Edouard Borovansky 1902 – 1959
- Edouard Borovansky 1902 – 1959
Edouard Borovansky 1902 – 1959
The son of a railway clerk, Eduard Josef Skeek was born at Perov in Czechoslovakia on 24 February 1902.
At the age of 25 he auditioned for the legendary Anna Pavlova, and was accepted as a junior member of her company.
‘A dinkum bloody Aussie’
‘I made friends with many members of the Covent Garden Ballet,’ reminisced Claude Kingston, a senior administrator with the entrepreneurs J.C. Williamson’s, ‘and found none whom I liked better than a Czech named Edouard Borovansky. Thickset and of medium height, he was in his late thirties but still a fine dancer. I had long believed that Australia should have a national ballet but I had never met anybody both willing and able to create it. Then as we travelled through Australia and New Zealand and I came to know Borovansky well, I began to wonder if I had found the right man. He was highly strung and not only a tremendous worker himself but endowed with a gift of getting other people to work together on stage.
He was also businesslike; you could talk practical sense to him. Above all, the ballet was his religion, something he believed in with all his heart and soul. Then there was his wife, Xenia, who had danced with several famous European companies but was too tall ever to become a great ballerina and had turned to teaching. Feeling that she and her husband would be the very people for Australia, I took courage and sowed the seed. How wonderful it would be, I kept telling Borovansky, if someone would develop a ballet company in Australia – someone like him. At first he shrugged the idea aside. ‘No, no, no,’ he said; he had his career to think of, he wanted to go back to Europe. But he must have kept turning my suggestion over in his mind because one day he agreed to talk about it. I took him to see Frank Tait.
They had a long talk and Borovansky came away from the interview knowing he could count on the help of “The Firm”. Thus an Australian professional ballet was born. What they accomplished, by taking a number of talented but raw young people and moulding them into the Borovansky Australian Ballet, is already a fading memory.’
The son of a railway clerk, Eduard Josef Skeek was born at Perov in Czechoslovakia on 24 February 1902. On leaving school he worked as an accountant and served for a while in the Slovakian air force. In 1923 he joined the Prague National Theatre where he was trained in dance by Augustin Berger. On his holidays he travelled to Paris to study with Olga Preobrajenska and Lubov Egorova. At the age of 25 he auditioned for the legendary Anna Pavlova, and was accepted as a junior member of her company. There, most of his new colleagues had Russian names, so Sk?e?ek ‘borrowed’ the name of uncle and adjusted it to ‘Borowanski’, inserting an ‘o’ into his first name for good measure.
He swiftly graduated from the corps to character roles and made his London debut at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on 13 September 1927, dancing the role of the shopkeeper’s assistant in one of Pavlova’s specialities, The Fairy Doll. He toured with Pavlova through Britain, Germany, Italy, South America, Asia and, in 1929, Australia, on the ballerina’s second visit for J.C. Williamson’s. And he fell in love with one of Pavlova’s ballerinas, the Bolshoi-trained Xenia Smirnova, a niece of Palvova’s manager, Victor Dandre.
Pavlova’s company did not survive her death in 1929, so Edouard and Xenia eked out a living in Paris, teaching children in a makeshift studio. In 1932 ‘Borowanski’ became ‘Borovansky’ when he found a place in Colonel de Basil’s touring Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, a reconstitution of Diaghilev’s legendary Ballets Russes. With his talent for character roles, Borovansky was cast as the Strong Man in Le Beau Danube, Polkan in Le Coq d’Or and the Shopkeeper in La Boutique Fantasque. The company’s first London season, at the Alhambra from 4 July 1933, was a sensation. At its conclusion, in October, Borovansky and Xenia were married. An American tour followed.
Borovansky danced at Covent Garden every year from 1933 until 1938, when de Basil rebadged his company The Covent Garden Russian Ballet, and set off for an Australian tour under the aegis of J.C. Williamson’s. Headed by Irina Baronova, Tatiana Riabouchinska, Anton Dolin and David Lichine – and with Borovansky among the 100 or so other dancers – the company opened its tour at His Majesty’s in Melbourne in September 1938. When the tour finished in Sydney in April 1939, eight of the dancers opted to remain in Australia, Borovansky among them: Hitler had just invaded his homeland, and war loomed in Europe.
Although Australians had flocked to see imported ballet companies, at that time there was virtually no classical ballet training in Australia. De Basil told The Sydney Morning Herald that Australians lacked the artistry necessary for dance. They were, he said, ‘Footballers, yes, ballet dancers, no.’ At that time local teaching was largely confined to theatrical and social dancing, but the Borovanskys decided to change all that. In May 1939, in partnership with a local teacher, Eunice Weston, they opened their Academy of Russian Ballet above a shop in Elizabeth Street, Melbourne. There they offered instruction in ‘Classical and Character Dancing, Mime and Make Up’. Mrs Borovansky did most of the teaching, while her husband ran the school and provided choreography and specialised expertise when needed.
In a remarkably short time the Borovanskys’ students were ready for their first public performance. With several other local schools they participated in ‘A First Season of Ballet’, presented by Gertrude Johnson’s National Theatre Movement at the Princess Theatre on 25 and 26 July 1939. Their contributions were Étude, to Debussy’s music, and Petite Mozartiana, both choreographed by Borovansky. His dancers included fellow teachers Serge Bousloff (also from the Covent Garden company) and Eunice Weston, plus his star pupils Edna Busse and Reg Bartram – and the Borovanskys themselves. Apparently Borovansky hated the whole thing: he vowed that never again would he work with other schools in an ‘amateur concert’.
In 1940 the Melbourne Ballet Club was formed. Its members built a small stage in the Borovanskys’ largest studio, facilitating intimate ‘workshop’ performances of new pieces by young local talent such as Laurel Martyn and Dorothy Stevenson, who were attracted by Edouard Borovansky’s infectious enthusiasm and commitment. December 1940 saw the Borovansky Australian Ballet present a two-night season at the Comedy Theatre. Its repertoire included Vltava, which Borovansky choreographed to Smetana’s tone poem, in a moving tribute to his beleaguered homeland.
Borovansky presented three short seasons at the Princess in 1941-42. The following year his company was sufficiently mature for J.C. Williamson’s to present it for a week’s run at Her Majesty’s in April. This was Borovansky’s first fully professional season and the first to be staged with a ‘live’ orchestra. The highlight of the program was the Australian premiere of Walton’s Façade. A return season at the Comedy in December included what was in effect the first all-Australian ballet: Sea Legend, choreographed by Dorothy Stevenson to a score commissioned from Esther Rofe, with décor by Alan McCulloch.
The year 1944 brought two landmarks for Borovansky: he became a naturalised Australian, and J.C. Williamson’s backed an Australian tour that took his company from Melbourne to Adelaide, Hobart, Launceston, Sydney and Brisbane, and then to New Zealand. From then until 1961 – except for occasional unfortunate breaks – the Borovansky Ballet was a permanent and popular feature of J.C. Williamson’s programming – even to the extent of ‘The Firm’ shoe-horning them into the operettas The Dancing Years and Gay Rosalinda in 1946. Nevertheless, Borovansky’s dancers never enjoyed the security of permanent employment, and the company’s seasons were possible only because of the patronage of J.C. Williamson’s and financial underpinning by the Education in Music and Dramatic Arts Society.
Writing in 1947, Allan Aldous singled out the popularity of ballet, and the Borovansky company inparticular, as a phenomenon unparalleled in other Australian performing arts: ‘The extreme popularity of ballet is one of the most gratifying things in Australian theatre. In a country which prides itself on its rugged philistinism, the success of such an aesthetic form is at first sight difficult to understand. Perhaps it is due partly to the fact that the homegrowing product eschews the pathological vagaries which are such an unhealthy characteristic of most ballet abroad…’
The Borovansky Ballet’s repertoire was, by today’s standards, unadventurous: mainly colourful, large-scale, popular pieces, very much in the commercially successful Diaghilev–de Basil tradition. Audiences responded warmly – for Australians, ‘Borovansky’ and ‘ballet’ became inextricably linked. Over the years, highlights of the repertoire included Laurel Martyn’s Sigrid (first presented by Borovansky in 1940), Petrouchka (1951), the complete Sleeping Princess (1952), Massine’s Symphonie Fantastique (1954), Cranko’s Pineapple Poll (1954) and, from Lichine, a full-length Nutcracker (1955) and the specially-commissioned Corrida (1956). Borovansky himself explored Australian themes for three original ballets, Terra Australis (1946), The Black Swan (1949) and The Outlaw, a 1951 retelling of the Ned Kelly saga – proving that Borovansky had become, in his own words, ‘a dinkum bloody Aussie’.
The Borovansky Ballet achieved increased status when four principal artists of the Royal Ballet participated as guest artists for the 1957 season: Margot Fonteyn, Michael Somes, Rowena Jackson and Bryan Ashbridge. But it is for the local talent that he nurtured that Borovansky must be remembered. The roll call is too long to list in its entirety, but a representative sample must include dancers John Auld, Laurence Bishop, Edna Busse, Max Collis, Helen Ffrance, Elaine Fifield, Kathleen Gorham, Paul Hammond, Strelsa Heckelman, Marilyn Jones, Phyllis Kennedy, Eve King, Barry Kitcher, Charles Lisner, Tom Merrifield, Bruce Morrow, Audrey Nicholls, Robert Pomie, Martin Rubinstein, Peggy Sager, Frank Salter, Graham Smith, Dorothy Stevenson, Eileen Tasker, Raymond Trickett, Vassilie Trunoff, Garth Welch; stage director William Akers; musical directors Kurt Herweg, Verdon Williams, Dudley Simpson and Noel Smith; and designers William Constable and Elaine Haxton.
Having seen his ballet company become an integral part of Australian cultural life, Borovansky turned his attention to the Trust’s Elizabethan Opera Company, which he decided was badly run. He discussed with William Akers how it could be reorganised, but on 18 December 1959, just seven days after the start of a major season at the Empire Theatre in Sydney, he died suddenly. He was 57.
The news was broken to the dancers before the performance, and at its conclusion the company and the audience stood for two silent minutes in tribute to ‘the father of Australian ballet’. There was no heir apparent: Xenia Borovansky survived her husband, but her interest was in teaching, not choreography and administration; she died in 1985.
Algeranoff, William Akers and Paul Grinwis managed the company until J.C. Williamson’s arranged for the distinguished English dancer, teacher and producer Peggy van Praagh to take over as artistic director. She ran the Borovansky Ballet from early 1960 until its final performance at Her Majesty’s in Melbourne on 19 February 1961.
From the stage that night van Praagh pleaded for the formation of a subsidised national ballet company. Fortunately, the Federal Treasurer, Harold Holt, was in the audience and he and H.C. ‘Nugget’ Coombs accepted the challenge. Within months, the Australian Ballet was established under the wing of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, with van Praagh as its first artistic director. The new company debuted at Her Majesty’s in Sydney on 2 November 1962.
Some of Borovansky’s dancers transferred to the new company, some went overseas, and some founded their own companies: Laurel Martyn’s Victorian Ballet Guild evolved into Ballet Victoria, and Charles Lisner’s Brisbane-based company became the Queensland Ballet. Others, like Edna Busse and Kathleen Gorham, taught; Martin Rubinstein became an international dance examiner; Tom Merrifield carved a new life as a noted sculptor; William Constable had an international career designing for stage and screen; William Akers played a pivotal role in the design of the Victorian Arts Centre’s stage facilities; Paul Hammond became the Australian Ballet’s first archivist; Frank Salter wrote Borovansky’s biography; and Barry Kitcher became the unofficial custodian of the dancers’ collective memories.
Among van Praagh’s successors as artistic director was Marilyn Jones, whose budding career Borovansky had nurtured. In homage she created ‘A Tribute to Borovansky’ – a trio of his most popular ballets, Pineapple Poll, Schéhérazade and Graduation Ball – which was presented by the Australian Ballet in 1980.
Borovansky’s papers and a striking self-portrait are held in the National Library of Australia. In Melbourne, another self-portrait graces the foyer of Her Majesty’s Theatre, for so long the Borovansky Ballet’s home base; and a portrait by John Rowell, together the Borovansky orchestral scores and other memorabilia are in the Performing Arts Collection at the Arts Centre in Melbourne.
But Borovansky’s real legacy is the love of dance he instilled in several generations of Australians, the theatre people that he nurtured, and the Australian Ballet, the national flagship company that was built on the foundations he so carefully and lovingly constructed.
Frank Van Straten, 2007
Allan Aldous: Theatre in Australia, Cheshire, 1947
Robin Grove: ‘Edouard Borovansky’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 13. Melbourne University Press
Claude Kingston: It Don’t Seem a Day Too Much, Rigby, 1971
Barry Kitcher: From Gaolbird to Lyrebird, Front Page, 2001
Norman MacGeorge: Borovansky Ballet, Cheshire, 1946
Edward H. Pask: Ballet in Australia, Oxford University Press, 1982
Edward H. Pask: Enter the Colonies Dancing, Oxford University Press, 1979
Frank Salter: Borovansky, Wildcat Press, 1980
Photograph courtesy National Library of Australia vn3327136