Wednesday, October 22, 2014

And So She Arrives

June Roper's life had taken a sharp turn. Health problems, stress and a changing industry left the young dancer's future uncertain. Her sister, Anne, was now married and living in Vancouver and she invited June to come for a visit. Anne was also interested in having June coach Anne's daughter, Betty Mills, who had started ballet lessons with local teachers. In the summer of 1934, June and Elizabeth Roper arrived in Vancouver.

In Canada during the Depression, ballet training was popular for the daughters of wealthy families. However, the girls were not expected to make a passionate commitment to the theatre.

Vivien Ramsay, an active force in children's theatre and a producer of pantomimes, joined with her friend Yvonne Firkins, a fellow ballet enthusiast and leader in the city's Little Theatre, to open a dance school. They had seen June Roper's photograph on the cover of the February 1929 issue of The Dancing Times and had read all about her European career. When the two read in the local papers about June's visit to Vancouver, they felt that none of the local ballet teachers could provide the kind of high-powered professional training June could provide.

These are photos of the TedVancouver event at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre where I volunteered over the weekend. These shots are taken from the stage as we were tearing everything down.

Firkins wisely avoided any mention of June's delicate health. Instead, she suggests that the reason the dancer was in Vancouver was that she was tired of travelling and did have relatives in the city. The assignment gave June a chance to spend the two-year period required for her divorce from Stewart in a safe environment.

The dance school was evicted from the first studio for disturbing the peace. So Firkins and Ramsay set up the B.C. School of the Theatre at 712 Robson Street where it flourished for nearly a year.

June Roper's formal introduction to Vancouver took place on November 2, 1934 at the "Journalists' Cabaret", a benefit at the Hotel Vancouver ballroom. June appeared with her niece Betty Mills and some of the more advanced students who had transferred from other Vancouver studios. The performance inspired a number of young girls to start training with June.

This group photo of the volunteers is compliments of Agnes Pytko at AgnesPics.

One of June's students was nine-year-old Jean Hunt from Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. She had to take a ferry to Vancouver for her weekly lesson. Several of Roper's students would go on to join professional dance companies: Patricia and Sheila Meyers; Rosemary Deveson, who had recently arrived from Manitoba and was one of the few students who had seen a real ballet performance (Vancouver had not hosted a full ballet troupe since the one-night stand of the Diaghilev  Ballets Russes in 1917)  and Joy Darwin.

Rosemary Deveson joined the new school at the age of thirteen and had fragmentary ballet training as child in Winnipeg and briefly in England. She recalls her excitement when she and her mother presented themselves to the school and were invited by Vivian Ramsay to watch June teach a class. "Frail, sipping a glass of milk - but so gorgeous!" June would go on to become Rosemary's idol and mentor.

Thanks to the book June Roper Ballet Starmaker and its author, Leland Windreich.

I hope you find the beauty around you.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Life's A Changin'

If you remember from Friday, June Roper was preparing to rejoin the Cochran production after a vacation but her mother, Elizabeth Roper, fell ill during an Atlantic voyage. Elizabeth was so sick June doubted her mother would survive the voyage. June wired a brother living in Kentucky to meet the ship.

Elizabeth remained in a New York hospital in critical condition for three months. She was pronounced well enough to travel and was on her way to the train station to accompany her son to Kentucky when she had another attack. She was once again bedridden - this time for a month.

It was impossible for June to return to London and fulfil her duties in the second Cochran revue. The weeks of stress and anxiety had sapped the young woman's strength and she felt her control over her future was slipping away.

When her mother could finally travel, June went with her to Kentucky where she collapsed and had to be hospitalized. The symptoms she was suffering included pain, depression and anorexia - conditions for which psychological causes had yet  to be explored. The doctors in Kentucky were convinced removing June's appendix would cure her. However months later, her advanced depression left her speechless. So the doctors removed her tonsils. (In later years, June described her condition as a nervous breakdown.)

Elizabeth's health was improving though and she would go on to enjoy another eight years of life.

June returned to Los Angeles and tried to regain her energies and re-establish her dancing career. As her health permitted, she worked with Ernest Belcher and served as an instructor in his studios. Performing however was more difficult. The effects of the depression were now being felt in Europe, causing many of the lavish revues to close. Those were replaced by the motion pictures. In the U.S., the entertainment field suffered drastic cutbacks so many road companies stopped touring.

For a while, June worked with William and Royal Stewart, to brothers who had come from the Belcher Studios. Royal worked in the film industry - he was the dance instructor who taught Shirley Temple and Jane Withers dance routines used in their movies.

William and June married but the marriage lasted less than six months because William began to display tendencies for violent behaviour.

Once again, I would like to thank the book June Roper Ballet Starmaker and its author, Leland Windreich for the information above.

I hope you find the beauty around you.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Jack is Back

When we last left June Roper, she was dancing in Berlin with her brother, John. After the tour was over, John returned to the United States. John used his newly acquired expertise to design dance acts for a circuit of nightclubs in the southern U.S.

Jack Kinney returned to dance with June in new routines featured in the revues of the Casino de Paris. Mistinguett and Maurice Chevalier were headliners and these shows were the proving ground for a generation of new talent who would work in the theatre and film.

During this time, June worked with Mistinguett - coaching her in dance routines and deportment in her elaborate costumes. The team of Roper and Kinney gained a dedicated and adoring fan base in Paris and news of their skill reached G.B. Cochran. In 1928, Cochran hired the duo to work in his upcoming revue, Wake Up and Dream.

The new routine would include five numbers June and Jack performed in their act combined with the free-structured production. A stipulation was that Cole Porter provided the music for their dances. The tango, which the duo performed to Gade's Jealousy, was replicated in a piece called Agua Sincopada Tango Wake up and Dream. It opened in London on March 23, 1929.

The show was immensely popular and had 263 performances. Jessie Matthews was the ingenue and singing star; Australian Tilly Losch was principal dancer - she appeared in an exotic number choreographed by George Balanchine to the Porter ballad What is this Thing Called Love? and in a doll-shop sequence inspired by Coppelia - Oliver Messel designed the elaborate sets.

The show was headed for New York - with the same basic cast - and it opened there on December 30. Cochran needed a replacement for Jessie Matthews while she was in America so he suggested June remain in London. She would begin training to become an all-purpose musical actress who could assume the leading role in his revue projected for 1930.

This must have been agreeable with June because she made plans to join the Cochran forces in London after a vacation. Unfortunately, her plans were disrupted when, during the Atlantic voyage, Elizabeth Roper was stricken with an attack of angina pectoris. The attack was so severe that the physician wouldn't allow June to see her mother for several days.

Monday, I will tell you more about June and her mother and June's career. I am getting this information from the book June Roper Ballet Starmaker by Leland Windreich. If you are a fan of dance, I would advise you take a look at it. I am, of course, leaving a lot of facts out and the pictures are worth looking at the book.

I hope you have a great weekend. I am volunteering at the TEDxVancouver on Saturday - that should be fun!

I hope you find the beauty around you.