Dance and Postcolonialism in Mardi McConnochie's the Snow Queen (1)
Jewell, Melinda Rose, Journal of Australian Studies
Is Australian dance unremarked upon because it is unremarkable? (2) the opposite of the Cringe is not the Strut, but a relaxed erectness of carriage. (3)
Dance, and particularly professional dance, has received little attention in Australian fiction and even less in critical studies. Mardi McConnochie's The Snow Queen charts the life of three dancers, Galina Koslova, Edward Larwood (Teddy) and Posy Foster, working professionally as performers and choreographers in Australia. The narrative centres on Galina's attempts to establish an Australian ballet company in the 1940s. Using first- and third-person narrative, it shifts between this time and the present of the novel 1973, when Galina is writing her memoir. The thirty-year span of the novel reveals the persistence of the 'cultural cringe' in Australia's artistic environment, alongside the movement away from a homogenous national identity to one embracing multiplicity and uncertainty. These themes emerge most clearly in the dancing moments presented: through the style of dance, the narratives depicted in movement, and an examination of what the characters dance and choreograph. In the 1940s the characters stand destructively opposed to each other's individual endeavours in dance, but in 1973, under different conditions, creative collaboration is possible.
My research into dance in Australian fiction (4) has so far located only one text featuring professional dancers performing ballet in Australia--The Snow Queen. This is possibly because ballet as a fictional topic seems acceptable only for children and teenagers, (5) and McConnochie has been criticised for daring to present a ballet story for adults:
McConnochie's novel was designed to fill the gap left on adult bookshelves by long-abandoned copies of Ballet Shoes [a novel by English children's author Noel Streatfield], even if our reading requirements have matured. (6)
McConnochie attacks this long-standing prejudice when Galina finds it impossible to publish her memoirs because, as a publisher says to her: 'I thought you meant something for children ... Something with pictures. There's always a market for those. If it was something like that I'd be interested'. (7) The reluctance of Australian writers to engage with ballet is intriguing because it requires extraordinary skill and discipline, and even from earliest times Australia has produced some exceptional dancers. In 1941 the first Australian ballet company premiered, featuring fourteen-year-old Strelsa Heckelman, who the Sydney Morning Herald critic felt 'demonstrated technical ability of a high order'. (8) In 1965, just three years after its formation, the Australian Ballet company was awarded the Grand Prix prize at the International Festival of Dance in Paris. (9) Given the reluctance of Australian novelists to depict such achievements and the stories behind them, The Snow Queen represents an innovative narrative.
McConnochie's novel also provides historical insight into the development of ballet in Australia. Frequent references to significant dance names such as Ballet Russes, Kschessinska, Pavlova and Australian-based dancer and producer Edouard Borovansky suggest that The Snow Queen may be historical fiction or roman a clef. At the conclusion of the novel, however, McConnochie emphasises its fictional nature. Nevertheless, a parallel, confirmed by the author, (10) can be drawn between Galina Koslova, the main female protagonist, and Madame Helene Kirsova, who, like Galina formed the first professional ballet company in Australia. (11) The main point of similarity between these two women is that they both bring about the demise of their companies by refusing to sign a contract with the major theatre owner in Australia--named 'Wilkinson' in Snow Queen and J C Williamson in real-life Australia. (12) Such a contract would require them to relinquish artistic control, a prospect both women utterly reject. …