I always want to give recitals without big advertisement – to come to somewhere quite unknown and make appeal – do you know? That is real success.

Sonia Revid1

Sonia Revid came to Melbourne in 1932 as a largely unknown dancer, bringing the new and unusual modern expressionist dance stylings of Mary Wigman with her from Dresden. She is widely credited as one of the first to introduce modern interpretive dance to Victoria, along with contemporaries Joan Joske and Joan Henry. For several years she became a well-known albeit slightly enigmatic figure in the cultural community of Melbourne, performing regular dance and spoken-word recitals, giving literature talks on community radio, and teaching physical culture through dance and movement to adults and children alike. Despite her relative popularity at the time, with no heirs and no legacy dance school, after her final performances in 1941 Sonia Revid began to slowly fade from collective memory.

State Library Victoria holds the photographs, scrapbook, and certificates of Sonia Revid, 1902-1967 in our Manuscripts collection.

Photograph of scrapbook with studio portrait of Sonia Revid, from waist, affixed to front. Heading on cover of scrapbook reads "Dancer, Sonia Revid"
Cover of the scrapbook of Sonia Revid, which contains a large number of press clippings and flyers relating to the dancer’s time in Australia and New Zealand (MS 8301, MS Box 4808/1). Many of the newspaper articles are also available on Trove.

‘A means of expression’2

Sonia Revid was born in 1902 in Libau (Liepaja) in what is now Latvia3; one of four children to parents Olga and Isaac (Herald, 9 Aug 1947). Driven out of Russia by war and revolution4, in 1921 Sonia moved to Berlin where she witnessed a dance performance by pioneering German expressionist dancer Mary Wigman. Despite no former dance experience, she immediately knew that this artform – which rejected classical ballet technique in favour of emotional expression through the body – was for her (The Home : an Australian Quarterly, vol. 14 no.10). She studied with Mary Wigman in Germany for several years, gaining her diploma from the Wigman School in Dresden in 1928, before branching out on her own (The Age, 5 Dec 1932).

Photograph of Diploma certificate for the Wigman-Schule-Dresden, typeset by hand in German.
Photograph of Sonia Revid’s certificate of diploma from the Wigman School in Dresden, Germany, June 1928 (MS 8301, MS BOX 4808/2)
Black and white photograph, to waist, of Sonia Revid and Mary Wigman wearing black tunics with arms linked together.
Sonia Revid and Mary Wigman, 1927, Photograph by C Rudolph (MS8301, F Box 4896, PHO7).
Mary Wigman would describe Sonia Revid as a ‘strong and idiosyncratic talent’5

It was important to Sonia not to imitate her teacher, and she cultivated a new style that was completely her own, including more emphasis on facial expression during her dances; something that Mary Wigman would largely discourage6

Ours is a dance of the whole body, not of the feet only, and it is the expression – not just the pose – that counts. And the face must dance exactly like the body

Sonia Revid7
Black and white studio portrait of Mary Wigman, posing in a crowching position while dancing. Mary wears a shiny black dress and has her eyes closed.
Portrait of Mary Wigman, 1924?, Rudolph, C, (MS8301, F Box 4896, PHO5).
Black and white studio portrait of Sonia Revid in a long white dress made of tule. Sonia sits on the floor in a dancer's pose with her skirts arranged next to her.
Sonia Revid in Elwood, Studio and outdoor portraits of Sonia Revid dancing her signature movements, 1930-1935, Photograph by Ina Jones, (MS8301, F Box 4897, PHO48)

Some of her most notable dance pieces included ‘Timidity’ – a dance without music, ‘in which she hardly moved from a crouching position, all the expression lying in the slow movement of arms and fingers and the lifting of the head’ (The Age, 25 Sept 1933); and ‘the Bushfire Drama’, based on the 1939 Victorian bushfires – the latter displaying ‘her sympathy with an understanding of humanity, and her intense feeling for music’ (The Age, 4 June 1941), and also a deep connection with the Australian people and landscape.

For Sonia Revid, dance was not merely a physical artform, but an almost spiritual experience.

Black and white studio portrait of Sonia Revid, standing  in a lunge with arms crossed over her chest. Sonia wears a short, dark tunic with a white sash at the waist and is barefoot.
Sonia Revid in rehearsals for ‘Bushfire Drama’. Studio and outdoor portraits of Sonia Revid dancing her signature movements, 1930-1935, (MS8301, F Box 4897, PHO41)

‘An attractive Russian exile’8

In August 1932 Sonia Revid came to Melbourne on the Ville d’Amiens9 under the pretense of visiting her sister Rosa and her theatre producer husband Dolia Ribush for a few months (Herald, 20 Sept 1933), and also, perhaps, to escape the brewing political ‘conditions’ in Germany10.

On 3 Dec 1932 – a mere four months after her arrival in Melbourne – Sonia Revid performed her first public dance recital ‘Modern Dance Individualism’ at Central Hall, Little Collins Street. An article in the Melbourne Herald (1 Dec 1932) a few days earlier excitedly announced ‘RUSSIAN DANCER HERE – a Mary Wigman Enthusiast’. The reviews were overwhelmingly positive, however it seems that modern expressionist dance was still viewed as somewhat of a novelty in 1930s Melbourne. Many reviews focused on the minimal staging elements as much as on the dance itself. The Age (5 Dec 1932) wrote of the debut performance: ‘She dances barefooted before a plain setting of curtains, and for the greater number of her dances she wears a simple brief tunic’. 

One year and several recitals later, and Melbourne had embraced Sonia Revid and her personal brand of expressionism, with The Age (25 Sept 1933) now gushing that ‘Rarely are Melbourne audiences privileged to see such exquisite dancing as that of Miss Sonia Revid at her recital on Saturday night’. By 1935 the Australian Jewish News was proclaiming Miss Revid ‘a genius, in her field of the Dance’.

Black and white studio portrait of Sonia Revid, posing on one knee with her head turned into profile and her arms framing her face. Sonia wears a cropped bra-style top and skirt.
Studio and outdoor portraits of Sonia Revid dancing her signature movements, 1935 (MS 8301, F Box 4897, PHO36)

The reviews weren’t always favourable though, with dance columnist ‘Foxtrotter’ admitting in Table Talk (5 Oct 1933) to feeling ‘a little disappointment at times’ that some of Miss Revid’s compositions ‘were not quite as abstract as real expressionism of the ultra-modern ideals demands’. It clearly wasn’t to the taste of the Herald’s Kenneth Wilkinson either, who on 4 June 1941 lamented that Sonia’s slow and soft movements ‘had not enough contunuity of interest to prevent boredom’. Perhaps the most cutting however was Foxtrotter’s observation that:

…whatever Sonia Revid does possesses charm, but personal charm is not art11. 

Nevertheless, Sonia quickly became a familiar face in the Melbourne arts scene, and her presence at theatre and gala events was often highlighted in the social pages of the newspaper. Her ‘striking appearance’ (Herald, 10 Dec 1934), and propensity to wear flat shoes both on and off stage was often remarked upon (The Bulletin, 2 May 1934). A three-page spread complete with artistic photoshoot in The Home magazine perfectly captures Melbourne’s growing fascination with the European dancer:

Two-page spread in The Home magazine, titled The New Dance in Melbourne, showing four images of Sonia Revid posing while dancing.
The Home : an Australian quarterly, vol. 14, no.10, 2 Oct 1933, pp 36-37

On December 6th 1937 Sonia was naturalised as an Australian12. She would make Melbourne her home for the rest of her life.

‘Classes for adults and children, professionals and amateurs’13

Miss Revid began teaching dance classes out of her sister Rosa’s Caulfield home in 1933. The wording for the advertisements for these classes highlights Sonia’s interest in many of the ideals of physical culture which was gaining in popularity during the early twentieth century:

Advertisement for Sonia Revid's School of Modern Art Dance.
Table Talk, 4 May 1933, p 35

In a promotional pamphlet, Sonia described the study of her particular style of Modern Art Dance as the ‘thorough development of the body in perfect harmony, as well as the development of imagination, concentration, and expression of any emotional feeling, combined with rhythmical and musical sense’14. Clearly, these were more than ‘just’ dance classes!

By 1936 she had opened her own school, ‘Sonia Revid School of Modern Art Dance and Body Culture’ with two studio locations: the British Musical Society Salon room at 465 Collins Street, and the Oxford Club in East St Kilda (Australian Jewish News, 30 April 1936). These classes proved popular, and Miss Revid’s students would perform several recitals to critical acclaim.  

‘a bodily, mental and spiritual bath’15

Sonia Revid was community-minded, and believed in ‘the utter necessity of being humane, of helping each other’16. She also believed in the power of art to uplift, and had an interest in hygiene instruction – physical hygiene of course, but also of the mind and soul:

It is culture which helps to destroy evil, to create love, to believe in the existence of God. It is the culture of body, soul and mind which one ought to exercise, daily. One ought, indeed, take, daily, a bodily, mental and spiritual bath

Sonia Revid17

Subsequently, she spent several years teaching body culture and movement to children in Melbourne’s slum areas, particularly Fitzroy. On at least one occasion she donated proceeds of her performances to the Mission to Streets and Lanes to help with relief work in these suburbs (The Age, 3 Sept 1938). She hoped that the discipline of her classes would help to instill a sense of culture into the children that she taught, ultimately improving their lives. She published a pamphlet on her experience, Do slum children distinguish light from dark? in 1936.

Elevated photograph of the backyard areas of several cottages in the slum areas of Fitzroy.
A Fitzroy slum area – one of the suburbs in which Sonia Revid taught body culture and movement in the 1930s.
Fitzroy. View from the Brotherhood of St Lawrence, ca 1935,  F. Oswald Barnett Collection; H2001.291/42

Appealing ‘to the intellect as well as to the senses’18

While Sonia was most known for her dance, she was also an enthusiastic writer and lover of literature who studied philology at Petrograd State University19. She was a regular presenter on 3AR and 3LO radio stations in the late 1930s and early 1940s, performing spoken-word recitals of dramatic works or literary criticisms of the Russian Masters.

Listing in ABC magazine for a talk on Bielinski entitled He Saw a Hundred Years Ahead to be given by Sonia Revid in Spotlight on Literature on ABC radio.
Listing from ABC Weekly, vol 7, no 46 (17 Nov 1945), p 42

She also wrote several essays, pamphlets and opinion pieces, including the aforementioned Do slum children distinguish light from dark? (1936), Not God who kills… (1940), and Australia – the country of the future (1941), in which she describes her adopted country as a ‘dreamland’20.

Black and white portrait of Sonia Revid, smiling, wearing a flowing white tule dress captured mid-leap on St Kilda beach.
Sonia Revid dancing on St Kilda beach, 1938, (MS8301, F Box 4897, PHO45)

Sonia Revid lived out the rest of her life in Melbourne, ultimately passing away in 1947 after a short, undocumented illness at just 45 years of age21. Perhaps fittingly, little fanfare was made of her passing, other than a short obituary in the Australian Jewish News (15 Aug 1947). The obituary is mostly obscured by the bindings in the Library’s physical holdings of the newspaper, and unfortunately this has been replicated in microfilmed copies and digitised versions on Trove. Luckily, a typed copy of the obituary is held within the scrapbook of our manuscript collection: 

I was very shocked to learn of the untimely death last Saturday of Sonia Revid, whose dance recitals in the middle 1930’s I had the great pleasure of reviewing.  

Miss Revid was the first dancer to introduce to audiences here the genre of the modern interpretative dance, and she was brilliant. A pupil of Madame Wigman and other leading exponents of this dance form for many years, she endeavoured to inculcate the principles she had learned, into young dancers here. 

Never one to chase publicity, unfortunately her great talent was known to few other than those who attended her series of recitals more than ten years ago. In the strict limits of her medium, I have seen no dancer here to equal her. Miss Revid’s interpretation of the music of Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria’ and the ‘Happy Peasant’ will be ever memorable. Her symbolism was equalled only by her grace of movement and effortless control. Her integrity was a marked trait equalled by capacity for dramatic tenseness, and considerable general culture. 

Black and white studio portrait of Sonia Revid, to waist, wearing fur coat.
Studio Portrait of Sonia Revid, 1930-1935, Photograph by Ina Jones (MS 8301, F Box 4414, PHO51)

  1. The Home : an Australian Quarterly, vol.14 no.10, Oct 1933, p 62
  2. as above
  3. Department of the Interior, 1937, Miss s. Revid – Naturalization CertificateNAA: A1, 1937/12176, Australian Government, Canberra, viewed 15 October 2022 via National Archives of Australia <naa.gov.au>.
  4. ‘Dancing her way to success’, Woman’s World, 1 August 1933, viewed in MS 8301
  5. Reference from Mary Wigman (translated from the original German) in ‘Photographs, scrapbook, and certificates of Sonia Revid. 1902-1967’, MS 8301, MS BOX 4808/2, State Library Victoria
  6. Brissenden, A & Glennon, K, 2010, Australia dances: creating Australian dance, 1945-1965, Wakefield Press, Kent Town SA, p.190.
  7. ‘Dancing her way to success’, Woman’s World, 1 August 1933, viewed in MS 8301, MS Box 4808/1
  8. Herald, 1 Dec 1932, p 21
  9. Department of the Interior, 1937, Miss s. Revid – Naturalization CertificateNAA: A1, 1937/12176, Australian Government, Canberra, viewed 15 October 2022 via National Archives of Australia <naa.gov.au>.
  10. ‘Dancing her way to success’, Woman’s World, 1 August 1933, viewed in MS 8301
  11. Foxtrotter, Dancing Time, Table Talk, 5 Oct 1933
  12. Department of the Interior, 1937, Miss s. Revid – Naturalization Certificate, NAA: A1, 1937/12176, Australian Government, Canberra, viewed 15 October 2022 via National Archives of Australia
  13. Table Talk, 4 May 1933, p 35
  14. Revid, S, ‘Photographs, scrapbook, and certificates of Sonia Revid. 1902-1967’, verso of PHO48, MS 8301, State Library Victoria
  15. Revid, S, 1936?, Do slum children distinguish light from dark?, Ruskin Press, Melbourne, p 5
  16. as above
  17. as above
  18. Jewish Weekly News, 4 May 1934, p 12
  19. Certificate of enrolment (translated from the original Russian), in ‘Photographs, scrapbook, and certificates of Sonia Revid. 1902-1967’, MS 8301, MS BOX 4808/2, State Library Victoria
  20. Revid, S, Australia – the Country of the Future, in ‘Photographs, scrapbook, and certificates of Sonia Revid. 1902-1967’, MS 8301, State Library Victoria
  21. Births, Deaths and Marriages Victoria, Victorian Death Index, Department of Justice and Community Safety, viewed 24 Oct 2022, <https://www.bdm.vic.gov.au>
  22. Obituary is signed I.M., which is likely to be Israel Manuel Oderberg, editor of and contributor to the Australian Jewish News. Two copies of the obituary are found in Revid, S, ‘Photographs, scrapbook, and certificates of Sonia Revid. 1902-1967’, MS 8301, Box 4808/1, State Library Victoria

This article has 7 comments

  1. Hey Caitlyn,

    I am a librarian at Geelong Regional Libraries and am also a retired professional contemporary dancer who spent many years dancing in Germany after studying at the Victorian College of the Arts.
    I have never heard of Sonia Revid and found your article fascinating.
    Thank you!
    Warm regards Georgia ️

    • Thank you very much for the kind feedback, Georgia.
      I had never heard of her either until I stumbled upon this collection, and was instantly intrigued by her. A very interesting person indeed!

      • Such an intetesting person and such a creative asset to Melbourne & Australia. I’m sorry Sonia Revid faded from view. But how marvellous to have these documents & photos that link her to our local & international dance & arts scene.

  2. This is so interesting! I have never heard of her but what an interesting life. I’m going to recommend it to a friend of mine whose mother was a dancer at the same time.

  3. Wigman had another student Barbara Mettler in the USA whose teaching persists. And is accessible by Zoom class and in person as it has been continued by her students who teach and deliver teacher training. International Association of Creative Dance. IACD.
    A wonderful dance lineage!

  4. That was so interesting, thank you.

  5. Loved this – especially the photo dancing on St.Kilda beach. Wonder what she would think of this area now? Thank you for bringing her life out of the shadows …

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