Asja Mercoolova::Russian Ballerina Shanghai
This is a portrait of Asja Mercoolova as a girl, my grandmother Xenia’s goddaughter. Xenia wanted me to be a dancer like Asja. She wanted me to be on the stage. She would ask me to sing and perform songs for her in the old fashioned lounge-room with the radio on in the background. They sent me to dance classes – modern, jazz, tap and later I studies Flamenco. I still wear Flamenco shoes every day to work (!) I grew up listening to my grandfather Sergei’s jazz. He would practise in his music room on the trumpet, at the piano and at his vibes. One day in the future I would be packing away his musical scores, piled high on top of his piano, and he would be gone and buried. River Lights club in Sans Souci is a vivid memory, staying up too late, and watching him play. He wore exquisite tailored suits and painted on his eye-brows, cabaret style. The music was a melange of Russian folk ballads, American jazz, and Chinese pop. The compositions were for a famous crooner he remembered, Alexander Vertinsky, writer of the legendary tune “Immortal Road”, that world sings today as “Those Were The Days My Friend!”.
Before my grandmother (Xenia Ermolaeff) died, she gave me a set of hand painted studio portraits she had produced while living in Shanghai (1923-1951). Wrapped in tissue, when she was feeling sentimental, she would produce these from the musty old wardrobe that was filled with beautiful dresses and shoes. When she went out to the club for lunch, I would try these on and pretend I was her, standing in front of the large oval mirror. In the noirish light through the blinds in her bedroom, wearing her oversized patent-leather shoes, I painted on her lipstick. These portraits conjure the decadent life of a a beautiful young Russian woman living in Shanghai at its zenith. The mystery in those eyes reveals suffering a life of extremes. In Sydney, in the Holden, we would sit waiting for Serge, as she sipped sherry from a silver hip flask, telling me about her feelings. As a young girl in Russia, she was the daughter of a wealthy Tsarist naval officer, but was reduced to stateless person seeking refuge in Harbin, Manchuria after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia (1917). Later she married my grandfather Sergei, a wealthy Russian big band leader in Shanghai (husband No#2). The Shanghai sojourn was a wild ride, until she was made refugee once more with the Chinese Revolution. Her life ended in the Sydney suburbs with a three acre block and hills hoist – and a moonshine plum orchard. I was a great joy in her later life – the daughter she longed for. When she pointed to photographs of her god- daughter Asja the ballerina, she told me that she had married a Broadway musical director, and would I be a dancer like her?
Vertinsky:: Serge Ermoll and His Orchestra:: Shanghai