The Ballets Russes in Australia and Beyond

In the winter of 2005, the University of Adelaide, the National Library of Australia and the Australian Ballet, received a grant of close to $A400,000 from the Australian Government.

It came via the Australian Research Council, a statutory authority, and was to be spent researching the impact of the Ballets Russes tours of Australia that took place from 1936-1940.

The resulting four-year project encompassed a National Library exhibition, a symposium at the university and ballet productions from 2006 to 2009, each acknowledging the choreographers of either the Ballets Russes established by Basil or the original Ballets Russes of Diaghilev.

The ballets included Les Sylphides, Spectre de la Rose, Petrouchka, Scheherezade, a new Firebird by Graeme Murphy, a re-working of Rites by Stephen Page, Les Presages, a new Symphonie fantastique by Krzysztof Pastor, a new Scuola di ballo, by Alexei Ratmansky, and a new work by Wayne McGregor.

The driving forces behind the project were Nicolette Fraillon, chief conductor and music director of the Australian Ballet, Mark Carroll, associate professor at the Elder Conservatorium at the University of Adelaide, and Lee Christofis, curator of dance at the National Library of Australia, with Richard Stone at the National Library an assiduous researcher throughout the years of the project.

The contributors and researchers not only trawled the archives but also called on the memories of three former Ballets Russes dancers living in Australia, Irina Baronova, Valrene Tweedie and Anna Volkova.

Sadly, Baronova and Tweedie have since died.

Now, the Ballets Russes’ project has returned for a final curtain call with the publication this month by Wakefield Press of The Ballets Russes in Australia and Beyond, edited by Mark Carroll and with essays by the contributors listed below.

As I’m one of them, this not a review, but rather, an acknowledgment of the book, and the effort that’s gone into it, and a few thoughts on some of the research and the photographs – the latter taking hundreds of hours to locate and research.

Most of the 358 pages of the book contain photos, illustrations, artwork or images of newspaper or magazine pages so you can imagine the extent of the research work involved.

Many images are from the National Library of Australia – in some cases copy prints from the State Library of New South Wales – and of course the Australian artists and photographers who covered the Ballets Russes tours, either professionals or amateurs, are well represented.

Among them are Max Dupain, Nanette Kuehn, Walter Stringer, Ewan Murray-Will, Patricia Mary Cape and Hugh P Hall, along with photos supplied by former dancers or members of their families

The Sydney Morning Herald’s photographic archive was also a source as the Ballets Russes’ dancers were so photogenic and appealing for the print media at the time.

Among the artists represented are Daryl Lindsay – whose atmospheric, Degas-like sketches show how much the ballet body has changed in the last 70 years – and Loudon Sainthill, Alice Danciger and Sidney Nolan.

The least familiar images, at least for me, are those credited to Lebrecht Music & Arts photo library, including fascinating studies of Leonide Massine with Picasso and Matisse.

Despite the impressive and long lasting effect the Ballets Russes companies had on Australian audiences and the arts community, the legacy of many of the works they brought was not so profound.

As Lynn Garafola, a contributor to the book, writes, Col. de Basil’s taste ran to the middlebrow, while Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes was always associated with artistic experimentation.

Garafola, a distinguished author and dance scholar, writes in her essay on Massine that his vision of ballet as a living, contemporary art and that of the mainstream aesthetic espoused by the de Basil company and its apologists, such as Arnold Haskell, were in conflict.

That conflict led to a split between de Basil and Massine. Neverthless, Massine’s plotless, semi-allegorical ballets such as Les Presages were seen in Australia and made a lasting impression on Australian audiences.

Garafola’s essay, the longest in the book, is rigorous in its exploration of Massine’s work, and reflects the social, political and theatrical context of the times in which it was created.

I liked her comparisons of the vertical lifts in Massine’s ballets with acrobatic adagio, so popular in revues of the 1920s, the way in which she describes the costumes of Massine’s ballet, Choreartium as reflecting the flowing deco line of Madeleine Vionnet’s 1930s sensuous yet simple evening wear and her mini essay on the use of the pyramid shape in dance works from Symphonie Fantastique to Les Noces to Martha Graham’s Heretic.

The Ballets Russes in Australia and Beyond also goes beyond the usual subjects covered in many art gallery Ballets Russes catalogues and essay compilations in that it explores the travels of the 1930s troupes to New Zealand and the machinations and makeup of the orchestras that accompanied them in fascinating essays by Mark Carroll, Lee Christofis, and Richard Stone.

Finally, there is one new, gossipy anecdote in the book about a very nasty shoe and costume shredding that was inflicted on Anna Volkova. Unlike the song in A Chorus Line, everything is not beautiful at the ballet. Far from it.

The Ballets Russes in Australia and Beyond, edited by Mark Carroll, Wakefield Press, rrp $75
Jane Albert, Alan Brissenden, Mark Carroll, Lee Christofis, Michael Christoforidis, Joel Crotty, Helen Ennis, Gillian Forwood, Lynn Garafola, Stephanie Jordan, Valerie Lawson, Andrew Montana, Felicity St John Moore, Richard Stone.


  1. Adrian Ryan
    Posted August 1, 2011 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    This book is indeed a superb summation/coda to the 4 year Ballets Russes project and, as you have indicated, it covers a wide area in investigating various aspects of the 3 tours to Australia. The physical production of the book is also quite sumptuous although perhaps we should not be too surprised at this as Wakefield Press’ last dance book “Australia Dances” was equally as beautifully produced, especially as regards colour reproductions.

    I did read the Garafola essay and would not be quite as quick to call de Basil’s taste middlebrow and exalt Massine at his expense. Diaghilev was still presenting pre-war ballets in 1929 and it was Massine’s access to most of the extant Diaghilev scenery/costumes that enabled him to have a strong bargaining chip when his and Balanchine’s original contracts for the first season expired. Massine was planning to set up an American Ballets Russes company with all the Diaghilev material, but the Wall St. crash saw off his principal American backer. And de Basil’s wider view of how successful the company could be [Blum seemed to see it as a mainly Monte Carlo enterprise] after the first London season and then the approach from America, meant greater repertoire would be needed. I am not conviced by her argument that Massine left de Basil because of a narrowing of artistic opportunities. While it is nice to suppose all decisions artists make are to purely further their art, in reading the various memoirs of former dancers who performed with the company during this period [my favourite, and seemingly little commented on, is Roman Jasinsky’s] egos were very large and things like titles and billing in programmes and on posters was very important, to say nothing about being able to exercise total artistic control. I feel Sol Hurok always gets off very lightly in discussions regarding the company’s operations especially repertoire and casting. Alex Ewing’s book on Lucia Chase has some quite hair rasing things to say about Hurok’s dealings with the fledgling Ballet Theatre and I would suppose he was no different in dealing with De Basil.

    The article about the orchestras during the tours is also incredibly timely given the current unease swirling around the financial state of Orchestra Victoria and it’s future as the pit orchestra for The Australian Ballet.

  2. valerie
    Posted August 1, 2011 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    Adrian, your comment has inspired me to go back to Garafola’s own Ballets Russes’ book to look again at her thoughts on Massine but also to read the two books you mention, Jasinsky’s and Alex Ewing’s.
    Massine is having his moment now, after years in the gloom. Ratmansky admires him and now Garafola has taken up his cause.
    As for de Basil, does the good outweigh the bad? I think it does, in the way in which he brought such a feast of ballet to so many places around the world, but as a crafty negotiator and a manager who seemed to create chaos and tensions, there was not much to admire!
    I should have mentioned the appearance of the new Ballets Russes in Australia book – it is beautifully presented, well laid out and printed on good paper.

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Serge Ismailoff, Anna Volkova, Oleg Tupine, Tamara Tchinarova and Paul Petroff, 1938

Serge Ismailoff, Anna Volkova, Oleg Tupine, Tamara Tchinarova and Paul Petroff, 1938, National Library of Australia,

Members of the Monte Carlo Russian Ballet company visiting eminent Maori women including Lady Pomare (seated front centre) at Hiwiroa, Lower Hutt, New Zealand, 1937,

Members of the Monte Carlo Russian Ballet company visiting eminent Maori women including Lady Pomare (seated front centre) at Hiwiroa, Lower Hutt, New Zealand, 1937, National Library of Australia,

Tamara Toumanova and Paul Petroff at French's Forest, Sydney, 1940

Tamara Toumanova and Paul Petroff at French’s Forest, Sydney, 1940, photo: Max Dupain, National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an12114811

l to r: front row, Arthur Allen, Ted Tait, Nathalie  Branitska at Port Hacking, January 1937

l to r: front row, Arthur Allen, Ted Tait, Nathalie Branitzka at Port Hacking, January 1937, photo Sam Hood, State Library of NSW, hood_13760