The Australian Ballet – Legendary Dance Liaisons

Dance is the hidden language of the soul and the body*

Checkmate: Photo-by-Georges-Antoni used with permission courtesy Australian Ballet

The Australian Ballet in 2011 is a fantastic fusion of art, design, style, movement and music. Whenever and wherever they dance today becomes a sensory spectacle of visual richness, which is shaped by its history, social, cultural and spiritual growth. It is one of the busiest, and most artistically acclaimed dance companies in the world.  Being renowned for the versatility, technical excellence, warm, friendly nature and innate style of its dancers keeps this national dance company constantly in demand.

David McAllister, Artistic Director Australian Ballet

For its coming season starting on August 25th 2011 at Melbourne, and at the end of his first decade as the ballet’s Artistic Director, David McAllister has chosen three works to honour the role British dancers and choreographers have played in helping shape the past, present and future of the Australian Ballet. McAllister explained recently to a gathering of the Press that “British ballet was crucial in the development of our own distinctive Australian style of movement”. The trio of ballets chosen, Checkmate (1937), Concerto (1966) and After the Rain (2005) express musicality; music with dance, which draws on the joie de vivre reflected in contemporary art forms, while celebrating the continuing life of a company both locally acclaimed and internationally admired.

The Australian Ballet’s early beginnings arose out of the British ballet tradition. Dame Margaret (Peggy) van Praagh (1910 – 1990), following a distinguished career in the ballet world in England, traveled to live and work at Melbourne, Australia in 1960 for the Borovansky Ballet Company (1939-1961). The sixties was at the dawn of a new age for the arts in Australia, especially ballet whose future was to be inspired by its legendary dance liaisons. David McAllister acknowledged …our aesthetic is one built around a clarity of line and form

Elaine Fifield as Poll in Pineapple Poll 1966 courtesy National Library Australia

In Australia the founder of the Borovansky ballet troupe Czech born Edouard Borovansky (1902-1959) had himself been a performer with Colonel de Basil’s Ballets Russes companies, which came to Australia twice. Following their 1939-40 tour he stayed on and became a citizen, opening his own dance studio that also put on public performances. For these he augmented the works he choreographed himself with works by other dancers.

Following a relationship that started in 1944 with  J.C. Williamson Theatres Borovansky’s company also entered into a further liaison with the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust so that together they could all produce works from an international ballet repertoire. These included the Australian premiere of the delightful Pineapple Poll, by English ballet dancer and choreographer John Cranko (1927 – 1973). This was the first ballet my grandmother ever took me to see in 1954 when I was just ten years of age.

Borovansky died suddenly in December 1959 and Dame Peggy became Artistic Director for the Borovansky company throughout 1960 and 1961. With her help and that of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, J.C. Williamson Theatres and another grand Dame Catherine Margaret Mary Scott (1922 – ) in 1962 the company metamorphosed with government funding into Australia’s first national dance company, The Australian Ballet.

Principal dancers Garth Welch and Marilyn Jones 1963 - The Nutcracker courtesy National Library

The Australian Ballet premiered its first season with Swan Lake on 2 November 1962 at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Sydney. Dancers included Kathleen Gorham, Marilyn Jones and Garth Welch who were all former members of the Borovansky Ballet. Guest artists Sonia Arova and Erik Bruhn danced the principal roles. British ballet master Ray Powell came to Australia on loan from the Royal Ballet.  The choreography revised by van Praagh and Ray Powell, was credited to Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. The designs by Anne Fraser had been used in a Borovansky Ballet production five years earlier. And, with this performance Dame Peggy van Praagh, set a standard of excellence that would become a hallmark of classical ballet in Australia.

Dame Peggy van Praagh courtesy National Library Australia

A tireless advocate for the art of classical ballet, Dame Peggy Van Praagh within five short years established a wonderful international reputation for The Australian Ballet by bringing her experience and energy honed so succinctly in England into play.

She insisted on dancers being given contracts, unheard of before her arrival in Australia. Then she set about establishing a national ballet school in 1964 with Dame Margaret Scott as its Director (until 1990).

Dame Margaret Scott

Dame Margaret Scott had arrived in Australia in 1947, following a career as a principal with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet. She stayed on teaching and choreographing works for the Ballet Guild and Ballet Victoria receiving many accolades and an award for lifetime achievement.

In her first half decade Dame Peggy began commissioning works from international and local choreographers and inviting and hosting some of the most famous dancers in the world.

In honouring and trusting her opinion they came to dance with the troupe under her direction and helped to change and shape the future of ballet in Australia.

When she believed The Australian Ballet were ready Dame Peggy arranged wonderful gigs for them internationally, where they gained in both reputation and status as they wowed the dancing world around the globe.

Artists Australian Ballet Swan Lake Photo by Jim McFarlane

From 1965  Sir Robert Helpmann (1909-1986) became joint artistic director with Dame Peggy and they worked together in a collaborative association until 1974.

Helpmann was a much celebrated and talented Australian, who had made it all the way from Mount Gambier in Adelaide to be a Principal Dancer in England with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet at London by 1933. There he also had a great professional partnership with the late Dame Margot Fonteyn.

Re-visiting his performance with the lovely Moira Shearer in the now iconic production and new digital version of the movie of the Red Shoes (1948), his innate genius becomes apparent. Dance has long been a preserve of men in many cultural traditions because it was about celebrating life. Helpmann was the first male dancer in Australia to start breaking down ingrained prejudices inherent from the Anglo-Saxon tradition in Australia about men performing in ballet on stage. When I was a child male ballet dancers were much reviled in Australia and his story was perhaps an insightful forerunner to that of Billy Elliot.

My three sons all came to know and love Sir Bobby from the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang movie with Dick Van Dyke, in which he played the ‘Child Catcher’. When the carriage he was driving spun out of control and turned over it was only thanks to his quick dancer’s reflexes that he was able to leap off of the moving wheel and land safely on his feet.

It was only at his passing in the mid eighties that people in Australia came to terms with Sir Robert Helpmann the man, and learned just how large his creative memoir was. His contribution was matched only by his capacity to attract media attention for The Australian Ballet because of his huge international reputation.

One of the most wonderful memories I have of him is dancing Doctor Coppélius in the Australian Ballet’s production in 1969 of Coppélia with principal dancer Barbara Chambers. His eyes were always so expressive that they held you captive throughout any performance he was in.

Then there was his penultimate performance as one of the comic ugly stepsisters with Sir Frederick Ashton in the pantomime style ballet Cinderella, which Sir Frederick also choreographed.

It was extraordinary. Seeing these two great creative giants of the ballet world dance these always hilarious roles together was a once in a lifetime thrill, and I couldn’t but help myself and had to go twice.

A witty, funny man Sir Robert Helpmann had a great sense of humour that certainly caught attention. One of his famous observations, reputedly made to a taxi driver was ‘that the trouble with nude dancing is that not everything stops when the music stops’.

The always-amazing Dame Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev as well as the brilliant Danish dancer and choreographer Erik Bruhn, were among the principal dancers that Dame Peggy and Sir Robert encouraged to come ‘down under’. This amazing trio would have a profound and encouraging effect on young dancers here, especially those who came under Nureyev’s influence as he cast and filmed his version of the ballet Don Quixote (1972) for the Australian Ballet.

(Watch it on You Tube).

Nureyev and Fonteyn are considered ballet’s most perfect, passionate partnering ever and their unique relationship intrigued the world.

In an interview following her death Nureyev struggling to explain the intensity of their bond by saying ‘The public was enthralled – I think only because we were enthralled with each other” he said. ‘At the end of Swan Lake, when she left the stage in her great white tutu, I would have followed her to the end of the world.’

Erick Bruhn came to Australia to guest star in the first Swan Lake for The Australian Ballet. Internationally he made the role of Albrecht in Giselle his own. Partnering with another grand Dame Alicia Markova, twenty years his senior in an electrifying performance at a matinee of Giselle they caused a sensation one afternoon in New York. Bruhn has been described as ‘the most completely equipped male dancer of his day’. He had a flawless clean technique that comes only through a combination of enormous talent and training.

Dancers that Dame Peggy helped directly included John Meehan who was a principal dancer in Australia, who went to America to complete his dancing career. He then became an Artistic Director, renowned for his excellence. He is currently Professor of Dance and Director of Vassar Repertory Dance Theatre in the Department of Dance at Vassar College NY.

Another was Australian icon and now national treasure Graeme Murphy. He was also a dancer with The Australian Ballet who later founded and choreographed the now iconic contemporary Sydney Dance Company. Invited to choreograph The Nutcracker in the early 90’s for the Australian Ballet, he cast his old teacher Dame Margaret Scott to dance the role of Clara the Elder. She performed that role during the 1992, 1994 and 2000 seasons. Then there was the exquisite principal dancer Marilyn Rowe, current Director of the Australian Ballet School…and we could go on.

David McAllister joined The Australian Ballet in 1983. By 1989 he was a principal dancer and so incredible was his talent that he was chosen to dance at the Fifth International Ballet Competition in Moscow in 1985 with Elizabeth Toohey. He became Artistic Director of The Australian Ballet in 2001. In his first decade he has become renowned for his dedication to his craft, compassionate direction and was awarded an AM, Member of the Order of Australia, for services to the ballet in 2004.

The three ballet’s he has chosen to celebrate the foundations of the company and the end of his first decade as Artistic Director are all challenging for the company, which should certainly keep them all on their toes.

Checkmate was a revolutionary ballet when it was first presented at London in 1937, with its sharp, smart seductive design it harnessed the powerful expressiveness of post modernism. No one watching it is ever bored. An edgy ballet about love and betrayal choreographed by the founder of the Royal Ballet in Britain, the divine Dame Ninette de Valois; the King of ballet Sir Robert Helpmann brought it to the stage in the early days of the Australian Ballet’s formation. I remember it well, innovative, stylish, sophisticated, witty and intelligent and with costumes that were at the height of avant-garde style.

Helpmann as the Red Knight in Checkmate courtesy National Library Australia

The pawns, the Kings and Queens move around the board in a battle to the death, one that becomes a cutthroat spectacle of exquisite sensitivity.

It combined both rigorous dance and undeniable wit and its easily accessible game format is particularly appropriate for modern audiences. Especially if they are seeking to understand the ballet, its history and eager to learn to appreciate the stylish subtleties of each dancer’s glorious movement.

The lovely backstory is that another great late Irish born British dancer, teacher, choreographer and director of classical ballet,  Dame Ninette de Valois gifted this amazing piece about love and betrayal to The Australian Ballet in 1986. de Vaois is widely regarded as the ‘godmother’ of British Ballet.

Sir Bobby himself dramatically played the role of the Red King when it was first produced, to thunderous adulation and I must say how pleasing it was to be in the audience.

Concerto by Sir Kenneth MacMillan (1929-1992) is the second piece from another of Britain’s distinguished ballet dancers, who went on to become a choreographer and Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet in London between 1970 and 1977.

Created in 1966, it was the first MacMillan work to enter The Australian Ballet’s repertoire danced to the stirring Piano Concerto No.2 by Dmitri Shostakovich, which for him was uncharacteristically cheerful perhaps because he composed it for his son’s birthday.

Sir Kenneth MacMillan was a man who faced the controversial issues and challenges of his age head on.  Much admired for his firm commitment to his art and craft this beautifully choreographed piece demanded flawless technique from its dancers.

It strayed over ever so delicately into the territorial practices of legendary Russian choreographer George Balanchine, who was one of the most celebrated of all 20th century choreographers. With its sweeping and romantic pas de deaux there was not a tutu in sight only all over tights, which proved quite a shock for audiences of the time not used to seeing so much of the human body revealed on stage.

Sky High at Melbourne, Principals of The Australian Ballet

After the Rain is the third and final ballet in the trilogy. It is by the much admired contemporary choreographer Christopher Wheeldon (1973- ) whose  work was premiered in New York in 2005 and Australia in 2007, to much acclaim. Danced to the music of Estonian Arvo Pärt’s work Tabula Rasa, this ballet of bold movements echoes his tintinnabuli, which is Latin for ‘little bells’. Pärt built the music chosen for this piece from primitive sounds into specific tonality; the dancers likewise depict the musical mood shifts dramatically, by entering into the changing shape of their relationships and control the space that they inhabit with both effortless grace and perfect precision.

In 2011 The Australian Ballet is celebrating and giving thanks for its legendary liaisons with Britain by recognizing the customs and beliefs central to their existence, which are at the very essence of its foundations. It will be very well done.

Carolyn McDowall, July 2011 ©The Culture Concept Circle

* Martha Graham

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.