Michel Fokine’s Paganini. Bernard Smith’s unique interpretation

Michel Fokine choreographed and rehearsed his ballet Paganini in Australasia during the 1938-1939 tour by the Covent Garden Russian Ballet. He did not succumb to the suggestion, however, that the ballet be performed in practice clothes so that its world premiere could occur in Australia. He set this decision out in a letter to his friend Sergei Rachmaninoff, to whose music Paganini is set. The letter is reproduced, in part and undated, in Memoirs of a Ballet Master:

‘The ballet was completely choreographed and very well performed in Australia. There was such a demonstration of interest that the management evolved the mad idea of presenting the ballet without costumes and scenery!

Knowing that very often the scenery, and especially the costumes, hamper the dancers, that much that goes well at rehearsals, in practice costumes, gets lost when presented on the stage, I would have welcomed the idea. But in this particular ballet, many dances, if given without the necessary masks and props, without the lighting effects, without the platform, and so on, could not possibly be understood. Therefore I declined this suggestion …’

Paganini was eventually given its Australian premiere in Sydney on 30 December 1939 on the opening night of the third Ballets Russes tour, that by the Original Ballet Russe. This was just six months after the work’s world premiere in London on 30 June 1939. Australian performances of Paganini were foreshadowed by Arnold Haskell writing in 1939 in the Sydney Ure Smith publication Australia. National Journal. Haskell noted that the company was ‘at home’, that is in London, but awaiting a return to Australia. He updated Australian readers on additions to the company and on particular successes achieved during the London season. He reported that Paganini had been ‘the greatest popular success for many years’ but went on to comment that he, personally, was not impressed. He wrote:

‘Its craftsmanship is certain, in one dance set for Riabouchinska, it is vintage Fokine, but the rest seems to have come out of the stockpot of romantic paraphernalia, banished by Fokine himself in “Les Sylphides”. There is the same theme as in Symphonie Fantastique, the battle between good and evil, but it compares to that Ballet as a print from a Victorian Keepsake does to a painting by Jerome Bosch. Soudeikine’s decor greatly detracts. It is at times of a chocolate box sweetness, and the costumes are still worse. Tactful lighting greatly helped here. It is, at any rate, a pleasant spectacle, but somehow I expect more from the Russians.’

Dimitri Rostoff as Paganini with artists of the Original Ballet Russe in Paganini, Australian season, 1940 (detail). Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Australia

Paganini was, nevertheless, also an enormously popular ballet in Australia. It was given 55 performances during seasons in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide. In terms of numbers of performances it was outperformed only by Aurora‘s Wedding (56 performances), Swan Lake Act II (58 performances), and Graduation Ball and Les Sylphides (69 performances each). The initial critical response in Australia was, however, a little lukewarm. The anonymous critic for The Sydney Morning Herald also noted the similarities with Massine’s Symphonie fantastique, and commented that the Massine work was ‘the greater masterpiece by reason of its more elemental, almost seismic release of emotion’. The critic also commented on the orchestral playing noting in particular the impact of the short rehearsal time that had been available to the musicians. But while he (or she) noted that Paganini ‘as a spectacle … provides half an hour of daring, thunderous beauty’ he was unhappy with ‘the obviousness, and at times extravagance, of the symbolism that is employed’.

But perhaps the most interesting interpretation by an Australian came from Bernard Smith. Smith was 23 when he saw Paganini in 1940 and was at the beginning of a long and distinguished career as an art historian and teacher. His interest in the ballet may have been sparked by his interest at the time in surrealism and what he called ‘all the various modernisms’ that were being debated in Sydney art circles. And the Ballets Russes performances certainly offered those interested in these ‘various modernisms’ the opportunity to see first hand examples in the company’s sets and costumes. The repertoire of the Original Ballet Russe as presented in Australia included works with designs by Giorgio de Chirico, Joan Miro, André Masson and Natalia Goncharova, all then at the forefront of one ‘ism’ or another.

Smith was also a friend of Sydney Ure Smith, whose patronage of the Ballets Russes through his various publications is well known, and Peter Bellew, the second husband of Ballets Russes dancer Hélène Kirsova. At the time he was also reading widely from a range of Marxist and other left wing texts and by his own admission was ‘a very active young member of the Communist Party’. Given his artistic and political leanings, then, the tenor of his discussion of Paganini in an unpublished, typescript entitled ‘ “Paganini”, notes after attending the Monte Carlo Diaghilev Ballet in Sydney 1940’ is perhaps predictable. It is, nevertheless, somewhat startling and certainly unique in its point of view. It reads in part:

‘The ballet “Paganini” is one of those works of art which are created to satisfy the “soul-hunger” of the creator or as in this case of the creators. It satisfies a double wish-fulfillment; the desire of the creators, Fokine and Rachmaninoff to hearken back to a Golden Age when there were no class differences and the completely contradictory desire to captivate the hearts (and money) of the bourgeoisie as Paganini did.

The second scene is a feudalist-bourgeois conception of the people, of lovers in an ideal pastoral world, where there are no class barriers … The “people” of the second scene are not the mass of the people at all, they are only the idealised conception of what the bourgeois would look like if they could forget that their own freedom depended upon the slavery of others’.

Smith’s use of the word ‘Diaghilev’ in the name of the company he saw is, of course, erroneous, but his unpublished critique of Paganini offers further evidence that the Ballets Russes visits to Australia inspired a wide range of people working across the arts, and also that they prompted a wide range of responses.

© Michelle Potter, 24 September 2009


  • Arnold Haskell, ‘The Covent Garden Russian Ballet’. Australia. National Journal, No. 2, 1939, p. 4.
  • “Paganini”, notes after attending the Monte Carlo Diaghilev Ballet in Sydney 1940, unpublished typescript. Papers of Bernard Smith, National Library of Australia, MS 8680 Box 1, Folder 5, Item 5.
  • Michel Fokine, Memoirs of a Ballet Master. Trans. Vitale Fokine. Ed. Anatole Chujoy (London: Constable, 1961).
  • Oral history interview with Bernard Smith recorded by Hazel de Berg, 20 November 1975. National Library of Australia, TRC 1/888-889.
  • ‘Summer: Exhibit A: Bernard Smith—changing the way we see’. Julie Copeland in conversation with Terry Smith and Peter Beilharz. Sunday Morning, Radio National, 22 January 2006. Transcript, accessed 23 January 2009.

Nina Verchinina: some Australian connections

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.

Ngaere Tweedie, Nina Verchinina, Valrene Tweedie and Renée Tweedie (left to right) at Valrene Tweedie’s family farewell, Sydney, June 1940. Papers of Valrene Tweedie, National Library of Australia.

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.

© Michelle Potter, 5 August 2009

All images published with the permission of the National Library of Australia.

Postscript to this article


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.