Madeleine Parker – sighs and whispers

Madeleine Parker was 25 when she danced for the last time of her life. She made her final appearance in Les Presages – French for omens or destiny – and it was Parker’s destiny to die far away from her homeland and family just one month later. Her role was called Frivolity but her brief life was more like another role in which she excelled, the Prelude in Les Sylphides, a reverie in which the dancer gently lifts her hand to her ear, the gesture representing some far away sighs and whispers, or perhaps the sound of a distant bell.

Parker, an American, was given the Russian stage name Mira Dimina in 1935, when she joined the Monte Carlo Ballet Russe, one of the companies formed in the wake of the death of Serge Diaghilev.

She arrived in Australia in October 1936 as a member of another Ballets Russes troupe newly assembled by the promoter, Colonel de Basil, for a tour of Australia in 1936/7.

This company – the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo – sailed from England on the Moldavia, reaching the west coast of Australia on October 6, 1936.

She spent just six weeks in Australia before dying of leukaemia on November 22 in a private hospital in Adelaide. The life and death of Parker is seldom recalled, but when it is, the emphasis is on the tragedy of a life lost at the age of 25 rather than the negligence and almost criminal lack of action on the part of others.

It seems inconceivable that a young woman, known to be physically delicate, pale and often listless, could be accepted as a member of the arduous tour when she was terminally ill and just six weeks away from death.

Was the sheer effort of planning the tour too much for the management, so much so that basic health checks were overlooked? It’s known that the tour group was put together with haste, with only a few weeks’ rehearsal period before they sailed. On board the Moldavia the management of the company was engaged in a chaotic power struggle, with fights breaking out between various factions. The dancers rehearsed, sometimes in the intense heat as the ship passed through the tropics. By the time the Moldavia reached Bombay, it was clear that Parker was unwell, according to an account of the voyage by Arnold Haskell. This English writer accompanied the tour group in the three roles of critic, publicist and the umpire of the unruly management.

On the other hand, Parker herself hid much of her pain. A few weeks before she died she confided in a friend that her “every movement” had been an effort for a year.

The symptoms of leukaemia are many, among them fever, fatigue, aches in the bones or joints, headaches, rashes, swollen lymph nodes, frequent infections, unexplained weight loss, slow healing cuts, nosebleeds or frequent bruises.

2 Comments

  1. Bill Orzell
    Posted March 31, 2011 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    I recently read your ‘Features’ section in DanceLines.com, entitled Madeleine Parker – Sighs and Whispers, which I really enjoyed. I believe this biography of Madeleine Parker (Mira Dimina) is very well composed, and a fine on-line resource. I would like to mention that Miss Parker, as a young woman, also posed as a sculptor’s model for the very talented Harriet Whitney Frishmuth. Miss Frishmuth’s sculpture is held in the highest regard, and consequently is extremely valuable. Her works are admired for their incredible detail, and also how well they evoke many subtle displays of the human spirit. Miss Frishmuth operated a studio in New York (1910-1937) and later in Philadelphia, and Norwalk, Connecticut, and for a number of years maintained a summer home in Lake Pleasant, New York. She actively marketed her works until her death in 1980. She was a successful woman-of-business in an era when that would have been very rare. Miss Frishmuth’s well-known works would have been commissioned as garden statues and fountains, and she also produced sculpture for cemetery memorials and automobile hood ornaments. Miss Frishmuth frequently employed dancers as her models, which was the case with Madeleine Parker, who modeled for the fountain sculptures; ‘Call of the Sea,’ and later for ‘Playdays.’ Both these sculptures are praised for the way the artist expresses in bronze the models youthful exuberance. I feel very fortunate that Miss Frishmuth turned over all her papers, and part of her personal collection to Syracuse University. I have been able to review this material on several occasions, and it was there that I happened upon her description of the sculpture the ‘Call of the Sea’ where she mentions, “the idea of the whole thing was a feeling of calling, like the ocean always has called to me.” Miss Frishmuth goes on to describe Madeleine Parker as “a charming little girl, a ballet dancer, a student,” and also her unfortunate demise in Adelaide from a dreaded disease. There was a book published in 2006 titled: Captured Motion The Sculpture of Harriet Whitney Frishmuth A Catalogue of Works by Janis Conner, Leah Rosenblatt Lehmbeck, Theyer Tolles and Frank Hohmann. This is a wonderful publication, which the authors state that they felt obligated to write and illustrate due to the increase in interest in the work of Miss Frishmuth, and the subsequent enormous leap in value. This book also documents that Madeleine Parker was the model for the ‘Call of the Sea’ and ‘Playdays.’ Thank you.

  2. valerie
    Posted March 31, 2011 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    Hi Bill, this is a fascinating addition to what’s known of Madeleine Parker’s life. Thank you so much for letting me know. I have found an image of Playdays which I’m going to add to dancelines with more information on Harriet Frishmuth’s dance sculptures.

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Madeleine Parker, 1929

25th April 1929: Ballerina Madeleine Parker in her dressing room. (Photo by Sasha/Getty Images)