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The Ballets Russes

In the early years of last century, Serge Diaghilev put together a ballet troupe that knocked the 19th century stuffing out of traditional white ballet. He brought together great modern composers, painters, designers and dancers to announce that the 20th century had arrived. Works like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring still seem more modern than many a ‘grounbreaking arts council funded work’ today.

Diaghilev died in 1929 but with more twists and turns than a murder-mystery novel (and this is after all the arts where there is less sharing and caring and more blood on the floor than in a cut-throat multinational corporation) several companies carried on the tradition.

In the late 1930s, the Ballets Russes made three tours of Australia and the results were astounding – particularly in Melbourne. The dancers were treated with the celebrity status and theatres were full night after night with enthusiastic audiences. The (now) Forum Theatre commonly was a favourite venue and pit orchestras rose to the challenge of mastering some of the century’s most challenging music. The Australian public turned out in numbers that would have a present day promoter rubbing their hands with glee and to the delight of the better Australian performers and artists of the times raised the public expectation of what to expect in those areas.

It was during the third tour that the Second World War erupted. Many of those involved with the Ballets Russes decided to stay on in Australia as dancers, teachers, artists and administrators – a decision which has had repercussions to the present day.

Some histories of Melbourne portray the city of the 1930s as a rather drab place with little or nothing that could be described as culture and which was only gradually turned around by the post-war immigration of the 1950s. That may have been true for certain aspects of the administration of the arts but not of the cultural scene in general. The Melbourne public of the 1930s were hungry for the best that contemporary culture had to offer. Keith Murdoch’s Herald Art Show brought important 20th century paintings to Melbourne and the advent of the war saw most of them stay in Australia for a decade. The Vienna Boys Choir were stranded in Australia at the outbreak of the war and many of those involved with the tour took up Australian citizenship and made major contributions to the Australian cultural scene. Those of the Ballets Russes that stayed on are woven into the fabric of Australian dance. Most of them would probably be puzzled by present-day labels. They didn’t set out to create ‘multicultural’ art – they set out create the best possible art they could and were joined in the process by local Australians. Ventures such as the Herald Art Show and the Ballets Russes were attended by far more Australians than saw the Beatles, and the lasting contribution to of these events to Australian culture can we think be truthfully called ‘Bigger than The Beatles’.

  • Colonel de Basil's Original Ballet Russe on Australian Tour 1939-40
    Colonel de Basil's Original Ballet Russe on Australian Tour 1939-40
  • Tamara Grigorieva, Irina Zarova, Alberto Alonso and Nicolas Ivangin in Pavane
    Tamara Grigorieva, Irina Zarova, Alberto Alonso and Nicolas Ivangin in Pavane
  • August Macke - Ballet Russe
    August Macke - Ballet Russe
 

Seven Melbourne Events that were Bigger Than The Beatles - overview


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