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.
from The Glebe Society Bulletin, October/November 2004)
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
There were14 ballets in the Company’s
repertoire. Kirsova choreographed all these ballets except for Les Sylphides and
Lake. It was original, innovative
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
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
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
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
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.
Sager, Prima Ballerina is available from Gleebooks, 49 Glebe Point Road.