Somewhere in the world each day, a dancer is torn from her sheets to begin a journey across town and country. Sometimes she acquires a tattoo en route. If she’s lucky, she’ll receive a warm bath on arrival and a fresh set of crisp white sheets – inside the covers of a stamp album!
Yes, we’re talking philately here, because there is an astonishing number of stamps featuring dance in all its forms. Ballet stamps abound, and have held their popularity since the 1950s. Just last year, The Australian Ballet added to the pool, collaborating with Australia Post to produce a pair of stamps for the company’s 50th Anniversary. Mind you, we are soundly trumped by our New Zealand cousins. When the Royal New Zealand Ballet turned fifty, they got issued with a set of five!
As you might expect, the countries responsible for the greatest number of ballet stamps tend to have long and proud traditions of ballet. Russia is at the head of the pack, with many exquisite and sophisticated examples, including perhaps my favourite set, which celebrates the choreographer Michel Fokine.
Across the Baltic Sea, the splendours of the Bournonville school are well-represented on Denmark’s stamps. And there’s no ignoring the Cubans, who have pumped out more than a dozen different ballet-themed sets. Ballet there has enjoyed official sanction and popular support for decades, ever since the founding of the Cuban National Ballet in 1948.
But what about countries like Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Liberia, Namibia and North Korea? Make no assumptions: ballet stamps are a worldwide phenomenon with powerful political and cultural resonances! The European origins of ballet have long made the art synonymous with Western values and achievements. On stamps, this makes ballet an ideal way to show off your nation’s cultural and economic aspirations, regardless of whether you’re promoting communist or capitalist values.
Today, one of the most charming and difficult sets of ballet stamps to obtain comes from the People’s Republic of China. Recent economic growth in the region has spawned a “rampaging market” for stamps and other collectibles dating from the years of the Cultural Revolution. This set from 1973 depicts scenes from The White-Haired Girl (1965) which was one of the ballet classics of its day. Complete sets sell for over a hundred dollars – and prices are still rising…
Many ballet stamps also reflect special connections between particular countries and dance personalities. When British ballet legend Margot Fonteyn died in 1991 after spending her final years in Panama, the nation released two stamps to mark her passing. In the early part of the 20th century, Monaco provided a base for the activities of Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo and has continued to honour that association with stamps featuring Sergei Diaghilev and Vaslav Nijinsky. In 1984, Austria marked the centenary of the death of the great romantic ballerina Fanny Elssler, who was born in Gumpendorf in 1810 and later died in Vienna. And right here in Australia, we naturally put Anna Pavlova on a stamp when we wanted to celebrate, er, Australian desserts …
So whether your taste runs to classical or contemporary ballet, to stamp designs that are arty, kitsch, photographic, impressionistic, earnest or quirky, there’s a ballet stamp out there for you. Just take a moment now to clamp your eyes on this gloriously corny set from Chad. A certain comedienne has quite a following in parts of Africa. Diehard Lucille Ball fans – this one’s for you!