Jersey Heritage has shared some items from their collection that detail the extraordinary life of a Jersey-born ballet dancer from the 1930s.
Pictured below is a suitcase once owned by Jersey-born ballet dancer Yvonne Le Sueur and now part of the collection.
Adorned with a mass of stickers of an art style so reminiscent of a bygone age, it came with her all through her extensive travels around Europe, the Mediterranean and North Africa during the turbulent 1930s.
It is a remarkable artefact that begs the telling of the story of the remarkable woman who owned it.
Pictured: Yvonne Le Sueur's suitcase.
Yvonne Ross (née Le Sueur) was born in Jersey in 1911 and at the age of only 14, she discovered the passion that would shape the rest of her life: ballet.
As a young woman, she travelled to London to train under the renowned British ballet dancer Margaret Craske.
This training would have been ruthless and extensive.
She described her training in some detail in an edition of Jersey Forum, a local arts publication, from 1944.
She records how she trained in the parish hall of St Giles' Church and it was “in this room, painted in a sombre grey and pink, of which three walls are lined with bars, and the fourth with two large full-length mirrors at the far end, that the ballet is practiced daily.”
The training was gruelling, both emotionally and physically. And yet, Yvonne’s sheer unwavering dedication to the art is palpable.
She records that: “there is no time limit to training. The art of ballet is never complete, the true artist never satisfied with his or her standard.”
And for all that work, the rewards seemed even more scarce. She writes of the ballet world: “Work is hard, competition keen and praise scarce; the words ‘improving’ or ‘better’ are the highest encouragement given – and they are rarely heard.’”
Despite this bleak assessment, her love for the art is still felt. At the end of her article, she writes: “Ten of the happiest, hard-working years of my life were thus spent with the ballet.”
After her training, Yvonne broke into the professional world when she was signed for a six-month tour of Europe with the Paris based Theatre des Ballets Russe in 1935.
Yvonne was now set for the adventure of a lifetime. Through her surviving postcards and photographs, one can piece together a grand tour of Europe filled with exotic locations, lavish parties full of royalty and a merciless performance schedule in a multitude of European theatres, all against the backdrop of simmering global tension with the world gradually sliding into war.
Pictured: Yvonne (left) with her fellow dancer Paula in Naples.
After a “frantic” rehearsal period in Paris, the company toured Belgium, before travelling to Cannes where they were invited to dance at a lavish dinner hosted by the Grand Duchess Helen of Russia and Princess Nicholas of Greece for the King of Sweden and the King and Queen of Denmark.
The event made quite the impression on Yvonne, who recorded that: “All the ladies were in sparkling tiaras. The tables were laid with magnificent gold and silver goblets and gleaming table ware. All the glittering light from the crystal chandeliers, made a spellbinding spectacle. The splendour of this occasion I shall never forget.”
Soon, they were off to Italy, visiting Genoa and Turin. However, this is where the trouble began.
In 1935, Italy was a volatile place, simmering with nationalist, militarist fervour. Fascism had reached its high-water mark in and the country’s dictator, Benito Mussolini, was wildly escalating his imperialist ambitions towards the African nation of Abyssinia, modern day Ethiopia.
Skirmishes on the border of Abyssinia and Italian Somaliland had ramped up tensions between Italy and the rest of the world.
For a travelling company of foreigners, there was a thickening atmosphere of palpable hostility. The company began to take precautions. Yvonne recalls that: “Our impresario felt it prudent that we move nearer the coast in case a quick get-away was necessary.”
Pictured: "At about this time, trouble was brewing between Italy and Abyssinia..."
Despite the deteriorating global climate, the show went on. After a slew of cancellations in Rome and Florence, the troupe finally came to perform in Bari. However, the reception was less than rapturous. Yvonne disappointingly recalls these shows were a “complete flop."
Unfortunately, things got no better once they reached Naples. The city was completely blocked off by the Italian army; a “war measure” in light of the rapidly escalating Abyssinian crisis.
Undeterred, the troupe finally left the broiling cauldron of fascist Italy and boarded a ship for Algiers. The tour would go on, but there was more trouble to come as the troupe headed towards the town of Constantine.
Posters for the soon-to-be-arriving Theatre des Ballets Russes had already been plastered all over the town.
The locals, naturally suspecting the company of being Russian, immediately assumed, with unbridled fury, that the dancers were communists. As such, when the dancers’ train entered the station, it was set upon by a mob and pelted with stones. Yvonne recalls: “Glass showered in. We were being stoned! It was quite frightening.”
After convincing the locals of their innocence, the performances continued and the troupe, unbelievably “left the town in an atmosphere of warmth and friendliness.”
Picture: A snippet of Yvonne's photo album showing her and her company in Constantine, Algiers.
With that came the end of the tour and a “happy” return to Paris. Yet there would be no time to rest, as straight away, even after a punishing journey of international crisis and angry stone-throwing mobs, the company immediately began to rehearse a new ballet “for our next engagement in Prague.”
Yvonne summed up the whole experience wonderfully: “It had been most interesting, adventurous, but exhausting.”
And of course, throughout all of that came Yvonne’s trusty suitcase, gathering more stickers with every stop.
Now safely cared for by Jersey Heritage, it provides a tangible link to the life of an extraordinary woman, living through an extraordinary time.
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