Noel Tovey’s Dance Journey

NT SP-3 correctedWhile Noel Tovey’s whole dance CV is impressive enough for him to have been honoured by a prestigious peer industry Ausdance Lifetime Achievement Award (2017), his early years in dance have been overshadowed by both his later success on the international stage and all the other achievements of his remarkable life. However, Noel Tovey AM, Australia’s first ballet dancer of Aboriginal heritage, also has a presence in the context of mid-century Australian dance history that is in itself remarkable and deserves more attention than it has received to date.

NT SP-1 corrected-1aAmong other connections with this pivotal era of Australian dance history, Noel Tovey has an important link to the Borovansky Ballet although he only appeared with it as an extra, and to Laurel Martyn’s Ballet Guild with which he danced, most notably in Martyn’s seminal Australian ballet The Sentimental Bloke. Significantly, the interview for this story lead to the discovery of material showing his connection with both companies.

Although Noel was then just an aspiring young dancer, he seems to have had the knack of being in the right place at the right time. Noel tends to regard the events of his life as stepping-stones on his way to other things but when it came to dance, he was actually hopscotching through history.

Noel Tovey AM is lauded as Australia’s first ballet dancer of Aboriginal heritage and has received multiple awards for his work in the performing arts, and as a community activist for, among other things, Indigenous and LGBTIQ rights, which is another important part of his history. Late last year he received notification that Flinders University was to award him an honorary Doctor of Letters.

Part of the citation stated:

Mr Tovey is openly gay and has spoken out for the rights of LGBT elders. In June 2010, Mr Tovey was recognised for his contribution to the LGBT community by becoming the 2010 recipient of the Foundation For All of Us Lifetime Achievement Award. In January 2015, he was made a member of the Order of Australia for significant service to the performing arts, to Indigenous performers and as an advocate for the LGBTI community and in the same year was inducted to the Victorian Aboriginal Honour Roll.

Just to emphasise the broad nature of Noel’s achievements it should be added that he is also an authority on aspects of 20th C ceramics design.

So, Noel’s life contains many stories and fortunately he is a great storyteller. As an artist working in performance, he expressed the story at hand as a dancer, singer, actor, choreographer, director and writer. As an author he has published two volumes of autobiography: Little Black Bastard (Hodder Headline, 2004) and its sequel And Then I Found Me (Magabala Books, 2017). A third volume Not So Little Anymore (working title) is written but still being refined.

Among his stories are a few that he made up to compensate for, and even hide, the ghastly realities of the life into which he was born. The suave, entitled Rohan Scott-Rohan fantasy-self of Noel’s young imagination was light years away from the little black bastard of his actual birth.

But while Noel was busy chalking up one achievement after another, he kept that early biographical past well hidden, even from himself at times, lest his life unravel under the burden of unendurable memories.

Born in Melbourne in the depths of the Great Depression into a life of poverty and abuse, Noel always thought himself black because his father was black. He only learned his family history bit by bit. He was the grandson of James Bohee, an African Canadian musician and singer who performed with his brother George as the Royal Bohee Brothers. The internationally successful duo was able to add the word ‘Royal’ to the name of their act because they not only entertained the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, but also because James gave him banjo lessons. Noel’s father Frederick Morton, a musician, singer and dancer, was the illegitimate son of James and a white English woman. His mother was the granddaughter of an Aboriginal woman as well as having a Maori bloodline.

Noel’s first book Little Black Bastard records the harrowing details of his childhood, including years of sexual abuse, especially following his removal by the state from the alcohol fueled dire neglect by his parents.

46 royalboheeminstrelsOne of Noel’s very early memories is of his sister and him dressed in clown suits, collecting pennies from the ground while their father busked in the street. Frederick Morton was known to the police as a ‘dope peddler.’ Noel only remembers that he was a dapper dresser and had a beautiful singing voice. Not surprisingly then, Noel’s own first performance was as a singer, entertaining his school class with Old MacDonald. The rendition, which included ‘animal noises and impersonations’ (LBB p 47), was a big success and is a happier memory from the time after the state placed him and his sister in the care of a man who sexually abused them for five years before being jailed for just a small part of his pedophilia.

Although Noel did eventually perform professionally as a singer on occasion in the future, the road that took him from the horror of his beginnings was the one on which he made his dance journey, which opened up the roads that took him to success as a multi-talented theatre professional, as a political and social justice activist, and finally to himself. Whether this was fate at work, or just co-incidence is anyone’s guess but Noel’s life in its various guises seems to have been totally shaped by inexplicable twists and turns.

It is because Noel’s life has been such an exceptional one on the personal, professional and public levels that his dance background and career have tended to be obscured by all the other fascinating and impressive things about him. In fact, Noel’s life story is composed of so many different threads that the only way he could tell it was by devising a unique narrative style, which draws on both the oral traditions of his ancient Australian Indigenous forebears and the dramatic monologues and soliloquies of the much more recently evolved English drama. The result is not linear and sequential but rather free-rangingly contextual, with aspects of his life coming into focus and receding as the narrative unfolds.

While dance features only marginally in Noel’s widely read Little Black Bastard, the work reveals the heart of a dancer:

I loved ballet lessons. The music and movement released something in me that was akin to what I felt when I skated, only more so. When I danced it was in my world and nobody else was there. It was as though I had been dancing for a thousand years or more. I could feel it in my bones. Without knowing it, I was connecting with my culture through dance—not that I was aware of it at the time. (p111)

Tovey-LBB bookTXT

In the unpublished third volume of his autobiography (Not So Little Anymore pdf), Noel encapsulates the transformative powers of dance for release and catharsis:

In my world of dance there were no drunks, no drugs, no abuse and no racism, it was just me and the music. Sometimes now, I sit in my wheel chair put my favourite record on the turntable close my eyes and I’m dancing again. (p 212)

So, when did Noel’s dance story begin? Without hesitation, he says, ‘My dance journey began when the police told me I had to get a job and I got a job at Collins Book Depot and a girl—Chesca—took me to a student performance of Les Sylphides and at the end of the male solo she dug me in the ribs and said, “You could do this.” It was like a light going on. I knew I could.’

‘Chesca,’ as Miss Frances Curtis liked to be known among the Melbourne’s artistic and intellectual bohemians of the late 1940s and early ‘50s, was only a few years older than Noel but she provided the inspiration and fuel for his ambitious autodidactism, which was comprehensive by any standards and awe-inspiring in a teenage street kid who had barely set foot in school. Having relied on newspapers and a dictionary for his education to that point, the 14 year-old Noel immersed himself in literature, philosophy and the arts. The dictionary became his constant companion.

Chesca not only took Noel to the Les Sylphides performance but also furnished him with the name and address of the National Theatre Ballet School whose students had danced it. Although Noel was by then an accomplished ice-skater, which was helpful for learning ballet moves like turns and jumps, his subsequent experience as a beginner at that school was a mixed one largely due to friction with other male students and the teacher Miss Jean Alexander. Writing about this in Little Black Bastard Noel concluded, ‘I didn’t last too long at the National School.’ (p 112)

Looking back now, Noel says, ‘I didn’t think the teacher was very good.’ He doesn’t name Jean Alexander in our discussion but readily admits he means her. He did also name her in Little Black Bastard as his first teacher but made no comment about the quality of her teaching, which was doubtful at best and mostly overlooked as an embarrassment by the ballet community because of her more successful role of over forty years at the National as a facilitator.

The National Theatre Ballet School was part of the National Theatre Movement started in the mid-1930s by soprano turned creative director and administrator Gertrude Johnson. Her mission was to establish a strong foundation for Australian performing arts by training practitioners and mounting performances. To that end, drama and opera schools were established and Miss Jean Alexander, a teacher of musical interpretation, was hired (1939) to run a ballet school supplying dancers and choreography for the various productions.1

Alexander designated herself a choreographer while mainly hiring others to teach dance classes. Noel may not have made his retreat had he still been at the school in 1949 when Alexander recruited Madam Lucie Saronova , a student of Cecchetti and founder of the Cecchetti movement in Australia, to head the teaching for her. It was through Saronova’s work that the school became a leading ballet training institution.2

Nevertheless, Noel did join the National Theatre Movement later, which not only gave him opportunities to appear on stage as an extra in dramas and even operas but allowed him to see for free the many productions staged by the National, which in itself provided a valuable education.

In the emotional moment of his acceptance speech for his Ausdance Lifetime Achievement Award, Noel mistakenly credited Jean Alexander with giving him free lessons. That distinction belonged only to Madam Borovansky and is on record in Little Black Bastard. While Alexander didn’t give Noel free lessons, she still had a positive influence because although he left the National Theatre Ballet School, he subsequently devoted himself to learning the art more seriously.

Looking back on his days at the National school, he now says, ‘I left there and went to Madam Borovansky and that was the real beginning of my career.’

By all accounts, Madam Xenia Borovansky was quite fond of Noel. ‘She was and she said to me, “You’re too tall, darling, but you’re quite talented.” So in a way she was responsible for me being a dancer. She said to me, “You have to do four classes a week,” and I said I can only afford one. She said, “I’ll give you the other three, if you clean the studio for me.” So I did. I started cleaning the studio and I really liked her.’

In Little Black Bastard Noel wrote, ‘When I look back at all the teachers I had in my long career, I would have to say that when it came to teaching style there was no one better than Madam Boro.’ (p114)

As luck would have it, Noel was at the Borovansky academy when Edouard Borovansky assembled his company for the 1951/52 Jubilee season celebrating the first 50 years of Australian federation. With the privations of the World War II in the past by then and the promise of a prosperous and exciting future ahead, the general mood was one of positive outlook and belief in advancement. Ballet was not to be left behind.

For Edouard Borovansky there was even more at stake to prompt the Jubilee season. Having worked very hard for over a decade to build Australia’s first successful professional ballet company, Borovansky suddenly faced some formidable competition from the National Theatre Ballet Company, another Gertrude Johnson initiative. It was formed in 1949 under the direction of Joyce Graeme, a leading principal of Ballet Rambert during its Australian tour (1947–49), who recruited some other ex-Rambert talent, including Margaret Scott, and a line-up of impressive young local talent sourced via national auditions. The company set the highest standards on all counts and made history early in 1951 when it staged a magnificent production of Australia’s first full (four act) version of Swan Lake. No-one who saw it, including Noel Tovey, was able to forget it or the stunning performance by Lynne Golding in the dual role of Odette/Odile. In fact, Noel brings it up when I asked him about seeing other companies including Ballet Rambert, whose lengthy tour overlapped with his ballet beginnings.

While Noel had seen Rambert and even queued for leading ballerina Sally Gilmour’s autograph, in our interview he was keen to talk about something he has not mentioned in his writings: Lynne Golding’s debut in that Swan Lake because by 1951 he was already a fan of her work, having been memorably dazzled by her as the Tivoli’s resident ballerina.

The ever-popular Swan Lake Act 2, a staple of early to mid-20th C repertoire was well known to Australian audiences. There is even existing footage of the Borovansky Ballet performing it in the 1940s. It is not surprising then that Borovansky was among the first to understand the major significance of The National Theatre Ballet’s achievement with its full Swan Lake. In fact, he made his entire company go to see it and at the end they stood up and cheered.3

Borovansky responded with a daunting reply in the Jubilee season which featured a number of programmes and various premieres, most notably The Sleeping Princess, which became a ballet box-office record breaker. Altogether, this was the most spectacular single season ever mounted by Borovansky and Noel was in three ballets over three programmes during the company’s Melbourne appearance.

Although by this stage of his training Noel was far from ready to be taken into the Borovansky Ballet as a member, Borovansky did select him as an extra. Lest there be any confusion about his exact status, Noel is the first to point out that he was never in the Borovansky company but only an extra. By this understanding of hierarchies he actually reveals his Borovansky Ballet credentials because while the company used many additional performers, mostly senior ballet students, its membership was carefully limited given the severe financial constraints under which the company was able to maintain professional status. From the outset, Borovansky alumni have been very protective of their status. Noel’s implicit acceptance of this reveals him as a true insider.

In writing about his stint as an extra selected by Borovansky, Noel only mentioned Scheherazade and Petrouchka. In our interview he reveals that he was also in The Sleeping Princess. Pressed about his part he says, ‘I was a spear carrier.’

NT SP-2 corrected-1aNT SP-3 correctedNT SP-4 corrected-1aThe Sleeping Princess, which premiered on 22.12.1952 at His Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, was a direct response to the National Theatre Ballet’s Swan Lake and like it remains a major milestone in Australian ballet history as a first full staging of a major classic magnificently presented. Produced and directed by Borovansky, it featured choreography by Miro Zloch after Petipa and glorious design by William Constable. The company was blessed with three very popular and highly accomplished ballerinas to fill the bravura princess role: Edna Busse, Kathleen Gorham and Peggy Sager. Noel still lights up when he says, ‘I saw the wonderful Edna Busse dance the Princess!’

While Noel did not have much to do with Borovansky, he considers him as ‘a forerunner. He formed a company and he put it into His Majesty’s when I was there. He was wonderful as a dancer, especially as the Strongman in Le Beau Danube.’

Noel was able to see Borovansky in this signature role because Le Beau Danube was on the same Jubilee programme as Petrouchka.

When Noel wrote about the Jubilee season in Little Black Bastard his only elaboration on appearing in Scheherazade and Petrouchka was about getting told off by assistant stage manager Colleen Gough for wearing too much make-up. Looking back now in the context of our intensive dance discussion he is ready to add a revelation that places his younger self in a much more serious light. He says:

Colleen Gough told me off because I had too much makeup on and all of that but, you know, we drew straws amongst the extras in The Sleeping Princess to see who was to faint on stage because standing in this ridiculous costume holding a spear up was too much, and it was me. In fact we did that ballet in the summer and I threw a faint on stage. Then Boro had a meeting with us and he changed the costume.

So, by chance and through no choice on his part, Noel was cast as an activist, a role he assumed more and more on much more serious matters as the years passed. By another twist of fate and in dealing with another matter, it is through the ballet collection of Colleen Gough’s boss Borovansky Ballet stage manager Keitha Ross Munro that I was able to source multiple hard copy original photos of The Sleeping Princess in which Noel can easily identify himself as one of the Palace Guards, the official name for the spear holder role.

Noel has very fond memories of his days with Madam Borovansky and smiles when he says, ‘All the little girls used to wear white tutus and I remember one, Alida Glasbeek, I don’t know what happened to her but she was quite talented as a child.’4

Noel has expressed regret in the past that he didn’t work harder when he was with Madam Borovansky. He also didn’t stay as long with her as did others who went on to professional dance careers. Referring to that time he says, ‘But I also went to the Ballet Guild, where Laurel gave me the opportunity to dance. I was in The Sentimental Bloke, I was in all sorts of things like En Cirque, for instance. We did En Cirque in the gardens.’

As director of Ballet Guild, Laurel Martyn was dedicated to creating Australian dance by fostering original local choreography, music and design, and training Australian dancers for performing it. While she had been Borovansky’s first ballerina and was instrumental in the formation and early running of his company, her vision for Australian dance and her core interest in creativity took her in a new direction.

Although The Sentimental Bloke ballet was based on the eponymous suite of poems by C J Dennis, a much loved classic of the Australiana genre, what made it fit Martyn’s principles for ‘Australian dance’ was her original choreography, its performance by Australian trained dancers, John Tallis’ commissioned score, and Charles Bush’s sets, and his costumes based on the Hal Gye illustrations in the first print edition of the poems. Noel was cast as one of the Blokes, not in the premiere performance in March, 1952 but later that year. In the programme he is billed as Noel Mortan, a misspelling of Morton, which was his father’s surname.

Throughout her work with Ballet Guild (later Victorian Ballet Guild and then Ballet Victoria) Laurel Martyn enabled many dance careers to begin and/or to be sustained. She went to great efforts to pay her dancers. While Noel was paid approximately the same for both his appearance with the Borovansky Ballet and with Ballet Guild—he says, ‘I think I got 12/- a  week each for both but I can’t remember,’—considering that Martyn gave him the opportunity to dance and billed him as a Ballet Guild dancer, Noel’s first professional engagement as a dancer was with Ballet Guild.

1952 BG Bloke-outer-small

1952 BG Bloke-inner-small

The Ballet Guild programme from 1952 naming ‘Noel Mortan’—a misspelling of Morton, the surname by which he was known at that time. Jane Andrewartha, Executive Director of the Laurel Martyn Foundation kindly supplied this copy. At the time of the above performance ballet photographer Jean Stewart was stage manager and it is very likely that photos of Noel in this ballet also exist in the State Library of Victoria to which Stewart gave much of her photographic work. So far no such photos have been discovered in the Laurel Martyn Foundation archives.

NT Bloke creditTXT

Enlargement of details from the programme listing Noel Tovey as one of the Blokes.

It was soon after this that Noel Morton started using the surname Tovey, which had belonged to his mother and was on his birth certificate because he was illegitimate. Having been caught up in a police set-up and as a result tricked into being convicted of ‘the abominable act of buggery’, Noel needed every resource at his disposal to disassociate himself from his criminal record and get his life back on track. It needs to be mentioned that homosexuality was decriminalised in Victoria in1981 and in 2015 those convicted of the former crime could have their records expunged. Noel was among the first to apply. Eventually those convicted of the former crime received an official apology.

Speaking of his days as a ballet student, Noel says, ‘Laurel as a teacher was very strict but I can’t remember much about her to be honest. She choreographed the ballets and the boys were second to the girls in those days. But Madam Boro was really responsible for me as a dancer. She would come around with a stick and point at my feet with the stick on the instep, saying, “Point it.”’

So, while Laurel Martyn was the first to engage Noel as a professional dancer, he regards his professional dance career as formally beginning in 1954 with Paint Your Wagon and a pay of £13 a week. Getting that job is another example of Noel’s uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time. He was walking past Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, and ran into fellow dancer Janette Liddell who had been inside rehearsing for the musical. She mentioned that due to injury they were short of a male dancer and took Noel in to audition for the English choreographer Maggie Maxwell. That Noel should have known Liddell is not surprising considering how small and interconnected the Melbourne dance community was even into the late 20thC, let alone 65 years ago. What surprises is that Noel first knew her because she was Cheska’s cousin.

243 youngnoel-1954

Young Noel. A photo from his days in Paint Your Wagon.

Adding another uncanny twist to Noel’s first dance job story is the fact that another woman he also knew from his Collins Book Depot job, Betty Pounder, was ballet mistress for Paint Your Wagon. Unfortunately she had wanted another dancer to have the job that Noel got, which resulted in a permanent animosity and no work for Noel where Betty Pounder had a say. Given that she rose to a very powerful position as a highly regarded dance director and much admired choreographer in the JC Williamson Theatres empire, this was very bad luck for Noel. By the same token, Noel is quick to give credit where he feels it is due and points out that he was able to ‘repay Maggie’ Maxwell, for whom he also later worked in England, ‘by hiring her as ballet mistress for restaging O! Calcutta,’ in London’s West End in the 1970s.

But just as Noel found himself unwelcome at JCW’s he found an ally at the Princess Theatre in Kitty Carroll. He says,

Going to the Princess was the making of me. My father had worked with Kitty Carroll, who was Mrs Carroll (wife of theatrical entrepreneur Garnet Carroll, owner of the Princess Theatre) when she was an obscure soubrette. She always sat in the box and I remember her calling out across to the English director Stanley Willis-Croft ‘Take the tall dark boy on the end, we always use him.’

21 noeldancingMusicMan

Noel, always welcome at the Princess Theatre, dancing in The Music Man, 1959.

Noel also found work as a dancer at the Tivoli Theatre with its continuing inclusion of dance in its regular programmes. As mentioned, Noel’s first introduction to ballerina Lynne Golding’s work was at the Tivoli. It was also at the Tivoli that Noel saw mid-century Borovansky Ballet legend Martin Rubinstein who danced there in the later 1940s both under his own auspices as well as with Ballet Guild during the Borovansky company’s recess periods. The Tivoli’s variety bills provided high quality popular theatrical entertainment to the masses at affordable prices. Noel clearly enjoyed the mixed fare on offer, indicating that dance alone was not the be all and end all for him, as it was to those who made their careers exclusively in dance, even if they never rose to the stardom of a Golding or Rubinstein.

Showboat Tivoli 1963

Dancing at the Tivoli: Showboat, 1963

So, while Noel was progressing as a dancer, he had also seriously branched out into drama via his association with the National Theatre and thereby started another important aspect of his career. Through dancing in musicals he forged a life long friendship with Robina Beard OAM, who also had a distinguished career  in various facets of theatre as well as dance. Thanks to their parallel theatrical talents they would also go on to work together very successfully as seasoned professionals, most notably on Noel’s acclaimed stage version of his Little Black Bastard, which Beard directed.

Robina Beard book

In My Life: your’re soaking in it the autobiography of her eventful and successful life, Noel Tovey’s close friend and colleague Robina Beard also writes about her association with Noel, including directing him in the stage version of his book Little Black Bastard.

Meanwhile, the young Noel continued to train in dance with some major teachers both in Australia and then, from the early 1960s onwards, abroad. Although it is on record that Noel studied modern European dance and improvisation with Hanny Exiner, it’s a revelation to hear him say, ‘I had private lessons from Paul Hammond and Maggie Scott. She introduced me to Audrey de Vos’s work. Audrey de Vos taught ballet in a circle, everything was balanced. You imagine a circle and you work in that space.’

NT PH-1 corrected-1aNT PH-2 corrected-1aNT PH-3 corrected-1aNoel knew Paul Hammond from the Borovansky Ballet with which he was a leading soloist and ballet master. It was while Noel was an extra during the Jubilee season that Hammond performed his two most acclaimed roles: the Charlatan in Petrouchka and Carabosse in The Sleeping Princess. It gave Noel a privileged opportunity to look and learn and he certainly took it as shown in the Borovansky Ballet Sleeping Princess photographs from the Keitha Ross-Monro Collection.

During the Borovansky Ballet’s recess periods dancers needed to find alternative employment and like many of his contemporaries, Hammond taught ballet, having opened a school with his then wife, Borovansky Ballet ballerina Peggy Sager. When they went on tour with the company they asked Margaret Scott to take over for them. Subsequently she started her own school, specialising in keeping professional dancers fully trained between performance jobs because in Australia of that era there was no such thing as continuous professional employment for dancers.

Scott became the founding director of The Australian Ballet School, a post she held until 1990, during which time she had a pervasive impact on the development of Australian dance artists in ballet and beyond. In quest of best outcomes, over the years she hired a wide range of specialist teachers including Paul Hammond who among other things taught ballet history at the school and also filled the role of Archivist. In recognition of her work she received many honours including being made a Dame Commander of the British Empire.

Paul Hammond received an OAM for his work, which also included producing a number of ballet dancers who attained prominent careers, among them Gailene Stock, who not only took over from Dame Margaret as director of the ABS, but went on to head the Royal Ballet School.

While Noel created his own chapters of Australian ballet history, his direct connection with major figures like Dame Margaret Scott and Paul Hammond are noteworthy details in that context.

There is a saying that ‘when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.’ It could have been coined with Noel in mind. When Dame Margaret taught Noel she must have recognised, like Madam Borovansky, that he was not your usual ballet hopeful and tailored her teaching to be of value to him. It is noteworthy that Dame Margaret not only chose to reference de Vos’s approach in teaching Noel but that she also acknowledged this in sharing her understanding of it with him. Audrey de Vos (1900–1983), a student of Astafieva and Novikoff, tailored her teaching to suit the individual needs of dancers, cultivating an understanding of anatomy to allow ease of movement while engaging body and mind in facilitating the expressiveness that could be accessed through this approach.5

Dame Margaret, as a professional dancer of the 1940s in London, would have been familiar with the work of de Vos, which was popular among professional dancers because of her strategies for overcoming each dancer’s individual movement problems but also for enhancing strengths. From Noel’s description of Dame Margaret’s work with him, it seems that she was working on developing his placement and line as a dancer. Judging by photos of Noel performing, he has beautiful line so we can extrapolate that in his case Dame Margaret was working on his strengths rather than weaknesses. Among all the attributes Dame Margaret brought to any of her work, effectiveness and economy would always rank highly.6 A driven personality like Noel’s would have been ideally suited to a results targeted approach.

53 TheBoyfriend-1968 With Suzanne Kerchiss Comedy Theare

Beautiful line, one of Noel’s finest qualities as a dancer, displayed here to perfection as he partners Suzanne Kerchiss in the 1967 revival of Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend, Comedy Theatre, London. Wilson asked Noel to choreograph the production and suggested he dance the Tango sequence. It turned out to be a highlight of Noel’s dance career. In Little Black Bastard Noel mentions that among the fragments of information his mother told him about his father was the claim that he was ‘one of the first people to demonstrate the tango in Australia in the mid twenties.’

While Noel’s interest in theatre went beyond just dance, so his interest in dance went beyond just ballet. He says, ‘I went to Hanny Exiner for modern European improvisation, which I found wonderful. Strangely enough it was at that point that a psychiatrist said to me, “Oh, it would be alright if you just went out into the jungle and danced to the drum beats.”’

As luck would have it, Katherine Dunham, African American dance pioneer, brought her internationally acclaimed company to Melbourne in May–August 1956. Noel introduced himself and Dunham took him on as an apprentice. Speaking of her, Noel says, ‘Miss Dunham called me ‘high yaller’ because I was a mixture of white and black. Every morning Miss Dunham would take a ballet class, which we would all applaud her for. Then Lenwood Morris would take over, the drummers would appear and he taught us Dunham technique.’

It was the latter classes that excited Noel. While Noel describes Dunham technique as being essentially ‘all about walking and hips and contractions,’ its combination of ballet and Afro Carribean dance would have been tailor made for him at this stage of his development as a dancer. Dunham’s visit also had a profound effect on Noel’s colleague Janette Liddell, who became one of the few white people ever to be taken into the Dunham company, in which Noel describes her as having been fantastic. Liddell went on to become a noted teacher of jazz ballet and also gave Afro Dance classes.

It was ten years later in Italy that Noel got to work with Dunham, when she was choreographer on John Houston’s movie The Bible, In the Beginning, and cast him in the Sodom and Gomorrah orgy scene. By that stage Noel’s dance journey had been intensive and multi faceted. He says:

I had felt that ballet was too restricting. So, I went to Hanny Exiner, and I went to Dunham technique; that loosened me, it freed me. I think ballet is very limiting. I did flamenco with Luisillo, when his company Spanish Dance Theatre came to Melbourne (1958), which was amazing. I also learned flamenco from Teresa Amaya, who was a principal dancer with the company. She was the only one allowed to wear the long dress because only Gypsies can wear the long dress; the others wore the short dress. There was no company (here) like that, it was all new.’

Noel was acquainted with tap dancing from early on.

A girl taught me to tap in North Melbourne. Miss Hazel Moore taught Kathy in her house and this girl, whom I met many years later at a reunion, taught me to tap in the street. She would pass on to me everything she had learned at Miss Moore’s.

His formal tap lessons were with Betty Meddings, ballet mistress/choreographer who worked on stage shows for major theatres and on TV. He ended up working for her doing various types of dancing on the TV show Sunnyside Up! in the early 1960s. That was during one of his brief visits to Australia, which he had left for England in 1960. With the exception of visits either for family reasons or work, Noel ended up living overseas, mainly in London, for more than 30 years.

75 noeldancing-sunnysideupBeyond Australian shores, Noel also studied different dance styles dance with notable authorities including Alvin Ailey, Matt Mattox and Martha Graham. He learned classical Indian dance from Ram Gopal and Jack Cole. While Jack Cole is principally known for his seminal work in theatrical jazz dance, which is a morphing of a range of styles, he was trained in Bharata Natyam and that’s what Noel learned from him. He says, ‘The philosophy behind Indian dance really appeals to me: where the heart goes, the hand goes, and the eyes follow. I was keen to learn everything because a choreographer has to learn everything.’

This wholelistic approach served Noel well. By the time his career really took off in the 1960s in England, he was well versed in dance, drama and song. In Australia he had studied drama with Hayes Gordon, who encouraged him to study extensively in all the theatre arts. Noel learned singing from Joan Arnold at the Melbourne Conservatorium. Noel’s studies beyond dance also continued overseas. One of his first jobs in England was working with the legendary Stella Adler on the London premiere season of Arthur Kopit’s absurdist play Oh Dad, Poor Dad, and later he went on to study with Uta Hagen.

But theatre was always at the back of Noel’s mind. He had had elocution lessons as a child and from the age of 14 started joining amateur companies. He believes that he inherited his talents for performance and theatre, saying, ‘I inherited all of it. My father was addicted to cocaine but he was also a singer, and a dancer. My great grandfather was a slave in Africa and this whole natural thing was born in me.’

Tovey 1stReview as prof

Noel Tovey’s first review as a professional actor.

Tovey.Mosesand AaronROH1965-1a

Fast forward some ten years. While Noel had already danced as a principal with the Sadlers Wells Opera, the photograph above shows him in an acting role with the Covent Garden Opera Company in the London premiere of Schoenberg’s Moses and Aaron at the Royal Opera House, 1965.

One way or another, he was always studying. In the case of his dance teachers, he not only learned during class but also he ‘would watch them after class, how they walked, how they moved. Dancing is a complete movement art.’

This approach added another skill set to Noel’s professional abilities:

I had a reputation for working with nondancers and it was built on the basis that I would watch them walk, how they moved and I would incorporate that. It’s ridiculous that you would think you can get a nondancer to dance a ballet when they haven’t spent years of training. It took me years of training. I remember I paid 12 and six for a quarter of an hour skating lessons (in early adolescence). I remember all my money went on lessons: singing lessons, dancing lessons, lessons, lessons!

In view of all that, what advice would Noel give young dancers?

I would say concentrate on the body, the expression of the body and listen to what your teachers are telling you. Not every teacher is a good teacher. Not every teacher is Madam Boro, for instance, who decided that she would be a teacher very young and she passed on (her knowledge). I see so many bad dancers today. For example, I see in a dance magazine a boy of 11 or 12 stretching his leg but it’s over(extended) and they’re losing the line. Line is about perfection and they’re losing the line for standing splits—which I hate.

They’re pushing it too far. I think that dance is about the music, expressing the music and expressing the thing (what) you are. Boys, and I’m speaking about boys now, have forgotten how to present themselves on stage. For instance, the one thing I had was presentation, I was a performer.

Jade and Noel2005

Noel with Jade, the daughter of close friends who are also theatre professionals. The photo was taken at the Lincoln Centre, New York, 2005. Noel doesn’t remember the details of the occasion but thinks Jade may have been auditioning for something like Nutcracker.

A highlight of Noel’s dance career was in 1967 when Sandy Wilson invited him to choreograph the London revival of his musical The Boy Friend. Wilson also suggested that Noel himself dance the Tango sequence. This resulted in a hit and one of Noel’s finest dance moments. It’s the first that springs to mind when I ask him about his best dance memory. He answers:

Hearing people cheer when I finished the Tango in The Boy Friend. I couldn’t believe they were cheering me. Suzanne Kerchiss who partnered me was wonderful. She said, think of it as somebody else’s choreography. I was so paralysed with nerves but then when the audience started cheering, I couldn’t believe I actually choreographed it.

Although Noel’s many triumphs in the theatre and beyond it are the product of his own relentless work, others’ recognition of his efforts always seems to surprise him. He could never be considered a tall poppy.

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Noel Tovey’s inimitable sense of style shows in this photo of Anything Goes, which he directed and choreographed, Richbrooke Theatre, Sydney, 1971

On the other hand, it’s not stoicism that enables him to deal with all the hardships he has endured over his life time but rather an acceptance that springs from something in him akin to mysticism. Noel’s attraction to classical Indian dance is not the only affinity he has with Eastern philosophy. His sister, who sometimes helped with police investigations as a forensic psychic, once told him, ‘You won’t ever be a medium like me, you’ll be a mystic.’

Noel’s greatest ordeal in recent years has been the loss of a leg. He speaks of it with great calmness, ‘I lost this leg because I was raped when I was 4 years old by a drunken uncle and in the dislocation cancer grew, it took 75 year to grow. Then I lost the leg because the surgeon made a mistake.’

While he agrees that it is all very bad luck, he points out, ‘But I’ve had to accept it.’

In fact, asked whether he would have swapped his life with all its ups and downs for one on an even keel, he says, most positively, ‘No, not at all! I mean, I am what I am and I’ve always been what I am from way back…’

Noel-2019-1a copy

Noel at home surrounded by some of his art collection, 2019.

As our interview winds down and Noel becomes quietly reflective, I say, ‘You must have a lot of memories.’

Yeah,’ he replies wistfully, ‘I was thinking about Madam Borovansky, I think a lot about her these days, in as much as she really was responsible for me being a dancer.’

He agrees that she was kind, a quality that endeared her to so many of her students, but he qualifies this, saying,

She was kind but not in class; she was very much a teacher in class. We always had a pianist and when Madam Borovansky took the boys separately form the girls, it was an amazing experience because she would say to the girls, ‘dance,’ and she would say to the boys, ‘Noel, not you’ and she would say, ‘darling you’re too tall to be a dancer, think of you carrying a cloud.

She, of course, was tall, I point out.

‘She was very tall…’ he concludes emphatically.

Though now in his 80s and wheelchair bound, he remains a dancer. Elegantly pulling up from his sedentary position to demonstrate a de Vos concept that Dame Margaret Scott taught him, he stretches out his right arm, fingers pointing to infinity, while he uses words to indicate where the foot and the leg would go. It is a moment of dance magic.

Blazenka Brysha

 

Thanks to Noel Tovey for his patience and grace in answering endless questions; to Jane Andrewartha for sifting through Laurel Martyn Foundation archives in quest of information about Noel’s time with Ballet Guild; and to Sally Cahill McQuinn for permission to use the photographs from the collection of her mother Keitha Ross Munro.

Footnotes

1 Brissenden, Alan, and Glennon, Keith, Australia dances: creating Australian dance 1945–1965 (Wakefield Press, 2010) p 38

2 Pask, Edward H., Ballet in Australia: the second act 1940–1980 (OUP, 1982) p 45

3 Pillsbury, Edith, Lynne Golding Australian Ballerina (Allegro Publishing, 2008) p 39

4 Alida Glasbeek, who appeared as a Queen’s Page in The Sleeping Princess, went on to dance with the company before dancing internationally as Alida Belair, the name under which she also published her memoir Out of Step: a dancer reflects (Melbourne University Press, 1993)

5 De Vos, Audrey —entry in The International Encyclopedia of Dance, Edited by Selma Jean Cohen and DANCE PERSPECTIVES FOUNDATION (OUP, Current Online Version, 2005)

6 Having worked with Dame Margaret from the late 1990s for over a dozen years on the Dance Creation Committee of the Australian Institute of Classical Dance, I experienced first hand her visionary perception to identify what needed doing to achieve an objective and then to formulate an effective practical response.

 

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)

nla.obj-141390341-1

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

nla.obj-141395043-1nla.obj-141394940-1nla.obj-141391047-1

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.

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  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

 

 

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 Imbesi brand and in Sydney, Blochs. Valda Jack favoured Imbesi, 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.

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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, Harlequin and Pertouchka. But fate intervenes. Rubinstein suffers a leg injury before he can dazzle the public with his Petrouchka at the Borovansky Ballet’s premiere of the work (Sydney 6.4.1951) and then a double bout of TB sweeps him from the stage forever.

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 the second of his two ballet dancing Australian appearances 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 still 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