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The Kirsova Story

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The Story Behind the Park

The text of a talk on Helene Kirsova given by John Hood at the AGM of the Glebe Society on 19 September 2004.

(Reproduced from The Glebe Society Bulletin, October/November 2004)

 

Kirsova Park in Wigram Lane, behind this building, is one of a series of playgrounds endowed by Helene Kirsova from the profits of the Kirsova Ballet. I had never heard of Kirsova until 8 years ago, when I began writing a biography of Peggy Sager, Australia’s finest classical ballerina of the 1940s and 1950s. Peggy made her ballet debut in the Kirsova Ballet.

 

During my research for the book I interviewed former dancers from the Kirsova Ballet and spent three full days in Canberra exploring the extensive Kirsova Archive in the Research Library of the National Gallery of Australia. I uncovered material about Kirsova not mentioned in any other book.

 

Kirsova was born in Denmark in 1910. Little is known of her early years. However we do know that she was a very popular ballerina in Denmark as a teenager, and in subsequent years she always wore a diamond-studded, crown shaped gold brooch that the King of Denmark presented to her in recognition of her dancing. She trained under Lubov Egorova and Olga Preobajenska at their studios in Paris. These were the greatest ballet teachers of their time, and had taught at the Imperial Ballet Academy in St Petersburg and the Maryinsky (Kirov) Ballet.

 

Kirsova was the star of the De Basil Ballet Russe in its 1936-1937 Australian tour. After the tour she returned to Europe to finalise her divorce to a Mr Westrup. (In his book “The Story of the Theatre Royal”, Ian Bevan stated that Westrup had “trained Kirsova like a racehorse”). Kirsova then returned to Australia and married Dr Erik Fischer, the Danish Vice-Consul. They lived at Clifton Gardens and had one son, called Olle.

 

With the threat of war in Europe, other dancers had stayed in Australia, including Edouard Borovansky, who opened a ballet school in Melbourne.

 

In 1940, Kirsova opened a ballet school in Macquarie Place, near Circular Quay.  The building now houses the Marriott Hotel. It was a palatial studio, with a grand piano in the corner for classes and rehearsals. Prue Page, a member of the Glebe Society, was a pupil at Kirsova’s Ballet School when she was seven years old.

 

In 1941 Kirsova opened a ballet company. She enrolled all her dancers in Actors Equity, paid their subscriptions and then paid them a wage when they were performing. This was Australia’s first professional ballet company.

 

She worked her dancers hard. If she recognised dancers with special talent who were prepared to work hard, she spent extra time with them and worked them extra hard.

 

There were14 ballets in the Company’s repertoire. Kirsova choreographed all these ballets except for Les Sylphides and Swan Lake. It was original, innovative choreography.

 

She loved modern art and contemporary music, interests she shared with one of her supporters, Peter Bellew, Editor of a Fairfax magazine, Art in Australia, and President of the Contemporary Art Society of Australia.

 

She encouraged her dancers to study modern art. She brought books on modern art from her home for them to read. If they understood modern art, they could understand what she aiming for with her choreography.

 

She considered ballet should be a balanced combination of décor, music and dancing.

She welcomed members of all branches of the fine arts to visit her studio. It became a meeting place where they shared ideas, stimulating their creativity. Young artists drew sketches of the dancers in class and in rehearsals. They handed the unsigned sketches to the dancers after rehearsals. These unknown artists included Sali Hermann, Arthur Boyd, William Dobell, Amy Kingston and others. She commissioned the visiting artists to design scenery and costumes.

 

She wrote two major full-length ballets, commissioning Henry Krips to write the scores. The first of these was Faust, based on a poem by the 17th century German poet Heinrich Heine.

 

Six dancers were the mainstay of her company in its early days. These were four colleagues from the Ballet Russe who had stayed in Australia, also Henry Legerton, an Australian who had trained in England, and whom she considered had the potential to become Australia’s greatest dancer, and her Baby Ballerina, 14 year old Strelsa Heckelman.

 

These six dancers danced the leading roles in Faust. It premiered at the Minerva Theatre at Kings Cross and was an outstanding success. It ran for six weeks with 25 consecutive performances. Kirsova claimed this was a world record. Two other teenage dancers had joined the company at this stage, Rachel Cameron, a Queenslander, and Peggy Sager, who had come from New Zealand.

 

The company then went to Melbourne for a successful season at His Majesty’s Theatre. Kirsova hired the theatre from J C Williamsons, who owned most of the theatres in Australia and New Zealand. Part of the packaged deal included the use of a J C Williamson orchestra. Kirsova believed that two excellent duo pianists on grand pianos were better than a mediocre orchestra. She paid the orchestra’s wages but did not use them. She used duo pianists for all her ballets.

 

Following a disagreement with Kirsova, three of the Ballet Russe dancers left her company after the Melbourne season. All her male dancers were then conscripted into the army. Kirsova therefore did not have enough principal dancers or male dancers for another season. She spent the next 12 months training new dancers. Paul Hammond joined the company after he left school. He had talent and was prepared to work hard. Kirsova therefore choreographed all her male parts for him.

 

By 1943, Kirsova’s dancers were trained well enough to do justice to her innovative choreography. She resumed performances with short seasons at the Conservatorium every few months. These played to packed houses. One of the new ballets was Revolution of the Umbrellas, a full length major work. Henry Krips wrote the score. He was influenced by the music of Stravinsky. Henry Krips and teenage prodigy Richard Farrell played the pianos.

 

Kirsova choreographed a short ballet, Jeunesse, based on the Trio for Piano, Oboe and Bassoon by contemporary French composer Francis Poulenc. The atonal music interacted with the choreography to create visual poetry. She showed that atonal music could be romantic.

 

Her masterpiece was Harlequin, based on Ravel’s Rhapsody Espagnol. She told Paul Hammond to study Picasso’s paintings of the Pink and Blue period so that he could understand what she wanted from her choreography.

 

J C Williamsons sponsored a five month tour of Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane. Every performance was booked out. Kirsova and the critics agreed that three of her dancers, Peggy Sager, Strelsa Heckelman and Rachel Cameron, were world class. At the end of the tour she remarked to Rachel Cameron “If only I could take the company overseas at this stage, it would scoop the pool”.

 

J C Williamsons offered her a salaried position to run her company for them. She and all her dancers would be on a regular salary. However she would have to present the popular ballets from the Ballet Russe instead of her new ballets. She would also have to use J C Williamsons’ orchestras, their costume department and their scenery.

She refused the offer. All she wanted was the use of their theatres. They made the same offer to Borovansky and he accepted. As they could only use one ballet company, J C Williamsons had no further use for Kirsova.

 

J C Williamsons controlled most of the theatres, which were all in use. As she could not book consecutive theatres, she could not organise a tour. Consequently she could not offer her dancers regular work. She therefore gave permission for them to accept an offer from Borovansky to join his company. Her principal dancers had faith in her and remained with her.

 

In 1945 she booked the Brisbane City Hall for a two week season in October. They had rehearsed a set of new ballets and were ready to go. The mayor stepped in and cancelled the booking. The City Hall was used every night for a dance for servicemen and he was not going to deprive them of that.

 

Kirsova accepted the inevitable and closed the company. At this stage her marriage to Erik Fischer was over.

 

Peter Bellow wrote a book, Pioneering Ballet in Australia, telling the story of the Kirsova Ballet.

 

Kirsova had commissioned the score for a new ballet, Waltzing Matilda, from a teenager, Charles (now Sir Charles) Mackerras. She had only choreographed one scene when she closed her Company.  Charles was left with the score for a ballet that would never be performed. He re-arranged it as an orchestral suite which was performed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and broadcast by the ABC.

 

In 1957, when he was resident conductor of the South Australian Symphony Orchestra, Henry Krips re-arranged his score of Revolution of the Umbrellas as a symphonic suite. The ABC broadcast this and released it on an ABC microgroove record. I have now obtained a copy of this wonderful recording from the National Archives of Australia. I am trying to get the ABC to re-issue it on CD. It would be a best seller.

 

Kirsova was a woman of independent means. She had donated the profits from the Company’s earliest performances to the Red Cross. She then dedicated the profits from the remaining performances to establish a chain of playgrounds in Sydney’s inner suburbs. She purchased two blocks of land in Erskineville and built two playgrounds. At the opening of the second playground, she announced her intention to open more playgrounds in Glebe. However this was after the final performance of her Company, and no-one was aware of any more playgrounds being built.

 

Early last year I visited Erskineville to see if her playgrounds still existed. I found her second playground in George Street. It was run down and there was no plaque or sign mentioning Kirsova. I contacted South Sydney Council. Tony Pooley, the Mayor, organised the renovation of the playground and on 14 February 2004, there was a gala re-dedication of the playground, and the unveiling of a plaque honouring Kirsova. Five of Kirsova’s former dancers attended, coming from as far as Queensland and Cootamundra.

 

Late last year, while exploring the internet, I found two reports on the Glebe Society website about Kirsova Playground No.3 in Wigram Lane, and how Society members were looking after it. I will include copies of these articles with material I am sending to the Curator of Dance at the National Library in Canberra, who is in charge of all their dance archives.

 

After closing her Company, Kirsova married Peter Bellew. They moved to Paris where he had a job with UNESCO. (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation). In January 1952, Kirsova and Peter returned to Australia with their two sons to visit Peter’s parents in Melbourne. At a stopover at Sydney airport, Kirsova told reporters of her intention to re-open her Ballet Company. However conditions had not changed. The Borovansky Ballet was having a record breaking tour of all Australian States and New Zealand, under the sponsorship of J C Williamsons. They were playing to packed houses every night. Kirsova therefore abandoned her plans for a comeback.

 

Kirsova died in a London Clinic in 1962.

 

When I began research for my biography of Peggy Sager, I interviewed Helene ffrance, who danced with Peggy in the Kirsova, Borovansky and Metropolitan Ballet Companies. She said “Please include a lot about Kirsova. No-one knows about her. Everyone thinks that ballet in Australia began with Borovansky”. I think I did her justice. My chapter on Kirsova and her company is the largest chapter in my book. It also contains information about her which is not in any other book.

 

www.bookfinder.com  lists second-hand copies of Pioneering Ballet in Australia as currently being available from DeCapo Music at 112A Glebe Point Rd. and from Louella Kerr Books at 139 St Johns Rd.

Peggy Sager, Prima Ballerina is available from Gleebooks, 49 Glebe Point Road.

 

Addendum

 

In 1956 Kirsova visited Moscow. The Western World knew little of what had been happening in Russian ballet since the Revolution. Kirsova was given unrestricted access to the ballet companies, the leading ballet schools of Moscow and Leningrad, the teachers, all the soloists, choreographers and management. She went backstage, attended rehearsals and performances. She was able to make an expert assessment of modern Russian ballet technique and the complete ballet scene.

She then wrote a book, Ballet in Moscow Today. This gave a profile of all the principal dancers. It gave a detailed account of the entire repertoire of the Bolshoi Ballet, illustrated with more than 160 photos of actual performances.

 

Ref. Bellew, Helene 1956 Ballet in Moscow Today, Thames and Hudson, London