Borovansky Dancer Anne Mackintosh Remembered as Poet Anne Elder

Part 1

Background: Borovansky Ballet and Anne Mackintosh

The back cover blurb of The Heart’s Ground, a Life of Anne Elder by Julia Hamer (Lauranton Books, Melbourne, 2018), claims ‘Anne Elder was a dancer with the Borovansky Ballet in the 1940s’ but a quick check of the definitive list of the personnel Borovansky recruited to his company shows no such name. What the blurb doesn’t mention is that Elder danced under her birth surname Mackintosh, which is on the list.

That list, included at the beginning of the footnotes below, is one of the cornerstones of the Borovansky Ballet’s documented history and it appears at the start of Frank Salter’s Borovansky, the man who made Australian ballet (Wildcat Press, 1980), one of the only two books to date that deal specifically and exclusively with the Borovansky Ballet. The other book is Borovansky Ballet in Australia and New Zealand by Norman Macgeorge (F.W. Cheshire, 1946). Anne Mackintosh has more than a glancing connection with both and now, thanks to the new biography, we not only learn more about that but also discover some leads from which we can piece together more of history of the Borovansky Ballet.

So, although the focus of Hamer’s The Heart’s Ground, a Life of Anne Elder is on Elder as the noted poet she eventually became, it not only offers a deep insight into this enigmatic and temperamentally volatile creative woman’s life, it also adds to the documentation of Borovansky Ballet history.

While the name Elder is not on Salter’s list, a cursory glance at his index corrects any confusion by not only naming ‘Elder, Anne Chloe’ but adding ‘(see Mackintosh)’. Even though Anne Mackintosh was not what we might call a dancer’s dancer, she did spend ten years of her life in the pursuit of dance. As a result she left one of the important early records of Borovansky and his enterprise because she was in fact an important member of Borovansky’s retinue from when he founded the Borovansky Ballet Academy (known in its first year as The Academy of Russian Ballet) in 1939, then his company in 1940. She remained with Borovansky until—by coincidence—just before the company went professional under the aegis of J C Williamson in 1944. Furthermore, Salter relied heavily on a tribute to Borovansky, written by Elder (the surname under which she published), to create a vibrant portrayal of Borovansky during the formative years of his ballet enterprise. That tribute is probably the first and only one produced so close to Borovansky’s lifetime (1902–1959) and as such it is invaluable. Thanks to Salter’s use of it, it is the one that by its example set the trend for later memorialists. We now have it, published for the first time in full, thanks to Hamer’s biography where it is included as an appendix.

Remarkably, and until very recently, formally recorded documentation of the Borovansky era relied almost exclusively on the memories, particularly in the way of oral histories, and memoirs of its former members, especially Barry Kitcher’s From Gaolbird to Lyrebird, a life in Australian ballet (print edition Front Page, 2001; revised and expanded eBook edition BryshaWilson Press, 2016). Aside from the books by Salter and Macgeorge, the only exception was Edward H. Pask’s Ballet in Australia, the Second Act 1940–1980 (OUP, 1982). Germinating contemporaneously with Salter’s book, it provided much concise information, chronologically organised, about the work of Borovansky and his company: its personnel, repertoire and performances. Macgeorge’s book, written in the early days of the Borovansky Ballet as a professional company, is an ambitious compilation of information about it, abundantly illustrated by photographs and images of artworks. As such it is a critically significant record.

Elder’s influential Borovansky tribute was started while Borovansky was still alive and published after his death in an abridged version in Overland. Titled Borovansky: Strong Man; Sad Pierrot, Memories of a Maestro from a forgotten dancer, it appeared in Issue 17, 1960 and again in the 1965 anthology An Overland Muster, Selections From Overland, 1954–1965 (ed Stephen Murray-Smith Jacaranda Press).

When Edouard Borovansky and his wife Xenia opened their academy in Melbourne, they embarked on an enterprise that permeated the subsequent history of ballet in Australia. They were serious about training professional ballet artists and among their first students was Anne Mackintosh, who was serious about becoming a ballet artist.

The Borovanskys’ 20-year quest in training local dancers and establishing a professional Australian company that developed the dancers’ talents and built audiences for the art form enabled the formation of The Australian Ballet in 1962. More than half of the founding Australian Ballet personnel came from the Borovansky Ballet.1 And while the background to The Australian Ballet’s genesis is multi-faceted and intricately woven from various separate strands, it is a fact that the new company’s three Australian principals and more than half of the remaining dancers, the musical director, the stage director, the associate ballet master and the assistant ballet mistress were all Borovansky alumni. Even the artistic director Peggy van Praagh first came to Australia from her native England, at the invitation of J C Williamson to direct Borovansky’s company after his death in 1959. Borovansky had in fact attempted to recruit her in 1958 as ballet mistress and artistic associate.2

Although it was at the closing performance of the Borovansky Ballet that van Praagh made her impassioned plea for a government subsidised ballet company and urged the audience to lobby for it, once the new venture received the go-ahead, the memory of Borovansky found no place in it, despite the fact that his company was on various occasions in both the 1940s and 1950s billed as ‘The Borovansky Australian Ballet’ and ‘Borovansky Australian Ballet’.3 Anne Elder was among the first to note this and recorded in her diary, ‘I was quite horrified to hear about the suggestion to drop “Borovansky” from the company (name)—if they want a memorial for him surely that is a more honest one than to name an RAD (Royal Academy of Dance) scholarship after him.’ (p 225). She had already shown an almost prophetic perception of the need to record something of Borovansky’s phenomenal achievement even while the man was alive and began composing her tribute to that effect.

Author Julia Hamer, whose mother April was Elder’s younger sister, pieces the biography together from family archives, which include a good deal of correspondence and other documentation such as Elder’s diary entries, other text sources, various interviews, her own memories and valuably extensive use of Elder’s poetry. The material is chronologically organised, beginning from the early 19th C with an exploration of Elder’s bloodlines and ending with her death at the age of 58 in 1976.

Because the focus is on Elder as poet, a volume of her poetry The Bright and the Cold, Selected Poems of Anne Elder (compiled by Catherine Elder, Laurantan Books, 2018) was also published simultaneously to complete the picture and make the poet’s work readily available again.

However, The Heart’s Ground also charts Elder’s dancing life in some detail, devoting two chapters to the subject, which is set in the context of her life about which we learn much in the course of the narrative. She was born in 1918 in her parents’ native New Zealand, descended from Scottish and English business people whose financial fortunes wavered but who managed to remain well heeled. Her mother’s family was more cultivated in the perceived refinements of the era, so she wrote poetry, drew and painted, sewed exquisitely and even wrote her memoir. Elder’s father Norman Mackintosh was an insurance executive of high ranking and a board member of the Royal Melbourne Hospital. During her Borovansky era, which straddled WW II, in 1940 she married lawyer John Elder, a member of the Melbourne Club, historically a bastion of socially elite power. On his return from active army service she became a housewife, had two children and began to concentrate seriously on writing poetry. She began publishing in the 1960s, gaining significant acclaim in Australian literary circles. Anne Elder had suffered poor health all her life, eventually enduring debilitating scleroderma, an autoimmune disease of the rheumatoid type, which was undiagnosed until the very end of her life. She died in 1976. During her life one volume of her poetry For the Record (Hawthorn Press, 1972) was published. Another, Crazy Woman and Other Poems (Angus and Robertson, 1976, reprinted 1978) appeared posthumously.

Hamer uses excerpts from Elder’s Borovansky tribute and from Salter’s book, as well as quotes from Borovansky dancer and Anne’s close friend Jonet Wilkie to reconstruct Elder’s Borovansky Ballet phase. This serves acceptably as progressing the biography in the context of the whole work; in terms of Borovansky Ballet history, its value lies in the insight if offers into dancer Anne Mackintosh and the picture of her life as a player in the Borovansky phenomenon. What is priceless is the inclusion of Elder’s whole Borovansky tribute because it is rich with information that through the publication of this biography is now readily available to the public.

As children, Anne and her sister were doted on and grew up largely in the Toorak area, Melbourne’s economically most exclusive locale. They learned ballet for a period in their childhood, with Anne returning to it at the age of 16 (1934), infatuated with Pavlova. The author offers no information about what sparked the infatuation at that stage of Elder’s life, except to say, ‘This desire came from her earlier glimpses of Pavlova.’ A quote from Elder’s tribute to Borovansky follows:

Pavlova was my goddess, my white swan, my pearl beyond price. Her almond eyes, the arch of her throat, the arch of her foot glowed from the pages of childish scrapbooks. I prattled in my measles delirium of the little dark head nestling in a hood of white fur and rosy satin, the lovely wrist extended for the kisses of a score of gallants while the first snowflakes drifted, drifted past a lighted Christmas window. The Russian ballet was my Mecca, my dream of heaven. (p 106)

 

Pavlova-1

Although Hamer mentions Pavlova’s Australian tours of 1926 and 1929, there is no indication of whether Elder went to a performance and we can perhaps assume that she didn’t because she only refers to images in her ‘childish scrapbooks’, but there is no mention of actual dancing. Nevertheless, anyone who has the eyes to see dance—an ability something akin to having an ‘ear for music’—can appreciate the movement in a dance photograph. Given that no single dancer in history can match what Pavlova achieved across the globe in popularising ballet with the help of photographs as her principal publicity tool, it would be no surprise if Elder was among the countless worshippers seduced in this manner. The spell still works if the number of Pavlova images and devotees on line is any proof.

Furthermore, Pavlova in fact gave ‘a large framed coloured photograph of herself in the divertissement Christmas‘ to Melbourne-based ballet teacher Eunice Weston during the 1929 tour,4 which indicates that the image was clearly a well-known and often reproduced one. Considering that Borovansky opened the Borovansky Academy by joining forces with Weston, relying on her capital, absorbing her school into his to the point that even ‘her studio furniture was transferred to Borovansky’s premises,’5 there is a strong chance that Anne Mackintosh, who was among the Borovanskys’ first ballet students, was even also familiar with Weston’s memento at some stage.

Whether Anne ‘prattled’ about this specific photograph is not as intriguing as the information that she did it in the ‘delirium’ accompanying her measles, which we are told, on the preceding page, she endured at the age of 20, four years after returning to the barre.

But the mystery remains, why at the late age of 16 Anne Mackintosh suddenly decided to devote herself to the relentless rigors of learning classical ballet? Others who made that same decision as late in their lives usually did so because that was when they first encountered the art or because it was their first opportunity to try it, or because they were natural dancers, as was the case with Elder’s Borovansky colleague and friend Dorothy Stevenson, who also started at the age of 16.6 Considering Elder had had ballet lessons as a child and considering she had collected a Pavlova scrapbook while Pavlova was still alive, it is something that raises questions. Since she specifically refers to Pavlova in the divertissement Christmas, it is also possible that her serious interest was triggered by some film footage, which references that ballet, released after Pavlova’s death in 1931, Pavlova—A Memory. This movie short, filmed in Germany during the Continental Tour 1926–27 features the cloak and bonnet, a Christmas setting and the gallants mentioned. It would have been shown extensively during the time leading to Anne’s decision to return to dance.

 

Pavlova Cloak and Photos

Part 2

Anne Elder’s Tribute to Borovansky

To make full sense of the Pavlova passage quoted above we must turn to Elder’s Borovansky tribute, which it opens and in which it is used as both a set up for and a foil to her description of her dance class experience pre the arrival of the Borovanskys. There she continues:

‘Reality was blistered feet and bruised toes and the back row of a dancing class. It was the only sort of class then in existence…a troupe of befrilled first cousins to Shirley Temple…their tour de force, the pose pirouette en tournant…off they went like a flight of slightly drunken fairies revolving dutifully in diagonal…I was bitterly jealous of the fairies for to me their technique seemed perfect. I was sixteen, tallish and too old to start… But martyrdom must be endured, and so it was for close on five years. I passed three exams by a narrow squeak. Since our training went strictly by the book we clutched pages of roneo-ed instructions to our bosoms wherever we went, learnt parrot-fashion in buses and trams. The Elementary, the Intermediate and the Advanced were the be-all and end-all, unless you went into Panto with the little Miss Temples or learnt to tap and tried for Rio Rita. For some it was an abortive and spirit-breaking state of affairs, hard work with no prospects. But a door was soon to open on a wider field and the man who opened it was Edouard Borovansky. He taught Melbourne the meaning of Maître de Ballet.’ (p 293-4)

Considered in this context, the information takes on a kind of poetic truth: childhood fancies grow to obsession that is then acted upon through a gruelling and punishing endeavour, which itself is a rite of passage towards fulfilling the fantasy that originally inspired the effort.

Elder expends over 400 words on herself and her own fraught relationship with dance before mentioning Borovansky. That she wants to set the scene against which the Borovanky’s achievement looks most miraculous seems an acceptable strategy for a eulogising tribute. That she puts herself centre stage tells us much more about her than the pre-Borovansky state of local ballet, which was undergoing radical change as various teachers with various competing systems of ballet tuition affiliations competed for students and to assert the supremacy of the specific system each of them followed.

The ballet school Elder describes, in fact libels by implication, is that of Jennie Brenan , a formidable character, who was the major supplier of dancers to the J C Williamson theatrical empire and the first president of the Royal Academy of Dance (1936) in Australia. Elder’s description implies that the school was an incompetent and inferior ballet teaching institution without making any allowance for the fact that she was hardly a natural dancer but rather one whom no amount of ‘martydom’ would shape into anything beyond being able to pass some exams ‘by a narrow squeak’.

It is ironic that Elder’s tactic of aggrandising Borovansky’s accomplishment as a maître de ballet by denigrating the Brenan school is guilty of the same redacting techniques that van Praagh and other anti-Borovansky elements used to diminish Borovansky’s achievements and dismiss his company to the realms of minor significance.

Despite that, it does seem that under the Borovanskys’ intensive professional ballet tuition, Elder’s determination to dance enabled her to acquire a level of competence for tackling certain soloist roles. The self-styled ‘forgotten dancer’ did not forget the one who made that possible.

And indeed, what follows is a masterful portrait of a deeply complex, flamboyantly colourful, disconcertingly contradictory, often abusive and relentlessly visionary artist and leader, in whose company the young Anne Mackintosh and her gifted alter ego Anne Elder were right at home.

In her tribute Elder takes us back to her first encounter with Borovansky when he came to Australia as a member of the Covent Garden Russian Ballet in 1938. He was charged with hiring girls from local dance schools to appear as extras in Aurora’s Wedding. Borovansky conducted the audition with absolute professionalism and Anne Mackintosh was one of the four selected. Elder continues her description:

 …the most memorable moment of the morning came next. Borovasnky turned to the rejected ones and said with a little bow:

 ‘Thank you…I’m ter’bly sorry, that is all. But there will be much need of you another time. I will need many girls for other ballets.’

 It was a dismissal full of courtesy and dignity, it presupposed that they were serious artists…So it is for kindly and charming manners that I first remember Boro; and this may surprise some who suffered under his unprintable sarcasms in rehearsal, and others who experienced his impatience of the well-meaning hanger-on, deplored his tendency to use people for just so long as they were useful to him.

Borovansky’s treatment of the extras was pure Pavlova from whom he learnt much in the way of stage craft, publicity and the cultivation of audience. Pavlova was acutely attuned to winning people over not just as ticket buyers but as young dancers, too, and even organised classes for them on her tours.

If the image of Pavlova ignited Anne Mackintosh’s passion for ballet, that first meeting with Borovansky replaced fantasy with thrilling reality. In a bid to share her experience, Elder creates word pictures for us, describing Borovansky as:

A shortish man with a dancer’s flexible walk and the firmly modelled face of a Slav…how flatly the obituaries read…how haunting the photos of the well-cut shoulders, the jaunty bow tie, the debonair smile and the curiously sad pierrot eyes.

Madame Borovansky also features prominently:

…she herself has been a dancer with a superbly classical line, and she is a magnificent teacher. She was entirely responsible for the classical training, Boro took the character and those in national dancing. Each was the perfect foil for the other. Where he spurred us on with jibes and the goad of his enthusiasm she calmed us with her most reticent and perspicacious sympathy. How she worked at us and with us, day by day moulding this very raw and ill-assorted material into something like a troupe of coryphées…Well do I remember the pallid and congealing contents of teacups forgotten on the windowsill while she thrashed out the next step. Then in would stride Boro, throw himself into a chair, chin on chest, eyes lowering and critical; he would stab in a comment, she would counter, they would break into Russian, we would be glad we didn’t understand the meaning of the words…

Elder wires her word pictures for sound. Madame is quoted:

‘and a one two, and a one two, and Up! And Up!…How you expect to jump, my darling, if you not bending the knees in plié?’

On a note of encouragement she would say:

‘I was watching, Annushka, and it was not so bad as I expected.’

But it is Borovansky who is the star of this duet:

‘I am just a bloody peasant. My wife, she is aristocrat. You listen to Madame, what she is telling you my dear guerl.’

 How to describe his slight distortion of the English language? It was part of his personality but is hard to convey. His accent was not so guttural as heavy, the vowels swallowed, an occasional transposition of consonants and omission of the verb ‘to be’. The tone alternated between a hoarse cajoling whisper and a roar of exasperation.

 ‘My Gord’ he would bawl, ‘you ter’bly heavy today, Annushka. Vot you have for lunch…the pork pie and the big sausage?’

Elder also describes Borovansky the performer in detail:

We forget that he was first a truly great character dancer. He had that mastery of mime which enabled him to alter not only his mobile face but also it seemed, his mobile body with each different part.

In paying tribute to his seemingly magical shapeshifting abilities, Elder unleashes all her poetic power using words to capture the unspoken, that which can only be expressed through the wordless language of dance:

He was in fact short in stature; but how do we remember him in his delightfully ponderous character of the circus Strong Man in Beau Danube? Surely an enormous man, powerful but fleshy, in fact a man entirely made of pink ham. The next night his very bones have shrunk, are bowed and creaking at the knee. He is the elderly lover, paunchy with a hint of corsets beneath the velvet and lace, sweeping his tricorn to the ground with finicky stylishness. It is the very essence of “L’Amour Ridicule”, adorably ridiculous. And do not imagine (although he was a master of make-up) that these cameos relied on the trappings of costume and wig alone. He could rehearse the part in slacks and sweater and it would live in the bare room, perfectly convincing, easy to the last finished gesture. He had a deep insight into both pathos and comedy, and he combined them both to the point of heart-break in that role which became perhaps his signature, the sad Pierrot in Carnaval. I have seen Woizicovsky do this part and since then several adequate performances by Australians. No-one else but Borovansky has caught the moment for me; the most deliciously funny and pathetic moment is all ballet when the fumbling hands in their impeding sleeves clap together in ecstasy, the tragic mouth opens a black O of anticipation in the dead-white face, the zany eyes with their agonised brows almost meet the hair-line in unbelieving glee. He has caught the sweet pretty Butterfly! He has got her under his hat! Softly, carefully he peeps. Consternation. No Butterfly! Poor Pierrot, poor silly lovelorn clown. But he has the audience spellbound. The ballerina is forgotten. This is artistry, this is Borovansky.

 I think the greatest part was one which has been passed over by Australian audiences; that of Malatesta’s court Fool in the original version of Francesca da Rimini composed for de Basil by David Lichine. It was an interpretation with a deep sense of history behind it. Never was there a Fool who was less of a Fool than this one. Borovansky made of him an evil and repulsive cripple with a crooked scheming mind. A balletic Iago, he slunk, dragging a leg and dangling a withered hand, through the panoply of a mediaeval princely court, planning his machinations for the downfall of beauty and young love. The moment when he seized upon the scarcely-dead body of the old nun, and dragged it away for his own cold and obscene purpose was unforgettable. Borovansky had a quality which made his own corner of the stage magnetic to the eye of the audience. At the same time he never detracted from the general pattern. He was too much of an artist and an old hand to do that.

While Cyril Beaumont singles out Borovansky’s Strong Man role for praise and notes his use of mime as Girolamo (Elder’s ‘Fool’),7 Borovansky the performer has been buried under his role as a company founder/director, which makes this unique appraisal of his performing achievements, by one who witnessed them, all the more valuable as a historic record of superbly wrought detail.

Elsewhere in the biography The Heart’s Ground even includes Jean Stewart’s  celebrated photo of Borovansky as tragic Pierrot but without crediting the photographer, only citing the NLA, which has a copy.

 

The tribute covers much more besides. We are given glimpses of the company’s early performances in ballet galas and the evolution of Borovansky’s enterprise:

A group of enthusiastic supporters under the title of the Melbourne Ballet Club built us a tiny stage in the studio, and there for the next two years new works were tried out in monthly week-end performances. Dorothy Stevenson and Laurel Martyn were given the chance to produce a number of their own short ballets, several of which were included later in larger shows. Daryl Lindsay and Dargie sketched us in class and rehearsal. Geoffrey Hutton was a friend and an honest critic. William Constable Florence and Kathleen Martin, later Alan McCulloch, designed sets and costumes. We had three faithful pianists; and all the dresses were cut and sewn in the studio, Edna Busse being queen of the sewing machine as well as a hard-worked dancer. The names came thick and fast, it is not possible to give them all their due place. Something large was in the making and the pace increased from month to month.

Before the powerful conclusion in which Elder brings the focus back to herself, now the fully formed dancer, and the ‘irreplaceable’ maestro—wishing ‘him long life in the continuity of Australian Ballet which he built’—she throws us another historic gem that Salter missed in his use of the tribute but for which he provides possible additional information in the way of a photo, and for which Macgeorge definitely provides additional information.

While acknowledging the entrepreneur and accomplished artist, the Strong Man in Borovansky, Elder offers two anecdotes to illustrate his ‘appealingly naïve’ side ‘the loveable Clown’. The first, which is relevant here, provides the background to the photo in Salter’s book:

The first memory is of a cold night on Station Pier, myself one of a row of girls holding little bouquets of flowers to present to Colonel de Basil and his ballerinas . . . a pathetic welcome to Melbourne by a bunch of hopefuls. Boro, having marshalled us, waited edgily in the gusts of rain. Suddenly a line of limousines appeared through the barriers, gathered speed and swept past us without a falter. Boro darted out, gesturing wildly. “There is big mistake!” he cried despairingly. “De Basil he is great friend of mine!” Of course there was a big mistake and it was put right later but it was horribly embarrassing. He had talked assuredly to us about our chances of getting in to the Company and he was made by the night and the rain and the misdirection of a message to look a fool. He was a hurt little boy and we couldn’t bear it for him.

A photo in Salter’s book illustrates a visit de Basil and his ‘ballerinas’ made to the Borovansky studio. A mash up of facts states that de Basil visited the studio while the Original Ballet Russe was in Melbourne and that Borovansky took some students up to Sydney to appear as extras; the caption reads: ‘Colonel de Basil visits Borovansky’s Melbourne studio with some of the de Basil dancers, to see what progress their former colleague is making in his uphill struggle to establish an Australian ballet company.’8

As with all the photos used in Salter’s book, there is no photographer credit, in this case S. Alston Pearl. The photograph also shows Anne Mackintosh, the second dancer in leotards from the left. The other dancer beside her is Laurel Martyn. Borovansky is third from the right, flanked by Edna Busse, who has her arm around Rachel Cameron, a leading early Borovansky dancer, whom Borovansky brutally discarded, and whose story Salter faithfully reports. Borovansky, Busse, Cameron and Martyn are easy to identify because their images are extensively documented; by deduction we know the other man must be de Basil. Thanks to photos of Anne Mackintosh in The Heart’s Ground, we can now also name her in the photo. The visitors’ names can be sourced from the NLA photo collection, which has this and two other accompanying photos in it, all of them from the Geoffrey Ingram Archive. As Geoffrey Ingram is thanked by Salter in his Acknowledgements, we can even assume that the photo he included is the same print as the one held by the NLA. From the NLA’s identification we can name all the visitors: ‘De Basil company members (left to right) Colonel de Basil, Olga Morosova, Tatiana Stepanova, Nina Verchinina.’ Morsova was de Basil’s wife at the time and Verchininia, who was one of the most accomplished of the company’s dancers, was also Morsova’s sister.

It does look like this photo shows the unintended slight at the docks being ‘put to right’. Furthermore, Macgeorge records:

Following an audition by de Basil, who had brought his Russian Ballet Company to Australia and was seeking local talent, Edna Busse, Laurel Martyn, Anne Mackintosh, Rachel Cameron, Phillipe Perrotet [sic] and others accompanied M. and Mme. Borovansky to Sydney in December, 1939. They continued with their classes while some of them were doing “super” work with the Russian Ballet in Sydney.9

It is well known that Borovansky appeared with the de Basil Original Ballet Russe as a guest artist, reprising some of his acclaimed roles, including Girolamo, as shown in the photo among those above. It is also documented that this company’s dancers arrived in Sydney in December on two passenger ships, one from England and the other from America. But piecing the information from Elder and Macgeorge, it looks as though de Basil and his small entrourage actually arrived in Melbourne from overseas. Considering that some of the Borovansky dancers were auditioned by de Basil and appeared as extras in Sydney on the first leg of this tour, the Station Pier incident must have taken place prior. This also throws into question the NLA date of 1940 for the photos but since that is attributed to a researcher, we can assume it is derived from the facts that the Borovansky academy was in Melbourne and that the Original Ballet Russe opened its Melbourne season in March, 1940. Even Elder’s description of the miserable wet night of the welcome at Station Pier is far more consistent with Melbourne’s Decembers rather than its traditionally gloriously sunny and mild autumns.

The Mackintosh and Macgeorge timeline for the de Basil visit to the Borovansky academy is also supported by Kathrine Sorley Walker in De Basil’s Ballets Russes (Hutchinson, 1982), where it is stated that one of the ships bringing dancers passed through Melbourne, that the Colonel was on it and that he visited the school.

Kathrine Sorley Walker+

Kathrine Sorley Walker, De Basil’s Ballets Russes (Hutchinson, 1982) Page 213. The footnoted quote (49) is from the Melbourne newspaper The Argus, 25 December, 1939

The second anecdote also contains some new information because it shows that Borovansky socialised with his dancers in the early days, which according to all other sources he no longer did in the Borovansky Ballet’s professional era, when he kept his social interactions away from the dancers. Elder wrote:

As for the big fish, it was the biggest he had ever caught, and he was a passionate fisherman. Alas, just at the moment of landing it into the boat it slipped through his fingers and was gone. Consternation…. No fish! A roar of pain escaped from his lips and he was almost in tears on the way home. It was the Clown and the Butterfly all over again, the moment when the confident character is completely undone and which draws forth indulgence from every human heart.

The Heart’s Ground also mentions Borovansky’s socialising with dancers and even hosting some of them at a beach holiday house, and visiting at the Mackintosh home. However, the included famous portrait of Borovansky in hat and ‘jaunty bow tie’—as Elder so aptly described his sartorial preference—which is captioned: ‘Edouard Borovansky, possibly at Montalto Avenue’, where the Mackintosh family lived for part of the 1930s, is attributed by the NLA as being from the Auckland Star, 1944, during the company’s first New Zealand tour, and the first overseas tour made by any Australian ballet company.

Elder’s tribute, with its vibrant evocation of the Borovanskys and their endeavours, makes it clear that ballet was her muse at a critical point of development in her life, that it stirred some creative essence within her from which the poet emerged. Dance is to movement what poetry is to words; her raw material was words not movement but it was movement distilled into the art of ballet that inspired her art of words. Apart from the tribute, another even more radiant example of this muse and poet relationship is evident in Elder’s poem about Borovansky, ‘Commedia Dell’ Arte’, which The Heart’s Ground also includes in full. It was first published after Elder’s death in Crazy Woman and Other Poems and is now also reissued in The Bright and the Cold. Elder’s multilayered virtuoso treatment of complex content and profound themes deserves an expository monograph on its own. Although the Clown characterisation is a portrait of Borovansky as observed from the outside during a performance of the ballet Carnaval, the poet creates the persona of the artist and enters the experience from the inside where it grows to the ineffable heights of that amorphous concept recognised as great art.

 

 

Poem

Boro by Elder txt

Part 3

Dancer Anne Mackintosh

That Borovansky chose Anne Mackintosh without seeing her dance is probably at least in part the explanation for their positive professional relationship. He would have appreciated her maturity, self-important bearing and her sharply observant eyes that radiated an imposing intelligence. Proof of the bearing is evident in photographs included in the biography but also in the text.

Company colleagues Jonet Wilkie and Laurel Martyn are both quoted. Wilkie had ‘never met someone so outwardly cool’ and was ‘quite put out, she seemed so poised and sure of herself.’ Martyn described her as ‘an elegant, lovely person with a certain aura: calm but with passion underneath that was not a distancing thing. She was an onlooker, and remembered lots of things, including what people had said.’ We also learn that ‘Jonet agreed with Laurel in seeing Anne as talented, with a classical cool quality’ but it seems that aside from using adjectives such as ‘lovely’ and ‘enchanting’ in reference to Anne’s dancing, neither Wilkie nor Martyn felt able to be more specific. By inference we can deduce that Anne was a competent but not memorably expressive dancer, a deduction that is supported by photographs of her in various ballets. In a company that built a strong fan base on the vivid stage personalities of its artists, Anne Mackintosh was an unobtrusive member, a reliable but not outstanding dancer when compared to various others.

Les Sylphides by Hall

One of those others and the only one still alive from Anne’s dancing days, Martin Rubinstein, remembers her as a company member but not her dancing. Given that he was six years her junior, and still a teenager when she left, this is not surprising considering how focused he would have been on his own training and professional ascension. Audrey Nicholls,10 Borovansky Ballet and Rambert Ballet veteran of the 1950s, points out that you didn’t need to be a star to have a following among the audience in that era, that it was a time when audiences could become familiar with the work of particular dancers and enjoy it for a range of qualities, not just superior dance skills. Nicholls still approaches her ballet viewing this way, finding interest in various performers who may never rise to stardom. Indeed, this outlook is supported in The Heart’s Ground by a letter Elder wrote to her husband about the Christmas eve festivities at her wartime office job: ‘my ballet fan officer gave all the girls a glorious sheaf of flowers each.’ (131) Furthermore, according to another Borovansky Ballet veteran, Marilyn Bogner, Anne Mackintosh was still remembered by name as one of the company’s early dancers, when she was a member of the Borovansky Ballet in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Mackintosh young

Anne Mackintosh, young dancer. from The Heart’s Ground by Julia Hamer (Lauranton Books, 2018)

Considering how hard it could be to survive in the relentlessly competitive environment of ballet at the performing company level, Anne’s ability to fit in would have been a huge asset. It is quite surprising that she could do this, given what we learn elsewhere in the biography about her abrasive and difficult nature as displayed in her behaviour with her family and even with fellow poets.

Anne not only fitted in with the ballet scene, she made friends, some of them for life. She went on holidays with them and, like most Borovansky dancers before the company became professional, had a day job. Unlike most others, she didn’t need to work to support herself but had taken on employment as part of the war effort. One friend Anne made through the ballet was artist Norman Macgeorge, author of Borovansky Ballet in Australia and New Zealand, another previously unknown but valuable fact revealed by the biography. Although Macgeorge is not mentioned among the artists in Elder’s Borovansky tribute, he does appear in a letter about Christmas 1942 that Anne wrote to her husband, fighting overseas:

Anne went to stay for the rest of the weekend with elderly friends, the MacGeorges [sic], who lived on the Yarra in Ivanhoe. Norman MacGeorge was a painter, and after cold duckling,

‘He and I went out on the punt…while she [Mrs MacGeorge] wrote letters—it was a night of fairytale beauty, stars punctuating the pale green sky behind the gums leaning over the river. We drifted along and talked about important things & came home to the landing stage about half past ten…’ (p131)

From this we learn that Macgeorge was Anne’s friend, rather than a friend of her family. The friendship between the two is also indicated in Macgeorge’s book where ‘Mrs John Elder (Anne Mackintosh)’ appears in the Acknowledgements at the beginning of the work. That they met through ballet and were good friends by 1942 shows that Macgeorge was, like Elder, a Borovansky believer, someone who joined Borovansky’s quest to establish an Australian ballet company. Although he was a critic who wrote for the press, as well as an artist, and well connected in the Melbourne cultural scene of that day, as the author of the Borovansky volume he was much more than a hired hand, he was—for want of a better term—a player, just like Anne Mackintosh and all the others fired up by Borovansky’s vision.

 

Part 4

Borovansky Ballet in Australia and New Zealand and Anne Elder

There can be little doubt that Borovansky Ballet in Australia and New Zealand, was produced in direct response to Pioneering Ballet in Australia, edited by Peter Bellew (Craftsman Bookshop Sydney, 1945), the book about Hélène Kirsova and her company the Kirsova Ballet, as the two arch rival company builders Borovansky and Kirsova battled it out in the ballet wars of the early 1940s. The Kirsova book came out in 1945, after the Kirsova Ballet folded in 1944. It went into a second edition in 1946 and must have been printed in vast numbers because it is still readily available at very reasonable prices. Macgeorge’s Borovansky book came out as a 300 limited copy edition in 1946, and then in two more editions before the end of 1947. It is by far the scarcer and therefore more expensive book. It is evident that Pioneering Ballet in Australia was produced to enshrine Kirsova’s memory as an artist of supreme integrity and originality. The fact that the editor Peter Bellew became Kirsova’s husband should be considered as essential product disclosure although it is mostly ignored.

By contrast Norman Macgeorge is an author without any ulterior motive. He was merely someone with whom Anne Elder could talk about ‘important things’ such as, in their case, art and more specifically, the art of ballet. Meanwhile, Peter Bellew dedicates his book to ‘Helene Kirsova a true and sincere artiste who, with unswerving idealism and courage, pioneered Australian Ballet…’ In his introduction ‘Birth of a Ballet’ he constructs a case to memorialise her as ‘a true creator and not merely a reproducer or adaptor…’ She is presented as someone of ‘almost fanatical idealism and uncompromising determination that aesthetic values must always come first… qualities which fit most uneasily into the commercial side of theatre.’ J C Williamson had in fact first offered Kirsova the deal that Borovansky took up with such vigour and confidence, having no qualms of the sort Kirsova clearly felt.

Bellew’s manifesto of Kirsova’s art ends with a coup de grace which makes it clear that his effort is skewed to ensuring that Kirsova is recognised as occupying an immeasurably higher ground than Borovansky as both artist and company builder. In a small print asterisked footnote, he writes: ‘Australia’s second professional company was formed by J. C. Williamson Ltd. in May 1944, three years after the Kirsova company’s premiere. Under the leadership of E. Barovansky [sic] and comprising a group of former members of the Kirsova company and pupils of the Barovansky and other schools, it has toured Australia and New Zealand.’

The misspelling of Borovansky’s name —two times is more than a typo—in an otherwise meticulously produced book is insignificant compared to the distortion of fact embedded in this footnote. The company was formed by Borovansky in 1940 and performed as the Borovansky Australian Ballet; the mantle of J C Williamson only enabled it to go professional. Secondly, the leading dancers of the Borovansky Ballet, Laurel Martyn, Edna Busse, Dorothy Stevenson and Martin Rubinstein had never been in the Kirsova company. The Kirsova dancers who came to Borovansky were Peggy Sager, Helene ffrance Paul Hammond (who at the time danced under the surname Clementin), Strelsa Heckleman, Joan Gadsden and Judith Burgess. Borovansky’s colleagues from the Covent Garden Russian Ballet, Tamara Tchinarova and Serge Bousloff, who both joined his company, had danced with the Kirsova company for varying degrees of time but given their full Ballet Russe background, it would be wrong to give their credentials as ‘former members of the Kirsova company’. Any credit that might be given to the Borovansky academy for supplying the rest of the dancers is diluted by relegating it to merely one of the schools responsible. Furthermore, of the Kirsova dancers—again, with the exception of Tchinarova and Bousloff— only Peggy Sager was ever accomplished enough to be ranked with the Borovansky dancers mentioned above. The remaining ones were designated as soloists.

Macgeorge’s book is a powerful reply packed with information, verbal and visual, which leaves the reader in no doubt that the Borovanskys’ five years of work resulted in a substantial company that clearly belonged on a professional stage. Macgeorge gives Madame Borovansky equal prominence with Borovansky on introducing them and their credentials. Apart from assuming wrongly that both Xenia and Edouard Borovansky were contracted to the Covent Garden company when Xenia was only an accompanying wife, and claiming that Xenia was ‘related’ to Pavlova, although she was at most just a distant cousin of Pavlova’s partner Victor Dandré, he sticks to the bare facts of the Borovanskys’ backgrounds and credentials. Xenia’s exact ballet background has never been incontrovertibly established beyond that she was from Moscow and had been exposed to the Bolshoi tradition. Salter claims her mother was a Bolshoi soloist and had had Xenia trained by a colleague. Macgeorge claims she was trained by her mother.

Either way, one detail relevant to this emerges from Elder’s Borovansky tribute when she describes Mme Borovansky’s mother as being a ballet mistress in ‘the Marinsky tradition’. While it could be argued that Elder probably meant ‘Bolshoi,’ it is unlikely because up until the current century the Bolshoi and Marinsky (and later, Kirov) approaches were vastly different in terms of technique and style. Elder would have understood that given her love of Pavlova and appreciation of the Ballets Russes plus the fact that she continued to follow mid century Russian ballet, as evidenced in the biography when she is quoted on the subject of Ulanova, a celebrated Kirov dancer, appearing with the Bolshoi in the famous 1956 Giselle film. It does imply that Elder picked up this notion of Xenia’s mother’s ‘Marinsky tradition’ from something Xenia said. At the very least, this is something valuable to follow up considering how important Xenia’s teaching was to the early Borovansky Ballet, when she had complete charge, and even later, when the professional company classes were given by various dancers, usually a principal in the company, Xenia’s classes still continued to be the first port of call for many aspiring dancers.

But back to Macgeorge. While supplying brief biographies of the Borovansky principals and soloists, he acknowledges the Kirsova connection of the above named dancers—with the exception of Tchinarova and Bousloff— who came from her company. The book includes a photograph of the entire 1945 company and a list of names (Paul Hammond, who appears on the list as Paul Clementin, is the only absentee). The repertoire is itemised in a series of separate articles, accompanied by photos, for each work. Some ballets by visiting companies are also included, among them Lichine’s Graduation Ball, which received its world premiere in Sydney, 1940, a fact Macgeorge relates. He also deals in brief with the coming of ballet to Australia from the time of Adeline Genée, limiting the information to foreign companies, which is obviously an excuse to ignore the existence of the Kirsova Ballet, and that’s a pity because it detracts from Macgeorge’s otherwise dignified partisanship.

Macgeorge even reveals that when the newly formed Borovansky Australian Ballet held its inaugural two-night season at the Comedy Theatre, in December 1940, ‘A group of enthusiasts, headed by Mr. Roger Raine [sic], Mr Mackintosh, father of the dancer, and others had guaranteed the funds to cover possible loss, but there was never any doubt of the result.’

BoroAustBallet txt

It is also regrettable that more copies were not printed to balance the historic record of Borovansky’s achievement in a context contemporary to Kirsova’s. Salter argues that Kirsova ‘must be acclaimed the winner’ of this ‘cold warfare’ because when A Dictionary of Modern Ballet was published by Methuen in 1959, ‘Kirsova’s achievements in Australia are recorded quite fully, but Borovansky rates no personal listing at all.’11

Despite the fact that for whatever reason Macgeorge’s book did not have the impact of Bellew’s volume, over time it has become a major historic record. Elder’s credit in it, together with the new revelation of her friendship with its author, shows that the role she played in the early days of the Borovansky Ballet went beyond dancing and that her tribute is more than a fond ramble down memory lane but rather an integral piece of a bigger picture on the creation of which she and others were working actively and which we are still trying to put together.

Another seemingly incidental but in this context valuable piece of information that The Heart’s Ground delivers is a snippet from a letter that Elder wrote to her parents about taking class with Kirsova, while on holiday in Sydney, late 1940. She wrote:

‘…never enjoyed anything so much in my life; after a few days of feeling rather at a loose end it was heaven to be back in a familiar world…She gives a rather technical & far less pretty class than Madame, & with not such exacting attention to detail—not a marvellous teacher but composes rather nice enchainements. She seemed quite interested in my dancing…’ (p125)

Kirsova is generally remembered as a solo operator; in establishing and running her company, she also taught all the classes and created most of the choreography. Elder’s description of the class indicates that Kirsova was developing dancers through technical exercises and the execution of dance sequences, which are the prerequisites for any professional dancer. Kirsova was also known for favouring technically strong dancers, which is understandable. Despite Elder not getting the hands on attention that she might have had from a ‘marvellous teacher’ and that the much more proficient Peggy Sager and Strelsa Heckleman were to get later from Kirsova, she enjoyed the experience tremendously. It indicates to us that Kirsova was able to engage dancers in her class without personalised attentiveness which would have been a very useful skill given the constrained circumstances and considerable demands under which she had to operate.

 

Part 5

Exit the Dancer, Enter the Poet

By contrast, Borovansky was primarily concerned with building a company and its brand rather than producing the raw product for it. He had high professional standards to maintain but he was also a great pragmatist, capable of making do with whatever was the best of the material at hand for moulding his artistic visions. He was content to reproduce the works of other choreographers and even encouraged both Laurel Martyn and Dorothy Stevenson to choreograph ballets—as both Macgeorge and Elder noted—that he mounted as part of the company’s repertoire. From The Heart’s Ground we learn that Anne was even gripped by the desire to choreograph. Writing to her husband, she describes an idea for a ballet that was inspired by a concert of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. It was never created, the densely worded description clearly pointing to the fact that Elder thought in words rather than movement, as choreographers do.

Nevertheless, we know that Borovansky valued her work in the company because he rewarded her dedication, loyalty and presence with a leading role—along side historically significant artists Laurel Martyn and Dorothy Stevenson— and himself as her partner in his Fantasy on Grieg’s Concerto in A Minor (1941). Although we learn nothing more about it from the biography, Elder does refer to it in the conclusion of her tribute, stating she is:

…proud that in my one important role I was partnered by a man who had created for me and who had himself danced with the very great ones. (302)

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Mackintosh and Borovansky, Fantasy on Grieg Concerto, photos: Hugh P. Hall NLA

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So, clearly this honour was a dream achievement for the dancer who had been envious of jewellery music box baby ballerinas’ wonky accomplishments.

And how lucky for them both that she left Borovansky before he was quite through with her. He was notorious for his vicious invective when dancers he needed told him that they were leaving. In fact, Elder had a taste of this when she chose to spend time with her husband while he was on army leave rather than dance in a weekend Ballet Club performance. The biography states ‘Boro hit the roof’ (p 132-3) but there is no mention of how Boro greeted the news of her departure from the company when it went professional and was going on a tour of New Zealand. With money to pay young and much more accomplished dancers, he would not have been too fussed.

Elder left the company to be a housewife and mother, which she saw as her role in life. The effect of leaving the ballet environment was not beneficial to her emotionally. The biography reveals:

Years later, after Anne’s death, Jonet commented that it was only when her poetry began to be recognised that Anne could watch ballet without pain. (p139)

In terms of ballet history, the ballet chapters of The Heart’s Ground would benefit from more clarification and some minor corrections, while this does not impact on the biography as a whole, it would be very valuable to those interested in the ballet content. Among the corrections only one needs mention here: Laurel Martyn’s ‘fiancé’ (later husband) was Lloyd Lawton not ‘Lloyd Linton.’ (p 127).

Clarification regarding the relevant tours by Russians would be helpful. While Elder’s tribute mentions Borovansky’s ‘days in the Pavlova company’ (p300), Hamer only mentions that Borovansky had been on painting expeditions with Pavlova (p.111). If The Heart’s Ground is read chronologically—as most would read it—some mention would have been valuable of the fact that Borovansky came to Australia the first time as a member of Pavlova’s company on the 1929 tour, which would not be known to most readers, including younger readers studying Australian ballet history.

Likewise the references to the Covent Garden Russian Ballet tour of 1938–39 need clarification in relation to the information that Borovansky ‘and his Russian wife Xenia toured Australia a second time with the Covent Garden Ballet in 1939. While the company was in Sydney Hitler annexed Bohemia-Moravia…’ (p 109). The Covent Garden Russian Ballet’s appearance in Australia in 1938 and 1939 is classified as a single tour, though fragmented by the fact that the company also toured New Zealand from late January to mid March 1939 before returning for additional seasons in Melbourne, then Adelaide, and a closing gala featuring some of the dancers in Sydney in late April.12 The annexation of Bohemia-Moravia was on 15 March 1939.

This whole tour is regarded as the second of the three Ballets Russes tours of the 1930s  and while these three tours operated under the mantle of Col de Basil, it was managed by Victor Dandré. Furthermore, Xenia was not a member of the tour but an accompanying wife. This distinction is relevant because she was a dancer, had been on tours as a member of Pavlova’s company (although she missed the Australian tour of 1929 because her mother was ill)13 and went on to be an important influence on the development of professional ballet in Australia. The more accurate we can be with historic information the better.

Then there is the problem regarding the naming of the companies because while the third company was mostly billed as the Original Ballet Russe, it was also known as Colonel de Basil’s Covent Garden Russian Ballet. That Borovansky also appeared with this third company in Australia as a guest artist and given that the tour commenced in Sydney in late December 1939, is more than a clue to how carefully worded any information regarding anything to do with those tours must be. It can be put simply as follows: Edouard Borovansky first came to Australia in 1929 as a dancer with the Pavlova company, of which Xenia was also a member but did not come on this tour. She first came to Australia when Borovansky toured again as a member of the Covent Garden Russian Ballet tour of 1938–39 and she accompanied him as his wife. During that tour they decided to stay on in Australia and began by opening a ballet academy.14 Borovansky also danced as a guest artist on the de Basil Original Ballet Russe tour of 1939–40.15

The rest of the biography delves broadly and deeply into Elder’s life. Hamer’s introduction explains both the complexity and enormousness of her attempted task to present a broad, incisive expository exploration of her subject’s life, a task both helped and hindered by the author’s privileged and exclusive access to material and knowledge. Hamer is also fascinated by concepts of the relationships between creativity and personality, particularly in her aunt’s case the destructive behaviour linked to her mindsets and narrow thinking that on observation can be classified as what is these days regarded as ‘mental instability’. The biography is densely packed with intimate detail and such information can heavily prejudice the reader against Elder. While exquisitely attuned to her own emotional sensitivities, Elder does not seem to have had much empathy with the feelings of others. She was a supporter of capital punishment in an era when popular opinion was growing strongly against it. She could treat people around her very callously. One story in particular sticks in the mind and concerns an occasion when Elder’s son aged twelve was ill and she wanted to give him a treat by giving him

some food on a plate that she treasured and had stapled together after it was dropped. She said, ‘Be very careful of that plate.’ Inevitably, he broke it. Anne was furious, and shouting, ‘you little bugger!’, she seized of one of the pieces of his Meccano set and broke it in a vengeful gesture. (p 183-4)

We also learn that Elder and Wilkie, who formed a lifelong friendship while they were ballet colleagues, also shared an interest in religion of the formal church going western style with its traditional polarisations depending on the brand followed. In Elder’s case that was Anglicanism and Wilkie’s, Roman Catholicism, to which she converted after marriage to Joe Doolan, a man who also wrote poetry and whose comments on her poems Anne valued.

A startling revelation is Anne’s very narrow but arrogantly held view of the concept of ‘beauty’ that showed a very limited appreciation of aesthetics. While her diary rhapsodises about the loveliness of Mount Vernon, George Washington’s colonial house, on the same trip to America she describes Picasso’s Guernica in terms of: ‘If you want horror, there you have it.’ She clearly does not want this from art, but rather something conforming to her notion of appealing to the eye to make her feel comfortable. Had her poetry conformed to such an outlook, it would never have been published. Ironically, her detailed description of Picasso’s painting shows she can see the content but not respond to the art:

a screaming face full of teeth lamenting over a dead babe whom you see upside down, so that the nose falls upwards towards the eyes. What an astonishing device to depict utter deadness—so hideous but one can’t help admire the impact of it.

The confines of Elder’s inner existence are also reflected in her attitude to the women’s rights movement of the 1970s. In a letter to to poet Graham Rowlands she wrote:

A small point, but please do not address me as Ms!! I have been a totally dependent female all my life, including 35 years as wife and mother (happily) without any ambitions on my own account other than to have a slim book of poetry published. Any shadow of Women’s Lib. or lesbianism simply disgusts and horrifies me…I am very definitely Missis John Elder. I only use the Anne for poetry business.

Biography by its nature invites reading between the lines, leaving readers to interpret what they may and this will vary according to each reader. As a study of a privileged, circumscribed life in a certain historic context, The Heart’s Ground is a biography for our time because it is open to various readings, most obviously from feminist, socio-political and psychological perspectives, with a thick overlay of interest in history.

So what can we make of Anne Elder? There can be little doubt that her poor physical health must have impacted the rest of her as a person. But who can say whether the ill health contributed to her personality or her personality exacerbated her autoimmune system? Also, it is likely that her archly conservative and repressively traditional views complicated her life by preventing her from exploring her full potential and by that limitation contributing to her despair, depression and relatively early death. In that sense she was a tragic figure in the literary meaning of the word—someone whose undoing is a product of her own making.

Despite that, Anne Chloe Elder produced reams of poetry and, as Anne Mackintosh, for one glorious period of her life—inspired by the image of a woman who through her daring independence and leadership inspired an artistic revolution in popularising an art form throughout the world—found a milieu where her will power and self-discipline enabled her to harness her fragile body and steely creativity in an enterprise of artistic expression within a like-minded community. She may have stood apart, a sharp observer, as Laurel Martyn astutely and perceptively noted, but really in her unique way she was actually in the thick of it. We have her magnificent tribute and sublime poem to prove it.

Blazenka Brysha

 

With thanks to Borovansky Ballet veterans Audrey Nicholls and Barry Kitcher for additional research and insights in the research for this monograph.

Footnotes

The official list of Borovansky Ballet personnel recruited by Edouard Borovansky

As recognition of the Borovansky Ballet’s major importance to Australian ballet history has grown, so too have claims of company membership. Salter’s dedication at the start of the book includes an alphabetical list of nearly 400 names, which is recognised by Borovansky veterans as the definitive record of the company’s membership throughout its existence under Borovansky’s direction. It includes all the local dancers as well as international artists who joined for various seasons, and also the music staff. If your name is not on the list, you were not a member. This distinction has become relevant in recent years with the growing awareness of the Borovansky Ballet’s importance in the history of Australian ballet and the various claims, of having been in the company, by people who were not.

Sometimes the claims are made by the elderly who may have been in another company such as the National Theatre Ballet but had studied with the Borovanskys at some point. Sometimes they are made by those who were Borovansky students and found themselves recruited to the professional performances as additional dancers. Many people, including non-dancers appeared as extras in crowd scenes. Borovansky knew how to pad out the ranks for maximum impact and minimum expenditure.

The only omissions on Salter’s list acknowledged by Borovansky alumni as having been in the company are a few dancers recruited by Peggy van Praagh after Borovansky’s death in 1959. Their names are to be found in the official performances programmes and most notably include Patricia Cox, Barry Moreland and Janet Karin.

Salter list 3Parts-1Salter list 3Parts-2Salter list 3Parts-3

 

 

  1. The Australian Ballet 1962/63 Season programme
  2. Salter, Frank, Borovansky, the man who made Australian ballet (Wildcat Press, 1980), 203–4; Sexton, Christopher, Peggy van Praagh, a life of dance (Macmillan, Australia, 1985) 112
  3. Brissenden, Alan, and Glennon, Keith, Australia Dances, Creating Australian Dance 1945–1965 (Wakefield Press, 2010), p8
  4. Pask, Edward H., Enter the Colonies Dancing, A History of Dance in Australia 1835–1940 (OUP,1979), 126
  5. Brissenden, Alan, and Glennon, Keith, Australia Dances, Creating Australian Dance 1945–1965 (Wakefield Press, 2010), 144
  6. Salter, 108
  7. Beaumont, Cyril W., Complete Book of Ballets (Putman, 1949) p 916, 1020
  8. Salter, 96, 102
  9. Macgeorge, Norman, Borovansky Ballet in Australia and New Zealand (F.W. Cheshire, 1946), p 12
  10. Audrey Nicholls interviewed Martin Rubinstein, who lives in a Melbourne retirement home, and Marilyn Bogner, who lives in Italy, on the author’s behalf
  11. Salter, 118
  12. Pask, 156
  13. Salter, 36–37
  14. Salter, 80–82
  15. Salter, 95

 

 

Jonathan Taylor and the Borovansky legacy

The following material, with the exception of my Sunday Herald article about Taylor from 1989, I prepared for my Facebook initiative Project Borovansky. It was intended to be a few paragraphs and a few photos acknowledging Jonathan and his work, particularly in the context of the Borovansky shaped roll-out of history. And then it evolved into something bigger. For more information about Taylor please see  Trove for a brief biography, Michelle Potter On Dancing for an obituary, VCA colleague Helen Herbertson for a tribute, and go to Rambert Voices to hear Jonathan on his early years and time at Rambert.Taylor funeral-1

The death of Jonathan Taylor has been yet another major loss to the Australian dance community. Dancer, choreographer, artistic director and former Dean of Dance at the Victorian College of the Arts, Jonathan was known for his many artistic accomplishments but also for his vision of dance as a universal art with relevance for everyone. His warm hail fellow well met embracing of humanity, sense of humour and sheer pluck will be sadly missed.

Originally from England, Taylor first came to Australia in 1975 at the invitation of leading Borovansky Ballet alumni Laurel Martyn (1916–2013) and Garth Welch to stage one of his works, Listen to the Music, and create a new one for Ballet Victoria. Martyn, Edouard Borovansky’s company’s first ballerina, left the company in the mid-1940s and went on to direct the (Victorian) Ballet Guild, which became Ballet Victoria in the late 1960s. Welch joined the Borovansky Ballet in the mid-1950s. Having risen through the company’s ranks, he became one of the three Australian founding principals—all of them ex-Borovansky— of The Australian Ballet when it was formed in 1962. In 1975, Garth Welch was artistic director of Ballet Victoria.

Inviting Jonathan Taylor to choreograph a work was an inspired move because it resulted in the creation of Star’s End, an important artistic and popular success. In fact, Taylor so impressed that when Adelaide’s Australian Dance Theatre was re-formed in 1976, the board invited him to direct it.

Pask Star's End

Star’s End review and photo from Edward H. Pask, Ballet in Australia—The Second Act 1940–1980 (OUP 1982)Baxter Star's End

Australian Dance Theatre was founded By Elizabeth Dalman and associate Leslie White in 1965 as a contemporary dance company and in its first decade achieved considerable recognition locally and abroad for the quality of its output, which encompassed both the creation of original work and the restaging of important modern dance works from overseas. Taylor’s brief as the new director was to revitalise the company and to generate box office. With the assistance of former Rambert colleagues Joe Scoglio as assistant artistic director and Julia Blakie as ballet mistress, both of whom initially also danced with the ADT, he auditioned dancers versatile enough to move between contemporary and neoclassical styles and introduced a repertoire of original new works as well as some restagings, which included pieces by noted choreographers such as Christopher Bruce and Norman Morrice. The range of Taylor’s own choreographic output was extremely broad. His comic ballets delighted audiences. Having a shrewd sense of humour and a keen eye for the ridiculous, he created a mini masterpiece in Flibbertijibbet (1977). Understanding popular culture and its taste for a dramatic attack on the senses, in association with Nigel Triffit he created Wildstars (1979), a theatrical extravaganza of dance immersed in amplified sound and bathed in lighting and special effects. But above all, his focus was on the essence of dance and this found its fullest expression in what is widely regarded as his masterwork: Transfigured Night (1980), a finely wrought meditation on love.ADT-5 named

ADT-2ADT-1

After nearly a decade, Taylor met the same fate as his predecessor Elizabeth Dalman when he fell out with the ADT board, which intended to replace him so he resigned.

On taking up his appointment as Dean of Dance at the VCA (1988–1997), by coincidence he replaced Garth Welch, who brought him to Australia in the first place.

Like Edouard Borovansky, Jonathan Taylor relished the artistic opportunities Australia offered and like Borovansky, he resettled permanently and very happily, with his theatre director wife Ariette and their three children, in his adopted country. Also like Borovansky, he was able to excite people about dance and worked hard at building audiences. While Borovansky was intent on dragging the masses to the ballet, Taylor worked relentlessly to attract the crowds to contemporary dance. The ADT was then jointly funded by its home state South Australia and by neighbouring Victoria, with both states enjoying the company’s strong presence. An ADT season was an eagerly anticipated event accompanied by an excitement hard to imagine these days. The ADT also toured overseas, something it started successfully in Dalman’s day and continues into the present, appearing in New York (May 3–6, 2019) as part of the Australia Festival. Taylor’s ADT was the first Australian dance company to appear at the Edinburgh Festival (1980).

While solid indication of the Borovansky Ballet’s public presence on the arts scene can still be found in the press clippings of its day, by Taylor’s ADT era it was much harder to garner attention from the mainstream media so we don’t have this resource. Nevertheless, Taylor was as attuned to the usefulness of the media as Borovansky. In fact, he was a major supporter of the establishment of Dance Australia magazine, founded by editor and publisher Dally Messenger in 1980. Messenger, who was a pioneer of civil celebrancy in Australia and personally appointed as a celebrant by Attorney General Lionel Murphy, started the financially fragile venture in response to his own dance-obsessed family’s inspiration. The dance community unanimously agreed that it was needed and while Messenger put his own neck on the line financially, he managed to garner support from the professional dance sector in the form of paid advertising. Taylor’s ADT was prominently among those who responded to the call. This lead to a close, enduring personal friendship between the two men and it was only appropriate that Dally Messenger was the officiating celebrant at Taylor’s funeral.

Along with their understanding of the value of media publicity, Borovansky and Taylor shared many other similarities, including their belief in developing Australian dancers as practitioner artists who performed with engaged understanding and commitment. Both also fostered supportive environments to encourage choreographers. Taylor did this at the ADT, at the VCA and for a time was even a committee member for Dance Creation, the ongoing chorepographer development initiative of the Australian Institute of Classical Dance, founded by Borovansky’s last ballerina and founding principal of The Australian Ballet Marilyn Jones.

 

Both Borovansky and Taylor inspired deep personal loyalty from their dancers. The Borovansky alumni network continues strongly, though with thinning ranks, over sixty years since Borovansky’s death. Taylor’s ADT dancers have their own Facebook page. Given that it is more than 30 years since the demise of Taylor’s ADT and given the tyranny of geography, a surprisingly large number made it to his funeral in Melbourne, where dancer Claire Stonier Kippen spoke as their representative.

While Borovansky worked within the strict confines of classical ballet, Taylor, a Genet medallist, who had studied with influential ballet teachers like Andrew Hardie and Stanislas Idzikowski, actually began his dance journey as a child tapper, something of which he was very proud and something that stood him in excellent stead when he worked in London’s West End, during the early ’70s, on the choreographic/direction side of theatre with the likes of stage and screen great John Mills, another tapper from way back. Taylor also studied with modern dance leaders like Anna Sokolow. One of his favourite quotes came from Sokolow: ‘If you don’t know why you’re moving, don’t!’ The quote was always delivered with acknowledgement of Sokolow and followed by a chuckle.

Like Borovansky, Taylor was a showman. Borovansky was famous for his curtain call speeches and while Taylor kept a low profile at ADT performances, he was also comfortable addressing audiences from a stage in other contexts. Only last July at the Cecchetti Annual Conference (Clock Tower Centre, Moonee Ponds, 8.7.2018) Taylor was one of an illustrious panel on Rambert featuring company veterans Audrey Nicholls, who is also a Borovansky ballet veteran, and Maggie Lorraine, as well as historian Dr Michelle Potter, Australia’s foremost authority on the Ballet Rambert Australian visit of 1947–49. Taylor rose to the occasion as its star. He brought to life his time with Ballet Rambert during its transition from a classical to a contemporary company. He vividly evoked Rambert’s steely personality with a range of memories, including his frustrated attempt to give his Albrecht a Bolshoi star flair in the manner of Fadeyechev’s dramatic conclusion to Giselle that had bedazzled British audiences during the historic 1956 Bolshoi Ballet visit. Taylor found Rambert’s ending very flat, so at one performance when he believed her to be absent, he fired things up dramatically, only to find himself ticked off by Rambert who was waiting for him off stage.

While Borovansky was notorious for his colourful, often insulting, sometimes cruel and abusive turn of phrase, particularly when correcting dancers in rehearsal, Taylor was low-key and considerate but didn’t refrain from offering his considered and plain speaking opinion on dance matters. Reflecting on one of my questions about the negativity surrounding the despair of young qualified dancers’ inability to find work locally, he shook his head thoughtfully and said, ‘If that was me, I’d be on the first cruise ship out of here.’

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Jonathan Taylor, with daughter Juliet and flanked by Graeme Murphy, whose first ballet teacher was Borovansky veteran Kenneth Gillespie, his artistic associate Janet Vernon, and choreographer Barry Moreland, Borovansky veteran and founding member of The Australian Ballet. (In 2014, at the memorial for Harry Haythorne MBE, Taylor’s close friend since the 1950s and another fellow tap dancer, whom Murphy famously put on rollerskates in Tivoli when Haythorne was in his 70s.)

Interestingly, both Borovansky and Taylor relaxed with a recreational social sport very removed from the art of dance and its physical exertions. Borovansky was a keen angler whose fisherman mates knew him simply as ‘Ted’. Taylor was a dedicated lawn bowler. Both men also enjoyed getting away from the hurly burly of city life. Borovansky often escaped to what was then an isolated location on the Mornington Peninsula and Taylor loved the state forest at Taradale.

And so the threads of history are woven…

The Funeral

Jonathan Taylor was farewelled by family, friends and the dance community with a funeral at South Melbourne Town Hall on Sunday 14 April, 2019, followed the next day by internment at Taradale where the Taylor family spend much recreational time at their off the grid house in the state forest.

The proceedings were lead by celebrant Dally Messenger and the order of service was framed by eulogies from Taylor’s three children: Juliet, Ingmar and Rebe. Each of them dealt with a period of Taylor’s life, demarcated by geography, and covered both the professional career and touchingly personal details and memories. First was ‘England’ which focused on the early years, growing up, becoming a professional dancer, joining Ballet Rambert and establishing himself as a choreographer and theatre director. ‘Adelaide’ dealt with Taylor’s years as artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre (1976–1985) and ‘Melbourne’ covered the subsequent years, which also included the numerous years as Dean of Dance at the School of Dance, Victorian College of the Arts. Other tributes from colleagues were interspersed among these and also referred to those specific periods.Taylor funeral-2

The flowers brought by most of the mourners to the funeral accompanied Jonathan Taylor’s coffin—decoratively painted by his grandson Harry, who was named in honour of the family’s great friend of nearly 60 years Harry Haythorne MBE (1926–2014)—to the graveside in Taradale’s historic cemetery, where Dally Messenger again officiated. He later described the burial as a very meaningful event, with the Thompson’s Foundry (brass) Band from nearby Castlemaine also in attendance.

Vale Jonathan.

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Taylor interview 1989

The Sunday Herald was a separate operation to the daily Herald for which I worked in the late ’80s. The editor who commissioned this piece was not happy to get a serious article. In retrospect, I assume she wanted some celebrity fluff piece but had to fill the page so she ran a fair whack of what I wrote. However, in sub-editing something was scrambled and Taylor is named as a Ballet Guild ’emerging’ dancer (par 4)and his ‘broadest of dance backgrounds’ has lost its classical honing (par 5). Ever gracious, Jonathan took it all in his worldly stride when I apologised for what I regarded as a gross mess.

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 Saronova, 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.’

Martyn-Ballet Guild big stage

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.’

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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.’

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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.

POST SCRIPT: Valda Jack (Mrs Valda Lang) died on 4 September 2018, having suffered health complications towards the end of her life. Deepest condolences to her family.

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.

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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 Oklahoma! 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

Memento

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

Stewart, Leech, Grove 2009 copy

Jean Stewart with Judy Leech and dance critic Robin Grove behind her at the launch of Lynne Golding Australian Ballerina by Edith Pillsbury, Readings bookshop, Hawthorn in Melbourne, 2009

 

*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.

 

 

BryshaWilson Press—On Poets and Dancers as Heroes

Layout 1First published by BryshaWilson Press, 10/8/2016

The first blog written for the BryshaWilson Press launch was about a love of books but on reflection more burning topics presented themselves. The chief of these is the question of why you would spend the best part of a year setting up a book-publishing venture when the market place is buried in mountains of books being churned out by vast numbers of publishers all aggressively competing for every cent of the book-buying buck to be scrounged from the big wide world of readers.

The answer is as simple (and as complex) as that to why you would write a poem, or spend years learning to dance, hoping one day to share your dance on the public stage.

Economics and finance have a strangle hold on our world and although wars in all their horror still abound, the real conquests are now made in the financial sector and, for the most part, it’s only when you fail there that you go to war. This is the global reality and any enterprise of which the profit model is not essentially financial raises eyebrows of concern or bemused dismissal.

The people for whom no explanation is necessary are the ones who engage in the creation or the pursuit of the arts in their many guises and the ones who value and share in such activities when the writers, painters, performers, musicians and other dreamers offer their endeavours to the public.

When it comes to funding—government or other—the arts, like Blanche Dubois, have depended on the kindness of strangers but we all know what happened to Blanche. And while few would say no to receiving financial rewards, public accolades and the many other rewards of popularity, the great majority of those engaged in artistic creation pursue it regardless of such concerns.

Barry Kitcher’s memoir From Gaolbird to Lyrebird A life in Australian ballet (BryshaWilson Press, 2016 eBook) tells the story of people who did just that with astonishing results and significant historic impact. The eBook format has enabled the inclusion of much visual material from Kitcher’s personal archive, which would be prohibitive in hard print but makes an important contribution to the recording of Australian dance history as well as the enjoyment of what is a great ballet story.

The other book offered on our launch is The Muse of the Maze (BryshaWilson Press, 2016, eBook) by Larry Buttrose. This beautifully written novel about a young Australian poet’s quest to obtain a poet’s blessing from Robert Graves is simultaneously an adventure story and a study of life dedicated to artistic pursuits. The Muse of the Maze, like From Gaolbird to Lyrebird, has its origins in a previous incarnation as a volume—The Maze of the Muse (Flamingo, Pymble, 1998)—but has been so extensively rewritten that a name change was needed to distinguish it from the 1998 publication.

From Gaolbird to Lyrebird eBook has also been reworked but only to expand greatly on the original 2001 imprint and so the name remains the same.

We think our books very special and hope that they will find many readers who think so, too. Happy reading.