Grands Ballets Canadiens founder Ludmilla Chiriaeff's archives find home at BAnQ

The personal letters, photos and other memorabilia of the late Ludmilla Chiriaeff, as well as the archives of the Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, are now part of the Quebec provincial collection.

Personal letters, photos, reviews tell story of Russian dancer who brought ballet to Montreal

Ludmilla Chiriaeff was so thankful to be able to come to Canada after the war, with no papers and no passport. She promised to share what she had with her new home: her love of dance. (Serge Beauchemin)

Twenty years after Ludmilla Chiriaeff's death, researchers and the general public will soon be able to understand and appreciate more about the role the Russian dancer played in bringing ballet to Montreal.

The archives of the founder of the Grands Ballets Canadiens, as well as the archives of the ballet company, are now part of the Quebec provincial collection at the Bibliotheques et archives nationales du Quebec (BAnQ).

Born to Russian parents in Berlin in 1924, Chiriaeff emigrated to Montreal in 1952.  

She was hired by CBC's French-language service, Radio-Canada, for a series of 130 ballet performances for a program called L'heure du concert.  

She founded l'École de ballet Chiriaeff, which became l'Académie des Grands Ballets Canadiens in 1958. 

Christiane Barbe and Anastasia Chiriaeff celebrate the donation of the archives of Ludmilla Chiriaeff to the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec. (Jeanette Kelly/CBC)

Chiriaeff died in 1996 at the age of 72, determined to have her archives preserved for future dancers and historians.

"I feel sad to give it away because it's part of mother, but very proud that we found a place that will take care and guard it for posterity," said Anastasia Chiriaeff, the late dancer's daughter. 

"It took us 20 years, and I promised her it would be in good hands for ever – and it is. I'm proud and relieved."

Vast collection

In a news release, the BAnQ outlined the size of the archival collection.

It documents her early life, as well as the establishment of the Grands Ballets Canadiens academy and school and the development of the teaching of dance in Quebec's public school system, notably Pierre-Laporte high school and CEGEP Vieux-Montréal.

It includes:

  • 32 linear metres of written documents.
  • 5,000 photographs.
  • 273 videos.
  • 171 audio recordings.
  • 220 posters.

In addition, there is the Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal collection.

Among the highlights: a photograph of dancers James Kudelka and Annette Av Paul, accompanied by former secretary of state for external affairs, Joe Clark, meeting senior Chinese bureaucrats during the company's Asian tour in 1984.

That collection also includes:

  • 7.5 linear metres of written documents
  • 20,000 photographs.
  • 478 videos.

No papers, no passport

Ludmilla Chiriaeff studied ballet in Berlin. This is a photo of her as a young girl. (Courtesy BAnQ)

Anastasia Chiriaeff said her mother made a promise to herself when she arrived in Canada in 1952 as a war refugee. 

"If she survived the camps – she said that to me time and time again – and, 'If this country took us in as artists with no papers, no passports whatever, it means I have a mission. What do I have to offer? I know nothing but dance, my passion for dance.'  And she gave it to her last breath."

Chiriaeff taught young dancers, introduced dance to two Montreal public schools and campaigned to get public funding for dance at a time when there was no dance tradition in Montreal.

"We never saw her, the family. Her passion was dance," says her daughter.

"People thought we were rich but no. We had dancers live in our home, students. Everything she made went back into the company."

One of the photos in the archive shows an elegantly attired Chiriaeff dressed in a sleeveless white dress, standing on a step ladder, paintbrush in hand, painting the ceiling of the garage that became the first headquarters of the company.  

"She liked the camera. She wasn't a dancer for nothing." said Anastasia.

New home for dance company

Later this year, the Grands Ballets Canadiens will move from that former garage to the newly built Maison de la dance.

It's in part that move that has made these two archival donations possible.

Alain Dancyger, the general manager of the Grands Ballets, said the BAnQ has had archivists working at the Grands Ballet for four years, "looking at all the photos and documents – so this has been fairly strenuous work but definitely worthwhile."  
Ludmilla Chiriaeff founded the Grands Ballets Canadiens. (Michael Slobodian)

Dancyger says the company received many requests for access to the material but was unable to respond to these requests because the documents weren't organized and readily accessible.  

Now they are.  

The documents are now available for consultation at the BAnQ Vieux-Montréal on Viger Street East.

They are part of a growing collection documenting the performing arts, including material from choreographers Fernand Nault, Paul-André Fortier, Jean-Pierre Perreault and the Festival international de la nouvelle danse. 

Word-of-mouth art form

The archives has also prepared a guide for dance companies to help them understand the importance of keeping a record of their work and how to do so.

It's important, because dance is an art form that was so long transferred by word of mouth from dancer to dancer and from choreographer to choreographer.