Memorial for Dame Margaret Scott

15 March 2019. State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

Dame Margaret Scott was farewelled with style and grace, and more than a little bit of emotion, in a memorial event arranged by the Australian Ballet and the Australian Ballet School and presented in Melbourne on 15 March 2019.

It began with an initial surprise as we entered the auditorium of the State Theatre. I wondered why we were asked to enter through the door at the back of the auditoriun. Well, it was so that we would properly enjoy the guard of honour made by two rows of young dancers from the Australian Ballet School, the girls dressed in simple white tutus and the boys in black tights and white shirts. They were lined up on each side of the auditorium stretching pretty much from the last row of the stalls down to the stage. On the stage a giant screen had been lowered and we saw an image of a smiling Maggie, full of the joy of life. And standing in the middle of a row close to the front was Maggie’s husband, Professor Derek Denton, watching as we entered.

Following an introduction from Steven Heathcote and an opening tribute from Maggie’s younger son, Angus Denton, reminiscences were given by several of Maggie’s former students and colleagues including Colin Peasley, David McAllister, Graeme Murphy, Marilyn Rowe and Lisa Pavane. Those who auditioned for her as young and hopeful dancers all admitted to being in awe of Maggie at first, but all continued to say how much they had grown to love and respect her.

Interspersed among the spoken tributes were three short performances. The first was Embrace, created by Paulina Quinteros, which was accompanied on the printed program by the phrase ‘For Dick, Matthew and Angus’, to which was added the words ‘Lucky are those who have experienced the sweetness of loving’. It was danced by Chloe Reynolds and Daniel Savetta (with Steven Heathcote playing a small role). Embrace was followed by the Act II pas de deux from Nutcracker. The Story of Clara, danced by Benedicte Bemet and Jarryd Madden. Level 8 students of the Australian Ballet School gave the third performance, a movement from Stephen Baynes’ Ballo Barocco.

But the most moving moments were left till last when a series of images of Maggie, covering the gamut of her life and career, were flashed across the screen.

The end seemed to have been reached when Jim McFarlane’s iconic image from Nutcracker (above left) appeared and all went dark. But no, Earl Carter’s equally iconic Nutcracker image appeared of Maggie rejoicing in the pleasures she experienced in Act I of Nutcracker (above right). Then, from each side of the stage a procession of students, former dancers and others entered and, in single file, moved to the centre of the stage where each placed a single white rose on the floor in front of Maggie’s image before making a slow exit. A beautiful tribute to an exceptional woman.

A State Memorial for Dame Margaret will be held on 22 March at the National Gallery of Victoria International commencing at 10:00 am. My obituary for her is at this link.

Michelle Potter, 17 March 2019

Featured image: Maggie Scott in Gala Performance (detail with text added). From the Ballet Rambert souvenir program for its 1947–1949 Australian tour

Colin Peasley. Lifetime Achievement Award

The recipients of 2012 Green Room Awards were announced a few days ago. The list is at this link.

The Green Room Awards Association also announced the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award, which is awarded each year to a person who has contributed significantly to theatre life in Melbourne. The 2012 recipient was Colin Peasley, who retired last year from the Australian Ballet after a long and illustrious performing career, largely but not entirely with the Australian Ballet.

Peasley is seen below in two of the travesty roles for which he became so well-known, on the left as Gamache in a 1970 performance of Rudolf Nureyev’s production of Don Quixote, and on the right in a 1973 performance as the younger Ugly Sister in Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella. Both images are by Walter Stringer and are from the National Library’s Walter Stringer collection.

Again from the Stringer material held in the National Library, Peasley is seen below in the more dramatic roles of Friar Laurence in a 1975 performance of John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet with Marilyn Rowe as Juliet, and of Hilarion in a 1973 performance of Peggy van Praagh’s production of Giselle.

Closer to the present time, here is a shot from the 2009 production of Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker in which Peasley played one of Clara the Elder’s émigré friends.

Ai-Gul Gaisina, 'Nutcracker' 2009. Photo Branco GaicaAi-Gul Gaisina and Colin Peasley in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. Photo: Branco Gaica, 2009. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

A tiny glimpse of a diverse career! A well deserved award too.

Michelle Potter, 8 May 2013

Links to National Library image credits:

Colin Peasley as Gamache in Don Quixote, 1970
Colin Peasley as the younger Ugly Sister in Cinderella, 1973
Colin Peasley as Hilarion in Giselle, 1973
Colin Peasley as Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet, 1975

The Australian Ballet’s first New Zealand tour, 1963

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.

Sonia Arova & Caj Selling in 'Sylvia' pas de deuxSonia Arova and Caj Selling in the pas de deux from Sylvia, 1963. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

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

‘The Merry Widow.’ The Australian Ballet (2011)

19 November 2011, Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Ronald Hynd’s Merry Widow has never been my favourite ballet. I dislike its nature as balletic operetta, with emphasis on the ‘etta’, and its stock comic characters and its silly story line with people hiding in and escaping from pavilions and so forth. And as I took my seat at the Sydney Opera House my companion said, from the perspective of someone whose parents were brought up in 1920s and 1930s Vienna, that she wasn’t looking forward to ‘Viennese schmaltz’, referring in particular to the Franz Lehar music. So I was surprised and delighted to discover that I actually enjoyed the performance (and so did my companion).

Much credit for the way the production sped along goes to the corps de ballet, who were dancing beautifully, and as an ensemble, which doesn’t always happen these days. The Pontevedrian dancers in Act II, especially the men, were outstanding and it was an absolute delight to see everyone engaging with the action even when standing on the sidelines at balls, soirees, and other occasions.

Madeleine Eastoe was delicious as Valencienne. She danced pretty much faultlessly, and what an expressive back she has, which was very much on show in Desmond Heeley’s ball gowns with their deeply cut backs. She gave the role such warmth and charm as she flashed her eyes at a dashing Camille (Andrew Killian), or showed attentiveness to her aged husband Baron Zeta (Colin Peasley).

Colin Peasley’s performance as Baron Zeta had some truly poignant moments. In particular I was moved by his resignation at the close of the ballet to the fact that Valencienne is in love with Camille. It made me wish that he didn’t always have to dance the comic roles—those where his knees always give way when he tries to dance! He has a bit more to offer I think.

On a downside, however, I was disappointed by the performance of Jin Yao, guest artist from the Hong Kong Ballet, as Hanna Glawari. She has beautifully long limbs and carries herself with elegance and her final pas de deux with Count Danilo (Brett Simon) was charming and flowed smoothly. But in general I thought her portrayal of Hanna lacked any warmth. Just a glimmer of what might have been came at the end of the show as she took her curtain call. A little too late unfortunately! Nor was there much strength of characterisation in the scene where Hanna and Danilo realise they are sweethearts from some years earlier and that important scene (important to the storyline) fell a little flat.

I was also disappointed with Matthew Donnelly’s portrayal of Njegus. Donnelly doesn’t seem to have a stage presence that is strong enough to sustain such roles. Or perhaps he needs better coaching or a role model to learn from. His apparent grooming to take on cameo roles of this kind just isn’t working at the moment.

All in all, despite some reservations, which also included for me some jarring aspects in the design, especially in relation to choice of colours, this production of The Merry Widow was a pleasurable experience. Perhaps thanks are due to John Meehan who was guest repetiteur for this production?

Michelle Potter, 20 November 2011

Featured image: Artists of the Australian Ballet in The Merry Widow, 2011. Photo: © Jeff Busby Courtesy of the Australian Ballet

British Liaisons. The Australian Ballet

14 May 2011, Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House

This triple bill program, designed to highlight the strong links between British ballet and the growth of ballet in Australia, produced some moments that were absolute show stoppers.

None of those show stopping moments came, however, in Checkmate. Choreographed in 1937 by Dame Ninette de Valois as a battle between love and death played out on a chessboard, it opened the program. While for the most part it was adequately danced, it lacked any sustained suspense, which pretty much made a mockery of the whole thing. There is no doubt that Checkmate is an old fashioned work, highly stylised in its narrative and choreography. But some stronger characterisation, especially from Lucinda Dunn as the Black Queen, the seductress who ultimately brings about the downfall of the Red King, would have helped to make the work more enticing and anchored it in some kind of reality. Only Amy Harris as the Red Queen made anything of her role, a relatively minor one too, as she ushered in the Red King with kindness and concern. But without any strength of purpose from the other characters, Colin Peasley as the Red King had an uphill battle to make anything of his very important part.

But Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain, programmed as the middle piece, made up for the disappointments of Checkmate. The first section was strongly danced by Lana Jones, Amy Harris and Miwako Kubota partnered by Adam Bull, Andrew Killian and Brett Simon respectively. But it was the second section, the seductively beautiful pas de deux danced by Jones and Bull, that was the show stopper. Jones in particular captured the inner calm of this duet— ‘at the still point, there the dance is’ wrote T. S Eliot. Not only was Jones able capture the elusive quality of stillness and repose even as she moved or was moved by her partner, but with each lift one could only gasp at the curving line of her body as it cut through space until it reached the high point of the movement . There  it settled into its final, classically perfect shape. Bull partnered her with care and the tenderness that befits the emotional underpinning of the duet, but nothing could match the star quality of Jones.

Jones appeared again as the leading dancer in the first movement of Kenneth MacMillan’s Concerto, which closed the program. Here she showed another side of her technique, her clear, precise footwork and her ability to turn—especially her ability to turn as she executed a faultless series of chaîné turns across the stage from one downstage corner to the other. She also imbued her dancing in this movement with a beautifully pert quality bringing the audience into her ambit with smiling eyes and a sparkle to her every move. It made me long to see her dance the lead in Balanchine’s Rubies.

Concerto needed, however, a little more precision of technique from the corps de ballet to do justice to MacMillan’s spatial arrangements, which any straggly lines instantly destroy. And they were destroyed on more than one occasion. Juliet Burnett, however, made a strong impression with a beautifully controlled performance in the pas de deux that comprises the second movement. She was partnered by Andrew Killian who almost stole the limelight from her with his deliciously unexpected changes of expression and mood.

Company pianist Stuart Macklin deserves accolades too for his solo piano performances, first in Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel to which the pas de deux in After the Rain is performed, and then as soloist in the Shostakovich second piano concerto to which Concerto is danced.

At last, a few moments of excitement from an Australian Ballet performance. Oh that there could be more!

Michelle Potter, 16 May 2011