by Leland Windreich
THE TEAM OF JUNE AND KENNETH (sometimes billed as June Roper and Jack Kinney or June Roper and Kenneth Kinney) operated without the services of an exclusive agent, and their bookings in the United States were for short-term engagements. From the Lyric Theater in Chicago they moved to Billy Gallagher's Monte Carlo Club in New York, where they earned the reputation of being, as noted in the New York press, "one of the best whirlwind posture and classical dancing teams that has hit the East in months." Their New York success was observed by a talent scout from England, who signed them for a spot at Ciro's Club in London. From that came a three-week engagement at the Kit Kat Club. Each subsequent assignment opened them to further offers and there were few breaks in their performing activities as they accepted engagements in southern France and Spain. They were signed by the Dutch impresario Tuschinski for the Gaîté Theatres in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague. As their dancing craft became perfected and their confidence grew, they were able to command increasingly higher fees.
Their stages were those of the lavish casinos and night clubs of Europe where the duo presented innovative, characteristically American dances of their own creation and those of the popular music hall, where their own material would be incorporated into or developed around a specific revue theme. To their adagio creations June and Kinney added acrobatic embellishments and June often incorporated ballet technique into her own performances, some of which were done partly on pointe. Adagio dancers of the era invariably offered three genres in their performances: la danse portée, la danse mondaine and la danse espagnole. The supported adagio offered infinite possibilities of expression calling upon techniques learned in both classical and popular dance education, while the current dance "rages" such as the Black Bottom occupied the second slot. The tango, immensely popular then in Europe, more than often represented the Spanish genre.
Despite her dedication to the study of ballet, June Roper did not attend a performance of a legitimate ballet company from the time she saw Pavlova until 1935, when she was settled as a teacher in Vancouver. Her career in Europe coincided with the last decade of the Diaghilev Ballets Russes, but she was engrossed in the development and performance of her own dances. Often after-hours spots in night clubs would supplement her engagements with Kinney in the major revues, and their days were taken up with rehearsals, organization of new routines and costume planning. While in Paris, however, she faithfully took class in the studios of Olga Preobrajenska who was especially noted for her encouragement of strong technique and for nurturing a dancer's unique personal qualities.
An engagement of several months at the Palacio del Hielo in Madrid gave June some freedom to observe the work of others. She was enchanted by the dancing of Argentinita, whose style and costuming she incorporated into a dance which she performed with Kinney in a Paris revue. But the actual choreography came from a cook in their hotel who taught them a traditional Spanish dance with a pair of spoons instead of the customary castanets.
Elizabeth Roper thrived in her role as chaperone and maintained ties with the American embassies and legations in the cities where June performed. The young dancer and her mother were frequent guests at diplomatic parties and receptions where June attracted many ardent suitors.
JUNE ROPER'S FORMAL INTRODUCTION to the community took place on November 2, 1934, when she performed at the "Journalists' Cabaret," a benefit held at the Hotel Vancouver Ballroom in which she appeared with her niece Betty Mills and some of the more advanced students who had transferred from other Vancouver studios. This performance inspired a number of young girls to begin training with June, notably the nine-year-old Jean Hunt from Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, who would commute to Vancouver for a weekly lesson.
Among the children enrolled during the school's initial phase of development were several who would ultimately join professional dance companies: Patricia and Sheila Meyers; Rosemary Deveson, recently arrived from Manitoba and one of the few students who had seen a real ballet performance on a trip to England five years earlier; and Joy Darwin, who at age four had seen Anna Pavlova's final Vancouver appearance and had surrendered to the summons that earlier had claimed her teacher. For her, June Roper's presence in the community made the goal all that much closer. In a letter to me she commented:
Children had their first opportunity to receive professional training. Miss Roper gave her students the chance to step out of the little girls' Saturday morning dance class mentality into the realm of serious dance. Her rigorous ballet classes gave those of us who wanted to work at it a fine basic technique. June gave us both the dedicated training and the opportunities and opened up the field of ballet to Canadian dancers.
Rosemary Deveson, who joined the new school at thirteen, with fragmentary ballet training as a child in Winnipeg and briefly in England, recalls her excitement when she and her mother, timidly presenting themselves in the studios, were invited by Vivien Ramsay to watch June teach a class. "Frail, sipping a glass of milk -- but so gorgeous!" she described the woman who would become her idol and mentor. An article in the Vancouver press states that June's early classes were taught from a "convalescent's chair".
All plans for a comprehensive school of the theatre arts appear to have been abandoned by the directors once the dance programme began to flourish. As Yvonne Firkins noted:
Soon we had considerably over a hundred students, the majority of them studying ballet. At the end of six months we rented one of the largest picture houses in town and gave the first recital. June not only trained all the pupils, but was also responsible for the choreography, and every detail of the staging. Vivien and I, with the help of our seamstress, made the costumes. Far into the night for weeks we stitched and stitched.... But the show was a great success, and quite a worthy forerunner for June's later recitals which were extremely brilliant examples of excellent training and fine showmanship.
The Strand Theatre had been rented for the evenings of May 27 and 28, 1935, and Earle Hill and his orchestra were hired to accompany the dancers. For the revue's title June suggested "Stars of Tomorrow" which would serve as a reminder of her objectives in training. She coached Jerry Mathisen as her partner and he appeared with her in an adagio entitled Nocturne and with the twelve-year-old Pat Meyers in a number designated as Adagio. The balance of the programme offered the kind of material seen in vaudeville and motion picture prologues, with the inevitable samples of Spanish and the currently popular dance forms.
Each student was given a vehicle to reveal her potential, and in these early phases of her teaching career, June drew upon Ernest Belcher's expertise for making each dancer achieve a special stage presence by accentuating her inherent charms. Even at this early stage she recognized the ballet capabilities of the Meyers girls, Rosemary Deveson and the tiny Jean Hunt, who were given assignments in two of the ballet numbers. A tall, expressive child named Rosemary Sankey, who would ultimately become a popular New York model, was given a solo as a dragonfly, reminiscent of the genre popular in the Haller Revue, while Joy Darwin's gifts seemed more appropriate for an ensemble interpretation of Bolero -- presumably Ravel's.
The first Vancouver visit of Colonel de Basil's Ballets Russes three months earlier had exerted some influence on the programming of this recital. Even more influential, however, had been the impact of the individual dancers who served as tangible examples of what dedicated training in ballet could produce. The Ballets Russes repertoire, consisting of Léonide Massine's exciting works in the symphonic and character genres as well as one-act versions of the Petipa/Tchaikovsky ballets and vivid creations by Mikhail Fokine, Bronislava Nijinska and George Balanchine, also gave insights into the broad scope of ballet's theatrical expression.
The visit strengthened June Roper's determination as a teacher, for she was both awed by the vitality and glamour of the stars and the diversity of their repertoire, and shocked by the ragged ensembles. She soon made it clear that she was not interested in training dancers for assignments in the corps de ballet, establishing from the start more elevated goals for her pupils. Furthermore, she realized that it was indeed possible for a dedicated student to equal and even to surpass the technical prowess of the exceptional soloists they had admired in the Ballets Russes. "Russian ballet" thereafter became the speciality of her teaching programme.
Her year as dance mistress with the B.C. School of the Theatre had restored her to health, and with the return of her energies and ambitions, she decided to achieve an appropriate independence. The years of reliance on the devoted services of Elizabeth Roper had come to an end, and her aging mother returned to Los Angeles. June settled in an apartment in Vancouver's West End and decided to devote her time to the training of dancers. One exceptional activity that she respected faithfully was teaching in the Sunday School classes at Vancouver's First Baptist Church on Burrard Street. Quietly devout and never one to flaunt her religious beliefs, she continued nonetheless to honour her early Christian indoctrination.
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