07 January 2012

Ballets Russes: 1936-1940

When Sergei Diaghilev died in 1929, a number of Ballets Russes dance companies were formed. In the years just before WW2 erupted, three of the companies were brought to Australia via theatrical agents JC Williamson,  performing 44 works on tour. Thus the Australian public was introduced to a brilliant and exotic company of dancers, productions, stage designs, costumes and music, the likes of which could not have been imagined, this far from Europe. And so shortly after the Great Depression!

Presented in Australia by Diaghilev’s successor, Colonel Wassily de Basil, the Ballets Russes revitalised the art form of ballet and had a profound impact on Australian cultural life in the years 1936-40. Australians of all backgrounds were captivated by the dancers, who in turn came away with fond memories of Australia and its people.

Some dancers elected to remain here during the tours, and thanks to them, The Australian Ballet is able to trace a direct link to the Ballets Russes. Madame Helene Kirsova, for example, started a Russian ballet school at Macquarie Place in Sydney in 1940. In the following year, she started Australia’s first professional ballet company.

Mark Carroll ed, The Ballets Russes in Australia and Beyond, 2011.

In 2006, The Australian Ballet launched a great celebration as part of the research project Ballets Russes in Australia: Our Cultural Revolution. The project focused on the legacy of those pre-war visits to Australia, and culminated in 2009, the centenary of the founding of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in Paris. I discussed one of their exhibitions, Ballets Russes art and design, in this blog some time ago. Another part of the project was an analysis of legendary Russian choreographer, Leonide Massine, who was Serge Diaghilev’s third and most influential dance maker.

The Legacy the Ballet Russes project concluded with a 4-city, 12-day tour of central Europe, with a luxury travel tour company, Beyond the Curtain. Although this tour in April 2010 seemed to have me in mind when it was designed, I didn’t read the review in Luxury Travel Magazine until just recently. Perhaps a kind reader will provide some feedback on what was possibly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The tour couldn’t have been led by a more qualified person. Amanda Clerke-Moulds began her ballet training in Sydney with Edouard Borovansky, one of the original stars of the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo. Later she successfully auditioned for the Australian Ballet. Under the direction of Sir Robert Helpmann and Dame Peggy van Praagh, she danced with Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev and the company all over the world.

The travellers’ task was to explore the inner workings of some of Europe’s greatest ballet companies; they could watch the dancers in rehearsal, attend receptions with the stars of the ballet world, and take the best seats in the house for the performances. Tour guests could stay in grand old hotels close to the theatres in every city. You can find the detailed itinerary easily.

The tour began in Zurich, home to one of Europe’s most respected Ballet companies, the Zurich Ballet. There the visitors went on a private backstage tour of the Zurich Opera House, a building gilded with a history of famous composers and their music. Tour guests could meet the dancers before taking their seats for the company’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

Leaving Zurich behind, a first-class train journey took the tour through the stunning Swiss Alps and the quaint Bavarian countryside en route to Munich. The hotel was in Maximilianstrasse, a royal avenue known for its art galleries, designer stores, luxury boutiques and its proximity to the National Theatre.

The Bavarian State Ballet was preparing for the week long Munich Ballet Festival. The rehearsals for all the ballets in the Festival repertoire provided a behind the scenes look at a day in the life of a ballet company, the dancers and famous principal artists in action. Guests could explore the Bavarian State Opera House and then stay for a performance of Fiery Mazurka, a passionate, modern dance.

Hélène Kirsova and Igor Youskevitch, Le Carnaval, Sydney,1937. Nat Library Australia

A four-day stay in Prague was based in a hotel with views of Prague Castle. There was of course a private backstage tour of the National Theatre and a day tour of the Karlstejn Castle. And while Prague normally evokes a bygone era with its opulent architecture, the Prague Opera Ballet’s performance of Causa Carmen was a sultry, contemporary interpretation of the operatic classic.

In Vienna guests stayed at the historic Grand Hotel Wein, once the hub of Viennese society. This hotel is close to the Vienna State Opera House, a sumptuous neo-renaissance opera house with its world renowned Wiener Staatsoper Orchestra and Ballet. A meal with the artists of the Wiener Staatsballet was arranged and a private backstage tour of the historic Weiner Staatstheatre. The highlight of the evening was seeing the performance of Coppelia. I would not have wanted to go home!

Has any other Behind The Curtain Ballet Tour been organised before or since, from Australia or from anywhere else?

For a comprehensive analysis of the Ballets Russes in Australia between 1936 and 1940, read Australia Dancing. Or find the book The Ballets Russes in Australia and Beyond, a series of essays discussing how the tours of the Ballets Russes companies created a lasting legacy in dance, visual art and music. It was published by Wakefield Press in August 2011.

Costume for a squid, designed by Natalia Goncharova, Nat Gall Australia 


Hermes said...

Great post.
Not sure if you can get this:

Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, famous for their riotous Parisian premieres of ballets including The Rite of Spring, The Firebird, Scheherazade and Petrushka, spent longer in England than anywhere else.

Jane Pritchard, Curator of Dance at the Victoria and Albert Museum, tells this unlikely story, with the help of Nijinsky's head-dress, Cecchetti's cat and Sokolova's little black book.

Deb said...

Can't tell you about Behind The Curtain Ballet Tour but I can tell you about A Festival of Baroque Music which sounded very similar. Email me any time.

Hels said...


Great stuff, thank you. I loved "stranded and penniless in neutral Spain in 1918, Sir Oswald Stoll, who owned the London Coliseum music hall offered Diaghilev a season of variety. Diaghilev had misgivings, but was forced to accept. Tickets were cheap and performances were twice daily. Leonide Massine had usurped Nijinsky and was now not only given Nijinsky's roles, but became principal choreographer. He was heavily influenced by Cubism, Futurism and silent films which audiences at the Coliseum could fully relate to."

No wonder the Ballets Russes' impact on Britain was huge. They were there from 1918 onwards.

Hels said...


I looked it up straight away and it sounded fantastic, thank you.

As Joe and I get into serious middle age, these packages of concerts/opera/ballet, dinners, lectures, 19th century hotels and travel appeal more and more.

P. M. Doolan said...

I'm happy to see that this Behind the Curtain tour began with a perfromance in thewonderful city of Zurich. Heinz Spoerli is a gifted driector and choreographer and has helped put Zurich on the ballet map.

Hels said...

Dr Doolan

If I knew the tour had to be limited to four cities, I could not have selected better places than Zurich, Munich, Prague and Vienna. Going by what the tour documents said, the Zurich Ballet Company is truly impressive. And think of all the other places in Zurich that a cultural tour would love.

Nicholas V. said...

Amazing that such a renowned ballet company should come to Australia, which to them must have seemed like the ends of the earth and a cultural backwater.

Hels said...

how right you are.

An ABC doco called “A Thousand Encores: Ballets Russes in Australia” showed one of the Ballets Russes companies (Monte Carlo) on three visits to Australia in the 1936-40 era. Not only do you see the modernity of the dancers, but also how thrilled Australians were to see them performing. Almost everywhere! In 1937, for example, they toured Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and then to New Zealand.

Anonymous said...

Excellent read, I just passed this onto a friend who was doing some research on that. And he just bought me lunch because I found it for him smile Therefore let me rephrase that: Thanks for lunch!
Easton Synergy FP Youth Leg Guard

Hels said...


a spotter's fee! Perfect :)

This was the fifth blog post I have written about Ballets Russes.. just look under the label "music theatre ballet".