Valda Jack arrived for her first professional appearance with the Borovansky Ballet in her school uniform. She was only 14. Borovansky had wanted her at 13 but Madame Borovansky, who ran the Borovansky Ballet Academy, said no, the girl is too young. Even 75 years later, Valda remembers the heated exchanges between these maverick historic figures. ‘Boro rowed in Czech, Madame in Russian and both in English!’ she recalls. Slender, expressively animated and straight in her bearing, she remains every bit a dancer.
Valda also remembers that first performance vividly. The work was Borovansky’s Fantasy on Grieg’s Concerto in A Minor. She recalls, ‘I was one of the first three girls and frantic with nerves. I was terrified.’
Valda Jack (now Mrs Valda Lang) was typical of the dancers that Edouard Borovansky took into his company during the 1940s: young, enthusiastic, willing to work very hard with little thought for remuneration and able to withstand the gruelling hardship of touring during that era. Her remarkable story, while as unique as any individual’s story, is also one that was shared in many ways by her contemporaries around the world.
Without these extraordinary people, ballet would never have developed into the slickly polished international art that it is today. Major companies in the English-speaking world would not exist as we know them today. And nowhere is this more true than in Australia, a country whose geographic isolation, vast size and tiny population make this story the stuff of wonderful improbability to rival any fantasy concocted on stage for the delight of the audience. But with the pretty there was also much rough gritty.
‘You know the old saying, you starve for your art? Well, we did,’ Valda Jack says bluntly. ‘One six-week season in Sydney, I lived on one sandwich and one cup of coffee a day. I had a room in a house in Woollamaloo with some funny old bird who used to go sneaking into my room when I wasn’t there. I used to walk to the theatre (Royal) from there, which I had to because I couldn’t afford a bus.’
Like so many others, Valda Jack wholeheartedly threw herself into making Edouard Borovansky’s vision of building a permanent Australian professional ballet company a reality. Although Borovansky first came to Australia on Pavlova’s 1929 tour, it was only after his return with the Covent Garden Russian Ballet in 1938 that he decided to stay and embark on his ambitious quest. His experience of Australia’s enthusiastic audiences and his savvy perception of the Australian aptitude for physical expression—be it athletic or aesthetic—beckoned with opportunity. Also, with Europe on the brink of a catastrophic war, Australia seemed a safely distant alternative.
By 1944, when Valda Jack joined Borovansky, he had secured a contract for his fledgling company with JC Williamson, which ran Australia’s premier theatrical circuit. From the time the Borovanskys opened their ballet academy in 1939 at Roma House, Elizabeth St, Melbourne, they had mounted performances featuring their students and other experienced dancers. The JCW deal enabled Borovansky to establish a professional company of paid dancers and to mount seasons of ballet in major theatres from Perth to Brisbane and also in New Zealand.
Most of the dancers received very low pay and were happy to accept that as the trade off for being able to work as ballet dancers.
In the mid-1940s Valda Jack’s pay before tax was £6.10s a week. Apart from all living expenses such as accommodation and food—a particularly heavy slug on the frequent extensive tours—it also had to cover practice clothes and pointe shoes. The latter cost £1.2/6d and had to be bought at least twice a week. The company paid for all tights and the leading dancers’ shoes. In Melbourne the available shoes were Imbisa brand and in Sydney, Blochs. Valda Jack favoured Imbisa, which she found better because they ‘had longer toes and tapered off better. Blochs had short (toe) blocks that cut off very sharply which cut the skin off your toes.’ The hand to mouth financial existence meant that you had to buy the shoes week to week and take what you could get where you were.
One development that she remembers fondly is the advent of nylon tights in 1947, which were ‘much better’ being lighter weight and having much more dynamic stretch than their clunky and wrinkly natural fibre predecessors.
Valda Jack had been dancing en pointe long before she came to the Borovanskys. She started ballet at a young age, learning from Dorothy Simpson, in a hall (now long demolished) opposite Tommy Bent’s statue in the Melbourne suburb of Brighton. By coincidence, also in the same class were Valda Westerland and Jenny Stielow, both of whom likewise had professional ballet careers that included dancing with Borovansky.
‘We were a class of eight little girls, unbeaten in competitions,’ she says. As for what went on in the ballet studio, she adds, ‘We were put en pointe and made to go around (the perimeter of) the room; I stayed en pointe longest.’ But unlike many victims of that era’s misguided and dangerous teaching, she still has good feet well into her 80s despite this and despite being troubled by gout, which is unrelated to her dancing past.
Participating in ballet competitions was one of the rites of passage in Australian dance in the 1930s and it was at one of the competitions that young Valda was spotted by Madam Lucie Saranova, a pupil of Enrico Cecchetti and founding organiser of the Cecchetti Society of Australia. She recommended to Valda’s parents that the child should go to the Borovansky Academy to further her training because she had gone as far as possible with her current teacher.
Valda Jack’s love of the performing arts was inspired very early in life by her maternal aunt who doted on her and frequently took her on outings to the theatre. Going to the Borovansky Academy suddenly thrust her into the world on the other side of the stage. Prior to acceptance into the academy Jack faced an interview with Madame Borovansky. ‘She looked at me with those great big eyes and said, “Do you love to dance?”’
Valda found herself to be one of the youngest at the academy, where all classes were held after hours. Jack would go first to the ballet class of 90 minutes, then the pas de deux class, also 90 minutes long and finally a private lesson with Madame Borovansky for another 90 minutes. Madame liked to set all of Valda’s exercises in multiples of 32 and the child kept going till her legs ‘just collapsed’. Then Madame would say, ‘I am satisfied. You have stamina.’
The first Borovansky class Valda walked into had Charles and Francois Lisner in it. They were her seniors by some years and very kind to her, spoke to her and became good friends. Like her, both of them were recruited into the Borovansky Ballet by the mid-1940s. Charles Lisner devoted his whole life to dance and went on to found the Queensland Ballet, while Francois retired early and became a schools truancy officer.
‘When I joined the company, my father said to Boro, “She’s very young, will you look after her?” And he did look after me,’ says Valda, who was in her mid-teens at the time. ‘Boro was very protective of his girls. He did not want them exploited. All he wanted was for them to work hard.’
Valda Jack’s experience is in contrast to Borovansky’s reputation as a womaniser, although to be fair, he appears to not have used casting couch techniques, rather he seems to have run his sexual pursuits in parallel with his artistic endeavours. For example, although he had a deep personal antipathy towards Edna Busse, he kept her on as one of his stars into the early 1950s, until he could dispense with her, principally because Kathie Gorham had become such a big drawcard. Marilyn Jones, his last ballerina, also has her own story about Boro trying it on with her. At the time she was a young woman of 18, and when she politely deflected his attempt, he apparently said, ‘Quite right.’
Valda Jack regrets that Borovansky’s sense of humour has never been fully captured in what has been written about him. Most fondly, she remembers his nicknames for the dancers. For example, Avona James was ‘you mosquito’ and Gillian Lowe was ‘you giraffa’. A favourite insult was, ‘You dance like the oxen on the ice.’ Another vivid memory of Borovansky was him always throwing his shoes at Max Collis.
As far as artistic direction was concerned, she says, ‘Boro was a man on a mission. He tried to do ballets that were easy to understand and visually pleasing to an uneducated public. That’s where Schéhérazade got us into trouble.’
That was in 1946 and the ballet attained notoriety in the press even before the première. Although this Ballets Russes Fokine classic had been performed in Australia previously—by the Lightfoot and Burlakov First Australian Ballet (1934), the Monte Carlo Russian Ballet (1936–37), and the Original Ballet Russe (1940)—its sexually explicit content was now being questioned. This was most likely due to the fact that Borovansky was adept at gaining free publicity in the press and focus on a new season of exciting additions to the repertoire would have drawn public scrutiny in a way that the earlier mountings escaped. Exotic eunuchs, lascivious golden slaves, promiscuous queens and their lethally jealous husbands made for sizzling comment and simmering outrage.
According to Valda Jack, Borovanky’s instructions to the men were, ‘Make love but don’t touch her!’
Then, at the full dress rehearsal for Schéhérazade things got a bit out of hand. When the slaves were ravaging the girls, Valda, partnered by Francois Lisner, bent backwards and her bra shot up to her neck. As a result, Wardrobe made translucent leotards with the bras stitched on. Pearl necklaces that were part of the costumes often broke, smashing on the floor and resulting in cuts so that stagehands were always having to wash blood off the backdrop.
Also memorable from the ravaging rehearsals was Max Collis chewing off the stars on his partner Pam Wyatt’s bra.
In a performance of Schéhérazade, Alfred ‘Scotty’ Ross, as the Sultan, lost his pants when Tamara Tchinarova as Zobeide was pleading for the Golden Slave’s life.
All these misfortunes must have ensured much good karma because the work proved one of Borovansky’s biggest smash hits. It was staged by Ballet Russe artist Tamara Tchinarova, who was Borovansky’s assistant as artistic associate at the time and who danced the titled role with an exciting new young star Martin Rubinstein, as her partner, in the role of the Golden Slave. Valda Jack remembers how they brought the house down every time they appeared.
That legendary season ensured Schéhrérazade’s position as a perennial Borovansky Ballet favourite and warranted a re-staging in The Australian Ballet’s Tribute to Borovansky programme of 1980, when Marilyn Jones was artistic director.
Tchinarova was also instrumental in the inclusion of two other Ballets Russes favourites Le Carnaval and Le Beau Danube, which were premièred in the Borovansky Ballet’s 1945 season. Although they were no match for the sensationalism spawned by Schéhérazade, they too became popular and frequently performed staples in the repertoire.
Le Carnaval holds some hair-raising memories for Valda Jack. Borovansky approached her while they were rehearsing it for one mounting. ‘He said, ‘I want you to learn Carnaval,’ so I stood in the wings and learned the corps de ballet part. On the day of the Melbourne opening he said, “Tonight you will do Tamara’s (Tchinarova) part.” I told him I didn’t know it and he said, “But I told you to learn it!”
‘I was in Tamara’s costume and she had a bigger waist than me, so the costume swiveled in the wrong direction as I moved. I had gloves that were full of holes, they couldn’t afford more. I had to throw paper roses across the stage to Serge Bousloff but I was never a thrower and when I threw a rose—you had to do it with the left hand—it went straight up into the flies, the rose fell off the stem and landed at my feet.’
She had to repeat it as Bousloff swore at her. At the time, Serge Bousloff (b. 22.09.1903, Kiev–d. place and date unknown) was Borovansky’s premier danseur of considerable seniority in age, experience and artistic accomplishment. Valda adds, ‘He never came to class.’
The Carnaval disaster grew worse for Valda when one of her false eyelashes got stuck backwards inside the mask, which was also Tamara’s, causing irritation and compromised vision. Despite all this, one newspaper review described her performance as ‘a vision of floating grace.’
As for this chance of a big break that Boro offered her, she says, ‘I don’t know to this day why he did it.’
That wasn’t the only time Jack was unnerved by Borovansky. Once as she waited in the wings to go on during a performance, he told her of his plans to do Romeo and Juliet and that he was considering having her dance in it ‘with some French boy he was bringing out.’ She was so overwhelmed that she missed her entrance and had to just fly onto the stage regardless.
While Valda Jack’s career with the Borovansky Ballet did not stretch to the possibilities envisioned for her by Borovansky, she was perfectly satisfied with her lot. Her dream had never been greater than to dance the role of one of the aproned washerwomen in Capriccio Italien. This light-hearted colourful suite of dances by Borovansky, set to Tchaikovsky’s eponymous score, was an ensemble piece set in a coastal Italian town and featuring troupes of workaday folk lead by an Officer and a Gay Lady.
Coming across the skirt swishing photos from performances of Capriccio Italien as we looked through her scrapbook, Jack beamed, ‘There I am, having the time of my life.’ But dance did more than enrich her life with joy, it may also have saved her life and it definitely gave her longevity.
She explains, ‘I was born with a leaky mitral valve, which was only diagnosed in adult life when I took one of my children to the doctor, who asked me, “Why are you so blue around the mouth?” Dancing actually strengthened my heart, but still it is amazing that I could do what I did with a bad heart.’
Ironically, in that era before our sophisticated cardio diagnostics, faulty hearts were stealthy and speedy killers. In fact, it is very likely that Valda’s good friend Scotty Ross was felled by a heart attack, dying on stage in Sydney, when they were appearing in the JCW musical Brigadoon.
Ross, who was a former boxer and the son of a noted Scottish dancer was one of the four kilted sword dancers and Jack remembers it fondly because, ‘He had skinny little legs and very broad shoulders, perhaps because of his boxing.’
Like most of the Borovansky dancers, Ross was Valda’s senior when she joined the company and she came to rely on him in the budgeting of her meager income. ‘Scotty was classed as a soloist and every payday I gave him £5 (to mind), then I borrowed it back after the weekend,’ she said.
When he died, she was off work because of an injured foot, the result of an accident when a much older cast member of the show had stepped backwards on stage and crushed her foot.
It seems that the dancers of that era either died young or lived long lives. Another loss that Jack recounts is that of her colleague and roommate Patsy Bryson. She suspects that Bryson, who died young (but not on stage), was a victim of tuberculosis. ‘We were so poor, we had one egg between us. She didn’t like the yoke, so I had the yoke and she had the white. You know you’re poor when you have to share an egg.’
Martin Rubinstein is one friend who also had tuberculosis but is still alive. By the time Rubinstein was diagnosed in the early 1950s, Valda Jack was no longer with the company but their friendship endured over the years. In fact, she likes to quote him on modern day ballet dancers lacking stamina: ‘They call themselves dancers, I used to dance every lead, every night.’
Rubinstein was among her visitors during one season when she had had her appendix out in a Sydney hospital. ‘He sat on the side of my bed and made me laugh.’ When she attempted to stop him on account of her surgical stitches, he would continue with, ‘I know another one!’
Martin Rubinstein is remembered as a brilliant turner and one of Australia’s most areal dancers, so it comes as a surprise to learn that he suffered from all forms of motion sickness and was the worst traveler. This blight was an especial problem on the tours to New Zealand, of which there were two in Valda Jack’s time with Borovansky —first an extensive one of nearly five months in 1944–45, then a shorter one of just under three months at the end of 1947.
According to her, the dancers often deliberated, ‘What can we give Martin so he won’t get sick?’ Once the medicating—a most questionable concoction of over the counter meds plus possibly other tonics—knocked him out over night but had him vomiting next morning even though the ship had not even left the pier thanks to bad weather.
During the second tour on the ferry to south island, almost everyone suffered when they experienced the worst storm to hit in 22 years. It was so turbulent that Serge Bousloff and Valda Jack were the only ones to walk off.
The unlucky run continued with the discovery that boots for Coppélia, which was scheduled for their opening in Christchurch, had gone missing. Stage manager Frederick Stenning improvised by sourcing firemen’s boots. Chaos ensued during that first performance as boots flew off, one hitting the bass drum in the orchestra pit, and the others bombarding the first two rows of the audience. To everyone’s relief, the crate was later found.
It is only incidentally revealed that Valda Jack danced for weeks during that tour with a broken collarbone. The story comes out in relation to a photograph from Christchurch that shows a group of seven dancers in everyday dress striking a pose in a garden. Four women are upright while Valda is seated on the ground. The grouping was concocted to accommodate the limitations that the injury put on her ability to move. The photograph was taken at the home of a Miss Livingstone, a balletomane. ‘She used to make us beautiful macaroni cheese for lunch,’ Valda remembers fondly. As for dancing with a broken collarbone, she adds, ‘You’d be surprised what you can do!’
When the company arrived back in Auckland there was a polio outbreak. Given polio’s infectiousness and crippling consequences, the dancers were understandably panicked. They decided to refuse to continue the tour and approached Borovansky with Tchinarova as their appointed ambassador. In her speech to him, she included, ‘And also, we are bugger-red,’ as Valda Jack likes to quote verbatim.
This put Borovansky in a difficult position because New Zealand was such an important part of the company’s touring circuit. He had put a lot of work into cultivating both the New Zealand press and audiences, generating excitement and box office. The company received warm welcomes everywhere. Valda Jack tells the story of one town which was so eager to welcome the Borovansky Ballet that, ‘They spent six weeks polishing the stage!’
But the dangers of dancing on a slippery stage are insignificant compared to exposure to a major infectious disease. So, Borovansky agreed and they returned home on the US ship Marine Phoenix, which was bringing 500 Australian brides of US military men back home, some pregnant and many with children. In fact, it was on this voyage that Valda got her first pair of nylon stockings. She says, ‘There was a shop on that ship and we went crazy and bought all the nylon stockings.’
Touring in Australia involved only minimal voyage by water, as when the company went to Tasmania. However, Valda Jack remembers many punishing hours on trains, crossing the continent, Brisbane to Perth, with ‘no sleepers and (a diet of) cold meat pies and cups of tea on (train) platforms.’
Lack of money was a constant problem in the lean post-war years, especially given the expenses of touring. ‘We were so poor, if someone asked you out for dinner, you ate for three days. Once I wore my best dress (out to such a dinner) and burst it at the seams. We slept on benches, on cargo racks. Once I slept in a baby’s cot.’
Melbourne seasons at least meant being at home and enjoying those comforts, which included enough to eat. Although Valda never had enough money to afford much food on tour, dieting was nevertheless an issue for dancers even in the first half of the 20th C long before the fashion for ever-thinner dancers took hold. In the 1920s when Anna Pavlova toured Australia, newspaper reporters asked for the secrets of her svelte figure. When Kirsova ditched her last ever pair of well-worn pointe shoes, she cited looking forward to not having to diet. Valda remembers her Borovansky colleague Joan Potter as living on cauliflower because she thought herself too fat.
Despite the dietary privations of the touring life, Valda has retained both a slim figure and happy relationship with food well into her 80s. During one of our phone conversations, Valda signed off hurriedly with, ‘I’m in the middle of making a baked custard.’ Another time, when I arrived to work further on sifting through her historic photos, she was baking a chocolate cake and, because it was a long day, she also baked a loaf of bread while I was there.
‘Busy woman’ doesn’t even begin to describe her. She lives in a house that she shares with her two daughters in a green suburb on the eastern fringe of Melbourne. The attractive single story traditional Australian style house with a timber return verandah is set in a garden of blooming floral borders on a handsome corner block. Valda not only built the house but more remarkably did so in her 60s. Unable to find builders who would erect the sort of house she wanted (for example, built on stumps rather than a concrete slab, with a full return timber verandah and other quality structural features of a traditional build), she got a builder’s licence and subcontracted all the trades.
‘The only one I had to sack was the painter. I caught him watering the paint down,’ she says. Who did the painting? ‘I did!’ she answers firmly.
Her bank manager, also a woman, was so impressed that she asked if Valda would build her daughter’s house.
To say that Valda is handy would be an understatement. Seven years ago she took up machine knitting and has an impressive collection of knitted garments to show for it.
Dancing Life After Borovansky
Adaptability was among the chief character traits that mid-century dancers needed if they were to survive on the professional stage. Most ballet companies of that era could not offer dancers permanent full time work but rather formed and disbanded for seasons of performance when financial backing allowed. The Borovansky Ballet worked under the business management of JC Williamson and after the second New Zealand tour the company went into recess, its dancers being farmed out to various musicals that JCW were staging and touring around the country in a chain of their theatres.
Valda Jack danced in a string of musicals: Brigadoon, Gay Rosalinda, Oklahoma and Song of Norway. But even these engagements did not automatically flow one into another and an additional source of employment was Ballet Guild, directed by Laurel Martyn, Borovansky’s earliest important local artistic collaborator and a former principal of his company. While Borovansky’s vision was to promote the art of ballet by popularising it with entertainment seeking theatre-going masses, Martyn’s view was to promote it at the creative level by the production of new choreography and the broad development of creative talent. Without the backing of any entrepreneurial organisation, Martyn operated on a much more modest scale than Borovansky. Nevertheless, she was just as keen to function at the professional level financially and therefore worked very hard to provide her dancers with paid work.
Laurel Martyn’s Ballet Guild
The photographs of Valda’s Ballet Guild days show an assortment of dance settings apart from proscenium arched traditional theatre stages on which the company performed either in its own seasons or between films as an extra entertainment for film goers.
Explaining the contents of one of her photographs, Valda says, ‘Laurel had us working in a nightclub and at least we got paid. She got us money.’
As still remains the case in many areas of the performing arts, in Valda’s day the artists were expected to actively participate in any promotional or advertising opportunity that the management could attract. Dancers provided exciting photo possibilities in an era before it became possible to be famous merely for being famous and a person had to achieve something important or have a special talent to gain the media’s attention. Free spreads in the daily press got the word out and the box office in. While Borovansky was a master of orchestrating media coverage, Martyn was also far from averse to such publicity, as Valda learned when she found herself an entrant in the Miss Australia quest.
A reporter from The Sun, Melbourne’s best selling mid-century morning newspaper, approached Martyn for some girls to be Miss Tarax, in the Miss Victoria heat of the Miss Australia quest. Tarax was a major soft drink manufacturer and the Miss Australia quest was a business-sponsored pageant that raised money for charity. Martyn responded by volunteering some likely candidates from a troupe she was training. Among them was Valda, then 18, and, in her own words, ‘broke as usual.’
While being chosen as Miss Tarax did not bring Valda money, it did bring some glory in the way of a photo shoot that received prominent display in The Sun. Although she did not have to raise any money because her sponsor took responsibility for that, she was expected to participate in every other way. If that meant donning a tutu and leaping through the Fitzroy Gardens on a scorchingly hot day, that’s what you did. Valda remembers changing into her costume in Captain Cook’s Cottage and then having to jump repeatedly despite the oppressive heat and blazing sun as the photographer tried to get a good shot.
Although Valda has a framed colour print of the photo used for the article, she also bought another print from the shoot that is balletically superior and does not cut off her foot. Both show the rosy pink glow of the sun on her face. Interestingly, in the story, she is billed as a Borovansky Ballet member despite the facts that the Borovansky Ballet was disbanded at the time, that she was between musicals therefore could not even be regarded as a JCW dancer and that she was working with Ballet Guild and wearing a Les Sylphides costume that had its wings up high on the bodice while the Borovansky costume had the wings at the waist.
Valda believes that recruiting someone like her was an attempt to bring a ‘higher tone (to the pageant) by bringing in people from the arts.’
While working in musicals did not bring Valda and her fellow dancers either improved conditions or more money, it did add another dimension to their accomplishments as performers. In Oklahoma! and Song of Norway they got to work with Matt Mattox, the influential and innovative 20thC jazz ballet artist and teacher who formulated the Matt Mattox technique and performed the spectacular split leaps in the movie Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
‘When he came, he started giving classes which were a little different and we really enjoyed it,’ says Valda. ‘He expanded on a lot of stuff we did when we left the barre. He was a lovely partner and I danced with him sometimes because he was a little taller.’
In Song of Norway there was a step that caused Valda problems but Mattox would not alter it even though she argued, ‘I’m going to skin my foot!’ She adds, ‘He had a bad knee and because he was a Christian Scientist he believed it would cure itself but it never did.’
Working in Oklahoma! was a most memorable time for Valda, not only because of the broadening of her dance experience through the close work with Mattox but also because it brought her into contact with Oscar Hammerstein the producer and, with Richard Rodgers, the creator of Oklahoma! and other ground breaking musicals as well as the eternally popular classic The Sound of Music. Hammerstein, who was married to Dorothy Blanchard, an Australian from Melbourne, spent time with the production in Australia and wanted Valda to go to America to dance in Oklahoma! over there but she turned down the opportunity. Joy Huddy, her friend from the Borovansky corps did go and ended up as a wardrobe mistress at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
As for working conditions in the theatres of the day, Valda has a particularly alarming memory from Oklahoma!’s run at JCW’s Melbourne flagship Her Majesty’s Theatre. ‘Shirley Longley and I were in the dressing room, middle of winter, freezing. We had an old kero(sene) tin for rubbish—cotton wool with make-up, old toe shoes—so we decided to make a fire in it.’ This sent black smoke billowing into the auditorium and resulted in a visit from the fire brigade. In the upshot, Jack and Longley got entrepreneur Frank Tait, who was also JC Williamson managing director, into the freezing room and asked for a heater. They were given a 1-bar radiator.
Thermal conditions gave Valda less grief on the whole than the problem of hunger on tour. She has especially fond memories of Tara Barry, an English star who appeared in various JCW musicals: ‘She fed me cheese and crackers and I found it difficult to be mean to her on stage (as required in Song of Norway) because she was so nice.’
Despite the poverty, hunger and hardship, Valda regards her dancing days as among the happiest of her life. Apart from the artistic fulfilment and sheer joy of dancing as a job, Valda also treasures the experience of the camaraderie of a life in theatre. In fact she thinks that was better in those days than it is today. She says, ‘We were so poor but we were a family, much more than they are now.’
The extremely well-attended Borovansky Ballet reunions of the last 25 years suggest that Valda’s view is held by the rest of her colleagues. In fact, it was an article, published in Dance Australia and written by Borovansky veteran Barry Kitcher, about the 2015 reunion that reconnected Valda with her long-lost nephew and niece from Queensland. A family falling out led to a 50-year estrangement. Her nephew found a copy of the magazine in an op shop, looked through it and found Valda’s name among the attendees of the Borovansky reunion, which enabled him to track her down.
Being part of the Borovansky dance family also thrust Valda Jack into the glamorous world of the theatre and its exciting personalities. One of these was the actor Peter Finch, who was then on his way to international movie fame and, at the time, Tamara Tchinarova’s husband. As such, he often turned up at rehearsals. One day, while rehearsing Giselle, as Borovansky was demonstrating what he wanted from Hilarion, Finch mimicked him in the wings. Borovansky stopped the rehearsal and offered him the role.
On another occasion when Valda was walking down Pitt St, Sydney, a car pulled up in the gutter and someone called out, ‘Hey, ballerina!’ She turned to see Finch, Chips Rafferty, the iconic mid-century Australian screen legend, and another man in the car. Undeterred, Finch kept yelling for all to hear, ‘She’s a famous ballerina!’ Valda remembers him as ‘such fun in those days.’
Another memorable street encounter happened on her 16th birthday. The company had a rehearsal but Borovansky gave them the afternoon off. Valda set off down Exhibition St, Melbounre, with Martin Rubinstein, Olga Purves and a group of others. They ran into a famous singer and in those days most people in the theatre in Australia either knew each other or knew of each other. This singer was a drinker and he had already ‘had a few,’ as Valda puts it. He followed the dancers down to Collins and then to Swanston St, where the group was to disband and go in various directions. In the course of this, the singer learned that it was Valda’s 16th, so he sang to her in his big, professional voice, When You Were Sweet 16. For Valda at that age, it was a mortifyingly embarrassing experience on a busy city street but now she just laughs joyously about it.
From today’s perspective, Valda’s life in theatre is a window to a long vanished world in which teenagers were instantly thrust into an adult life of artistic work alongside seasoned professionals. You looked, listened and learned about art and life. Many impressions from those days remain vividly with Valda, for example, her admiration for the dancing of Dorothy Stevenson in Giselle. ‘She was superb at bringing the character to life,’ says Valda. ‘When she pas de bouréed across the stage, you didn’t care what was going on under her skirt. You saw a spectre.’
And it is with some sadness that Valda speaks of Kurt Herweg, Borovansky’s long-time collaborator as musical director and chief conductor. ‘He was a German Jew and a concert pianist. When the Gestapo learned (his occupation) they broke every bone in his hands. His poor hands, we knew they were terrible but it was some time before we found out what happened,’ Valda explains. ‘He did not like to look back on things and would say, “I am happy now.” His whole life was music. If he was sad, we finished late; if he was happy, we finished early.’
Understandably it was Borovansky himself who made the biggest impression on her, especially as she never experienced the savage and cruel sides of his personality—his wrath or his taunts—some of which Frank Salter pointedly documents in Borovansky, The man who made Australian ballet, (Wildcat Press, 1980) his otherwise hero-worshipping portrayal of the man.
In 1950 when Borovansky was reforming his company for its Jubilee season—which was part of the JCW planned celebrations for 1951 to mark 50 years of Federation) Valda turned up at the studio but was met with hostility and not invited back into the company. She never learned why but she does remember being on stage in one of the musicals and seeing Madame Borovansky glaring at her from the stalls. A far more likely explanation is that Borovansky had a fresh new crop of dancers to choose from. Although Valda continued to dance with JCW, most notably in the 1951 Melbourne season of Brigadoon, she soon married and her life changed again.
Despite the way she parted ways with Borovansky, Valda holds warm memories of him. She recounts the story of how he responded when she bought a little black dog from a pet shop while on tour in Perth.
‘I used to smuggle it into the dressing room every night, where it promptly peed into Pammy Wyatt’s toe shoes.’ When Boro heard about the pup, he went to the dressing room and thundered, ‘Where’s this dog?’
He softened on seeing it, saying, ‘Isn’t he beautiful!’ After that the two were mates, which had unfortunate consequences. One night the dressing room door had not been shut properly and the dog got out and into the wings as Les Sylphides was in mid performance. Seeing Boro in the wings opposite, the little black dog walked across the stage in front of the dancers to be greeted by the delighted laughter of the audience. Boro just picked the dog up and cuddled it but afterwards, he told Jack, ‘Do not bring him into the theatre anymore!’
‘But of course I did,’ she adds. ‘I couldn’t leave him in the boarding house.’
The dog, whose name was Peter, went on to live happily at the Jack family home where it populated the neighbourhood with black pups.
Referring to Borovansky, she reflects, ‘Underneath he was very sensitive.’
But what of Borovansky’s reputation as a harsh disciplinarian who fined dancers mercilessly for breaches of what he saw as professional conduct? However, according to Valda, the fining only came later. ‘It was no good trying to fine us; we had no money to pay with.’
To this day, Valda Jack also remains devoted to canine companions and shares her life with two delightful small dogs in Millie and Lochie. Borovansky would no doubt have a soft spot for them, too.
Special thanks to Valda Jack (Lang) for so generously sharing her story and photographic/print dance collection, and to Borovansky Ballet veterans Barry Kitcher and Audrey Nicholls OAM for their help with sourcing additional information.
Frank Salter, Borovansky: the man who made Australian ballet (Wildcat Press, 1980)
Edward H. Pask, Enter the Colonies, Dancing (Oxford, 1979); Ballet in Australia (Oxford, 1982)
Barry Kitcher, From Gaolbird to Lyrebird: a life in Australian ballet (eBook, BryshaWilson Press, 2016)
Charles Lisner, My Journey through Dance (UQP, 1979)