Forgotten Pioneer Women of Dance in Canada
The Story: How Victoria became a leader in classical ballet training
The Time: 1920s, 1930s
The Place: Victoria, BC
The Cast: A handful of dedicated teachers, and a supporting cast of hundreds of fans of the wondrous Anna Pavlova
Highlight: The Victoria Civic Opera's presentation of the three-act ballet, Coppelia, at the Royal Victoria Theatre in May, 1936, with dancers from the Russian Ballet School. Directed by Dorothy Wilson. Probably a first for North America.
Victoria was fortunate to have two visits from Anna Pavlova's touring dance company, and lucky enough to have two Paris-trained dancers qualified to teach ballet at the time. As far back as World War I and the early 1920s, Madame Fay and Madame Valda were passing on traditional classical technique to several young Victoria women who became teachers themselves. Several of them recalled the French ladies in interviews several years ago.
Dorothy Wilson, who later trained many professional dancers and teachers at her Russian School of Ballet, remembered Madame Fay as "very small, but a little ball of fire - a tiny red-haired French lady who must have had very good classical training somewhere, though I don't know where. Her star pupil was Rosemary Balcolm." Dorothy believes Madame Fay arrived in Victoria in 1916 but only stayed a few years, not long enough to build up a large school.
Rene Harding recalled in a letter that Madame Fay's classes were held on Fort Street. She writes that "she was a very small person and had been with the Alhambra Ballet Company in England." The only record found so far of this shadowy Parisien is a theatre program in the BC archives collection listing Mme. B. Fay as ballet mistress.
Madame Valda (Olga Valda Kavaner), however, was better known during her years in Victoria. An advertisement on the back of a 1924 Pavlova company program locates her studio at 1208 Government Street, Phone 1843. Valda - "de l'opera de Paris" - promotes "dancing of the superior order" as a pleasing diversion and "... an art which combines all the advantages of what is known as physical culture with the development of a graceful deportment and a stimulus to artistic culture."
Florence Clough, who also founded a well-known dance school, recalled:
"I think Valda was quite poor when she came to Victoria. She lived in a little shack of a place in Metchosin, not far from my parents in Langford. I believe my parents suggested she start a school, and I was one of her first pupils. She had been with the Paris Opera Ballet and may have danced with Pavlova's company. She certainly knew Pavlova, because I once had a picture of the two of them taken in Victoria on one of Pavlova's visits."
Another pupil who also became a teacher, Violet Fowkes Edward, adds to the story:
"Valda got her start in Victoria theatre when Reginald Hincks [a well-known Victoria theatrical personality] needed dancing girls for his musical shows. He asked Valda to arrange the dance numbers, so she began training girls for these productions. She was quite a character. She never had much money, but she had lots of friends."
Mrs. Edward also remembered the Pavlova connection, especially the night Valda took the young Violet Fowkes backstage at the Royal to watch 'The Divinity of Dance' on her 1924 visit.
"I watched from the wings and I'll never forget her Dying Swan, how the ripples started at the shoulders and spread all down her arms until the swan died. She looked so slim and fragile and beautiful on stage. Then she came off, all out of puff, leaning on her assistant. She was introduced to me, but was too exhausted to say much."
A letter from another pupil, Maureen Grute Humphries, also recalls Madame Valda's classes. Her young pupils were all required to say bon jour Madame and au revoir Madame before and after the lesson which was all in French. Punishment for not paying attention consisted of having their 'toe shoes' confiscated so they had to finish the lesson in soft slippers. Maureen, who later had her own studio in Oak Bay, reported that Madame Valda moved to Calgary, taught there for many years, and took a degree at the University of Calgary when she was 76. more ...
The effect on Victoria of the Pavlova performances and the classical ballet classes of the two French dancers was enormous. All over the world mothers who had come under the spell of the incomparable Pavlova were sending daughters to dance lessons and Victoria was ready. The next two decades saw the growth several large dance studios, and the serious study of classical technique.
One of the most influential teachers was Dorothy (Astle) Wilson. She was born in Dublin in 1893 and came to Victoria with her parents when she was 10 years old. A few lessons at a private school in Ireland gave her a love of dance which her mother discouraged. Twelve years later, as a young married woman with a little daughter, she took classes from Madame Fay and began arranging little dances for her daughter Doreen and later a second daughter Jo.
Her Russian Ballet School grew from these small classes for her daughters' friends at her home on Cook Street to a studio with over 400 pupils. Classes were moved to the ballroom and dining room of a tall old house on McGregor Street where she and her daughters lived. With assistants teaching tap, theatre studies and ballroom dancing, the studio was able to produce popular annual recitals at the Royal, lavish shows for special occasions at the Empress Hotel, and finally the ambitious three-act Coppelia which astounded Victoria audiences with its professional level of ballet. (Dorothy had the book sent from Paris and translated.) Several of the lead dancers from this production - Ian Gibson, Robert Lindgren, Doreen Wilson, Phyllis Addison and Rosemary Farrow - had already been accepted into American professional companies like the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and Ballet Theatre. During the 40s there were 18 Wilson-trained dancers on New York stages.
Like most Victoria teachers of the pre-World War II era, Dorothy also had to leave Canada for further study. She went to the Cornish School in Seattle, to Adolph Bolm's classes in San Francisco, and to Mexico to learn Spanish dance and castanets. She also travelled to Europe in the 1930s for classes with two of the great Diaghelev ballerinas, Kschessinska and Preobrajenska - "all shrivelled up in an attic in London, but the best teacher" - as well as Marie Rambert in London and Mary Wigman in Germany.
When she left to join June Roper's school in Vancouver and to spend several years as ballet mistress to Theatre Under the Stars, her pupil and assistant, Wynne Shaw, took over the studio and became well-known in Canadian dance circles for the many pupils who were accepted by professional Canadian companies. more ...
With the outbreak of World War II Victoria lost another dance teacher when Violet Fowkes closed her studio and became a welder at a wartime shipyard.
Florence Clough's studio also flourished during these years, and for many more until she retired in the 1970s. She also studied in Seattle and New York, and taught other dancers who went to professional companies.
However, the great thing for Victoria is that many pupils from the early pioneer studios remained in Victoria to train future generations with the same dedication to technical excellence. Wynne Shaw from Dorothy Wilson's studio, Velda (Wille) Scobie from Florence Clough, and many others, now see their pupils with studios of their own, and an even younger generation taking full advantage of opportunities in professional Canadian dance.
After the war, many more teachers came to Victoria, notably Bebe Eversfield, a New Zealand dancer who studied and danced professionally in London and brought a new emphasis on theatrical performance to the dance scene.
The remarkable thing is the continuity, from the great traditions of Russsian and European classical ballet through the early teachers who studied and taught in Victoria, to their pupils and yet another generation of dancers teaching here to this day.
Primary sources include interviews with teachers and pupils of the early studios, letters and collections of dance programs.
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