The 1917 Russian Revolution led to an exodus of two million “ White Russians ” escaping the Bolshevik “Reds”. Of those, an estimated 100,000 settled in China. Some began new lives in Harbin and Tianjin, others moved as far south as Hong Kong and Macau. About 25,000 Russian émigrés settled in Shanghai, giving the already multinational metropolis a heightened sense of cosmopolitanism. The main thoroughfare of the city’s French Concession, the Avenue Joffre (Huaihai Lu), became known as Little Moscow, boasting jewellers, seamstresses, Siberian furriers, vodka distilleries, as well as cafes with steaming samovars, Russian-style cabarets, and ballet. Among the exiles rebuilding their lives in Shanghai were many classically trained dancers who had performed with the Mariinsky in St Petersburg and the Bolshoi in Moscow. Older dancers soon opened schools teaching the children of the privileged foreign “Shanghailanders”. Others performed in small troupes, often supported by the large number of Russian musicians in exile. Initially audiences were small and unenthusiastic. The Shanghailanders of the early 1920s seemed to prefer lighter fare, and the Chinese evinced little interest in this strange dance. Then in August 1922, at the relatively advanced age for a prima ballerina of 41, the notorious Anna Pavlova arrived in Shanghai aboard the liner Empress of Canada with her troupe of two dozen dancers and assorted musicians. For the next fortnight Shanghai could talk of little else. Pavlova had trained at the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg and most famously danced the iconic role of the Dying Swan. She had worked briefly with Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, a company that introduced audiences to dancers such as Tamara Karsavina and Vaslav Nijinsky, and composers like Igor Stravinsky. Their productions often featured sets and costumes inspired by China, notably Pablo Picasso’s costume for the Chinese Conjuror in the 1917 ballet Parade , but Shanghai audiences were never to see them. However extensive the tours, the Ballets Russes never visited China. When Pavlova disembarked in Shanghai she informed the waiting press with some bravura that her ankles were insured for US$100,000, that jazz was a “fad” and that all her performances were sold out. The Shanghai newspapers followed her every step, from the packed performances at the Town Hall on Nanking Road to the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra (now demolished), and reported the hours Pavlova spent signing autographs. Suddenly, every foreign mother wanted her daughter trained by a Russian ballet danseur or danseuse. Shanghai became a profitable location for touring dance companies and the city spawned its own home-grown domestic corps, including a version of Diaghilev’s great Ballets Russes: Nikolai Sokolsky’s Russian Ballet Association was invariably referred to as Les Ballets Russes de Shanghai and perhaps most importantly for the future of the art form, young Chinese sought out teachers and attended performances, sowing the seeds for today’s thriving ballet scene in China. As a girl living in exile in Harbin, Maria Zudilova studied ballet and wanted to be Anna Pavlova, a dream she later shared with her daughter, actress Natalie Wood . Among the many dancers offering classes was a certain Madame Tarakanova, an elderly Russian dancer. Her pupils in the early 1930s included several Russian girls, such as Tatiana Korovina, an English girl called June Bear, and a young girl of mixed British, Irish and Brazilian heritage called Margaret “Peggy” Hookham. By all accounts both Mrs Bear and particularly Mrs Hookham were quite the stereotypical stage mothers. Hilda Hookham was reputedly so stern she earned the nickname the “Black Queen”. To keep her overheads down Tarakanova visited the homes of her pupils to give lessons. But she wasn’t getting any younger and the girls’ mothers felt she was holding their protégés back. They were looking around for new teachers just as Shanghai ballet received a sudden and unexpected shot in the arm. Ballerina Vera Volkova and her lover, Serge Toropov, danced with the rather clumsily named Gosudarstvennyy Akademicheskiy Teatr Opery i Baleta (or more commonly, GATOB), essentially what had been the Mariinsky, and would later become the Kirov. They were on an extended tour in 1929 aimed at winning over White Russians to the Red cause, performing in the heavily Russian-populated border towns of Chita and Harbin, then Manila and Singapore, before returning to China and performing in Beijing and Shanghai. With them was Georgi Goncharov, who had danced with the Mariinsky until a knee injury forced him to retire and concentrate on teaching. All three were keen not to return to the Soviet Union; all three were eager to join Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes; and all three had been trained in the Vaganova method, which had been devised by Russian dancer and pedagogue Agrippina Vaganova, and would become the dominant method of ballet in China. All three defected together, but their Ballets Russes plan quickly fell apart with the death of Diaghilev, in August 1929. Having remained in Shanghai, they made ends meet by forming a dance troupe, the Olympic Trio, which played mostly in cabarets, and taking on students. By this time, more than a decade had passed since Pavlova’s visit, but the generation of “balletomanes” the tour had created were keen to see their children take up dance. Tatiana Korovina, Peggy Hookham and June Bear all regularly attended concerts at the Town Hall given by the largely Russian-staffed Shanghai Philharmonic. The girls remembered seeing members of California’s famous Denishawn School of Dancing perform, and a visit by Irma Duncan, protégé and adopted daughter of dancer Isadora Duncan. Though it seems that, despite the balletomane craze and Pavlova’s predictions, Shanghai never quite lost its taste for jazz and cabarets. Peggy later recalled herself, June and another Shanghailander girl, Virginia Browning, in Mrs Bear’s front room being put through their paces by Goncharov to an accompaniment on a poorly tuned piano courtesy of June’s mother. Volkova, about 30 at the time, would occasionally teach too and, according to Peggy, “looked Parisian […] in printed silk dresses […] and wide-brimmed black straw hats. The vision she presented gave me my first inkling of what a ballerina should be”. Tracking down two mysterious White Russian women in Harbin Others ran equally successful schools. Among those that took over rooms above shops, small studio spaces and taught in homes, the most noted were Sokolsky and his wife, Evgenia Baranova, and Edouard Elirov. The latter was a somewhat unlikely ballet teacher, being overweight, married to a former dancer in the Folies-Bergère, in Paris, and always keen to be paid in advance as he was constantly in debt. Peggy recalled that Goncharov and Elirov despised each other – the former an adherent to the Vaganova technique and the latter, not himself a dancer, tending towards the plastique, or more free-form style of dance popularised by Isadora Duncan. Despite the animosity, however, Elirov was the real deal and had run a successful private school in Moscow before the revolution. Sokolsky, who had been a student of Diaghilev, and Baranova ran a popular school in the attic of the Lyceum Theatre on Rue Bourgeat (Changle Lu) and were keen to accept Chinese students new to the Russian ballet. The young graduates of Tarakanova, Goncharov and Volkova all moved on from Shanghai, and their futures were to be very different. Tatiana Korovina’s family needed her to work. She heard that a cabaret chorus line, the Shura Giraldi Troupe, was auditioning in Beijing. She got the train north, auditioned and was accepted. Tatiana (who, due to the plethora of Tatianas in the all-Russian troupe, was given the stage name Lilian) spent her entire career largely in Beijing, married an Englishman, had a daughter, was interned by the Japanese during the war, and eventually settled in Australia. Virginia Browning’s family returned to the United States around 1937, as war threatened Shanghai, and she danced in the chorus of several North American ballet companies, and on Broadway. Peggy and June were to soar to great balletic heights. June was reputedly the best dancer in their class in the Bears’ living room, though Peggy was Goncharov’s favourite. He later declared, “I knew she had a ballerina’s head […] she held herself beautifully.” June was a couple of years older and soon left for London with her mother to enrol with Ninette de Valois’ school. Known as the “godmother” of British ballet, de Valois’ Vic-Wells company would eventually become Sadler’s Wells and then, after the war, the Royal Ballet. In 1935, June progressed to the company. Having become June Brae – after de Valois declared, “I cannot have performing bears in the company” – she never looked back and went on to have a long and successful career as a ballerina. And she would meet Peggy again, too. Peggy’s mother, Hilda, wanted a similar trajectory for her daughter. She had read of the so-called Baby Ballerinas, a trio of remarkably talented 12-year-old dancers nurtured by choreographer George Balanchine and now appearing in the spin-off Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. Hilda knew that one of the Baby Ballerinas, Tamara Toumanova, had been a Russian refugee in Shanghai, and was the same age as Peggy. A four-year-old Tamara had seen Pavlova and became obsessed with becoming a ballerina. Though she did not formally start to study ballet until her family moved to Paris, Toumanova showed what might be possible. And so Hilda booked passage home to England. Peggy, now aged 14, arrived in England and followed June into de Valois’ school. Goncharov’s Vaganova-style insistence on technical correctness back in Shanghai paid off. As with June it seems the name Peggy just didn’t scream prima ballerina. The Black Queen turned Margaret to Margot and corrupted her own Brazilian maternal grandfather’s name Fontes to Fonteyn. De Valois took a liking to young Margot Fonteyn, though apparently she always referred to her as “the little Chinese girl”. The rest, of course, is ballet history. By the mid-30s, Shanghai had a surfeit of small ballet troupes competing to survive. The plethora of Russian dancers drove down wages, making professional dancing a precarious living. Ballet acts were often slotted in between Ziegfeld-style chorus lines, opera tenors, jugglers or exhibition waltzers, so they often threw in acrobatic tricks alongside their ballet. In one case, Volkova refused to appear when she found out that she was due to appear after a boxing bout – the management clearly needed time to mop the floor. When playing more upmarket venues, the Olympic Trio invariably performed pas de deux from a classical repertoire that included Swan Lake , The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker as well as some of their own choreography. They also devised interpretations inspired by Michel Fokine’s Arabian Nights jealousy drama, Scheherazade . Volkova, Goncharov and Toropov portrayed a love triangle to keep the audience interested. The passport that helped Jews, White Russians flee to China and Hong Kong Volkova, her relationship with Toropov having fizzled out, and suffering constant minor ailments, had to work part time in a Russian-run dress shop to make ends meet and send money to her family in Leningrad (now St Petersburg). She met a young British architect at a party for Shanghai balletomanes, Hugh Finch Williams, they fell in love and he arranged for her to join him in Hong Kong, where she briefly opened a ballet school. In 1936, they moved to London and were married. There, Volkova once again met Peggy, now Margot Fonteyn, and also taught the renowned Scottish ballet dancer and actress Moira Shearer. Volkova later spent time at Milan’s La Scala and eventually became artistic adviser to the Royal Danish Ballet, in Copenhagen. Volkova never forgot Goncharov, whom she encouraged to follow her to Hong Kong. He did, and also taught there for a while. After the war, he spent time in Cuba and then London, where he taught at Sadler’s Wells. Fonteyn signed his British naturalisation papers. Volkova never forgot her former lover Toropov either, though his was a sadder tale. Unhappy in Shanghai, he returned to Russia, having been promised safe conduct by the Soviet consulate in Shanghai. Volkova claimed that, despite the promises, Toropov was executed soon after his return. Other Russian exiles, stateless, unable to leave Shanghai yet free under the Japanese occupation, stayed throughout the war. Sokolsky’s Russian Ballet Association performed a wartime repertoire almost exclusively of Ballets Russes classics. The Japanese administration initially encouraged ballet, seeing it as high culture. For several years, Sokolsky’s company put on six performances each season, most of them directed by Sokolsky and starring Harbin-trained Eleana “Helen” Bobinina as prima ballerina, who was popular with occupation-era audiences. The company also featured a Japanese dancer, Masahide Komaki, who had gone to Harbin and then Shanghai to study with Russian ballet teachers. He danced the lead in Stravinsky’s Petrushka in Shanghai, which earned him the accolade of the “Oriental Nijinsky”. Sokolsky found other dancers among the Europeans still left at liberty in Shanghai. Irina Carlsson had a Danish father and Russian mother, and had studied with Sokolsky from a young age. She appeared as a child dancer in a wartime production of the comic ballet Coppélia . Likewise, Margo Hausmann, the daughter of Berlin Jewish refugees, joined the corps of the Shanghai Ballets Russes, much to the envy of her school friends. Once again the journeys of these performers show how the tentacles of the Russian émigré ballet in Shanghai spread across the post-war world. Carlsson left to study at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto. Bobinina toured Australia after the war, married an American soldier, moved to California and, after her marriage failed, established a ballet school in Cincinnati. Nina Koevnikova ran a ballet school in Shanghai until 1954, when she moved to Australia. Perhaps most influential of the wartime dancers, Komaki returned to Tokyo in 1946 to form the Komaki Ballet, the first Japanese company to perform Swan Lake to startled but thrilled local audiences. He and his company became the first to present much of the Ballets Russes’ classic repertoire to Japanese ballet fans. In late 1943, it seems the Japanese administration in Shanghai lost its affection for ballet. Sokolsky’s company was dropped in favour of Asian folk music and dance performances that helped promote Tokyo’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere of a Japanese-controlled and led Axis bloc. Still, Sokolsky persevered and the company continued to perform in various Chinese cities, and toured throughout Asia until 1953. The influence of those Russian dancers, teachers and choreographers who settled in Shanghai was far-reaching indeed, and shaped the emergence of ballet in China after 1949. Many of the first generation of Chinese corps de ballet had studied with Russian teachers as children, particularly Sokolsky and Baranova. Among graduates of the Sokolsky studio were prominent first-generation dancers in the New China, including Hu Rongrong, Ding Ning and Qu Hao, who went on to teach at the Beijing Dance Academy, and Wang Kefen, who became one of China’s best-known dance scholars. Their influence is seen in the common adherence to the Vaganova method in Chinese ballet schools, and a continued love of the Russian classics. Of course, other influences have been at work, including later close relations with the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, the political role of revolutionary opera and ballet in the Cultural Revolution, and now the Chinese dancers touring internationally and foreign companies that frequently visit China. But embedded in modern Chinese ballet are those Russian émigrés who performed to often indifferent audiences in rowdy French Concession cabarets, taught in Shanghailander living rooms, danced through the ordeal of the Japanese occupation, and somehow kept that ballet spirit alive in exile.