Anna lived a very full life in her 96 years, during which she became many different things to many people. I first met her in my capacity as a journalist with The Australian newspaper, and in hers as a former ballerina. I remember well our first meeting in 2006 at her home in Belrose in northern Sydney - here was a gracious, warm, entertaining woman who was also feisty-as-hell. I knew instantly we were going to get along famously.
I enjoyed her company so much I began to look for ways to interview her again, pitching stories to anyone who would have them just so I could have an excuse to visit. After the second visit however we realised there was more than a professional connection, and when Anna invited me – or instructed me, really – to visit her again, I happily took up her offer. What developed was a most wonderful friendship, not marred at all by the fact that she was in her late 80s and I had just turned 30.
Anna was born in Moscow in the year of outbreak of the Russian Revolution, 1917. Her family was forced to flee Russia and for the first two years of her life they were stateless, ultimately ending up in Paris where they settled.
Anna came to ballet relatively late in life by dance standards, and was 11 years old when she took her first ballet class in Paris with the formidable former imperial Russian ballerina Olga Preobrajenska. “She was a very demanding teacher,” Anna once told me, “she would flare up without any reason and could be very hard on you, hurtful. But she taught me everything I knew.” She also taught Anna for free, as the family had had to leave much of its wealth behind when it fled Moscow.
Anna was still at school when Colonel Wassily de Basil and his famous Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo came looking for dancers. The company had evolved from Sergei Diaghilev's Ballet Russes, following Diaghilev's death in 1929. Anna immediately caught the eye of the Colonel, but her father - a firm believer in education - insisted she first finish school, permitting her only to dance with the company during its Paris season. In 1935 when she was 18 she joined the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo for good, her mother accompanying her on all the tours to make sure she stayed out of trouble.
It was a meagre living but a rich life; Anna worked alongside some of the most significant artistic figures of the 20th century, including composer Igor Stravinsky, artist Jean Cocteau and choreographers George Balanchine and Mikhail Fokine. In particular, there was Leonide Massine, the first to choreograph a contemporary ballet to a symphonic score (Les Presages to Tchaikovsky’s Fifth). ‘‘The first critics in Paris were absolutely horrible — how dare anyone touch the sacred music? — but when we went to England it had a tremendous success,’’ Anna recalled. She also danced before King George V and Queen Elizabeth II. She was part of a company that would revolutionise classical ballet, taking away its often staid and predictable reputation and transforming it into a radical and exciting new art form. The company was feted internationally and performed around the globe, including a three-month tour of so-called ‘one night stands’ of American towns during which the dancers travelled on and slept in trains. Anna told me they would occasionally pool their paltry earnings and take a single hotel room for the night, quietly sneaking in half the company so they could indulge in a bath.
In 1938 they headed into the great unknown: their first tour of Australia, which the dancers approached with great trepidation. Conditions were primitive, with basic theatres, non-existent orchestras and a population that had barely heard of classical ballet. Anna loved every minute (as did the audiences) and she made some good friends who would later become an important part of her life Down Under.
De Basil would bring ballet companies to Australia three times in total, under a variety of names. It was on Anna’s return trip to Europe that she first met Jim Barnes whose university rowing team was on the same ship, headed for the Henley regatta in England. ‘‘They all looked most handsome, all standing along the ship’s rail in full regalia with lovely pale-blue blazers,” she told me. “They were very curious, particularly to know if it was true the boys wore hair nets. Of course they had their eye on the girls, but that was their excuse!”
One story of Anna’s I particularly loved was the day she was given permission to leave that ship in southern France to visit her family. As she stood on deck in the first light of morning awaiting the tender that would take her ashore she noticed a mass of yellow in the back of the approaching dinghy. As it drew closer she realised the entire back of the vessel was covered in yellow roses, a surprise organized for her by Jim. Many decades and a lifetime later, during which she lost Jim to heart disease, she said her favourite place to sit quietly and remember him was on a bench in her little garden, where a single yellow rose would bloom every winter.
The pair went on to fall in love, although it took three marriage proposals before Anna agreed to marry Jim, with the outbreak of world war two making life too unpredictable to convince a girl of Russian-French background to move to a country on the other side of the world with a husband who might not return from the front. In the interim she danced in London and Paris before sailing to South America where she spent much of the war years performing in casinos and clubs. Of course ultimately she did marry Jim, willingly giving up her glittering international career to settle in Sydney and begin the next chapter of her life, as a wife and mother to her two sons Jamie and John. She later moved with Jim to the NSW country town of Boorowa, her friends taking bets on how long she would last. Some said days, the most generous six weeks. She managed more than 60 years before Jim’s deteriorating health required them to return to Sydney and specialist care.
Following Jim’s death Anna moved to Belrose, and it was here I got to know her. Initially it was just me, and later I’d bring one or both of my children and mother Libby, occasionally my husband Andrew, sometimes my father Robert, even my grandmother Barbara. Anna relished visitors and there was always room for more friends in her life, she was that sort of person.
She was so delighted when I told her I was pregnant with our first child, “Oh Jane, such lovely, lovely news” before following up sternly with, “No more bikinis for you then.” The children loved coming to see her, and it was so gratifying to see how much pleasure they gave her. She was terribly generous with them and delighted in giving them treats I’d never allow - chocolate coated ice creams or biscuits (“Not for you though Jane”), and she often had presents for them, thoughtful things like stencils, coloured pencils and a sketch book.
She was also very, very direct and didn’t suffer fools gladly and perhaps this is one of the reasons we got on so well. I remember telling her about someone I’d interviewed who had also learnt ballet from a Russian teacher. Her response was swift and to the point – “dreadful teacher” she declared dismissively. For all her directness, her sense of humour was wonderful, she loved a joke and laughed easily, and often.
There was never any doubt that she did not regret giving up ballet, but she missed it. “It was my decision entirely,” she told me, “I would never have changed my married life and two sons. But it is so much in you, that love of ballet.” I know she took great comfort from her ongoing friendship with her Ballets Russes friends who settled in Australia, including the late Irina Baronova and Valrene Tweedie. She also had a wonderful relationship with the Australian Ballet and artistic director David McAllister. She loved attending both dress rehearsals and the opening nights of the Australian Ballet’s Sydney performances, always dressing beautifully for the occasion and watching the evening’s show with a very close eye. We always debriefed after the show and, naturally enough, she never hesitated in telling me exactly what she thought, good or bad. She was very honoured to be invited back to coach the young dancers ahead of their production of Les Sylphides, Fokine’s abstract fantasy for which Anna was internationally renowned. She greatly enjoyed coaching the dancers, although from all reports she was a very stern teacher.
When I last spoke with Anna, just two weeks ago, she sounded bright and cheerful, although she did berate me for not calling sooner. We were due to have morning tea this week, so it was a great shock to receive John’s message that her health had suddenly and irrevocably deteriorated. She was larger than life, and I somehow thought she would live on forever.
Anna was so many things to so many people… wife, mother, daughter, grandmother, friend, ballerina and teacher among them. I was always so proud to call her my friend. We will all miss her dearly.
Jane Albert is a freelance journalist and author who writes for The Australian, the Sydney Morning Herald, Vogue and Dance Australia. Her first book, House of Hits, was published by Hardie Grant in 2010.
Anna Volkova with David McAllister.