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The first wave of classical ballet in Australia

Australian classical ballet has had a concentrated and intense history since the early 1900s. Although Australian dance only became fully professional with the launch of the Australian Ballet in 1962 and the Australian Dance Theatre in 1965, its journey began much earlier.

Portrait of Emmy Towsey (Taussig) and Evelyn Ippen

Max Dupain, Portrait of Emmy Towsey (Taussig) and Evelyn Ippen. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an12114806.

Visiting international tours initiated an ongoing dance exchange between Australia, Russia and England. The first tour was by Adeline Genée in 1913. After that, the country was in awe of Anna Pavlova, the Ballets Russes and the Ballet Rambert. After the Second World War, the Borovansky Ballet dominated the Australian dance scene for many years before reforming as the Australian Ballet in 1962.

These international tours and the exchange of dancers greatly influenced the character and nature of Australian classical ballet, establishing the grounds for the development of technical virtuosity and excellence. The tours also established ballet as a highly popular art form with sold-out shows across capital cities and regional centres, with audiences enthralled by the dancers and the dance.

JC Williamson Ltd

JC Williamson Ltd played a major role in sponsoring most ballet tours during the first part of the 1900s.

Portrait of Adeline Genee

Unknown photographer, Portrait of Adeline Genée in the title role in La Camargo, c.1912, black and white photograph. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an10708505.

The theatrical organisation J. C. Williamson Ltd was an influential force in the growth of dance as a theatrical art form in Australia. The company provided work for Australian dancers and choreographers over its entire lifetime, and was instrumental in bringing to Australia major guest stars and companies from the international dance world. J. C. Williamson Ltd also played a significant role in the establishment of professional Australian ballet companies.
Australia Dancing website

Adeline Genée

Danish ballerina Adeline Genée was brought to Australia under the direction of J. C. Williamson Ltd. Genée appeared with members of the Imperial Russian Ballet and partnered with Alexander Volinin. She stayed in Australia for a season in Melbourne to perform Coppelia and was hailed 'the world's greatest dancer'. Her influence was so immense that her name has been given to an annual competition, the Adeline Genée Medal, which began in the 1930s.

Anna Pavlova tours 1926–1929

It was not long after this Danish visit that famous Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova toured Australia on two occasions: in 1926 and for sixteen weeks in 1929. Australia loved her; the box offices were overflowing. Pavlova travelled with her own ballet company through J.C. Williamson Ltd. In addition, dancer Algeranoff came to Australia with Pavlova in 1926 and 1929, later returning with the Ballets Russes.

Anna Pavlova arrives in Sydney, 1926.

Unknown photographer, Anna Pavlova arrives in Sydney, 1926, black and white photograph. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an24861820.

During her first tour, Pavlova visited Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide and was partnered by Laurent Novikoff. Her company presented 17 ballets as well as divertissements, including works Pavlova had choreographed herself. Pavlova's second tour, partnered with Pierre Vladimiroff, went to Townsville, Mackay, Rockhampton and Bundaberg before moving into the brand new His Majesty's in Brisbane. It also included Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth.

But it was not just JC Williamson Ltd and the Australian public who were in awe of Pavlova. Australia's Sir Robert Helpmann, who back then was only a teenager beginning his ballet career, was also an admirer. The renowned dancer and choreographer had been introduced to Pavlova by his pragmatic father, James Murray Helpman.

I sat and watched her every night for 15 months, and to me she was just unbelievable. But I learnt from her. I used to go into the theatre at about half past five and, standing on a barely lit stage, covered in woollen tights and woollen pullovers and shawls, would be this lonely figure practising right up to the moment they called quarter of an hour' before the performance. Then she would leave the stage and a few minutes later come back, this magic creature, and I realised then the tremendous, hard, gruelling, cruel work the ballet involves.
Interview with Sir Robert Helpmann by Hazel de Berg, 1974

Unfortunately, Pavlova never travelled to Australia again, as she died before her time of pleurisy in 1931.

Anna Pavlova

Harold Cazneaux, Anna Pavlova 1926. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an2383908-1.

Sir Robert Helpmann (1909–1986)

Pavlova had an immense influence on Helpmann, encouraging him to change the spelling of his surname from Helpman' to Helpmann' with two N's, as this fitted in better with his numerological letters, avoiding the bad luck of 13 letters.

Helpmann left Australia in 1933 for many years to join, at age 24, the Vic-Wells Ballet in London (which later became Sadler's Wells and the Royal Ballet) before returning to co-direct the Australian Ballet with Peggy Van Praagh between 1965 and 1974.

Helpmann met Ninette de Valois in London in the early 1930s. Valois is regarded as one of the most influential personalities in modern British ballet. When she met Helpmann, she said, I can do something with that face'. This meeting was pivotal in setting Helpmann on his prestigious career path, including securing the role of the principal dancer at Sadler's Wells ballet from 1933–1950. Helpmann partnered with Margot Fonteyn dancing the leading role in The Sleeping Beauty (1949).

Margot Fonteyn, who was ten years younger than Helpmann, also commented on his charismatic face. He was dark-haired, pale [with] large dark eyes.' Helpman's friendship with Fonteyn was life-long, enabling him to direct the world tour of Margot Fonteyn in 1963. Helpmann also appeared in many films, including two ballet films: The Red Shoes (1948) and The Tales of Helpmann (1951).

Dandre-Levitoff Russian Ballet company and Olga Spessivtzeva tour, 1934

Olga Spessivtzeva

Olga Spessivtzeva, 1934, used in the backdrop of Merryl Tankard production. Image courtesy of Regis Lansac.

Meanwhile, Australia was developing its own dance style and identity in the 1930s, particularly after Pavlova's second tour. But Australia was distracted by the Dandre-Levitoff Russian Ballet company, which toured in 1934. It was headed by Anatole Vilzak and the famous Russian ballerina Olga Spessivtzeva, who incidentally was the subject of modern Australian dancer Meryl Tankard's renowned piece Two Feet. This company had a strong link with the Russian Ballet Russes and Anna Pavlova, particularly as Victor Dandre had been Pavlova's manager.

Ballets Russes tours, 1936–1940

Australia was yet again captivated by another momentous international tour in 1936. This time it was Colonel de Wassily's Ballets Russes, an itinerant ballet company that had grown out of Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Diaghilev had changed the rules of ballet forever when he presented the Ballet Russes in Paris in May 1909 with Raslav Nijinsky, Anna Pavlova and Tamara Karsavina.

In 1912 audiences were shocked with Nijinsky's choreography in L'apres-midi d'un Faune (the afternoon of a faun) in The Rite of Spring with music by Stravinsky (1913). Najinsky created a choreography that exceeded the limits of traditional ballet and set the tone for a futuristic modern ballet. For sets and costumes Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes worked with Picasso, Matisse and Dali. For composers he looked to Stravinsky, Debussy, Prokofiev and Ravel.

David Lichine in L

Max Dupain, David Lichine in 'L'apres midi d'un faune', 1940. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an12114773.

The Ballet Russes was revolutionary, combining the best of visual arts, performing arts, classical dancers, composers and choreographers, to create a new and invigorating medium. The world sat up and took notice.
Gillian Lord, Panorama, Canberra Times 'Dancing into our hearts', 4 April 2009.

Following Diaghilev's death in 1929, Colonel Wassily de Basil's Ballets Russes visited Australia on three occasions between 1936 and 1940. The Ballet Russes brought out many renowned dancers. A tour between 1936 and 1937 toured with sixty-two dancers for nine months. The Original Ballet Russe or Colonel W. de Basil's Covent Garden Ballet travelled for seven months between 1938 and 1939. Colonel W. de Basil's Ballet Company toured from December 1939 until September 1940.


The Ballet Russe itself developed out of Imperialist Russia in the late 1800s during a period when dance on an international level was waning. Dance as an art form was losing its impact on the world in the late 19th century, Russia gave it new life. The phrase Ballets Russes comes from the French for The Russian Ballets.


The Ballet Russes toured Australia by train with fans crowding station platforms to see the stars. 'The country was dazzled'.

The Ballets Russes influenced Australia as an artistic nation. Indeed, Australia would never be the same afterwards. The Ballets Russes were flamboyant, colourful and introduced new music including that of Peter Tchaikovsky and Leo Delibes as well as choreography and photography to the country.

The glamour and talent of the dancers as part of this new form of expression influenced photographer Max Dupain and artist Daryl Lindsay, and became part of the essential experience of modernism in Australia.

Of particular interest to Australia was the photography of Australia's Max Dupain. These were exquisite black and white images of dancers in exotic locations such as Frenchs Forest in Sydney. Often, photographs of dancers would take place in a studio or on stage but Dupain concentrated on the outdoors as well as studio backdrops.

Nina Raievska

Max Dupain, Portrait of Nina Raievska between 1936-1937. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an12114790.

The Borovansky Ballet, 1942–1962

Once the Second World War took its hold, the Ballets Russes were unable to continue in Australia and ended their season in the spring of 1940. While the Ballet Russes returned to Europe, many of their international dancers stayed on. One of those was Edouard Borovansky – a strong-willed and often formidable Czech-born choreographer – who established the Borovansky Ballet with his wife Xenia in 1939. Borovansky had also come to Australia in 1929 as a dancer with the company of Anna Pavlova.

This company dominated the Australian ballet scene for almost two decades with performances and classes by Danish-born Helene Kirovsa. The Borovansky Ballet was sometimes called the Borovansky Australian Ballet Company, the Borovansky Ballet of 40 and the Borovansky Jubilee Ballet.

Despite the reputation he had for being difficult at times, his contribution to dance in Australia is inestimable. He provided Australian audiences with their main exposure to Western theatrical dance for two decades and paved the way for the development of a national company. At the Australian Dance Awards in 1999 he was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Australian Dancing website

Borovansky Ballet performance of snowflakes scene in Nutcracker

Walter Stringer, Borovansky Ballet performance of snowflakes scene in Nutcracker, c. 1956. Image courtesy of the National library of Australia: an24039900.

Peggy van Praagh

While Peggy van Praagh is renowned for her vital role in the development of dance in Australia through the Australian Ballet, she also contributed to early Australian Ballet through the Borovansky Ballet and Ballet Rambert, which she joined as a professional dancer in 1933.

The Kirsova Ballet, 1942–1944

Helene Kirsova also established a dance company in Sydney in 1942 but, unfortunately, it did not survive for as long as the Borovansky company, folding in 1944. The Kirsova Ballet, however, was integral to the development of dance in Australia, being Australia's first professional ballet company. Many of Kirsova's dancers stayed including Tamara Tchinarova and Polish dancers Raisse Kouznetsova, Valery Shaievsky and Edward Sobishevsy. Kirsova also supported significant Australian dancers such as Rachel Cameron, Strelsa Heckelman, Paul Hammond and Peggy Sager.

Portrait of Helene Kirsova

Max Dupain, Portrait of Helene Kirsova, 1936-1937, black and white photograph. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: n12114766.

Kirsova was an important patron of Australian artists, composers and set designers. She commissioned designs for her original ballets from artists such as Loudon Sainthill, Amie Kingston, Alice Danciger and Wolfgang Cardamatis. After the demise of the Kirsova Ballet in 1944, Kirsova kept her school running for a few more years before retiring to Europe in the late 1940s.
Australian Dancing website

The Ballet Rambert

The Ballet Rambert was a touring British company founded by Marie Rambert in London in the 1920s to foster new choreography. But when it visited Australia in association with the British Council from 1947–49, it developed an international profile.

Beginning in Melbourne in October 1947, the Ballet Rambert concluded in Perth in January 1949, giving more than 500 performances in venues including Adelaide, Brisbane, Broken Hill, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney. It also toured New Zealand in May 1948.

Sally Gilmour in Giselle

Jean Stewart, Sally Gilmour in Giselle, Ballet Rambert, ca. 1948, black and white photograph. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an11030051-34.

The company presented Giselle, Swan Lake Act II and Les Sylphides as well as contemporary choreography by English artists such as Frederick Ashton, Walter Gore, Andree Howard, Antony Tudor and Ninette de Valois. It also introduced Australian audiences to English designers Nadia Benois and Sophie Fedorovitch.

Many Australians were engaged by the company, including Kathleen Gorham, who danced under the name Ann Somers as well as Charles Boyd, who had performed with Ballet Rambert in England in the early 1940s.

Some Ballet Rambert dancers elected to travel to England with the company after its tour while others chose to remain in the country. Margaret Scott stayed on to become the founding director of the Australian Ballet School and Joyce Graeme established the Melbourne-based National Theatre Ballet Company in 1949.

Ballet Rambert was an English company and as such presented Australian audiences with a very different repertoire from what they were used to Out of a repertoire of just over 30 ballets, 26 were contemporary English creations, and many by English scenic designers. Ballet Rambert introduced Australian audiences to the work of English choreographers and to new, young English designers.
Michelle Potter, NLA News, 2002

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Last updated: 21 May 2010
Creators: Gillian Freeman, et al.