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Jeanne Renaud - Dance Collection Danse

Boris Volkoff

The Beginnings

BY JOHN AYRE

Mushka Fanova

and Boris Volkoff in

a Charleston number

at the Carlton

Café, Shanghai

Photo: From Boris

Volkoff Collection,

Toronto Public Library (TRL)

When Boris Volkoff arrived in Toronto

from Chicago in September 1929, he

gave every appearance of being just

another rootless White Russian on his

way to somewhere else. For the past

five years, he had wandered over east

Asia and then the United States performing

wherever and however he

could. Dancing with a touring company

of the Moscow State Ballet in eastern

Siberia in 1924, he defected in

China and danced the Charleston in

tuxedo and slicked hair in Shanghai’s

famous nightclub, the Carlton Cafe.

He got back into ballet with the tiny

Stavrinaki Ballet, which performed

6 Dance Collection Danse

throughout eastern Asia. He arrived in

Hawaii with another troupe, the Royal

Russian Sextette, perhaps the remains

of the Stavrinaki. Once the sextette

arrived in the continental United

States, it didn’t last very long. To put

food on the table Volkoff ended up

dancing as Baskakoff, “whirlwind of

motion”, on the Orpheum vaudeville

circuit in the mid-West. He wore a

peasant costume and leapt and brandished

a narrow sword. Audiences

loved his act. Volkoff did not.

Mercifully he soon caught up with

Adolph Bolm’s ballet troupe in

Chicago in 1928 at the time when

dancers Agnes de Mille and Berenice

Holmes were performing with Bolm.

Volkoff had come to Toronto to

replace Leon Leonidoff as dancer and

choreographer for live intermission

shows at the Uptown cinema palace.

He also ran a ballet school for impresario

Jack Arthur. The Depression

quickly put an end to live shows in

the cinemas and Volkoff set up his

own school at 771 Yonge Street just

north of Bloor, with Evelyn Geary and

Jack Lemen teaching musical comedy

and tap dancing. There was nothing

unusual about this. Even during the

Depression, the middle class was still

dance mad and willing to fork out

money to learn. Still, the studio barely

survived at first. Volkoff himself lived

in a small space behind a curtain in

the studio.

Despite his nightclub career,

Volkoff’s true obsession was now the

ballet. He quickly developed the idea

that if he could attract some of the

best students in Toronto, he could

build a repertory company. In a 1932

issue of Mayfair magazine, his photo

appeared featuring him wearing just

silken dance briefs and extending a

large Eurhythmics hoop to make a

pattern of light. The photo showed

why he had never been a ballet prince

and why, besides strong affinity for

pantomime, he had to specialize in

character roles. His body was a bit on

the blocky side and neither his chest

nor his head were particularly elegant.

But the caption was interesting. Here

was Volkoff who “hopes to establish a

permanent Canadian ballet”.

He had already been working to

improve the image of ballet in Toronto

through his school. His first recital

was in Hart House Theatre on May 16,

1931. When he mounted two performances

in 1932, local newspaper critics

started reviewing them as serious

entertainment. In May 1934, critics

were noticing “large audiences” for

his two performances. The Star commented:

“The dancing was splendid,

and Boris Volkoff’s numbers were met

with cheers.”

In his search for audiences,

Volkoff received a real break in 1934

when the Promenade Concerts at

Varsity Arena were instituted under

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