Brigitte Kelly and Strelsa Heckelman: lives dedicated to dance

Two dancers whose with close connections to Col de Basil’s Ballets Russes’ tours to Australia have died – Brigitte Kelly, in England, aged 91, and Strelsa Heckelman, in Australia, aged 87.

Kelly, whose stage name during her Ballets Russes’ years was Maria Sanina, died on 4 November 2012 in Brighton where she had been living following the death of her second husband, Edward Kanski, in 1994.

Heckelman died at Frankston Hospital in Melbourne on 28 December 2012.

Kelly’s biography of Marie Rambert, titled Mim, was published by Dance Books in 2009.

She had danced with Rambert’s company and, for a remarkable 26 years (1959-1985), was head of studies at the Rambert School of Ballet.

Born in London on 5 July 1921, Kelly and her two older brothers were brought up by their mother, Grace, a theatre costume designer. Grace’s husband had died when Kelly was only 22 months old.

Kelly trained as a dancer at Madame Vacani’s school in London, joined Rambert’s school at the Mercury Theatre in 1932 and danced for Ballet Rambert.

In 1937, while she was rehearsing for an opera season at Covent Garden, London, the then Ballets Russes’ dancer, Edouard Borovansky, suggested that she might join Col de Basil’s Ballets Russes.

Her first contract was with de Basil’s second company that had recently returned from an Australian tour in 1936/7 and was soon to embark on a European tour under the direction of Leon Woizikowski.

The following year she joined the Ballets Russes’ company billed as the Covent Garden Russian Ballet that toured to Australia in 1938/9.

Just before the company left for Australia the details of her contract for that tour were settled with Victor Dandre, companion of the late Anna Pavlova. (Dandre was one of the managers of the Covent Garden Russian Ballet.)

Kelly vividly describes the tour in her memoirs, Dancing for Joy, published in Dance Chronicle in 1999.

As she watched her cabin trunk being loaded on the SS Maloya for the journey to Australia she was proud to see it plastered all over with the label “Maria Sanina, Russian Ballet, Melbourne”.

As Kelly stood on the deck “I recognised some of my Woizikowski colleagues among the passengers. Madame Tchinarova stood alongside me. Mama always travelled with her daughter, Tamara.

“My mother looked forlorn and lonely, already a distant figure…the entrails of the great ship began to tremble, there was a noise of things shifting, groaning, bells were ringing, the gangplank swung away. My mother waved, I waved back, the tears running down my cheeks. Mama Tchinarova looked at me in surprise: ‘Why you cry?’ she asked”.

After an arduous journey, the company reached Melbourne where Kelly’s landlady was a Mrs Bott, “an exceptionally tall, imposing lady with a slight resemblance to Queen Mary, well corseted, with a solid bosom and crinkly gray hair that might have been a wig. I noticed her huge feet…

“From the very first morning we rehearsed feverishly, as we had just three days to the first night, September 28, 1938 at His Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne…”

The company was joined in Melbourne by the choreographer, Michel Fokine, “who walked into a rehearsal and took his place in the centre next to Victor Dandre”.

Fokine was “of middle height, dressed in a long overcoat and a hat that he removed to reveal a massive head, quite bald on top but surrounded on the sides by black hair.

“He was then 58 years old. A fine, straight nose and a firm mouth gave a feeling of strength to his face, but it was his eyes that were the most striking features. I never got close enough to see their true colour, but the impression was of glowering darkness, almost threatening; he looked a little like Napoleon Bonaparte.

“He had come to Australia to mount a new ballet, Paganini, to Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, and also to supervise his other ballets in the repertoire….he frightened the life out of me…”

When she returned to England, Kelly danced once more with de Basil’s company but with World War II on the horizon, she decided to stay in England rather than join a Ballets Russes company that was re-assembling in the United States.

Kelly danced with Les Ballets Trois Arts and the Anglo-Polish Ballet, then later, with her first husband, a Polish merchant marine officer called Waldemar (as she describes him in her book) in pantomimes, cabarets and on television shows. The couple separated in the early 1950s.

Before accepting Marie Rambert’s offer to teach at her school in 1959, Kelly danced in The King and I

In 1964, she married Edward Kanski, and she continued to teach until she was 64 years old.

Strelsa Heckelman had a more indirect connection with the de Basil companies, but like Kelly, she also established a long career that interspersed ballet with commercial theatre and teaching.

In Brisbane, she was asked by de Basil to join the Original Ballet Russe – the third Ballets Russes’ company to tour Australia in 1939/40 – but her mother thought she was too young to travel at a time when the world was on the brink of war.

Instead, she trained at the Sydney school of the former Ballets Russes’ dancer, Helene Kirsova, then danced as a member of the Kirsova Ballet.

Heckelman was born in New Farm, Brisbane on 20 July, 1925 and began to dance, aged 8, at the Rahilly-Brown school, then continued her training with with Royal Academy of Dance teacher, Thelma Robertson.

By 13, she had passed all her RAD exams and had acted in radio plays and comedy shows.

The following year she moved to Kirsova’s school as a full time student in Sydney where she boarded in Hunter Street in the city.

She must have also studied with Valentin Zeglovsky as Heckelman has been identified in the group photo (bottom, left), taken by Sam Hood in October 1939 in Sydney, as the dancer in pale shoes, standing on pointe, to the right of Zeglovsky.

In early July 1941 newspaper articles featured Heckelman as one of Kirsova’s most talented students who would dance in Kirosva’s A Dream and a Fairy Tale premiering on 8 July 1941. Two articles gave Heckelman’s age as 14, but she must have been 15 at the time.

When Kirsova closed her company and left Australia, Heckelman worked at a photographic studio before joining the Borovansky Ballet.

When that company was in recess, she danced in the musicals Gay Rosalinda and Dancing Years and worked at the French perfume counter at Georges department store in Melbourne.

After performing with Laurel Martyn’s Ballet Guild in 1947 she danced in J C Williamson’s 1949 production of Oklahoma! in which were partners in the dream sequence ballet of the musical were Matt Mattox and Vassilli Trunoff.

Two years later Heckelman joined the cast of The Song of Norway.

With the National Theatre Ballet in the 1950s she was cast in leading roles in Swan Lake, Giselle, Graduation Ball and Protee.

After her retirement, Heckelman moved to Frankston and supplemented her weekend teaching with weekday work at the department store, Myer.

Heckelman had married Jack Carruthers, the official photographer for TAA, in 1951 and they had two children.

After his death, she married Tom Lording in 1981 and sold her dance studio in east Frankston however when Lording died the following year she returned to teaching as a locum.

In 2002, Heckelman became patron of the Tasmanian Ballet Company.