A Pirouette to Eternity

One of the pleasures of being in London this spring was meeting Trader Faulkner, the Australian actor, author, former flamenco dancer and biographer of Peter Finch. The walls of his home in a block in Earls Court are covered with theatre memorabilia including his acting days with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.

Faulkner, who is in his 70s, makes short work of walking up and down the 96 steps to his top floor flat every day. He is writing his memoirs, which will include anecdotes of his early years in Sydney with his mother, Sheila Whytock, who danced for both Diaghilev, under the name Sheilova, and for Anna Pavlova’s company.

She taught ballet for Minnie Hooper in Macquarie Street in 1925, and later that year established the Ambassadors School of Ballet in the Strand Arcade.

She also choreographed dance numbers for the Ambassadors cabaret in Sydney and during the Second World War, she went into partnership with the contemporary dance teacher, Gertrud Bodenwieser.

Both Trader and Sheila, widowed in 1934, moved to the England in 1950 and lived on a houseboat on the Thames.

Thanks to the UK publication, The Oldie, I’m able to republish here an article that Trader wrote recently about Sheila:

One day in 1950, my mother jumped gracefully off the Jacob’s ladder dangling from the SS Moreton Bay into the launch that would take her ashore.

My dad had died in 1934, and we had been together since then. Mum was heading for Tunis. She would go south to Bou Saada to dance with and write about the Ouled Naïls, a Muslim sect who apparently used dance extensively in their rituals.

I would sail on to London to try my luck as an actor.

My mother had been born at West Hall in Suffolk in 1892. One hundred years ago this coming summer she was chosen by Diaghilev to join his Russian Ballet company for their first London season at Covent Garden.

Apparently at the audition he said, ‘I’ll take that English girl who dances with her soul. What she lacks in technique I can overlook.’ Mum worshipped his genius, taste, charm and sense of humour. Her recollections of Diaghilev and of his lover Nijinsky’s spectacular performance in Spectre of the Rose is another story I hope to tell.

In 1917 my Mother toured South America with Anna Pavlova’s company. In Mexico City they played the Bullring. Just as the show began and Pavlova was dancing her Dying Swan all the lights fused.

In the chaotic darkness, quick-thinking Pavlova realised the audience would want their money back. She immediately ordered all members of the audience with cars to drive them through into the arena, line them up and shine their headlights onto the makeshift stage.

The show resumed, the swan died successfully, smiling graciously. Anna and her husband Victor Dandré had pocketed a good evening’s takings.

Pavlova – who always travelled first class – sent her corps de ballet third class. The company toured South America from hip to horn by train, and luckily Mum had a well-padded bum and the stamina of a bison.

Travelling overnight from Ecuador down through the Andes to Bolivia, the train was suddenly halted in its tracks by the military. The engine driver had murdered his mother-in-law and was removed on the spot at about two in the morning.

There was no heating in Mum’s dog box, and the relief driver didn’t arrive until ten o’clock. On reaching Guayaquil the frozen ballerinas staggered off the train to the nearest coffee bar.

The company eventually disbanded.

My mother, when teaching ballet many years later, would often quote Pavlova’s last words to her when they parted in South America: ‘Technique is the means of freeing your soul like a bird and enabling it to fly. Never become its servant. To be so is to stifle inspiration.’

Pavlova had paid her dancers a pittance and Mum got to Callao where she embarked on the SS Lobus, bound for Panama. The Lobus was carrying ‘white cargo’ (ie prostitutes) with whom nobody on board wished to associate.

Mum felt sorry for them and befriended them. They asked if she would dance for them on deck. Mum did. They were very touched and gave her a gift as a protective keepsake – a tiny dagger similar to those the whores wore in their knickers.

The gift turned out to be propitious. Mum disembarked at Panama and made her way up to New York where – thanks to Pavlova’s ‘generosity’ – she arrived penniless, and had to spend the night on a bench in Penn railway station.

The dagger proved very useful during the night as several station habitués tried to grope her. Luckily my father had given her a letter of introduction to Kay Swift, the daughter of his sister Nell. Kay, who had married into the wealthy Warburg banking family, was wonderful to my mother, and gave her money for clothes and put her up.

(Seventy years later, Kay was to put me up when I was researching my Peter Finch biography. I then discovered that she and George Gershwin had been lovers, and that his musical Oh, Kay! was about, and dedicated to, Kay Swift.)

My mother was auditioned by the ballet mistress at the Metropolitan Opera House, Madam Galli, and ended up as a principal coryphée for the 1919–22 season, which featured Caruso, Chaliapin, Gigli, Jeritza, and Galli-Curci.

Caruso – a wonderful cartoonist and practical joker – did a cartoon of her and popped it down her cleavage just as she was about to make an entrance. As she went on, it popped out onto the stage. At the interval Mum rushed to find it, but someone had nicked it!

By 1969 I was married, and Mum was living alone on her houseboat the Stella Maris in Chelsea. Apparently, after taking Holy Communion, she had collapsed in front of Murillo’s painting of the Christ child, before which she often prayed.

She was rushed to St Stephen’s Hospital (now the Chelsea and Westminster). I found her doubled up and in a bad way. Well, I thought, now she’ll be my responsibility. On Saturday I was due to visit her. At ten to one I received a phone call from a houseboat neighbour, our friend Mrs Murphy.

‘Trader, your mother died ten minutes ago. You’d better go up to St Stephen’s now.’

When I arrived, a doctor and several nurses greeted me. ‘Mr Faulkner, don’t worry about your mother. Several of the patients were complaining about the food for lunch. Your mother defended it and offered to dance for them.

‘She got up very gracefully, danced a few steps, did a slow pirouette, and sank down. She must have died by the time she hit the floor.’


One Comment

  1. David Sumray
    Posted February 14, 2013 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    This is very interesting, but some of the details just don’t make any sense. The Pavlova Company was not disbanded during or after the South American Tour. How did John Faulkner give Sheila Whytock a letter of introduction to Kay Swift, given that Faulkner was living in Austrlia from c.1914 onwards (apart, apparently, from a trip to Hollywood in 1916)?

    Pavlova was known for her generosity to her dancers, and the wages she paid were higher than Diaghilev. The only real financial problem the Pavlova Company had was when they were stranded in Puerto Rico for several months in 1917, and the dancers’ wages had to be reduced for that period because there was such limited income. Is is possible that Whytock left the Company at this time (in his memoir, Oliveroff recalls that some dancers did) and that the account has become distorted?

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Sheila Whytock, 1920s

Sheila Whytock, 1920s

Sheila Whytock

Sheila Whytock, from Trader Faulkner’s scrapbook

Sheila Whytock

Sheila Whytock, photo courtesy Trader Faulkner

Sheila Whytock

Sheila Whytock, photo from Trader Faulkner’s scrapbook