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Harcourt Algeranoff (1903–1967)

by R. J. Southey

This article was published:

Harcourt Algeranoff, as Rigadon in Scuola di Ballo

Harcourt Algeranoff, as Rigadon in Scuola di Ballo

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an11030051-4

Harcourt Algeranoff (1903-1967), dancer, ballet master and teacher, was born on 18 April 1903 in London, son of Thomas Richard Essex, sculptor, and his wife Alice, née Kendall, and registered as Harcourt Algernon Leighton Essex. Encouraged by a mother with theatrical inclinations, he attended a day school, took weekly dancing classes and by the age of 18 had performed in musical comedy. He joined Anna Pavlova's company in 1921 and, as the adoption of a Russianized name was a condition of his engagement, was thenceforward known as Algeranoff.  

With Pavlova, he toured North America (1921-22, 1923-24 and 1924-25), the Far East (1922 and 1928-29) and Europe (1925): the repertoire, apart from Pavlova's celebrated Coppélia and Giselle, was based on short ballets and divertissements which offered scope for his developing talent. While in Asia, Algeranoff was encouraged to study the dances of Japan and India. Well read in English, with some colloquial Japanese and facility in five European languages, he carried out research for Pavlova in the British and the Victoria and Albert museums, London.

During their visit to Australia in 1926, his partnering of Pavlova in Russian Dance received favourable notice and the young (Sir) Robert Helpmann sought Algeranoff's assistance with his career. On Pavlova's 1929 visit the company performed in the mainland State capitals and at Mackay, Rockhampton and Bundaberg, Queensland. Algeranoff recorded these experiences in his happy, gossipy My Years with Pavlova (1957). He returned to Australia with the Dandré-Levitoff Company in 1934. In the following year he became a member of the Markova-Dolin Ballet.

It was with De Basil's Ballets Russes (1933-34 and 1937-42), however, that his gifts as a character dancer flowered: on that company's tours in 1938-39 and 1939-40 he enchanted Australian audiences in such roles as the astrologer (Le Coq d'Or) and Pierrot (Carnaval). In 1943 he joined the International Ballet where his colleague Nicholas Sergeyev gave further authority to his knowledge of classical ballet, but the work Algeranoff choreographed for that company (For Love or Money) was not a success.

On 10 April 1945 at the parish church in Newton Nottage, Glamorgan, Wales, Algeranoff married the French dancer Claude Leonard and in l953 accompanied her to Australia where she appeared with Edouard Borovansky. While she danced, Algeranoff studied Aboriginal music and legends, and taught at the National Theatre Ballet School in Melbourne. In 1955-56 Algeranoff and Claudie, with New Zealand dancer Ronald Reay, took ballet to Central and Northern Australia under the auspices of the Australian Children's Theatre; they performed excerpts from the classical repertoire and traditional Japanese dances. The marriage did not survive the propinquity of three dancers in a caravan; Claudie left her husband for Ronald Reay, whom she married. The Algeranoffs' only child Nöel remained with his father and was to become a sculptor.

Algeranoff's confidence was shaken by the divorce and his subsequent career seemed to lose direction. Appointments followed as choreographer with the Carl Rosa Opera Company, as ballet master (1957-58) with the Norwegian State Opera and Ballet Company, and in Australia as ballet master (1959) with the Borovansky Ballet Company. On Borovansky's untimely death, Algeranoff helped William Akers to keep the company operating until the appointment of (Dame) Peggy van Praagh. After the Borovansky company's final performance in February 1961, Algeranoff briefly revisited Europe, but was back in Australia later that year, lecturing to schools and speaking on radio for the Australian Broadcasting Commission.

He took part in the first performances of the newly formed Australian Ballet as a guest artist in 1962-63, but was not used by van Praagh to the extent he had hoped. The profession was then insufficiently established in Australia either to provide continuous and secure employment, or to exploit Algeranoff's knowledge of the classical repertoire, his sensitivity to Asian civilization and his growing interest in Aboriginal culture.

In February 1962 he moved to Mildura as ballet master of the North-West Victorian Ballet Society. Although he had always been something of a gipsy, he was determined to provide a stable and healthy background for his son. Algeranoff's literacy, his humour, his love of music, his ability to communicate with children and his whimsical kindness all contributed to his popularity as a teacher and to his success in civilizing young Australians.

Only 5 ft 4 ins (163 cm) tall, with clear, blue eyes and thick, straight, neatly-parted, fair hair, Algeranoff possessed noticeable good looks and charm. He wore well-cut suits, but preferred to relax in the pale corduroys, cream shirt and paisley scarf of the period. Survived by his son, he died on 7 April 1967 in a motor accident near Robinvale, Victoria, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • M. T. Clark, Strolling Players (Melb, 1972)
  • E. H. Pask, Enter the Colonies, Dancing (Melb, 1979)
  • E. H. Pask, Ballet in Australia (Melb, 1982)
  • Dictionary of National Biography, 1961-70
  • K. S. Walker, De Basil's Ballets Russes (Lond, 1982)
  • Walkabout, May 1966, p 22
  • Sunraysia Daily, 10 Apr 1967
  • Algeranoff papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

R. J. Southey, 'Algeranoff, Harcourt (1903–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Harcourt Algeranoff, as Rigadon in Scuola di Ballo

Harcourt Algeranoff, as Rigadon in Scuola di Ballo

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an11030051-4

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Essex, Harcourt Algernon Leighton

18 April, 1903
London, Middlesex, England


7 April, 1967 (aged 63)
Robinvale, Victoria, Australia