Borovansky Dancer Valda Jack

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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.

Boro Co1945 numbered&namedTXTBy 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.

Young Valda

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.

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‘We were a class of eight little girls, unbeaten in competitions.’ Valda Jack, third from the right. Kneeling beside her is Valda Westerland, a Borovansky dancer in the 1950s.

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.

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Some of Valda’s medals won in the 1930s from The Victorian Society of Dancing, whose motto was ‘altius tendo’—reach higher

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.’

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Valda Jack, marked with the ‘x’, in the waltz from Le Beau Danube

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.

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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.

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Curtain call for Le Carnaval, Valda Jack marked by ‘x’

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.

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Valda’s balletic dream: skirt swishing in Capriccio Italien

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.

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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.’

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Athol Shmith was Melbourne’s leading photographer and portraitist of that era. This photo was commissioned by JCW publicity.

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!’

Touring

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.

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Borovansky’s Coppélia was an audience favourite in Australia and New Zealand

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!’

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Fun times on NZ tour: Valda strikes a seated pose to mask her broken collar bone

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.’

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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.’

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Valda, in ‘that’ dress, enjoying a night out at the Roosevelt night club, Sydney

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.

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Valda Jack (Lang), an entertaining and lively conversationalist, wearing one of her beautiful machine knits

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.

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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.’

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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.

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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.’

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Musicals

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.

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‘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.’

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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.

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In a muck-up moment, Valda is lifted up by her partner and photo bombs this publicity shoot

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.’

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Valda marked with ‘x’

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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.

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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.

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Valda Jack (Lang), at the second 1994 Borovansky reunion, with Glen (originally Len) Goddard, who took up ballet to aid his figure skating and later became a medallist ice dancer

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.’

Boro Co 1945TXT

The Borovansky Ballet of 1945 with identification of some of the personnel named in Valda Jack’s story, including Kurt Herweg, Scotty Ross and Frederick Stenning

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.’

Sylphides 1945TXT

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.

Valda collage

Valda Jack (Lang) holding Lochie while Millie reclines nearby and Valda on the porch of the house she built

 

Blazenka Brysha

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.

Additional references

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)

 

 

 

The Big Picture: Jean Stewart’s photo of Martin Rubinstein as Harlequin

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If only one photograph was allowed to survive as a testament to mid-century Australian ballet, it would have to be Jean Stewart’s capture of Martin Rubinstein as Harlequin (Carnaval, as it was billed, Ballet Guild, 1949)—airborne, magnificent, a vision of joy in flight: Apollo taking respite in a moment of Dionysian abandon. And there the dancer hangs weightless in mid-air, perfectly composed, adorned by a delicate flourish of the arms and the parting of lips in a playful smile. Behind him is a rudimentary set consisting of a simple painted backdrop, a prop sofa dressed in a rather loose cover, and the very visible stage floorboards that complete the picture.

 

It tells the story of how aesthetic aspirations aligned with a grand tradition found their expression in energetic enthusiasm sustained by shoestring budgets. But that’s not all because this picture comes bursting at the seams with a big back story: the story of mid-century Australian ballet and Jean Stewart (1921–2017) was there photographically documenting big chunks of it.

The year is 1949. Martin Rubinstein (b 1924) is appearing as a guest artist with the Ballet Guild under the direction of Laurel Martyn (1916–2013). He is actually a guest star. Rubinstein is one of Borovansky Ballet’s biggest stars, hence drawcards, but the Borovansky Ballet is in recess. The mid-1940s saw it consolidate as a professional ballet company under the aegis of J. C. Williamson, Australia’s biggest theatrical entrepreneurs of the 20th century.

Actually, J. C. Williamson had offered the deal to Hélène Kirsova (1910–1962) and her Sydney-based Kirsova Ballet (1941–1944) first but she turned it down on grounds of artistic autonomy and integrity. Edouard Borovansky (1902–1959) was made of sterner stuff and not so fussy. He had toured with Pavlova, even coming to Australia for the first time with her in 1929. He had starved in Paris in the 1930s and returned to Australia with the Covent Garden Russian Ballet (Ballets Russes) tour in 1938. Like Kirsova he could sense the locals’ keenness for ballet and potential for recruitment as dedicated audiences. Like Kirsova he (with his wife Xenia) started a ballet school and worked hard towards establishing a ballet company.

Dancing Yearstxt

Borovansky’s contract with J. C. Williamson meant that Borovansky dancers were also recruited into JCW musicals such as The Dancing Years, Gay Rosalinda and Oaklahoma! when the company was in recess.

Borovansky’s first Australian ballerina was Laurel Martyn. As a young ballet student she had been chosen to present Pavlova with flowers in Brisbane on the very tour that first brought Borovansky to Australia. At the time Martyn, 13, was a student of Marjorie Hollinshed, a dance teacher who turned her attention to ballet after seeing Pavlova dance on her first Australian tour, in 1926. J. C. Williamson had intended to bring Pavlova out much earlier, in fact, as a follow-up to presenting Adeline Genée—with her troupe billed as the Imperial Russian Ballet—in 1913, cashing in on the Ballets Russes mania that followed the Diaghilev company’s 1909 Paris première and accelerated the development of ballet as a sophisticated 20th century global art. War intervened.

In the troubled times that followed both ballet and fascination with it continued to grow. Touring was not only an economic imperative but an artistic necessity as performers needed to find audiences. The evolution of ballet has always been the story of a migratory art. Teachers crossed borders to find students and vice versa.

Martyn furthered her training in England under Phyllis Bedells, who with Genée was among the founders of what became the Royal Academy of Dancing. She then honed her technique in Paris under Egorova and Kchessinska and was the first Australian woman in the Vic-Wells Ballet, the first male being Robert Helpmann. With war looming in the late 1930s, Martyn returned to Australia where she found work teaching ballet under draconian conditions for Jennie Brenan, who had encouraged her to go to England in the first place and whose school was a major supplier of dancers for J.C. Williamson. Among her charges at the school Martyn taught a promising student Martin Rubinstein. Not surprisingly, he was selected to demonstrate in a coaching session by Anton Dolin, also a member of the Covent Garden Russian Ballet tour in 1938.

Dolin&Rubitxt

Borovansky was quick to recruit Martyn and Rubinstein for his enterprise. Martyn brought instant critical recognition as a dancer and as a choreographer. She also worked as Borovansky’s ballet mistress and assistant. Rubinstein developed quickly into a dance artist of note. They all worked on through the tough war years.

The Borovansky Ballet had only been a professional company briefly when Tamara Tchinarova, Borovansky’s colleague from the Covent Garden Russian Ballet tour, joined the company as dancer and artistic associate. Having settled in Sydney, she had worked with the Kirsova Ballet. After that company folded, she contacted Borovansky who eventually called her to join him after Martyn was injured.

Ever mindful of box office, J.C. Williamson wanted more Ballets Russes content in Borovansky productions. The company was already performing the ubiquitous universal favourite Les Sylphides and Le Spectre de La Rose, as well as Giselle, a work popularised by the Ballets Russes. The Borovansky Ballet was the first Australian company to mount Giselle and it was with Martyn in the lead.

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Thanks to Tchinarova’s comprehensive knowledge, the Borovansky Ballet added Le Carnaval (Fokine) and Le Beau Danube (Massine) in 1945 and Schéhérazade (Fokine) in 1946.

Le Carnaval BorovanskyBtxt

Edouard Borovansky as Pierrot, Strelsa Heckelman as Columbine, Martin Rubinstein as Harlequin and Tamara Tchinarova as Chiarina

All three works were guaranteed audience pleasers and had a stage history in Australia. The role of Columbine in Le Carnaval had the distinction of first being performed in Australia by the great ballerina Olga Spessivtseva with the Dandre-Levitoff Russian Ballet in 1934. It was also a role that brought acclaim for Kirsova when she first came to Australia with the Monte Carlo Russian Ballet in 1936.

Borovansky danced Pierrot in the première cast of Le Carnaval,  Laurel Martyn danced Columbine and although it was Edouard Sobishevsky who partnered her as Harlequin, Martin Rubinstein went on to attain much success in all three ballets but especially Schéhérazade in which he danced the Golden Slave to Tchinarova’s Zobeide. The latter partnership was incendiary according to Tchinarova and brought huge acclaim. According to Valda Jack who danced in the production but also with Ballet Guild, Rubinstein’s death leap as the Golden Slave ‘brought the house down,’ as did his final leap through the window in Le Spectre de la Rose.

Tchin&Rubitxt

That incendiary partnership

Although Borovansky had performed Pierrot, the Chief Eunuch (Schéhérazade) and the Strong Man (Le Beau Danube) with the Ballets Russes to acclaim which grew with Tchinarova’s revivals, he did not know the rest of Tchinarova’s three additions in detail. In a letter to Barry Kitcher (reproduced in the digital edition of his memoir From Gaolbird to Lyrebird, BryshaWilson Press, 2016), she states: ‘Bousloff did not remember much, and Boro, of course knew his roles well but was vague about others. A favourite pastime of de Basil dancers in between appearances on stage was dressing room cards playing.

Tchin&Borotxt

Like Borovansky, Serge Bousloff had come to Australia with the Covent Garden tour. As Fokine was also on that tour and personally mounted Le Carnaval, there had been opportunity to learn for those interested. While Bousloff, like Borovansky, may have been remiss in that area, he provided the Borovansky Ballet with a principal of note, famed for his stage presence and bearing if not his technique. A sample of his dancing can be seen in the Youtube snippets of the Borovansky Ballet’s Swan Lake Act II in which he partners Edna Busse, the first Australian ballet star produced by the Borovansky Ballet Academy under the guidance of Xenia Borovansky.

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Frederick Ashton was one of Laurel Martyn’s colleagues at the Sadler’s Wells

Considering that Serge Bousloff and Vera Nelidova are credited with staging Ballet Guild‘s Carnaval, it must be assumed that Bousloff was either reproducing Tchinarova’s revival or that Nelidova, who had also come with the Covent Garden company, did all the work. Another possibility is that Bousloff’s wife Kira, who had also come with the Covent Garden company under her maiden name Abricossova, also contributed because her staging of Prince Igor was included on the same programme and she also appeared as Chiarina in this Carnaval. Kira Bousloff went on to found the West Australian Ballet and become that state’s most esteemed ballet teacher.

But back to Laurel Martyn. From Borovansky Ballet’s earliest days she was a major player as can be deduced from the fact that when the Borovansky Ballet Company was registered (1940), she is named as one of the five directors. In 1946 when the Melbourne Ballet Club, which had given Borovansky significant support for his company’s gestation, re-formed as the Ballet Guild, Martyn was recruited as director. The Ballet Guild’s brief was to develop Australian ballet by training dancers and building an accomplished company performing a repertoire favouring original local works. This suited Martyn well and she left Borovansky taking other dancers with her.

The Ballet Guild’s 1949 season is given in the small theatre at its studio, St Patrick’s Hall, 470 Bourke Street, Melbourne. Rubinstein has a bravura technique that includes breath-taking elevation, superb turns, good line, polished finish and a refined flash of theatricality. Eve King is his Columbine. The promise of a dazzling future for the young dancers and the development of their artform wafts and romps across the stage with them.

Indeed, contemporary to this was the advent of the National Theatre Ballet (1949–1955), an artistically and theatrically ambitious venture by Gertrude Johnson’s National Theatre Movement, under whose auspices Borovansky presented his own Australian dancers for the first time. That was in a programme called First Season of Ballet at the Princess Theatre (1939).

The National Theatre Ballet was initially directed by Joyce Graeme, who with a few others, notably Margaret Scott and Rex Reid, stayed behind after coming with the profoundly influential Ballet Rambert tour of 1947—1949. The company produced a range of local works including by Laurel Martyn and Louise Lightfoot (who staged the first local production of Le Carnaval, in 1937 on the First Australian Ballet Company which she co-directed with Mischa Burlakoff, a dancer who stayed behind from Pavlova’s 1926 tour). It also employed many local dancers and more than a few who had worked with Borovansky; Kira Bousloff was the régisseuse générale in 1952. The company even included Le Carnaval, staged by Valrene Tweedie, a student of Lightfoot and Burlakoff who joined the Ballets Russes and left Australia with them in 1940. Tweedie danced Columbine.

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Giselle was one of the traditional favourites that the Ballet Rambert performed among all the very new works it brought on its historic tour to Australia.

Although the National Theatre Ballet was relatively short-lived and most notably remembered for mounting the historic first staging of the full Swan Lake in Australia (1951), its existence broadened local ballet horizons considerably and heralded possibilities that were more fully realised with the coming of The Australian Ballet in 1962, managed by the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, an organisation formed in 1954 taking a lead from the National Theatre Movement’s vision for the arts and responding to a growing awareness of the need for a formal public channel for the presentation and administration of the performing arts at the national level in Australia.

Borovansky continued to hold studio performances during his company’s recess in the late 1940s then returned in 1951 with the Borovansky Jubilee Ballet. It was to open in Sydney with a programme featuring a première of Petrouchka. Rubinstein was to dance the title role. The injury that prevented him made newspaper headlines in Melbourne. Although he recovered enough to return to the stage during the 12-week Sydney season, it was at that time he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, which suddenly and permanently ended his performing career.

Petrouchka Kitchertxt

The Borovansky Ballet staged Le Carnaval again in the 1950s, and Laurel Martyn also continued to mount it on the Ballet Guild in its various incarnations over the years while at the same time producing a variety of original local works.

But back to the picture…

Rubinstein makes his biggest mark in roles made famous by Diaghilev’s greatest star Vaslav Nijinsky: Le Spectre de la Rose, the Golden Slave in Schéhérazade, Pertouchka and Harlequin.

The legend of Nijinsky—whose performing career was also ended by illness—grew to mythical proportions, fuelling the rise of the Ballets Russes and inspiring the 20th century’s finest dancers, one of whom—Mikhail Baryshnikov, partnering Natalia Makarova— makes his only ballet dancing Australian appearance for Ballet Victoria, Ballet Guild’s final incarnation, in 1975.

Even 30 years after Rubinstein took his final bow, those who had seen him dance spoke of those performances with awe.

Unlike Nijinsky, Martin Rubinstein recovered from his illness and went on to have a long and fruitful career as a ballet teacher, beginning with the Borovansky academy, where he introduced the Royal Academy of Dancing syllabus, having graded to the highest level in it while still with Jennie Brenan, who had a long-standing friendship with Adeline Genée, one of the founders of the RAD. By the late 1950s, Rubinstein was travelling internationally as a children’s examiner and in the early 1980s he was made a Dual Examiner which meant that he could examine up to the highest levels (ie professional) in the system. He was the first non-English appointee and at the time this was an extraordinary honour. Subsequently he was awarded a Fellowship of the RAD and an Order of Australia medal. His long teaching career was associated most prominently with the Eve King Audrey Nicholls School of Ballet. King and Nicholls were also Borovansky Ballet veterans.

In 1964 The Australian Ballet performed Carnaval (sic), staged by Peggy van Praagh (1910–1990), its artistic director. She had come to Australia after Borovansky’s death in 1959 to direct his company for J. C. Williamson. When The Australian Ballet was formed under her direction in 1962, all of its Australian principals and more than half of all its dancers, its music director, stage director, assistant ballet master and mistress were all Borovansky personnel.

In the years that follow, Borovansky isn’t given much credit for his contribution to what became Australia’s critically acclaimed ballet culture. Then in 1980 when Frank Salter’s Borovansky, the man who made Australian ballet (Wildcat Press, Sydney) is published to redress the balance, Jean Stewart’s photo of Rubinstein as Harlequin is included with no mention that this is from another company’s production and no acknowledgement of the photographer.

Although Stewart remembered this to the end of her life, the wrongs were righted in 1982 when the photo appeared fully documented in Edward H. Pask’s Ballet in Australia: the second act 1940–1980 (Oxford University Press). Finally, it gets a glorious incarnation as a full page in Alan Brissenden and Keith Glennon’s Australia Dances: making Australian dance 1945–1965 (Wakefield Press, 2010). With these two books Laurel Martyn’s Ballet Guild starts to get some long-overdue attention. Because Martyn continued to work creatively well after the demise of Ballet Guild, the historic importance of Ballet Guild tended to be overshadowed by focus on her as a very highly regarded leading member of Australia’s dance community.

So a Ballet Guild performance was passed off as one by the Borovansky Ballet. Considering that the line-up of not only the local companies of that era, but even the Ballet Rambert on its 1947–1949 Australian tour was a case of musical chairs, this is not so much fraud as simply a hint about the complexity of that history and an indication of how much sorting of fact is still required.

And what of Le Carnaval? The Australian Ballet under Maina Gielgud’s direction gives it another go in 1991 and none other than Laurel Martyn is called upon to mount it. On opening night Harlequin is danced by principal David McAllister who becomes the company’s artistic director in 2001, and so the thread of history unravels…

Laurel&Rubi2004txt

 

Blazenka Brysha

Special thanks to Valda Jack (Lang), Barry Kitcher and Judy Leech for help with photos and information for this story.

 

References

Additional research of visuals: National Library of Australia, Victorian State Library and Melbourne Arts Centre dance collections

Principal texts about the era:

Edward H. Pask, Enter the Colonies, Dancing (Oxford, 1979); Ballet in Australia (Oxford, 1982)

Alan Brissenden and Keith Glennon, Australia Dances: Creating Australian Dance 1945–1965 (Wakefield Press, 2010)

Frank Salter, Borovansky: the man who made Australian ballet (Wildcat Press, 1980)

Barry Kitcher, From Gaolbird to Lyrebird: a life in Australian ballet (eBook, BryshaWilson Press, 2016)

Edith Pillsbury, Lynne Golding, Australian Ballerina (Allegro Publishing, 2008)

Michelle Potter, Dame Maggie Scott: a life in dance (The Text Publishing Company, 2014)

Charles Lisner, My Journey through Dance (UQP, 1979)

Frank Van Straten, Tivoli (Lothian Books, 2003)

Other additional sources for

Valda Jack, Borovansky dancer who also appeared with Ballet Guild: author interviews

Martyn

http://ausdance.org.au/articles/details/pavlovas-1929-australian-tour

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/inspiring-legacy-of-a-ballet-star/news-story/a113d004cda9a2975daf698030d93884

Kirsova as Columbine

http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kirsova-helene-10754

Louise Lightfoot Le Carnaval

https://dictionaryofsydney.org/person/lightfoot_louise

Le Carnaval Australian context

http://trove.nla.gov.au/list?id=1199

Tchinarova NLA Michelle Potter interview

http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-217200994/listen

Rubinstein NLA Michelle Potter interview

http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-217281080/listen

Valrene Tweedie

http://cicb.org/valrene-tweedie/

Karsavina, Nijinsky & Bolm Library of Congress photo

https://www.flickr.com/photos/57440551@N03/10651336425

National Theatre Ballet

http://trove.nla.gov.au/people/677099

Kira Bousloff

https://open.abc.net.au/explore/84092

Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust

http://trove.nla.gov.au/people/783793

 

Jean Stewart Ballet Photographer

Mills,KingSmithYoung

Without Jean Stewart’s photography a major portion of the history of the development of classical ballet in Australia would have been lost. Her speciality was live performance and her photographs are a tantalising glimpse of living dance in action.

Jean Stewart (1921–2017) was one of three photographers who between them have left a massive photographic archive thanks to their interest in both photography and ballet. While Hugh P Hall (1899–1967) concentrated most memorably on the big picture, especially evident in the vast number of his 1930s Ballets Russes tours photos, and Walter Stringer (1907–2001) mostly responded to the aesthetics of ballet’s traditional side, Stewart was drawn to character and action. Hall was already aiming his camera at Anna Pavlova in the 1920s and was still working when Stringer and Stewart got going in the 1940s, then Stringer continued to work into the later 20th century.

Given the ephemeral nature of dance, the photographic collections of these three pioneers give us a precious record and Stewart’s work shines as its central component.

If only one photograph was allowed to survive as a testament to mid-century Australian ballet, it would have to be Jean Stewart’s capture of Martin Rubinstein as Harlequin (Carnaval, Ballet Guild, 1949)—airborne, magnificent, a vision of joy in flight. The dancer hangs weightless in mid-air, behind him, a rudimentary set.

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It tells the story of how aesthetic aspirations aligned with a grand tradition found their expression in energetic enthusiasm sustained by shoestring budgets. But that’s not all because this picture comes bursting at the seams with a big back-story: the story of mid-century Australian ballet and Jean Stewart was there, photographically documenting big chunks of it.

In the 1940s Stewart developed her art under Edouard Borovansky’s watchful eye, snapping ballet as the audiences saw it, recording the doings on the stage. Her photographs of the historic 1947–1949 Ballet Rambert tour are a unique record of an event that had a major impact on the subsequent evolution of Australian ballet. From the later 1940s and well into the 1950s she worked closely with Laurel Martyn who directed the Ballet Guild (later Victorian Ballet Guild) after parting with Borovansky.

Jean Stewart’s photographs grace all the important books that deal with or touch on ballet performance in Australia during the 1940s and ’50s: Ballet in Australia, the Second Act, 1940–1980, Edward H. Pask (Oxford University Press, 1982), Opera and Ballet in Australia, John Cargher (Cassell Australia, 1977), My Journey Through Dance, Charles Lisner, (University of Queensland Press, 1979), Borovansky: the man who made Australian ballet, Frank Salter (Wildcat Press, Sydney,1980), From Gaolbird to Lyrebird—a life in Australian ballet, Barry Kitcher (Front Page, Melbourne, 2001; new eBook edition BryshaWilson Press, 2016), Australia Dances—Creating Australian dance 1945–1965, Alan Brissenden and Keith Glennon (Wakefield Press, Adelaide, 2010) and Dame Maggie Scott—A Life in Dance, Michelle Potter (Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2014).

They can also be found in many collections, some still in private hands and others now in public and institutional libraries, most notably the State Library of Victoria (SLV) to which Stewart donated her entire collection in recent years. Though Stewart’s work is well known, her extraordinary achievement has never received the recognition it deserves.

It was a serendipitous mix of contributing factors that resulted in Stewart’s historically important photographic output. Speaking of how it all started, she stressed, ‘As a girl I had cameras. Photography was the passion.’ Her family’s devotion to the works of Gilbert and Sullivan and their consequent connection with theatre gave her both subject matter for her photography and access to it. Work with ballet only came later.

Jean Stewart was born in 1921, in Melbourne, to a theatre-loving family that was especially fond of Gilbert and Sullivan. Her maternal grandfather was a conductor in private performances and held Gilbert and Sullivan musical soirées sending out invitation cards with the instructions: ‘Carriages at 10.30’. Stewart found this very amusing as a relic from another era, saying dismissively, ‘That was before my mother was born.’ As for Gilbert and Sullivan, she said, ‘It was the entertainment of the day and I was lucky that my family brought me up to love Gilbert and Sullivan.’ Among the material she donated to the SLV were three books of Gilbert and Sullivan piano scores copiously annotated by her grandfather for the soirée performances he gave. More importantly, it included the extensive collection of her Gilbert and Sullivan photos of the performances staged by J. C. Williamson, Australia’s premier theatrical entrepreneurs in the 20th century and holders of the performance rights for Gilbert and Sullivan in Australia.

‘I went to all the Gilbert and Sullivan and photographed everything,’ she said emphatically.

It so happened that Stewart’s grandfather knew musician Claude Kingston who became her parents’ friend and general manager of J. C. Williamson’s theatrical business based at His Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne. It was Kingston who gave Stewart permission to photograph the Gilbert and Sullivan performances.

Much transpired between the time that the girl with the cameras became the photographer of professional live theatre. Young Jean attended St Catherine’s School, one of Melbourne’s exclusive schools for girls and it was there that her bent for photography took a turn towards the professional level. She explained, ‘I had to earn a living and a teacher at school suggested I do radiography.’

So, on leaving school Stewart worked during the day at the old Royal Melbourne Hospital and studied at night at RMIT for two years. Speaking of that experience, Stewart said, ‘There was only one other woman in the course. Women weren’t welcome in radiography. It was male chauvinism—women were nurses and typists. Wouldn’t they be rolling in their graves if they could see computers today!’

Stewart won a prize for Radiography and received two guineas from the radiologist doctors. After qualifying, Stewart worked in private practice in Collins Street but was not happy there so she changed jobs to the Heidelberg Rehabilitation Hospital where she remained until her retirement in 1986. When she was donating her photographic collection to the SLV, she also gave her collection of historic xray film to the Australian Society of Medical Imaging and Radiation Therapy.

Stewart’s mother gave her a Kodak Recomar 33 camera as a gift on graduating from her radiography course. Apart from the comprehensive technical understanding of photographic processes that Stewart would have gained from qualifying as a radiographer, she also studied photography at RMIT. It was the Recomar that Stewart would use exclusively out front in the theatres but she also used a 35 mm camera backstage.

Stewart’s friendship with Avona James, a dancer in Borovansky’s fledgling company in the early 1940s was her introduction to the world of ballet. ‘I went and watched her dancing,’ said Stewart. ‘I bought tickets and got involved.’ As she was already photographing Gilbert and Sullivan at His Majesty’s Theatre, taking photos of Borovansky performances, which were held there (as well as at the Borovansky studio at Roma House, 238 Elizabeth St, Melbourne), was a natural extension of her work, especially since dance is such a strongly visual art.

It so happened that Stewart got on well with dancers. Valda Jack (now Mrs Valda Lang) who was in the company in the 1940s said, ‘Jean was part of the scenery, she was always there, in the wings, out front, taking photos. Both our middle names were Margaret and she’d say, how are you, Valda Margaret? and I’d say, very well, Jean Margaret!

After printing her photographs, Stewart would take them to the dancers who vetted the photos. Stewart said, ‘If a hand or foot did not pass muster (in ballet criteria for what is acceptable), out it went. The dancers would say, Don’t let Boro see that.’ And so, what Boro saw, Boro liked, which gave Stewart carte blanche around the company and even Borovansky himself as a performer. In fact, of the photos she took, Stewart’s all-time favourite is the photograph of Borovansky as Pierrot in Le Carnaval when he has just failed to net the Butterfly with his hat. ‘It’s the look on his face,’ said Stewart in explaining her choice.

Pierrot-1 copy

Jean Stewart’s personal favourite of all the photos she took. ‘It’s the look on his face,’ she said.

Stewart got on very well on a personal level with Borovansky, who even told her to wear trousers to make it easier for her to go up lighting stands and generally get around in doing her photography. The trousers must have made things easier in other ways as well because Stewart lugged her photographic gear about on trams. ‘Unipod between my legs, camera against my bosom,’ is how she described sitting in the tram.

Stewart attributed various of the connections she made with theatre to tram travel, including knowing actor director Irene Mitchell, under whom Melbourne’s Little Theatre spawned several generations of Australian theatre artists. Said Stewart, ‘Everybody knew everybody then, we travelled on trams together.’

It was Mitchell who introduced Stewart to theatrical entrepreneur Garnet Carroll who was a partner in the leasehold on the Princess Theatre. After Stewart showed him some of her Borovansky photographs, he gave her permission to photograph the Princess stage.

‘Everything was laid-back then,’ said Stewart of her experience of working in theatres. Eventually, Stewart also gained permission to photograph live performance at the Palais Theatre and the Union Theatre at both of which the Ballet Guild appeared. ‘Only (Walter) Stringer also had permission to photograph all four stages live,’ she stressed. Permission to photograph was one thing, entry to the theatres another. ‘I paid for all my seats,’ Stewart pointed out proudly, signalling her independence and freedom from any kind of compromising obligation to vested interests.

Jean Stewart-1TXT

Wearing trousers, in an era when it was not an acceptable form of everyday dress for women, made Jean Stewart’s work much easier, not just as a photographer but also as stage manager for Ballet Guild.

Photographing live theatre is one of the most difficult and technically challenging areas of photography and photographing dance is definitely the most demanding within that. Issues to do with light control and the mercurial movement of the performers are just the most obvious of the many daunting complexities facing the live ballet photographer. Apart from technical ability with a camera (complex enough with digital cameras, let alone with cameras of the era in which Stewart worked), the ballet photographer must also have both an eye for theatre and for movement. Having an eye for movement is like having an ear for music: you need to be able to feel the movement sympathetically, to understand what it is doing and why. Sometimes the content of that may be in the grand sweep of the whole and sometimes in the minutiae of detail. Every aspect of this is contained in Stewart’s photo of Rubinstein pausing gravity as Harlequin. It is also on magnificent display in Stewart’s capture of Rubinstein in his glorious death-leap as the Golden Slave in Schéhérazade, a moment that always brought the house down, according to Valda Jack, who danced as one of the concubines in the Borovansky Ballet’s premier season of the work (1946).

In Stewart’s photograph the Golden Slave has just plunged to the floor headfirst, landing on his neck, his body balanced vertically on his left shoulder and its weight supported by his left cheek and his right hand. Stewart remembered how when that photo was taken, Rubinstein rushed up to her as soon as he came off stage, asking, ‘Did you get it? I held it for you.’

Both this and the Harlequin photo are among the 11 Stewart photographs that are used without photo credit in Frank Salter’s Borovansky, the man who made Australian ballet. While Stewart was unbelievably generous with her photographs, unstintingly allowing their reproduction at every request and without payment, she did expect a photo credit, which unlike the authors of all the other books mentioned above, Salter did not give although he mentions her name among all the people he thanks in his general acknowledgements. Thirty-five years after the book’s publication, Stewart was quick to point out which of the photos used were hers.

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Jean Stewart’s uncredited photos on p 109 of Borovansky: the man who made Australian ballet by Frank Salter

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Jean Stewart’s uncredited photos on p 142 of Borovansky: the man who made Australian ballet by Frank Salter

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Jean Stewart’s uncredited photos on p 143 of Borovansky: the man who made Australian ballet by Frank Salter. An autographed print of the Serge Bousloff in costume shot exists at the National Library of Australia credited as “Ritter-Jepessen Studios” but that is a copy. Stewart was adamant that this photo was hers and recorded the fact in her own copy of Salter’s book, now in the possession of Dawn Kelly, a Melbourne balletomane.

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Jean Stewart’s uncredited photos on p 156 of Borovansky: the man who made Australian ballet by Frank Salter

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Jean Stewart’s uncredited photos on p 157 of Borovansky: the man who made Australian ballet by Frank Salter

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Jean Stewart’s uncredited photo on p 171 of Borovansky: the man who made Australian ballet by Frank Salter

It was fortunate that Stewart had been introduced to Garnet Carroll and obtained permission to photograph the Princess Theatre stage because it was there that Ballet Rambert started its Australian tour. While it is the range of Stewart’s Rambert photographs—which includes tableaux of scenes in ballets, selected parts of on-stage action and portrait-style singling out of individual dancers— that makes them so valuable historically, it is her iconic captures of Sally Gilmour in Andrée Howard’s Lady into Fox and The Sailor’s Return that have passed on to posterity something of the impact that the Rambert visit had on the Australian dance consciousness. Here was a company bringing new and different works performed in ways not seen here before, yet all in a balletic context and, indeed, presented, along side a sprinkling of familiar traditional offerings, in major theatres. Also among the new works were ballets by Antony Tudor, including Jardin aux Lilas and Dark Elegies, which demanded that content be conveyed purely through movement: the movement had to carry the message/import, an approach that put quite new demands on both the choreographer and the dancers. Andrée Howard was also breaking new ground not just by being a woman, which still remains a rarity in ballet choreography, but also by devising ballets that challenged commonly held prejudices about sex and race, issues that remain topical even today.

Howard’s ballets are lost, Stewart’s photos remain. They can be found in collections both here and in London at the Rambert archive to which Stewart also generously donated relevant holdings. In Lady into Fox a young wife transforms into a fox and longs for the freedom of the wild into which her loving husband releases her despite his fearful awareness of an impending foxhunt. Sally Gilmour’s acclaimed portrayal of the transformation from woman to fox was regarded in its day as the reason for the ballet’s great popularity.

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It is Stewart’s photo of Gilmour as the fox, seated upright and watchfully alert on a drawing room floor that Rambert artistic director Mark Baldwin used in Long forgotten images of Rambert and the birth of modern dance—in pictures an article in The Guardian (23.5.2013). Stewart’s other well-known photo relating to this work, a portrait of Gilmour posing as the Fox, shows not only the personification of the creature but also the fine detail of the terry towelling costume that effected the startling transformation.

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Jean Stewart’s photo showing the terry towelling fabric of the fox costume that aided in the illusion of transformation in Gilmour’s performance.

Costume was also a critical element of The Sailor’s Return in which Gilmour portrayed the West Indies princess Tulip who is entrapped in a tragic destiny by racial prejudice against her. Again, Gilmour’s powerful performance came to the fore as a major contributing factor to the work’s popularity and artistic success. Stewart made a point of showing the character in her photographs, which give us both the joyous bride in her white finery and the concerned mother, in an apron and bare feet, tending the infant child in her arms. Full stage shots, taken from the dress circle, clearly show Tulip’s segregated position and the villagers’ rejection of her.

 

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Scene from The Sailor’s Return, Ballet Rambert, 1948, showing Tulip’s segregation from the villagers.

It is not surprising that Stewart was drawn to these works by Howard, which showed the plight of women in an oppressive world. She herself was staunchly independent, even once declaring to me, ‘I don’t like marriage. I want to do what I want to do.’

The world of dance was a milieu that was overwhelmingly populated by women and, as Jean learned, you could even get the chance to wear the pants: literally in her case and metaphorically in the case of women like Rambert, de Valois and (in Australia) Kirsova, all of whom headed dance companies. So, when Laurel Martyn parted ways with Borovansky, in 1946, to lead the Ballet Guild, Stewart not only followed her but took on an official role. ‘I went up to Laurel and asked to be her stage manager.’

While Stewart continued to take some photos of the Borovansky Ballet after this, most notably of the studio performances of Black Swan in 1949, from 1950 she only photographed the Ballet Guild. Considering that the Ballet Guild was such an innovative yet low-key player of that era, Stewart’s photographs are all the more important as a major component of that company’s history, which remains a jigsaw whose pieces are all still to be found, let alone put together.

In a way, the parting with Borovansky represented a rupture.

‘Everything was very sectioned in those days,’ is how Stewart describes the era that we can say, with the hindsight of history and much water under the grievance bridge, was riddled with enmity and conflict and propaganda wars.

The artistically admired Kirsova Ballet (1941–1944) had the distinction of being called Australia’s first professional ballet company because the dancers were paid award wages but this was only during seasons, which left the dancers unemployed for considerable lengths of time. The Borovansky Ballet (1939–1961) clocked up the miles as Australia’s longest running professional ballet company (1944–1961, with periods of recess) prior to government funding. The National Theatre Ballet (1949–1955) was the grandest and slickest full-size operation presenting ballet on a scale and with a finish that had Brovansky alarmed but correctly convinced that it was unsustainable given the commercial realities of a vast land with a tiny population and a financial climate in which government funding didn’t exist. And then there was the Ballet Guild (1946–1959, evolving further under several name changes to 1976), working away quietly, appearing in nightclubs, between films at the Palais Theatre and on smaller stages such as the Union Theatre at Melbourne University and the small theatre at its own studio (St Patrick’s Hall, 470 Bourke Street). It earned much kudos for insisting on creating new works though like all the others it also did a smattering of traditional audience favourites such as Giselle and Coppélia.

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Ballet Guild dancers performing an original ballet by director Laurel Martyn. Martin Rubinstein, centre front, appearing as a guest; along from him in the second row, head circled by very faint biro, is Valda Jack.

To give an example of the underhanded doings of that era, Stewart told a story involving the ballet Coppélia: ‘Boro took Eve King and Graham Smith two nights before the end of season. Martyn danced Franz. I have pictures of Laurel dressed as a man!’

That incident was in 1951 just as Borovansky was assembling his Jubilee Borovansky Ballet. More than 60 years later, Stewart still felt the sting of these conflicts, so much so that she declared Michelle Potter’s Dame Maggie Scott ‘The best (Australian) ballet history ever written. It was ecumenical. Other people wrote books but they were all sectioned.’

Stewart’s close connection with Ballet Guild resulted in extensive photographic documentation of that company’s work. It can only be hoped that the SLV will eventually upload the whole collection on line and bring to light an aspect of Australian ballet history that is all but forgotten these days.

By her own admission Stewart stopped photographing the stage in 1967, coincidentally the same year as the Guild—which became the Victorian Ballet Guild in 1959, then Victorian Ballet Company in 1963—morphed into Ballet Victoria. Nevertheless, she maintained a keen interest in ballet as a supporter and an audience member. She even continued to photograph at social events involving dance and dance people. For this she used a modern 35 mm camera and colour film.

The only substantial recognition Stewart received in her lifetime was from the Borovansky Ballet veterans who included her as one of themselves even at their most exclusive reunions. She was very proud of her photographic output and delighted in discussing and sharing it. Donating it to the SLV was a natural extension of her generosity and it made her very happy to know that her work was being put on line.

The one thing that bothered her were claims in a post about her work on the SLV site that she ‘would calculate the camera settings prior to the show by sitting in on rehearsals and then shoot the live performance with the pre-existing camera settings’ and that she used techniques of ‘dodging and printing-in (also known as burning-in)’.

‘There was no pre-setting, no dodging and no burning-in!’ she maintained adamantly to me and others. In fact, she requested a correction but none has been made to date.

In her continuing connection with ballet, Jean Stewart was an extremely generous financial supporter of among others, the Australian Ballet School and the Australian Institute of Classical Dance Dance Creation choreographic events. In fact, although she and her support for ballet were well known in ballet circles, many did not realise that she was one and the same as the photographer who took the historic ballet photos.

In some ways Jean Stewart photographer and Jean Stewart the person were two different personas. The photographer was self-effacing, busy with her camera on the sidelines, in the shadows, sharp-eyed and working quietly, capturing her subjects. You would not be aware of her but then you’d get a picture in the mail with your name on the back and Jean’s sticker with it. Her collection of these happy snaps is still in the hands of friends and still to be sorted into archival order but it also contains letters of thanks from the likes of Ballets Russes ballerina Irina Baronova.

Jean Stewart the private person was opinionated, feisty and gregarious. With her technical background, she was both a practical and competent woman who largely dispensed with tradesmen, confident that she could do the job better herself. She was particularly good at plumbing and even built a new room onto her holiday house.

In the very last years of her life, Jean lived in a retirement home and while her advanced years brought inevitable physical limitations, she retained a very sharp mind.

She was very helpful when I was putting together the new eBook edition of her good friend and Borovansky veteran Barry Kitcher’s memoir From Gaolbird to Lyrebird (BryshaWilson Press, 2016), which included many of her photographs and even a photo of her at the most recent Borovansky reunion.

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Jean Stewart at the 1994 Borovansky Ballet Reunion, with Laurie Carew*. Photograph taken with Jean’s camera by unknown photographer. Photo courtesy of Barry Kitcher.

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L–R Jean Stewart, Valda Jack and Valda Westerland at the 2015 Borovansky Ballet Reunion. Photo by Cheryl Kaloger, courtesy of Jan Melvin, included in the eBook edition of Gaolbird to Lyrebird by Barry Kitcher (BryshaWilson Press, 2016).

After one of our discussions about Borovansky she rang to say that she had found her newspaper cutting relating to the auction of Borovansky’s house at 14 Grandview Grove, Hawthorn, which she had attended. She didn’t know why she kept the cutting but told me that Borovansky had what was once called a ‘tennis block’, that is a double house block. When I suggested the property would be worth a fortune, considering that it was among the most prestigious ones in Melbourne’s ‘old money’ belt, she replied, ‘I don’t think he was stupid about money.’ A succession of phone calls followed as Jean went to the office of the home and got one of the staff to email me a copy of the cutting. Although she never mastered a digital camera or any of the current computer technology, she was very good at getting assistance on the digital front.

Just a week before she died, she gave Barry Kitcher a big piece of her mind, warning him to never use her mobile phone service provider with whom she was strongly dissatisfied.

Even though Jean had been retired for over 30 years from her career as a radiographer, surviving workmates were among the many people at her funeral, which was held at St John’s Anglican Church, Toorak because of long family connections with the church, although Jean was an avowed atheist. The poem her colleagues composed in honour of her retirement was reproduced on a commemorative card for the occasion. Entitled To One Who Cares, it began with the lines: Here’s to our Jean Stewart,/Who’s loved by one and all/When one needed help /All you had to do was call.

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The announcement of the funeral details came with the instructions: no black, no flowers. Many of those who attended wore a dash of colour or a flash of sparkle in Jean’s honour. She loved colour and theatre and movement. As St John’s is one of today’s pet friendly churches, a contingent of canines also made an appearance because Jean was very fond of dogs and well known at the local dog park.

The dogs and their owners flanked the centre aisle, forming a guard of honour for Jean’s casket as it passed out of the church to the overture to Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience and a standing ovation from the congregation. As the stirring music played on, Barry Kitcher whispered, ‘That was used in (the ballet) Pineapple Poll**.’ And so it was Gilbert and Sullivan and ballet to the very end.

Vale Jean Stewart.

Blazenka Brysha

 

*Laurie Carew was the visual merchandiser responsible for the celebrated window display style of the exclusive department store Georges and although he was never a member of the Borovansky Ballet, he did appear with the company as an extra, so he was also included on the guest list of Borovansky Ballet reunions. According to Barry Kitcher, Carew, most notably, appeared as one of the two drummers flanking the puppet theatre stage in the Borovansky Ballet’s première season of Petrouchka (1951). This part involved marching forward to the edge of the stage and then retreating again. At the time, Carew was working at Myer and would take his lunch break to rush off to His Majesty’s Theatre for his appearance in the Wednesday matinees. Then he would rush back to the store, where his boss Fred Assmusen, who created Myer’s famous Christmas windows, would reprimand him with, ‘You’ve still got some make-up on!’

**John Cranko’s Gilbert and Sullivan inspired ballet Pineapple Poll was set to a score of Sullivan’s music arranged by Australian conductor Charles Mackerras, who like Stewart came from a Gilbert and Sullivan loving family and who, as a music student in the early 1940s, played oboe in a J.C. Williamson’s Gilbert and Sullivan season. He also worked as a rehearsal pianist for Kirsova. Although Pineapple Poll was made on the Sadler’s Wells Ballet (1951), the Borovansky Ballet was the second company on which Cranko mounted the work (1954) and Barry Kitcher danced in the première cast. It proved extremely popular, so much so that when Borovansky’s last ballerina Marilyn Jones was artistic director of The Australian Ballet, she included it in the triple-bill programme A Tribute to Edouard Borovansky of the 1980 season.

Biographical information about and direct quotes from Jean Stewart taken from author interviews with subject.

Thank you to Valda Jack (Lang), Barry Kitcher, Judy Leech, Dawn Kelly and Frank Van Straten for their extensive help with photographs and information in the preparation of this story.