From Warsaw to Dunedin, the unfortunate life of Thadee Slavinsky

Maybe it’s because he died in Dunedin, New Zealand – where I was born – or maybe it’s because he lived his short life to the full while also taking every opportunity to get tangled into trouble.

Or perhaps it’s all three aspects of Thadee Slavinsky that sent me on a search to know more about the life of a man who danced with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, then with Pavlova’s touring company that came to Australia in 1929, then travelled again with the first Ballets Russes tour to Australia and finally with the Borovansky Ballet.

During these tours trouble followed Slavinsky, or maybe Slavinsky himself was looking for a little trouble.

Incident 1: The fight with Diaghilev, 1926

In Monte Carlo, during a Ballets Russes’ rehearsal of Bronislava Nijinska’s Romeo & Juliet, Diaghilev lost his temper when Slavinsky failed to show up.

In the studio were Serge Grigoriev, the company’s régisseur, Constant Lambert, the ballet’s composer, who was playing the piano for the rehearsal, Lydia Sokolova, playing the role of the Nurse, and Diaghilev’s guest, Florrie Grenfell, a socialite and balletomane, whose lover was Diaghilev’s star dancer, Leon Woizikowsky.

In his biography of Diaghilev, the writer, Richard Buckle, described the embarrassment that followed: “Slavinsky, who was to open the scene did not turn up. Diaghilev began walking up and down, banging his stick.

“Grigoriev, who always got a red spot on his cheek when he was disturbed, knew as well as the rest of the company which lady Slavinsky, who boasted about his conquests, was probably in bed with.

“When the culprit had been found, he and Diaghilev nearly came to blows. They were pulled apart while Lambert, at the piano, went pale, appeared to faint and had to be revived by the dancer Lydia Sokolova”.

Incident 2: the kiss on the boat

When Pavlova’s company was on its way to Australia a scandal erupted on board when two dancers, Elsa D’Arcy and Slavinsky, were spotted by a prudish passenger who caught them cuddling and kissing.

The stickybeak couldn’t wait to complain to Pavlova.

Instead of reprimanding Slavinsky, Pavlova blamed D’Arcy and took away some of her roles in the ballets she would have danced in Australia.

In London, after the tour, D’Arcy sued Pavlova for slander in the High Court of Justice, accusing her of jealousy over the younger woman’s age and beauty. D’Arcy won the case and was awarded costs.

Incident 3: De Basil’s Monte Carlo Russian Ballet, 1936-37

When the Ballets Russes was performing in Dunedin, Slavinsky was charged with drunk driving and taken to prison. He was bailed but his injuries were so severe he wasn’t able to continue the tour.

In a letter written home to her mother, the dancer, Betty Scorer, wrote: “The day before we left, Slavinsky, while completely drunk drove a hired car head-on into a telegraph pole at 40 miles per hour. The car was more utterly smashed than I have ever seen a car, but Slavinsky and a friend were quite badly cut about the face. It happened just outside our hotel…Slavinsky was put in prison, but finally let out on 15 pounds bail that [Alexandre] Philipoff paid”.

Incident 4: The Sydney pub, 1940

According to police reports, on 5 October, 1940, Slavinsky, then living in Sydney where he ran a dance studio at Henrietta Lane, was ‘alleged to have made subversive utterances in the bar of Usher’s Hotel, Sydney’.

Another man in the bar, John Beaumont-Haines alleged that Slavinsky said ‘the English are not fighters, they are always in the back line and push others into the front line, such as the French, Poles and Colonials’. After a heated argument, George, a hotel attendant, asked Slavinsky to leave.

The police report continued: “He [Slavinsky] states that in 1939 he formed what was known as the Australian-Polish Ballet in Sydney.

“He denies having made the disloyal remarks – states that Beaumont-Haines…was at a party at his studio when a row incurred and Haines was asked to leave…

“His sympathies are entirely with his country and he is absolutely pro-British – gave the names of references, Mrs T H Kelly, Mr E J Tait and Mr Bowden, directors of the Theatre Royal…who have all been contacted and speak very well of Slavinsky”.

Incident 5: Dunedin – again, 1945

During the Borovansky Ballet tour of New Zealand Slavinsky had a heart attack and was taken from his hotel to Dunedin Hospital where he died on 22 January, 1945.

A requiem mass was held St Joseph’s Cathedral.

The pallbearers included the dancers Vassilie Trunoff, Max Collis, and the New Zealander, Bryan Ashbridge, who had joined the Borovansky company during its months in New Zealand. The young dancers accompanied the funeral vehicles to Anderson’s Bay Cemetery where Slavinsky was buried.

That was a long way from Warsaw where he was born, but perhaps Slavinsky’s final resting place was a more beautiful place, with a better view, than anywhere in Poland during the turbulence of World War II.

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