Athol Willoughby with Noelle Aitken and Naeidra Torrens, 'Swan Lake', National Theatre Ballet, 1950s.

Athol Willoughby. Lifetime Achievement Award 2018

The Australian Dance Awards committee has announced that the Lifetime Achievement Award for 2018 will be presented to Athol Willoughby, OAM, in recognition of his exceptional contribution to the dance profession in Australia for over 65 years. The presentation will take place in Brisbane at the Australian Dance Awards ceremony on 8 September.

Willoughby has had a long and distinguished career as one of Australia’s leading ballet dancers and teachers and as an adjudicator and examiner for Cecchetti Ballet Australia. His performing career connected him with significant developments in mid-century Australian ballet, in particular with the National Theatre Ballet and major figures who directed it including Joyce  Graeme, Walter Gore and Valrene Tweedie.

Valrene Tweedie and Athol Willoughby in Le Coq d’or, National Theatre Ballet, 1955. Photo: Walter Stringer. Personal collection of Athol Willoughby

Willoughby’s introduction to dance came when, as a young boy, he had a job sweeping out a cinema in Hobart prior to weekend screenings. He can still recall the excitement of seeing the stars of Hollywood musicals on screen—Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly were among them. But the real start of his long and illustrious career as a dancer, teacher, examiner, adjudicator and mentor came when, by chance, he was sitting next to a priest in the Theatre Royal in Hobart during a performance by the Borovansky Ballet. The priest arranged a meeting for him with local ballet teacher Beattie Jordan. Willoughby never saw the priest again but Jordan accepted him as a pupil and set him on his career path.

Later Willoughby was thrilled by performances in Hobart by the Melbourne-based National Theatre Ballet and made the decision to move to Melbourne where he was taught by esteemed Cecchetti teacher Lucie Saranova. He eventually joined National Theatre Ballet and performed with them, dancing both the classics and the repertoire of two directors of the company, Walter Gore and Valrene Tweedie. In 1958 Willoughby left for London where he took classes with Anna Northcote and Stanislas Idzikowski. He took on various theatrical and non-theatrical jobs before joining Peter Darrell’s Western Theatre Ballet.

In Melbourne in the 1950s Willoughby had gained his Cecchetti qualifications and had begun teaching, including for Margaret Scott at her newly opened ballet school in Toorak. On his return from England he performed in pantomimes over the Christmas period and took up teaching again, largely in regional Victoria. But his work as an educator and mentor began in earnest in 1963 when he bought the Essendon Academy of Ballet, where he was director until his retirement in 1997. He also returned to the stage as a guest artist with the Australian Ballet in Anne Woolliams’ Swan Lake and Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker.

The students whose careers the charismatic Willoughby nurtured have gone on to dance across the world, have become teachers and examiners, and have had their lives enriched by his continued service to dance, in particular to the Cecchetti approach to ballet. But he is nevertheless humble enough to say, ‘I was just there to try to teach them classical ballet correctly—I like to see it done correctly—and with discipline.’

In 2017 Willoughby celebrated his 85th birthday and his Lifetime Achievement award is formal recognition by the dance community of his extraordinary contribution.

See this link for further posts about Athol Willoughby. The citation above is a slightly expanded version of that issued under my name by the Australian Dance Awards committee.

  • Quoted from an oral history interview recorded in 2013 for the National Library of Australia’s Oral History and Folklore Program. TRC 6514

Michelle Potter, 14 August 2018

Featured image: Athol Willoughby with Noelle Aitken and Naeidra Torrens in Swan Lake, National Theatre Ballet, 1950s. Personal collection of Athol Willoughby

Athol Willoughby with Noelle Aitken and Naeidra Torrens, 'Swan Lake', National Theatre Ballet, 1950s.

Dance diary. March 2013

  • Luke Ingham

In mid-March I had the pleasure of meeting up in San Francisco with Luke Ingham, former soloist with the Australian Ballet. Ingham and his wife, Danielle Rowe, left Houston Ballet in 2012 to take up other offers. Rowe went to join Netherlands Dance Theatre in The Hague and Ingham scored a soloist’s contract with San Francisco Ballet. Ingham has already had some great opportunities in San Francisco and my story on his activities is scheduled to appear in the June issue of Dance Australia in the magazine’s series Dancers without borders. Watch out for it.

  • Walter Gore’s The Crucifix

I have always been fascinated by a photograph taken by Walter Stringer of the final scene from Walter Gore’s ballet The Crucifix. Alan Brissenden, in his and Keith Glennon’s book Australia Dances, reproduces the photograph on page 53, and a print is part of the National Library’s Walter Stringer Collection. Brissenden gives a brief account of the storyline and the reception the ballet received when it was staged in Australia by the National Theatre Ballet in 1952.

Paula Hinton in Walter Gore's 'The Crucifix', 1952Paul Hinton in the final scene of Walter Gore’s ballet The Crucifix, National Theatre Ballet, Melbourne 1952. Photo: Walter Stringer, National Library of Australia

I have just recently been making a summary of an oral history interview I recorded with Athol Willoughby in February and his recollections of performing in The Crucifix tell us a little more, especially about the final scene, and provide, furthermore, a wonderful example of the value of oral history. Willoughby played the role of one of the soldiers who accompanies the executioner, played by Walter Gore, to the scaffold. He says of the opening performance:

‘The scene changed to a huge [stake] with a lot of fake wood around it … Wally came in carrying Paula … Her hands were tied … and he lifted her onto the [stake]. Just as the symphony ended he picked up a torch—none of us had seen the end of the ballet, even at the dress rehearsal the end of the ballet hadn’t been choreographed and we didn’t know what was going to happen—he picked up a flaming torch and threw it at the pyre of wood. The minute he threw the torch at her the wood lit up, the symphony finished and Paula screamed … It was so powerful.’

  • The Rite of Spring: an animated graphical score

I  have just received the following note and link from composer Stephen Malinowski:
‘The last few months, I’ve been working on an animated graphical score of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. This week I completed the first part:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=02tkp6eeh40
Enjoy!’

  • Pacific Northwest Ballet

In my review of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s recent program I mentioned that the show I saw was only the second time I had seen the company in performance. Well that is not quite true. I had the good fortune to see the company in 2007 in Seattle when the program consisted of George Balanchine’s La Sonambula, Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia and Nacho Duato’s Rassemblement. Certainly a very interesting program.

Michelle Potter, 31 March 2013

Featured image: Luke Ingham and Sarah van Patten in Christopher Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour. Photo: © Erik Tomasson, 2013. Courtesy San Francisco Ballet

Diary NoteFurther details

Athol Willoughby. An oral history

Earlier in February I had the pleasure of recording an oral history interview with Athol Willoughby, former dancer with the National Theatre Ballet and other companies, and an esteemed Melbourne-based ballet teacher over several decades.

Tasmanian-born, Willoughby first took up ballet in Hobart with Beattie Jordan but soon moved to Melbourne to further his training at the National Theatre Ballet School under the direction of Lucie Saronova. Saronova played a particularly significant role in the early days of the Cecchetti Society in Australia and Willoughby recalls her fondly and discusses her teaching and her role in Australian dance history throughout the interview.
Saronova story webWilloughby joined the National Theatre Ballet in 1952 and worked with two directors of that company—Walter Gore and Valrene Tweedie. Following a stint in the United Kingdom, where he took classes from a range of well-known teachers including Anna Northcote and Stanislas Idzikowski and performed with Western Theatre Ballet, he came back to Melbourne and devoted himself to teaching. He returned to the professional stage twice with the Australian Ballet—in a revival of Anne Woolliams’ Swan Lake, and as one of Clara’s émigré friends in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker: the story of Clara.

'Swan Lake' Act 1, NTB 1955 or 1956Naeidra Torrens, Noelle Aitken and Athol Willoughby in Swan Lake Act I pas de trois,  final pose. National Theatre Ballet, 1955 or 1956. Photo: Walter Stringer

Willoughby has always maintained strong connections with the Cecchetti Society. He taught Cecchetti technique, is a holder of the Cecchetti Diploma and was one of the most senior examiners for the Cecchetti movement in Australia. He also prepared a number of now highly-respected Cecchetti examiners for their role as examiners, namely Sandra Allen, Lorraine Blackbourn, Anne Butler, Sandra Clack, Carole Oliver and Jennifer Stielow.

The interview is significant from so many points of view. In particular, it contains considerable background to and information about the National Theatre Ballet, a company that has been somewhat neglected, I think, in present day Australian dance scholarship. The interview is also full of delightful anecdotes about life as a dancer and about the personalities with whom Willoughby came into contact in Australia and elsewhere!

The catalogue entry for the interview on the National Library of Australia’s catalogue is at this link. I hope in due course it will be made available as an online resource. It is well worth listening to and highlights how important oral history is in the recording of Australia’s dance history. So much of what interviewees give us through the medium of the oral history interview will never be recorded in any other way.

All photos reproduced are from the personal collection of Athol Willoughby.

Michelle Potter, 25 February 2013

Featured image: Valrene Tweedie and Athol Willoughby in Le Coq d’or. National Theatre Ballet, 1955. Photo: Walter Stringer

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Strelsa Heckelman Lording (1925−2012)

Portrait of Strelsa HeckelmanStrelsa Heckelman, 1950. J. C. Williamson collection. National Library of Australia 

Strelsa Heckelman Lording, who danced under her maiden name Strelsa Heckelman in several early Australian ballet companies in the 1940s and 1950s, has died in Melbourne aged 87.

Described by friend and dancing colleague Athol Willoughby as ‘a sparkling dancer with a strong technique’, Heckelman began dancing early in her life in her home town of Brisbane. By the time she was thirteen she had passed all her Royal Academy of Dance examinations and shortly afterwards she was invited to take part in classes with Colonel de Basil’s Original Ballet Russe during the company’s 1940 Brisbane season. De Basil then invited her to follow the company to Sydney, which she did.

But, despite impressing de Basil, she did not join the Ballets Russes. Instead she continued her training as a full-time student with Hélène Kirsova in Sydney at Kirsova’s studios at Circular Quay and, when Kirsova started a ballet company herself in 1941, Heckelman joined it. She danced with the Kirsova Ballet until the company folded in 1944. With Kirsova she was part of the unique collaborative activities that Kirsova initiated when she commissioned composers, including Henry Krips, and designers such as Loudon Sainthill to work with her company.

Heckelman then joined Edouard Borovansky’s Borovansky Ballet performing in the company’s regular repertoire as well as in musical shows that Borovansky choreographed for the J. C. Williamson organisation. Later she danced with Laurel Martyn’s Melbourne-based company Ballet Guild, and in the early 1950s danced again in J. C. Williamson musicals, including Song of Norway and Oklahoma. Leading performers in musicals in the fifties were almost always brought in from overseas and Heckelman danced to considerble acclaim in both Song of Norway and Oklahoma with star American jazz dancer Matt Mattox.

Her final professional performances before retiring in 1953 to have her children were with the National Theatre Ballet in Melbourne. With the National her repertoire included the full-length Swan Lake, the Giselle peasant pas de deux, which she danced with Ray Trickett, and the Head Girl in Kira Bousloff’s staging of Graduation Ball. She also alternated with Valrene Tweedie as Columbine in Tweedie’s 1953 production of Carnaval for the National. 

Strelsa Heckleman in the peasant pas de deux from 'Giselle'. National Theatre Ballet, 1952. Strelsa Heckelman in the peasant pas de deux from Giselle. National Theatre Ballet, 1952. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

Athol Willoughby recalls a somewhat incredible feat that took place during a rehearsal for the National’s Swan Lake. He says: ‘Our rehearsals for the 1952 season were conducted in a large church hall in the suburb of Hawthorn. At a rehearsal for “Swan Lake” Act 3, Strelsa was dancing in a cardigan because she had a cold. She began the 32 fouettes of the coda when her nose began to run. Without missing a beat she took a handkerchief from a pocket in the cardigan, blew her nose, put the hanky back in the pocket concluding the series of fouettes without moving from the spot. That seemed to me to be quite an achievement!’

In between jobs with a ballet companies, Heckelman worked in a photographer’s studio and later in the perfume department of the Melbourne department store, Georges. Following her stage career she established her own ballet school and also taught for other teachers in the Melbourne area. She remained active in the dance world in her later years and in 2002 became patron of the Tasmanian Ballet Company.

Heckelman once recalled that she never tired of dancing. She thought of every night as an opening night and always relished the overture starting, the curtain going up and seeing the lights in the theatre. That was the magic of the theatre for her.

Strelsa Heckelman married Jack Carruthers in 1951. After the death of Carruthers, Heckelman married Tom Lording in 1984. He died the following year. Heckelman is survived by a son, Ian, and a daughter, Lynn, from her first marriage.

Strelsa Heckelman Lording: born Brisbane, 20 July 1925; died Melbourne, 28 December 2012

Michelle Potter, 7 January 2013

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‘It brought back so many memories’—Jill Sykes
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