The life of Olga Spessivtseva: spies, delusions and the comfort of dolls
‚ÄúHer face is usually focused in on itself‚Ä¶as if preoccupied with a presentiment of approaching darkness‚ÄĚ. Akim Volynsky, 1923.
The third week in November 1934 was exceptionally cold for a city on the fringe of summer. In Sydney, temperatures fell to record lows.
Olga Spessivtseva felt the chill of a southerly wind bite into her fragile body. As she had told the press on her arrival in the city – ‚ÄúI am not much weight, eh?‚ÄĚ
To reinforce her remark, one journalist explained to his readers that the Russian ballerina was a shade under 7 stone (44 kilograms).
In the third week of a four-week season at the Theatre Royal, she appeared as Raymonda, the heroine of a ballet about love and abduction in the time of the Crusades.
One night, near the end of the performance, Spessivtseva began to improvise. She staggered, then lost all sense of where she was and who she was.
Voices in her head taunted her with dreadful threats. Spies were close behind her. She would be poisoned, her feet amputated.
Anatole Vilzak, the man she had partnered so long ago at her school days in St Petersburg, was there to support her. He continued dancing as best he could but in the end, there was no option. The curtain had to be lowered.
The press was told two lies: that she had sprained her ankle and that she hoped to be dancing again soon.
Her mental collapse was the beginning of the end for one of the most beautiful and talented ballerinas of the 20th century.
Within six years, the former prima ballerina of St Petersburg and Paris was admitted to a hospital for the insane in the state of New York, where she was incarcerated for 22 years, given shock treatment and regarded as incurable.
Her continued insistence that she was Olga Spessivtseva, a former prima ballerina, was ignored as the hallucination of a mad woman.
Her crisis in Sydney and her eventual fate were never reported in Australia. She was simply the ballet star who followed the incomparable Pavlova ‚Äď and, it turns out, one who was similarly betrayed by others who wanted a piece of her talent, her fame and her ability to reach an audience‚Äôs heart.
While Pavlova would always be known as the Dying Swan, Spessivtseva‚Äôs life echoed the fictional story of Giselle, a ballet in which she excelled. Giselle is a simple girl who is betrayed by her lover.
Although she has a weak heart, she loves to dance. When Giselle learns of her betrayal, she loses her mind, dies in her mother‚Äôs arms, then rises from her grave to dance one more time in order to save her lover‚Äôs life.
The link between the real and unreal worlds in Giselle is the heroine‚Äôs mad scene, a tour de force for any ballerina and one which Spessivtseva made shockingly real.
Her friend and fellow dancer, Dale Fern, believed that every Giselle who followed in the role patterned her performance either directly or indirectly on Spessivtseva‚Äôs.
Even before her own eventual descent into depression, Spessivtseva seemed like a weeping spirit, or an injured bird falling from a tree. She rarely smiled, was coldly beautiful, regal in manner, untouchable, and in the eyes of Sergei Diaghilev, ‚Äúa creature much more delicate and purer than Pavlova‚ÄĚ.
It was her fate to be falsely interpreted by men as a sylph – hardly human. Yet there was truth in their descriptions of her pale oval face, the way in which she looked as though she would break down in tears at any moment. She had many reasons to do so.
Spessivtseva‚Äôs fragility began in her early childhood.
One of eight children of a beautiful mother and a father who was a talented opera singer, Olga was born in Rostov-on-Don in 1895. Three of her sisters died young, leaving three brothers, Anatole, Leonide and Alexander and a sister, Zinaida.
Their father died when he was only 32, and left little money for the family. Olga was sent to an orphanage in St. Petersburg affiliated with the Stage Veterans‚Äô House.
Her salvation came through dance. At the age of 10, she joined her siblings Zinaida and Anatole as a student at the Imperial School of Ballet in St Petersburg. All three were accepted into the corps de ballet of the Imperial Ballet, with Olga becoming a soloist in 1916, three years after she joined the company.
The promotion came on the eve of the Bolshevik revolution that saw the audience change dramatically at the Maryinsky Theatre, the ballet‚Äôs home, where Tzar Nicholas and Tzarina Alexandra, once watched such late 19th century ballets as Swan Lake from the royal box.
Spessivtseva‚Äôs exquisite artistry and strong technique drew many admirers, none more than the obsessive Akim Volynsky, a critic and author who affected a dandyish air, wore a large black bow tie and took ballet lessons himself in order to give advice to those he latched onto.
This Svengali followed Spessivtseva to the theatre, watched rehearsals, gave her advice, visited her at home where she now lived with her mother, and talked late into the evening about art, philosophy and mysticism. Mama was not amused.
In 1923, he wrote an article about Spessivtseva that was both intrusive and saccharine. Uncannily, it also her forecast her life to come.
Volynsky saw ‚Äúa little tear‚ÄĚ glistening in her eyes and ‚Äújust a note of weeping resounds in her voice, even in her laugh, to all those who know her.
Nevertheless her face is entirely dramatic in the elevated, innermost meaning of this word‚Ä¶
‚ÄúSpessivtseva is all promise, all upsurge to the unrealisable, all oohs and ahs of a kind of an insatiable sadness with which she is also able to captivate the public.
“She does not ignite the audience with the fire of her talent, but she extends over it the palpitating sheath of all those tears, as yet unborn but already tormenting her heart. Eternally young, she does not face the bitter fate of a flower past its bloom.
‚ÄúGiselle‚Ä¶what teary, childlike eyes, darkened with fiery specks of fright that are under her thickly coiffed hair that is now untangling! This is a wounded bird falling helplessly from a tree‚ÄĚ. (From The Life of Art, 1923)
Among the many men who recognised – and sometimes exploited Spessivtseva‚Äôs talent – was Sergei Diaghilev, who invited her to tour with his Ballets Russes to the United States in 1916. [Her partner on the tour was Vaslav Nijinsky, another dancer who descended into madness ‚Äď although much earlier than Spessivtseva.]
In 1919, a year after she was promoted to the rank of ballerina at the Maryinsky Theatre, Spessivtseva made her debut in Giselle, the ballet that became synonymous with her name.
To prepare for the role, she visited asylums for the insane, where she studied the inmates‚Äô gestures and the way they walked.
Her dance partner at the time, Pierre Vladimirov, recognised the way in which she inhabited the role.
‚ÄúHer Giselle‚ÄĚ, he said, ‚Äúbreathed a genuine insanity, not theatrical illusion. Giselle seemed to be an extension of her own existence‚ÄĚ.
In his eyes, her performance echoed Nijinsky‚Äôs portrayal of the abused Petroushka, in the ballet of the same name.
Dale Fern, who cared for Spessivtseva in her old age, knew that ‚ÄúGiselle was her obsession and nightmare‚ÄĚ.
But an obsession with a fictional character was only a small factor among the various causes that led to her mental illness. She may well have been genetically predisposed to schizophrenia, however the chaotic political environment in which she lived might have been an equally significant factor.
Her last few years in Russia were dominated by the bloodiness of the Bolshevik revolution. The precursor was the so-called February Revolution of 1917, when troops opened fire on demonstrators in the streets of St Petersburg, then called Petrograd.
At this time, the Petrograd Council of People‚Äôs Commissars met at the Maryinsky Theatre, which had became a centre of the city‚Äôs public life.
A leading figure in the council was the government official, Boris Kaplun, a lover of the arts, who used his powers to stop the theatre from closing. In the winter of 1918, Kaplun met Spessivtseva and took her under his wing, suggesting that she and her brother, Alexander, stay at his comfortable (and heated) apartment in Moika Embankment.
(Kaplun later was appointed the secretary of Grigory Zinoviev who, with Joseph Stalin and Lev Kamenev, formed a troika to sideline Trotsky in 1923.)
Kaplun and Olga became lovers, sharing their days not only with Soviet officials, but also artists, such as the poet, Nikolai Gumilev and the artist, Yuri Annenkov.
This new circle of friends had formed during one of the bloodiest moments in Russian history.
After November 1917, when Red Guards stormed the Winter Palace, Lenin ordered the Cheka, the Soviet state security police, to carry out mass arrests and executions of ‚Äúclass enemies‚ÄĚ.
From early 1918, more than 800 people were shot without trial. Worse was to follow with the ‚ÄúRed Terror‚ÄĚ, in which inconceivable atrocities were inflicted on enemies of the state in their hundreds and thousands, with the hope that the perpetrators would leave ‚Äúfloods of blood of the bourgeoisie ‚Äď more blood, as much as possible‚ÄĚ, as described by the Red Army journal, Krasnaya Gazeta.
An event that had a profound effect on Spessivtseva took place in 1919, when Kaplun was chairman of a committee that oversaw the building of the first municipal crematorium in Petrograd.
Spessivtseva accompanied him to the official opening of the building and it has been speculated that she cut the ribbon to officially
open the site.
Elena Fedosova, a curator of the St. Petersburg State Museum of Theatre and Music, has written of how Spessivtseva and Annenkov were asked to select a body in the city morgue for a test cremation.
Fedosova writes that in his memoir, Cycle of Tragedies, Annenkov recalled that Spessivtseva wept at the horror of carrying out the task. She, in turn, was told by the poet, Gumilev, to ‚Äúforget it, forget it.‚ÄĚ
Fedosova continues: ‚ÄúOf course she forgot nothing. The terror of that life followed her at all times. But the story of the crematorium is never mentioned once in her papers‚ÄĚ.
A year after this incident, Spessivtseva was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Friends recalled how the illness led to melancholia, and how her days seemed to pass in a reverie.
Kaplun pulled strings to allow her to travel with her mother for treatment to Italy. On the journey, through Riga and Berlin, she learned that Diaghilev was presenting The Sleeping Princess in London, and wanted her to dance the role of Aurora.
She accepted the offer and danced in London although she was not completely ready for the arduous season. In her diary she wrote that King George V said to her after one of the performances: ‚ÄúWe‚Äôll have to feed you up a bit‚Ä¶you‚Äôre like a lost shadow‚ÄĚ.
She was welcomed home in Russia and again danced the role of Aurora to much acclaim, but life was bitter under Soviet rule.
She wrote in her diary: ‚ÄúLife is hard ‚Äď like the grey soldiers‚Äô overcoats at the theatre, it defies description. Neither the theatres nor the rehearsal classes were heated. In warm breeches and woollen tops we rehearsed and as soon as we stopped the sweat steamed off as it did on horses. ‚Ä¶This year my brother Alexander, twenty one years old, was killed on the streets.‚ÄĚ
Before she left Russia forever, a final disaster came with the mysterious death of a colleague, Lydia Ivanova.
The talented young dancer and potential rival had caught the eye of Spessivtseva‚Äôs former admirer, Akim Volynsky ‚Äď the critic was so bewitched by Ivanova that he had knelt before her after one of her performances ‚Äď but she also attracted a bevy of admirers among the GPU – the Soviet Union secret police formed from the Cheka.
Along with other young dancers, they invited her to parties and receptions they hosted after ballet performances. Ivanova was warned not to attend too many of these events.
In 1924, she was due to tour Germany in a small troupe called the Soviet State Dancers, who also included the choreographer, George Balanchine and the dancers, Alexandra Danilova and Tamara Geva. Balanchine came to believe that Ivanova was murdered by a member of the secret police or someone with connections to it.
In Balanchine‚Äôs view, she had signed her death warrant when she applied for a visa to Germany. Ivanova knew too much. In his account of the tragedy, Ivanova was invited onto a boat trip on the Neva by a person connected with the GPU and the boat was deliberately steered into the path of a passenger ship with which it collided. Her body was never found.*
Akim Volynsky wrote his own postscript to the incident:
‚ÄúFrom her first artistic steps this young girl [Ivanova] was enveloped in an atmosphere of anxiety. Two years ago a rumour circulated that a carriage had severed her leg. ‚Ä¶this was right after she finished school‚Ä¶.there gathered around her certain unstable elements , the air around her almost shook with anxious whispering, fearful pride, growing envy, and convulsed reputations, which was the way it remained up until the last minute.
“But not only the air shook. An epoch of intrigue began, toxins were prepared and Florentine knives were sharpened ‚Ä¶I am ready to believe that the motor of the fateful boat really did malfunction. But I would also not be surprised if, with another group of passengers and in other circumstances, the catastrophe could not have been avoided‚ÄĚ. (The Life of Art)
Rumours circulated that Spessivtseva had some role in the tragedy but this was totally discounted by Balanchine who thought Ivanova represented no serious threat to Spessivtseva‚Äôs career.
Both Balanchine‚Äôs troupe, and, separately, Spessivtseva, left Russia. The incident was behind them, but the memory of it lingered forever.
Kaplun helped Spessivtseva travel to Paris at the end of 1924. On November 1, she signed a nine-month contract to dance as an √©toile with the Paris Opera. She intended to return to Russia but never did, remaining in Paris for eight years.
Along with many of her compatriots, she became what has been called [by author, Orlando Figes] a member of the ‚Äúfloating shadow nation of Russian √©migr√©s‚ÄĚ that settled in Paris, the United States and China in the 1920s.
With her mother, Spessivtseva settled into a furnished flat in the Rue Chalgrin in the 16th arrondissement.
Homesick for St Petersburg and now without the financial support of Kaplun, she was apprehensive about her Paris debut in the role of Giselle at the end of November.
At her first appearance at the studios of the Paris Opera, she appeared to the writer, Andre Schaikevich, as a woman of ‚Äúsuch fragility and sickly pallor, a thin slip of a woman, her gaze sad, sorrowful‚ÄĚ She wore a half tutu with one black legging and one yellow one, like a slightly eccentric bird. The corps de ballet girls wondered if she could even stand without trembling, yet after a few steps, ‚Äúeveryone was conquered, astounded‚ÄĚ.
When she danced the mad scene in Giselle, the dancers were motionless, eyes wide with admiration. Several wept.
As Diaghilev‚Äôs Ballets Russes moved from city to city, she followed in its wake, dancing in Monte Carlo in the ballet, La Chatte and continuing to dance the role of Giselle in Paris in 1927.
Over time, she became closer to the Diaghilev circle of dancers and supporters, even attracting the attention of a special admirer, Sir Saxton Noble, a director of the armaments manufacturers, Armstrong Whitworth and a host of Diaghilev during his London seasons.
At supper one night at the Ritz in Paris, she sat with Diaghilev, Saxton and the dancer, Alexandra Danilova.
In her memoir, Choura, Danilova recalled how strange Spessivtseva had appeared, but perhaps she was just being playful when, after Diaghilev suggested: ‚ÄúWell Olga, of course you would like a nice cold glass of champagne?‚ÄĚ she replied ‚ÄúNo. I would like a hot champagne‚ÄĚ. The ballerina was indulged. A waiter was called. He brought a chafing dish on a silver trolley to warm the champagne for her.
After Diaghilev‚Äôs death in 1929, Spessivtseva‚Äôs life revolved around his former lover, the egotistical dancer, Serge Lifar, who was by now the director of the ballet of the Paris Opera.
Lifar tells of his relationship with Spessivtseva in his autobiography, Ma Vie, and in his book Les trois graces du XX¬į si√®cle‚ÄĒL√©gends et v√©rit√©s in which he describes Spessivtseva‚Äôs behaviour during rehearsals for the ballet On the Dnieper at the Palais Garnier.
Despite Lifar‚Äôs apparent preference for men, she fell in love with him and was devastated when she discovered that the roles they played in the ballet were not as she had imagined.
In her role as Olga, she danced a tender pas de deux with Lifar as Sergei. But she discovered that Sergei was to find lasting happiness with another character, Natasha.
When she realised the outcome of the story, Spessivtseva ran to the window of one of the studios high up in the Palais Garnier in an attempt to leap to the ground below. She was already leaning out of the window when Lifar grabbed her arm and the pianist raced to his side.
According to Lifar‚Äôs account, ‚ÄúOlga was hanging in the arms of two men at a height of ten metres above the Place Charles Garnier. With tremendous difficulty, the men dragged Olga back into the ballet class. And then Olga attempted to fight them, biting and trying to get free. This was more than just hysterics‚ÄĚ.
She was taken home and next day she informed Lifar that she would never dance at the Paris Opera again.
(I have been unable to find any other report of this incident other than Lifar‚Äôs so his account cannot be collaborated. From a reading of Ma Vie, it is clear that Lifar is always the hero of his own story and his accounts are not always to be trusted, particularly those regarding the associations he considered harmless with Nazi leaders in World War Two.)
After dancing Giselle and Swan Lake in London in the summer of 1932, she returned to Paris where she gave private performances, including one at a reception given in honour of the Rothschild family. There, she was to meet a man who protected her for a further nine years.
He was Leonard George Braun, an American stockbroker who had interests in oil wells and maintained a seat on the Los Angeles Stock Exchange. In California, he had lived the life of a man about town, making his home at the Los Angeles Athletic Club. After Braun sold his seat on the stock exchange seat shortly before the crash of 1929 he spent much of his time in Italy and Paris.
Braun had been married twice and both marriages ended in divorce. He fancied young opera singers whose careers he nurtured and he maintained show business contacts in Hollywood.
During one of his Italian journeys, Braun became friendly with the Italian dancer and ballet master, Richard Celli who introduced him to Spessivtseva at the reception in Paris.
The couple moved into an apartment in the Boulevard St Jacques in the 14th arrondissement.
In the months just before the war, Braun was attempting to drum up support for the art of Russian ballet in Hollywood, approaching Billy Clune, the Los Angeles showman, theatre owner and real estate developer, to gauge his interest in staging a show.
But the war meant a dramatic change of plan. Along with most Americans, Braun decided to leave Europe, sailing with Spessivtseva to New York on an Italian steamer from Genoa.
Fedosova, in her biography of the dancer, writes that Spessivtseva accepted Braun‚Äôs help, but that in letters to her sister, Zenaida, ‚Äúthere is not one warm word written about him. She refers to him as ‚Äėmy agent‚Äô.‚ÄĚ
Spessivtseva‚Äôs choice of a de facto husband was oddly similar to the relationship between Victor Dandre and Pavlova. Both men followed the ballerinas around the world, both benefited from their talent.
Three years after Pavlova died, Dandre‚Äôs path crossed Spessivtseva‚Äôs when he went into partnership with the Paris-based impresario, Alexander Levitoff.
Their plan was to assemble a new ballet company for a long tour of South Africa and Australia.
On 6 March, 1934, the London-based Nevin Tait of the Australian theatre firm, J C Williamsons, cabled his brothers in Melbourne advising them that ‚ÄúDandre offers Russian Ballet twenty five principals Nemichoba Obukoff [sic]‚Ä¶playing Africa May August. More economical proposition than Monte advise‚ÄĚ.
By Monte, he meant the Monte Carlo Ballet company then led by the choreographer, Leonide Massine
In April, Levitoff sailed from England to South Africa with a troupe led by the Russian ballerina, Vera Nemchinova and her husband, Anatole Oboukhov.
In early May, Nevin Tait cabled again to say that Nemchinova could not continue on the tour to Australia. Instead, Dandre had suggested Spessivtseva or Alexandra Danilova as substitutes. Dandre, though Nevin Tait, assured his brothers that Spessivtseva was the superior dancer to Nemchinova in any case.
By June, the deal was done, with Dandre accepting a minimum guarantee of 450 pounds a week and a contribution to ocean fares.
By now, Levitoff had decided to take the company to south east Asia before sailing on to Australia.
Joining them in Singapore, were Spessivtseva and Braun who had sailed from Rotterdam on the Dutch ship, MS Baloeran, on August 1.
Despite the intense heat in Singapore, Spessivtseva rehearsed for six hours a day. The reassembled company that had toured South Africa was due to open a season at Singapore‚Äôs Capitol Theatre on September 2.
The Straits Times‚Äô advertisements for the season indicate there was trouble ahead. At first the locals were promised Alexandre Levitoff‚Äôs ‚Äúgreat Russian Ballet‚ÄĚ and that ‚Äúdancers from Diaghilev‚Äôs and Anna Pavlova‚Äôs Ballets‚ÄĚ, included Nemchinova and Oboukhoff. (20 August 1934).
Nine days later, the role call of dancers in a new Straits Times advertisement were Olga Spessiva, Anatole Vilzak, Natasha Bojkovich and Stanley Judson along with ‚Äú25 other London and Continental artistes‚ÄĚ.
By the end of the month, Spessivtseva‚Äôs name had disappeared from the advertisements entirely, perhaps an early sign of her nervousness at having to face inevitable comparisons with Pavlova on the long forthcoming Australian tour.
On opening night, the company danced Swan Lake, La Fille mal Gardee, and extracts from Coppelia, with Bojkovich earning praise as ‚Äúthe prima ballerina‚ÄĚ but the ‚Äúsmall orchestra ‚Äú of mainly local talent damned as disappointing.
The performance was conducted by Vladimir Launitz who later told the Australian press how difficult it was to assemble orchestras for the south east Asia tour.
‚ÄúAt Singapore I finally got hold of a jazz band containing a very decent German fiddler and that saved an awkward situation. In Java, we had to rely on amateurs‚ÄĚ. (The Sydney Morning Herald, 26 October, 1934).
The tour management now looked to be fraying at the edges. As the company sailed to Java, Dandre was in such a hurry to join the troupe that he travelled to Batavia by air on 5 September.
After short seasons in Batavia, Bandung and Surabaya, the company boarded the SS Nieuw Holland, at Surabaya and the ship called at Bali before sailing south to Brisbane
Advance publicity in Australia heralded the company as the ‚ÄúRussian Ballet Company‚ÄĚ or the ‚ÄúRussian Classical Ballet‚ÄĚ. **
Once again, Spessivtseva was under pressure, this time having to live up to Pavlova‚Äôs starry reputation in Australia.
In July, Nevin Tait of J C Williamson cabled his brothers to tell them that she was not only a ‚Äúcharming personality‚ÄĚ but also a ‚Äúreplica‚ÄĚ of Pavlova. J C Williamson promoted her in Australia as ‚Äúthe great Olga Spessiva‚ÄĚ, ‚Äúthe Supreme Offering of the Theatre‚Ä¶‚Äúwith the thunderous applause of the entertainment centres of Europe still ringing in her ears we introduce you to Olga Spessiva, the greatest dancer of the Age ‚Ä¶on her shoulders the mantle of the immortal Pavlova has fallen‚Ä¶.‚ÄĚ
On board the ship to Australia, Spessivtseva seemed elusive. One of the dancers, on the tour, George Zoritch wrote that ‚Äúwe never saw her on board ship. She travelled first class and we in second‚ÄĚ.
She chatted in Russian to the dancer, Slava Toumine, and enjoyed the role of the ship‚Äôs celebrity, dressing for dinner each evening in one of her Paris evening gowns, made for her by the houses of Lanvin and Chanel.
Spessivtseva, though, was tormented by the thought of her mother‚Äôs plans to return to Russia, and feared the arduous tour through Australia.
During the first part of the Australian tour, she wrote in her diary ‚Äúdancing eight times a week is very hard and I was nervous‚ÄĚ.
The Australian repertoire, although extensive, was not particularly challenging.
Many of the ballets were abridged classics or a melange of divertissements from the Pavlova company repertoire and rearranged versions of short ballets from Diaghilev‚Äôs Ballets Russes‚Äô repertoire.
At the Australian premiere, at His Majesty‚Äôs Theatre in Brisbane on October 10, Natalia Bojkovich appeared in the leading role, as Lise in La Fille mal Gardee, while Spessivtseva and Vilzak danced Odette and Prince Siegfried in Act Two of Swan Lake. In the final third of the evening, the Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor preceded a sprinkling of divertissements.
The Tait brothers, were happy enough with the box office takings, especially as, in their view, the company was ‚Äúnot overstrong‚ÄĚ, as the Australian-based brothers cabled their London office.
There was, however, no disputing the artistry of Spessivtseva who drew an audience from around the state of Queensland. One woman from Toowoomba could not believe her luck when the dancer gave her an orange and even a little caress, asking her to pass on the fruit and her good wishes to her mother.
The woman‚Äôs letter of thanks is preserved in a small cache of letters that Spessivtseva took back to France and which are now preserved in the Paris Opera library.
‚ÄúI am so happy for all the joy you gave me‚ÄĚ, wrote the woman. ‚ÄúI am back again in the country…in the hills with my green trees‚ÄĚ.
After two weeks, the company train travelled down the coast to Sydney. At Central Station on October 25, the photographer, Sam Hood, was waiting, ready to capture Spessivtseva.
She posed with Dandre in a severely cut wool flannel suit. Her centre-parted hair was draped over her ears, in the romantic ballet fashion. Around her shoulders was a fox wrap. On one side, the bushy tail slid through a gap in the fur. On the other, the animal‚Äôs snout tucked into her breast. Spessivtseva‚Äôs mouth was pulled into a kind of grimace, masquerading as a smile. Dandre made no attempt to smile.
Spessivtseva was taken by car to a press conference at the Theatre Royal, close to the Australia Hotel, her home for the next month. The Sydney press seemed interested in her tiny frame. In broken English, she admitted: ‚ÄúI like chocolates, plenty of them‚ÄĚ. Yet, ‚ÄúI am not much weight, eh?‚ÄĚ
And, asked one reporter, did she smoke cigarettes?
‚ÄúOh, yes. But that is a secret, a very big secret. Yes I smoke, but so few‚ÄĚ.
She told of her home in Paris where she said she lived with her little family of her mother, brother and sister.
And it was ‚Äúfor them that I work, work hard‚Ä¶I love my work. I am an artist and when I dance I feel and feel very deep‚ÄĚ. (The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 November 1934)
The Sydney Morning Herald reporter told his readers that ‚ÄúShe has long, sleek black hair, which she dresses at the nape of her neck, and has the aquiline features typical of her country, and not unlike Pavlova‚Äôs own. She speaks but little English and what words she does venture upon are helped with pretty gestures. For the most she speaks through an interpreter in French, helping him with a word or two‚Ä¶
‚ÄúSpessiva loves painting, especially beautiful gardens, and is delighted with the trees and colour of Sydney. She said that Sydney was very nice and if she ever left Paris she would like to live here‚ÄĚ.
The ballet master, Petroff, speaking through the musical director, Launitz, as his interpreter promised the Sydney public that the ballets they brought with them were ‚Äúin pure classical style. Popular taste in Paris and London is turning away from the modern dance and back to pure ballet: People are tired of futuristic spasms and jerks. Those things are a passing phase. They do not come from the heart‚ÄĚ.
The Sydney season opened on October 27 with Fille mal Gardee. Again, Spessivtseva made her first appearance in Swan Lake, which, according to one review, began with a procession of swans seeming to cross across the water, ‚Äúeach one riding on a little purple trolley‚ÄĚ. Not surprisingly, the critic found this unconvincing.
Finally, that evening, Spessivtseva danced Minuet, a divertissement to music by the Spanish composer, Albeniz. She looked exquisite in a spectacular, full-skirted gown of white and gold brocade with which she wore artificial plaits woven with ribbons attached to a coronet.
The luscious dress was created for her in Paris by Natalia Gontcharova, one of the designers who worked for Diaghilev. At the end of the performance, a photographer was ushered into her dressing room to photograph her in the Minuet costume as she posed behind an array of flowers.
In the audience that night were Sir Frederick Jordan, the newly appointed Chief Justice and his wife, the dancers, Madge Elliott and Cyril Ritchard, the publisher Sydney Ure Smith, and The Sydney Morning Herald critic who wrote:
‚ÄúIt must be said at once that the present company is not quite equal of the two which Anna Pavlova brought with her. Yet it is still decidedly worthwhile for all lovers of the dance to go and see it. If the number of accomplished principals is smaller than before, Mr Alexander Levitoff, the organiser of the ensemble, has provided at least one whose art attains a dazzling brilliance. This is Madame Olga Spessiva…on Saturday night she captured all hearts‚ÄĚ.
Her technique was ‚Äúutter perfection‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúin her art, she is to Pavlova what a falling snowflake is to an ascending iridescent bubble. One thinks of Raphael painting his calm remote Madonna‚ÄĚ.
The Minuet proved to be a dance of ravishing delicacy, with Spessivtseva resembling ‚Äúa figure by Rossetti as she floated here and there in gentle gaiety or gentle sadness‚ÄĚ.
(The Sydney Morning Herald, 29 October 1934)
On the surface, company life continued in its orderly way. In November, the programme changed each week -Swan Lake made way for Les Sylphides and Carnaval, Fille mal Gardee for The Magic Flute, Visions for Raymonda. Petroff shuffled around the shorter ballets, giving the dancer, Algeranoff (known as ‚ÄėAlgy‚Äô), a chance to show off his specialty Japanese and Indian dances; Spessivtseva danced in Valse and Dance of the Hours.
By the end of the second week, the box office reached a respectable 1500 pounds.
The dancers settled into their social rounds. After morning class, Spessivtseva obliged the publicists by posing in her Swan Lake costume at the Sydney Fox Studio in King Street. She carefully saved letters from audience members, one of whom was an astrologer and wanted her date of birth. Another found her performance ‚Äėa beautiful dream come true‚Äô, a third was ‚Äėentranced by her exquisite dancing‚ÄĚ.
Algy, meanwhile, partied with his old friends, the artists, Thea Proctor and Stanley Parker, and with Sydney Ure Smith of The Home magazine. Ure Smith, Algy decided, was ‚Äúone of the cleverest men in Australia‚ÄĚ. To supplement his meagre income Algy taught classes for the dance teacher, Minnie Hooper, worked on his lectures on Japanese dance, chatted with a new acquaintance, Arthur Sadler, a professor who taught Japanese studies, and made friends with Eric Baume, the editor of the Sunday Sun, who agreed to publish his article on Japanese dancing.
Algy kept his mother up to date on his social life but made no mention of the major news event in Australia at the time, the tour of the nation by the Duke of Gloucester. And, until the crisis occurred, gave no hint of the turmoil that was brewing within the ballet company.
Week three of the season began. The weather grew colder.
At the Theatre Royal, the programme changed to Egyptian Ballet, Venusburg and the Australian premiere of the ballet, Raymonda, the last masterpiece of Marius Petipa, re-staged by Petroff for the Dandre-Levitoff company. Spessivtseva danced the part of Raymonda, a noble woman who is to marry a knight in medieval times, a part she first danced aged only 18, at the Maryinsky Theatre in St Petersburg.
For the next few days, she had begun to improvise on stage. Back in her hotel room, she wrote frantic letters to her mother complaining that her feet and legs were numb and that her limbs were slowly becoming paralysed. There were people out there, she told Mama, dreadful enemies, who even threatened to cut off her feet.
During a rehearsal one day, she suddenly left the theatre, returning to the hotel where she saw Levitoff, but seemed not to recognise him. He took her arm, leading her to a chair in the foyer. Spessivtseva told him of her fears. Some company members detested her, and spied on her. Flowers meant for her were diverted to other dancers‚Äô dressing rooms. She must have a different dressing room, a new dresser, she told Levitoff.
A day later, he found her wandering in the street near the hotel. She seemed lost yet determined to hurry to rehearsal. But, Madame, he assured her, the rehearsal is finished.
He watched her enter the stage door of the theatre and walk to the wings of the stage. She grasped the back of a chair, and began her usual barre exercises. But her grace and elegance vanished as her distorted body made a mockery of the ritualistic plies, tendus and battements.
The next day, at 4am, she ran through the corridors of her hotel, from her room to Dandre‚Äôs. She woke him, frantically knocking at his door, and seemed close to fainting as she told him that she was about to be strangled. Would Dandre let her stay in his room? She would leave the hotel at daybreak. He led her back to her room.
Later that week, on stage, she blanked out completely, drifting through random movements, unaware of the music and the steps, as Vilzek improvised and the curtain was lowered. Fantasies and fierce anxieties combined in her mind to create a nightmarish panic attack from which there was no escape.
Spessivtseva gave her last performance as Raymonda and in the Grand Pas Classique divertissement on November 17, 1934.
A review in The Sydney Morning Herald on November 19 indicated for the first time that something was amiss.
‚ÄúOlga Spessiva as Raymonda did some exquisite dancing of ethereal lightness‚ÄĚ, the critic wrote, ‚Äúbut her delineation of the part was cold and not once did a smile brighten her face, not even when her knight returned‚ÄĚ.
Now, it seemed, Braun was incapable of help. He may, in fact, have added to her panic, as later events show.
Levitoff and Dandre must have known that at all costs, they must keep the crisis a secret.
Press advertisements continued to announce Spessivtseva‚Äôs planned appearances in the last week of the season, beginning on November 24, in which programs already printed showed she was to dance in Swan Lake and Les Sylphides, and the divertissements, Butterfly, Minuet and Dance of the Hours.
Dandre and Levitoff understood that a statement must be made. The ballerina, they decided, had been injured – a sprained ankle seemed the most believable event. They hinted that she might return to the stage.
(Box office takings had been steadily increasing near the end of the Sydney season and on November 24, J C Williamson issued a press statement emphasising that the public must rush to buy tickets if they were to see the company for the last time. They ‚Äúwould gladly prolong the season ‚Ä¶.but the dancers must fulfil Australian engagements and the company will move on to Melbourne next week‚ÄĚ.)
Sheltering from the storm in her hotel room, Spessivtseva was sent messages from her public. One Sydney fan, Grita Mason, wrote her a letter (on November 27), to say how sorry she was that the dancer had ‚Äúhurt her leg‚ÄĚ.
Nevertheless, on the day the season was to end, November 28, a classified advertisement promised: ‚ÄúHurry ‚Äď last night tonight‚Ä¶The Russian Ballet ‚Äď with Olga Spessiva‚ÄĚ.
The next few days were explained and interpreted in four different ways – by the press, by a letter from Algeranoff to his mother, in Anton Dolin‚Äôs biography of Spessivtseva, The Sleeping Ballerina, and by Spessivtseva herself, in her diary.
On December 1, The Argus in Melbourne reported: ‚ÄúBefore the end of the Sydney season the company suffered a severe loss when the first ballerina, Olga Spessiva, sprained her ankle. Mme Spessiva is resting in Sydney and she may not be able to appear again for several weeks. Natasha Bojkovich danced in Mme Spessiva‚Äôs place during the last week of the season in Sydney‚ÄĚ.
On December 2, Algy wrote to his mother: ‚ÄúWe had rather a blow as Spessiva is ill and although it is not known publicly, she‚Äôs sailed for Europe. She has promised to rejoin us some months hence when she is better. Bojkovich has stepped nobly into the breach and is doing very well, but of course it‚Äôs a worry for M Dandre and will mean a lot of extra work‚ÄĚ.
Anton Dolin wrote that Braun took Spessivtseva to the Blue Mountains outside Sydney ‚Äúfor a complete rest‚ÄĚ.
But the most reliable account must be Spessivitseva‚Äôs diary.
‚ÄúI was taken to a place of rest and my agent Braun decided not to go to India with all the other ballet people‚ÄĚ, she wrote. ‚ÄúThe doctor transferred me from one home to his own private rest home, with a great big lock on all the doors. They showed it to me, saying that no one would ever come here‚ÄĚ.
It seems, then, that her retreat was not a convalescent home or hotel in the Blue Mountains or elsewhere, but a private hospital.
(The only private mental hospital in New South Wales at the time was the 130-bed Broughton Hall in Rozelle, Sydney, whose superintendent from 1925 was Dr Sydney Evan Jones. Originally a hospital for returned soldiers, it re-opened in 1921 as a voluntary admission mental health clinic.
Broughton Hall, which cared for patients who wanted to avoid the shame of being certified, offered occupational therapies in the wards and within its large gardens which featured summer houses, fishponds and a small zoo with native animals and birds.)
Meanwhile, for the Melbourne season, Dandre, Levitoff and J C Williamson, were forced to boost the publicity for Natasha Bojkovich, now advertised with the tag line, ‚Äúprima ballerina, Royal Theatre, Belgrade‚ÄĚ. As well, they highlighted the international aspect of the troupe, which comprised 11 different nationalities.
On December 1, The Argus reported: ‚ÄúAccompanied by vanloads of scenery and costumes the principal dancers of the Russian Ballet Company arrived by the Sydney express yesterday in preparation for their season at the Kings Theatre which will begin tonight… M.Victor Dandre, husband of the late Anna Pavlova who is manager for the tour, is devoting his life to the perpetuation of the classical ballet.
‚Äú‚ÄôWe will give you only the pure classical style‚Äô, he said yesterday. ‚ÄúAlthough most of the ballets will be new to Australia, in Europe and the United States there is a decided reversion of taste toward the classical style of dancing. Audiences are finding that they appreciate the stylistic training which goes to the making of a ballet dancer. Slipshod forms of expressionistic dancing which do not require the same rigid schooling are losing favour even in Germany, which is their home.
‚Äú‚ÄôOn our return to Europe I hope that our company will visit Germany for a season to show them the strict classical ballet.‚Äô‚ÄĚ
After a month in Melbourne, during which Bojkovich danced all Spessivtseva‚Äôs roles, the company sailed for Fremantle, with their Perth season at His Majesty‚Äôs Theatre presented by the promoter, Benjamin Fuller.
Back in Sydney, Spessivtseva‚Äôs doctor asked Braun ‚Äúto take me to my mother in Paris‚ÄĚ, as she wrote in her diary.
They left Sydney just before Christmas 1934, and ‚Äúa sister from the Red Cross accompanied me on the boat‚ÄĚ, the RMS Orama which called at Perth on its way to London.
Spessivtseva‚Äôs diary explains that on board ‚ÄúI was put to bed‚ÄĚ.
On January 19, the remainder of the Dandre-Levitoff company sailed to India then home to Europe.
As the company dispersed, Spessivtseva rested in Paris and on the Cote d‚ÄôAzur. She recovered enough to dance one more time in Paris and gave her last performance in Buenos Aires in 1937.
With Braun she settled into a leased apartment at 16 Rue Cernushci in the 17th arrondissement. Desperately lonely, and knowing she could not return to Russia, Spessivtseva tried to shape a new life for herself.
She began to compose pieces for the piano, and could be seen alone and withdrawn at the Caf√© Flore, in St Germain des Pres. She wrote to the English dance writer and journalist, Cyril Beaumont, asking if he would edit a book of her memoirs.
With the approach of the war, Braun decided that they – or at least he ‚Äď would be safer back in his home country, the United States.
Arriving in New York at the outbreak of war, the couple began a peripatetic existence, moving from hotel to apartment and back to a hotel, before the world of Spessivtseva fell apart completely.
In Anton Dolan‚Äôs account of her life, he tells of his visit to Spessivtseva at the Madison Hotel in Manhattan in October 1939. She told him she did not want to go to the United States, but was persuaded by Braun. They discussed Australia. Dolan had danced there in 1938 and planned to return soon. ‚ÄúI have bad souvenir of that place‚ÄĚ, she told him.
Dolin believed she spent much of her time lounging in her suite in oriental kimonos and painting in the Japanese style.
From time to time, she travelled to a private hospital outside New York, sojourns that Dolin believed offered her a respite from Braun whom ‚Äúshe had grown to resent, if not to loathe, as another master in a life that had, from the beginning, been crowded with absolute despots‚ÄĚ.
Dolin met her again at Christmas 1940 when she was living with Braun at the Salisbury Hotel further uptown.
‚ÄúThere in a darkened room, I found her sitting, by a small easel painting water colours‚ÄĚ.
Spessivtseva‚Äôs demons had returned. The spies were back, outside the door, and they would poison her, kill her, if they could. All she wanted was to go home to her mother in Russia.
Would Dolan help her by spiriting her away to another hotel?
The next encounter was at the Hotel Roosevelt in the theatre district. This time, she told Dolan, Braun had hit her. She had called for help from the hotel‚Äôs doctor. After all, she told him, ‚ÄúI am Giselle, Olga Spessivtseva of the Paris Opera, prima ballerina‚ÄĚ. A madwoman might well say that.
Dolan and Braun were in the room when the doctor called the ambulance. In Dolan‚Äôs account, they were asked to leave the room when the attendant took her by the arm and forced her into the ambulance. Dolan recalled her saying ‚ÄúSave me, Anton. I am not mad!‚ÄĚ
She was taken to the psychiatric wing of Bellevue Hospital for assessment, until Braun had her transferred to what he euphemistically called a ‚Äúprivate sanatorium‚ÄĚ – the privately owned Bloomingdale Hospital at White Plains, close to New York City where she spent some part of 1941.
(The version of events by the dancer, Dale Fern, suggests that her friends called for medical help when Spessivtseva hid herself in a hotel room.
‚ÄúShe refused admittance to her friends‚ÄĚ he wrote in Dance Magazine, (April 1960).
‚ÄúShe denied she even knew them. Friends intervened. They had to‚ÄĚ. She had resented their interference and held ‚Äúa relentless hostility towards those whose obligation was as inescapable as it was wretchedly unpleasant, as horrendous for them to recall as for her to bear its consequences‚ÄĚ.)
In 1942 Spessivtseva was admitted to the gothic Hudson River Asylum for the Insane, (later called the Hudson River State Hospital), in Poughkeepsie, in New York State. Dolan was told that she had screamed for both Braun and Dolan himself when they took here there.
Her cries were in vain. By then, Dolin was far away, on a visit to Mexico. Braun had died of a heart attack. In a final blow, he left his entire estate to his sister.
The Hudson River hospital was a dumping ground. Wives would bring in their alcoholic husbands, husbands would bring their troublesome wives, and children would drop off their aging parents. For most inmates, it was a one-way street. Easy to enter, it was very hard to exit, even if the patient had been subjected to a lobotomy.
Fern discovered Spessivtseva‚Äôs whereabouts after meeting Nijinksy‚Äôs wife, Romola.
Fascinated by a photograph of her as Giselle, he was compelled to find out as much about her as he could. They first met at the Hudson River Hospital in 1949. At the time, she was so withdrawn into her private world that she could not communicate with the staff who knew nothing of her background.
Fern recalled how their conversation rambled over many subjects. She talked of Faberge jewels, Lanvin, syphilis, the Romanovs, Italian opera, Charlie Chaplin and rose diamonds. Spessivtseva asked if she would die at the hospital and told him she might be a descendant of Egyptian royalty.
Fern proved to be remarkably devoted, visiting her each week for a decade.
When Dolan was touring the United States, he too, went to see his old dancing partner. He recalled her hospital attire – a cotton dress, black stockings and slippers. Her face was ashen yellow, her hair unkempt and greying. Spessivtseva said she had been tied to the bed and given shock treatment.
Yet, she told Dolan: ‚ÄúI was not so sick‚ÄĚ.
Letters written by Zinaida Spessivtseva show how anxious her sister was to return to Russia. Despite strenuous efforts, she was unable to have her repatriated to the Soviet Union.
Fern‚Äôs constant care as well as significant advances in psychiatric care due to a new class of drugs, combined to give Spessivtseva her freedom.
In 1962, she was well enough to travel to Manhattan (to visit Balanchine), accompanied by Fern and the dancer, Felia Doubrovska, a former classmate of Spessivtseva, now a teacher at the school of American Ballet.
The following year, she was discharged from the Hudson River hospital. Her new home was the Tolstoy Foundation Farm, in Nyack, a rest home for the Russian community founded by Alexandra Tolstoy, the daughter of the novelist.
There, she wrote to her sister: ‚ÄúI go to church and during the service my anguish is less strong‚ÄĚ.
Spessivtseva died in a cottage on the farm on September 16, 1991, aged 96.
Among her papers and artefacts, donated by Fern to the New York Public Library, was a silk hand-sewn doll of Nijinsky in his Les Sylphides costume, one of a group of dolls made by her in the 1960s.
In ballet, there are many dolls, among them the three marionettes in Petroushka, the Nutcracker, and the sinister dolls of Dr Coppelius. Like Spessivtseva, many of them dance until they are destroyed, or until they destroy themselves.
* On June 18, 1924, the following notice appeared in the Leningrad daily, Krasnaia gazeta, under the title The Death of a Dancer:
‚ÄúOn Monday June 16, around 5pm, a motor boat belonging to the second labour collective had an accident. In the boat were engineer Klement, A. Iaszykov, (an officer of the former Mikhailovsky theatre) E. Goldshtein, (administrator of the Studio of the Akdrama), I. Rodionov (sailor) and Lidiia Ivanova, a dancer of the Academic theatre of Opera and Ballet (the former Maryinsky).
All the passengers, who set off from the Anichkin Bridge, were going down river when they noticed that the motor had become seriously overheated. They began trying to cool it off and, engrossed in the task, they failed to notice the passenger ship Chaika bound for Krondstadt, was moving toward them. The ship collided with the boat and knocked all the passengers into the water. A tugboat of the State Baltic Steamship Line managed to save three of the passengers, but engineer (or ‚Äúinstructor‚ÄĚ) Klement and the dancer Ivanova were lost. The bodies of the victims have not been found‚ÄĚ.
** Among the troupe were Molly Lake, Kathleen Crofton, Ann Stafford-Northcote, Elvira Rone, Juliana Enakieva, Eleanora Mara, Raisse Hirsch (whose stage name was Raia Kuznetzova), Edna Tresahar, Audrey Wilson Williams, (dancing as Olga Valevska), Harcourt Algeranoff, Travis Kemp, Dimitri Rostoff, George Zoritch, and Slava Toumine. In Brisbane, the company recruited Leon Kellaway (who appeared as Jan Kowsky).
¬© Valerie Lawson 2011