Barry Kitcher as the Lyrebird in 'The Display'. The Australian Ballet, 1964. Photo: Walter Stringer

Barry Kitcher (1930–2019)

Barry Kitcher, who has died in Melbourne aged 89, is probably best known for his role as the Male (the Lyrebird) in Robert Helpmann’s 1964 ballet The Display. In an oral history interview recorded for the National Library of Australia in 1994* he recalled what he saw as the highlight of his career—taking a solo curtain call at Covent Garden when the Australian Ballet staged The Display there during its international tour in 1965.

A highlight of my career was taking a curtain call on that incredible stage where the butterfly curtain goes up. There were the two lackeys at Covent Garden, in powdered wigs. They parted the curtain and I took a solo curtain call. Never did I think as a country kid from Victoria that one day I would be taking a curtain call at Covent Garden. Princess Margaret came to the performance and she told me how much she enjoyed the performance. She was fascinated by the mechanism [of the costume] and asked me if I could open the tail, which I did.

Barry Kitcher and Kathleen Gorham in 'The Display'. The Australian Ballet 1964
Kathleen Gorham and Barry Kitcher in The Display. The Australian Ballet 1964. Photo: Australian News and Information Service

But Kitcher had an extensive career in Australia and overseas, which encompassed so much more than his performances in The Display, despite the fame that that one role gave him. His introduction to ballet came when, in 1947, aged 17, he saw a performance in Melbourne by the visiting English company, Ballet Rambert. He was inspired, as a result, to take classes with Melbourne teacher Dorothy Gladstone but eventually moved on to study at the Borovansky Academy. There he took evening classes with Xenia Borovansky while working as a clerk with Victorian Railways during the day.

He spoke of his impressions of Xenia Borovansky, again in his National Library oral history interview.

She was very tall, extremely tall—she towered over Boro—and she wore high heel shoes as well. She was so regal and elegant and when she walked into a room it was like a star. She had rather bulbous eyes. You really stopped and looked at Madame Boro as she came in … she was a very impressive lady. Her carriage and her stature were outstanding.

He joined the Borovansky Ballet for the 1950–1951 season when the company reformed after a period in recess. He took on many roles with the Borovansky company over the years, but recalls in particular dancing in Pineapple Poll when it was staged by its choreographer, John Cranko; taking on the role of the Strongman in Le beau Danube after Borovansky’s death; and dancing as one of the three Ivan’s in The Sleeping Princess.

At the end of his first season with the Borovansky Ballet, the company went into recession once more and Kitcher spent time appearing on the Tivoli circuit. He then left Australia in 1956 to try his luck in England, as did so many of his dancing colleagues at the time.

In London he took classes with legendary teacher Anna Northcote and later with Marie Rambert; danced at the London Palladium as a member of the George Carden Dancers, with whom he appeared in a number of shows including Rocking the Town and a Christmas pantomime The Wonderful Lamp; joined Sadler’s Wells Opera Ballet and appeared in the The Merry Widow; and danced with London City Ballet.

He returned to the Borovansky Ballet in 1959 and then went on to dance with the Australian Ballet from its opening season in 1962 until 1966.

After leaving the Australian Ballet he joined Hoyts Theatres and trained as a theatre manager working in various Melbourne-based cinemas. Eventually he successfully applied for a position as theatre manager with the newly opened Victorian Arts Centre where he worked for several years.

Portrait of Barry Kitcher

But for all his achievements across many areas, Kitcher was probably most proud of being a member of the Borovansky Ballet. He was responsible for many organisational details associated with the various reunions of former Borovansky dancers, which began in 1993, and throughout his oral history interview he spoke constantly of the artists he worked with, including Borovansky himself as well as Xenia. He loved in particular discussing the nature of the company and the closeness he felt there was between those who worked with it.

My favourite quote from his oral history comes from Kitcher’s recollections of time spent touring in New Zealand, which the Borovansky company did frequently. Speaking of the unofficial concerts the company staged amongst themselves, especially one held in Christchurch at the Theatre Royal, he recalled:

To raise money for our big farewell party in New Zealand (we had a wonderful party) we had a big fete onstage during the afternoon at the Theatre Royal in Christchurch. The stagehands and everybody joined in. Boro contributed a fish that he’d caught—he was a great fisherman, loved fishing. That was his relaxation away from the theatre—fishing and painting. All the principal ladies, Kathy [Gorham] and Peggy [Sager], made cakes and things like that. Oh, we had a wonderful time … It was a great company and, as dear Corrie [Lodders] said, ‘It was a company of family’ … We were very, very lucky to be part of that era.

Listen to this quote.

Barry Kitcher was a kind and thoughtful man. He never forgot me as his interviewer for the National Library’s oral history program and helped me on many occasions when I needed to confirm certain details about the companies he worked with. Vale Barry.

Charles Barry Kitcher, born Cohuna, Victoria, 6 September 1930; died Melbourne, Victoria, 10 December 2019

Michelle Potter, 13 December 2019

Barry Kitcher as the Lyrebird in 'The Display'. The Australian Ballet, 1964. Photo: Walter Stringer
Featured image: Barry Kitcher as the Male (Lyrebird) in The Display. The Australian Ballet 1964. Photo: Walter Stringer.

* Interview with Barry Kitcher recorded by Michelle Potter for the Esso Performing Arts and Oral History Project, August 1994. National Library of Australia, TRC 3102

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Icons. The Australian Ballet

30 August 2012, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

The Australian Ballet’s Icons program is a truly exciting triple bill. Every work has particular interest historically and, while one really doesn’t measure up, two of the three are thrilling to watch. The absolute standout in terms of dancing is the middle work on the program, Gemini, Glen Tetley’s work made on the Australian Ballet in 1973. It was danced on opening night by Lana Jones, Amber Scott, Adam Bull and Rudy Hawkes, with Jones in particular performing as if there were no tomorrow.

Lana Jones, Rudy Hawkes, Adam Bull and Amber Scott in 'Gemini', 2012 Photo: Jeff Busby
Lana Jones and Rudy Hawkes (rear) and Adam Bull and Amber Scott (foreground) in Gemini. The Australian Ballet, 2012. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Against a modernist set of coloured horizontal slats by Nadine Baylis, Gemini unfolds as a series duets and solos embodying powerful, dynamic movement. Of the women, Jones is cool but bold, assertive, a powerhouse of energy. Her manège of grands jetés with arms stretched heavenwards in an open fifth position (à la Isadora in La Marseillaise) was breathtaking. Scott is more elusive, sinuous and deliciously sensuous. Of the men, Bull had that little extra movement in the chest and pelvis—in the torso I guess—that drew the eye towards him whenever the men were onstage. Hawkes’ performance lacked the same zing but was nevertheless a pleasure to watch. When Tetley was in Australia in 2003 to stage Voluntaries he told me that creating Gemini had made him love the energy of Australian dancers. I think he would have been thrilled with the electrifying way in which Jones, Scott, Bull and Hawkes performed.

Closing the evening was Graeme Murphy’s evocative Beyond Twelve, a work first shown in 1980 and a real bottler of an Australian ballet showing all Murphy’s theatricality, humour and unique choreographic hand. Beyond Twelve tells the story of a boy’s transition from football-playing youth to adolescent dancer and finally on to mature artist facing the uncertainties of life beyond dance. Brett Chynoweth, Calvin Hannaford and Andrew Killian took the three main male roles of Beyond Twelve, Beyond Eighteen and Beyond Thirty and their trio in which we see their lives intertwining was a real highlight. Showing the passage of time in a choreographic sense is one of Murphy’s great strengths and this trio is no exception. Brooke Lockett, a coryphée with the company, danced the role of First Love and played it with just the right feeling of delight in the pleasures of youth.

Beyond Twelve is an immensely moving work (as well as being full of wit and humour) and nothing captures that feeling more than when, as the ballet closes, we see the mature dancer joined momentarily by his first love. And just as it looks like they will remain together, a figure in evening dress appears in the background and the girl moves away to join the other man, her Escort. Murphy’s sense of theatricality is brilliant here, partly in his placement of the three characters on the stage, but also in the instant realisation the moment generates that life is full of changes.

Despite its historical interest, the big disappointment of the evening was The Display, Robert Helpmann’s 1964 production based on his and Katharine Hepburn’s sighting of the mating dance of the lyrebird. The Display opened the program and perhaps it was inevitable that a work so entrenched in Australian culture of the 1960s would never translate well into the twenty-first century. But I didn’t think it would be quite so problematic. Nothing to me looked like an Australian picnic in the bush. The girls, so pretty with their Renoir hairstyles and pink dresses, could have been peasants in Giselle—and incidentally, Sidney Nolan, whose designs were ‘refurbished’ for the occasion, wanted the girls’ dresses to be the colour of ‘dog biscuits’, which certainly wasn’t the case with this production. In addition, the boys looked like princes as they pointed their feet, stretched their legs, and stayed so thoroughly within their classical ballet heritage. I’m not sure that, when playing footy, drinking beer and punching people up, men look like that.

Kevin Jackson as the Outsider missed the point, I think, that this character was meant to be so culturally different from the rest of the men. A red shirt and blue trousers aren’t enough to show that he was meant to be an Italian in Australia in the 1960s, a time of significant European migration. Australians had scarcely heard of coffee then let alone of European attitudes to women. The role needs a different physicality as well as costume to get the point across and Jackson didn’t seem to me to be much different from the rest of the men. But then perhaps that was a result of the other men behaving as if they were dancing a nineteenth-century ballet.

The saving grace was Madeleine Eastoe as the Female. She made Helpmann’s choreography look quite respectable despite a series of fouettés that Helpmann suddenly dropped into it all for no apparent reason. And she managed to get across the sense of sexual arousal that needs to be apparent as, at the conclusion of the ballet, the Outsider leaves her after his attempted rape and the Male (the lyrebird) comes forward to cover her with his tail feathers.

It was interesting to see Barry Kitcher, Bryan Lawrence and Garth Welch from the 1964 cast of Display come onstage to take a bow during the curtain calls. They were joined by Julie da Costa who danced the Female in a later 1980s production. There was no note in the program to say that they had been involved in coaching the dancers. The Display certainly needed some good coaching to make it work.

Musically the program was extraordinarily diverse. Malcolm Williamson’s score for The Display remains as beautiful as ever with its quivering, bush sounds, and was perhaps the highlight of that ballet on this occasion; Tetley’s choice of Hans Werne Henze’s Symphony No. 3 for Gemini was inspired with music and choreography so well attuned; and Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, whose movements had been reordered by Murphy to fit the storyline of Beyond Twelve, was played with customary elegance by Stuart Macklin.

Despite The Display having major problems, I thought this was a good triple bill. In my mind it sits within the spirit of the best of triple bills where there is a bit of everything, including the ‘serious’ work in the middle and the ‘feel good’ work to go home with.

Michelle Potter, 1 September 2012

Featured image: Lana Jones in Gemini. The Australian Ballet, 2012. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Postscript: Looking back at a review of Beyond Twelve that I wrote for Dance Australia way back in 1994 (with David McAllister, Steven Woodgate, Greg Horsman and Vicki Attard in the leading roles), I mentioned that Horsman danced the role of Beyond Twenty-Five, rather than calling it Beyond Thirty. I’m not sure when the name change happened, but it is interesting to speculate that times have changed in (almost) twenty years and perhaps thirty is now the new twenty-five? Unless I got it wrong in 1994?

Update: Here are my comments after another look at the program in Sydney.

Robert Helpmann’s ballet The Display

This is an expanded version of an article first published in ‘Panorama’, The Canberra Times, 7 July 2012, p. 15 under the title ‘an icon of dance’, and in The Saturday Age, 7 July 2012, p. 24 with the title ‘In matters theatrical, Helpmann’s ideas soared above Patrick White’s bizarre flights of fancy’.

As part of its forthcoming Icons program, the Australia Ballet will restage Robert Helpmann’s 1964 work, The Display. I am curious to know how this work will stand up choreographically and theatrically now that close to 50 years have passed since it was conceived. The old black and white ABC studio recording shows a work that could still be gripping today with the right cast and informed coaching.

Barry Kitcher as the Lyrebird (the Male) in 'The Display', 1964
Barry Kitcher as the Male in The Display, the Australian Ballet, 1964. Photo Walter Stringer. Courtesy National Library of Australia

But I am also fascinated by the stories that surround the creation of The Display. Helpmann claimed, so the Australian Ballet’s current promotional material says, that The Display was inspired by a dream he had in which he saw his friend and theatrical colleague, Katharine Hepburn, naked on a dais surrounded by lyrebirds.

Helpmann and Hepburn came to Australia together in 1955 as the leading actors with a Shakespearean company sent out from London by the Old Vic. Hepburn, who toured in Australia for a period of about six months, was fascinated by the habits of the lyrebird, which she saw on a trip to Sherbrooke Forest in the Dandenong Ranges, and she insisted that Helpmann come with her to watch the lyrebird in its mating dance. Helpmann later included a note in a program for The Display in which he maintained that the movements he eventually choreographed for the character of the lyrebird in his ballet were those ‘learned after many hours of watching this beautiful creature’. So the background was certainly there for Helpmann to dream the dream he is alleged to have had.

The storyline of The Display concerns a group of young Australians on a picnic in the bush. The men practise football moves and Helpmann drew on the services of Ron Barassi* of Melbourne and then Carlton Football Clubs to coach the dancers for this section of the ballet. In old-fashioned Australian style, the girls rarely interact with the men but sit together, chat and prepare the picnic. We first see the lyrebird, who is named the Male in the list of characters, dancing behind a gauze at the beginning of the ballet. Three main human characters emerge—the Leader of the young men in the group, the Outsider and the Girl. The Girl and the Outsider are attracted to each other but the men have been drinking and inevitably there is a fight over the Girl.

Garth Welch (the Outsider) and Kathleen Gorham (the Girl) in 'The Display', 1964
Garth Welch as the Outsider and Kathleen Gorham as the Girl in The Display, the Australian Ballet, 1964. Photo Walter Stringer. Courtesy National Library of Australia

The girls in the group flee the scene and ultimately the Outsider is left lying on the ground following the aggressive actions of the Leader and his mates. The Girl returns to the scene of the picnic, as does the Outsider, and eventually the Girl is left lying exhausted on the ground following an attempted rape by the Outsider. The Male reappears and, with his tail feathers fully displayed, enfolds the girl into his plumage.

The Display explores themes of hostility and aggression in Australian society and Helpmann recorded that he had attempted to show the brutality that can emerge from gang behaviour. Some of Helpmann’s colleagues have also suggested that elements of the story are autobiographical. William (Bill) Akers, who created the dappled lighting for the ballet, recalled in an oral history interview in 2002 that as a youth Helpmann was thrown into the sea at Bondi by a gang who thought his clothing was ‘sissy’. He was, according to Akers, wearing plus fours at the time. Akers suggested that The Display reflected Helpmann’s feeling that he had always been an outsider in society

The ballet is strongly symbolic and the work’s sexual elements, both overt and suggested, occasionally incurred the wrath of some sections of society. Newspaper clippings in Helpmann’s scrapbooks indicate that, when The Display was shown in Glasgow as part of the 1965 Commonwealth Arts Festival, the Glasgow Presbytery made attempts to have the ballet banned, a move that was only narrowly defeated.

But the story behind The Display has more to it than what Helpmann and others have recorded to date. In fact, Patrick White was approached to write a scenario for the ballet and a cache of letters, which I chanced upon around ten years ago in a National Library collection, indicated that when White submitted the manuscript it was not to Helpmann’s liking, and not to the liking of the then artistic director, Peggy van Praagh, either. They rejected the manuscript. But what was contained in White’s submission remained an annoying mystery until just recently when, while looking for something else, I chanced upon a manuscript in the National Library entitled ‘A scenario for a ballet by Patrick White’.

What this manuscript reveals is that Helpmann and van Praagh had excellent theatrical reasons for rejecting White’s scenario. White’s story takes place in two separate settings, the Australian bush where initially a picnic takes place, and a ballroom in the country mansion of a family called Brewer. The Brewer daughter, named as the Girl in White’s cast list, is engaged to an Italian Count. The girl has an obsession with a Lyrebird and during the picnic leads the Count into the bush where they encounter the bird. At the end of the ball that takes place in the mansion, the Girl returns to the bush. During this scene it is revealed that she is naked (stage naked) under her black raincoat. She encounters the Lyrebird and with him dances what White calls ‘a dance of consummation’. The Italian Count follows, is enraged at what he sees, rapes the Girl and then strangles her. He is then arrested by a detachment of policemen.

Helpmann may well have given White an initial plot outline as the first excursion into the bush is redolent of Hepburn taking Helpmann with her to visit the sanctuary of the lyrebird, while the nakedness of the Girl when she returns to the forest even recalls Helpmann’s alleged dream. The Italian Count too may well be Helpmann’s Outsider, although he is an outsider on account of his nationality and only partly so by his behaviour as described in the White manuscript.

But despite the fact that Helpmann apparently disliked what White presented, he appears to have borrowed many features of White’s story, including perhaps the gauzes that became part of Helpmann’s production and that lift to reveal the sanctuary of the lyrebird. White’s manuscript contains all kinds of stage directions including directions regarding gauzes.

However, Helpmann, as the remarkable man of the theatre he was, clearly removed the more bizarre and the more literary features from the manuscript he received. ‘When the ballet opens’, writes White, ‘a grotesque fête-galante version of an Australian picnic is about to take place’. He continues, ‘As the dancers appear they have the air of embarking on something reprehensibly unusual. They are inclined to mock at their surroundings and to treat the whole occasion as a huge joke. LADIES are over-dressed in satirical versions of contemporary clothes … The OLDER PERSONNAGES are pompous and would-be refined, the YOUNGER PEOPLE rather gauche, if not hobbledehoy’. In The Display that went onstage in 1964 there are no Italian counts, no feeling of hobbledehoy, no pomposity, no murders, no policemen for example. Helpmann distilled the scenario and in so doing created a story that could be told simply and clearly through dance. White’s elaborate and somewhat convoluted story with its many literary descriptions of events and people was not an easy scenario to translate successfully into dance. Even White’s three suggestions for a title, ‘The stroke of feathers’, ‘The feather breast’, or ‘The double engagement’, have nowhere near the instant attraction of Helpmann’s eventual choice, The Display, an ornithological term referring, in the case of The Display, to the lyrebird’s mating dance.

The Display was not the first all-Australian ballet as Helpmann claimed when speaking to oral historian Hazel de Berg in 1964, but it did have an Australian creative team of the first order. Complementing Helpmann’s choreography were designs by Sidney Nolan and music by Malcolm Williamson. The lighting design by Akers included a number of new initiatives in theatre lighting. The work was visually and aurally evocative and an exceptional collaborative effort. Its strength also partly lay in Helpmann’s ability to create theatre by reducing a story to its essentials.

The ballet was dedicated to Katharine Hepburn but Patrick White’s involvement was, to my knowledge, not mentioned in 1964‒1965 programs and appears not to have been mentioned in published biographies of Helpmann.

© Michelle Potter, 7 July 2012
Please respect my copyright in this article and acknowledge it if the material is used elsewhere.

* Barassi is recorded as saying:  In 1964 I had the great pleasure of coming to know Robert Helpmann through my involvement on his ballet ‘The Display’. In the dance there was quite a lot of football played and Robert asked me to attend rehearsals and advise the ballet dancers on the correct ways of playing Victorian Rules. I did so and although the dancers were impressively athletic, I immediately noticed that they were throwing the football around the room like rugby players. I told Robert this and he was absolutely mortified. From there he worked solidly to get every detail right, as his demand for excellence and accuracy was uncompromising.