A biography by Alexander Meinertz
Published by Dance Books
In almost every biography of the great dancers of the 20th century you will find a reference to Vera Volkova. She was Margot Fonteyn’s teacher, inspiration, friend and role model, she shaped the careers of Eric Bruhn and Henning Kronstam and it is no exaggeration to say that the cream of the ballet world beat a path to her door. Now she has a biography of her own written by the Danish writer and critic, Alexander Meinertz based partially on an unfinished memoir written by Volkova’s husband and illustrated by a splendid collection of photographs many from the Royal Ballet archives. Volkova had a difficult life in many ways; she was never a celebrated dancer in her own right and her entire claim to fame was based on the inspired teaching methods she developed that benefited so many.
Vera Volkova had the misfortune to be born in interesting times, to the Chinese, the worst curse you could bestow. Born in 1905 into an affluent St Petersburg family, her early life was one of ease and privilege but the First World War and subsequent revolution changed everything when her father became an early fatality of the war and the revolution cast her together with her mother and siblings into desperate poverty. The appalling conditions she suffered at that time left a lasting legacy as she suffered from ill health at various intervals throughout her life almost certainly brought on by the privations of her youth. Prior to the revolution Vera had been a pupil at the exclusive Smolny Institute, an upmarket girls school for the patrician classes, but that came to an abrupt end as the revolutionaries requisitioned the institute for their own use at the same time as they abolished privilege.
At the advanced age of fifteen Vera made the decision to study ballet, she said because it would entitle her to a better food ration. Too old for entry into the Maryinsky school, she became a pupil of The School of Russian Ballet run by Akim Volynsky, philosopher, aesthete and ballet critic who had set up his own school to teach ballet technique along with his personal theories about the art of dance. Volynsky was an interesting figure in his own right and Mr Meinertz rightly devotes the best part of three chapters to this hitherto rather shadowy but influential maverick of Russian ballet history. It seems that Vera was his special protégée just as Olga Spessivtseva had been before her mother removed her from the school, unhappy about Volynsky’s influence on her daughter. Until a falling out, Volynsky was assisted at his school by Nikolai Legat, and Vera’s early teachers were Agrippina Vaganova, at the very beginning of her own teaching career, and Maria Romanova whose best known pupil was her own daughter, Galina Ulanova. Vera’s frequent partner in pas de deux was another eventually-to-become-great teacher, Alexander Pushkin. The new regime didn’t care for Volynsky and referred to him as a “power-crazy amateur”. He became a non-person and was almost completely airbrushed from ballet history.
At the completion of her studies Volkova failed to find employment with either the Maryinsky (then known as GATOB) or the Bolshoi companies, possibly she was tainted by association with the now despised Volynsky and possibly because as a late starter she didn’t have a strong enough technique. She joined a touring group and danced her way across south eastern Asia eventually finishing up in Shanghai where she became part of a cabaret act, but her hopes of escaping to Europe to join Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes were never to be realized. Volkova wasn’t happy in China but was nevertheless better off there than in her disintegrating homeland and it was in Shanghai that she first met her future husband, Hugh Finch Williams who helped her to flee the Japanese attacks on China and managed to get her to England before the outbreak of the Second World War.
After resuming her dance studies in London and Paris Volkova opened her West Street Studio in 1942 where she urged her students to keep working and ignore the air raids; before long English dancers were flocking to her classes, though many did so to the displeasure of Ninette de Valois who appeared to harbour a deep resentment towards Volkova’s popularity as a teacher. Chief among her pupils was Margot Fonteyn, the pair had first met back in China and very soon Volkova was coaching her in all the major roles. During these years Volkova’s contribution to English ballet was inestimable, Frederick Ashton became her friend and admirer and she was credited with collaborating with him in the creation of his masterwork, Symphonic Variations. When the war was finally over a who’s who of dancers from the rest of Europe and America began making their way to West Street: now internationally renowned, Volkova had become famous.
In 1950 Volkova was encouraged by De Valois to take up the post of Director of Ballet at La Scala Milan but found the restrictions placed on her artistic freedom intolerable and she left after a mere six months. The following year she moved to Copenhagen and was to remain there for the next 25 years.
Volkova joined the teaching staff at the Royal Danish Ballet School after being approached by Harold Lander but things didn’t start off smoothly as when she arrived she discovered that Lander had been thrown out after a series of scandals and that the company had divided into pro and anti Lander factions. Although trying her best to remain neutral and avoiding taking sides she was inevitably caught up in the internal politics of the company from the outset and over the years the various changes in artistic direction meant Volkova often found herself sidelined by less than sympathetic directors. Through thick and thin she persevered with her aim to steer the company towards a great awareness of classicism and fostered hopes of acquiring the Petipa ballets to enhance the repertoire. Her successes included nurturing the careers of Eric Bruhn, Henning Kronstam and Kirsten Simone and bringing her old ally from the West Street Studio days, Frederick Ashton, to create Romeo and Juliet for the company in a version that arguably eclipses all others to this day.
Throughout her life Volkova privately pined for her native Russia (could that have been why she based herself in the ballet capital closest to St Petersburg?) but was eventually to return through the good graces of the Kirov Ballet’s Konstantine Sergeyev. She revisited the places she had loved in her youth but the trip was tinged by unhappiness as all her family had perished. There were happy reunions with old friends and colleagues such as Ulanova and Pushkin but the visit seems also to have evoked dark memories too. Volkova never disclosed very much about her earlier life even when her closest friends gently coaxed her to do so, and the scarcity of information about those years in Russia after leaving The School of Russian and before making the decision to stay in China means there are frustrating gaps in Volkova’s story.
Her personal life was not happy: an early marriage was over almost before it had begun and a love affair with a fellow dancer in China came to an abrupt end when he tried to return home to Russia and was shot. When Volkova married trainee architect Finch Williams, it was possibly in gratitude for his financial support when she was ill in China or possibly because she wanted a British passport. Surprisingly the marriage endured for almost forty years, but there are clues that it may have been a marriage of the ‘open’ variety as Volkova had a barely disguised and very torrid affair with the dancer Henry Danton (the book is dedicated to him) whilst her husband got through a string of mistresses. Her inability to bear children seems to have caused her great sadness and probably added to some sense of insecurity in her personal life exacerbated by separation from her family in Russia where all her remaining relatives died in mysterious circumstances.
Volkova’s own end was rather tragic; as she died unappreciated by the company she had given a quarter of a century of her life to and had become the lowest paid employee on the Royal Danish Ballet pay roll, disregarded and treated with scant respect. When she lay dying of liver cancer, choreographer John Neumeier rushed to her bedside, Volkova was the first to recognize his latent talent as a chorographer and he remained devoted to her to the last. Neumeier has written the Foreward of the book where he remembers her “precious” lessons as being full of “sense and substance, precise instructions, communicated with her particular eloquence”. Volkova had made a start on writing down her teaching methods, but what she wrote was incomplete at the time of her death and I think we may all be the poorer for that.
Alexander Meinertz makes a very good biographer, writing about his subject both informatively and sympathetically. There aren’t that many biographies about dance teachers about and this one makes an excellent addition to any ballet lover’s book shelf.