Anna Pavlova

This article was first published in the State Library Magazine, Spring 2010.

The Burns Philp steamer, the SS Marella, arrived in Townsville on the morning of March 23, 1929, with an extraordinary passenger on board, Anna Pavlova.

She posed in a deckchair for a photographer then stepped ashore to be greeted by the locals who had gathered at the dock to gaze at the world’s most famous dancer.

Pavlova was a missionary, accustomed to taking her art to the world for more than 15 years, but this was to be the start of one of the strangest journeys of her life.

Over the next week, she and her troupe of dancers whizzed through north Queensland on a whistle stop tour, travelling on a train especially provided by Queensland Railways.

The story of why they danced in Townsville, Mackay, Rockhampton and Bundaberg can be pieced together through telegrams, letters written by dancers, and, for true local colour, through contemporary accounts in Queensland newspapers.

The tale begins with the deck chair publicity portrait, taken for J C Williamson Theatres, the Australian firm that presented Pavlova in her two tours here, first in 1926 then 1929.

The brothers Tait who ran the firm were accomplished publicists, always ready to rustle up a story when their stars came to town. Pavlova’s 1926 tour resulted in a feast of photography, with the ubiquitous freelancer, Sam Hood, snapping her arrival at Sydney’s Central Station, the Melbourne photographer, Spencer Shier taking Pavlova’s portrait in her Dying Swan costume, and Sydney’s Monte Luke photographing the star and some of her fellow dancers for The Home magazine.

As for the deckchair photo of 1929, it travelled from Townsville to JCW’s offices in Sydney and from there, eventually found its way into a collection of theatrical portraits owned by the journalist, writer and actress, Mary Marlowe. The collection was presented to the State Library of NSW in the 1960s.

The 1929 tour should have opened in Brisbane, but the Marella was delayed by bad weather and loading problems in Singapore, during its journey from Surabaya to Australia. The steamer stopped briefly in Darwin before sailing to Townsville.

But there was a much bigger hurdle at the Australian end. The first performances of the tour were scheduled for J C Williamsons’ newly refurbished Brisbane theatre, His Majesty’s. But renovations always run late and this was no exception.

When the ballet troupe was still in south east Asia, the Taits cabled Victor Dandre, Pavlova’s manager and de facto husband: “Can you extend Eastern tour, arriving Brisbane second April. Failing this propose arranging Townsville, Mackay, Rockhampton, Bundaberg, Maryborough, before Brisbane”.

Early in February 1929, Dandre replied: “Impossible extend tour must leave Surabaya March 8 arriving Townsville 19, stop. How many performances you think given in small cities. We could give two different programs composed of one ballet and two acts of divertissements. Without scenery in black curtains, stop”.

And so the provincial tour itinerary was settled, with the exception of Maryborough.

In Townsville, the first show took place at the Wintergarden theatre on March 23, the same day as the ship had arrived. The performance started very late, and one can imagine the frantic rehearsals at the theatre when the travelling trio of pianist, cellist and violinist were supplemented by a group of locally recruited musicians faced with the scores for Walpurgis Night, The Fairy Doll, and six divertissements, including the famous Dying Swan. After a second show on March 25, the company travelled overnight to Mackay for one performance at the Olympic Theatre on March 26, then on to Rockhampton the following day. The critic for The Rockhampton Morning Bulletin was so excited by the show at the local Wintergarden that he, or she, began their review with lines from Shakespeare’s poem Venus and Adonis.

The house was full, despite the weather. As soon as the curtain rose, the rain fell so heavily that it drowned out much of the music.

The dancers raced back to the station for their third overnight train journey, this time to Bundaberg on March 28, where advance publicity in the local Daily News and Mail included an article headlined “How to Keep Thin”.

Pavlova, the writer confided, “never eats red meat, bread and potatoes. For tea she has Russian tea, with milk and dry toast, and for supper, just tea and biscuits”.

The company opened in Brisbane on March 30 with an 11-performance season for which locals queued from 6am each day for tickets.

Pavlova’s Australian audiences were among the last to see her dance. Her long Australian tour ended in July, and she died 18 months later – during a European tour – in The Hague.
© Valerie Lawson, 2010

In 2010, Valerie won the Nancy Keesing Fellowship of the State Library of NSW for research into any aspect of Australian life and culture using the resources of the State Library. Her project is a history of dance in Australia from 1926 to the present day. It examines the development of theatrical dance and ballet from the first visit of Anna Pavlova in 1926 through to the establishment of the Bangarra Dance Company. The Library’s collections are surprisingly strong in this area.

The Nancy Keesing Fellowship, honouring key Australian literary figure, author and poet Nancy Keesing (1923-1993), was established by her husband, Dr Mark Hertzberg AO, past President of the Library Council of New South Wales.

Anna Pavlova at Townsville March, 1929, courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, order number P1/1327