Anton Dolin: “Dance this for me, ladies and gentleman”

It’s not so much Anton Dolin in his dapper white trousers and pumps that intrigues, as the faces of the Sydney students and teachers, clearly in awe of the great dancer in the studio.

Among the vast collection of photographs by Sam Hood in the Mitchell Library of the State Library of New South Wales are these four of Dolin taking class in 1938, during the second Ballets Russes’ tour of Australia.

One photo shows Dolin’s change of shirt and shoes and another group of students, so perhaps it was taken at a different time or different day.

The intensity of expression on the faces of all the women and girls is touching. Some look so shy, some overwhelmed, some a little embarrassed or uncertain. Only one boy, by the columns at the back of the studio in the photo on the left, is looking at the camera.

I believe the photographs were taken in the Sydney studios of the Royal Academy of Dance pioneer, Frances Scully, (wearing the floral dress and with centre-parted hair), standing between Dolin and the dance writer, Arnold Haskell, in the group shot (top, left).

On 21 October, 1938, before he came to Sydney, Dolin taught a similar class in Melbourne at the studios of another RAD pioneer, Jennie Brenan.

Dolin himself was a member of the RAD’s grand council.

The Argus newspaper reported the Melbourne class under the headline ‘Praise of Dancers “No Bunkum” from Dolin’.

“Nearly 50 young dancers were given a gruelling test by M. Anton Dolin, of the Covent Garden Russian Ballet, at Miss Jennie Brenan’s school of dancing yesterday afternoon.

“‘And you want the real truth about the class?’ asked M. Dolin afterwards. ‘Well, I will tell you — and no bunkum. There is no bunkum about this, although I am an Irishman. I think they were remarkably good, surprisingly good. There were several youngsters there of amazing talent, but I will not tell you who they were.

“‘I think,’ continued M. Dolin, ‘that your Australian girls possess temperament, which is most important. They were all doing something a little new and different today, and they did it excellently.’

“The first part of the two-hour lesson consisted of practice on the barre, but the room was so crowded that half the pupils had chairs in the middle of the floor as their mythical partner.

“Improvising as he went along, M. Dolin mapped out brief series of steps, his eyes on the ground, until a loud snapping of his fingers announced his approval. ‘Allons,’ he announced, ‘now, dance this, dance it for me. Let me see what you have to give – it doesn’t matter if you go wrong, but dance it with expression.’

“Glissades, assemblées, arabesques, adage movements, they went through them all endlessly. Tiny girls in pleated skirts bobbed about among the older, taller girls in tunics and long black tights. M. Dolin held them mercilessly balanced on the demi-pointe and the full pointe until one by one they faltered and collapsed.

“A series of leaps and a giddy whirl of pirouettes finished the lesson.

“‘You are tired, eh?’ smiled M. Dolin, as his pupils gathered round him to express their thanks. ‘Did I work you hard?'”

Soon after this report, further articles appeared in the press describing Dolin’s planned summer school in Sydney, to be held from the end of November. The school was said to be the starting point for a permanent School of Choreographic Art, under the business direction of Alexander Levitoff and Arthur Tait.

The students would not only learn dancing but also the history and aesthetics of ballet, décor and the relationship of ballet to music.

Following Dolin’s classes,which he would teach for two months, the enterprise would continue with a ballet master brought out from Europe. Examiners would visit the school from Europe annually, and films of Serge Lifar’s “Opera Ballet at Paris would be used to demonstrate lectures”.

Eager mothers and students could not have known it was all hot air.

The man making the statements to the press was Levitoff, a Russian entrepreneur who promised much but often failed to deliver.

He arrived in Australia in 1934 as one of the presenters, along with Victor Dandre, of a ballet tour starring Olga Spessivtseva.

Three years later, Levitoff presented the Don Cossack Choir in Australia and early in 1938, he returned with a troupe of Spanish musicians and dancers.

By 1939, soon after the second Ballets Russes’ touring company left Australia, Tamara Tchinarova, a dancer from that company who remained in Sydney, recalled that Levitoff lived frugally in a room at Hotel Australia. At the time he was trying to pay off his debts by arranging tours to Newcastle schools by a small number of ex-Ballets Russes dancers.

The much publicised Sydney school, under Dolin’s supervision, never eventuated and by November 1939, in another press report in The Argus, Levitoff blamed the war for upsetting his latest plans.

Along with Arthur Tait, his partner in the Sydney-based International Theatre Enterprises, he was disappointed that he could no longer present five “big Continental and American shows”.

Nevertheless, Levitoff promised Australians a major exhibition of art from Java, Sumatra, Borneo and Bali in 1940.

He continued his spin mastery throughout the 1940s, with a final fall from grace when he became involved in a legal dispute in the High Court over his arrangements for presenting Australian tours of the pianist, Simon Barere and the lecturer, Randolph Churchill.

Levitoff departed Australia to live in Paris, where he died in 1957.

As for Dolin, he kept a brisk pace on the 1938/39 tour of Australia and New Zealand, opening exhibitions by photographers and artists, encouraging the young, talented dancer, Rowena Jackson in Auckland, and with Otis Pierce, his close friend – an American accompanying the touring party – enjoying parties hosted by various Sydney and Melbourne hostesses.

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Anton Dolin with Arnold Haskell, Frances Scully, (middle, centre row), students and teachers, Sydney, November 1938, photo Sam Hood, courtesy of Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, PXE 789/v.57/67-7

Anton Dolin teaches class in Sydney, November 1938, photo Sam Hood, courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, PXE 789/v.57/67-7

Anton Dolin takes class, Sydney, November 1938, photo Sam Hood, courtesy of Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, PXE 789/v.57/67-7

Anton Dolin takes class, Sydney, November 1938, photo Sam Hood, courtesy of Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, PXE 789/v.57/67-7