Boris Vladimirovich Volkoff
Boris Vladimirovich Volkoff, dancer, choreographer, ballet master and director (b Boris Vladimirovich Baskakoff at Schepotievo, Russia 24 Apr 1900; d at Toronto 11 Mar 1974). Although he often felt under-appreciated, Volkoff is now considered by many to be the godfather of Canadian ballet. Though his ambition to have a fully professional ballet company was never achieved, he had enormous influence as a teacher and mentor to several generations of Canadian dancers. The irascible Volkoff, with his perennial cane, cap, ivory cigarette holder and heavy Russian accent, became a legend in his own time.
At the age of 9, he was allowed to join his brother, Igor, who was dancing in Warsaw. He performed under both his father's name, Baskakoff, and his mother's family name, Volkoff, before finally settling on the latter when he settled in Canada. After a brief tour of duty in the Red Army where he was assigned to entertain the troops, Volkoff attended the State Academy of Ballet and Choreography in Moscow, the school of the Bolshoi Ballet, and danced with the Mordkin Ballet, fleeing the company for Shanghai during a Siberian tour. He then toured with a small troupe of Russian expatriates to India, Malaya, Burma, Japan, Hawaii and the United States. There he danced briefly with the company of Adolph Bolm until his American visa expired.
According to legend, Volkoff was smuggled into Canada from Chicago by a couple of thugs in 1929. He arrived in Toronto and found a job as ballet master at Jack Arthur's Uptown Theatre where he choreographed short numbers to be performed between the films. In 1930 he opened the Boris Volkoff School of the Dance above a grocery store. Through recitals, performances and lectures Volkoff introduced many to dance and built an audience.
In 1936 with a troupe of 14 young dancers he set off for the Internationale Tanzwettspiele of the XIth Olympiad in Berlin, organized by Rudolf von Laban. There Volkoff presented his ballets based on Indian and Inuit legends, Mon-Ka-Ta and Mala. The troupe was well received and given "honourable mention." By 1938 this group had evolved into the Volkoff Canadian Ballet which appeared at Toronto's Massey Hall in 1939 as the Boris Volkoff Ballet Company. He commissioned and choreographed The Red Ear of Corn (1949), a ballet on a Canadian Indian theme set to a score by John Weinzweig. Unable in 1949 to secure financial backing for a truly professional company of his own, Volkoff instead donated his studio and dancers in 1951 to help Celia Franca's nascent National Ballet of Canada. Later, vigorously defending the Russian style of ballet, he decried Celia Franca and her "English" dancing. He tried to revive his own company in 1953 and again in 1967 without success but continued to teach and stage occasional performances. His students included Melissa Hayden and Barbara Ann Scott.
As early as 1932 Volkoff had also begun to choreograph for the Toronto Skating Club's annual carnival. He designed the first ice ballet for the club in 1934 and choreographed and produced its ice ballets for 14 seasons. Although unsteady on the ice himself, Volkoff introduced a new rigour to ice-choreography that won him considerable recognition in the skating world, paralleling the similar work of Catherine Littlefield and Jack Haines in the US.
Five months before his death Volkoff was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada.