Bloch & Ballet in Australia
Three women sit in a row. Their gaze is intense, their arms indicating the movement they want the dancers to make. The women remember the past but their minds are focused on the present.
The 2006 photo of Wendy Walker, Anna Volkova and Valrene Tweedie coaching the Australian Ballet’s Les Sylphides speaks of ballet past and ballet present. The women represent a thread that loops backwards through 20th century, from the companies who toured Australia in the 1930s to the dancers of the Australian Ballet in the 1960s, its first decade, among them Walker who became the company’s ballet mistress.
But there’s also an unseen thread in this photo, one that links the history of Australian ballet with the Lithuanian cobbler, Jacob Bloch. His tenacity and drive propelled his first, small venture in Sydney in 1932 into an international company, one that has formalised its relationship with the national ballet company.
Volkova and Tweedie, who both danced with Colonel de Basil’s Ballets Russes companies that toured to Australia, maintained a long link to The Australian Ballet to the end of their lives. Tweedie’s connections with Bloch began in 1938 when she danced with one of Jacob Bloch’s sons, Bernard, and continued when she founded (the now defunct company) Ballet Australia in the 1960s. Jacob’s daughter, Betty, who worked with her father in his business, played a major role as a member of Ballet Australia’s fund raising committee.
Jacob’s first major commission for custom-made pointe shoes came in 1934 when the Russian, Olga Spessivtseva toured Australia. In Sydney, the tour promoter, Victor Dandre, asked Jacob Bloch to make shoes for the ballerina.
Only two years later, the ballet craze in Australia really began when Colonel de Basil’s Ballets Russes embarked on a series of tours in the pre-war and early war years.
Australian audiences were enthralled by the companies and their principal dancers, among them the teenage dancers, known as the “baby ballerinas”, Irina Baronova, Tamara Toumanova and Tatiana Riabouchinska, Tamara Tchinarova, (who later married Peter Finch), David Lichine and Helene Kirsova who later founded her own Australian ballet company. Bloch made shoes for all of these stars.
The Kirsova Ballet marked a turning point for Bloch. From the foundation of the company in the early 1940s, Bloch worked in close collaboration with professional Australian ballet companies, among them the Borovansky Ballet, Queensland Ballet and eventually the Australian Ballet.
Betty Bloch became a close friend of Kirsova, whose image was used as the logo figure on Bloch’s first letterhead and whose photograph was given pride of place in the shop window of Bloch’s Sydney store in the Strand Arcade.
When Margot Fonteyn danced as a guest artist with the Borovansky Ballet in 1957, Jacob presented her with custom made pointe shoes and a year later, the New York City Ballet dancers took their American-made shoes to his Sydney workroom for major adjustments.
The links that connected Bloch and The Australian Ballet began with the birth of the company in 1962. From the start, the company’s artistic director, Peggy van Praagh, formed a friendly business partnership with Betty Bloch.
The foundation dancers of the company included ex-Borovansky Ballet members, some of whom had danced in Europe when that company disbanded, and others who were newcomers to Australia. Some dancers favoured pointe shoes that they had worn in Europe.
A celebratory group photo from 1969, shows the women of the Australian Ballet each holding a balloon as they pose in their leotards and pointe shoes, among them Wendy Walker, Roslyn Anderson, Janet Vernon, Julie de Costa and Leigh Rowles. We can’t see the soles of the shoes, indicating the name of their pointe shoemakers, but there was, almost certainly, a mixture of makers among them, including those made in Britain and Russia.
But as the Australian Ballet moved into its second decade the first choice of the company’s dancers and the young students at the Australian Ballet School were the pointe shoes of Bloch.
The association continues.
Today, the company supplies the Australian Ballet with at least 5000 pairs of pointe shoes a year.
When the Australian Ballet celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2012, a major financial gift from Bloch allowed the company to screen its gala performance around the country.
The following year, the relationship was sealed. To mark both the 80th anniversary of Bloch, and the 50years of the Australian Ballet, Bloch announced a formal alliance with the company as its official pointe shoe partner.
Eighty-two years after Jacob set up his modest shopfront business in Paddington, Sydney, the thread that unites Bloch with ballet in Australia lives on.
By Valerie Lawson
Valerie Lawson is an author and freelance journalist. In 2011 she launched her website, www.dancelines.com.au