On Saturday, December 12th Heritage Toronto will present a plaque honouring Boris Volkoff, Canadian ballet pioneer and renowned ice ballet choreographer.
Boris Volkoff was born on April 11, 1900 (or April 24 on the Gregorian Calendar) in Schepotievo, Russia. Over the course of his career, this Canadian ballet pioneer and choreographer created 350 works altogether and 45 major ballets including The Red Ear of Corn (1949), and was instrumental in developing an audience for ballet in Toronto and Canada.
From 1920 to 1924, Volkoff studied ballet at a school associated with the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, learning a style that emphasized technical precision and expressive, emotional dancing. Afterward,
Volkoff toured the Russian Empire, China, and the Far East with a variety of dance companies before eventually ending up in the United States, performing at small town fairs in California and Texas.
Unhappy with this arrangement, he bought out his contract in 1928 to join Adolph Bolm’s Company in Chicago, one of the few dance companies in North America. When Volkoff’s U.S. visa expired, Bolm suggested Volkoff go to Toronto, where Leon Leonidoff had just left the Loew’s Uptown Theatre. With an English couple’s assistance, Volkoff snuck into Canada illegally and took his mother’s maiden name upon arrival.
He became ballet master and sole male dancer at the Loew’s Uptown Theatre in May 1929. There he choreographed short, varied dances to be performed twice daily before films six days a week.
Although touring ballet companies helped spur interest in ballet, most dance schools in Toronto taught ballroom, folk, and tap. Believing there should be more serious study of classical ballet, Volkoff opened his own dance school in 1930. It would operate at various Yorkville locations continuously for the next forty years.
Volkoff was the prototypical Russian classical ballet master: agile, excitable, and temperamental. Teaching students of all ages from children to adults, Volkoff dressed in a loose-fitting white shirt and dark breeches over white stockings. He carried a cane to keep rhythm on the floor or to gently point out a correction to a student.
A man of few words because his broken English wasn’t always clear, Volkoff was nevertheless a strict disciplinarian who expected his students to work hard. Volkoff was known as an excellent teacher who saw each student’s individual strengths and weaknesses, and adapted his choreography to suit.
Volkoff embraced every opportunity to promote ballet, his pioneering work in Toronto was important for cultivating and educating an audience to appreciate the fine arts. Critics raved about Volkoff’s choreographic abilities, and for bringing classical work and freer narrative choreography to Toronto, though they could be resistant to his more experimental dances. Where once, as the Toronto Telegram noted in 1934, dancing in Toronto had been “mere pirouetting and costume display,”
Volkoff was praised for introducing imagination and expression into choreography.
Beginning in 1934, Volkoff was invited to choreograph for the Toronto Ice Skating Club’s Annual Shows. Although he knew very little about ice skating he worked with Walter Arian, the club’s skating instructor, to produce large-scale ballet productions on ice. They drew audiences from as far afield as Michigan, New York, and even Florida until the early 1950s. Volkoff’s connection to figure skating brought him fame abroad, and he was offered a lucrative position in New York that he turned down because, as he said, he wanted to establish a Canadian company of dancers, not ice shows. He did, however, continue to work with skaters, including Olympians Barbara Ann Scott and Otto and Maria Jelinek.
In 1936, Volkoff’s dancers were invited by the Canadian Olympic Committee to participate in the International Tanzwettspiele, a dance recital connected with the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Volkoff was determined to present a distinctly Canadian work, and used Aboriginal stories for inspiration. In addition to using a Canadian composer, the costumes and masks were designed by prominent Canadian artists. German audiences loved the performance and the international praise earned Volkoff’s group an increasing number of invitations to perform.
In November 1938, Volkoff achieved his ambition of creating a Canadian ballet company, the Volkoff Canadian Ballet. The repertory company was to provide more regular opportunities to tour and perform full-scale, evening-length ballets – which would also benefit Canadian choreographers, writers, musicians, painters and all others involved in stage productions. In a more direct attempt to cultivate an educated audience, the Volkoff Canadian Ballet gave lecture demonstration performances at Toronto-area schools. The war, however, interrupted and disrupted the fulfillment of some of these ambitions.
Beyond establishing his own company, Volkoff collaborated with others to found The Canadian Ballet Festivals with the aim of bringing Canadian dance groups together for a non-competitive showcase to foster artistic growth and better relations with the eventual aim of establishing a national ballet. Toronto hosted the second festival in March 1949. It was considered an artistic and sold-out success. Most importantly, the fundraising committee met all its goals with funding from both private patrons and, for the first time, from local and provincial governments.
That year, Volkoff presented what would become his most well-known original ballet, The Red Ear of Corn. With another scenario based on an Iroquois legend, Volkoff felt strongly that it should be composed by a Canadian and commissioned John Weinzeig. It was another instance of the Russian émigré supporting Canadian art in all its forms.
The Canadian Ballet Festivals helped to prepare the way for the establishment of a national, professional ballet company. Volkoff hoped to direct that company, as did those in charge of the Winnipeg Ballet. Instead, Celia Franca of the Metropolitan Ballet was invited to lead the new National Ballet of Canada in 1950. Volkoff taught classes for the National Ballet before its debut performance in 1951, and some of the company*s dancers continued to take private classes at his studio.
But Volkoff and Franca held different approaches to dance, and a frustrated and disillusioned Volkoff gradually slipped from prominence. He tried in 1953 to revive the Volkoff Canadian Ballet for a time, and continued to teach dance until his Yorkville studio was destroyed by fire in November 1973. That same year he was appointed a Member of the Order of Canada for “his pioneer work in the field of ballet”.
Boris Volkoff died of cancer at age 73 on March 11, 1974.
The Boris Volkoff plaque was generously supported by the Boris Volkoff Reunion Committee. The plaque is to be presented at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, December 12th at the Elizabeth Beeton Auditorium, Toronto Reference Library, 789 Yonge Street. Joining Barbara McPhail, Heritage Toronto Board Vice-Chair, will be Margaret Henry, Toronto Reference Library; Lillian Mitchell, Boris Volkoff Reunion Committee; and Joyce Hisey, Toronto Cricket Skating and Curling Club.
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