Australian Screen

Australia’s audiovisual heritage online

Murray-Will, Ewan: Ballet Russes in Australia (c.1939)

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clip Tamara Toumanova education content clip 3

Original classification rating: not rated. This clip chosen to be G

Clip description

Filmed in slow motion, Tamara Toumanova, wearing a green and black swimsuit, performs a series of leaps and poses on the sand at Bungan Beach.

Curator’s notes

Toumanova toured to Australia on the Ballets Russes third tour, so this footage was probably shot between 1939 and 1940. Toumanova’s beauty and dark features led British critic Arnold Haskell to call her the ‘black pearl’ of Russian ballet. She can also be seen in black-and-white footage in Ballets Russes Can No 9.

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This silent colour clip shows home-movie footage, shot in slow motion, of Tamara Toumanova dressed in a swimsuit performing a series of ballet movements on Bungan Beach in Sydney, New South Wales.

Educational value points

  • Tamara Toumanova (1919–96) is shown in this clip during a tour of Australia with the Ballets Russes (Russian Ballet) in 1939–40. The company evolved from the Ballet Russe founded by Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev in Paris in 1909, and performed some of his repertoire. Diaghilev and his followers revolutionised ballet by giving equal emphasis to dance, music, drama, set and costume design.
  • Toumanova was a member of the 1939–40 touring company officially known as 'The Original Ballet Russe’. Following the death of Diaghilev in 1929, his Ballet Russe disbanded. However, successive touring companies were formed by Colonel Wassily de Basil and René Blum that included many of Diaghilev’s dancers, generically referred to as the Ballets Russes. Three of these companies toured Australia between 1936 and 1940.
  • Toumanova, who joined the Ballets Russes at 13 years of age, was one of the celebrated 'baby ballerinas’ of the 1930s and became an internationally acclaimed dancer. She performed in leading roles for the Ballets Russes in the 1930s and 1940s, before embarking on a freelance career that saw her dance with major ballet companies in Europe and the USA. She also appeared in several Hollywood films, including Torn Curtain (1966).
  • The impromptu dance Toumanova performs for Murray-Will to record as a home movie reveals her talent as a dancer. Renowned for her beauty and technique, she inspired many leading choreographers, including George Balanchine and former Ballets Russes dancer Léonide Massine, to devise roles specifically for her. While in Australia she performed leading roles in traditional ballets such as Swan Lake, Aurora’s Wedding, Le Spectre de la Rose and Firebird.
  • The Ballets Russes tours had a significant effect on Australian culture, and contributed to the formation of the Australian Ballet in 1962. Dr Michelle Potter, former curator of dance at the National Library of Australia, says the company 'opened up a new world to Australians working across the arts. Choreographers, composers, designers, painters, printmakers and photographers … created new work of their own inspired by what they saw and heard on stage’ (http://www.nla.gov.au).
  • Sydney dermatologist, Dr Ewan Murray-Will, who formed a close friendship with members of the Ballets Russes, used a 16-mm camera to record not only home-movie footage of the troupe’s stage performances but also their informal gatherings at picnics, visits to the beach and trips to Canberra, Melbourne and the Snowy Mountains. The footage provides a record of the troupe’s Australian tours and a rare glimpse into the lives of the dancers while on tour.
  • Although historically regarded as amateur and only of interest to their creators and immediate family and friends, home movies have gained the status of historical documents. As with most home-movie footage, the camera in this clip is hand-held, editing is achieved 'in-camera’ by turning the camera on and off, and the content is shown in real time. Travel and domestic life comprise the main subjects of home movies; however, cultural events such as this performance also feature.
  • Amateur filmmaking became popular after the 16-mm camera was introduced in 1923 and the 8-mm camera in 1932 as relatively inexpensive alternatives to the conventional 35-mm film format. These cameras were still priced beyond the reach of most people and it was not until Kodak introduced the more affordable Super 8 camera in 1965 that home-movie making became more widespread.
  • Murray-Will’s home-movie footage suggests that, like many Australians, he was captivated by the glamour and artistry of the Ballets Russes. Dr Michelle Potter believes this fascination was mutual, with the dancers equally enchanted by the Australian landscape and the hospitality of Australians. Potter says the dancers 'threw themselves into social activities’ on their rest days, going on picnics, to the beach and to the homes of new-found Australian friends and patrons such as Murray-Will (http://www.nla.gov.au).

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  • You may embed the clip for non-commercial educational purposes including for use on a school intranet site or a school resource catalogue.
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