Madeleine Parker – sighs and whispers

Madeleine Parker was 25 when she danced for the last time of her life. She made her final appearance in Les Presages – French for omens or destiny – and it was Parker’s destiny to die far away from her homeland and family just one month later. Her role was called Frivolity but her brief life was more like another role in which she excelled, the Prelude in Les Sylphides, a reverie in which the dancer gently lifts her hand to her ear, the gesture representing some far away sighs and whispers, or perhaps the sound of a distant bell.

Parker, an American, was given the Russian stage name Mira Dimina in 1935, when she joined the Monte Carlo Ballet Russe, one of the companies formed in the wake of the death of Serge Diaghilev.

She arrived in Australia in October 1936 as a member of another Ballets Russes troupe newly assembled by the promoter, Colonel de Basil, for a tour of Australia in 1936/7.

This company – the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo – sailed from England on the Moldavia, reaching the west coast of Australia on October 6, 1936.

She spent just six weeks in Australia before dying of leukaemia on November 22 in a private hospital in Adelaide. The life and death of Parker is seldom recalled, but when it is, the emphasis is on the tragedy of a life lost at the age of 25 rather than the negligence and almost criminal lack of action on the part of others.

It seems inconceivable that a young woman, known to be physically delicate, pale and often listless, could be accepted as a member of the arduous tour when she was terminally ill and just six weeks away from death.

Was the sheer effort of planning the tour too much for the management, so much so that basic health checks were overlooked? It’s known that the tour group was put together with haste, with only a few weeks’ rehearsal period before they sailed. On board the Moldavia the management of the company was engaged in a chaotic power struggle, with fights breaking out between various factions. The dancers rehearsed, sometimes in the intense heat as the ship passed through the tropics. By the time the Moldavia reached Bombay, it was clear that Parker was unwell, according to an account of the voyage by Arnold Haskell. This English writer accompanied the tour group in the three roles of critic, publicist and the umpire of the unruly management.

On the other hand, Parker herself hid much of her pain. A few weeks before she died she confided in a friend that her “every movement” had been an effort for a year.

The symptoms of leukaemia are many, among them fever, fatigue, aches in the bones or joints, headaches, rashes, swollen lymph nodes, frequent infections, unexplained weight loss, slow healing cuts, nosebleeds or frequent bruises.