Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Kirsova, Hélène (1910–1962)

by Sally O'Neill and Martha Rutledge

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Hélène Kirsova (1910-1962), by Max Dupain, 1938

Hélène Kirsova (1910-1962), by Max Dupain, 1938

National Library of Australia

Hélène Kirsova (1910-1962), prima ballerina and choreographer, was born on 18 June 1910 in Copenhagen and named Ellen Elisabeth Kirsten Wittrup, youngest child of the large family of Sophus Christian Ferdinand Hansen, directeur, and his wife Ingeborg, née Wittrup. Using her mother's maiden name, Ellen attended the ballet schools of Emilie Walbom and Jenny Møller in Copenhagen. At 18 she began tuition in Paris under Olga Preobrajenska, Léo Staats and, particularly, Lubov Egorova. In 1929 Wittrup joined Le Ballet Franco Russe and toured South America. She then danced with Madame Ida Rubenstein in Paris and in July 1931 at Covent Garden, London.

Later that year, as 'Hélène Kirsova', she joined the Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo under René Blum and Colonel de Basil. When they split up, she stayed with Blum and worked closely with Michel Fokine. Although overshadowed by the 'baby ballerinas', she achieved personal success as a principal dancer in the company's seasons at the Alhambra Theatre, London, in 1933 and 1936. To the critic Arnold Haskell, Kirsova appeared to be of 'finely-tempered steel' in the role created for her by Léonide Massine in Choreartium (1933). Her most celebrated part was the Butterfly in Fokine's L'Epreuve d'Amour in 1936.

Rejoining de Basil's Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo (led by Léon Woizikovsky), Kirsova toured Australia in 1936-37 as prima ballerina. From the opening night (13 October 1936) in Adelaide she felt the audience's enthusiasm and was to create a tremendous public following. Her grace, 'perfect musical sense' and flawless technique made her interpretation as principal soloist in Les Sylphides one of her greatest successes, displaying her 'gifts of elevation, strength and precision'. She was perhaps better remembered for roles requiring dramatic depth—as the puppet ballerina in Petrouchka, Columbine in Le Carnaval and the Street Dancer in Le Beau Danube. Haskell described her 'dancing of the exacting role of the shy, brilliant bird' in The Firebird as 'one of the most perfect things seen in this or any other season'.

Kirsova left with the company for Europe, but returned to Sydney in December 1937. At St Mark's Anglican Church, Darling Point, on 10 February 1938 she married 38-year-old Erik Fritz Emil Fischer, the Danish vice-consul. She claimed to have given up dancing 'for ever', and rejoiced at the prospect of riding horses and 'no more dieting'. Her son was born in 1939.

In June 1940 Madame Kirsova founded a school to teach Russian ballet in Sydney. Her pupils soon provided the dancers for her own ballet company. As a teacher, she was a strict disciplinarian 'without being a martinet'; the classes were mentally and physically demanding. Her rivals claimed that she concentrated on her soloists, whom she developed superbly, while allowing less precise work from the ensemble. Dynamic and energetic, she could be rude and cutting to lesser talents, but was always warm to her favourites. Among her protégés were the young Australian dancers Strelsa Heckelman, Rachel Cameron, Helene ffrance, Henry Legerton and Paul 'Clementin' (Hammond), and the New Zealander Peggy Sager. Steeped in the Diaghilev concept of 'music, decor, ballet, drama, being made a total entity', Kirsova was a great collector of contemporary art and had an 'extensive knowledge of it'. She encouraged artists and musicians to come to her studio to watch classes and rehearsals. (Sir) William Dobell, Wolfgang Cardamatis, Frank Hutchens and Lindley Evans became habitués. Other supporters included (Sir) Warwick Fairfax and Thyne Reid.

The Kirsova Ballet gave its first performance on 8 July 1941 as part of a five-week season at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music. Although the company was at first strengthened by four former de Basil dancers, its achievements were hailed as evidence that it was possible to stage ballets of professional standard without importing large, expensive companies from abroad. The programme included two original ballets choreographed by Kirsova, A Dream—and a Fairy Tale and Vieux Paris, with scenery and costumes by Loudon Sainthill. Music was provided by two pianists as Kirsova spurned second-rate orchestras. By the time of the November season at the Minerva Theatre, the thirty-five dancers were paid trade-union rates. Kirsova herself paid their dues to Actors' Equity of Australia, which registered them as professional performers. She gave generous donations from the proceeds of her seasons to the Australian Red Cross Society and the Legacy Club of Sydney, and paid for children's playgrounds at Erskineville (a project dear to her).

Despite wartime difficulties and shortages—among them the mobilization of male dancers, problems in obtaining coupons for rationed material, travel restrictions and scarcity of theatres—the company managed to tour, opening a season on 31 January 1942 at His Majesty's Theatre, Melbourne. The repertoire was increased each season by ballets which Kirsova had created, such as Faust and Revolution of the Umbrellas. She commissioned young Australian artists to paint sets and design costumes that she had specially made, and sometimes young musicians—(Sir) Charles Mackerras and Henry Krips—to write the scores. Her choreography was minimalist, influenced by the clean lines of modern art. The only revivals she staged were Les Sylphides and Swan Lake (Act II), each of which had the advantage of requiring only one male dancer. She herself returned to the stage after six years to perform the slow waltz movement in her ballet, Capriccio.

Following the 1944 New Year season in Melbourne, the Kirsova Ballet went on to Adelaide, and gave what turned out to be its final performance in Brisbane on 6 May 1944. Kirsova cherished her independence. Reluctant to compromise, she refused the offer of backing from J. C. Williamson Ltd which would have made her in effect a salaried producer-director. She was unable to compete when Williamson formed a full-time professional company under the direction of Edouard Borovansky. Although she had paid award rates, she could not provide full-time employment. Her best dancers joined Borovansky. The Kirsova Ballet School continued until 1946.

Hélène returned that year to Copenhagen, where she obtained a divorce on 16 October 1947. At the British Consulate, Paris, on 3 April 1948 she married Peter Buchard Bellew. A grandson of the actor Kyrle Bellew, Peter had written a history of the Kirsova Ballet and had joined the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization secretariat. They lived in the village of St Prix outside Paris (later moving to an apartment in Rue Galilee near the Arc de Triomphe) and visited Australia regularly. Remembered as 'still slim, her blonde hair untinged by time', and always beautifully dressed in simple grey or black clothes (often from Dior), she entertained visiting Australian artists, musicians and former students. She remained a keen photographer and art-collector: her paintings included works by Justin O'Brien, Wallace Thornton and (Sir) Sidney Nolan. Following a visit to Moscow, Hélène Bellew published a book, Ballet in Moscow Today (London, 1956); she also contributed to A Dictionary of Modern Ballet (London, 1959).

Survived by her husband and their son, and by the son of her first marriage, Kirsova died of cancer on 22 February 1962 in Guy's Hospital, London, and was cremated. Her achievements—as a dancer and choreographer, in founding a professional company in wartime, and by attaining box-office success—had lighted the way for those who followed her in establishing a permanent ballet company in Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Bellew, Pioneering Ballet in Australia (Syd, 1946)
  • F. Salter, Borovansky (Syd, 1980)
  • E. H. Pask, Ballet in Australia (Melb, 1982)
  • Table Talk, 5, 12, 19, 26 Nov, 3, 10, 17 Dec 1936
  • Argus (Melbourne), 24 June 1937, 29 Jan 1942
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8 Jan, 11 Feb, 17 Mar, 18 Aug 1938, 20 May 1940, 9 July 1941, 3 Jan, 20 June 1942, 20 Sept 1943, 13 Jan 1952, 28 Mar 1957, 25 Feb 1962
  • Herald (Melbourne), 17 Jan 1938
  • M. Gordon, interview with Paul Hammond (transcript, 1989, National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Sally O'Neill and Martha Rutledge, 'Kirsova, Hélène (1910–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kirsova-helene-10754/text19065, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 24 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Hélène Kirsova (1910-1962), by Max Dupain, 1938

Hélène Kirsova (1910-1962), by Max Dupain, 1938

National Library of Australia

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Hansen, Ellen Elisabeth Kirsten Wittrup
  • Fischer, Hélène
  • Kirsova, Helene
  • Bellew, Hélène
  • Wittrup, Ellen
Birth

18 June 1910
Copenhagen, Denmark

Death

22 February 1962
London, England

Cultural Heritage
Occupation