Semberova, the first Juliet

In a suburban street in Adelaide, a 99-year old woman lives with her dog, Mischa. He’s the second dog in her life, following Sasa, named in memory of her former mentor in Prague.

Zora Semberova can’t see very clearly these days, and her grasp of English is fading, but music remains a vital part of her life. She loves to listen to ballet music in particular, but even without a CD playing, she can still hear Prokoviev’s score for Romeo and Juliet in her mind. Little wonder. Semberova was the first ballerina to dance the role of Juliet to Prokofiev’s score, more than 70 years ago.

Semberova’s life, from her birthplace Vyškov, in the Czech Republic, to South Australia, is remarkable in every way, not least in the brave choices she made in both her private life and her professional life as a dancer and teacher.

She hopes to visit Prague when she turns 100 in March 2013, but before that, she is looking forward to attending the opening night of Graeme Murphy’s Romeo & Juliet in Adelaide.

Born in 1913, Semberova began training as a dancer at the age of nine, in the city of Brno. At 17, she moved to Paris to study with Olga Preobrajenska before returning to Brno as a soloist at the State Theatre; she then undertook further studies in Austria with the modern dance pioneer Rosalia Chladek.

Semberova once wrote: “Working one day with Rosalia on a choreographic piece, I felt as if I had been struck by lightning. I suddenly understood her teaching of the importance of selecting from my life’s experiences those simple feelings which I could truthfully recreate during dancing rather than simply pretend to feel … I said to myself, ‘Do feel, do feel and do not act.’”

This search for honesty was clear in Semberova’s response when she was asked to dance the role of Juliet by Ivo Vana-Psota, the artistic director of the Brno Ballet.

“From the very beginning”, wrote Semberova, “I was inspired by the beautiful, stirring music, which compelled me to insist that Juliet should not be danced on pointe as Psota originally wanted … Pointe would not allow me the freedom of movement to portray Juliet as I envisaged her. I believe my personal experiences (I was deeply in love at that time) helped me to understand the uncompromising intensity of first love, and I simply could not imagine myself on pointe being able to properly express the emotional subtlety of Prokofiev’s music, the intensity of Juliet’s feelings and the person of Juliet herself …”

Prokofiev’s score had been commissioned in 1935 by the Bolshoi Theatre, but was shelved, for multiple reasons. Not only was the score considered undanceable, but the authorities disapproved of Prokofiev’s proposed happy ending to the tale, and Prokofiev himself was not in favour with the newly formed Committee on Arts Affairs, which enforced ideological policy.

In January 1940, Romeo and Juliet was taken into the repertoire of the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad, with choreography by Leonid Lavrosky and Galina Ulanova as Juliet.

Semberova danced only eight performances in Czechoslovakia before the Germans invaded, in March 1939, and banned Russian works from the repertoire. After the war, she danced at the Prague National Theatre, starring in the ballet Viktorka, choreographed by Sasa Machov. But a year after its premiere in 1950, Machov, too, became a victim of political persecution.

As Semberova told the National Library of Australia’s dance curator, Lee Christofis, in an oral history interview, “he make suicide. And I will never forget it, and never, never will forget … For Sasa Machov I was able to do everything …”

Semberova married a surgeon, Dr Vaclav Holub, and they named their daughter Pamela, as Holub admired the dancing of the English ballerina Pamela May. After the marriage ended in divorce, Semberova met a German academic, Rainer Radok, who had taught in Europe and who became foundation professor of applied mathematics in 1966 at Australia’s Flinders University. In 1968 she flew to Adelaide to be with him and she soon took up a position at the university teaching movement to actors. Awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters in 1979, she taught many performers, among them director Scott Hicks and his wife Kerry Heysen; mime artist Jennifer Hope; Greig Pickhaver, and the director Gale Edwards.

Her most famous student, however, is Jirí Kylián, whom she taught at the Prague Conservatory in the 1960s.

As she once told The Prague Post, “he came to me as a very talented boy, but very locked, absolutely closed. He didn’t want to open himself. So we began a long process of exploration. He was striving for the expression he wanted”.

Just as Semberova did herself, leading the way for so many Juliets to follow.

Thanks to Pamela St Clair-Johnson, Semberova’s daughter, for help in researching her mother’s life.

This article first appeared in Behind Ballet, the blog of the Australian Ballet

© Valerie Lawson