In January I received a query via the contact box on this site about some YouTube footage of Graduation Ball. I had never come across this footage before and sadly the vision is of very poor quality. The material has obviously been transferred from format to format on more than one occasion. As for the query, it concerned the date of the footage and eventually I suggested the date of 1947–1949 from the late period of de Basil’s company in the United States. What made me initially feel that it was late 1940s was that I thought I saw, for a flash, Valrene Tweedie as one of the ‘fouetté girls’. In one of the interviews I did with Tweedie I asked her about the roles she had danced in Graduation Ball and she mentioned that she had been one of the ‘fouetté girls’ for de Basil towards the end of her career with him. Watching the footage, I thought I caught a glimpse of a familiar facial expression. Peering hard at the opening credits, I noticed the name Paul Grinwis, and further investigation confirmed that Grinwis had been with de Basil in the late 1940s, which confirmed my initial dating.
Below are links to the two segments of footage. Any further information would be most welcome
Further information about some of the images in the National Library’s Bodenwieser collection has recently come to light. Those close to Bodenwwieser recently identified the ‘unknown dancers’ in some of the Library’s digitised images. The most interesting comments concern a photograph of dancers on what has been regarded as a 1950s New Zealand tour. Well this is probably not the case.
The dancers in the image above have been identified as L—R back row: Jean Raymond, Madame Bodenwieser, Pamela Mossman, Dory Stern; L—R front row: Elaine Vallance, Coralie Hinkley, Mardi Watchorn, Eileen Cramer, Denise Searlie. Those who appeared with Bodenwieser around this time say that neither Pamela Mossman nor Denise Searlie performed in New Zealand and that their time with the company was earlier than the date of 1950 given on the record. They believe that the photograph was taken around June 1948 (the weather is cool as suggested by their clothing) and at that time the Bodenwieser Ballet performed in Brisbane and on the north coast of NSW. They suspect the photograph was shot at Brisbane Railway Station. The National Library catalogue record should reflect this new information shortly. [Update September 2020: Sadly, this new information has not been added to the National Library’s catalogue]
My recent interview with Rafael Bonachela is due to be posted soon on the DanceTabs website. I spoke to Bonachela in mid-January and, as ever, was overwhelmed by the passion and generosity of Sydney Dance Company’s current artistic director. A link to the post is forthcoming. [Update: here is the link].
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.
Tatiana Stepanova, who arrived in Australia in December 1939 with the third of Colonel de Basil’s touring Ballets Russes companies—the Original Ballet Russe—died late last year in Florida. The company’s Australian debut was in Sydney on 30 December 1939 and on that night Stepanova danced in Les Sylphides and was partnered by Serge Lifar. Her performance was noted as an ‘astonishing debut’ by ‘a sixteen-year old girl, who had never before had a leading part’. One reviewer applauded her ‘floating serenity’ and ‘technical fearlessness’.
But even before she had set foot onstage in Australia, news of a potential star was being reported by the Australian press. The Orcades, on which a large contingent of company members had travelled from London, docked first in Fremantle, Western Australia, and The Argus newspaper reported from there that Stepanova was said ‘to show promise of surpassing Pavlova’. De Basil was recorded as saying ‘She is the kind of dancer one finds once in 50 years. She has created a sensation in Europe’.
Stepanova also appeared in early performances of David Lichine’s Graduation Ball, which had its world premiere in Sydney on 1 March 1940. She danced the Sylphide in the divertissement ‘The Sylphide and the Scotsman’ partnered by Michael Panaieff. She did not created this role—opening night was given to Natasha Sobinova and Paul Petroff, but cast sheets indicate that Stepanova danced it at least as early as 5 March. A number of photographs of her as the Sylphide were shot by Melbourne-based photographer Hugh P. Hall and many show the expressiveness of her upper body and her long and exquisite line.
An obituary of Stepanova appeared earlier this month on the ballet.co.uk site. It was written by Renee Renouf Hall who had also been working with Stepanova on her memoirs.
UPDATE: Unfortunately the link to this obituary is no longer available
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 above was part of the collection. It was inscribed ‘Many thanks for all the beautiful dancing. Nanette Kuehn 7-2-40’. (The image above, without an inscription, is not from NYPL, however, but from the Papers of Margaret Walker held in the National Library of Australia).
Featured image: Marina Svetlova as the pupil with Helene Lineva and Maria Azrova as the two professors in Graduation Ball, Melbourne 1940. Photo: Hugh P Hall. National Library of Australia
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.
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.