A brief glimpse of Adeline Genee in Sydney

Long before a Danish man designed the Sydney Opera House, and a Tasmanian girl married a Danish prince, another citizen of Denmark thrilled Sydney. She was a ballet dancer called Adeline Genee.

In 1913, dancer Adeline Genee arrived in Australia. At that time she was widely regarded as the world’s foremost ballerina. She had travelled the globe, but it was her first visit to Australia. Whilst in Sydney, Genee explained’ I had offers to come before, I thought Australia was so far away and I did not sign any contract. Now I am glad- very glad- to be here under the Williamson management.’

Genee had every reason to be glad. She had travelled far to earn her reputation. Anina or Anita Jensen was born at Hinnerup near Aarhus Denmark, on January 6th 1878. At age four she showed an interest in dance and soon began training with her uncle Alexander Genee. Alexander and his wife adopted Anina and changed her name to Adeline Genee.

Alexander had his own ballet troop and Adeline progressed on a traditional path, starting as a member of the chorus and graduating to leading solo roles. When she was 18 her uncle revived the ballet ‘Coppelia’ for her. It was to become one of her most famous ballets. In 1897 Adeline arrived at London’s Empire Theatre and essentially stayed there for ten years.

In 1905, she became the first dancer to perform before King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. In 1907 she had a highly successful tour of the United States. A few years later she married Frank Isitt, the secretary to the Duke of Newcastle. By 1913 she had danced around the world and had an enormous reputation in classic and modern roles.

Adeline arrived in Sydney in June. It was a beautiful day and she had a perfect view of Sydney Harbour as her ship sailed through the heads. Adeline told the press.

I am glad I came to Sydney on a fine sun shiny day. Everything looked very beautiful on Saturday

the harbor (sic) is even finer than I had pictured it to be and the size of the city almost took my

breath away.

 

Genee maintained this gracious manner throughout the tour, making several magnanimous speeches during her time in Sydney.

Sydney’s theatrical elite soon adopted her and the day of her arrival was a busy one In the afternoon she attended a David Bispham performance at the Town Hall. In the evening she sat in the manager’s box at the Theatre Royal to see Oscar Asche in A Midsummer Nights Dream. Adeline said she had ‘enjoyed the performance very much.’

After the show she was taken for a late supper to Paris House, the home of Williamson director Hugh J Ward. He had danced with Genee at the Empire in London some years before, so the two were acquainted. The dancer was joined by a group of theatricals including Oscar Asche, Dorothy Brunton, David Bispham, Fred Niblo, J Nevin Tait and Florence Young. It was a stellar gathering. Several of the gentlemen, including Oscar Asche and David Bispham made witty welcoming speeches. Genee who must have been exhausted from a non stop day,responded.

As a child I was taught not to speak with my mouth full and as my heart is now in it

I cannot say more than I thank you for the great and surprising honor (sic) you have paid me.

Whilst in Sydney, Adeline stayed at the Hotel Australia with a small entourage including a maid. Her husband had remained in Europe because of business commitments.

Although she stayed less than three days on this initial visit, Genee made a profound impression. She was described as unassuming and modest. The Referee said

During her short stay in Sydney, Mdlle Genee charmed everyone who met her by her

amiability . She has not the slightest particle of affectation in look, voice or manner.

 

After three days in Sydney Genee travelled to Melbourne where she performed for several weeks. She returned to Sydney in August prepared to show the city the best in world ballet.

On Saturday August 16th 1913, Adeline Genee debuted at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Sydney. The programme consisted of a two act Coppelia, a ballet classique, Les Sylphides and other dances. However the highlight of the evening was Genee as Swanilda in Coppelia.

It was one of Genee’s signature roles. The ballet concerned the adventures of Swanilda and her fiancé, Franz. Swanilda observes Franz blowing a kiss to another lady, Coppelia, who is sitting on Dr Coppelius' balcony. Jealous of the flirtation, she confronts Fanz and the couple argue. The wedding is cancelled

Dr Coppelius loses the key to his house and Swanilda finds it. She goes to the home to speak to Coppelia. She discovers that Coppelia is a doll. Franz then visits the doctor who drugs him in order to instil his life force into Coppelia. Swanilda pretends to be a living Coppelia to fool the doctor and rescues Franz. The pair escape and marry the next morning.

As Swanilda, Genee, with ‘that strange northern fairness, with hair white, baby white rather than gold’ seemed to be ‘a creature of the land of fancy’. The dancer’s physique was frail and fragile, which added to the surreal impression that she created on stage.

At the conclusion of the performance there were wild scenes of appreciation and many calls for encores. Genee murmured to the rapturous audience, ‘I thank you very much indeed.’ The applause continued until Hugh J Ward made a speech in which he referred to Genee as ‘my very old friend’, the dancer replied ‘Oh don’t say that’ and the applause turned to affectionate laughter. Genee was a very youthful 35 at the time.

The audience’s enthusiasm was matched by that of the critics. Her technique was praised, in particular her entre chats. The entre chat was a manouevre where the dancer leapt into the air and ‘twinkled’ her feet. Genee performed the entre-six that night. It was a unique and difficult feat beyond the reach of most dancers.

Most of the critical praise centred on the dancer’s charm and personality. The Referee praised her ‘intelligent use of facial expression’ whilst the Sydney Morning Herald referred to ‘her blue eyes which dart forth girlish glances’. The Sydney Mail stated that

"The arts of the dance and of pantomime are so understood by her that they seem part of herself."

Members of the Imperial Russian ballet supported Genee. Alexander Volinin played Franz and received warm praise for his role.

"Alexander Volinin moved with easy freedom and a complete command of his art."

Mlle Halina Schmolz’s performance as a dying swan was also highly regarded. However it was Genee who overwhelmed all others with her striking presence and charisma.

"She is from the court of fancy, less dreamy than the figures of Watteau

more dreamy than the people of Dresden china and related to both."

Genee’s first night in Sydney was an unqualified success. Her appearances continued to draw large audiences. The Wednesday after the premiere she introduced her first matinee. On August 30th she changed the programme to include the famous ‘Hunting gallop" and an appearance as Columbine in the polka ‘Les Millions d’Arlequin". By September the programme changed again with Genee performing in the ballet ‘Le Camargo". Later she added ‘The Arabian Nights" to the repertoire.

Genee’s final appearance in Sydney was on October 8th 1913. The theatre was crowded and flowers rained upon the stage throughout the performance. Mlle Halina Schmolz was given a life sized swan made of flowers and when Genee was on stage, the gallery showered posies at her feet. Adeline made a gracious speech at the conclusion of the performance.

It is very difficult for a dancer to make a speech..she can do anything with her feet, but there it ends. But I cannot part from you all without an expression of gratitude for the kindness and enthusiasm which have attended the efforts of my associates and myself. I would ask you to keep a teeny-weeny corner in your hearts for me now and ever.

The next day Genee and the company sailed to New Zealand for a short tour. Eventually they returned to England for an opening at the Empire in February.

Adeline Genee continued to have a stellar career as a dancer and as a teacher. She was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1950 and collected many honorary degrees and awards before her death in England on April 23rd 1970. She was 92 years old. The London Times honoured her with a long obituary which ended with the words

Purity and clearness of style were hers in life ,as in her dancing, and for many she left he memory

of ‘an art with the warmth and innocence of sunshine."

back to article index

article references