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Continental European Ballet during WWII

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A poster to aab has raised an interesting

query: where can one read about the state

of ballet in the occupied European countries

during World War II.

There is a good deal of published information about English WWII ballet,

but do any members have information about

ballet in occupied France, Denmark,

and/or the USSR? Or about published


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There's very, very little in English about ballet during WWII in Denmark. (Very little in Danish either, actually, except for contemporaneous reviews.) My biography of Henning Kronstam will rectify this somewhat smile.gif, as he entered the school in 1943, but that won't be published for two years.

Briefly, the ballet company kept performing. Copenhagen had a relatively mild Occupation -- unpleasant if you were Danish, but not as bad as, say, Stalingrade. Theater, including ballet (there's no real ballet audience there) was popular throughout the War. German soldiers attended performances. Two members of the company (principal dancers) were Nazi sympathizers, very enthusiastic ones. One of these dancers taught the smaller children and the pianist for that class was so rabidly anti-Nazi that the teacher had guards, afraid that the pianist would hit him. After the War, the young men of the company took everything out of his office and burned his things in Kongens Nytorv. He and his wife went to Spain to live.

There was one anti-War ballet, Le Printemps, by Harald Lander (the balletmaster) to music of Grieg that was considered quite daring. The idea was that something Terrible was happening, but some day there would be Spring. Having music of Grieg in the theater was a Statement, because Grieg was Norwegian.

The stars of this period were Margot Lander and Borge Ralov, both extraordinarily gifted and charming demicaractere dancers. Lander's big roles were Swanhilda in Coppelia, and Giselle (but NOT La Sylphide). Ralov was Albrecht, Gennaro in "Napoli" and the company's Harlequin and Petrushka. Margot Lander created the leading ballerina role in the first version of "Etudes." Peter Schaufuss's parents (Mona Vangsaae and Frank Schaufuss) were principals also. Niels Bjorn Larsen and Gerda Karstens were the leading character dancers. Erik Bruhn was just beginning his career as the War ended. The repertory was mostly Lander ballets and Lander's stagings of Bournonville ballets, wich a few others sprinkled here and there. There were two classes at the school, one for 6 to 10 year olds, the other from 11 to 15 year olds. The Bournonville Schools were still taught (until 1949).

The Danes learned after the War that the Nazis had debated among themselves whether to bomb Tivoli or the Royal Theatre to punish Copenhageners for the general strike that had occurred during the War. They settled on Tivoli.

That's a quickie guide. It's a good question -- make an interesting book, actually, ballet around the world during the War. Paris and Leningrad would be the stars, I think.

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Ballet in France during WWII seems to be a rather sensitive topic. I don't know if there's any book dealing specifically with it.

Serge Lifar was leading the company then (between 1929 and 1944); the company went on performing, and created some works by Lifar such as "Entre deux rondes" (1940), "Le chevalier et la damoiselle" (1941), "Istar" (1941), "Bolero" (1941), "Joan de Zarissa" (1942), "Les animaux modeles" (1942), "Suite en blanc" (1943), "Guignol et Pandore" (1943), and "Les Mirages" (1944). The most popular of all those works were "Suite en Blanc" et "Les Mirages", which were last performed at the POB a few seasons ago.

Lifar had to leave the directorship of the company after the liberation of Paris, and was accused of collaboration with the Nazis.

He went to Monte-Carlo (I think he was temporarily replaced with Serge Peretti) and worked for the Nouveau Ballet de Monte-Carlo for a few years, and came back to Paris in 1947 (as director), until the late 50s.

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Lifar's autobiography has some information about his tenure during the war, but I don't know how accurate it is! It has been translated into English and is certainly interesting reading.

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Alexandra, first of all, Stalingrad was never occupated. It was demolished to the ground, but didn't surrender. The same as Leningrad wasn't occupated, but blokaded. And during blokade Kirov Theatre was evacuated to Novosibirsk. Vaganova school was evacuated to Perm, northern city, where from that time we have a very good ballet school with one of the best women teacher of present time - Ludmila Saharova - among her pupils were Nadezhda Pavlova, Olga Tchenchikova, Lubov Kunakova.

Theatrical life in Leningrad under blokade was still alive. The Theatre of Musical Comedy (Operetta) gave regular performances evan in the winter, without a heat in the house and Grand Hall of Filarmony gave occasional concerts also.


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Andrei, sorry to have inadvertently insulted Russian honor. I do know that those cities weren't occupied during the War. I meant that Copenhagen did not suffer as much as other cities during the war.

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Alexandra, Estelle, Cargill, and

Andrei -- many thanks for your


I was in Japan from October 1945 to

June 1946. (I am happily surprised

to be designated 'Junior Member' in

this group.) The symphony orchestra

performed occasionally during the war,

I believe, and played more often in

1946. But I never inquired about

wartime ballet, although I know that

kabuki performances continued

during the war.

Ed Bock

[This message has been edited by eabock (edited January 10, 2000).]

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Alexandra wrote:

Estelle, if you're not going to be a dance critic, please abandon mathematics and enter the diplomatic service!

Oh, I hope I didn't sound hypocritical or exaggeratedly prudent... But the Nazi Occupation in France is a rather sensitive topic in general (cf the recent Papon trial, for those who've heard about it), and I think one has to be quite cautious with one's sources (it seems that France lived for decades with the myth that everybody was a resistant, and a lot of things were written with that state of mind, while it was quite far from the truth...) One or two years ago, some books about the behavior of writers during the Nazi occupation were published, and perhaps also about other artists (singers, actors...) but I haven't heard about any similar book about ballet.

I know that Lifar talks about this period in his autobiography ("Les memoires d'Icare"), but haven't read it. But perhaps he isn't the most objective person about that...

Some more information about that period: I don't know the exact list of the POB principals then, but there were Yvette Chauvire (who became a principal in 1941, and created many important works such as "Istar", "Suite en Blanc" or "Les mirages"), Serge Peretti, Suzanne Lorcia, Lycette Darsonval (principal in 1940), Solange Schwartz (principal in 1940), and also among promising dancers Christiane Vaussard (premiere danseuse in 1945), Max Bozzoni and Michel Renault (both etoiles in 1947). Many of these people passed away in the last few years, so I guess that writing a book about that period would be even more difficult now...

By the way, in last november, when I was attending a Martha Graham program at the Cinematheque de la Danse (Palais de Chaillot), there was an elderly lady in front of me, who probably was Gilberte Cournand (famous dance critic, now 86 but still writing for "Les Saisons de la Danse", who was awarded the Legion d'Honneur recently), who was talking about Lifar with her neighbour, and they seemed to have an argument about Lifar's behaviour during WWII!

So that's why I said it was a sensitive topic... smile.gif

Another important side of the dance life in Paris then was the beginning of Roland Petit's career. He used to study at the POB school, entered the company in 1940, and left it in 1944 (so did Renee Jeanmaire, who was to marry him ten years later). The Russian-born dance critic Irene Lidova (now 92 and still active, by the way) organized some "vendredis de la Danse" at the Sarah Bernhardt Theater (now Theatre de la Ville), and I think it was the first performances of Petit outside the Opera, and also of Jeannine Charrat. It became the Ballets des Champs-Elysees, with some support by Boris Kochno, Jean Cocteau and Christian Berard, and Petit made his first choreographies for that company: "Les Forains" (March 1945),

"Le rendez-vous" (1945), also Charrat choreographed "Jeu de cartes" in 1945. Among the main dancers of that company, there was Jean Babilee, who also was a former POB student and dancer (and had to hide his identity, because he was Jewish). There must be some information about all that it Petit's autobiography, or in Lidova's books.

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The way that artists and especially musicians in occupied countries (and in the Reich itself) responded to the imposition of Fascism is something that has long intrigued me. I have never thought of it regarding ballet, perhaps because ballet seems by its nature less “political” than opera, but if posters to this board know of sources in English they can point to it would be much appreciated.

I have exchanged emails with a few people here regarding some individuals—for example Wilhelm Furtwangler, Bruno Walter and Herbert von Karajan. The recording of Furtwangler conducting “Fidelio” was what first put me under the thrall of this opera, and his very last recording, of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, done in 1954 is almost unbelievably beautiful. Testimony from members of orchestras who played under him show a respect bordering on awe.

But he also led the Berlin Philharmonic during the Second World War, conducted concerts both in the presence of the highest Nazi officials and on tour at munition plants. At the same time, many Jewish musicians credit him with protecting them, and he was able to do so openly because he was the superstar conductor of the time. He believed that music was somehow above politics and looked down on the Nazi politicians as his social inferiors.

Von Karajan, on the other hand, was evil in a most disgusting way. He was the most rank of rank opportunists, making a point of joining the National Socialist Party in both Vienna and Berlin to make sure that those in power knew he was completely in agreement with them.

Regarding Leningrad during the war, the autobiography of Galina Vishnevskaya, while full of the type of score settling that diva memoirs almost always have, also recounts her life in Leningrad during the siege when she was in her early teens. At first reading it seemed amazing how much of “normal” life (which included opera, ballet and serious music) could continue under such appalling conditions. Then I realized that this was yet another instance of just how important these things that we may take for granted are in human survival—or at least the survival of groups of humans. It seems the need for beauty that transcends one’s everyday existence remains important (or could even become more so) as those conditions deteriorate. Thanks to Andrei for some more of the details.

An aside to Estelle, who wrote: “Ballet in France during WWII seems to be a rather sensitive topic.” I imagine it, along with every other activity during World War II in France will remain extremely sensitive. I remember a phrase from a review of a book about the Occupation by Susan Sontag which discussed people who did not actively collaborate: “In order to survive, they practiced every form of ambiguity the human mind could devise.”

A further aside to eabock--I was also thrilled by my designation as a junior member, since it has been a long time since I have been a junior anything. Enjoy it while you can, since, like many good things, it does not last forever.

ed waffle

michigan, u.s.a.


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Note to Estelle: No, I meant that quite sincerely. I cannot imagine you being hypocritical, but you have a wonderful way of telling the truth without causing the outbreak of wars -- an extremely valuable talent which any country's diplomatic service badly needs.

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On the subject of ballet in France during the war, there is an interesting account by Jean Babilee in his autobiography of his experiences at the time. He left Paris before the German occupation and went to Cannes which came under the aegis of the Vichy Government. He danced there in a company directed by Marika Besobratsova, but when the free zone was occupied by the Germans at the end of 1942 he went back to Paris and auditioned successfully for the Opera. It was well known there that he was Jewish and he was subjected to some racial harassment. He narrowly missed being rounded up with most of the Jewish population of Paris (his pasport was in his real name, Jean Gutmann)but when the order came to join a compulsory labour brigade in Germany he escaped and joined the maquis (resistance) and remained with a group in Touraine until the Liberation. It's amuch more interesting account than I've paraphrased, and gives a first-hand view of how dance caried on in France during that period, but unfortunately the book is only published in french as far as I am aware.

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