What treasures are still to be found in archival repositories around the world! Still on the trail of Olga Spessivtseva in Australia, I went through the process of gaining access to the archives of the museum and library of the Paris Opera, now part of the National Library of France. With formalities completed, I discovered, to my absolute delight, a folder of contracts for various of Spessivtseva’s engagements. Ít included a collection of documents relating to her engagement by Victor Dandré for the Javanese and Australian component of the 1934–1935 world tour by the Dandré-Levitoff Russian Ballet.
Several versions of the contract have been preserved, including some early versions heavily annotated in more than one hand. The earliest version indicates that Dandré began with the standard contract issued by Alexander Levitoff to other dancers in the company and altered that contract to suit Spessivtseva’s (and his own) requirements. Although no signed version exists in the collection, several copies of what appears to be the final version are intact. This version makes clear that the contract was a personal one between Dandré and Spessivtseva.
According to this final version, which is undated but from other contextual information in the Paris collection was probably written in June 1934, Spessivtseva was to leave Europe no later than 20 July 1934 to be in Batavia—present day Jakarta—before 15 August. Her contract was to begin on 15 August and was for a period of 20 weeks until 2 January 1935. It was to cover Java and Australia, or if required other countries (with the exception of Europe). The management reserved the right to extend the contract for a period of not more than 3 months, not including the return to Europe. This of course turned out to be a non-issue as Spessivtseva did not dance with the company after the Sydney season, which concluded on 28 November. She returned to Europe on the London-bound R. M. S. Orama, sailing from Sydney on 22 December.
Spessivtseva’s monthly payment under this contract was 15,000 francs (or the equivalent in foreign currency) payable fortnightly. While I have not yet been able adequately to compare this seemingly large figure with any average earnings in France in 1934, I found some evidence that in 1930 a French university professor was earning a monthly salary of around 4,000 francs. In addition, all Spessivtseva’s travel was to be in first class cabins, or sleeping compartments if travel was by train.
One has to imagine that Dandré cancelled Spessivtseva’s contract after Sydney, although there is as yet no evidence to support this. The Paris document stipulates, however, that the management reserved the right to terminate the contract if illness prevented the artist from taking part in performances for more than one week.
While much of the mystery of Spessivtseva’s Australian interlude still remains, this contract fills in a few more details of the puzzle.
In his memoir Ballet mystique, George Zoritch remarks that Ludmilla Schollar accompanied her husband, Anatole Vilzak, to Australia on the 1934–1935 tour by the Dandré-Levitoff Russian Ballet. Vilzak was the leading male dancer for a major part of that tour performing main roles in Java, Australia, Ceylon, India and Egypt. In Australia he partnered Olga Spessivtseva in Brisbane and Sydney, and then, following Spessivtseva’s departure, Natasha Bojkovich in Melbourne and Perth. But Schollar?
Schollar was a dancer of renown in her own right having graduated from the Imperial Theatre School in St Petersburg in 1906. She had danced at the Maryinsky Theatre and with Diaghilev and later with Ida Rubinstein’s company and with Bronislava Nijinska.
There is no record, however, of her having performed in Australia or elsewhere on the Dandré-Levitoff tour. Other than Zoritch’s comments, the only mention of Schollar in relation to the tour that I had been able to find was on a passenger list in the issue of 27 September 1934 of the Dutch newspaper De Locomotief (published in Semarang, Java). A ‘Mrs Anatole Vilzak’ is listed as being on board the ship that was taking the Dandré-Levitoff company from Surabaya to Brisbane.
However, two photographs in the personal archive of Anna Northcote were recently brought to my attention. Neither photograph has any form of identification associated with it but they appear to show Schollar with others from the Dandré-Levitoff company. The photographs may have been taken in Australia in Melbourne or Perth. The dancers in Swan Lake costume in the line-up on stage are, I think, Vilzak and Bojkovich, which suggests that the photographs probably post-date Sydney where it was usually Spessivtseva who danced Odette. My identification of those in the photos is tentative at this stage and I would welcome any further information or comments.
My extended article on the full 1934–1935 tour by the Dandré-Levitoff Russian Ballet will be published shortly in Dance Research, Vol. 29 (No. 1, Summer 2011) pp. 61–96.
The name E. O. Hoppé is familiar to anyone who has put in any time researching the history of the Ballets Russes under Serge Diaghilev. Hoppé, who was born in Germany but who spent much of his professional life in England, secured the exclusive right to photograph the Diaghilev dancers when they first came to London in 1911. Some of these photographs are well known in Australia and are currently on display in the National Gallery of Australia’s exhibition, Ballets Russes: the art of costume—the well-known image of Tamara Karsavina and Adolph Bolm in Firebird, for example. But a current exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London, Hoppé portraits: society, studio & street, has on show some exceptional dance portraits that are not quite as well known.
Given my recent research into the 1934-1935 tour by the Dandré-Levitoff Russian Ballet and Olga Spessivtseva‘s role in it, I was especially interested in a portrait of Spessivtseva as Aurora in The Sleeping Princess. It was taken by Hoppé in 1921, the year of the premiere of Diaghilev’s ill-fated production of that ballet. Spessivtseva does not face the camera full on and her subdued eyes are turned to the front with a gaze that asks us to consider her as someone quite fragile. Her pale lips seem almost cold and the overall effect is haunting. Is it because we know that Spessivtseva would suffer some kind of mental illness that we read the portrait in this way? Or did Hoppé capture the essence of this enigmatic woman?
By contrast, a magnificent portrait of a young Margot Fonteyn taken in 1935 (she would have been 16) shows her looking straight at us. With lustrous eyes and full, red lips she is sensuous and confident, even slightly haughty, and definitely ready to take on the world. Again Hoppé appears to have had a remarkable eye for capturing the essence of his sitter.
There are a number of other fascinating dance portraits in this exhibition including a great shot of Martha Graham with Ted Shawn in a tango-style pose taken in 1922 just as Graham was completing her study at the Denishawn school before joining the Greenwich Village Follies. And of course many of the Russian Ballet shots are on show. All are reproduced in the exhibition book, along with many non-dance portraits and a collection of remarkable documentary studies of day-to-day life in Britain between the wars.
Michelle Potter, 4 April 2011
Hoppé portraits: society, studio & street runs until 30 May 2011 at the National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, London.
Exhibition book: Hoppé portraits: society, studio & street (London: National Portrait Gallery, 2011) ISBN 978 85514 4217
I have been curious for some time about an alleged visit to Bali by the dancers of the Dandré-Levitoff Russian Ballet following their departure from Surabaya on 28 September 1934 bound for Brisbane. Anton Dolin in The Sleeping Ballerina records that in Bali ‘there was time for Olga [Spessivtseva] to visit the many temples and see the dances of Bali, which interested her profoundly’. But hard evidence of this visit has seemed non-existent, until now.
English dancer Anna Northcote had been part of this touring company from its beginnings early in 1934 when the dancers assembled in Paris to rehearse parts of their repertoire with Alexandra Fedorova and Mikhail Fokine. She records her experiences in Paris in an article written in the magazine MOVE in 1970. But it is her photograph album that is of particular interest in the Balinese context. It shows quite clearly that the dancers did indeed visit Bali—Northcote gives the date as 29 September 1934—and were present at one or more performances of Balinese dance. Her album contains several pages of photographs from Bali, most of which record an outdoor performance under the shade of a large banyan tree. In some Spessivtseva can be seen in the background, dressed in white with her dark hair parted in the middle and pulled back in its signature style, absorbed in taking photographs herself.
The exact location of these photographs is hard to pinpoint. The London Illustrated News for 21 March 1931 contains images taken in what appears to be the same location and notes that the performance recorded in the magazine’s photographs took place ‘in the village of Kedaton’. This is more than likely an error as kedaton is a variant spelling of kraton meaning ‘palace’ and both the performance in The London Illustrated News and that photographed by Northcote probably took place in the temple courtyard of a royal palace somewhere on the northern coastline of Bali, probably Singaraja.
At the time the dancers visited Bali, the town of Singaraja was the Dutch colonial administrative centre for Bali and the Lesser Sunda Islands. It was the port of arrival for most visitors who, if they visited the southern region, usually did so by road. Moreover, the Dandré-Levitoff Russian Ballet travelled to Brisbane on the Nieuw Holland a ship of the Dutch KPM line. It was the KPM line that initiated the first tourist passages to Bali initially on its cargo ships, which regularly visited Singaraja anchoring at its port of Buleleng.*
Northcote’s album also contains an image of three Legong dancers taken in what seems to be a different location suggesting that the dancers may well have seen more than one performance.
The Balinese interlude continues to invite questions and needs further research. But now it is certain that the dancers called at Bali after boarding the Nieuw Holland in Surabaya.
Featured image: Balinese dance performance. Personal Archive, Anna Northcote (Severskaya), Private Collection
*Colin McPhee in his book A House in Bali (1947) mentions a village called Kedaton in the Den Pasar region. But it does not seem likely that the dancers would have had time to take the then arduous road trip from Singaraja to Den Pasar and back, given Bali was a stopover rather than a final destination for the ship (and assuming that the Nieuw Holland was following its usual route and anchored in Buleleng harbour).
The dancers did, however, visit part of Bali beyond the coastline as Northcote’s album again indicates. Her photograph entitled ‘Valleys and volcanoes’, with its steeply terraced rice fields, is typical of the countryside immediately to the south of the northern Balinese coastline.
Inspired by a comment on my August 2010 post regarding Olga Spessivtseva in Australia, I went back to that amazing National Library of Australia resource, Trove, and began looking again for passenger lists around the end of 1934 that might contain the names Olga Spessiva or Leonard G Braun.
It appears that Spessivtseva and Braun left Sydney on board the London-bound R. M. S Orama, a ship of the Orient line, on 22 December 1934. A passenger list including both names appears in The Sydney Morning Herald for that day. The ship passed through Fremantle on 31 December and news of Spessivtseva’s departure was reported in The West Australian on 1 January 1935 in a brief article headed ‘A famous dancer. Olga Spessiva leaves Australia’. In that article the story of the injured leg surfaces again with the reporter noting that her withdrawal from the company was the result of ‘An injury to her left leg, occasioned through over-work’. The article also reports that Spessivtseva was anxious to return to Australia ‘with the object of establishing a school of instruction and of producing ballet with entirely Australian casts’!
What makes this information particularly interesting, however, is that there was almost a full month between the last Sydney performance by the Dandré-Levitoff company on 28 November and the sailing date of 22 December. What did Spessivtseva and Braun do during that time? It appears on the one hand that the Blue Mountains story discussed in a previous post may indeed have a grain of truth, and also that Algeranoff’s information about Spessivtseva having already left by 2 December, also discussed previously, is wrong. Do we assume that there was an effort to cover-up what appears to have been more than an injured leg not only to the press but even to other members of the company?
Michelle Potter, 27 September 2010
With many thanks to Boris Fedoff for spurring me on to keep looking. Read his comment about Spessivtseva and her early departure from a US tour. And here is the full tag archive relating to Spessivtseva and the Dandré-Levitoff Russian Ballet tour to Australia.
Olga Spessivtseva, graduate of the St Petersburg Theatre School, famed interpreter of Giselle, star of Serge Diaghilev’s ill-fated 1921 London production of The Sleeping Princess, and legendary ballerina of the Paris Opera in the 1920s, was contracted to come to Australia in 1934 as principal dancer with the Dandré-Levitoff Russian Ballet. Spessivtseva, or Spessiva as she was officially known on the tour, joined the company in Singapore, along with her companion (the retired American businessman Leonard G. Braun), her dancing partner Anatole Vilzak and others who were to join the company. Following the Singapore season, in which she did not perform, she travelled with the company through Java, where she did dance, and on to Australia where the company was to fulfil engagements in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and eventually Perth.
The Australian component of the tour has generated a good deal of interest as a result of the fact that Spessivtseva left the tour in an apparent state of mental distress following the Sydney season, which ran from 27 October to 28 November 1934. Exactly what happened to Spessivtseva is unclear and although her performances were, on most occasions, reviewed more than favourably by the press, most other accounts present a story of wildly eccentric and delusional offstage behaviour on her part. Anton Dolin, for example, in his biography of Spessivtseva, The Sleeping Ballerina, records that she complained she was being spied upon and that she was in terrible danger from unknown forces, that on one occasion she was found wandering on a deserted highway miles from town and so on.
The official story as given to Australian newspapers was that Spessivtseva sprained her ankle. Melbourne’s Argus newspaper reported on 1 December 1934, the day the Melbourne season was to begin:
‘A week before the end of the Sydney season the company suffered a severe loss when the first ballerina, Olga Spessiva, sprained her ankle. Mme Spessiva is resting in Sydney and may not be able to appear again for several weeks.’
However, Harcourt Algeranoff, who also danced with the company on this tour and whose letters to his mother provide a wealth of information about the company, has a slightly different version of events. Writing from Melbourne on 2 December 1934 his inside information is that Spessivtseva had already left for Europe:
We’ve had rather a blow as Spessiva is ill and although it is no known publicly, she’s sailed for Europe. She has promised to rejoin us some months hence when she is better.’
Dolin, however, gives a quite different account of Spessivtseva’s movements. He maintains that Spessivtseva was sent to recuperate in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney for some weeks after her last performance in Sydney. Although no evidence for the Blue Mountains story, other than Dolin’s account, has yet come to light it does have a certain plausible aspect to it. In his unpublished work ‘For Olga Spessivtzeva. A memoir of loving’ Dale Fern suggests that what has not been fully recognised is that Spessivtseva was physically frail during her dancing career. He writes:
‘What was consistently overlooked, by managers and dancers alike, in 1916 [her appearances with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in the United States], in 1921 [her performances in Diaghilev’s Sleeping Princess], and in 1934 [her tour with the Dandré-Levitoff company], was Olga’s frail constitution, her delicate physical condition. She was not well. Tuberculosis visited her regularly.’
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the crisp mountain air found in the Blue Mountains was promoted to Sydneysiders as a kind of health tonic for many ailments including, according to Blue Mountains Park historical information, tuberculosis, asthma, bronchitis, malaria, stress, anaemia, and heart troubles. In the early part of the twentieth century, the small town of Wentworth Falls in the heart of the Blue Mountains was the site of two very well known institutions — the Queen Victoria Home and Bodington Sanatorium — both of which cared for patients with tuberculosis. In addition, the Hydro-Majestic Hotel, located higher into the mountains at the village of Medlow Bath, was built by Mark Foy of the wealthy Australian retail family as a ‘hydropathic sanatorium’. Unlike the Wentworth Falls institutions, where conditions appear to have been spartan and somewhat unpleasant according to the patients who have reported on life there, the Hydro-Majestic and its surrounds were a prestigious and socially desirable health retreat and its guests often included those prominent in the arts. The kinds of treatments available were listed in one promotional booklet. They included electric water and massage, electric light bath, vibration massage, general vibration massage, local hot air, local general massage, and various medicated baths.
It is conceivable that Spessivtseva, if indeed she did go to the Blue Mountains, may have gone to the Hydro-Majestic. But if Algeranoff was correct, Spessivtseva had no time to recuperate in the Blue Mountains or anywhere else before boarding a ship. However, ships’ passenger lists from Sydney that include her name, or that of her companion Leonard G. Braun, that might confirm such a departure remain to be located.
With regard to the official account of a sprained ankle, it was more than likely simply a story concocted by company management to explain to Melbourne audiences the fact that Spessivtseva was not performing there as previously advertised. Her name appeared as star attraction in Melbourne advertisements up until 28 November. By 29 November all reference to stars had been removed and by 30 November it was Natasha Bojkovich whose name was being promoted in Melbourne.
Nevertheless, just exactly what happened remains a mystery at this point. Spessivtseva’s name continued to be listed in newspaper advertisements for the last Sydney shows but there is a curious absence of reviews of the last program in the Sydney season and the last mention of her name in a performance seems to have occurred in The Sydney Morning Herald on 19 November when her performance in Raymonda was thought to be ‘cold’. In a review of the new program that opened on 24 November, the weekly newspaper Truth reported:
‘Owing to a slight indisposition, Spessiva did not dance. Her place was taken by Natasha Bojkovich, second ballerina of the company … The management announced that Spessiva will appear as usual tomorrow.’
Whether she appeared at all during the last week is questionable. Edward Pask in his Enter the colonies, dancing writes that she danced on the last night of the Sydney season but he quotes as his source ‘an [unidentified] observer at that performance’. Dolin also maintains that she performed on the last evening in Sydney. But neither gives any sound documentary reference to support his claim and it has to be assumed that neither attended performances in that last week to see for himself since Dolin was not in Australia at the time and Pask had not been born. As a counter report to Pask’s and Dolin’s comments, Valerie Lawson notes in an article in Brolga in December 2000 an unidentified, undated press clipping in a privately-held scrapbook that states:
‘[Spessiva] strained her ankle during the third week of the Sydney season and was ordered a brief rest by her doctor. She struggled on bravely for a few performances but was obliged to retire from the cast during the final week of the season.’
This report does, however, sound a little like an elaboration of the explanatory story given to Melbourne audiences. But as 1935 began, a further reference to Spessivtseva appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald as part of a summary of the previous year’s theatrical highlights. It supports Algeranoff’s account that Spessivtseva returned to Europe and alludes to her ill health:
‘Spessiva, who had been billed as the leader of the company, danced at every performance at first; but made only brief appearances, and, as time passed it became apparent that she was ill at ease. Still she danced brilliantly in “Carnival” and dropped out of the cast only when she strained an ankle. Since then, it has been revealed that she was in ill-health during the whole of the Sydney season; and now she has had to return to Europe leaving Natasha Bojkovich as a highly-efficient substitute leader in Melbourne.’
The story of Spessivtseva in Australia continues to remain something of an unsolved mystery. Until further evidence emerges, her activities during and immediately after the Sydney season continue to raise questions.
Note: My substantial article on the Dandré-Levitoff Russian Ballet tour to South Africa, Singapore, Java, Australia, Ceylon, India and Egypt during 1934 and 1935 is currently being considered for publication by Dance Research (Edinburgh University Press).
Update 5 December 2013: The article mentioned above was published in Dance Research, 29:1, Summer 2011. See also the tag Olga Spessivtseva for further posts and ongoing comments.
The Dandré-Levitoff Russian Ballet arrived in Brisbane on 8 October 1934 for the Australian leg of a tour that had begun in South Africa in May 1934. The company sailed into Brisbane aboard a Dutch ship, the S.S Nieuw Holland, part of the fleet of the KPM line (Koninklijke Paketvaart-Maatschappij or Royal Packet Navigation Company). KPM maintained sea connections between the islands of Indonesia, formerly the Netherlands East Indies, and also sailed between Indonesia and Australia and New Zealand. The ballet company had embarked for the trip to Australia in the east Javanese city of Surabaya on 28 September following a number of performances across Java.
Scant attention has been paid to this Indonesian interlude, yet it was significant. It was in Java, for example, that Russian ballerina Olga Spessivtseva (known as Spessiva during her appearances in Indonesia and Australia) gave her first performances with the Dandré-Levitoff Russian Ballet. She had not performed with the company in South Africa but had joined them in Singapore although she had not danced there. Her presence was essential to the success of the company for she was perceived of as continuing the classical heritage of Anna Pavlova, whose popularity in the southern hemisphere was without any doubt.
George Zoritch, an American-born member of the Dandre-Levitoff Russian Ballet, is one of the few authors who has attempted to provide any form of documentation of the company’s performances in Indonesia. Zoritch wrote in his memoir, Ballet mystique, that the company performed in ‘Batavia (now Jakarta), Surabaya, Java and Borneo’. But, like many of those who have written about this company to date, Zoritch has relied on memory and some errors and misunderstandings are instantly discernable. Why, for example, does he include Java in his list as if it were a separate destination from Batavia and Surabaya, both of which are located on the island of Java? In addition, here is no documentary evidence that the company performed in Borneo, an island in the Indonesian archipelago not all that close to Java and not on the main routes of passenger ships? From a distance of 70 years or so perhaps he confused Borneo with Bandung, a city in Java where the company did perform?
The most reliable information yet uncovered about the Indonesian schedule comes from a Dutch newspaper—De Locomotief—published in Semarang, a city on the northern coast of central Java. According to De Locomotief, the Indonesian tour lasted from 8 September 1934 when most of the company arrived in Jakarta from Singapore on another KPM vessel, the S. S. Ophir, until 28 September 1934 when they sailed on the S. S. Nieuw Holland via the island of Bali to Brisbane. The proposed season dates as listed by De Locomotief on 7 September 1934 were:
Batavia (Jakarta): 12-16 September
Bandoeng (Bandung): 18-19 September
Semarang: 21 September
Soerabaia (Surabaya): 22-27 September
Subsequently it appears that the performance in Semarang was cancelled and Semarangers were advised to travel to Surabaya to see the company. On 18 September De Locomotief noted that if at least 50 people applied an extra train would be scheduled between Semarang and Surabaya especially for the occasion.
Little information about the repertoire as performed in each Javanese city can be gleaned from De Locomotief . The newspaper does note, however, that Swan Lake was performed in Surabaya and that Spessivtseva was a great hit. It also mentions generally that Les sylphides, La fille mal gardée and Polovtsian dances from Prince Igor were part of the repertoire. Dancer Harcourt Algeranoff, who joined the company in Jakarta, also mentions in his letters to his mother in England that the repertoire included La fille mal gardée, Prince Igor, Carnaval and various divertissements, including his own Indian-inspired piece Abhinaya. In other words, the repertoire was the standard Dandré-Levitoff one as performed in all cities visited during an extensive tour to several countries in 1934-1935. This repertoire was largely that performed by the company of Anna Pavlova and the media promoted heavily the links to Pavlova through this repertoire as indeed they also promoted Spessivtseva as a successor to Pavlova’s classicism.
It was also in Java that Victor Dandré, variously described in Australia as ‘manager’, ‘backer’ and ‘guiding spirit’ of the company, joined the troupe. The Brisbane Courier Mail notes on 9 October that Dandré had made a quick decision to join the company in Java and had ‘travelled by the air mail services’. In a letter from Bandung, Algeranoff confirms Dandré’s arrival and perhaps gives a reason for Dandré’s sudden appearance. He writes: ‘We’re all very glad he’s come. His presence was badly needed. The company is strong but there was no direction’.
There is much more to this company than we have yet discovered. Knowing a little more about its visit to Indonesia is a part of the puzzle.