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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Early in 1940 an article appeared in the magazine Australia. National Journal entitled ‘Ballet Business’. It was commissioned by the magazine’s editor Sydney Ure Smith, a great patron of Colonel de Basil’s touring Ballets Russes companies, and was written by Olga Philipoff. Philipoff came to Australia on the Ballets Russes tours as secretary to her father, Alexander Philipoff, executive manager for de Basil. She also acted as a kind of publicity agent for the de Basil companies and her articles and features about the Australian tours appeared in a variety of Australian newspapers and magazines and in England in the Dancing Times.
In ‘Ballet Business’ Philipoff sets out to inform the Australian public of the mechanics of moving a large company of dancers and other personnel around the world. She discusses, for example, the various lists that needed to be presented to customs and immigration officials on arrival in a foreign country and the procedures that were necessary when leaving the country.
She describes the kind of containers used for different items and notes that the de Basil companies carried their own library of ‘several hundred volumes, mostly Russian classics’. She discusses finances, including salaries and advances, taxes, royalties and costs of productions. And she notes day to day expenses including the laundering and repair of costumes and the supply of shoes to the dancers:
‘The next important question concerns the ballet shoes. It is always a point of disagreement between the assistant regisseur, who distributes them, and the dancers. Ballet shoes are very expensive and very difficult to get. In a performance that includes two or three ballets on toes the leading dancers require two pairs per night, between 50 and 60 per month – and then they often claim for more. The spinning, the fouettes and tours especially are very severe on shoes.’
Reading the letters of dancers on the tours provides an interesting counterpoint to Philipoff’s business account. Most collections of letters that relate to the Australian tours by the Ballets Russes, and that survive in public collections, begin by talking of the weather, company gossip and shipboard activities and shore excursions on the long journey to Australia from the northern hemisphere. Elisabeth Souvorova, a corps de ballet dancer with the Monte Carlo Russian Ballet on its tour to Australia in 1936-1937, gives a graphic account in one letter to her mother of a dramatic falling out between two of the company’s principal dancers:
‘There has been a terrific to do,’ Souvorova writes from Adelaide in October 1936. ‘[Valentina] Blinova has finally left [Valentin] Froman – he tried to throw her into the sea from the boat, but Léon [Woizikowsky] stopped him. He then went to her cabin and threw all her clothes out of the porthole, silver foxes, jewels and all’.
From Australia the dancers wrote home of their successes on stage, the trials of finding lodgings in the cities they visited, the local flora and fauna and the behaviour of Australians, which was often perceived to be alternately gauche and generous.
In another letter from Adelaide written in October 1936 Souvorova describes a picnic excursion:
‘Sunday we went on a picnic, about fifteen people in six cars, with various people I had never met! We went to the most lovely place in the mountains, and I have never seen so many fruit trees and wild flowers – and even paraqueets [sic] flying about. We had a marvellous lunch. They built fires and grilled chops and sausages, and [we] ate until we nearly died’.
She also recalls a business dispute over salaries and contracts, and suggests to her mother that the ‘management’ was attempting to underpay the dancers. She wrote a little later that ‘the financial question is finally settled – with the aid of Miss Deane we are to receive new contracts this afternoon [25 October 1936] with the correct amount (₤28.15.0 in Australian pounds) definitely stipulated’.
Letters from another dancer, Harcourt Algeranoff, cover similar topics. But Algeranoff also had his own distinctive interests and focus. He carried a typewriter and a gramophone (with a collection of vinyl recordings) with him as he set off for Australia in August 1938 for the tour by the Covent Garden Russian Ballet. He used the typewriter for many of his letters home, but he no doubt also used it for many of the articles and broadcasts on dance he was constantly preparing. Algeranoff regularly sent money to his mother in London and was always looking for extra work teaching, writing and broadcasting to supplement his salary as a dancer.
Algeranoff also used his typewriter to further his interests in Japanese and Indian dance forms. In another letter written from on board the ship to Australia he writes to his mother: ‘I’ve got all my notes typed out from the Indian Myth and Legend – an awful job – and so that book will now be able to be returned to it’s [sic] owner (the first inroad on the cardboard box)’.
As for his gramophone, he writes:
‘Please tell Julia the gramophone is a great blessing. Had I not had it with me I should probably [have] forgotten completely the Japanese dance Ūguré which I learnt the year before last. I’m also doing some improvization to the other records, although there’s not much space in my cabin.’
Even Algeranoff’s accounts of shore visits often relate to his intensive focus on dance matters. While he writes of the colour and bustle of bazaars, the need to fend off pedlars and guides, the heat of the Red Sea and so on, on many of his shore visits he particularly notes local dance activities. While on an excursion to Kandy from Colombo where the ship was docked in September 1938 he writes:
‘Further on on our journey we met the most lovely procession, elephants in coloured trappings and gold, musicians, and dancers who thrilled me more than anything I’ve seen since Elektra. I don’t know how I managed to restrain myself from dancing with them…I remember some of the steps so shall be able to show you when I come home.’
Olga Philipoff’s article paints a straightforward picture of company life beyond what she describes as the ‘harmony and beauty’ of the performance. Souvorova and Algeranoff remind us of the individual personalities behind the ‘harmony and beauty.’
Nina Verchinina, born in Moscow in 1910 and brought up in Shanghai and Paris, began her performing career in Paris in 1929 with the company of Ida Rubinstein. Throughout the 1930s she danced extensively with the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo under various directors including René Blum, Léonide Massine and Colonel Vassily de Basil.
Verchinina came to Australia as a leading dancer on the 1939–1940 tour by Colonel de Basil’s Original Ballet Russe, arriving in Sydney on the Orcades on 18 December 1939. In Australia she was especially celebrated for her performances in Massine’s symphonic works, in particular as Action in Les Presages, a role she had created for Massine and had made her own following the work’s premiere in Monte Carlo in 1933. Writing in The Herald after Verchinina’s Melbourne debut in Les Presages, Basil Burdett wrote of her performance as Action:
‘Her interpretation of the role … is striking in its combination of energy and joyousness. To strong and beautifully marked rhythms she adds an emotion of delight in movement in a conception of the part which differs considerably from other versions we have seen.’
Verchinina was also the sister-in-law of de Basil—her younger sister, Olga Morosova (Olga Verchinina, born 1912), had married de Basil in 1938. As part of family business, Nina Verchinina involved herself in some of the publicity activities in which de Basil engaged while in Australia during the 1939–1940 tour. For example, photos show her with her sister, de Basil and others in Melbourne visiting Edouard Borovansky’s ballet school to watch his pupils.
But Verchinina’s visit to Australia was also marked by two significant encounters with individual Australians—one with composer Margaret Sutherland and one with young Australian dancer Valrene Tweedie.
On 9 May 1940 the Original Ballet Russe gave a charity matinee in aid of the Royal Melbourne and Children’s Hospitals. Dithyramb, one of the divertissements on the program, was a solo choreographed and danced by Verchinina. The music, also called Dithyramb, was by Margaret Sutherland and the collaboration attracted the attention once again of Melbourne critic Basil Burdett. He wrote in The Herald on 10 May:
‘Verchinina’s number, to music by Melbourne composer, Margaret Sutherland, alternately energetic and yearning in mood, showed her forceful style, based on the modernist expressionist mode, perfectly. Miss Sutherland’s music was finely adapted to the spirit and style of Verchinina’s dancing. One would like to see these two artists collaborate in a larger work.’
In her PhD thesis, ‘Reconstructing the creative life of Australian composer Margaret Sutherland: the evidence of primary source documents’, Cherie Watters-Cowan notes the development of the collaboration between Verchinina and Sutherland. Although it is a point she does not develop in any great depth, Watters-Cowan indicates that the music was written around May 1940 and originally as a solo for Verchinina. Sutherland later transposed the music for solo piano.
Although Sutherland and Verchinina never collaborated on a longer work as suggested by Burdett, Dithyramb was presented again at a midnight performance in Sydney on 19 September 1940 in a program entitled ‘Farewell Original Ballet Russe’. At this performance, Verchinina reportedly performed in a costume designed by Loudon Sainthill in tonings of black and red. The anonymous critic for The Sydney Morning Herald wrote:
‘One of the loudest and longest receptions was accorded to Nina Verchinina … Both score and choreography proved to be uncommonly vehement, and Verchinina brought to her interpretation all the force and fire which had made her work so popular during the tour’.
The next day the dancers left Australia on the S. S. Monterey bound for the United States. As she prepared to board the ship on 20 September, Verchinina sent Sutherland a telegram, ‘DITHYRAMB GREAT SUCCESS CRITICS AND PUBLIC WARM OVATION. VERCHININA.’
Also boarding the Monterey on 20 September was Valrene Tweedie, aged 15, about to begin a professional career as Irina Lavrova with de Basil’s Ballets Russes. Although she had been accepted by de Basil for his company, Tweedie was too young to be given a work visa for the United States without having a legal guardian. It was Verchinina who took on the role. In immigration documents completed when she arrived in Australia,Verchinina gave her name as Nina Verchinina-Chase and referred to identity papers issued in Sacramento, California, by the Secretary of State in May 1939, which gave her American status. Her husband at the time apparently was the American-born composer Newell Chase. This was enough to secure the visa. Verchinina attended Tweedie’s family farewell in Sydney in June 1940.
Verchinina’s career with de Basil continued briefly until 1941 and Tweedie recalls her fondly as a guardian who never interfered but who was always available if needed.
Tweedie encountered Vechinina again in Cuba in 1943 during a period when there was little work or money for dancers. At that stage Tweedie too had left the de Basil company and with her then-husband, Luis Trapaga, performed in a small group of just four dancers, which Verchinina had established and for which she choreographed and produced small works. Tweedie recalls that they performed at the National Theatre in Havana and then toured to Matanzas and San Fuegos.
There is still much to discover about Verchinina’s Australian connections. Her collaborative endeavours with designer Loudon Sainthill are yet to be adequately researched, for example. Her connections with Tweedie and Sutherland, discussed briefly in this article, were significant highlights in the careers of those two Australians. They also deserve closer examination.
Newspapers: Basil Burdett, ‘Melbourne ballet lovers enthralled. ‘Les Presages: a first favourite’, The Herald, 2 April 1940, p. 10; Basil Burdett, ‘Successful ballet for hospital funds’, The Herald, 10 May 1940, p. 14; ‘New ballet tonight’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 19 September 1940, p. 19; ‘Midnight ballet. Enthusiastic audience’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 20 September 1940, p. 4.
Theses: Watters-Cowan, Cherie. ‘Reconstructing the creative life of Australian composer Margaret Sutherland: the evidence of primary source documents’, 2006. PhD Thesis, University of New South Wales, Sydney.
Other sources: Interview with Valrene Tweedie recorded by Michelle Potter, December 2004. Oral History Collection, National Library of Australia, TRC 5350; Telegram from Nina Verchinina to Margaret Sutherland, 20 September 1940. Papers of Margaret Sutherland, National Library of Australia, MS 2967, Box 1; ‘Personal statement and declaration: business visitor’, Nina Verchinina-Chase. National Archives of Australia, Item 6831038.
‘The fire and the rose‘ is a tribute to and obituary for Valrene Tweedie, Australian dancer, teacher and choreographer who died in August 2008. Tweedie danced with Colonel de Basil’s and Sergei Denham’s Ballets Russes companies and with an embryonic National Ballet of Cuba. She choreographed for stage and television in Australia, pioneered dance education programs and founded Ballet Australia in the 1960s to encourage Australian choreography.
‘The fire and the rose’ first appeared in Brolga. An Australian journal about dance in December 2008.
Michelle Potter, 7 July 2009
Featured image: Portrait of Valrene Tweedie ca. 1952. Photographer unknown