulates the tenor of this book: it is a very intimate memento built around a personal collection of letters, photographs and other archival materials.
What is especially attractive about this book is its extensive use of photographs, which have been drawn largely from Baronova’s own collection. Many have never been published previously. Some are glamorous shots from Baronova’s Hollywood years. Others are informal shots of family and friends. Yet others are lesser known shots and early images from ballets in which Baronova starred.
Images from Irina Baronova and the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo by Victoria Tennant: clockwise from top left, Baronova in the movie Florian, 1940; driving with friends from San Diego to Los Angeles, 1936; in costume for Le Spectre de la rose, 1932; in costume for Thamar, 1935.
The book also has a special quality because much of the text consists of quotes from letters, an oral history made for the New York Public Library’s Dance Division, and recorded conversations made by Baronova at various times, although, unfortunately, it is not always clear which source is being used. But the informal voice of Baronova is strong. Anyone who met her, however briefly, or saw her speak in public, or teach or coach, will recognise that the words are hers and will be charmed all over again. These sections are differentiated from the linking text, written by Tennant, by the use of a differently coloured font.
There are some beautifully insightful moments when Baronova talks about working with various choreographers in different ballets. I was especially taken by her comments on Les Sylphides.
Nobody realizes that in Les Sylphides the whole thing is a dialogue between the Sylphides and the invisible creatures of the forest. It’s a whispering talk. All the gestures are listening, questioning, whispering back. It’s a conversation, and the Sylphides turn in the direction of the voice they hear and run to it. If you don’t know that, there are no reasons for doing anything, it’s just empty and boring. The whole ballet should be acting and reacting. To do it any other way is not fair to Fokine.
The chapter on Baronova’s time in Australia, 1938–1939, is short. But much has been written now about that time in Australia’s ballet history (although the last word has not yet been said I am sure) and the book is balanced in its coverage of the many strands of Baronova’s life. From a reference point of view it is good to have a list of Baronova’s repertoire from 1931 to 1946, although it is a shame that her film roles are not included as well.
Irina Baronova and the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo has been beautifully designed and produced and, with its strong focus on imagery, makes a wonderful companion to Baronova’s autobiography.
Victoria Tennant, Irina Baronova and the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2014) Hardback, 244 pp. ISBN 978 0 226 16716 9 RRP USD55.00/£38.50.
The National Gallery of Australia’s exhibition, Ballets Russes. The Art of Costume, which was shown in Canberra from December 2010 to March 2011, is opening in Tokyo on 18 June at the National Art Center. Installation is underway and the exhibition will be on display until early September 2014. Some new acquisitions, material not seen in the Canberra exhibition, will be part of the Tokyo show.
Did the Ballets Russes companies visit Japan? No, but there is considerable interest in Japan in the legacy of those companies, which was worldwide. It is of interest too that the influence of Japanese art on many of the artists working in Europe around the time that Diaghilev was taking Paris by storm was exceptionally strong. I look forward to reporting on how the show has been curated in Tokyo. It is always an experience to see familiar items in a different setting.
The progress of the hang can be seen on the National Art Center’s website by opening up the Facebook link at the bottom left of this page. [Update October 2020: Facebook link no longer available]
I was surprised to be contacted earlier this month by the curator of the Johnston Collection, Melbourne. David McAllister, artistic director of the Australian Ballet, will be a guest curator there in the first part of 2014 and will be adding some Australian Ballet costumes to the rooms of Fairhall, the house in which the collection of antiques amassed by dealer William Robert Johnston is displayed. I will be presenting a lecture at Fairhall in June—From bedroom to kitchen and beyond: women of the ballet. More later.
Fantasy Modern: Andrew Montana
Over the holiday break I enjoyed reading Andrew Montana’s biography of Loudon Sainthill, Fantasy modern: Loudon Sainthill’s theatre of art and life, published in November 2013 by NewSouth Books. There are a few irritating typos and errors (Alicia Markova wasn’t married to Colonel de Basil—at least not as far as I know!) and some odd references in the notes. But, as ever, Montana has researched his topic very thoroughly and, while it is essentially a book written by an art historian, it gives a fascinating glimpse of the cultural background in which Sainthill and his partner Harry Tatlock Miller operated. That background of course includes Sainthill’s commissions for Nina Verchinina during the Ballets Russes Australian tours, as well as his work as a designer for Hélène Kirsova, and his activities during the Ballet Rambert Australasian tour of 1947–1949. In addition it was Harry Tatlock Miller who was responsible (in conjunction with the British Council) for bringing the exhibition Art for Theatre and Ballet to Australia. There is some interesting information too about the 1940s documentary Spotlight on Australian Ballet. So Fantasy Modern is interesting reading for dance fans as well as historians of theatre design.
I was pleased to hear recently from Barbara Cuckson that Sydney-born Bodenwieser dancer, Eileen Kramer, had returned to her city of birth. Not only that, she has reached the grand old age of 99. She is seen below on her 99th birthday wearing a Bodenwieser costume, which she designed all those years ago.
Eileen recorded an oral history interview for the National Library in 2003. It is available for online listening at this link.
In December I am always interested to know what tags have been accessed most frequently over the preceding year. Here is the list of the 10 most popular tags for 2013:
Hannah O’Neill; Ty King-Wall; The Australian Ballet; Ballets Russes; Paris Opera Ballet; Olga Spessivtseva; Dandré-Levitoff Russian Ballet; Leanne Stojmenov; Athol Willoughby; Meryl Tankard.
Visitors to the site may also be interested in what is probably the last comment for 2013. I am attaching a link to a book review I wrote in January 2012. Scroll down to the comments in which one reader queried whether the author of At the Sign of the Harlequin’s Bat, Isabelle Stoughton, is still alive. As you can read, she is.
Past and future grace
And finally I couldn’t help but notice a sentence in a roundup of events for 2013 by Fairfax journalist Neil McMahon. Writing of Australian political happenings over the past year he said: ‘The policy pirouettes on both sides were en pointe, but graceless’. I’m not holding my breath for a graceful political scene in 2014. The dance scene might be better odds!
Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet was a controversial addition to the repertoire of the Australian Ballet in 2011. It has been one of the most discussed productions on this website and I recall being pleased when I was able to watch a recording where I could rewind sections to appreciate better both the choreography and the dancing. That ‘rewind experience’ was, however, on a plane and looking at a tiny screen was not ideal. Now the ABC has released a DVD so we can now have the luxury of watching the production at our leisure. It features Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson in the leading roles.
I have received some photographs from the opening of Valery Voskresensky’s Ballets Russes exhibition in Moscow. I am curious about the two costumes on either side of the world map as shown above. Scheherazade and Prince Igor? I welcome other comments of course although they are difficult to see due to the lighting.
Mr Voskresensky, who received a number of awards at the opening of the exhibition, also sent a link to an article in Isvestia and as I know there are some Russian speakers amongst readers of this site here is the link. There are also some very interesting costumes shown in one of the Isvestia images.
Heath Ledger Project
In August I was delighted to record an interview with NAISDA graduate Thomas E. S. Kelly. Kelly gave a spirited account of his career to date. Kelly graduated from NAISDA in 2012 and has since been working as an independent artist. His work has included several weeks in Dubai with the Melbourne-based One Fire Dance Group when they appeared at Dubai’s Global Village celebrations earlier this year.
Press for August
‘Symmetries’. Review of the Australian Ballet’s Canberra program, Dance Australia, August/September 2013, pp. 44; 46. An online version appeared in May [but is now no longer available].
‘The vision and the spirit’. Review of Hit the floor together, QL2 Dance. The Canberra Times, 2 August 2013, ARTS p. 8.[ Online version no longer available].
‘And the awards go to…’. Article on the Australian Dance Awards. The Canberra Times, 6 August 2013, ARTS p. 6. [Online version no longer available].
‘What happens when two worlds collide’. Story on Project Rameau, Sydney Dance Company and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. The Canberra Times, 31 August 2013, Panorama pp. 6–7. [Online version no longer available].
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.
The exhibition relating to Colonel de Basil, staged by his grandson Valery Voskresensky and mentioned in an earlier post, opens at the A. A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum in Moscow on 24 August 2013. Below, just received, is the poster for the show. [Poster image no longer available]
Translation from the Russian is beyond my capabilities I’m afraid.
I was delighted to hear that Sharon Swim Wing, who has devoted a considerable amount of time over the past decades to researching the 1939 Fokine/Rachmaninoff/Soudeikine ballet Paganini, has been able to mount a small exhibition relating to the ballet, its creation and its collaborators at the Napa Valley Museum as part of the Festival del Sole held in the Napa Valley, California. The exhibition runs throughout July.
Wing first became interested in the story behind Paganini while living in Moscow where she began intensive research into the life of composer, conductor and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff. Over the subsequent years she pursued that interest around the world and her research included meeting up with a number of former dancers who had performed in Paganini. They included Irina Baronova, Tatiana Riabouchinska, and Tatiana Leskova, all of whom created roles in the work for its premiere in London in 1939. From Riabouchinska, Wing acquired the Soudeikine-designed, soft pink dress worn by the Florentine Beauty, the role created in London by Riabouchinska and then danced by her throughout Australia with the Original Ballet Russe.
The exhibition in California includes the Florentine Beauty costume, reproductions of the Soudeikine designs, some photographic material and items relating to the Rachmaninoff score, Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, including the piano reduction of the score used when the de Basil company was touring in South America. This item was kindly donated by Tatiana Leskova. In addition Wing has included portraits of the dancers in Paganini painted by Boris Chaliapin in 1941, which highlight the close friendship between Rachmaninoff and Boris Chaliapin’s father, the singer Feodor Chaliapin.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Wing’s achievements relating to Paganini, however, is that she has been able to have a small excerpt from the ballet presented as part of the Dance Gala that accompanies the Festival. The excerpt was performed on 19 July by Ballet San Jose. The performance was accompanied by the Russian National Orchestra under the baton of George Daugherty. There are plans for the ballet to be reconstructed in full at a later date.
UPDATE 21 July 2013: I came across these two photographs of scenes from Paganini as performed by de Basil’s company in South America. Both come from the album of photographs assembled by James Upshaw. The first one is on a page headed ‘Cordoba’ so is most likely from 1942. The other is on a unmarked page and cannot at this stage be dated with any certainty.
UPDATE: 24 July 2013: Both photos were taken in Argentina in 1942 at the Teatro Politeama in Buenos Aires. They both show Tatiana Leskova as the Florentine Beauty, with Dimitri Rostoff as Paganini in the top image and Oleg Tupine as the Florentine Youth in the bottom image. Leskova took over the role of the Florentine Beauty in 1942. With thanks to Tatiana Leskova for this information.
Most of what we know about Colonel Vassily de Basil (Vassily Grigorievitch Voskresensky) concerns his activities as director of variously named companies that toured the world in the 1930s and 1940s. He came to Australia with one of those companies, which is best known as the Original Ballet Russe, on a tour that began in December 1939 and which lasted until September 1940 when the company sailed for the United States.
Little has been written about de Basil’s life prior to his arrival in Paris in 1919. Kathrine Sorley Walker in her invaluable publication De Basil’s Ballets Russes, from which so much further research has developed, provides us with some background. She devotes a chapter to the Colonel and includes a brief account of his exploits as a Cossack officer during World War I.
It was to my astonishment then that I recently had the good fortune to be contacted by Mr Valery Voskresensky, the Colonel’s grandson. Mr Voskresensky, who is seen in the photo below with Tatiana Leskova when they met up recently in Paris, is presently preparing an exhibition on de Basil to be installed in the A.A.Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum in Moscow later this year.
The existence of a grandson (born 1939) was more than a surprise to me but there is definitely a likeness, which Leskova also remarked upon.
I look forward to posting further news in due course.
Suzana Braga’s biography of Tatiana Leskova was first published in Brazilian Portuguese as Uma bailarina solta no mundo in 2005. It went into a second edition and in late 2012 was translated into English by Donald Scrimgeour with the title Tatiana Leskova: a ballerina at large. A translation augured well for Leskova’s English-speaking admirers, and for those who were more than aware of her background as a Ballets Russes dancer in the 1940s. It is, however, an unsatisfying book from many points of view.
Perhaps the most annoying aspect of the book from my point of view is that Braga doesn’t seem to have decided on a method of telling the story. She knows the Leskova story well having being connected with her subject as a student and then as a professional dancer, and much of the book is quite intimate in approach. But at times Braga stands back and is a distant narrator with expressions like ‘So let us move on …’, or she refers to Leskova in a kind of anonymous way as ‘the young dancer’ or ‘the ballerina’. And she never really decides whether to call the subject of her biography Tatiana, Tatiana Leskova or Leskova and changes constantly between these three names and her selection of anonymous expressions. Other names get an annoying initial rather than a full first name—A. Calder, for example, who from the context I assume is the American artist/sculptor Alexander Calder. Why not pay him the courtesy of a proper identification? And too many infelicitous English phrases keep popping up at the hands of the translator: ‘[he] landed up falling in love with her’; ‘She had made her international bed and could perfectly well have lied down in it’. It all becomes a little irritating.
Looking beyond these irritations, the book probably needs to be read as a piece of oral history in written form. It is based on an extensive interview program and covers Leskova’s life from its earliest stages to the present. There are many quotes from Leskova herself and many reveal her feisty spirit:
I am a perfectionist, always thinking I can do better. I am demanding and have therefore been much criticised and even feared but I don’t do things out of malice but rather because I want, even demand, that they be better.
And on Leskova’s feisty spirit, I met her in the 1990s in New York when she kindly lent me a videorecording of her staging of Les Presages for the Dutch National Ballet. She asked me, when I had finished with it, to pass it on to the Dance Division of the New York Public Library, which I did. But several months later I received a strongly worded message from her questioning why I hadn’t passed the recording on as she had asked. Well it transpired that the recording had been sitting on someone’s desk in the Library and Leskova had not been acknowledged (nor had I). It all sorted itself out and everyone was apologetic but in retrospect her message was a clear example of her strong-willed approach to life and dance.
Many familiar names crop up through the book including those of dancers who performed with the Ballets Russes in Australia and then found themselves in South America in the 1940s—Anna Volkova and Igor Schwezoff in particular have important roles in the story. The discussion is, however, more often than not personal rather than relating to professional careers. Marcia Haydée also makes a guest appearance in a chapter entitled ‘With Marcia Haydée, a Certain Unease’ in which some difficulties that grew from a remark made by Leskova are discussed. And there are interesting thoughts about Nureyev, Massine and a host of other personalities from Leskova’s life.
I found the chapter on Leskova’s restaging of Les Presages and Choreartium, entitled ‘Doors Open’, the most interesting section of the book. It contains selected reviews of various of Leskova’s restagings and I particularly enjoyed Jack Anderson’s comment: ‘Choreartium is a vast mural in motion that makes much recent choreography look puny’. Food for thought I think. The chapter is, however, somewhat uncritical. Everything was a huge success! I didn’t see Leskova’s Presages mounted for the Australian Ballet in 2008, but Leskova told me that she was unhappy in Australia, for a number of reasons. So I would welcome comments on that staging from those who saw it.
Leskova is a larger than life personality and this book reveals the woman behind that personality. I wish, however, that the book had a stronger authorial voice.
Suzana Braga, Tatiana Leskova: a ballerina at large, trans. Donald E Scrimgeour (London: Quartet Books Ltd, 2012) Paperback, 312 pp. ISBN 978 0 7043 7276 4 RRP £18.00. Available through online sites.