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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
Although the National Theatre Ballet was relatively short-lived and most notably remembered for mounting the historic first staging of the full Swan Lake in Australia (1951), its existence broadened local ballet horizons considerably and heralded possibilities that were more fully realised with the coming of The Australian Ballet in 1962, managed by the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, an organisation formed in 1954 taking a lead from the National Theatre Movement’s vision for the arts and responding to a growing awareness of the need for a formal public channel for the presentation and administration of the performing arts at the national level in Australia.
Borovansky continued to hold studio performances during his company’s recess in the late 1940s then returned in 1951 with the Borovansky Jubilee Ballet. It was to open in Sydney with a programme featuring a première of Petrouchka. Rubinstein was to dance the title role. The injury that prevented him made newspaper headlines in Melbourne. Although he recovered enough to return to the stage during the 12-week Sydney season, it was at that time he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, which suddenly and permanently ended his performing career.
The Borovansky Ballet staged Le Carnaval again in the 1950s, and Laurel Martyn also continued to mount it on the Ballet Guild in its various incarnations over the years while at the same time producing a variety of original local works.
But back to the picture…
Rubinstein makes his biggest mark in roles made famous by Diaghilev’s greatest star Vaslav Nijinsky: Le Spectre de la Rose, the Golden Slave in Schéhérazade, Pertouchka and Harlequin.
The legend of Nijinsky—whose performing career was also ended by illness—grew to mythical proportions, fuelling the rise of the Ballets Russes and inspiring the 20th century’s finest dancers, one of whom—Mikhail Baryshnikov, partnering Natalia Makarova— makes his only ballet dancing Australian appearance for Ballet Victoria, Ballet Guild’s final incarnation, in 1975.
Even 30 years after Rubinstein took his final bow, those who had seen him dance spoke of those performances with awe.
Unlike Nijinsky, Martin Rubinstein recovered from his illness and went on to have a long and fruitful career as a ballet teacher, beginning with the Borovansky academy, where he introduced the Royal Academy of Dancing syllabus, having graded to the highest level in it while still with Jennie Brenan, who had a long-standing friendship with Adeline Genée, one of the founders of the RAD. By the late 1950s, Rubinstein was travelling internationally as a children’s examiner and in the early 1980s he was made a Dual Examiner which meant that he could examine up to the highest levels (ie professional) in the system. He was the first non-English appointee and at the time this was an extraordinary honour. Subsequently he was awarded a Fellowship of the RAD and an Order of Australia medal. His long teaching career was associated most prominently with the Eve King Audrey Nicholls School of Ballet. King and Nicholls were also Borovansky Ballet veterans.
In 1964 The Australian Ballet performed Carnaval (sic), staged by Peggy van Praagh (1910–1990), its artistic director. She had come to Australia after Borovansky’s death in 1959 to direct his company for J. C. Williamson. When The Australian Ballet was formed under her direction in 1962, all of its Australian principals and more than half of all its dancers, its music director, stage director, assistant ballet master and mistress were all Borovansky personnel.
In the years that follow, Borovansky isn’t given much credit for his contribution to what became Australia’s critically acclaimed ballet culture. Then in 1980 when Frank Salter’s Borovansky, the man who made Australian ballet (Wildcat Press, Sydney) is published to redress the balance, Jean Stewart’s photo of Rubinstein as Harlequin is included with no mention that this is from another company’s production and no acknowledgement of the photographer.
Although Stewart remembered this to the end of her life, the wrongs were righted in 1982 when the photo appeared fully documented in Edward H. Pask’s Ballet in Australia: the second act 1940–1980 (Oxford University Press). Finally, it gets a glorious incarnation as a full page in Alan Brissenden and Keith Glennon’s Australia Dances: making Australian dance 1945–1965 (Wakefield Press, 2010). With these two books Laurel Martyn’s Ballet Guild starts to get some long-overdue attention. Because Martyn continued to work creatively well after the demise of Ballet Guild, the historic importance of Ballet Guild tended to be overshadowed by focus on her as a very highly regarded leading member of Australia’s dance community.
So a Ballet Guild performance was passed off as one by the Borovansky Ballet. Considering that the line-up of not only the local companies of that era, but even the Ballet Rambert on its 1947–1949 Australian tour was a case of musical chairs, this is not so much fraud as simply a hint about the complexity of that history and an indication of how much sorting of fact is still required.
And what of Le Carnaval? The Australian Ballet under Maina Gielgud’s direction gives it another go in 1991 and none other than Laurel Martyn is called upon to mount it. On opening night Harlequin is danced by principal David McAllister who becomes the company’s artistic director in 2001, and so the thread of history unravels…
Special thanks to Valda Jack (Lang), Barry Kitcher and Judy Leech for help with photos and information for this story.
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
Kirsova as Columbine
Louise Lightfoot Le Carnaval
Le Carnaval Australian context
Tchinarova NLA Michelle Potter interview
Rubinstein NLA Michelle Potter interview
Karsavina, Nijinsky & Bolm Library of Congress photo
National Theatre Ballet
Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust