Lynn Seymour. The Royal Ballet tour of Australasia, 1958–1959

Following on from my earlier post, and the comments it attracted, about Lynn Seymour in Swan Lake in Melbourne in 1958, I am posting a copy of the signed photograph of Seymour taken by Walter Stringer. This is the photograph I mentioned in reply to a comment on that earlier post.

This photograph was clearly taken from a downstage wing, OP side, and is perhaps not the best angle from which to highlight Seymour. In addition, the resolution is not as clear as I would have liked, largely because of the difficulty I had converting the image from the share link I was sent. The signature is, however, clearly visible, if still a little faint, and is obviously Seymour’s writing if compared with the autograph I obtained from her in Sydney in 1958. The page from my autograph book is also posted below.

Lynn Seymour as Odette in 'Swan Lake'. The Royal Ballet, Melbourne 1958. Photo: Walter Stringer

Lynn Seymour as Odette in Swan Lake. The Royal Ballet, Melbourne 1958. Photo:Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia.

Lynn Seymour. Autograph and program image. The Royal Ballet, Melbourne 1958

Michelle Potter, 10 February 2017

The Royal Ballet. Tour of Australia and New Zealand 1958–1959

With the Royal Ballet preparing for a tour to Brisbane later in 2017, I have been delving into various research materials available in Canberra and Sydney to put together some thoughts about the first tour by the Royal Ballet to Australia and New Zealand, which began in 1958.

The Royal Ballet made its first tour to Australasia in 1958−1959 performing in Australia in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane and in New Zealand in Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland. The promoters were J. C. Williamson Theatres Ltd, who claimed in their introductory notes to programs for the tour that the visit represented ‘the crowning achievement in The Firm’s distinguished contribution to the presentation of Dance in this country.’ Records of the Williamson organisation indicate that there was some initial discussion about the dates and cities to be visited (and in what order), but the eventual schedule was:

11 September−8 November 1958:
10 November 1958−3 January 1959:
7 January−31 January 1959:
3 February−25 February 1959:
4 March−7 March 1959:
9 March−21 March 1959:
23 March−4 April 1959:
6 April−18 April 1959:
Sydney, Empire Theatre
Melbourne, Her Majesty’s Theatre
Adelaide, Theatre Royal
Brisbane, Her Majesty’s Theatre
Dunedin, His Majesty’s
Christchurch, Theatre Royal
Wellington, Grand Opera House
Auckland, His Majesty’s Theatre

 
The company was essentially the touring arm of the Royal Ballet, augmented at various stages by dancers from the main company, including Rowena Jackson, Svetlana Beriosova and Anya Linden; Philip Chatfield, Bryan Ashbridge and David Blair; and Robert Helpmann, who danced some featured roles, including in The Rake’s Progress, Hamlet, Façade and Coppélia. Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes joined the company in New Zealand.

Bryan Ashbridge, Royal Ballet postcard, 1958
Svetlana Beriosova, Royal Ballet postcard, 1958

Royal Ballet postcards, 1958–1959 Australasian tour: Bryan Ashbridge & Svetlana Beriosova

The company was led initially by Ninette de Valois. She arrived in Sydney on 22 August, ahead of the main contingent of dancers, who arrived on 1 September after what Lynn Seymour describes in her autobiography, Lynn, as a trip that took ‘three flying days, with desperate relief stops in Frankfurt, Rome, Cairo, Karachi, Calcutta, Bangkok and Singapore.’1 De Valois was accommodated in style at the Hotel Australia in Sydney—’should be booked into a nice room at the Australia with bath’ ordered the Williamson organisation.

In addition to de Valois, other administrative and artistic personnel included John Field, listed on the Australian programs as assistant director; and musical director John Lanchbery, who arrived on 30 August on board the P & O liner Stratheden, and who conducted local orchestras in each city. Ballet staff included Henry Legerton as ballet master, and Lorna Mossford as ballet mistress.

While much could be written about the tour, which, with some important exceptions, is most often given just one or two lines in books written and published in Britain, three aspects of the tour stood out as I was looking into the material available here: Lynn Seymour’s debut as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake; the writing of the Sydney-based critic and poet, Roland Robinson; and some black and white film footage shot in Melbourne in 1958.

Lynn Seymour in Swan Lake

Although Seymour says in her autobiography (and the story is repeated in Meredith Daneman’s biography of Margot Fonteyn), that her debut performance as Odette/Odile coincided with her 19th birthday, this can’t be so. Seymour gave her first performance in the full-length Swan Lake in Melbourne on 12 November 1958, but her birth-date is 9 March 1939. The debut was at a Wednesday matinee performance and Seymour was partnered by David Blair for this and for her second performance on 15 November, after which Seymour danced with Donald MacLeary.

De Valois, whose idea it was to have Seymour dance the full-length Swan Lake in Australia, left for home before the debut performance, leaving John Field in charge. Seymour’s biographer, Richard Austin, notes that Field took most of the rehearsals and that Seymour had some coaching from Rowena Jackson. As recorded in her autobiography, Seymour was also given encouragement at times by Helpmann and then in New Zealand by Fonteyn. In Lynn, Seymour also discusses some of the difficulties she faced in the first few performances, including managing the 32 fouettés in Act III, and Austin elaborates on the story. But by the time the company reached New Zealand reviews of Seymour and MacLeary were definitely positive. The reviewer for The Press (Christchurch), for example, was moved to write: ‘Lynn Seymour’s technique is remarkable for its gracefulness; and her poise enabled her to secure some wonderfully statuesque effects. In Donald MacLeary she had a wonderfully accomplished partner, whose every movement revealed his sense of style.’

The images below were taken in Melbourne in 1958. That Seymour is partnered by Blair in this collection of photos indicates that they must have been taken during Seymour’s first or second performance. They must surely be the earliest photos of Seymour in the full-length Swan Lake?

lynn-seymour-and-david-blair-swan-lake-act-ii-1
Lynn Seymour as Odile. The Royal Ballet, Melbourne 1958. Photo: Walter Stringer

 (left) Lynn Seymour and David Blair in Swan Lake Act II (detail);
(right) Lynn Seymour in Swan Lake Act III (detail).
The Royal Ballet, Melbourne 1958. Photos: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia (PIC Albums: 994)

Roland Robinson’s dance reviews

Roland Robinson (1912–1992) wrote dance reviews for The Sydney Morning Herald for ten years during the 1940s and 1950s, always signing his reviews with just his initials, R.R. He was a poet of distinction and also wrote extensively about Aboriginal myths and legends. In the 1940s he took ballet classes in Sydney with Hélène Kirsova, whom he called his ‘teacher and heroine’, and appeared in a number of productions by the Kirsova Ballet over a three year period. His reviews thus combine a deep knowledge and strong understanding of dance (and not just its technical features but its essential qualities as an art form) with an elegant use of language. His language embodied ‘the lyrical traditions of his native Ireland’ (he was born in County Clare), as one author wrote in an obituary for Robinson.

  • He was not impressed by Les Sylphides, and he would have known this ballet well from the Kirsova Ballet: ‘The presentation of “Les Sylphides” by the Royal Ballet … contained all the components of this ballet save the basic understanding and expression of this marriage of music, dancing, painting an poetry.’
  • He greatly admired Svetlana Beriosova and said of her first performance in Sydney in Swan Lake: ‘Never have I seen anything so beautiful as Svetlana Beriosova, as Odette-Odile, in Le Lac des Cygnes by the Royal Ballet at the Empire Theatre on Saturday night … Australia is honoured by such a ballerina. For the first time we saw the tragic beauty of the full story … Such was the unrivalled classical quality of this ballerina’s performance that one must, in all due homage, say of Beriosova “Thy soul was like a star and dwelt apart”.’
  • He was at two minds about Helpmann in The Rake’s Progress: ‘Robert Helpmann is a master of mime and detailed gesture from the broad theatrical flourish to a stage dominating minute flick of the finger. He is not physically up to form in “The Rake,” but his inborn insight into the mental processes of character, and his faultless make-up compel one to sit up and take notice.’
  • He maintains that, at a reception, he had a discussion with de Valois about technique and expression and, in reviewing the opening performance of Swan Lake in Sydney, he expressed what must have been the essence of that discussion: ‘It is an indication of the native character of the English Royal Ballet that it should begin its first season in Australia with the prescribed, traditional form of the classical ballet “Swan Lake”. Each nation has its own particular character and temperament. If the characters of the Russian and French ballets are of nobility, elegance, and command, coupled with a daring virility and imagination, the American one of athletic daring and revolutionary character, then the character of the English ballet impresses as cold, conservative and unimaginative. The nature of this character was painfully evident throughout the Royal Ballet’s presentation of “Swan Lake” at the Empire Theatre last night. It must be stressed, however, that the dancers of this company have attained a mastery of technique which may not always be found in either the Russian or American schools. Artistically, of course, technique is only justified as a means to the expression of the imagination. The main criticism of the Royal Ballet is that it is disappointingly lacking in this essential imaginative creativeness.’

Robinson wrote what he thought, and there is much more to read from him in back copies of The Sydney Morning Herald. His writing on dance is as fascinating today as it must have been irritating to many in 1958.

Film footage of the Royal Ballet tour

Lasting around 25 minutes, a somewhat grainy, black and white film recording the visit by the Royal Ballet to Melbourne was shot in December 1958. It opens with a segment showing Anya Linden and David Blair sauntering through the gardens in Spring Street, not far from Her Majesty’s Theatre where the company was performing. There they weigh themselves (amid some mirth) on a large, coin-operated public weighing machine. They are then approached by a white-haired gentleman who shows them a book (Arnold Haskell’s In his true centre), which they examine. Then follow extracts from the company repertoire as performed in Melbourne, including excerpts from Swan Lake, Giselle, Veneziana, Pineapple Poll, Don Quixote (pas de deux), A Blue Rose, Façade, Les Patineurs and Coppélia. These dancing segments include a tantalising glimpse of Helpmann tottering across the stage in heeled shoes as Dr Coppélius, a wonderful hornpipe from Blair as Captain Belaye in Pineapple Poll, and an all too brief look at Seymour as Aurora in Coppélia, performing with beautiful fluidity in the arms, neck and upper body.

It is unclear who shot the film, but I wonder if it is perhaps Dr Joseph Ringland Anderson, Melbourne ophthalmologist whose films of the Ballets Russes visits to Australia, 1936−1940, are such a valuable addition to our knowledge of those companies? The Royal Ballet film has a number of backstage scenes, especially moments captured just before curtain up, which are similar to moments that appear frequently on the Ringland Anderson Ballets Russes films. And, as also occurred with the Ballet Russes films, much of the action is filmed from the wings. I wonder too if the white-haired gentleman in the Spring Street gardens with the copy of In his true centre is perhaps Dr Ringland Anderson, who would have been 64 at the time? Time may tell.

Michelle Potter, 4 January 2017

Featured image: Ninette de Valois, autograph and program image, Sydney 1958

de-valois-autograph-6

NOTE

  1. There is a discrepancy with the arrival date in some published sources. I have used the one given in the J.C. Williamson material held in the National Library (MS 5783), which states that 58 company members departed London on ’29 August from London Airport North on flight EM 552 arriving on 1 September by air.’ The date is supported in an article in The Sydney Morning Herald for 2 September 1958: ‘Fifty-eight members of the Royal Ballet arrived in Sydney by Qantas from London last night [1 September] to begin an eight month’s tour of Australia and New Zealand.’

The Royal Ballet will play Brisbane (as the only Australian venue) from 28 June to 9 July 2017 as part of Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s International Series. The repertoire consists of Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works and Christopher Wheeldon’s A Winter’s Tale. Details at qpac.

Update: the signed photograph of Seymour referred to in the discussion below has been posted at this link.

New Zealand School of Dance Graduation 2015

19 November  2015, Te Whaea, Wellington

The New Zealand School of Dance (NZSD) graduation program opened with Paquita, staged by Anna-Marie Holmes, after Petipa’s vintage choreography from 1846, offering as many challenges today as it no doubt did back then. In another layer of heritage Nadine Tyson, the tutor who rehearsed the work, danced in it at her own NZSD graduation back in 1988. The luxuriant music by Minkus demands a festive commitment, and the students aspired to this with flair. Soloist Lola Howard in one of the variations caught our eye with her sense of line, and technical command.

Sarah Foster-Sproull, also a former NZSD graduate, created Forgotten Things, to music by Andrew Foster, in a premiere work for this season. A series of highly effective images, with light shining on skin of limbs in a kinetic sculptural effect, cohered the piece throughout. The mediaeval dance-like rhythms supported well the work’s theme of community undergoing change.

Cnoditions [not a typo] of Entry,  an enigmatic and somewhat troubling work choreographed by Thomas Bradley, (no program profile so perhaps he prefers the anonymity?) had a line of robed and hooded figures in very low light levels that suggested sinister or secret machinations of covert behaviour among the members of a small and closed group. The program notes also appear to be in code (and a pity that the printed program is overall an uneven affair).

Tarantella, Balanchine’s quirky number from 1964, to Gottschalk’s jaunty music, was danced with effervescent style and vivacity by Mayuri Hashimoto and Felipe Domingos (the latter a promising young dancer from Brazil who has been confirmed in a contract to join Royal New Zealand Ballet). Diana White staged the piece which was rehearsed by Qi Huan, until recently a fine lead dancer with RNZB. His artistic conviction shone through the students’ performance (though Poul Gnatt would have required their somewhat quiet tambourines to be shredded by the end of the performance).

As It Fades, choreographed by Kuik Swee Boon of Singapore, to an atmospheric score, was performed here in excerpts, so it’s hard to gauge the work’s context. There was noticeable contrast within its structure—speed and flight, moving through to a calm and quietly iexplored place, performed with strong focus—as if above ground, but then under water.

Lola Howard and Jerry Wan Jianjing in 'Concerto'. New Zealand School of Dance Graduation 2015

Lola Howard and Jerry Wan Jiajing in Concerto. New Zealand School of Dance Graduation 2015

The final and major work on the program was Concerto, choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan, premiered in Berlin in 1966. The rapport between MacMillan and dancer Lynn Seymour, whose distinctive qualities as a richly poetic and dramatic dancer inspired the making of the main duet, survives to again inspire the very fine and fresh performance it received here from Lola Howard and Jerry Wan Jiajing. Lynn Wallis staged the work, with Stephen Beagley and Turid Revfeim also involved. The Shostakovich piano concerto #2 was beautifully performed by Ludwig Treviranus and Craig O’Malley on two pianos sidestage. The colour gradations of costumes made attractive foil to each other and were the most successful of the evening.

Ballet is nothing if not faithful to its repertoire, but new choreographies in that idiom are very rarely commissioned or forthcoming—yet its movement vocabulary is able to speak to us of our lives and loves and concerns—witness that serene and timeless Concerto pas de deux. Contemporary dance, by contrast, is rarely studied or staged here through the classics of its own heritage repertoire and too often it has only a single season life. These are not parallel streams in choreography since they are one and the same art. Only through studying and seeing both repertoires do we know and understand that, and ourselves, as performers and as audiences. No doubt the School’s upcoming 50th anniversary will draw attention to the legacy of those decades.

This program offers challenges to the students, and opportunities to be savoured by the audience. The fact that your favourites will be different from mine is the rich treasure that the musical and non-verbal nature of dancing invites. It matters not whether old or new, borrowed or blue, ballet or contemporary dance. What matters is that it be good, and that choreographers and dancers know what to do with their music. All encouragement to the students as they make their way into careers in dance.

Jennifer Shennan, 24 November 2015