Anna Volkova Barnes 1917-2013

She liked to say she led two lives – the first as a ballerina who danced on stages from Paris to Havana – and the second – “everything after”.

But Anna Volkova Barnes enjoyed a third life when she returned in her late 80s to the embrace of the ballet world, revered as a woman who represented a precious connection between Australia and the Ballets Russes.

From her birth in Moscow in the year of the Bolshevik revolution, to her career dancing in the ballets of distinguished choreographers who had worked for Sergei Diaghilev, to her life on a sheep station in New South Wales and to final years with the ballet world Volkova’s life was a series of serendipitous twists and turns.

In 1920, her parents, Vladimir Volkov, a naval officer, and his wife, Anna, the daughter of a wealthy family, fled Russia with their children, three-year-old Anna and her two elder brothers.

From the port of Yalta they sailed to Dubrovnik, where, after 18 months, the family moved to a town in the Lorraine region of France. There, one of Anna’s brothers rescued a young girl who almost drowned in a river.

His bravery earned him a scholarship to study in Paris where the Volkov family joined the community of White Russian émigrés.

Among them was a Russian pianist who suggested that young Anna begin training as a dancer at the studio of the former Russian ballerina, Olga Preobrajenska.

Preobrajenska accepted Anna and propelled her into an elite group of promising young dancers still in their teens.

Aged 15, Volkova was chosen by George Balanchine, a former choreographer for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, to appear in a production of Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld at the Theatre Mogador in Paris.

Another visitor to Preobrajenska’s studio was Colonel Wassily de Basil, a co-founder of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, a company formed after the death of Diaghilev.

De Basil offered her a contract to join the company for a season at London’s Alhambra Theatre where she stayed for four months.

In 1935 Volkova re-joined de Basil’s company that was soon to embark on a marathon journey through the United States.

In California, the dancers encountered the glamour of Hollywood. Volkova said that she “went out with” Cary Grant, and remembered how Marlene Dietrich stood in the wings of the Los Angeles theatre watching some performances.

Volkova gradually worked her way up the ranks to dance soloist and principal roles in the ballets of Leonide Massine and Michel Fokine.

Her signature role was that of the first waltz in Fokine’s Les Sylphides, and she also danced in his ballets Petrouchka, Coq d’or, and Le Carnaval, in Massine’s Les Presages, Choreartium, and Le Beau Danube, in Balanchine’s La Concurrence and Cotillon and in David Lichine’s Graduation Ball, among other ballets.

In 1938, Volkova travelled to Australia with Colonel de Basil’s Covent Garden Russian Ballet and met her future husband, Jim Barnes, on the ship voyage back to Europe.

Barnes was travelling as a member of the Australian rowing crew sailing to England to compete in the Henley Royal Regatta of 1939.

In London, Volkova accepted Barnes’s proposal of marriage but the Second World War meant the wedding was delayed. While he fought in the Pacific, she returned to Australia in December 1939 with de Basil’s third touring group, the Original Ballet Russe.

With no chance of returning to Europe during the war, the company sailed to the United States in September 1940. For the next five years, Volkova travelled with the company to Cuba and through South America but an increasingly chaotic management and financial stress severely affected morale and in 1945 Volkova was happy to escape the hardships when she was offered a six-month contract as a dancer at the Copacabana Casino in Rio de Janiero.

Volkova later recalled: “I was in Brazil when I received a telegram from some islands in the Pacific…”. The telegram from Jim Barnes read ‘War or no war, would you consider now coming and marrying me?’ and I said, ‘Yes’.”

She sailed on the Matsonia, arriving in Australia in October 1945, and married Barnes in May 1946 at the chapel at the Sydney Church of England Grammar School in Sydney.

The couple lived in Sydney, with their two sons, Jamie and John, until the early 1960s when the family moved to the Barnes’s family’s sheep and horse breeding property, Suffolk Vale, in Boorowa on the edge of the Southern Tablelands.

They returned to Sydney in 2000, where, three years later Jim Barnes died.

In 2006, the Australian Ballet took Volkova into its fold to assist with the production of Les Sylphides. This recognition of her distinguished career gave her a new sense of purpose.

After suffering a heart attack, she died on August 18 at Mona Vale Hospital.

The music played at her funeral on 23 August included sections of Stravinsky’s score for The Firebird and Chopin’s waltz from Les Sylphides.

This is a slightly extended version of the obituary first published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 29 August, 2013

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Anna Volkova marries Jim Barnes, Sydney, (top photo), reported in The Australian Women’s Weekly, 11 May 1946

Anna Volkova, photo © Spencer Shier, 1938, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, call number, PXD 1063/Box 5

Serge Ismailoff, Anna Volkova, Oleg Tupine, Tamara Tchinarova and Paul Petroff, Covent Garden Russian Ballet in Australia 1938/39, National Library of Australia

Anna Volkova in Les sylphides, Ballets Russes, ca. 1930s, photo © Maurice Seymour, National Library of Australia