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Agnes Tromberg Meschulis Babicheva (1910–1996)

by Averyl Gaylor

This article was published online in 2023

Agnes Babicheva, c.1950s

Agnes Babicheva, c.1950s

Courtesy of Rare Books & Manuscripts, University of Adelaide Library

Agnes Tromberg Meschulis Babicheva (1910–1996), ballerina and dance teacher, was born Agnes Tromberg(s) on 21 October 1910 at Pskov, Russia, youngest child of Alma Maria, née Klawau, and her husband Franz Joseph Tromberg, who were both Russian born but had Latvian, Austrian, and Swedish ancestry between them. When Agnes was eight the family fled the Russian Revolution and settled in Riga, Latvia, where she continued her schooling and, in 1924, commenced ballet training under the former Bolshoi dancer Vera Kamina. In late May or early June 1926 she auditioned for the Latvian National Opera and Ballet. Its ballet mistress, Alexandra Fedorova Fokina (sister-in-law of the renowned Russian choreographer, Michel Fokine), approved of her slender physique and dance artistry and accepted her into the company on the condition that she train intensively for two and a half months in the lead up to the season opening. Aged sixteen, Tromberg formally joined the company after this training period when she debuted in the corps de ballet in Swan Lake.

Achieving the rank of soloist, Tromberg danced with the Latvian National Opera and Ballet for over fourteen years. During the 1920s and 1930s the theatre hosted guest dancers, choreographers, and composers, many with connections to Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. In 1929 Fokine came to Riga to direct Polovtsian Dances, Les Sylphides, and Chopiniana, and the following year Igor Stravinsky guest conducted The Firebird. The company also toured many European cities. In 1935 it travelled to Sweden at the invitation of King Gustaf V, who sent his private yacht to transport dancers, musicians, lighting technicians, and other theatre staff across the Baltic Sea to Stockholm.

While living in Riga, Tromberg met and, on 13 March 1931, married Latvian-born military officer Carl (Karlis) Meschulis. During the ballet’s off-season, she holidayed in the countryside while her husband was with his regiment. It is unclear what happened, but it seems the couple lost contact or separated during World War II. Tromberg fled Latvia with her mother before the country’s annexation by the Soviet Union in 1940 and made her way to Heilbronn, Germany. There she worked in factories and swept streets before being affiliated briefly with the Heilbronn State Theatre (Stadttheater Heilbronn). Becoming known as a talented ballerina, she continued dancing and was accepted into the Bavarian State Opera (Bayerische Staatsoper) in Munich the same year.

On 14 July 1942 Meschulis married Odessa-born Sergij (Serges/Sergejs) Babichev (Babičevs/Babitschew/Babicevs), a soldier, pilot, and interpreter, in Munich. She continued performing, including as a soloist, for five years until she was injured in a wartime bombing raid that ‘badly crippled’ her (Atkey 1979) and ended her dancing career. Babicheva moved into teaching, both privately and at the Bavarian State Opera. On 13 March 1947 she gave birth to the couple’s only child, Mona.

With the aid of the International Refugee Organization, in January 1949 Babicheva and her husband, her almost two-year-old daughter, and her widowed mother left Europe aboard the SS Nea Hellas for Australia. The choice of destination had been clear, as her sister Gertrude had relocated to Australia the previous year. The family arrived in Melbourne in February 1949 and stayed at Bonegilla migrant reception and training centre before deciding to settle in Adelaide. This was a deliberate choice because Babicheva was not aware of other ballet teachers in that city offering instruction in the Russian method: a form of ballet that incorporated movements, gestures, and dances from the Russian classical tradition and was distinct from other approaches such as the English style of the Royal Academy of Dancing, which was prominent in Australia.

Although Babicheva initially felt ‘shocked’ and ‘so depressed’ (Babicheva 1984) at the small size of Adelaide compared to the European cities she had previously frequented, she and her family benefited quickly from their decision to settle there. A month after arriving in May 1949 she was engaged as ballet mistress for the theatrical producer Joseph (Joe) Siebert’s Les Ballets Contemporains. By the following year she was advertising her own classes in Adelaide and Port Pirie, where she travelled weekly to teach repertoire to students who performed in variety shows produced by the impresario Tom Madigan.

Babicheva worked with students of all ages to promote the art form. The Agnes Babicheva School of Classical Ballet, located in the Adelaide Arcade, flourished. Its ballet mistress taught pupils and choreographed ballets that they performed at recitals and end-of-year revues, some of which raised money for charitable causes. She was also heavily involved in the Russian folk dancing community. Over the years, Babicheva trained several highly successful dancers who went on to attend elite institutions, such as the Australian Ballet School and Sadler’s Wells in London, and to join professional companies, including the Borovansky, Queensland, and Australian Ballets. She proudly followed her students’ careers, corresponding with them and keeping programs and press clippings detailing their performances.

Having developed strong friendships, Babicheva came to enjoy living in Adelaide. Though already fluent in Russian, German, and Latvian, she had to learn English; she later recalled how her students helped by correcting her translation of the names of ballet postures. With her husband and daughter, she was naturalised on 19 October 1955. She maintained connections to the Latvian community throughout Australia, sharing updates on her endeavours in the newspaper Austrālijas latvietis.

In 1971 Babicheva collaborated with Xenia Borovansky to form the Association of Teachers of the Russian Method of Ballet, which was established to preserve and promote the method in Australia. The organisation offered a teaching certificate as well as a comprehensive dance syllabus that was tested at six grade and three major levels. Within a decade, the association had examined over one thousand students across metropolitan and regional Australia. With Borovansky, Babicheva volunteered as its president and principal examiner. In the following years the association amalgamated with other dance organisations, but ill-health prevented her active involvement. After retiring from teaching at her ballet school in Adelaide 1978, in 1982 she also stopped her work with the ATRMB.

After a period of illness, Babicheva died on 15 February 1996 at her home and was buried in Centennial Park cemetery, Pasadena, Adelaide. She was predeceased by her husband (d. 1983) and survived by her daughter, Mona Foulis. Described as a ‘vivacious and apparently indefatigable teacher’ and a ‘cultural asset’ (Recorder 1950, 2), Babicheva made important contributions to the artistic spirit of the various cities she called home throughout her life.

Research edited by Michelle Staff

Select Bibliography

  • Adelaide Festival Centre. Performing Arts Collection
  • Advertiser (Adelaide). ‘Dedicated Dancer, Teacher.’ 17 February 1996
  • Atkey, Rae. ‘Ballet Taught with Love.’ News (Adelaide), 16 May 1979
  • Babicheva, Agnes. Interview by Helen Pearce, 22 November 1984. Recording. J. D. Somerville Oral History Collection. State Library of South Australia
  • Brissenden, Alan, and Keith Glennon. Australia Dances: Creating Australian Dance, 1945–1965. Kent Town, SA: Wakefield Press, 2010
  • Denton, Meg. ‘Agnes Babicheva 1910–1996.’ Dance Australia, June/July 1996, 15
  • National Archives of Australia. A446, 1955/4191
  • National Archives of Australia. A2571, BABICEVS AGNES
  • National Archives of Australia. D4878, BABICEVS A
  • Recorder (Port Pirie). ‘Ballet in Pirie.’ 27 September 1950, 2
  • Recorder (Port Pirie). ‘Command Performance. Ballerina to Dance in Pirie.’ 5 November 1951, 3

Additional Resources

Citation details

Averyl Gaylor, 'Babicheva, Agnes Tromberg Meschulis (1910–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/babicheva-agnes-tromberg-meschulis-33256/text41499, published online 2023, accessed online 23 April 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Agnes Babicheva, c.1950s

Agnes Babicheva, c.1950s

Courtesy of Rare Books & Manuscripts, University of Adelaide Library

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Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Tromberg, Agnes
  • Trombergs, Agnes
  • Meschulis, Agnes
  • Meschulis-Tromberg, Agnes
  • Babicevs, Agnes
  • Babitschew, Agnes
Birth

21 October, 1910
Pskov, Russia

Death

15 February, 1996 (aged 85)
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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