Graduation Ball. Some Australian notes

David Lichine’s light-hearted Graduation Ball, an audience favourite over many years, had its world premiere in Sydney on 1 March 1940. Vicente García-Márquez, in his 1990 publication The Ballets Russes, gives some clues to the origins of the work, including notes on the rehearsal process, the development of the musical compilation and on the designs.

An interesting slant is cast, however, on the unfolding of the design process and on Lichine’s early ideas for the storyline from an examination of the catalogue to an exhibition, Art for Theatre and Ballet: Australia. The exhibition, under the auspices of the British Council and arranged by Harry Tatlock Miller, was on display in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide in 1940.

Amongst the 500 or so designs in the show there were 20 by Alexandre Benois for ‘a new ballet to “Perpetuum Mobile” by Strauss’ with choreography by David Lichine. The catalogue notes that the Benois designs were ‘specially lent for the occasion by Colonel W. de Basil’. They were listed in the catalogue as:

  • 385 Le Directeur
  • 386 Convent Pupil
  • 387 Pupil
  • 388 Senior Pupil in Sunday Dress
  • 389 Senior Pupil in Sunday Dress
  • 390 Senior Pupil in Sunday Dress
  • 391 The General
  • 392 Cadet
  • 393 Cadet
  • 394 La Sylphide
  • 395 Scotchman
  • 396 The Bearded Drummer
  • 397 The Professor
  • 398 The Governess
  • 399 The Professor
  • 400 The Lover
  • 401 The Lover
  • 402 The Major Domo
  • 403 The Maid
  • 404 Marquette [sic] and Plans of Scene

Not all the characters for which Benois had made designs eventually appeared in Graduation Ball, which this ‘new ballet’ clearly became. For example, the only design that appears to have stayed in Australia — no. 398 The Governess (La Gouvernante) held by the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney — does not represent one of the final characters in the ballet. The Sydney design remains of particular interest, however. Its catalogue record notes that it was a gift of ‘Col. W. de Basil’ in 1940.

But what is especially interesting about the list is that it contains designs for one divertissement that was only ever seen in Australia. The divertissement ‘Mathematics and Natural History Lesson’ was cut from the ballet, for reasons that are not clear, once de Basil’s company reached the United States after leaving Australia in September 1940. This divertissement was performed by two ‘Professors’—Australian Alison Lee (performing under the name Helene Lineva) who danced the tall, thin professor who manipulated a large mathematical instrument, and Maria Azrova who danced the short, well-padded professor who carried a butterfly net. They instructed a single pupil, danced by Marina Svetlova. It is tempting to speculate that nos 397 and 399 in the catalogue for Art for Theatre and Ballet: Australia are those for costumes worn by Lineva and Azrova. When the original designs are more readily available (at present they appear not to have been digitised and made widely accessible) they can be compared with photographs taken during the 1940 Melbourne season of Graduation Ball by Hugh P. Hall.


Helene Lineva (Alison Lee) and Maria Azrova as the two professors with Marina Svetlova as their pupil. ‘Mathematics and Natural History Lesson’, Graduation Ball, Melbourne 1940 (detail). Photo: Hugh P. Hall. Reproduced with permission of the National Library of Australia.

The Hugh P Hall material is of significant documentary value. But in addition to his archive, some of the most charming photographs of the world premiere of Graduation Ball were taken by Sydney photographer Nanette Kuehn. Kuehn herself was obviously happy with one particular photograph of Tatiana Riabouchinska, which she autographed to Riabouchinska and which Riabouchinska kept for the rest of her life. When in 2008 the Riabouchinska/Lichine Archive was acquired by the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Pubic Library for the Performing Arts, a beautiful print of the photograph below was part of the collection. It was inscribed ‘Many thanks for all the beautiful dancing. Nanette Kuehn 7-2-40’.


Tatiana Riabouchinska as the leading Junior Girl in Graduation Ball, Sydney, 1940 (detail). Photograph: Nanette Kuehn. Papers of Margaret Walker, National Library of Australia, MS 8495, folio box 3, album 3.

Postscript: On perhaps a less significant matter, but also relating to the ‘Mathematics and Natural History Lesson’ divertissement, it has always seemed something of an anomaly that in the well known photograph taken of Valrene Tweedie shortly after she had been accepted by de Basil into his company she has her foot resting on an old fashioned school desk. The school desk is in fact the prop used in ‘Mathematics and Natural History Lesson’, a fact confirmed by Tweedie in an oral history interview in 2004.

valrene-and-de-basilValrene Tweedie with Colonel de Basil, Sydney 1940. Photo The Sun. Collection of the author.

© Michelle Potter, 19 August 2009


  • Art Gallery of New South Wales. Alexandre-Nikolayevich Benois (Russia; France, b.1870, d.1960, Costume study for Graduation Ball, 1939. Accession no: 6935.
  • García-Márquez, Vicente. The Ballets Russes: Colonel de Basil’s Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo 1932-1952 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990).
  • Miller, H. Tatlock. An exhibition of art for theatre and ballet: Australia (London: British Council, [1939?]).
  • Tweedie, Valrene. Oral history interview recorded by Michelle Potter, 4 December 2004. Oral History Collection, National Library of Australia, TRC 5350.

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’.


Nina Verchinina as Action in ‘Les Presages’, 1940 . Papers of Margaret Walker, MS 8495, National Library of Australia.

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.


(L-R) Alexander Philipoff, Nina Verchinina, Edouard Borovansky, Colonel de Basil, Olga Morosova and Tatiana Stepanova watching students in Melbourne, 1940. Geoffrey Ingram Archive of Australian Ballet, National Library of Australia. Photo: S. Alston Pearl

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.

Valrene Tweedie (1925–2008). The fire and the rose

‘The fire and the rose’ is a tribute to and obituary for Valrene Tweedie, Australian dancer, teacher and choreographer who died in August 2008. Tweedie danced with Colonel de Basil’s and Sergei Denham’s Ballets Russes companies and with an embryonic National Ballet of Cuba. She choreographed for stage and television in Australia, pioneered dance education programs and founded Ballet Australia in the 1960s to encourage Australian choreography.

‘The fire and the rose’  first appeared in Brolga. An Australian journal about dance in December 2008.

Michelle Potter, 7 July 2009