Some time ago, Tatiana Leskova, former dancer with the Ballets Russes and with a significant career after those experiences, sent me a copy of her biography, Tatiana Leskova. Uma Bailarina Solta No Mundo. It was the original edition written in Brazilian Portuguese by Suzana Braga. Eventually an English edition was released, Tatiana Leskova. A Ballerina at Large, and I gave my Portuguese edition (which I couldn’t read!) to Valrene Tweedie (who could read it). But I kept the DVD that was part of the original edition. As for that DVD, there were moments when English and French were used by Leskova and the people with whom she was dealing, but the dialogue and commentary were basically spoken in Portuguese. But luckily for me there were English subtitles available (although they had not been created in very good English, and they also often featured incorrect spelling).
But a recent major clean-up of my study brought the DVD to light once more and I watched it again. It contains some wonderful images from Leskova’s early career, some footage (mostly fairly grainy) of her performances in works from the 1930s and 1940s as well as footage and images of her later career as a dancer in Rio de Janeiro. There are scenes of her various friendships, including with fellow Ballets Russes dancer Anna Volkova; scenes of her teaching at the school she established in Rio; and interviews with some of the Brazilian dancers she trained.
A number of aspects of the unfolding story stood out for me. I was interested, for example, to hear comments from Sir Peter Wright, who commissioned Leskova in the 1990s to restage Choreartium for Birmingham Royal Ballet, and Wayne Eagling of the Dutch National Ballet for whom Leskova also restaged Choreartium, this time in 2001. Wright said she was ‘fighting for everything and being so passionate about it.’ Eagling said of her work, ‘She demonstrates what feeling should be.’ And they both talk about how she never compromised and was ‘tough’. And many other words of wisdom come from them both.
I was also mesmerised by the way Leskova moved when she was coaching dancers. This was especially noticeable in footage showing her coaching dancers of the Dutch National Ballet. At the age of 79, she wasn’t just demonstrating she was performing with her whole body, and it was easy to see that dance was an inherent part of her being.
Leskova turned 100 in December 2022. It is nothing short of amazing to watch this DVD, which is actually available on YouTube (but with no subtitles). Leskova’s career extends way beyond the Ballets Russes, for which she is so well known in Australia, and I have nothing but respect for her approach to performing, coaching and teaching. She has built a reputation for being demanding and several of those who appear on the DVD say she made them cry with her comments and demands. But the outcomes she achieved are exceptional, especially in her restaging of the ballets of Massine, which she did across the world.
The DVD closes with Leskova saying:
I was born in Paris. French people don’t take me as one. The Russians don’t take me as Russian. The Brazilians don’t take me as one. So, I am a ballerina. Free in the world.
A DVD well worth making the effort to watch. For more about Leskova on this site see this tag.
Michelle Potter, 13 June 2023
Featured image: Detail of Tatiana Leskova as a young dancer. Image from the DVD Tatiana Leskova. Nos passos de uma bailarina solta no mundo. Full image below. Photographer not identified.
Note: I was unable (for reasons unknown) to embed a link to the YouTube video of the Leskova DVD but it is easily accessible via a web browser.
Nominations are now open for the Australian Dance Awards, 2018 and 2019. You may recall that in 2019 the awards for 2018 were cancelled because of funding issues, so the 2020 nominations are in two parts, one for the various categories in 2018, the other for last year’s work.
Ausdance National is collaborating with sponsors and the Ausdance network to manage the double awards ceremony later in the year, but it is not yet clear what format the ceremony will take. This year a nomination fee has been introduced to help cover costs. Ausdance National continues to work without government funding.
Just to remind you of the excitement these awards generate, below is my favourite image from the 2018 ceremony.
Nominate via this link. Nominations close on 22 June.
As I read of the horrifying march of COVID-19 into Brazil, my thoughts went straight to dancer Tatiana Leskova who came to Australia on the last of the Ballets Russes tours in 1939-1940. Leskova lives in Rio de Janeiro and I contacted her to see if she was safe and managing the situation. Well, aged 97, she is isolating in her home seeing only a few essential people while maintaining the required distance from them. She says she is well. Great news!
Tatiana Leskova has often helped me identify material I have come across in various situations and I have valued so much the contacts I have had with her. Read more at this tag.
Way back in 2001 I interviewed Anita Ardell for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program The interview was only very recently put online, complete with a timed summary. The interview is rich in material about Ardell’s own career, at least in its early phases, as well as in Ardell’s observations about Gertrud Bodenwieser, for whom she danced and taught. Unfortunately a second session, which would have taken Ardell’s career into the 1980s and beyond did not eventuate. But what was recorded is well worth a listen.
Using the audio file below, listen to a tiny (1:07 mins) excerpt from the interview. The full interview is available at this link.
While I have been enjoying watching a range of streamed performances from major companies around the world, and am looking forward to more, I did wonder why American Ballet Theatre was not joining in the streaming arrangements. Earlier in May, however, I read an article by Marina Harss in The New Yorker, which explained why. ABT has no digital archive. In the article ABT’s executive director, Kara Medoff Barnett, is quoted as saying, ‘Our strength is our cohesion and collaborative spirit. Our weakness is not having a library of digital content.’ Later in the article Barnett says, ‘I told my colleagues, the age of the ephemeral is over. From now on we must capture everything that we do, from rehearsals to the stage.’*
The streaming sessions from Australian dance companies show just how lucky we are in Australia. The material we have seen has been professionally filmed and, while there is nothing to compare with a live performance, what we have seen on screen has been a joy to watch.
Kristian Fredrikson. Designer
My forthcoming book Kristian Fredrikson. Designer is now with the printer. It will be launched later this year, although exactly when depends on further easing of restrictions in relation to the coronavirus pandemic. Updates will be forthcoming. The title page, below, shows Ako Kondo and Juliet Burnett as Guardian Swans in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake, revival of 2014. Photo by Jeff Busby, courtesy of the Australian Ballet.
I was delighted to hear that Sharon Swim Wing, who has devoted a considerable amount of time over the past decades to researching the 1939 Fokine/Rachmaninoff/Soudeikine ballet Paganini, has been able to mount a small exhibition relating to the ballet, its creation and its collaborators at the Napa Valley Museum as part of the Festival del Sole held in the Napa Valley, California. The exhibition runs throughout July.
Wing first became interested in the story behind Paganini while living in Moscow where she began intensive research into the life of composer, conductor and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff. Over the subsequent years she pursued that interest around the world and her research included meeting up with a number of former dancers who had performed in Paganini. They included Irina Baronova, Tatiana Riabouchinska, and Tatiana Leskova, all of whom created roles in the work for its premiere in London in 1939. From Riabouchinska, Wing acquired the Soudeikine-designed, soft pink dress worn by the Florentine Beauty, the role created in London by Riabouchinska and then danced by her throughout Australia with the Original Ballet Russe.
The exhibition in California includes the Florentine Beauty costume, reproductions of the Soudeikine designs, some photographic material and items relating to the Rachmaninoff score, Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, including the piano reduction of the score used when the de Basil company was touring in South America. This item was kindly donated by Tatiana Leskova. In addition Wing has included portraits of the dancers in Paganini painted by Boris Chaliapin in 1941, which highlight the close friendship between Rachmaninoff and Boris Chaliapin’s father, the singer Feodor Chaliapin.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Wing’s achievements relating to Paganini, however, is that she has been able to have a small excerpt from the ballet presented as part of the Dance Gala that accompanies the Festival. The excerpt was performed on 19 July by Ballet San Jose. The performance was accompanied by the Russian National Orchestra under the baton of George Daugherty. There are plans for the ballet to be reconstructed in full at a later date.
UPDATE 21 July 2013: I came across these two photographs of scenes from Paganini as performed by de Basil’s company in South America. Both come from the album of photographs assembled by James Upshaw. The first one is on a page headed ‘Cordoba’ so is most likely from 1942. The other is on a unmarked page and cannot at this stage be dated with any certainty.
UPDATE: 24 July 2013: Both photos were taken in Argentina in 1942 at the Teatro Politeama in Buenos Aires. They both show Tatiana Leskova as the Florentine Beauty, with Dimitri Rostoff as Paganini in the top image and Oleg Tupine as the Florentine Youth in the bottom image. Leskova took over the role of the Florentine Beauty in 1942. With thanks to Tatiana Leskova for this information.
Most of what we know about Colonel Vassily de Basil (Vassily Grigorievitch Voskresensky) concerns his activities as director of variously named companies that toured the world in the 1930s and 1940s. He came to Australia with one of those companies, which is best known as the Original Ballet Russe, on a tour that began in December 1939 and which lasted until September 1940 when the company sailed for the United States.
Little has been written about de Basil’s life prior to his arrival in Paris in 1919. Kathrine Sorley Walker in her invaluable publication De Basil’s Ballets Russes, from which so much further research has developed, provides us with some background. She devotes a chapter to the Colonel and includes a brief account of his exploits as a Cossack officer during World War I.
It was to my astonishment then that I recently had the good fortune to be contacted by Mr Valery Voskresensky, the Colonel’s grandson. Mr Voskresensky, who is seen in the photo below with Tatiana Leskova when they met up recently in Paris, is presently preparing an exhibition on de Basil to be installed in the A.A.Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum in Moscow later this year.
The existence of a grandson (born 1939) was more than a surprise to me but there is definitely a likeness, which Leskova also remarked upon.
I look forward to posting further news in due course.
Suzana Braga’s biography of Tatiana Leskova was first published in Brazilian Portuguese as Uma bailarina solta no mundo in 2005. It went into a second edition and in late 2012 was translated into English by Donald Scrimgeour with the title Tatiana Leskova: a ballerina at large. A translation augured well for Leskova’s English-speaking admirers, and for those who were more than aware of her background as a Ballets Russes dancer in the 1940s. It is, however, an unsatisfying book from many points of view.
Perhaps the most annoying aspect of the book from my point of view is that Braga doesn’t seem to have decided on a method of telling the story. She knows the Leskova story well having being connected with her subject as a student and then as a professional dancer, and much of the book is quite intimate in approach. But at times Braga stands back and is a distant narrator with expressions like ‘So let us move on …’, or she refers to Leskova in a kind of anonymous way as ‘the young dancer’ or ‘the ballerina’. And she never really decides whether to call the subject of her biography Tatiana, Tatiana Leskova or Leskova and changes constantly between these three names and her selection of anonymous expressions. Other names get an annoying initial rather than a full first name—A. Calder, for example, who from the context I assume is the American artist/sculptor Alexander Calder. Why not pay him the courtesy of a proper identification? And too many infelicitous English phrases keep popping up at the hands of the translator: ‘[he] landed up falling in love with her’; ‘She had made her international bed and could perfectly well have lied down in it’. It all becomes a little irritating.
Looking beyond these irritations, the book probably needs to be read as a piece of oral history in written form. It is based on an extensive interview program and covers Leskova’s life from its earliest stages to the present. There are many quotes from Leskova herself and many reveal her feisty spirit:
I am a perfectionist, always thinking I can do better. I am demanding and have therefore been much criticised and even feared but I don’t do things out of malice but rather because I want, even demand, that they be better.
And on Leskova’s feisty spirit, I met her in the 1990s in New York when she kindly lent me a videorecording of her staging of Les Presages for the Dutch National Ballet. She asked me, when I had finished with it, to pass it on to the Dance Division of the New York Public Library, which I did. But several months later I received a strongly worded message from her questioning why I hadn’t passed the recording on as she had asked. Well it transpired that the recording had been sitting on someone’s desk in the Library and Leskova had not been acknowledged (nor had I). It all sorted itself out and everyone was apologetic but in retrospect her message was a clear example of her strong-willed approach to life and dance.
Many familiar names crop up through the book including those of dancers who performed with the Ballets Russes in Australia and then found themselves in South America in the 1940s—Anna Volkova and Igor Schwezoff in particular have important roles in the story. The discussion is, however, more often than not personal rather than relating to professional careers. Marcia Haydée also makes a guest appearance in a chapter entitled ‘With Marcia Haydée, a Certain Unease’ in which some difficulties that grew from a remark made by Leskova are discussed. And there are interesting thoughts about Nureyev, Massine and a host of other personalities from Leskova’s life.
I found the chapter on Leskova’s restaging of Les Presages and Choreartium, entitled ‘Doors Open’, the most interesting section of the book. It contains selected reviews of various of Leskova’s restagings and I particularly enjoyed Jack Anderson’s comment: ‘Choreartium is a vast mural in motion that makes much recent choreography look puny’. Food for thought I think. The chapter is, however, somewhat uncritical. Everything was a huge success! I didn’t see Leskova’s Presages mounted for the Australian Ballet in 2008, but Leskova told me that she was unhappy in Australia, for a number of reasons. So I would welcome comments on that staging from those who saw it.
Leskova is a larger than life personality and this book reveals the woman behind that personality. I wish, however, that the book had a stronger authorial voice.
Suzana Braga, Tatiana Leskova: a ballerina at large, trans. Donald E Scrimgeour (London: Quartet Books Ltd, 2012) Paperback, 312 pp. ISBN 978 0 7043 7276 4 RRP £18.00. Available through online sites.
A recent meeting with Anna Volkova clarified one of the issues that went through my mind as I looked through the album assembled by James Upshaw, which was the subject of a recent post. I was interested in several photos that showed some of the dancers wearing sweatshirts with a logo for an organisation with the acronym F.A.E on them. F.A.E., it turns out, stands for an organisation in Rio de Janeiro called, in English, Student Assistance Foundation, and in Portuguese, Fundação de Assistêcia ao Estudante. Volkova explained that some of the dancers, including Volkova herelf, gave a performance for this Foundation while in Rio. She identified the dancers in the photos for me, with the exception of a Brazilian dancer who had only recently joined them and whose name she no longer recalled. At this stage I’m not entirely sure when the performance took place.
Update (1 February 2013): Tatiana Leskova has been kind enough to pass on some extra information about the photograph above and the concert in which the dancers performed. The Brazilian dancer was Leda Youky and the concert took place in Rio’s Teatro Municipal in, she believes, 1945. The dancers performed choreography by Vaslav Velchek—Anna Volkova danced to music by Mussorgsky (‘The Bumblebee’), Tamara Grigorieva and Tatiana Leskova to music by Rachmaninoff (Grigorieva to his ‘Prelude No. 2’, Leskova to his ‘Prelude No. 5’). Nini Theilade also performed, dancing her own choreography.
Grateful thanks to the irrepressible Mme Leskova.
I was a little surprised, but of course pleased, to receive a message through this website’s contact box from Latvia. The message concerned Vija Vetra, a dancer born in Riga, Latvia, who had studied in Vienna with Rosalie Chladek, had come to Australia in 1948, had joined the company of Gertrud Bodenwieser shortly afterwards and had toured with the company to New Zealand and around Australia. With Bodenwieser she performed in most of the repertoire from 1948 until the mid-1950s including as the Bride in The Wedding Procession (choreography Bodenwieser, costumes Evelyn Ippen, music Grieg), in which she is seen in the image below. She also danced one of the Aboriginal mothers in Beth Dean’s Corroboree during the Royal Gala season of 1954.
Vetra moved to New York around 1964 and is still living there giving classes, lecture-demonstrations and workshops. She returns to her native Latvia frequently and is seen in the image below with a young student, Rasa Ozola, after a concert ‘Dejas sirdspuksti’ (Dance heartbeat) in Riga in June 2012.
In January I was pleased to renew my contact with Barbara Cuckson, initially as a result of a request from the Dance Notation Bureau in New York relating to Gertrud Bodenwieser’s early work Demon Machine. Cuckson’s mother, Marie Cuckson, was responsible, with Bodenwieser dancer Emmy Taussig, for maintaining a collection of archival material relating to Bodenwieser’s life and career, which is now now housed in the National Library of Australia. Barbara Cuckson’s father, Eric Cuckson, filmed several of Bodenwieser’s works and this footage is now housed in the National Film and Sound Archive. Barbara Cuckson continues to promote the work of Bodenwieser in many ways.
The conversation turned to Errand into the Maze, which Bodenwieser made in Australia in 1954. German dancer/choreographer Jochen Roller is currently leading a project to investigate the ways in which Bodenwieser structured her ideas and themes, for which reconstructing Errand into the Maze is part. Cuckson provided me with the image below of a rehearsal conducted as part of the reconstruction process.
Michelle Potter, 31 January 2013
Featured image: Lydia Kuprina, Leda Youky, Tamara Grigorieva, Anna Volkova, Tatiana Leskova, 1945. Photo: Kurt Paul Klagsbrunn
I am delighted to have renewed just recently my connections with two of the dancers who performed in Australia with the Ballets Russes companies of Colonel de Basil—Tatiana Leskova and Anna Volkova. Both feature in the photograph album that was the subject of a recent post, James Upshaw and Lydia Kuprina in South America, sometimes together, sometimes alone or with others. They were and still are great friends.
Both remembered Upshaw and Kuprina quite clearly and Leskova was able to tell me that Upshaw died in France, although exactly when is still unclear.
Leskova celebrated her 90th birthday in December—’I turned 17 on the boat coming to Australia’, she recalls—and is still very active in the dance world. Her biography, written by Suzana Braga and published in Brazilian Portuguese (Tatiana Leskova: uma bailarina solta no mundo) in Rio de Janeiro in 2005, has recently been translated into English. In addition, the irrepressible Leskova has just published a book of photographs. I hope to write about these publications at a later date.
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.