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Edouard Borovansky (1902–1959)

by Robin Grove

This article was published:

Edouard Borovansky (1902-1959), by Alec Murray, c1944

Edouard Borovansky (1902-1959), by Alec Murray, c1944

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn3084756

Edouard Borovansky (1902-1959), ballet director, was born on 24 February 1902 at Prerov, Moravia (Czech Republic), seventh child of Frantisek Skrecek, railway clerk, and his wife Arnosta. He was christened Eduard Josef. A plain but by no means impoverished village life kept him in touch with folk-dance, and with Czech and German music. The Church, which he was later to abandon, provided Catholic doctrine, ritual and art. On leaving school, he worked as an accountant before being called up for military service in the Slovakian air force.

At 19, a more or less untaught baritone, Skrecek joined the chorus of the Olomouc Opera Company, but, thanks to his early gymnastic training, transferred to the corps de ballet almost at once. In a time of growing nationalism, a stage career among local singers and dancers could satisfy idealism, as well as providing a modest income. In September 1923 he successfully auditioned for the Prague National Theatre, focus of many Czech aspirations, and thereafter worked his way through chorus parts and crowd scenes, a handsome masculine presence, if not a highly accomplished technician. After watching Anna Pavlova's performances in Prague, in 1928 he gained a place in her corps and changed his name to Borowanski. His career as a dancer of character roles was securely launched, and internationalism began to replace his earlier sense of where his talents and ambitions should lead.

His first appearance with the Pavlova Ballet was in Hamburg, Germany; seasons in Britain, South America and Asia followed. As principal dance-mime with the company, he toured Australia in 1929, and was delighted by the enthusiasm and friendliness of audiences. The Pavlova Ballet, however, existed only for the sake of the ballerina herself, and, on her death a year later, the company disappeared. With his companion—the Russian-born Xenia Nicolaeva Krüger, née Smirnoff (1903-1985), whose Bolshoi-based training was far more thorough than his own—Edouard Borovansky, as he was now known, pieced out a living in Paris, then Prague and Berlin, mostly by teaching children in makeshift studios. He was to marry Xenia, a divorcee, on 14 October 1933 at the register office, Westminster, London.

Not until 1932 was he fully employed again, in Colonel de Basil's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Among his roles with this famous, intrigue-ridden roadshow were the Strong Man in Le Beau Danube, Polkan in Le Coq d'Or and the Shopkeeper of La Boutique Fantasque. He also rehearsed and shepherded supernumeraries in ballets requiring crowds, and, as a much-travelled performer in his thirties, held considerable authority among the dancers themselves. All this was good preparation for a directorial career, and, after the company (now renamed The Royal Covent Garden Russian Ballet) visited Australia in 1938, Borovansky and his wife decided to remain. Czechoslovakia had been taken over by Hitler; within months Europe would be at war. Whatever future there might be for ballet in the antipodes, there was no immediate prospect of turning back.

Above a shop selling devotional artefacts, shaken by the rattling trams of Elizabeth Street, the Borovanskys established their Melbourne Academy of Russian Ballet where 'Classical and Character Dancing, Mime and Make Up' were to be taught. Instruction was basically Xenia's field, Boro himself acting rather as producer and entrepreneur. From the start, he plunged himself into the realities of the local scene. He might present himself as a cosmopolitan, a man of the European theatre, but holding aloof was hardly his style. His studio was hired in conjunction with Eunice Weston, a respected teacher of dance: the first Borovansky students appeared under the aegis of existing schools, or as contributors to National Health Week in 1939, or to the Spectacular Historical Pageant Representing the Growth of the British Empire (1940). But by December 1940 the Borovansky Australian Ballet Company was able to fill the small Comedy Theatre with a programme of new and old ballets, and a troupe of dancers headed by Laurel Martyn.

Queensland-born Martyn had shone in small roles with the Vic-Wells Ballet, London, before returning to Australia. A dramatic dancer of unusual range, she was also one of the most intelligent women Borovansky ever employed; it was a sign of his own intelligence that he provided opportunities for Martyn's creativity to flourish. Even before his first, two-night season at the Comedy, he had encouraged the formation of the Melbourne Ballet Club where new choreography could be seen. Under its auspices, on a stage inside the Borovansky studio, Martyn's Sigrid began its long-lasting Australian career (over six hundred performances). Another outstanding young dancer, Dorothy Stevenson, choreographed Sea Legend, with Australian music, decor and costumes, while, working with designer William Constable, Martyn produced a powerful expressionist piece, En Saga, on the theme of women and war. The Ballet Club had become a centre for artists and audiences alike.

Only with difficulty, though, could this experimental impetus carry over into the professional company Borovansky was destined to run. In July 1942 he presented a five-night season at the shabbily grandiose Princess Theatre. The programme, mixing classics with lightweight, new creations, filled the house, and proved to the management of J. C. Williamson Theatres Ltd that ballet was potentially big business. On this basis, 'the Firm' allied itself to Borovansky, so that he gained access to its theatres throughout Australia, but took on the burden of its commercial imperatives. In an age before government subsidies and subscription audiences, a professional company could survive only in this way. The Sydney-based Kirsova Ballet (1941-44), having refused the embrace of commerce, died of its own uncompromisingness, despite an Australia-wide following. Nonetheless, the standardizing effect of commercial management was always evident in Borovansky's repertoire and style of production. Large, colourful, familiar works were what 'the Firm' preferred, and Borovansky was developing a performance style of bold statement and dry, brisk muscularity to carry them off.

Naturalized in 1944, Boro became a colourful identity in Melbourne. Outlandish and volatile, with an earthy sense of humour—'just a bloody peasant', he insisted self-mockingly—he was notorious for his despotic treatment of his dancers. By the end of the year his forty-strong company had toured the mainland capitals, Tasmania and New Zealand with a repertoire that included Giselle, Swan Lake (Act II), Les Sylphides, En Saga, Capriccio Italien, (Sir) Frederick Ashton's Façade, and a symphonic fantasy, Vltava, patriotically Czech in music, theme and imagery. The titles themselves are some indication of how little Australian content was thought to signify. In 1945 the company again toured Australia, with an astonishing, eight-month season in Melbourne where the tried favourites of pre-war 'Russian ballet', Le Carnaval, Scheherazade and Le Beau Danube, appeared together with a new work by Borovansky himself, Terra Australis.

At the end of the season Martyn left the company to create (out of the Ballet Club) what would become the long-surviving Victorian Ballet Guild; her choice of the small, experimental group over the glamorously professional stage brought into focus the dilemma Borovansky faced. He had built a strong, commercially attractive operation on the basis of the school run by his wife and a keen sense of what the public would pay to see. His dancers included Martin Rubinstein, Leon Kellaway, Peggy Sager and the even younger Kathleen Gorham. From his own studio came Vassilie Trunoff and tiny, brilliantly talented Edna Busse. Yet, as artistic director, he was in effect an employee of J. C. Williamson Theatres, whose own policies largely dictated what he could do. During the next eighteen months, in between seasons of Coppelia and other favourites, the Borovansky Ballet (as it was now called) became the dance-chorus for two operettas and toured New Zealand a second time—only to be disbanded early in 1948. The company could hardly have done more to promote the success of 'the Firm', but, despite all Boro's efforts, J.C.W.'s financial backing was withdrawn. It must have been the more galling to watch Ballet Rambert and the National Theatre Ballet captivating the very audiences his own endeavours had built up.

Despite the Australian public's appetite for ballet in the postwar years, Borovansky never managed to gain for his dancers the continuity of employment their professional development required. Time and again, a successful season would be followed by months of dispersal in which they would have to make a living for themselves. It was dismayingly unlike the conditions under which the great European companies grew. Part of the trouble was the timidity and greed of the entrepreneurs; part, the audience expectation that ballet should be exotic and on the biggest scale. Even had Boro wished to diversify his enterprise, he would have had to create a new, more specialized public of the kind that the Victorian Ballet Guild was establishing for itself.

Instead, he waited, irascibly, until in 1951—sponsored by the Education in Music and Dramatic Arts Society, in conjunction with 'the Firm'—he was able to assemble a new company, the Borovansky Jubilee Ballet, which presented his most ambitious production yet: a full-sized Petrouchka. By the end of 1952 he had surpassed even that, with a complete Sleeping Princess, while highlights of later seasons included Massine's Symphonie Fantastique (1954), John Cranko's Pineapple Poll (1954) and David Lichine's full-length Nutcracker (1955). Gathered and dismissed and reassembled, the Borovansky Ballet proved it could tackle almost anything within its chosen range of entertainment style, and the guest appearances of Margot Fonteyn and other artists of the Royal Ballet in the 1957 season seemed a recognition of the company's international standing.

To the last, its repertoire was solidly conservative—Swan Lakes and Graduation Balls interspersed with original, would-be crowd-pleasers—but its dancers had an energy and individualism that carried them beyond the pallid limits of establishment art. Perhaps by the end of the 1950s the company was simply repeating a formula upon which it had already relied too long, yet the confidence and technique of its members had never been so consistently strong.

At the start of a Sydney season, Borovansky died of a coronary occlusion on 18 December 1959 at Randwick and was buried with Anglican rites in Box Hill cemetery, Melbourne. His wife survived him; they had no children. Boro's death left behind some of the finest dancers he had presented in the nineteen interrupted years of his company's career, including Garth Welch, Robert Pomie, Jeffrey Kovel, Estella Nova and Rosemary Mildner; his company not only became the basis of a permanent national ballet, but nourished the origins of smaller, scattered groups, and a lively interest in dance Australia-wide.

Boro's achievement would not have been possible without the gifts of his wife. While his interest was in stage-performance, Xenia schooled and formed the dancers of his corps in early years, then, as the company developed, soloists and principals who came through the academy under her direction. The Borovansky Ballet never shut itself off from other dance styles. The 19-year-old Marilyn Jones, arriving from quite outside the organization, was made a ballerina overnight in his last Sleeping Princess. Indeed, the personal qualities—even, at times, the deficiencies—of particular dancers were warmly greeted by audiences who came to see them again and again. The company was both an intensely personal creation, where one man did almost everything, and a national ballet, eager to draw on whatever talent it could employ. In becoming, proudly, 'a dinkum bloody Aussie', Borovansky had found a place both for his keen sense of national identity and for the international experience of the dance world in which he had played his memorable part.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Salter, Borovansky (Syd, 1980)
  • E. H. Pask, Ballet in Australia (Melb, 1982)
  • Borovansky papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Robin Grove, 'Borovansky, Edouard (1902–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 13 July 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

Edouard Borovansky (1902-1959), by Alec Murray, c1944

Edouard Borovansky (1902-1959), by Alec Murray, c1944

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn3084756

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Borovansky, Eduard Josef

24 February, 1902
Prerov, Czech Republic


18 December, 1959 (aged 57)
Randwick, Sydney, New South Wales, 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.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.