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.
During August I spent some time investigating the spelling of Valentin Zeglovsky’s name and posted some results under the title ‘Valentin Zeglovsky: some Australian notes’. It was a somewhat esoteric exercise but it did yield other information about Zeglovsky, of which I was not previously aware. So for me it was a worthwhile excursion, although it did envelop Zeglovsky in further mystery.
Place of birth
I mentioned in the previous post that Zeglovsky completed the various procedures to become a permanent resident in Australia and to acquire the status of a British subject. One document that was part of that process contains a short but closely packed, typewritten section entitled ‘General Remarks’. The document, dated 11 December 1945, was typed not by Zeglovsky but by a public servant from information provided by Zeglovsky. Under ‘General Remarks’ the document states, in part: ‘Applicant states that his birthplace is Riga Latvia not Kharkov as per Declaration. Passport verified this statement’. This is interesting because in his autobiography, Ballet Crusade, Zeglovsky records that he was born on 26 July 1908 in Kharkov.
Zeglovsky’s account of his life from birth to the early 1940s was published by Reed & Harris as Valentin Zeglovsky’s Ballet Crusade in December 1943 with a reprint in 1944. Ballet Crusade‘s title page (at least for the 1944 reprint) says ‘translated from the Russian’, although no acknowledgement of the translator is given. However, letters from Valrene Tweedie written in the 1940s from Cuba to her friend in Sydney, Marnie Martin, indicate that Martin had been working with Zeglovsky on a book, which Tweedie confirmed before her death in 2008 was Ballet Crusade. Martin had been an extra during the Ballets Russes visits to Australia and remained a lifelong friend of Tweedie. From the letters it appears she was quite close to Zeglovsky — Tweedie frequently ends her letters to Martin with a greeting to ‘Valentin’ as well. It was also Martin’s GPO box address that Zeglovsky used on most of his applications to the patent’s office mentioned in my earlier post. I have no evidence that Martin was a Russian speaker but I suspect that ‘translated from the Russian’ may have been a euphemistic way of indicating that the book owed much to Martin. Tweedie maintained in fact that it was ghost written, at least in part, by Martin.
Work life in Australia
Tamara Finch in her autobiography, Dancing into the unknown, records the initial efforts by those Ballets Russes artists who remained in Australia in 1939 at the conclusion of the Covent Garden Russian Ballet tour to find work for themselves in Australia. Her account explains that a small company, which included Zeglovsky, formed to give recitals but disbanded in 1940 after the venture proved unsuccessful. It was probably around this time that Zeglovsky settled in Sydney and began teaching and dancing with various companies. The ‘General Remarks’ on his naturalisation application state: ‘At the outbreak of war applicant under engagement to J. C. Williamson and travel led all over the Commonwealth’.
Briefly, Zeglovsky danced and travelled with the Kirsova Ballet and danced some seasons with the Borovansky Ballet. In 1942–1943 he also performed in the J. C. Williamson revival of the popular musical White Horse Inn, which opened in Sydney in December 1942. This aspect of Zeglovsky’s Australian career will be the subject of another post.
However his naturalisation papers reveal that he also worked in decidely non-dancing jobs. The same ‘General Remarks’ mentioned above record: ‘Late in 1943 commenced work as a cement worker at the Captain Cook Graving Dock, Sydney’. And a little further on: ‘Applicant states that he is a fully qualified diamond tool setter’.
On immigration documents relating to Zeglovky’s arrival in Australia with the Covent Garden Russian Ballet in 1938, he lists his status as married and his wife’s name is given as Mia. Later documents completed by Zeglovsky and held in the National Archives of Australia indicate that Mia was born in 1910 in Riga and that she was living in Tel Aviv, Palestine, when Zeglovsky applied for naturalisation. Mia Arbatova is mentioned on several occasions in Ballet Crusade and, although in the 1940s Zeglovsky continues to state that he is married, sources such as the Jewish Women’s Archive indicate that Arbatova and Zeglovsky, who were dance partners and who are said to have married in 1933, divorced in 1937.
Zeglovsky married dancer Pamela Nell Bromley-Smith in Sydney in 1949 according to the New South Wales Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages. Bromley-Smith appeared as the Daughter in La Concurrence with the Covent Garden Russian Ballet in its Sydney season in December 1938. Her name appears on a program dated 17 December 1938 and a photograph (not in costume for La Concurrence but in an exotic two piece fringed and beaded costume) appeared in the Evening Post from Wellington, New Zealand, on 6 February 1939 with the caption ‘Pamela Bromley-Smith, aged 10 years, who was engaged in Sydney to dance the child role in “La Convenience” [sic], a performance by the Russian Ballet. Pamela is from the Dolee Brooks School of Dancing and holds her intermediate dancer’s diploma for operatic dancing in Australia …’. The performing arts gateway AusStage records that she appeared in a number of productions at the Minerva and Independent Theatres in Sydney in the 1940s.
Ziggy, as he was apparently known in the Ballets Russes, continues to fascinate!
A recent comment posted on this website spoke of the differences between the styles of three major ballet companies visiting Australia in the mid-decades of the twentieth century: de Basil’s Ballets Russes, Ballet Rambert and New York City Ballet. The comment went on to note that perhaps the most enthusiastic attendees at New York City Ballet performances when that company first visited Australia in 1958 were those interested in stage and film musicals. The full remark about the attendees can be read in the comments section at the end of the post at this link, and it prompted me to post the small picture gallery below.
Most of the repertoire brought to Australia by New York City Ballet was by Balanchine although works by Jerome Robbins and Todd Bolender were also included. But even looking at the small number of images in the gallery, it is clear that the range of works was diverse. The gallery includes images of some of Balanchine’s works that might be seen as redolent of musical theatre, along with others from some of his most glorious pared-back, abstract creations.
New York City Ballet did not receive the attention in Australia that it deserved and the company was disappointed with its reception, according to Valrene Tweedie. Tweedie was a close friend of several of the dancers as a result of her decade of dancing in the Americas. She believed that New York City Ballet’s repertoire and style of dancing were way ahead of Australian audiences’ expectations at the time. Tweedie also noted that there were financial issues that caused the dancers some unhappiness. She has remarked in an oral history interview that the dancers were not able to take their salary, paid to them in Australian dollars, out of the country but had to spend it in Australia. It was the reason, she maintains, that Andre Eglevsky came but stayed only a week or so. He had a family to support in America and could not afford to spend his money on frivolous items such as souvenirs.
All the images in the gallery were taken during performance by Walter Stringer, an enthusiastic amateur photographer based in Melbourne. His photographic record of almost every dance company that performed in Melbourne between about 1940 and 1980 is of inestimable documentary value, especially given that his archive is now in public hands and so available to all for research.
Further comments, including identification of dancers in the Stringer images, are welcome. All photos are reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Australia.
Michelle Potter, 17 December 2009
Featured image: New York City Ballet in Western Symphony. Melbourne, Australian tour, 1958
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
388 Senior Pupil in Sunday Dress
389 Senior Pupil in Sunday Dress
390 Senior Pupil in Sunday Dress
391 The General
394 La Sylphide
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.
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 above was part of the collection. It was inscribed ‘Many thanks for all the beautiful dancing. Nanette Kuehn 7-2-40’. (The image above, without an inscription, is not from NYPL, however, but from the Papers of Margaret Walker held in the National Library of Australia).
Featured image: Marina Svetlova as the pupil with Helene Lineva and Maria Azrova as the two professors in Graduation Ball, Melbourne 1940. Photo: Hugh P Hall. National Library of Australia
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
‘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
Featured image: Portrait of Valrene Tweedie ca. 1952. Photographer unknown