Volkoff's Ice Ballets

Boris Volkoff. Photo courtesy Toronto Reference Library, Special Collections

"Sometimes I feel tired, but as soon as the music starts and I begin teaching, I forget all my troubles." - Boris Volkoff, "The Ocala Star-Banner", August 22, 1971

Boris Vladimirovich Volkoff and Janet Baldwin married in 1936. They were a striking couple. She, Canadian by birth, dressed in Russian hats and Persian lamb coats. He was a charismatic ballet master from Russia who trained under Mikhail Mordkin, who danced with Anna Pavlova in the Ballets Russes in Paris.

Boris earned a reputation as one of Canada's most eminent choreographers of his era in no time, opening his own school and dancing in the Tanzwettspiele (dance festival) at the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympic Games. To give you a real scope of Boris Volkoff's significance in Canadian dance history, he's considered by many as 'the father of Canadian ballet', was named a member of The Order Of Canada and his Volkoff Canadian Ballet is considered widely as Canada's first ballet company. The August 10, 1971 issue of the "Herald-Journal" noted, "Volkoff became a ballet master after the Russian Revolution and with his company toured China, India, Burma and Malaya before touring the United States with Adolph Bolm's Chicago company in 1928. He stayed with the company for 20 months before moving to Toronto in 1930 on the invitation of the Uptown Theatre."

Members of the Toronto Skating Club perform Boris Volkoff's "Ballet Caprice" in 1935. Photo courtesy Pringle & Booth Archive.

What role did Boris play in skating history? An important one, of course! In the early thirties, coach Walter Arian of the Toronto Skating Club, in an effort to add an even grander sense of art to the club's already lavish carnivals, engaged Boris Volkoff to choreograph Canada's first serious skating ballets.

Boris transposed sections of "Cinderella", "Swan Lake", "Night On Bald Mountain" and "Prince Igor" to the ice. In March 1934, thirty five skaters performed his choreography to Maurice Ravel's "Bolero". His wife, also a dancer, became engaged in the creative process as well. Boris and Janet's work made a considerable impression on the Canadian skating community at the time. In a March 14, 2009 article in "Torontoist", Janet noted that previous to their work on the skating ballets, Toronto skaters "just skated around to the music as it played... no connection or artistry."

That's not to say that ballet themes weren't featured in the Toronto Skating Club's carnivals before the Volkoff's arrived on the scene. In the roaring twenties, Cecil Smith and Ethel Kirkpatrick appeared in elegantly costumed group pieces that paid homage to the dance world. Without video material to compare those earlier performances with Boris' choreography, we can merely speculate as to how superior his work indeed was.

Members of the Toronto Skating Club perform Boris Volkoff's choreography. Photo courtesy Pringle & Booth Archive.

A December 11, 2009 article from the Toronto Dance blog recalled that Volkoff's ice ballets "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." Boris continued his affiliation with the Toronto Skating Club until 1952 when Walter Arian, the coach who had first engaged him to work with the club, passed away.

The seed that Boris planted was an early precursor to later efforts to develop the artistic vein of skating in Canada including the Canada Ice Dance Theatre and Mrs. Ellen Burka and Toller Cranston's important work. His commitment to transposing dance to the ice showed Canadians the artistic possibilities skating offered and to this day, Canadian choreographers lead the way in the field of choreography. Everything starts somewhere.

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