The Ballets Russes Project

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Introduction

Huib Schippers' erudite study on the marriage of art and academia offers realistic solutions to the challenge of aligning research with practical, performance based outcomes to the mutual benefit of the stakeholders. I would suggest that his findings can be applied not solely to music research per se, but to the performing arts in general. The case study I outline here offers, I believe, a model for interdisciplinary research collaboration that goes some way to satisfying the needs of academia and industry alike. The model is by no means perfect, but it is a step in the right direction. Its outcomes correspond with the benefits that Schippers quite rightly suggests should flow to academe, industry, education, public policy, and the community at large.

I am currently Chief Investigator for a large Australian Research Council Linkage Grant[1] that is looking at the impact and legacy of tours to Australia during 1936-40 by the acclaimed Ballets Russes. The project brings together The Australian Ballet, the National Library of Australia and the University of Adelaide in a collaboration that framing an integrated series of activities timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the first Ballets Russes Australian tour (2006) and the centenary of the Ballets Russes (2009). The Partner Investigators are Nicolette Fraillon, Music Director and Chief Conductor for The Australian Ballet, Lee Christofis, Curator of Dance at the National Library, and Robyn Holmes, Curator of Music at the same institution. ARC-funded research assistants include Richard Stone and John Thomson (NLA), and Debra Howlett (The Australian Ballet). The project is underpinned by an interactive research methodology that is helping to establish a vital nexus between scholarly research and Australian performance practice.

Historical Background

The Ballets Russes was established in 1909 by the legendary Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev (1872-1929), who envisioned a 'total' work of art, one in which dance, music, dramaturgy and décor would combine to create a spectacle greater than the sum of its parts. Diaghilev's artistic vision, which has its origins in the Wagnerian ideal of gesamtkunstwerk, became the hallmark of the company. The result were artistic collaborations between some of the world's great composers, choreographers, dancers, and visual artists, including Igor Stravinsky, Michel Fokine, Léonide Massine, Nijinsky, and Pablo Picasso, to name but a few.

Diaghilev's collaborative ideal was taken up by his successor at the Ballets Russes, fellow countryman Colonel Wassily de Basil (1880-1951). De Basil, under the auspices of the theatrical agents J. C. Williamson Ltd, brought to Australia three Ballets Russes companies (under various names) in 1936-7, 1938-9, and 1939-40. The tours had a profound impact on Australian cultural life, in that they introduced to the Australian public choreographies, set designs and scores the likes of which had never been seen or heard here before. The collaborative ideals and interdisciplinary dynamics exemplified in balletic and musical masterpieces such as Petrouchka, The Firebird and Scheherazade, and Massine's symphonic ballets Les Présages, Choreartium and Symphonie Fantastique, inspired a generation of Australian artists. A number of these artists worked closely with key members of the Ballets Russes touring parties. A 23 year-old Sidney Nolan created the set and costume designs for Serge Lifar's Icare (February 1940), Loudon Sainthill received a commission to design Nina Verchinina's Etude, and Donald Friend won a competition sponsored by de Basil with the view to producing a ballet on an Australian theme. While Max Dupain busied himself creating a remarkable photographic record of the dancers, Daryl Lindsay, Thea Proctor and Sainthill sketched and painted their portraits, and Margaret Sutherland composed for gala performances.

The Ballets Russes project is evaluating the immediate and long term impact of the tours on the Australian public in general, and Australian creative artists in particular. A March 1940 editorial in The Argus (Melbourne) recognised the present and potential future impact of the visits: 'The ballet has already left appreciable traces on the artistic life of the community. They are to be found not only in the growth of local ballet schools and in art, where Daryl Lindsay and others have found new inspiration, but in the wide circle of those who, from attending performances, have gained fresh interest in music ...'. In an interview with the then Curator of Dance at the National Library of Australia, Dr Michelle Potter, Dupain described the Ballets Russes in Australia as an 'avalanche of dancing ... and the Australians just wallowed in it. Full houses every night ... and they were very interesting people, very interesting for Australia at that stage'.

In addition to re-evaluating the content and impact of the Ballets Russes tours, research is being undertaken into their financial, diplomatic and political circumstances. Employment opportunities afforded young turks such as Nolan appear to have been insufficient to shield the Ballets Russes from a 1939 Actors' Equity resolution protesting at the number of 'foreign' artists employed during the tour, at the expense of local talent. The industrial and historical significance of this is being scrutinised, as is the level of diplomatic and political engagement surrounding the tours. Certainly, the subsequent choice of dancers, and the ease with which a number of them were awarded refugee status during the Second World War by an otherwise xenophobic Australian government, suggests that the company was well-connected in government and diplomatic circles. We are also looking at Australian concerts and charity galas given by the Ballets Russes in support of the War effort, the Red Cross, and Czech and Polish relief funds. To understand how these and other events came about is to gain a window into the politics of Australian culture, and the culture of Australian politics prior to and during the War.

The Ballets Russes tours led ultimately to the establishment of the Australian and West Australian Ballets, courtesy of those dancers who elected to remain in Australia. Kira Bousloff, Helene Kirsova and Edouard Borovansky established ballet schools in Australia, and worked with Australian artists and composers during the 1940s and 1950s to finally realise de Basil's goal of creating ballets on Australian themes.

An Overview of Primary Resources

Historical narratives relating to the visits were produced initially by those travelling with the ballet itself. The distinguished English dance critic Arnold Haskell in Dancing Round the World (1937) gave his personal recollections of the 1936-1937 tour. Haskell and others also published didactic articles about the ballet companies and their repertoire in Australian magazines such as The Home and Table Talk (1936-1940), and there was some material published during the 1940s in scholarly journals such as Art in Australia.

Of pivotal importance in tracing and bringing to life the cultural history of the period are a series of untapped archival collections spread across several national and international institutions. These primary resources include archival film and newsreel, most notably cinematic records held at SSA of the Ballets Russes touring parties in performance and recreation. Extensive photographic, ephemera, music, manuscript and oral history records are held at the NLA; textiles and costumes at the National Gallery of Australia; drawings at the National Portrait Gallery; set designs, works on paper, photographs and ephemera (such as posters, scrapbooks and programs) and memorabilia are held at The Australian Ballet, Performing Arts Collections in Melbourne and Adelaide, and at the University of Adelaide's Barr Smith Library Special Collections. ASIO and immigration records at the National Archives of Australia, and Musicians Union and Actors Equity records at the Noel Butlin Archives (Australian National University) are being consulted.

The Ballets Russes project draws upon these and other primary sources in order to situate the tours within the broader scholarly discourse concerning Australia's cultural heritage. In so doing the research expands our understanding of the European view of Australian culture at the time and, conversely, the Australian perception of European high art – a perception that was struggling to balance a Eurocentric artistic worldview with a burgeoning sense of national identity.

Methodology

The aims of the Ballets Russes Linkage project are as follows:

  1. to establish, investigate and interpret the artistic content and broader context of the de Basil Ballets Russes tours to Australia during the 1930s, with the view to expanding our knowledge of the European view of Australian culture at the time and, conversely, the Australian perception of European high art;
  2. to critically evaluate the immediate and long term impact of the tours on the Australian public in general, and creative artists in particular;
  3. to explore the multidisciplinary collaborative ethos at the heart of the Ballets Russes, and to realise its implications through contemporary Australian artistic and cross-institutional practices.

The project research structure and timeframe interface with The Australian Ballet's 2006-09 programmes in such a way as to allow research to inform performance, and vice-versa. Knowledge and insights gained in applying the research to rehearsal, performance and in touring displays will inform subsequent research and performance outcomes.

The project methodology centres on two complementary research thrusts. The first of these activities concerns the evaluation and analysis of documentary material in order to fashion a broader critique of the tours in their historical, cultural and social contexts. A key tenet of the research process is the use of digital technology to reproduce, share, document, and expose archival resources to facilitate appropriate scholarly modes of communication. The NLA's expertise in developing large digital information systems is essential in initiating the technical mechanisms to support this aspect of the research process.

The second of the two principal research activities concerns the interface between the scholarly enquiry and performance. Here archival research into the choreography, décor, music, and historical background of the Ballets Russes works has helped to inform recreations of them by The Australian Ballet – in 2006 the Revolutions programme (a tribute to Fokine), and in 2007 the Destiny programme (a Massine tribute). These resources have also provided the scholarly and material basis of touring displays accompanying regional tours by The Australian Ballet's Dancers Company.

The project exploits the key strengths of the Linkage partners. In employing an integrated and collaborative approach, the project's fundamental research process and outcomes meet the important applied research objectives of the industry partners, as well as providing knowledge and expertise to further core business needs. For The Australian Ballet, this means more historically informed and socially relevant performances, which alert the public to the value of contemporary artistic activity within the context of Australia's cultural heritage. For the National Library, the project supports high level research use of its collections to further knowledge about Australia's cultural, artistic and social life, and will serve to demonstrate the potential for embodying dance, music and related archival sources in a range of performance as well as scholarly outcomes.

The project confronts two of the more intractable challenges facing research into the performing arts in their social and cultural contexts, challenges that need to be met if the performing arts are to remain historically well-grounded and culturally vibrant. The first challenge turns on the need to achieve a closer interface between research and actual performance outcomes; the second, to bring to life historical research, its aspirations and findings in ways that are relevant not only to artists, cultural planners, and academics, but also to the community at large. To these ends the project makes a contribution in three key areas:

  1. Its integrated research methodology, which offsets the perennial demarcation between performing arts research and practical outcomes. The project is uniquely placed to offer an integrated, high impact model for performing arts research, by virtue of the fact that the core activity of The Australian Ballet is performance (to be understood here as a synthesis of dance, music and décor). Performance here serves simultaneously as a vehicle for disseminating the research outcomes and as part of the research process itself. Research will, for example, shed light on the nature of the creative dynamics between the artists themselves – for instance, between Stravinsky, Fokine and Benois on Petrouchka – and between the artists and the impresario. This will in turn allow for an evaluation of the impact of these dynamics on the idea of interdisciplinary equality, and commission briefs and timelines. The research-performance paradigm is being applied specifically to works presented by de Basil’s Ballets Russes during the Australian tours – including Petrouchka, Les Présages, Choreartium and Symphonie Fantastique. The significance of this integrated research model is therefore that it allows performance outcomes to mediate between an historical past and a creative present.
  2. The interdisciplinary model of collaborative practice which the project offers to Australian cultural institutions, and the broader applications of this model in arts planning, programming, public education, and market development. The project brings together a number of organisations for whom performing arts research is not their primary business, and the pooling of their expertise and materials ensures that maximum benefit is extracted from the range of primary archival resources. An increased community awareness of the de Basil tours and their significance to Australia’s cultural heritage will arise from associated activities, and through enhanced online access to primary materials.
  3. Its capacity for public dissemination, and the smart use of digital technology through the online delivery of primary and interpreted resources, physical and virtual exhibitions, and in performance. Used in conjunction with more traditional modes of dissemination, these technologies are facilitating a dialogic approach, in which the documentary material upon which interpretations are based are presented as the research develops, rather than at the conclusion of the project. In this way, the delivery of primary resources becomes an integral part of the research process and will draw the public further into the research field. The touring displays accompanying the Dancers Company regional tours across three years of the project include digitised silent film footage, set to music composed and arranged by the Elder Conservatorium’s Stephen Whittington. The national infrastructure afforded by the National Library’s innovative online services, notably Australia Dancing and MusicAustralia, is exposing Australian and international consumers the project’s research materials and outcomes as they emerge, in ways that preserve their original integrity at the same time as enriching their broader context.

An Advisory Committee is providing an outside referential process through which the partners can critically monitor and evaluate their work in a larger artistic and scholarly context. The committee includes Professor Malcolm Gillies; Emeritus Professor Dick Denton (Howard Florey Institute of Experimental Physiology and Medicine, the University of Melbourne); Andrew Sayers (Director, National Portrait Gallery); John Davis (Chair, The Australian Music Centre); and Michael Kantor (Artistic Director, Malthouse Theatre).

Outcomes: A Summary

The results of the research project are disseminated more widely than is usual because of the diverse core activities, national leadership roles and capacity for public outreach represented by the Linkage partners. Aside from performances by The Australian Ballet and the Dancers Company, the project is producing refereed articles, a short film for the Dancers Company tours, commemorative and performance programmes, and exhibition catalogues. A project website is currently under construction. A volume of essays dealing with the impact of the Ballets Russes on Australian visual art is also being prepared. A symposium on the Ballets Russes collaborative ideal and its implications for contemporary performance is currently in the planning stages, and is scheduled for May 2008 at the Elder Conservatorium. An image-rich high quality publication is proposed and funding is being sought.

The research partners are confident that the project will serve as a template for future collaborations between Australian cultural and tertiary institutions in two ways: the sharing of resources and expertise of the Linkage partners and associated institutions, and the development of a symbiotic relationship between historical research and contemporary performance. It achieves these outcomes in ways that satisfy the needs of the stakeholders. The University of Adelaide (the Elder Conservatorium in particular) benefits from traditional research outputs and from a high profile synergy with two peak Australian cultural institutions. The National Library is increasing its holdings of important archival materials (the Hugh P Hall photographic collection and oral histories, for example). The Australian Ballet now has at its disposal high quality research data and intellectual expertise upon which to draw in its programming and artistic choices.

References

  1. http://www.arc.gov.au/outcomes/research_action.htm#ballet

Author

Mark Carroll. Last revised 20 May 2007.

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