Tracing the path of the mystery man of the Ballets Russes in Australia

His first name was Otis. His second name was Pearce, or maybe Pierce, as his name was often spelt.

He is the mystery man of the second Ballets Russes’ tour to Australia, the friend and lover of Anton Dolin, the 20th century ballet dancer who was the first Englishman to establish a major career as a principal artist, and who formed dance partnerships with Irina Baronova and Alicia Markova.

Dolin was his stage name. His friends called him Pat, short for Patrick although his full name was Sydney Francis Patrick Chippendall Healey-Kay.

Trawling through a stack of Ballets Russes’ press clippings, books, cables, personnel lists, and photos, I’ve put together an incomplete profile of Pearce who was listed as “an accompanying person” on the 1938/39 tour, along with a handful of others who were the spouses or children of dancers, or managers or choreographers on the tour.

The basic facts are these: Pearce was a rich American, born in December 1912, very amusing, good company, much travelled, a fabulous party host, had a “sweet baby face” and drove a large black Buick.

It’s highly likely that Pearce, rather than the Ballets Russes’ tour managers, J C Williamsons, paid for Dolin’s flight from Europe to Australia and just as likely that he travelled with Dolin on the flight.

The journey from England to Australia began on 19 September, 1938, with the first leg being a flight out of Croydon airport, as reported by T J Cochran, who interviewed Dolin for an article in the Australian magazine, The Home.

Part of the journey was documented in Anton Dolin: Autobiography, published by Oldbourne, London, in 1960.

Dolin wrote: “I was the first person in the world of theatre to fly, in September 1938, from London to Australia. We stayed in Amsterdam the first night and the real flight by KLM began from there. The schedule was to get up at dawn each morning and fly for between twelve and fifteen hours a day, for six days”.

(The plane was a KNILM Super-Electra airliner).

Once the couple was in Australia, Pearce’s name appeared in the social pages of various newspapers. He was usually described as a party guest.

The most comprehensive information on Pearce can be found in The Story of the Theatre Royal, written by Ian Bevan and published by Currency Press in 1993. (The Theatre Royal was the venue for the Ballets Russes’ season in Sydney in 1938/39.)

Bevan wrote that Dolin “was reputedly the first theatrical artist Williamsons had brought to Australia by air though his fare was actually paid by Otis Pearce, a wealthy American (and at that time his lover) who accompanied him”.

But how did Bevan know this? His background was in newspapers, beginning with The Sun in Sydney in 1938, then in show business and working as an agent for the Theatre Royal in London.

Bevan’s obituary, published in the UK magazine, The Stage, in 2006, gives more details.

“In the late fifties he (Bevan) set up Talent Artists, a theatrical and literary agency whose diverse clients included the playwright Ronald Millar, singer Tommy Steele and the ballet dancer John Gilpin”.

So here, it seems, is the link. John Gilpin was Dolin’s lover from the 1950s, and the couple lived together for many years. Their relationship began at the London Festival Ballet, a company founded by Anton Dolin and Alicia Markova. Soon after the company began, Gilpin joined as a dancer, later becoming assistant artistic director and finally artistic director from 1962 to 1965.

Gilpin died at the early age of 53 in September 1983. Dolin died two months later, aged 79, in November 1983. Gilpin had written the prologue for Dolin’s memoir, Last Words, posthumously published in 1985.

The two would have shared many memories, the Ballets Russes’ tour among them and Dolin is likely to have told Gilpin about his former relationship with Pearce.

Dolin had known Pearce as far back as the mid-1930s. Dolin’s book, Ballet Go Round, published 1936, includes this snippet: “Otis Pierce [spelt this way in the book] decided to spend his summer with me at St Anne’s. He is, like most Americans, a much travelled young man and I was afraid he might be bored by the quiet life there, but, on the contrary, he seemed thoroughly happy and was a most wonderful help to me, always ready to drive or to take my mother [Helen] to a theatre or film…”

I’m not sure yet if St Anne’s was a place or the name of a house.

In Last Words, Pearce makes another appearance when Dolin recalls the Ballets Russes’ Australian tour.

After the Ballets Russes’ season in Melbourne “we went to the Theatre Royal, Sydney, and after a highly successful season of six weeks, we left by boat for New Zealand…my friend, Otis Pearce, (was) travelling with me as assistant to Sevastianov…”

(German Sevastianov, known as Gerry, was the manager of the tour, and one of the right hand men of the Ballets Russes’ boss, Colonel de Basil.)

Sevastianov, and his wife, the ballerina, Irina Baronova, moved into a house in Toorak, Melbourne, for the duration of the Melbourne season. As soon as they arrived at their new temporary home, Baronova was contacted by Anton Dolin who, she wrote in her memoir, Irina, that Dolin “had arrived the previous day with his friend, the sweet baby-faced Otis Pearce”.

Dolin invited Baronova and Sevastianov to meet him and Pearce at their hotel. Baronova remembered their “jolly lunch with Pat and Otis at their most elegant hotel near our theatre…”

The theatre was His Majesty’s, not far from the Hotel Windsor, the most likely “elegant” hotel.

In Melbourne, the partying began for the dancers.

The Argus reported on 15 November, 1938, that a Miss Valerie Purves had 90 guests to her Toorak home to meet Anton Dolin and “Mr and Mrs Larry Adler”.

“Noticed” among the guests was Otis Pearce.

By Christmas, the company was in Sydney, where, wrote Baronova, “Pat and Otis found a plant vaguely resembling a Christmas tree and decorated it richly..we had some great parties around it…”

On 30 December, after the premiere of David Lichine’s Prodigal Son, with Dolin in the role of the Son, The Sydney Morning Herald reported, “Mr Dolin was a member of a party which was entertained by Mr Otis Pearce at the Carl Thomas Club”.

Although Baronova and Sevastianov had been married in a civil ceremony in the United States, Sevastianov decided they should have a church wedding in Sydney, asking Dolin to be his shafer (Russian for ‘best man’).

Victor Dandre, the chairman and a director of the Ballets Russes’ tour, was to be the shafer (bridesman) for Baronova.

The witnesses were Pearce and Olga Larose, the company’s wardrobe mistress.

“At Russian weddings”, Baronova explained in her memoir, “the shafters’ duty is to stand right behind the bride and groom during most of the service and hold crowns over their heads. I naturally would have preferred to have Pat as my Shaffer but I was not consulted…”

When the crowning ceremony began, Dandre started hiccupped and couldn’t stop.

“Otis giggled, I was struggling not to…the crown kept bouncing off my head while Otis emitted choking sounds…‘Otis shut up and take over’. commanded Pat in a loud whisper.

“Otis grabbed the crown and Mme Larose grabbed Dandre and propelled him out into the garden…Dandre was still hiccupping when we left the church …”

The next day it was decided that Dandre must leave Australia and return to England as soon as possible.

After the Sydney season ended the company sailed to New Zealand for a tour that began on 1 February.

Baronova wrote that “it was a lovely sunny day when we disembarked gratefully at Christchurch and with Pat and Otis in our open car we drove to the hotel assigned to us”. They would have “disembarked” at the port town of Lyttleton, close to Christchurch.

When the company returned from New Zealand to Australia for a second Melbourne season, Pearce travelled on the Union Steamship Company ship, the Maunganui.

Australian passenger records show “Pierce, Otis, born 27 December 1912; nationality American; travelled per Maunganui, arriving in Melbourne on 25 March 1939”.

The Ballets Russes’ tour ended in Adelaide but the principal artists, including Dolin, travelled back to Sydney for a midnight farewell performance at the Theatre Royal on 27 April, 1939.

Among the ballets performed was a scene from Swan Lake in which Pearce made his first, and possibly his last, stage appearance.

In his book on the Theatre Royal, Ian Bevan described Pearce’s role as “the gesturing but non dancing Evil Genius”.

Pearce’s name is listed in the program as “a dancer”.

Most of the principal artists, along with Pearce, sailed from Australia to Los Angeles on the luxury liner, the SS Monterey.

World War II was just over four months away.

Dolin’s days with de Basil’s Ballets Russes were over.

In 1940, in the United States, he joined the new company, Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre), where he remained until 1946.

What happened to Otis Pearce?

Well that’s where my trail comes to an end.

More, I hope, to come, as I continue the Otis search and his life post-Dolin.