The Ballets Russes in New Zealand: a happy holiday if you travelled in a Riley sportscar

On an arduous three-month tour of New Zealand by Col. de Basil’s Monte Carlo Russian Ballet in early 1937, the principal dancer, Helene Kirsova, had time for a little administrative work.

During Easter (at the end of March that year), she wrote to Olive Cotton, the photographer, who then worked with her childhood friend, the photographer Max Dupain.

The letter from Kirsova, sent from Wellington, New Zealand, is part of the Olive Cotton papers at the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

Kirsova thanks Cotton for sending her some “lovely” photos by Dupain and asks if he would send large prints of them to E.J. Tait, one of the Tait brothers who ran J C Williamson, presenters of the three Ballets Russes tours to Australia from 1936-1940.

Dupain took many photos of the Ballets Russes dancers including the beautiful photograph, (below left), of Kirsova.

In the letter, Kirsova is enthusiastic about the New Zealand tour, describing it as “very successful, especially for me, as I have been touring by Sportscar (Riley “Imp”)…

“Here are some lovely stretches of sand, between Hamilton and New Plymouth, it is simply beautiful”.

Other dancers were not so charmed by New Zealand.

On his return to Australia, Thomas Armour, told the press: “It was hard work from the first night and travelling conditions were difficult”.

Another dancer, Roland Guerard, was reported as saying: “It was the hardest tour I have ever made. I don’t wish to see New Zealand again in a hurry”.

As for Cotton, although she often referred to herself as Dupain’s “assistant”, by the mid 1930s she was an acclaimed photographer in her own right.

Her best known photo was Tea cup ballet, taken in 1935, a year before the first Ballets Russes troupe arrived in Australia.

2 Comments

  1. Posted April 6, 2013 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    Marvellous, Valerie, I knew you’d find out more. Robert x

  2. clemence bettany
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

    I was a student at the Kirsova studio in Sydney and have very clear memories of the studio with its grand pianos and the dark blue hessian curtains and Madame in a wing chair sitting watching with her Veronica Lake hairstyle. When she corrected me (I must have been about 4/5) I was hopelessly frightened and stood without moving in a blue & white spotted dress. Years later when I was with the Roland Petit co. in Paris she came to see me and I was invited to have Sunday lunches (and a bath!). She was very kind and knew exactly what was essential.

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Helene Kirsova's letter to Olive Cotton, Easter 1937, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW

Helene Kirsova’s letter to Olive Cotton, Easter 1937, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW

Olive Cotton, Tea cup ballet , 1935, Art Gallery of NSW.

Olive Cotton, Tea cup ballet , 1935, Art Gallery of NSW.

Helene Kirsova, c 1938 photo © Max Dupain, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

Helene Kirsova, c 1938 photo © Max Dupain, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra