Joyce Graeme as the Queen in Swan Lake, National Theatre Ballet, 1951. Photo Walter Stringer

Swan Lake. National Theatre Ballet

Some time ago now I posted a photo from Walter Gore’s ballet, The Crucifix, as staged for the National Theatre Ballet The photo had always fascinated me while working at the National Library of Australia and Athol Willoughby had some interesting words to say about it. Here is a link to the post.

Well, another photo, also from the days of the National Theatre Ballet has also always held a fascination. It is of Joyce Graeme as the Queen in Act III of the National’s full-length Swan Lake, the first ever full-length production to be presented in Australia. The stage presence of Graeme floods out of the picture and recalls the words of Keith Bain quoted in an obituary for Graeme: ‘once seen, never forgotten’.

Joyce Graeme as the Queen in Swan Lake, National Theatre Ballet, 1951. Photo Walter Stringer
Joyce Graeme as the Queen in Swan Lake, Act III, National Theatre Ballet, 1951. National Library of Australia. Photo: Walter Stringer

The costumes for the pages are rather unusual and, while looking through the Rex Reid Collection at the Artscentre Melbourne, I came across a note that describes the costumes. In a folder of material relating to Ann Church, the designer of the momentous full-length Swan Lake, I found the following, in handwriting that appears to be that of Church: ‘The Queen’s pages had scarlet and white jerkins, crimson-pink-and white striped tights’.

On the same scrap of paper there was also a description of costume for the ‘Queen Mother’. ‘This was a black taffeta coat, lined and faced with crimson satin. The sleeves, also lined with crimson, were jagged and also reached the floor, and the train was cut in points like a star. It fastened beneath the bust and the wide neck was trimmed with coq feathers. Underneath, the bodice was mauve jersey, outlined with black velvet and pearls. The sleeves were mauve jersey, covered with black net; black velvet points with pearls, over the hands. The underskirt was mauve taffeta covered with black net. The black net skirt was criss-crossed with black ribbon with large tassels at the joins’.

That description also conjures up a striking item but unfortunately it doesn’t accord with the costume Graeme is wearing so maybe it is her costume for Act I? Perhaps someone who was part of the production may be able to help?

Michelle Potter, 16 March 2014

5 thoughts on “Swan Lake. National Theatre Ballet

  1. The Sydney Morning Herald of 27 February 1951 carries on page 3 a photograph of Rex Reid (who played Siegfried’s friend) and Joyce Graeme headed ‘They directed and danced’ and shows them in the wings ‘waiting to go on’ for the performance of Swan Lake at the Tivoli Theatre. Graeme looks as though she is wearing the costume you describe. The (Perth) Sunday Times of 10 June 1951 describes Graeme’s First and Second Act costumes (page 12), the First Act costume being: ‘red, purple and black dress ….. encrusted with pearls ….’ There’s an interesting article in the (Brisbane) Sunday Mail of 20 May 1951 (page 2) about Barry Irwin who designed the headdresses and other jewellery for Graeme’s production.

  2. The Mercury (Hobart) of 27 April 1951 carries a photograph of Graeme in the First Act costume on page 11.

  3. One of these days, I will do everything all at once. Until then ….. The Arts Centre Melbourne has several photographs of Graeme’s Act 1 – reference numbers: 1998.023.2477; 1998.023.2478; 1998.023.2479.

    Graeme appears to be wearing the costume you describe, but with a different headdress to that worn in the newspaper photographs to which I referred in my earlier replies. Possibly, one costume, two headresses – I don’t know which libretto Graeme used for her ballet, so have no idea how many appearances the Princess Mother made wearing the Act 1 costume, before she changed into the costume for Act III.

  4. Thank you David. Yes, the costume Ann Church describes on that scrap of paper does appear to be that from Act I. I haven’t studied the Graeme production I’m afraid so I don’t know how many appearances the Queen made either. Edward Pask reports, however, that the National’s Swan Lake was staged from the Sergeyev notation. Anyway, that will have to wait. The whole Joyce Graeme saga needs further research (not now though!). She keeps popping up everywhere as I delve into Maggie Scott’s performing career. The latest is in a production of Alice through the Looking Glass at the Kenton Theatre, Henley-on-Thames, over Christmas 1952-1953. She and Maggie were two Daisies, and according to the program Joyce was also a Lion to Maggie’s Unicorn (although Maggie says she was the Lion!), and a Carpenter to Maggie’s Walrus. I’m looking forward to seeing the designs (or some of them) for this production which are held by the V & A. Cranko choreographed the dance scenes.

  5. Joyce Graeme must have had an extraordinary stage presence – and one can glimpse that just from the photographs. From the little I have read in newspaper reports, she appears to have been one of those ‘once seen, never forgotten’ performers. Regarding the headdress(es) for Act I, there’s always the possibility that two were used. Barry Irwin’s work is very beautiful – very glad that I have encountered it (which I wouldn’t have otherwise – thank you!).

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