Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929) was a Russian-born ‘ballet impressario’ and the founder of the Ballets Russes in 1909. The influence of this ballet company on design, music and art was long-lasting, with Diaghilev commissioning composers to write musical pieces for the ballets, and artists to design sets and costumes.

Helene Kirsova and Igor Y
Helene Kirsova and Igor Youskevitch in Les Sylphides (National Gallery of Australia, photograph by Jack Cato)

When he died in 1929, a number of Ballet Russes dance companies were formed. Between 1936 and 1940, three of these companies toured Australia. They performed 44 works, most of them Australian premiers. Similar to the influence of Diaghilev in Europe, the touring Ballet Russes dance companies were to have a profound influence on the development of the arts in Australia, including music, visuals arts, dance and theatre.

Some of this influence came from the dancers who stayed on in Australia. Madame Helene Kirsova was Danish-born but took on a Russian-sounding name after she joined the Ballet Russes. She toured Australia in 1938 with Col Wassily de Basil’s dance company but returned the following year to marry a Danish consular official. Although she initially stated that she would stop dancing and devote her life to being a wife and mother, the outbreak of the Second World War changed her mind.

Helene Kirsova c1941 (State Library of NSW)

In 1940, Kirsova started a Russian ballet school at Macquarie Place, near Circular Quay in Sydney. In the following year, she started Australia’s first professional ballet company. The company was active for four years, and became a mecca for composers, artists and choreographers.

During these four years, Kirsova donated all the profits to charity, buying up land in the ‘congested areas of the city’ to create playgrounds for children. There are three parks in the Sydney suburbs of Erskineville and Glebe that bear her name. Kirsova left Sydney for good in 1948, moving to England with her second husband.

But she left her mark on Sydney- in terms of a positive influence on Australia’s cultural life, but also by creating valuable public space in the heart of the city. Thanks Helene!