Cecil Bates (1925–2019)

Cecil Bates had a remarkably diverse career both in and outside of dance. Born into a family in which the arts held a prominent place, he recalled that his first stage experience came at the age of three when, in one of his mother’s ballet concerts, he took the role of a teddy bear.

I first appeared in these shows, I believe, at the age of three, as a teddy bear. I remember being very angry with my mother because she didn’t think that I would know the time to come on to the stage, to know the right cue. But I was perfectly well aware of when to go on and, when she reminded me by giving me a gentle push, I was very angry and almost missed the entrance.1

His mother was a dancer and an operatic soprano. She was a pupil of Melbourne-based teacher Jennie Brenan and appeared in several productions by J. C. Williamson. She taught ballet in Maitland where her son was a pupil until he left primary school.

His father served in World War I and then took up teaching. It was he who convinced Bates to give up ballet once he entered high school and, at the end of his schooling, Bates took up a traineeship in metallurgy. He worked with Rylands Brothers Wire Mills in Newcastle while undertaking a technical college course in metallurgy.

But he was ‘restless’, as he remarked in an oral history interview, and began taking ballet classes in Newcastle with Grace Norman. Then, with a fellow ballet student, he went to Sydney to take a class with Hélène Kirsova and, as a result, moved to Sydney, changed his course to a similar one at Sydney Tech, and began working for Commonwealth Industrial Gas.

Although Bates didn’t ever dance with the Kirsova Ballet, Kirsova was impressed with his potential and suggested to Marie Rambert that she audition him for the Rambert Australian tour of 1947–1949. Bates joined Ballet Rambert in Melbourne in 1947 where he made his debut as a professional dancer. He toured Australia and New Zealand with Ballet Rambert and, when the company returned to England in 1949, he went with them. 

In England he became a principal dancer and later ballet master with Ballet Rambert and then, on leaving the Rambert company in 1953, danced with Walter Gore and in a variety of other productions including pantomime and film. It was during his time in England, encouraged by Marie Rambert, that he began to choreograph. His early choreographic works included two Scottish-themed productions for Rambert’s Ballet Workshop and a new version of Carnival of the Animals for the Rambert company. It was also the time when he took classes from Audrey de Vos, whose impact on his career continued throughout his life.

After the breakdown of his 1950 marriage to Rambert dancer Mary Munro, Bates returned to Australia to dance once more with Walter Gore who had set up Australian Theatre Ballet. When Gore’s Australian company folded, Bates went to work with Joanna Priest in Adelaide teaching and producing for her various initiatives and, in 1962, became artistic director of the recently-formed South Australian National Ballet Company. He also returned to choreography producing Design for a Lament (later staged as Requiem and dedicated to his mother, Frieda Bates), Villanelle for FourComme ci, comme ça, Seven Dances and A Fig for a King. In Adelaide Bates also staged some of the ballets he knew from his London experiences. They included PeepshowDeath and the MaidenCzernyana and Façade. He also established his own dance school and then a small company, South Australian Repertory Ballet. 

Bates eventually moved into a more academic life and began teaching maths and science, and drama on some occasions, at a series of high schools in Adelaide. He undertook a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English and Economic History at the University of Adelaide.

Bates was also an experienced Laban notator. His interest in notation began in London when he began taking lessons in Laban notation from an ex-dancer from the Kurt Jooss company. It was not, however, until he began working in Adelaide that he resumed his studies in notation, eventually taking a University course in the subject. He notated his own works and works by others with whom he had been associated, including Walter Gore, Andrée Howard, and Joanna Priest. He was later asked by Meg Denton to notate his work Requiem for Denton’s Australian Choreographic Project.2

Pages from Cecil Bates’ notated score for Requiem. National Library of Australia, MUS N m 792.842 R427

Bates is survived by his second wife, Glenis, his three children and numerous grandchildren.

Cecil Hugo Bates. Born Maitland, New South Wales, 26 May 1925; died Adelaide, South Australia, 20 December 2019

An oral history interview recorded in Adelaide in 2005 for the National Library of Australia’s Oral History and Folklore Collection, from which much of the information in this obituary has been obtained, is available at this link.

Michelle Potter 3 March 2020

Featured image: Cecil Bates in the pas de trois from Swan Lake (detail), 1940s? Photographer not identified. National Library of Australia, Papers of Cecil Bates, MS 9427

1. Oral history interview with Cecil Bates recorded by Meg Denton in 1985. J. D Somerville Oral History Collection, Mortlock Library of South Australiana, OH 84/16. A transcript of this interview is in the National Library of Australia, Papers of Cecil Bates, MS 9427.
2. For more about the Australian Choreographic Project see Meg Abbie Denton, ‘Reviving Lost Works: The Australian Choreographic Project.’ Brolga, 2 (June 1995), pp. 57-69.

Portrait of Tamara Tchinarova, 1941. Photo Fred Breen

Tamara Tchinarova Finch (1919–2017)

I was saddened to learn of the death of Tamara Tchinarova Finch on 31 August 2017 in Spain at the age of 98. Her story is told in her autobiography Dancing into the unknown and this post is simply a short, belated tribute to her, which includes details of a rather amazing occurrence with which I was fortunate enough to be involved.

Tchinarova’s Australian connections include performances with the Ballets Russes companies during their Australasian tours in the 1930s; with the Kirsova Ballet in the early 1940s; and with the Borovansky Ballet in the mid-1940s. She was also briefly engaged to Australian press photographer, Fred Breen, who took the photographic portrait of her that I have used as the featured image for this post. Breen joined the Air Force during World War II but was killed in 1942. In 1943 Tchinarova married actor Peter Finch in Sydney and a few years later moved to London with him, but they divorced in 1959. She continued, however, to use his name for the rest of her life, although in most cases in this post I have opted to use Tchinarova only.

In later life, Tchinarova came to Australia in 1994 as a guest of the Australian Ballet. Along with her colleague from the Ballets Russes, Irina Baronova, Tchinarova gave a series of lectures in various places and, during the Canberra leg of that visit, I was able to record a short oral history with her for the National Library. Here is a two minute excerpt from that interview in which Tchinarova talks about Hélène Kirsova. The complete interview and transcript is available online at this link.*

I met Tchinarova again, and her daughter Anita, in New Orleans at a Ballets Russes conference/reunion in 2000 but in 2004 a remarkable event occurred. I was dance curator at the National Library at the time and in that capacity I received an enquiry from Moscow via the now defunct website, Australia Dancing. The enquiry culminated in the discovery that Tchinarova had a half-brother and a second family in Moscow. The story is told in the November 2004 issue of National Library of Australia News, available via this link. Tchinarova met her half-brother in Spain in 2006 and in her autobiography she talks about that meeting. Below is a brief extract from her discussion of the meeting:

I am now 87. On a sunny day here in Spain last week, my half brother Alexander and I met for the first time. He is 77 and came from Moscow with his daughter Ludmila, to meet the sister he had for 60 years been searching for … This stranger, Alexander, had all the qualities I love in a man—intelligent, articulate, interested in everything … How wonderful that we were able to meet towards the end of our lives. One has to wonder about Fate.**

Tamara Tchinarova Finch was a beautiful, intelligent, caring woman. It was such a privilege to have had a hand in that meeting. Vale Tamara.

Tamara Tchinarova Finch: Born Bessarabia, Romania, 18 July 1919. Died Marbella, Spain, 31 August 2017.

Michelle Potter, 26 September 2017

*The transcript was never corrected. It contains a number of spelling errors.

**Tamara Tchinarova Finch, Dancing into the unknown. My life in the Ballets Russes and beyond (Alton, Hampshire: Dance Books, 2007) pp. 207–208.

Featured image: Portrait of Tamara Tchinarova, Sydney 1942. Photo: Fred Breen. National Library of Australia, Papers of Tamara Finch, MS 9733.

Dance diary. December 2013

  • The Johnston Collection, Melbourne

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
Fantasy Modern cover

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.

  • Bodenwieser news

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 Kramer
Eileen Kramer

Eileen recorded an oral history interview for the National Library in 2003. It is available for online listening at this link.

  •  Site news

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!

Michelle Potter, 31 December 2013

Strelsa Heckelman Lording (1925−2012)

Strelsa Heckelman, 1950. J. C. Williamson collection. National Library of Australia 

Strelsa Heckelman Lording, who danced under her maiden name Strelsa Heckelman in several early Australian ballet companies in the 1940s and 1950s, has died in Melbourne aged 87.

Described by friend and dancing colleague Athol Willoughby as ‘a sparkling dancer with a strong technique’, Heckelman began dancing early in her life in her home town of Brisbane. By the time she was thirteen she had passed all her Royal Academy of Dance examinations and shortly afterwards she was invited to take part in classes with Colonel de Basil’s Original Ballet Russe during the company’s 1940 Brisbane season. De Basil then invited her to follow the company to Sydney, which she did.

But, despite impressing de Basil, she did not join the Ballets Russes. Instead she continued her training as a full-time student with Hélène Kirsova in Sydney at Kirsova’s studios at Circular Quay and, when Kirsova started a ballet company herself in 1941, Heckelman joined it. She danced with the Kirsova Ballet until the company folded in 1944. With Kirsova she was part of the unique collaborative activities that Kirsova initiated when she commissioned composers, including Henry Krips, and designers such as Loudon Sainthill to work with her company.

Heckelman then joined Edouard Borovansky’s Borovansky Ballet performing in the company’s regular repertoire as well as in musical shows that Borovansky choreographed for the J. C. Williamson organisation. Later she danced with Laurel Martyn’s Melbourne-based company Ballet Guild, and in the early 1950s danced again in J. C. Williamson musicals, including Song of Norway and Oklahoma. Leading performers in musicals in the fifties were almost always brought in from overseas and Heckelman danced to considerble acclaim in both Song of Norway and Oklahoma with star American jazz dancer Matt Mattox.

Her final professional performances before retiring in 1953 to have her children were with the National Theatre Ballet in Melbourne. With the National her repertoire included the full-length Swan Lake, the Giselle peasant pas de deux, which she danced with Ray Trickett, and the Head Girl in Kira Bousloff’s staging of Graduation Ball. She also alternated with Valrene Tweedie as Columbine in Tweedie’s 1953 production of Carnaval for the National. 

Strelsa Heckelman in the peasant pas de deux from Giselle. National Theatre Ballet, 1952. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

Athol Willoughby recalls a somewhat incredible feat that took place during a rehearsal for the National’s Swan Lake. He says: ‘Our rehearsals for the 1952 season were conducted in a large church hall in the suburb of Hawthorn. At a rehearsal for “Swan Lake” Act 3, Strelsa was dancing in a cardigan because she had a cold. She began the 32 fouettes of the coda when her nose began to run. Without missing a beat she took a handkerchief from a pocket in the cardigan, blew her nose, put the hanky back in the pocket concluding the series of fouettes without moving from the spot. That seemed to me to be quite an achievement!’

In between jobs with a ballet companies, Heckelman worked in a photographer’s studio and later in the perfume department of the Melbourne department store, Georges. Following her stage career she established her own ballet school and also taught for other teachers in the Melbourne area. She remained active in the dance world in her later years and in 2002 became patron of the Tasmanian Ballet Company.

Heckelman once recalled that she never tired of dancing. She thought of every night as an opening night and always relished the overture starting, the curtain going up and seeing the lights in the theatre. That was the magic of the theatre for her.

Strelsa Heckelman married Jack Carruthers in 1951. After the death of Carruthers, Heckelman married Tom Lording in 1984. He died the following year. Heckelman is survived by a son, Ian, and a daughter, Lynn, from her first marriage.

Strelsa Heckelman Lording: born Brisbane, 20 July 1925; died Melbourne, 28 December 2012

Michelle Potter, 7 January 2013

Nina Verchinina. A new article

Those who have been following posts on this site relating to Nina Verchinina may be interested in an article published in the most recent edition of Brolga: an Australia journal about dance (issue 34, June 2011). This elegantly written article, rather lengthily entitled ‘Designing for Nina Verchinina’s choreographic vivacity: a new light on Loudon Sainthill’s art’, is by Andrew Montana. It sheds important light on Verchinina’s choreographic exploits in Australia and suggests that gender may have played a role in the fact that, in Montana’s opinion, Verchinina’s ballets were never really given adequate showings in Australia.

The gender issue is an interesting speculation and perhaps will never ultimately be more than that. But the idea does have a certain plausibility and is echoed by the difficulties faced by Hélène Kirsova as she tried to develop her own company, the Kirsova Ballet, in the early 1940s in the face of competition from Edouard Borovansky. See for example my recent post on Kirsova, my article ‘A strong personality and a gift for leadership: Hélène Kirsova in Australia’ (Dance Research, 13:2, Winter 1995, pp. 62-76) and a shorter article in National Library of Australia News published in August 2000.

Montana is perhaps at his most eloquent when describing the drawings and paintings of Verchinina executed by Sainthill. But his article also develops further than has been done so far the story of de Basil’s design competition of 1940 won by Donald Friend, along with a number of other matters relating to the Original Ballet Russe in Australia.

As something of a side issue, Montana also mentions the Sidney Nolan designed Icare and notes that there is nothing to indicate that Sainthill was approached to design this work. This appears to contradict Brian Adams’ contention in his biography of Nolan, Such is life, that Sainthill had ‘already been commissioned by Colonel de Basil’ (p. 46) to design this work. Adams gives no source reference for his statement but I believe it does warrant more investigation. Adams goes on to say that Sainthill had been ‘edged out by [Serge] Lifar and [Peter] Bellew’ (p. 46) so there is potentially source material elsewhere other than in Sainthill’s archival collection, which Montana has investigated.

One error in the text needs correction. Montana notes that the cast of Verchinina’s Etude included ‘Lydia Couprina (Valrene Tweedie)’ (p. 22). In fact Lydia Couprina was the stage name of Phyllida Cooper, an Australian from Melbourne who had joined de Basil in Paris where she had been studying with Olga Preobrajenska. Tweedie danced under the name Irina Lavrova. As a side issue, however, there is a connection beyond nationality between Cooper and Tweedie. When Tweedie returned to Australia from the United States in 1950s she eventually bought the school in Sydney jointly run by Cooper and her then husband, James Upshaw. Upshaw later became Tweedie’s second husband.

Unfortunately this most welcome article from Montana is not available online, but it is worth following up in hard copy in libraries where Brolga is held.

Michelle Potter, 28 June 2011

Hélène Kirsova. Some problems with costumes

Back in 1995 I wrote an article on Hélène Kirsova for Dance Research. During the course of writing that article I came across a clipping in the Kirsova Archive held by the National Gallery of Australia, in which it was reported that Kirsova had had to postpone a Sydney season planned for September 1944 because she was unable to obtain the ration permit she needed to buy materials to make costumes. The article caused something of a stir and a rejoinder was published the following day from the deputy director of rationing, a Mr Hudson, who reported that Kirsova had in fact been given costume material far in excess of that given to any other similar company in Australia.

Recently a file held by the National Archives of Australia, Melbourne branch, in which the events are more fully spelled out became available and was brought to my attention. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the correspondence contained in this file emerges from letters between Kirsova and the director of rationing, a Mr J. B. Cumming, written largely during August and September 1944. Cumming wrote to Kirsova early in August explaining that his advice was that the Kirsova Ballet was a non-commercial concern, similar in nature to the Borovansky Ballet and the National Theatre Ballet. Such companies, he noted, gave performances for charitable, educational or cultural purposes and as such had a maximum allowance of material imposed upon them. The correspondence pointed out that Kirsova donated the proceeds of her performances to a charity, as indeed she did. Kirsova had set up a charity to provide playgrounds for children in depressed inner city suburbs in Sydney.

Kirsova was, however, not impressed with the designation ‘non-commercial’ and she replied that the Kirsova Ballet ‘has been conducted on an entirely professional basis from its very inception and my dancers and all other artists are paid by me in accordance with existing Awards.’ She was at unhappy being classed with the Borovansky Ballet, which, she suggested, until the season sponsored by the J. C. Williamson organisation in 1944 had ‘never before toured or appeared outside Melbourne’ and had been conducted ‘on an entirely amateur basis, confining itself to an occasional presentation of a few performances and studio club concerts.’ Kirsova intimated that if she were unable to obtain the necessary permit her company would have to close down and in fact this is what happened. Although Kirsova was invited to submit a proposal for material required for the following year, in the end (after appeals to the Prime Minister on her behalf and further discussion about what constituted a professional company) the last performance by the Kirsova Ballet was the one that had taken place in Brisbane in May 1944.

There has always been speculation about why the Kirsova Ballet disbanded and this new correspondence adds fuel to the speculation that Kirsova was a determined woman and  not one to compromise. To be classed as an amateur company and to be put into the same category as the Borovansky Ballet was for her simply beyond the pale.

Hélène Kirsova in Revolution of the Umbrellas, 1944. Photograph by The Telegraph (Brisbane). National Library of Australia. Reproduced with permission

My original article, ‘A strong personality and a gift for leadership: Hélène Kirsova in Australia’, was published in Dance Research, Vol 13 (No. 2, Winter 1995), pp.  62–76.

See also ‘Permits for Kirsova Ballet Company’, National Archives of Australia, Series no. B5661.

© Michelle Potter, 19 May 2011.

Rachel Cameron Parker (1924-2011)

Rachel Cameron Parker, dancer and dance teacher who has died in London just a few weeks short of her 87th birthday, worked all her life to maintain the classical basis of ballet.

Rachel Cameron adjusting her ballet shoe, 1940s. Geoffrey Ingram Archive of Australian Ballet. With permission of the National Library of Australia. Photo by S. Alston Pearl [?]

On a trip to Australia in 1976 Cameron told oral historian Hazel de Berg:

‘I want the pure classical basis of the ballet to continue. I want it to continue in England, the whole of Europe, America, and Australia, so that we can extend and continue to build on this basis. I feel that out of 200 pupils maybe only one will grasp the real significance of this basic work. But out of 200 or 300, one person is enough for it to be handed down to future generations. I don’t want it to be lost.’

Cameron was born in Brisbane but spent her early childhood in Townsville in northern Queensland before moving to Sydney aged about 5 or 6. In Sydney she began dancing lessons with Muriel Sievers who had studied in London with Phyllis Bedells and who taught the syllabus of the Royal Academy of Dancing, as it was then called. It was with Sievers that Cameron first began teaching as Sievers quickly had her helping teach the youngest classes on Saturday morning. Sievers also insisted that Cameron take piano lessons and also lent her Tamara Karsavina’s book Theatre Street.

In the early 1940s Cameron danced with the Borovansky Australian Ballet Company, which later became the professional Borovansky Ballet and then with the Kirsova Ballet in Sydney, a company led by former star of the Monte Carlo Russian Ballet, Hélène Kirsova. There were also opportunities for Cameron to develop her teaching skills in Kirsova’s school, which was firmly grounded in what Kirsova referred to as the ‘Russian method’.

Cameron was given major roles in a number of Kirsova’s works including Revolution of the Umbrellas, Faust, A Dream…and a Fairy Tale, Harlequin, and Hansel and Gretel. She has recalled that her happiest days as a dancer were with Kirsova:

‘She was a woman who tried to mould her company in the Diaghilev tradition where music, the scenery, the dancers became part of one whole, and there it was I think that the true beginnings of Australian ballet lie.’

Moving to England with her husband Keith Parker, Cameron danced in Song of Norway and in a company directed by Molly Lake. She also studied in Paris with former stars of the Russian Imperial Ballet, Lubov Egorova and Olga Preobrajenska, and with many notable English teachers including Anna Northcote.

By her own admission one of the most exciting periods of her life came when she was asked to demonstrate for two great teachers and former ballerinas—Lydia Sokolova and Tamara Karsavina. With Karsavina she also developed a teaching syllabus for the Royal Academy of Dance.

‘Sokolova was absolutely marvellous,’ Cameron once recalled. ‘She was not content with near being good enough, it had to be exact or else.’

Of Karasavina, she has recalled: ‘I found for the first time that what I had always dreamed of was true, and that’s why, now, I am such a stickler for perfection of technique.’

Cameron was guest teacher for many companies around the world including the Australian Ballet. In December 2010 she was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award for a lifetime of services to dance. Rachel Cameron is survived by her brother Alister and nieces Alison, Fiona and Christine.

Rachel Cameron Parker: born 27 March 1924, died 6 March 2011

Michelle Potter, 13 April 2011

Postscript: One of the images of Cameron that has fascinated me, as much for its 1940s glamour as anything else, is that of her with her colleagues from the Kirsova Ballet, Peggy Sager and Strelsa Heckelman, posing outdoors at Taylor’s Bay close to Kirsova’s home on the northern shores of Sydney Harbour.

Clockwise from top: Peggy Sager, Strelsa Heckelman, Rachel Cameron, Taylor’s Bay, Sydney, 1943. With permission of the National Library of Australia.

Added 28 April 2011: Maina Gielgud studied with Rachel Cameron at various points in her life and they remained close friends until the end of Rachel’s life. Maina  shared this recollection:

Memories of Rachel from when she gave me private lessons when I was nine years old:   Passionate, outspoken, knowledgeable. I believe she was an excellent dancer with lots of personality and mammoth technique.

I always remember her coming to see me in Newcastle (UK) performing Swan Lake with Festival Ballet. I thought I was dancing quite well (for once!)—she said nothing, but wrote me a long letter which quite disillusioned me, but certainly made me rethink what I was up to and how I went about my work and my dancing…

She knew I knew that she only bothered because she thought I was worth it…


Sydney friends of the Ballets Russes. Dr Ewan Murray-Will

Dr Ewan Murray-Will (1899-1970) was by profession a dermatologist with a practice in Macquarie Street, Sydney. He studied medicine at Sydney University graduating in 1923 and followed that initial study with further work in Vienna and London. He was honorary dermatologist to a number of Sydney hospitals including Sydney Hospital, St Vincent’s Hospital and the Coast Hospital (later Prince Henry Hospital). Murray-Will also served in World War II in the Middle East and later in North Queensland and was awarded an MBE at the conclusion of the War. He was also a passionate supporter of the arts and a friend and patron of the Ballets Russes dancers who visited Australia between 1936 and 1940.

His home movies documenting performances by, and weekend activities of the dancers of the visiting Ballets Russes companies have been known in Australian dance circles since the late 1990s when they were donated to the National Film and Sound Archive. Some of this remarkable footage was used in The Ballets Russes in Australia: an avalanche of dancing, produced in 1999 by the National Film and Sound Archive and the National Library of Australia. Some was also screened in a compilation of archival footage that accompanied the National Gallery of Australia’s 1999 exhibition of Ballets Russes costumes, From Russia with love.

Perhaps the most engaging of the footage is that shot on Bungan Beach, a beach north of Sydney that even today remains relatively isolated. It is hidden from the main road and accessible only by a walking track. It was at Bungan Beach that Murray-Will regularly rented out a beach house and also regularly invited a number of the dancers to visit on weekends. Much of the beach footage is filmed in slow motion and often shows the dancers demonstrating particular steps or lifts: Paul Petroff seemed to delight in performing grands jetés en tournant the length of the beach and Tamara Toumanova and Petroff enjoyed demonstrating the now well-known ‘presages lift’ from the slow movement of Massine’s Les presages. Other material shows the Ballets Russes dancers performing excerpts from their repertoire. A beautiful clip shows Nina Golovina in a scarlet swimming costume with her long dark hair falling over her shoulders dancing with Anton Vlassoff in an excerpt from the Bluebird pas de deux from Aurora’s Wedding. Some of Murray-Will’s footage, including the ‘Bungan Ballet’ a watery spoof created by four of the dancers, is available online from the National Film and Sound Archive’s australianscreen site:

But Ewan Murray-Will also bought art and moved in those Sydney circles where contemporary art was promoted and where both developments in the visual arts and the activities of the Ballets Russes were seen as part of the same attitude to contemporary creative endeavour. Murray-Will was, for example, a friend of publisher and patron of the arts Sydney Ure Smith, as Ure Smith’s collection of letters in the Mitchell Library in Sydney indicates. He was also close to Ballets Russes dancer Hélène Kirsova, whose second husband was Peter Bellew, first secretary of the Sydney branch of the Contemporary Art Society and in part responsible for securing Sidney Nolan’s commission to design Icare for Australian performances by the Original Ballet Russe in 1940. Kirsova autographed to Murray-Will a photograph of her and Igor Youskevitch in Le Carnaval with the words: ‘To Doctor Murray-Will, With my appreciation of your interest in the arts I am devoted to, Helene Kirsova, 1937’.

Hélène Kirsova and Igor Youskevitch in Le Carnaval, 1937. Photographer unknown. National Library of Australia

Ewan Murray-Will’s contribution to our knowledge of the Ballets Russes aesthetic as it was understood in Australia also includes that he collected, and then bequeathed to major institutions, paintings and drawings with a connection to the Ballets Russes. At least two designs by Alexandre Benois for Petrouchka were bequeathed by Murray-Will to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. They are a costume design for ‘Un jeune artisan ivrogne’ (A drunken young workman), a character that perhaps never appeared on stage in productions of Petrouchka, and a set design for ‘La chambre du nègre’ (The Negro’s bedroom), which is a variation on the better-known set for that scene in the ballet.

But perhaps more pertinent in the context of the influence the Ballets Russes had on Australian artists are those items bequeathed to the National Gallery of Australia by Murray-Will that are currently on display in the exhibition Rupert Bunny: artist in Paris at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. They include three oils on canvas painted in Paris between 1913 and 1920: Peleus and Thetis, The prophetic nymphs and Poseidon and Amphitrite. Any Ballets Russes influence on Bunny, best described perhaps as an expatriate Australian, came of course from Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes rather than from the touring companies that Australians saw in the years following Diaghilev’s death in 1929. The colours of Bunny’s palette in all three paintings recall the juxtapositions for which Léon Bakst became famous with his costume and set designs for Diaghilev. And the swirl of Amphitrite’s hair in Poseidon and Amphitrite, which was owned at one stage by Edouard Borovansky, recalls the decorative elements of flowing scarves and other items that feature in Bakst’s costume designs.

The most interesting of the three paintings, however, is Peleus and Thetis and, while Bunny’s colour juxtapositions may be a result of the influence of late nineteenth/early twentieth-century European artists, including Paul Gaugin, rather than, or as well as Baskt, there are nevertheless clear references to the Ballets Russes in this painting. Bunny painted Peleus with her feet and knees turned to the side as if on a frieze. Her body, however, is facing the front although her head is in profile. Such a pose clearly recalls the choreography for the nymphs in Afternoon of a Faun (1912), Vaslav Njinsky’s groundbreaking work for Diaghilev. Moreover, the angular position of Peleus’ arms, especially the way her left elbow is bent into a triangular shape as she resists Thetis’ advances, is similar to the arm positions of Nijinsky and the leading nymph in Faun as the two engage with each other before the nymph drops her scarf and flees. Even the hairstyle of Peleus recalls the wigs worn by the nymphs in the ballet, which closely fitted the head like a skull cap but had long strands of curls emerging at the back from the nape of the neck.

Ewan Murray-Will is reported to have been a reserved man. He left, however, a legacy to the arts world whose significance is probably yet to be fully explored. That legacy is largely a result of his exploits as an amateur filmmaker. But his activities as a collector of paintings and drawings, especially as they elucidate further the activities and aesthetic of the Ballets Russes in Australia and on Australians, are also of significance.

Postscript: Rupert Bunny: artist in Paris is at the Art Gallery of New South Wales until 21 February 2010 and then travels to Melbourne and Adelaide.

© Michelle Potter, 27 November 2009


  • Australia Dancing. ‘Dr Ewan Murray-Will’ as archived at this link
  • Benois, Alexandre-Nikolayevich. ‘Jeune artisan ivrogne’, costume study for Petrouchka, 1936, watercolour, gouache and pen and ink over pencil sketch, 32.2 x 24.8 cm sheet (irreg), Art Gallery of New South Wales, Bequest of Dr Ewan Murray-Will 1971, 11.1971
  • Benois, Alexandre-Nikolayevich. ‘The Negro’s Bedroom’, set design for Petrouchka, 1931, drawing, gouache and pen and ink over pencil sketch, 25.3 x 36.2 cm image/sheet, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Bequest of Dr Ewan Murray-Will 1971, 12.1971
  • Edwards, Deborah. Rupert Bunny: artist in Paris (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2009).
  • Potter, Michelle. ‘Mutual fascination: the Ballets Russes in Australia 1936-1940’. Brolga 11 (December 1999), pp. 7-15.
  • Turnbull, Clive. The Art of Rupert Bunny (Sydney: Ure Smith, [1949?])