The Ballets Russes in Australia and Beyond

In the winter of 2005, the University of Adelaide, the National Library of Australia and the Australian Ballet, received a grant of close to $A400,000 from the Australian Government.

It came via the Australian Research Council, a statutory authority, and was to be spent researching the impact of the Ballets Russes tours of Australia that took place from 1936-1940.

The resulting four-year project encompassed a National Library exhibition, a symposium at the university and ballet productions from 2006 to 2009, each acknowledging the choreographers of either the Ballets Russes established by Basil or the original Ballets Russes of Diaghilev.

The ballets included Les Sylphides, Spectre de la Rose, Petrouchka, Scheherezade, a new Firebird by Graeme Murphy, a re-working of Rites by Stephen Page, Les Presages, a new Symphonie fantastique by Krzysztof Pastor, a new Scuola di ballo, by Alexei Ratmansky, and a new work by Wayne McGregor.

The driving forces behind the project were Nicolette Fraillon, chief conductor and music director of the Australian Ballet, Mark Carroll, associate professor at the Elder Conservatorium at the University of Adelaide, and Lee Christofis, curator of dance at the National Library of Australia, with Richard Stone at the National Library an assiduous researcher throughout the years of the project.

The contributors and researchers not only trawled the archives but also called on the memories of three former Ballets Russes dancers living in Australia, Irina Baronova, Valrene Tweedie and Anna Volkova.

Sadly, Baronova and Tweedie have since died.

Now, the Ballets Russes’ project has returned for a final curtain call with the publication this month by Wakefield Press of The Ballets Russes in Australia and Beyond, edited by Mark Carroll and with essays by the contributors listed below.

As I’m one of them, this not a review, but rather, an acknowledgment of the book, and the effort that’s gone into it, and a few thoughts on some of the research and the photographs – the latter taking hundreds of hours to locate and research.

Most of the 358 pages of the book contain photos, illustrations, artwork or images of newspaper or magazine pages so you can imagine the extent of the research work involved.

Many images are from the National Library of Australia – in some cases copy prints from the State Library of New South Wales – and of course the Australian artists and photographers who covered the Ballets Russes tours, either professionals or amateurs, are well represented.

Among them are Max Dupain, Nanette Kuehn, Walter Stringer, Ewan Murray-Will, Patricia Mary Cape and Hugh P Hall, along with photos supplied by former dancers or members of their families

The Sydney Morning Herald’s photographic archive was also a source as the Ballets Russes’ dancers were so photogenic and appealing for the print media at the time.

Among the artists represented are Daryl Lindsay – whose atmospheric, Degas-like sketches show how much the ballet body has changed in the last 70 years – and Loudon Sainthill, Alice Danciger and Sidney Nolan.

The least familiar images, at least for me, are those credited to Lebrecht Music & Arts photo library, including fascinating studies of Leonide Massine with Picasso and Matisse.

Despite the impressive and long lasting effect the Ballets Russes companies had on Australian audiences and the arts community, the legacy of many of the works they brought was not so profound.

As Lynn Garafola, a contributor to the book, writes, Col. de Basil’s taste ran to the middlebrow, while Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes was always associated with artistic experimentation.

Garafola, a distinguished author and dance scholar, writes in her essay on Massine that his vision of ballet as a living, contemporary art and that of the mainstream aesthetic espoused by the de Basil company and its apologists, such as Arnold Haskell, were in conflict.

That conflict led to a split between de Basil and Massine. Neverthless, Massine’s plotless, semi-allegorical ballets such as Les Presages were seen in Australia and made a lasting impression on Australian audiences.

Garafola’s essay, the longest in the book, is rigorous in its exploration of Massine’s work, and reflects the social, political and theatrical context of the times in which it was created.

I liked her comparisons of the vertical lifts in Massine’s ballets with acrobatic adagio, so popular in revues of the 1920s, the way in which she describes the costumes of Massine’s ballet, Choreartium as reflecting the flowing deco line of Madeleine Vionnet’s 1930s sensuous yet simple evening wear and her mini essay on the use of the pyramid shape in dance works from Symphonie Fantastique to Les Noces to Martha Graham’s Heretic.

The Ballets Russes in Australia and Beyond also goes beyond the usual subjects covered in many art gallery Ballets Russes catalogues and essay compilations in that it explores the travels of the 1930s troupes to New Zealand and the machinations and makeup of the orchestras that accompanied them in fascinating essays by Mark Carroll, Lee Christofis, and Richard Stone.

Finally, there is one new, gossipy anecdote in the book about a very nasty shoe and costume shredding that was inflicted on Anna Volkova. Unlike the song in A Chorus Line, everything is not beautiful at the ballet. Far from it.

The Ballets Russes in Australia and Beyond, edited by Mark Carroll, Wakefield Press, rrp $75
Jane Albert, Alan Brissenden, Mark Carroll, Lee Christofis, Michael Christoforidis, Joel Crotty, Helen Ennis, Gillian Forwood, Lynn Garafola, Stephanie Jordan, Valerie Lawson, Andrew Montana, Felicity St John Moore, Richard Stone.