I was surprised, when the Australian Ballet’s 50th anniversary book Luminous was published, to discover that the company’s first overseas tour was listed as that of 1965‒1966. That tour lasted five months and was a massive and hugely important undertaking for a company that was not quite three years old when it set out from Australia in August 1965. The tour was ostensibly to appear in the Commonwealth Arts Festival in the United Kingdom but it took in many other cities across the globe, including Paris where Peggy van Praagh’s production of Giselle received the Grand Prix of the City of Paris. But what happened to the 1963 tour to New Zealand I wondered? It was small by comparison. It lasted just six weeks and was just across the Tasman. But it happened.
An explanation of sorts was provided by Colin Peasley in an oral history interview he recorded in 2000. In the early days of the Australian Ballet’s history the business side of the company was handled by the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust (AETT), which received government funding on behalf of the company, in partnership with the J. C. Williamson organisation (JCW), which owned theatres across Australia and New Zealand and also sets and costumes used in many early Australian Ballet productions. Peasley suggested that the first New Zealand tour had never been regarded by the company as its first overseas tour, which was perhaps related to the fact that at that stage company contracts were issued by JCW. The contracts were similar to those issued by JCW for its musical comedy shows and for the Borovansky Ballet. That is, the contracts were Australasian ones. It is a plausible rationale for regarding the tour as an internal one, but not an excuse.
While primary source material relating to the tour is scattered somewhat haphazardly amongst various archival collections, it seems that seasons were initially planned between June and August 1963 for Auckland, Hamilton, Palmerston North and Wellington on the North Island and at least Christchurch on the South Island. The repertoire included the full-length Swan Lake, along with Les Sylphides, Just for fun, Lady and the Fool, One in Five, Melbourne Cup and some divertissements including the pas de deux from Don Quixote and Sylvia and Robert Pomie’s Pas classique. With artistic director Peggy van Praagh at the helm, the company was led by international guest stars Sonia Arova and Caj Selling, the Australian Ballet’s Kathleen Gorham and Karl Welander and New Zealander Jon Trimmer.
The tour was a partnership with the New Zealand Ballet Trust and the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation. Negotiations for the season were in place as early as 12 January 1963 when a letter from Louis van Eyssen, then general manager of the fledgling Australian Ballet, noted that the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation was prepared ‘to make [its] second orchestra of 25 available to complement our Ballet Company on our proposed tour of New Zealand’. The company left for New Zealand on 15 June 1963.
Although press reports and reviews were positive, it was a difficult tour in which the company lost fairly hefty amounts of money and which ended ahead of its proposed schedule: the season in Wellington was cut short and the company did not visit the South Island at all. The AETT had decided to go ahead on the basis of the orchestral assistance offered by New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation and by advantageous terms regarding theatre rentals offered by JCW, although it was concerned about the tour quite early in the negotiation period. Box office losses for Australian Ballet seasons in Australian capital cities in the early part of 1963 had been a cause for concern and at one stage Stefan Haag, executive director of the AETT, attempted to convince the New Zealand Ballet Trust to increase its participation on a profit and loss basis from 10% to 50%. The Executive Council of the New Zealand Ballet Trust declined, eventually making it clear that 10% on a profit or loss basis was to be qualified by a loss limit of £1,500. Haag also made overtures to secure a grant from the New Zealand Arts Council, but this too came to nothing.
Specific problems arose in Auckland, the first stop. The company was competing with two popular shows, the Cherry Blossom Show and the Black and White Minstrel Show. As the season in Auckland commenced van Eyssen wrote to Haag saying:
… Harry Wren’s Cherry Blossom show is splashed across a full page of the daily papers and so far he has sold the first two weeks completely out. Similarly with the Black and White Minstrel Show which is offering very strong competition as well in both newspaper advertising and also bookings.
Peasley noted that some performances were packed, some half full, and some practically empty.
It appears there were orchestral problems as well. During the Wellington season, which opened on 18 July, van Praagh wrote to Haag saying that the orchestra had ‘been nothing but a problem ever since we started’. There was, allegedly, strife within the ranks and van Praagh claimed that at one matinee neither the first trumpet nor the first clarinet had turned up to play. There were explanations and denials in the press of course. All in all it seems to have been a colourful tour from a backstage perspective.
There were also reports in the New Zealand and Australian press suggesting that the tour had been shortened because the company feared that its subsidy would be cut because of the poor box office takings. This, of course, was vehemently denied, although in May a memorandum to Haag from an unidentified writer suggested that the losses on the seasons in Australia prior to the New Zealand tour were so serious that they called for radical revision of plans and, in fact, an abandonment of the idea of a permanent Australian company. The writer went on to say that there was not a sufficient public for ballet to support annual seasons either in Australia or in New Zealand.
In the end the company continued as we all know, despite returning from New Zealand earlier than expected. However, the first New Zealand tour, which was also the company’s first overseas tour no matter what the dancers’ contracts stated, deserves further consideration and acceptance for its role in the growth of the company.
© Michelle Potter, 10 September 2012