David Lichine’s Australian years with and without Borovansky

The audience at Sydney’s Theatre Royal was thrilled to see the glamorous Ballets Russes’ star for the first time.

The Russian dancer, David Lichine, was making his Australian debut on 6 January 1939 when he partnered Irina Baronova in Leonide Massine’s ballet, Choreartium, during the second
Ballets Russes’ tour to Australia.

A knee injury had delayed his first appearance with the touring company of 1938/9 in which he was listed as both a dancer and choreographer.

The repertoire of that company, billed as the Covent Garden Russian Ballet, included three of Lichine’s ballets, Les dieux mendiants, Protee and The Prodigal Son.

This was not his last visit to Australia as Lichine soon returned, at the end of 1939, for the third Ballets Russes’ tour and once again in 1955 when he choreographed works for the Borovansky Ballet.

One of those ballets, his Nutcracker Suite, later entered the repertoire of the Australian Ballet in 1963, a year after the company was formed.

I’ve been thinking of Lichine ever since a friend sent me a copy of a two-page article published in the magazine, Woman’s Day and Home, on 26 September 1955, in which Lichine and Edouard Borovansky chatted with the reporter, Keith Hooper, about ballet, cooking, fishing and Lichine’s plans to become a naturalised American.

He was born David Lichtenstein in Rostov-on-Don in 1910. Borovansky was born in the Czech Republic in 1902.

I can’t even imagine a women’s magazine dedicating two pages to ballet today. Their focus is on celebrities, and choreographers and artistic directors definitely don’t fit into that category in 2014.

Still, even in 1955, the women’s magazines had to take care not to frighten their readers with too much high art and elitism. The Woman’s Day reporter was careful to portray both the Russian and the Czech as (fairly) ordinary blokes.

After a preamble about the new Nutcracker, Woman’s Day readers learned that Lichine preferred to cook than watch his own ballets on stage.

In the interview Boro jumped into the conversation: “So now you are a cook, David? Tomorrow, my friend, you cook for all of us. We’ll see how good you are”.

Lichine replied: “You should see my cooking, Boro. I create every dish. None are ever the same”.

Boro: “Can anybody eat these dishes you create?”

Lichine: “My wife is the only person who complains. She has spasms when I start to cook. She has to wash the dishes.”

Lichine went on to talk of his love for fishing (a passion shared by Boro) and his plan to become a naturalised American citizen.

His life to date represented the lives of many Russians who relocated to France after the Bolshevik revolution. He studied ballet in Paris with Lubov Egorova and Bronislava Nijinsky before he began his very successful years with the Ballets Russes after which he moved to Los Angeles where his career expanded to dancing and choreographing for movie musicals.

In the mid-1950s, Borovansky invited him to create a new Nutcracker, and, with designs by Elaine Haxton, the ballet premiered on 16 December 1955 with Peggy Sager as the Sugar Plum Fairy, Royes Fernandez as the Prince, John Auld as Drosselmeyer and an 11 year old Borovansky student, Alida Glasbeck as Clara.

In her autobiography, Out of Step, published in 1993, Alida recalled the less than jolly relationship between Boro and Lichine.

As a child, she had witnessed the tension during rehearsals of Nutcracker when the two men “squabbled like children…

“Unfortunately for me I became the meat in the sandwich, as one of the main issues they bickered about was how the role of Clara should be presented. Monsieur Borovansky wanted to highlight my precocity, but Mr Lichine had other ideas.

“He felt that the choreography for Clara should be kept low-key, more dependent on mime and the inherent appeal of having a cute little child as a central character. He did not want Clara to have any long solos. The real dancing as far as he was concerned should be left to the adults.

“But Monsieur got his way, and begrudgingly Lichine let me dance sur les pointes, and choreographed a little solo for me to show off my fouettes. Naturally all this did not help my relationship with Lichine.

“The disruption continued, and the rehearsals almost ground to a halt. Eventually Lichine banned Borovansky from rehearsals altogether, and after that things progressed much more smoothly.

“Lichine’s choreography was pure Hollywood. The initial ideas were excellent, but he tended to drown his choreography under a layer of cuteness and slapstick…Boro eventually saved the production from disaster; as soon as Lichine departed, he dispensed with huge chunks of gauche choreography, and toned down Lichine’s wider lapses”.

A report of the production, published early in 1956 by The Australian Women’s Weekly, described what the journalist called the acrobatic “Arabian pas de deux” that was “one of the comedy spots in the ballet”, while the tea for the Chinese divertissement was “brought from China in a giant teapot” with the lid revealed as a parasol.

In her teenage years, Alida continued her ballet training in Russia then danced London and New York as Alida Belair. She was also a member of the Australian Ballet in 1969/70.

As for Lichine, he choreographed another Nutcracker for the Festival Ballet in London in 1957, continued his choreographic career and taught ballet in Los Angeles with his wife, Tatiana Riabouchinska.

He died in 1972 at the age of only 61.

As a choreographer, Lichine is best known for Graduation Ball but there is so much more to his life yet to be told.