Research

Tatiana Riabouchinska

Robert Woodley, a librarian who works in the pictures section at the Mitchell Library in Sydney was the first to tell me of this summery photo of Tatiana Riabouchinska, one of the three “baby ballerinas” who toured Australia with Col de Basil’s Ballets Russes’ troupes.
The photo, part of the Mitchell’s collection at the State Library of NSW, has now gone global, appearing on Riabouchinska’s Wikipedia entry.
On the surface the photo appears relatively spontaneous but Riabouchinska was very well aware of the camera, showing off her highly arched left foot and artfully placed, squeaky- clean new pointe shoes for the benefit of the photographer.
Robert believes it was taken at either Rushcutters Bay Park or Beare Park, both just a short stroll from her temporary home, the apartment she rented in the Rockley building, at 67 Elizabeth Bay Road, in 1939/40. The photographer is unknown, but the picture seems to be taken close to the time (early January 1940), that the photographer, Gordon Short, from The Sydney Morning Herald, visited Riabouchinska at Rockley to take her photograph seated behind a table prepared for afternoon tea.
“Shorty”, as he was known, was the favourite photographer of the Herald’s women’s page editor, Connie Robertson, who published the photo on her pages on 18 January 1940 with the blocklines: “Tatiana Riabouchinska who floats across the stage with enviable grace proved to be a simple soul when it comes to afternoon tea. She was sampling a particularly luscious cake when the photographer called in at her flat at Rockley Elizabeth Bay. Riabouchinska has been acclaimed as the leading dancer of Colonel W de Basil’s Covent Garden Ballet Company, which is now in Sydney”.
Riabouchinska was a much in demand subject for the Herald’s women’s pages, making her first appearance on 1 January 1940, in a photograph taken at the on-stage party for 200 guests following the ballet’s opening night. She is pictured with the sociable E.J. (Ted) Tait, one of the Tait brothers who directed the company presenting the ballet, J C Williamsons. Tait is seen kissing Riabouchinska’s hand while the premier danseur, Serge Lifar, looks on. Both men are wearing white tie and Lifar looks as if he has left on his stage makeup, complete with dark lipstick.
The Herald reporter found that “Mr. E. J. Tait was in high spirits, having backed five winners at the races. Some time before the party was over he had danced with almost every ballerina and hoped to complete the list…
“Balletomanes were ‘two-a-penny,’ and revelled in a unique opportunity to see the dancers at close quarters. Magnificent gowns and lovely wraps, including capes of marabou or ostrich feathers, were worn, and several women members of the ballet added exotic headdresses of veils surmounted by flowers. Madame de Basil, who with her husband and her sister, Nina Verchinina, had occupied a box for the ballet, chose a draped frock of white sheer with a pleated panel in the centre front of the skirt, and covered it with a coat of grey squirrel. Mme Antal Dorati, wife of the conductor, wore her hair in a snood of black fisher-net trimmed with red roses”.
Riabouchinska made a third appearance in the women’s pages on 8 January when the “Round the Town” columnist, Patricia Penn, sighed: Riabouchinska and [David] Lichine gladdened my eyes by being such an attractive pair at Elizabeth Bay yesterday. They stepped out of his smart new blue car, Tatiana carrying an armful of deep red gumtips and wearing a pale pink turban with her French blue slacks and coat and Lichine, in brown, carrying the parcels”.
Lichine had sailed to Australia with Riabouchinska on the SS Mariposa, on a voyage from Los Angeles. The couple married in 1943.
The media flutter over Riabouchinska had a precedent a year earlier when, on 3 January 1939, The Home magazine splashed on its front page a full-page illustration of the dancer by the English artist, Kay Ambrose. But this time, the person pushing the publicity machine was Arnold Haskell, the writer who travelled with both the first and second Ballets Russes tours in 1936/37 and 1938/39. Haskell brought with him a portfolio of Ambrose’s drawings completed by her during a Ballets Russes’ season at Covent Garden in London. His good contacts at The Home – such as his friend, Sydney Ure Smith, made it a smooth and simple task to place the drawings in a special ballet spread in that issue. A few weeks earlier, Haskell also opened an exhibition of Ambrose’s artworks at David Jones’s art gallery in Sydney. Called “The Russian Ballet in Action”, the exhibition was not a complete critical success. The Herald’s unnamed critic found that “Miss Ambrose’s drawing lacks the clearness and elegance which are to be found in Daryl Lindsay and Thea Proctor. Her colour is sometimes muddy. But the figures have such a verve, such a quality of leaping muscularity, that they never fail to be striking”. In the drawings of Riabouchinska in Carnaval “the colour has been applied with too much fuss and roughness. The hues themselves seem ill-chosen, the quality lacking in transparency”. (SMH, 29 November, 1938).
The following day, the paper reported the opening of the event, with Haskell confiding that “Miss Kay Ambrose does not know she is holding this exhibition of her drawings of the Russian ballet in action. I have not yet had time to let her know, but shall do so this week”. (SMH 30 January, 1938).
Ambrose, who illustrated some of Haskell’s books, went on to write The Ballet Lover’s Companion.
As for Riabouchinska, when her dance career ended, she and Lichine established a ballet school in Los Angeles. She never stopped teaching, taking classes right up to the year of her death – 2000.

© Valerie Lawson 2011

Tatiana Riabouchinska, ca 1940

Tatiana Riabouchinska, ca 1940, courtesy State Library of NSW, P1/1347