by Kaija Pepper
Vancouver dancers began to make their names outside their hometown as early as 1927, when a Sun newspaper headline announced “Local Dancers Make Big Hit”. The article was about Marguerite Goldsworthy and Molly Peck, who were performing with the Albertina Rasch Girls in New York. At that time, there were not many professional opportunities at home, so the constant exodus of dancers to the United States and Europe became an expected part of a Vancouver dancer’s life. Later, the Winnipeg Ballet, founded in 1939, and the National Ballet of Canada in Toronto, which had its premiere performance in 1951, would offer additional, Canadian possibilities.
In the early 1940’s, Kay Armstrong, too, joined the exodus, although initially she went to New York to study; that, at least, is what she told the United States immigration office. Once there, Kay could not resist testing her talent at the huge “cattle call” auditions for which New York was famous.
Around the time Kay left, Frank Rasky wrote an article in the Sun in which he described Vancouver as “... an important hothouse which has done well in bringing forth some of the most talented ballet artists on Broadway”. Other writers were more critical of the limited opportunities at home, and regretted the fact that dancers had to leave to pursue professional careers. A full page Province article in 1946, headlined “Glamor B.C. Style”, stated: “We could have an entirely Canadian company with a little effort, and more than a little finance, and ninety per cent would hail from Vancouver and district.” That Vancouver-based company would take some time to establish.
Before going to New York, Kay attended the San Francisco Ballet School’s 1944 summer session. She travelled there and back with her Uncle Bill, who, despite wartime rationing, was able to get the necessary gasoline for the trip through his employer. Her mother and sister Jeanette made the trip down with them, then left Kay at her aunt and uncle’s comfortable home in Oakland.
Every day, Kay caught the bus over the Bay Bridge to attend classes with Willam Christensen and his sister-in-law, Gisella. Kay remembers that they were experimenting with a Cecchetti/Russian styled frappé, which led her to develop bruises on her big toes. Kay had enough gumption to make an appointment to see Christensen to ask for his opinion of her talent. He was not very helpful. “If you want to do it, do it,” was the extent of his advice.
The following summer, in 1945, twenty-three-year-old Kay Armstrong boarded the train to New York, this time travelling alone. She had borrowed money for the train fare and for her living expenses, and her mother had promised to pay for dance classes.
Kay would spend an exciting two years in New York, for the first time living an independent life. Working with professional New York theatre people opened her eyes to the cutthroat side of the business: Kay found auditions aggravatingly impersonal and the lifestyle of a New York City dancer fraught with uncertainty and financial insecurity.
While certainly not pushy, Kay Armstrong had the chutzpah of an attractive young woman in her early twenties. At five foot seven and one half inches and about 135 pounds, Kay was tall and shapely. Her medium length black hair was usually pulled back in a bun. She dressed well, often tying a scarf around her neck to add colour and style. When Kay Armstrong flashed her million dollar smile, heads must have turned.
Kay had been studying dance for well over a decade and she was already an experienced teacher and performer, as well as an emerging choreographer; Helen Crewe, Mary Pratten and Dorothy Wilson had set her well on her way. Kay had what it took to attract attention.
When Kay arrived at Grand Central Station, her friend Stephanie Antle from the B.C. School of Dancing was there to meet her. Kay and Stevie, as Stephanie was called, moved into the main floor of an old house they shared with several girls. The living room was their bedroom, one with an unusual view: from the window they could see into the large Vilzak-Schollar studio in Steinway Hall on fashionable 57th Street. The school, where Kay took classes, had an excellent reputation and was managed by writer Anatole Chujoy, founding editor of Dance News and in 1949 the editor of A Dance Encyclopedia.
Anatole Vilzak and Ludmilla Schollar were a distinguished husband and wife teaching team. Both were graduates of the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg and they had danced at the Maryinsky Theatre and for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. After immigrating to New York in 1937, the two Russians taught the foremost dancers of their day, developing enviable reputations as master teachers. During the 1940’s, their school became the place where everybody who was anybody was sure to be seen.
Vilzak was described in a Dance Magazine article in April 1979 as “the Prince of Teachers, the most debonair, sophisticated, musical and sarcastic of them all”. He was impeccably groomed, and wore tight Spanish trousers and a Basque shirt. Before he entered the studio, his accompanist, Ariadna Mikeshina, lined-up the class, played a fanfare – the eight-bar trumpet solo from Act III of Swan Lake – and in he would walk. All the girls were in love with him and Kay adored his theatricality. Often present in class were Ballets Russes leading dancers Irina Baronova and Chris Volkoff, looking like a Greek god in white shorts and shoes. Vilzak’s class was quick-moving and inventive, and he was an encouraging teacher. Kay would try to find a spot at the barre where she could watch everything and not be too conspicuous herself.
Kay took a few classes with Madame Schollar, who taught the younger students. Schollar, also immaculate in appearance, was kind and patient. Her classes paired the quick footwork of Cecchetti with the lively, graceful port de bras she had learned from Mikhail Fokine.
Towards the end of her time in New York, Kay heard about Helene Veola, a noted Spanish dance teacher. Originally from South Wales in the United Kingdom, Madame Veola was a veteran of vaudeville and concert performing, and claimed to have learned Spanish dancing from the Gypsies in Granada. José Greco had been one of her students.
Veola, then in her mid-sixties, started her class at 1:00 p.m. and continued to teach for three hours. Kay would stay until she could absorb no more. Besides appreciating the dances she was learning, Kay was impressed by how close Veola was to her students. One girl was going into hospital for a serious operation and Veola asked the class for a few moments of silence so they could pray for her.
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