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 Oaklahoma! when the company was in recess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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That incendiary partnership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But back to the picture…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Blazenka Brysha

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

 

References

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

Principal texts about the era:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frank Van Straten, Tivoli (Lothian Books, 2003)

Other additional sources for

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

Martyn

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

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

Kirsova as Columbine

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

Louise Lightfoot Le Carnaval

https://dictionaryofsydney.org/person/lightfoot_louise

Le Carnaval Australian context

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

Tchinarova NLA Michelle Potter interview

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

Rubinstein NLA Michelle Potter interview

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

Valrene Tweedie

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

Karsavina, Nijinsky & Bolm Library of Congress photo

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

National Theatre Ballet

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

Kira Bousloff

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

Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust

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

 

Jean Stewart Ballet Photographer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memento

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

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

Vale Jean Stewart.

Blazenka Brysha

 

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

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

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

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