Anna Volkova: a life well lived, from Moscow to a sheep farm in New South Wales

There are transitions and then there are major life changes.

Anna Volkova, who died in Sydney last weekend aged 96, took the latter path when she married the Australian farmer, Jim Barnes, abandoning her life as a dancer to retreat to a sheep and cattle farm on the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales.

As Mrs Barnes, the Russian dancer became the matriarch of Suffolk Vale, a property northeast of Sydney, that employed five jackeroos as well as household staff, and where she raised her two sons over a period of 16 years.

The dance world is mourning the death of Volkova whose life before marriage was a series of continuous transitions from her birthplace in Moscow, in 1917, to Paris, where she began her training as a dancer, then to London where she first danced with Colonel de Basil’s Ballets Russes, on two tours with that company to Australia, another to South America, and then in Cuba, and finally to Rio de Janeiro where she danced at the Copacobana casino.

Dancing for de Basil’s company from 1933, Volkova made her name dancing the Waltz in Les Sylphides, as the Golden Cockerel in Le Coq d’or, Papillon in Le Carnaval and Frivolity in Les Presages.

In April 1946, she married Major Jim Barnes in Sydney. They had met on board a ship when she was returning to Europe after the Ballets Russes tour to Australia in 1938.

She later said: “I gave up ballet completely. I lived in the country. We used to come to Sydney, but ballet was put aside while I was rearing the two children…Lots of sheep and horses and things. Nothing to do with toe shoes”.

A couple of years ago I gave Anna a print of the photograph (left) taken by Spencer Shier in 1938. We last met at an opening night of an Australian Ballet season in Sydney. She told me she tried to attend every dress rehearsal and opening night of the company during its Sydney seasons.

She inspired so many of us during her long life. I only wish I had seen her dance.

4 Comments

  1. Jane Neville
    Posted August 21, 2013 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    I love stories of the Ballets Russes’ dancers – what an intrepid group they were. Thank you for sharing this. It would be wonderful to read a full record of Anna Volkova’s life – the record of Irina Baronova’s life was most inspiring. And I adore the accompanying photo of the AB rehearsal: it’s like looking through a two – way kaleidoscope: past and future.

  2. valerie
    Posted August 21, 2013 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    Thanks Jane. I am writing a full account of Anna’s life. It’s so sad that the last of the three Ballets Russes’ dancers in Australia (Anna, Irina and Valrene Tweedie) have all died. They were three inspirational women.

  3. Jane Neville
    Posted August 21, 2013 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    That is excellent news, Valerie. I look forward to reading it very much. I have always enjoyed your writing and have only discovered your blog today, via the AB’s Behind Ballet.
    I love Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker because it is so redolent (to me) of what it must have been like for the Ballet Russe dancers. And I will always treasure being able to point out Irina Baronova, not long before she died, to my daughter one night at the ballet. She was so beautiful and sparkly, to the end.

  4. valerie
    Posted August 25, 2013 at 2:36 am | Permalink

    I share your love of Murphy’s Nutcracker. I think it’s his best ever dance or ballet work for the links he’s made to ballet history in Russia and Australia as well as for the choreography itself.

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Anna Volkova, National Library of Australia, photo © Maurice Seymour

Anna Volkova, National Library of Australia, photo © Maurice Seymour

Anna Volkova, photo © Spencer Shier

Anna Volkova, Melbourne, 1938, State Library of NSW, PXD 1063, photo © Spencer Shier

Wendy Walker, Anna Volkova, Valrene Tweedie, Australian Ballet rehearsal

Wendy Walker, Anna Volkova, Valrene Tweedie, Australian Ballet rehearsal