Athol Willoughby (1932–2020)

Athol Willoughby, OAM, professional dancer, dance teacher, educator, examiner, adjudicator, board member and patron of Cecchetti Ballet Australia, has died in Melbourne at the age of 87.

Athol Willoughby was born and educated in Tasmania. His interest in dance began in Hobart when, with a friend, he would go to the movies every Friday night. It was the era of Hollywood musicals and he would watch outstanding male dancers, including Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, both of whom he greatly admired. But it was not until the Borovansky Ballet toured to Hobart, when Willoughby was aged 14, that he was given an opportunity to take ballet classes with Hobart teacher, Beattie Jordan. He began formal ballet training in 1946.

An early dance portrait of Athol Willoughby, 1940s(?). Courtesy of Anne Butler
An early dance portrait of Athol Willoughby, 1950s (?). Courtesy of Anne Butler

Willoughby’s career began in earnest, however, when the Melbourne-based National Theatre Ballet visited Hobart. Willoughby took some classes with the company and, as a result, Leon Kellaway, the company ballet master, suggested he should move to Melbourne to take classes at the National Theatre Ballet School. In Melbourne, Willoughby was taught by esteemed Cecchetti teacher, Lucie Saronova, whose influence on his future was immense. Remembering Saronova’s classes Willoughby recalled:

I enjoyed Madam’s classes but they lasted exactly an hour and she packed a lot into a class. There was very little correction. It was doing the exercises that was supposed to get you there, not breaking the exercises down, as is the custom today. But a terrifying aspect of Madam’s classes was that she had been a fantastic turner. She always, at the end of every class, gave a series of diagonal turns. And it didn’t matter whether you were male or female you had to do these diagonal turns. Well I hadn’t been brought up to expect anything like this—perhaps a few chaînés, petits tours as Cechetti calls them, or posé turns—but not these complex diagonals. I used to hate it. I used to try to be the last one down the diagonal until I subsequently figured out that if you were first you had the least attention and you were out of the way and forgotten.

Later in the 1950s he gained his own qualifications as a Cecchetti teacher and began working across Melbourne, including for Dame Margret Scott at her ballet school, which she set up in Toorak in 1955. But his performance career continued in Melbourne and he eventually joined the National Theatre Ballet and performed with them, dancing both the classics and the repertoire of two directors of the company, Walter Gore and Valrene Tweedie. Tweedie, also Cecchetti trained, remained a close colleague until her death in 2008.

Athol Willoughby and Valrene Tweedie in Tweedies’s production of Francesca da Rimini. National Theatre Ballet, 1955. Photo: Walter Stringer. Personal collection of Athol Willoughby

In 1958 Willoughby left for London where he took classes with Anna Northcote and Stanislas Idzikowski. He took on various theatrical and non-theatrical jobs before joining Peter Darrell’s Western Theatre Ballet. But an illness in the family necessitated a return to Australia in 1961. He danced in Tivoli shows during the 1960s, including in a pantomime production of Cinderella in which he played one of the Ugly Sisters. He also continued to teach, travelling across the city and into regional centres before buying the Essendon Academy of Ballet in 1962. He directed the Essendon Academy until 1997 and the students whose careers he nurtured over more than three decades have gone on to dance across the world. Some have become teachers and examiners. But all had their lives enriched by his continued service to dance, in particular to the Cecchetti approach to ballet. But his humility was such that he was able to say, ‘I was just there to try to teach them classical ballet correctly—I like to see it done correctly—and with discipline.’

But before he retired from teaching he twice returned to the stage as a guest artist with the Australian Ballet: in Anne Woolliams’ 1990 revival of Swan Lake in which he took the role of the Hungarian Ambassador, and in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. The Story of Clara in 1992 and 1994 where he played one of Clara the Elder’s émigré friends.

Willoughby once described himself as ‘a born collector of books and clothes and bits and pieces’. His home in Carlton North, which he shared with his partner James O’Donnell, was evidence of his collecting obsession, and of his interest in many forms of art. Both Willoughby and O’Donnell would often visit Canberra to take in the latest exhibition at the National Gallery, or National Library. I was fortunate enough to be able to have lunch with them on a number of those visits. Sharing a meal with them was always a very special occasion. Vale Athol.

Portrait of Athol Willoughby. Courtesy of Anne Butler

Athol Willoughby: born Campbell Town, Tasmania, 1 September 1932; died Melbourne, Victoria, 19 July 2020

Read more about Athol Willoughby at these links: Athol Willoughby. Lifetime Achievement Award 2018; Athol Willoughby. An oral history; Dance diary. March 2013 (on Walter Gore’s ballet The Crucifix—scroll down!).
Please note that Athol Willoughby’s oral history interview for the National Library is not at present available online. This reflects certain permissions that Willoughby placed on public use of the material. I hope the situation may be able to be changed. It is a wonderful interview, full of fascinating anecdotes as well as being a good outline of Willoughby’s career.

Michelle Potter, 21 July 2020

Featured image: Portrait of Athol Willoughby, 2018. Photo: © Michela Dent-Causon

Anne Hendricks Bass (1941–2020)

Anne Hendricks Bass, who has died in New York at the age of 78, was one of the most generous donors to the Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. I met her very soon after I arrived in New York in 2006 to begin my tenure as Curator of the Dance Division. I have so many fond memories of the occasions I worked with her on one or other of her projects. I loved that she was so passionate about dance, ballet in particular, and the visual arts, and that she worked tirelessly to support and promote the things that mattered to her. She was an absolute perfectionist, which I also loved. I count myself fortunate that I met her in so many different situations. Here are some of my favourite memories.

Anne had an apartment on 5th Avenue and I recall clearly going there on one occasion on official Dance Division business. Stepping out of the elevator I was ushered in without noticing what I was walking past. On the way out I almost tripped over what I didn’t notice initially. It was a Degas sculpture, the one I use as the main image on the home page of this website, Little dancer aged fourteen (1878-1881). I was staggered to be so close to it and very relieved I hadn’t tripped over it!

Anne also invited me to work with her on weekends with some material she had gathered for a film she wanted to make about a young Cambodian, Sokvannara Sar, whose familiar name is Sy. Anne brought Sy to New York to be trained as a ballet dancer after seeing him dance in Cambodia on a visit there in 2000. Those working weekends were spent on her property in South Kent, Connecticut, in truly beautiful surroundings. There were several buildings on the estate and my husband and I were accommodated in the cottage in the image below, seen through the surrounding wintery landscape. The film that we worked on in Connecticut, Dancing across Borders, was made after I had left New York but I will forever remember the beautiful countryside of Anne’s Connecticut estate, those mornings and afternoons examining material, and the dinners with Anne and her partner, artist Julian Lethbridge, in the ‘big house’ each night.

Rock Cobble Farm, Connecticut, 2007
Cottage on Rock Cobble Farm, Connecticut, February 2007. Photo: © Neville Potter

During my tenure as Curator in the Dance Division Anne also initiated and funded a number of significant projects. The two that stand out for me are Speaking of Dancing and the Khmer Dance Project. Both were basically oral history projects. With Speaking of Dancing I had the honour of interviewing Lupe Serrano, which was an audio only interview, and I recall sitting in on another interview, a filmed one this time, with designer Holly Hynes. Other interviews were recorded after I left and interviewees included Carolyn Brown, Wendy Whelan, Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel.

The Khmer Dance Project began just before I left and was designed to record, on film, interviews with three generations of artists, including dancers, musicians and singers, who kept dance alive during and after the regime of the Khmer Rouge.

Setting up for an interview with Em Theay (seated), Phnom Penh, March 2008. Photo: © Michelle Potter

The only photo I have of Anne in my personal collection is below. Taken by an unidentified photographer, it shows Anne on the right of the image standing next to Sy on his first visit to New York from Cambodia.

There are countless expensive-to-use images of Anne on the web, but I knew her as she appears in the image above. Anne was an exceptional human being whose humility and generous nature shone whether she was at a glamorous social gathering or standing in a New York street.

The flowers below were a gift from her to me for nothing more than the fact that I was happy to talk to her about my background, especially the work I had done at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra, which led to the invitation to work with her on weekends. Who else would send flowers following what I regarded as just a friendly, informal chat? That was Anne.

Anne Hendricks Bass. Born Indianapolis, Indiana, 19 October 1941; died New York City, New York, 1 April 2020

‘Only in the darkness can you see the stars’

Michelle Potter, 5 April 2020

Featured image: Anne Bass with Sokvannara Sar, 2010. Detail from a promotional image for the film Dancing Across Borders. © Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. Courtesy Dancing across borders, a film by Anne Bass

Cecil Bates (1925–2019)

Cecil Bates had a remarkably diverse career both in and outside of dance. Born into a family in which the arts held a prominent place, he recalled that his first stage experience came at the age of three when, in one of his mother’s ballet concerts, he took the role of a teddy bear.

I first appeared in these shows, I believe, at the age of three, as a teddy bear. I remember being very angry with my mother because she didn’t think that I would know the time to come on to the stage, to know the right cue. But I was perfectly well aware of when to go on and, when she reminded me by giving me a gentle push, I was very angry and almost missed the entrance.1

His mother was a dancer and an operatic soprano. She was a pupil of Melbourne-based teacher Jennie Brenan and appeared in several productions by J. C. Williamson. She taught ballet in Maitland where her son was a pupil until he left primary school.

His father served in World War I and then took up teaching. It was he who convinced Bates to give up ballet once he entered high school and, at the end of his schooling, Bates took up a traineeship in metallurgy. He worked with Rylands Brothers Wire Mills in Newcastle while undertaking a technical college course in metallurgy.

But he was ‘restless’, as he remarked in an oral history interview, and began taking ballet classes in Newcastle with Grace Norman. Then, with a fellow ballet student, he went to Sydney to take a class with Hélène Kirsova and, as a result, moved to Sydney, changed his course to a similar one at Sydney Tech, and began working for Commonwealth Industrial Gas.

Although Bates didn’t ever dance with the Kirsova Ballet, Kirsova was impressed with his potential and suggested to Marie Rambert that she audition him for the Rambert Australian tour of 1947–1949. Bates joined Ballet Rambert in Melbourne in 1947 where he made his debut as a professional dancer. He toured Australia and New Zealand with Ballet Rambert and, when the company returned to England in 1949, he went with them. 

In England he became a principal dancer and later ballet master with Ballet Rambert and then, on leaving the Rambert company in 1953, danced with Walter Gore and in a variety of other productions including pantomime and film. It was during his time in England, encouraged by Marie Rambert, that he began to choreograph. His early choreographic works included two Scottish-themed productions for Rambert’s Ballet Workshop and a new version of Carnival of the Animals for the Rambert company. It was also the time when he took classes from Audrey de Vos, whose impact on his career continued throughout his life.

After the breakdown of his 1950 marriage to Rambert dancer Mary Munro, Bates returned to Australia to dance once more with Walter Gore who had set up Australian Theatre Ballet. When Gore’s Australian company folded, Bates went to work with Joanna Priest in Adelaide teaching and producing for her various initiatives and, in 1962, became artistic director of the recently-formed South Australian National Ballet Company. He also returned to choreography producing Design for a Lament (later staged as Requiem and dedicated to his mother, Frieda Bates), Villanelle for FourComme ci, comme ça, Seven Dances and A Fig for a King. In Adelaide Bates also staged some of the ballets he knew from his London experiences. They included PeepshowDeath and the MaidenCzernyana and Façade. He also established his own dance school and then a small company, South Australian Repertory Ballet. 

Bates eventually moved into a more academic life and began teaching maths and science, and drama on some occasions, at a series of high schools in Adelaide. He undertook a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English and Economic History at the University of Adelaide.

Bates was also an experienced Laban notator. His interest in notation began in London when he began taking lessons in Laban notation from an ex-dancer from the Kurt Jooss company. It was not, however, until he began working in Adelaide that he resumed his studies in notation, eventually taking a University course in the subject. He notated his own works and works by others with whom he had been associated, including Walter Gore, Andrée Howard, and Joanna Priest. He was later asked by Meg Denton to notate his work Requiem for Denton’s Australian Choreographic Project.2

Pages from Cecil Bates’ notated score for Requiem. National Library of Australia, MUS N m 792.842 R427

Bates is survived by his second wife, Glenis, and their three children as well as numerous grandchildren.

Cecil Hugo Bates. Born Maitland, New South Wales, 26 May 1925; died Adelaide, South Australia, 20 December 2019

An oral history interview recorded in Adelaide in 2005 for the National Library of Australia’s Oral History and Folklore Collection, from which much of the information in this obituary has been obtained, is available at this link.

Michelle Potter 3 March 2020

Featured image: Cecil Bates in the pas de trois from Swan Lake (detail), 1940s? Photographer not identified. National Library of Australia, Papers of Cecil Bates, MS 9427

Notes:
1. Oral history interview with Cecil Bates recorded by Meg Denton in 1985. J. D Somerville Oral History Collection, Mortlock Library of South Australiana, OH 84/16. A transcript of this interview is in the National Library of Australia, Papers of Cecil Bates, MS 9427.
2. For more about the Australian Choreographic Project see Meg Abbie Denton, ‘Reviving Lost Works: The Australian Choreographic Project.’ Brolga, 2 (June 1995), pp. 57-69.

Ronne Arnold (c. 1938–2020)

I have to admit that I shed a tear when I heard that Ronne Arnold had died. It was he who added jazz dance to my movement vocabulary when, aged about 17, all I knew was the vocabulary of classical ballet. His classes were an eye-opener and I especially loved the little routines on the diagonal that he would give towards the end of the class. He was a beautiful man and caring teacher and his impact on my life remains to this day.

Ronne Arnold was born in Philadelphia—he maintained he was not sure of the year; it could have been 1938 or even 1939 he suggested at various times. His African American family was large (it included six older sisters) and everyone danced. His early teacher was Nadia Chilkovsky. At Chilkovsky’s Philadelphia Dance Academy he took classes in classical, modern, and primitive dance. He also attended the Philadelphia Musical Academy, from which he gained a B.A. in music, majoring in dance. Later he worked with Alfredo Corvino and other New York teachers.

Arnold first came to Australia for Garnet H. Carroll in 1960 to appear in the musical West Side Story in which he took the role of Jose, one of the members of the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks. He arrived on a six month contract and fully intended to return to the United States. But at the end of the run of West Side Story he was offered a job in the Carroll production of The Most Happy Fella and stayed a bit longer. A bit longer turned into years, and then decades, and he eventually became an Australian citizen.

Arnold went on to teach jazz and modern dance in Australia, beginning at the studio of Joan and Monica Halliday in Sydney. His classes were conducted with a tambourine as rhythmic accompaniment. But the tambourine was minus its ‘jingles’ so the beat was more like that of a drum. His teaching was inspirational. Arnold asked for huge, space expanding movements and his classes were quite unlike what most Australian dance students had experienced before.

During the 1960s and 1970s Arnold choreographed the dance sequences for shows at Sydney’s famous nightclub/theatre restaurant, Chequers. At that time, international cabaret acts at Chequers included Dusty Springfield, Dionne Warwick, Sammy Davis Jr., Liza Minnelli and Shirley Bassey.

Arnold founded the Contemporary Dance Company of Australia in 1967 and was its artistic director until the company’s demise in 1972. The repertoire was choreographed almost exclusively by Arnold and included I’ve got Rhythm, New Blues, Boy with Umbrella, Feeling Good, and Song of Hagar to music by John Antill. Programs often finished with Spirituals, a collection of dances made to Negro spirituals, of which the crowd favourite was perhaps He’s got the whole world in his hands.

Ronne Arnold and his Contemporary Dance Company of Australia in 'Spirituals', 1971. Photo Roderic Vickers
Ronne Arnold (right)and his Contemporary Dance Company of Australia in Spirituals, 1971. Photo: © Roderic Vickers

Slowly Arnold’s choreography began taking on an Australian flavour. He made Bittersweet about Australian male/female relations and Platform based on observations made at the Sydney Domain with its lively political spruikers. He also continued to appear in musicals and television shows throughout his life and his television credits included roles in Number 96 and Holiday Island and appearances in Cop Shop, and other shows.

Arnold’s teaching activities eventually came to encompass commitments at the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA College) in Sydney. He was academic course director at NAISDA from 1986 until 2003. Although Arnold had first become aware of Australia’s indigenous communities as a result of meeting political activist Bob Maza, once he began teaching at NAISDA he became fascinated by the visits to NAISDA of elders from indigenous communities. His interest resulted in a Master’s degree from Sydney University in which he undertook a comparative study of American black jazz dance and the dance of the Wanam people of Cape York Peninsula. On leaving NAISDA, Arnold taught for several years in Sydney at the Wesley Institute.

Arnold was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Australian Dance Awards of 2013. The award honours the achievements of an outstanding senior figure in the Australian dance community who has dedicated at least 40 years to dance as a performer, choreographer, advocate, educator, administrator or visionary. Ronne Arnold was all of those.

Arnold’s interview with Michael Cathcart on Radio National, recorded in 2013 in response to the award, is below.

Ronne Arnold talks to Michael Cathcart on ‘Books and Arts’, Radio National, August 2013

Ronne Arnold, born Philadelpdia, Pennsylvania c. 1938; died Katoomba, New South Wales, 13 February 2020

Michelle Potter, 23 February 2020

Featured image: Pages from Order of Service for Ronne Arnold. Courtesy Jan Poddebsky

This obituary is largely based on an oral history interview I recorded with Ronne Arnold for the National Library of Australia, TRC 3626, and on a conversation I had with him when writing about him for The Canberra Times in 2013. The oral history is not currently online and The Canberra Times article is no longer part of that newspaper’s online material.

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

Please consider supporting my Australian Cultural Fund project to help Melbourne Books publish Kristian Fredrikson. Designer in a high quality format. Donations are tax deductible. See this link to the project, which closes on 31 December 2019.

Alan Alder as Hakuryo in Robert Helpmann's 'Yugen'. The Australian Ballet 1965. Photo: Walter Stringer

Alan Alder (1937–2019)

Alan Alder, who has died in Perth at the age of 82, was born in Canberra of Scottish/Australian parentage. In Canberra he initially studied tap and Scottish highland dancing with June Hammond. Later, while at Canberra High School, he took ballet lessons with Barbara Todd, a former Sadler’s Wells Ballet soloist who had come to Canberra when her husband took up an appointment at the Australian National University.

Winning a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School in 1957, he studied there for a short time, largely with Harold Turner, before joining the Covent Garden Opera Ballet, where he worked for the next twelve months. His experiences with that company included dancing in productions featuring artist such as Joan Sutherland and Maria Callas. ‘It was an incredible education I had in that one year,’ he recalled in an oral history interview conducted in 1999.

In 1958 Alder joined the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet. He was promoted to soloist and toured extensively with the company throughout Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South Africa over the next four years. His touring schedule included the 1958-59 tour to Australia and New Zealand. Of his experiences on tour in Australia he recalled, in addition to the variety of roles he performed, a total blackout in Sydney’s Empire Theatre. ‘There was John Field onstage with hurricane lamps rehearsing the swans in the second act of Swan Lake,’ he said. He also remembers ‘Midnight Matinees’ towards the end of the Australian tour, which were fundraisers for victims of bush fires that devastated areas of Australia in 1958.

Alan Alder in Coppelia. Royal Ballet Australasian tour, 1958. Photo: Walter Stringer

At the invitation of Peggy van Praagh, Alder returned to Australia in 1963 to join the Australian Ballet as a senior soloist. He was promoted to principal artist in 1969, and later was a guest artist with the company from 1978 to 1980. With the Australian Ballet Alder danced many principal roles in a wide selection of ballets. He scored particular success as Alain in La Fille mal gardée, a role he danced initially with the Royal Ballet in 1961, and again with the Australian Ballet on many occasions from 1968 onwards. But other works, new and old, in which he took leading roles included Melbourne Cup, ThresholdSebastianGisellePineapple Poll, Lady and the FoolOthelloRomeo and JulietYugen, and Carmen.


Alan Alder as Jasper the Pot Boy with Maria Lang in Pineapple Poll. The Australian Ballet, 1976. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

Alder married fellow dancer Lucette Aldous in 1972. In the mid 1970s both Alder and Aldous were invited by the Russian ministry of culture to study teaching methods in the USSR. In St Petersburg they studied Boris Kniaseff’s floor barre and the Vaganova system of training. The opportunity to visit Russia came at a time when the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade had just signed a cultural agreement with the USSR and Alder and Aldous were the first Australians to go to Russia under that agreement. Alder recalled:

‘We gained tremendous insight into the ideology of Agrippina Vaganova and also, in the short amount of time we had, we crammed as much as we could into learning on our bodies how to pass on that system, not necessarily just the choreography of the actual exercises, the enchainments, but the reason behind doing them.’

Following his departure from the Australian Ballet in 1980, Alder took up part-time teaching with Dame Margaret Scott and Anne Woolliams. In 1983 he was appointed to head up the dance department at the Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts, Edith Cowan University, a position he held until 1991. He then took up a teaching position at the Perth Graduate College of Dance. His involvement with Ausdance (WA) began in 1987 and his contribution to that organisation was recognised with a life membership.

In 2004, Alder and Aldous were jointly recognised as State Living Treasures by the Government of Western Australia. The citation included the words ‘outstanding contribution to dance’ and ‘dedication as advocates for the development of dance in Western Australia.’

Alan Richard Alder. Born Canberra, 14 September 1937; died Perth, 15 July 2019

Featured image: Alan Alder as Hakuryo the Fisherman in Yugen. The Australian Ballet, 1965. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia.

Alan Alder as Hakuryo in Robert Helpmann's 'Yugen'. The Australian Ballet 1965. Photo: Walter Stringer

Michelle Potter, 15 July 2019

Dance diary. June 2019

  • Shona Dunlop MacTavish (1920-2019)

The death of Shona Dunlop MacTavish in Dunedin, New Zealand, on 18 June at the age of 99 sent me back to her autobiography, Leap of faith. It was published in 1997 and the early sections give a fascinating account of her schooldays in New Zealand and her time in Europe over four years beginning 1935. Those four years included her introduction to dance and in Leap of faith Dunlop MacTavish gives her thoughts on her early teachers, one of whom was Gertrud Bodenwieser. Of Bodenwieser and how her classes affected people, Dunlop MacTavish writes

Frau Gerty, as she was known by her students, was a small erect figure who, when not demonstrating, examined her class through an intimidating lorgnette … Although nervous at first, I began to relax and enjoy myself as it appeared she was taking little notice of me. Soon I was swept up with the rest of the class—a mass of whirling bodies with ecstatic faces.

The book continues through Dunlop MacTavish’s life in in South America on tour with Bodenwieser’s dancers; follows her experiences in Australia, China and Africa (the latter two with her missionary husband Donald MacTavish); and then moves on to the Philippines. The story then comes back to New Zealand and her home city of Dunedin where she set up a number of dance-related initiatives.

Dunlop MacTavish’s choreographic output was extensive and a list of her choreographies in Australia and New Zealand forms an appendix to Leap of faith. It is remarkable list. As one example, the first solo she created for herself was Two souls alas reside within my breast. Along with others of her early works, she danced it when her husband-to-be came to the Bodenwieser studio in Sydney to be introduced to her dancing. In her oral history interview for the National Library of Australia she explains the origin of the work:

I’d seen a young man in a nightclub with a very scarred face, beautiful on one side, all scarred on the other. It suddenly gave me the image of how many of us actually have two personalities. The title of the work was taken from some writing by Goethe. [Faust, First Part]

Shona Dunlop in a study for Two souls alas reside within my breast, c. 1945. Photo: Clifton Firth. From a card using material from the National Dance Archive of New Zealand

For more on the remarkable life of Shona Dunlop MacTavish, here is a link to an oral history interview I recorded with her for the National Library on 13 April 1998. It is available online both as audio and as a transcript. Leap of faith is also definitely worth a re-read.

  • Queen’s Birthday Honours list

Congratulations to Li Cunxin, Meryl Tankard and Régis Lansac, who were all recognised in the 2019 Queen’s birthday honours list. Li and Tankard received an AO, Lansac an OAM.

In a recent conversation with Patrick Harding-Irmer and Anca Frankenhaeuser I also heard that Robert Cohan, founding artistic director of London Contemporary Dance School and London Contemporary Dance Theatre, had also been honoured in England. Cohan influenced the careers of many Australian dancers and choreographers. He was knighted!

With regard to the Australian awards, Lansac’s work is not often acknowledged as much and as appropriately as it should be, so it is especially pleasing to see that he has been recognised. Below are a few of many photographs taken by Lansac that are part of a collection held in the National Library of Australia. His career has crossed boundaries as these images show. Here, too, is a link to an article that appeared in the now-defunct National Library of Australia News, which gives a little insight into Lansac’s early Australian collaborations and commissions. See also the tag Régis Lansac on this website.

Below left: Pierre Thibaudeau of Entr’acte Theatre in a solo performance, Sydney 1985. Below right: Richard Talonga of One Extra Company in Kai Tai Chan’s Midnight Moon, Sydney 1984.

Above left: Portrait of dancer Mary Duchesne, 1987. Above right: Tim Coldwell, Circus Oz, 1982. All photos: © Régis Lansac

  • Dancing under the southern skies

A new book by Valerie Lawson has just been published. I have not yet had time to read the copy I have but, flicking through the pages, there are some great photographs in it that, as far as I am aware, have never been published before. Lawson also sets the scene for what is (or rather what is not) contained in the book when she writes: ‘Dancing under the southern skies is not a detailed description of professional ballet performances in Australia—the dates, the theatres, the casts, the designers—although the detail is important and, one day, might become a dictionary of ballet.’ The next paragraph in the introduction explains what is included. But I will leave that for your further reading!

Further information is on the publisher’s site.

  • Press for June 2019

‘Vale Jonathan Taylor’, Dance Australia, June/July 2019, p. 13. PDF at this link

Michelle Potter, 30 June 2019

Please consider supporting my Australian Cultural Fund project to raise money to have hi-res images made for my book on the career of designer Kristian Fredrikson, which is heading towards publication. See the project, which closes on 30 July 2019, at this link. Donations are tax deductible. [Update 1 August 2019: Project closed]

Featured image: Evelyn Ippen, Bettina Vernon, Emmy Towsey and Shona Dunlop, Bodenwieser Ballet, Sydney c. 1939. Photo: Max Dupain

Portrait of Jonathan Taylor. Photo © Grant Hancock

Jonathan Taylor (1941–2019)

I’ve never done anything else but dance … *

Jonathan Taylor, dancer, choreographer and artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre from 1976 to 1985, has died in Melbourne at the age of 77.

Taylor was born in Manchester, England, where he began tap and ballet lessons as a very young boy. As a teenager he was taught in London by Andrew Hardie at the International School of Dancing. His professional career began when he danced in musicals and pantomime shows in London. At that stage he was asked to change his name for theatrical purposes from John (his birth name) to Jonathan—a union representative discovered there was another John Taylor, a juggler, on the circuit. 

In 1959 Taylor joined a company started by Leonide Massine with which Harry Haythorne was also involved, the Nervi International Ballet, before joining Amsterdam Ballet (later Dutch National Ballet), again with the involvement of Haythorne. In Amsterdam Taylor met his wife-to-be, Ariette van Rossen, also a dancer with Amsterdam Ballet, and shortly afterwards they moved to England. In England they joined Ballet Rambert, where Marie Rambert was fond of referring to Jonathan as ‘Jack’. Taylor toured extensively with the Rambert company, and also began his choreographic career with Diversities, made for Ballet Rambert in 1966, ‘Tis Goodly Sport in 1970, and Listen to the Music in 1972. He left Rambert in 1972 and took up a freelance career in 1973.

Taylor first came to Australia in 1975 to work with Ballet Victoria, then directed jointly by Garth Welch and Laurel Martyn. He was to stage his Listen to the Music, much admired by Peggy van Praagh, and create a new work. The new work turned out to be Star’s End and it was a huge hit in Melbourne. As a result, Taylor was invited back to Australia to be interviewed for the position of artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre in Adelaide. He was subsequently offered the position and arrived in Australia in 1976 with his wife and three children. He also brought with him Joe Scoglio and Julia Blaikie, close friends from his Rambert days, who joined him and Ariette Taylor to make up a foursome who would go on to make Australian Dance Theatre one of the most remarkable companies in the Australian contemporary dance world. Scoglio acted as assistant director, Blaikie as ballet mistress. Both also performed as dancers with the company.

Julia Blaikie and dancers of Australian Dance Theatre in Flibbertigibbet, 1978. Photo: © Jeff Busby.

Under Taylor the repertoire of Australian Dance Theatre included works from choreographers with whom Taylor had worked in England, in particular Christopher Bruce and Norman Morrice, as well as new works of his own. Some of his own works had Australian themes that drew on an English approach to Australian manners and attitudes—Incident a Bull Creek for example. Others, such as Wildstars, reflected his background in London with popular entertainment—many thought I’d sold my soul to the devil, he has remarked.** The company also had a strong emphasis on workshops and works for children, the latter led by Ariette Taylor who had begun working with children in London before the move to Australia. The company was initially jointly funded by the South Australian and Victorian governments. It toured widely in Australia and internationally.

Alan Israel (left) and John Nobbs in Christopher Bruce’s Black Angels. Australian Dance Theatre, c. 1980. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia.

Taylor left Australian Dance Theatre, unhappily, at the end of 1985. He and his family moved to Melbourne shortly afterwards. There he worked freelance, which included (at the invitation of Anne Woolliams) a brief period as choreographer in residence at the Victorian College of the Arts. He also worked in Holland with Netherlands Dance Theatre, as well as in a variety of other countries, and with several Australian companies including Kai Tai Chan’s One Extra Company and Maggie Sietsma’s Expressions Dance Company. In 1988 he was appointed Dean of the Victorian College of the Arts and in this capacity led both the tertiary and secondary schools until 1997. During those ten years he continued to choreograph, including in New Zealand where, in 1992, he created Hamlet for Harry Haythorne then directing the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

In the years following his work with the Victorian College of the Arts, Taylor again worked freelance, often in collaboration with Ariette Taylor with Handspan Theatre, where he was a board member from 1993 to 1998, and the Keene-Taylor Theatre Project.

In his recent oral history interview for the National Library of Australia, Taylor spoke of the one regret he had in life, which was that he had never been asked to choreograph for the Australian Ballet. But he also spoke emotionally of what he had especially enjoyed.

I enjoyed coming to Australia and having the ability to be in charge of my own company. It also allowed me not only to choreograph and be a creative person, and when I left the company in 1985 I don’t think they realised they were cutting off creativity as well as a job. I’m sure they didn’t, and that was a great blow. But it was wonderful to not set a standard, but set my standard—the standard of the dancing, the standard of the choreography, and the presentation of the performance.*** Listen to this quote

Jonathan Taylor is survived by his wife Ariette, their children, Ingmar, Juliet and Rebe, and their families.

John (Jonathan) Taylor: born Manchester, England 2 May 1941; died Melbourne Australia, 27 March 2019

Michelle Potter, 3 April 2019

Featured image: Portrait of Jonathan Taylor (detail), n.d. Photo:
© Grant Hancock

All images and oral history extracts used with permission

* Jonathan Taylor, Oral history interview recorded by Michelle Potter, September 2018, Oral History and Folklore Collection, National Library of Australia, TRC 6977
** Ibid.
*** Ibid

Dame Margaret Scott. Photo Angela Lynkushka

Dame Margaret Scott, 1922—2019

I was deeply saddened to hear of the death of Dame Margaret Scott on 24 February 2019. I was enormously privileged to have spent considerable time with her throughout 2014 as I wrote her biography for Text Publishing. Even before that, way back in 1993, I had the pleasure of recording an oral history interview with her for the National Library of Australia, which eventually formed a framework for the biography.

Vale Maggie. You were an exceptional woman and you changed the face of dance in Australia. The obituary I wrote has been published in Dance Australia at this link.

Dame Margaret Scott, AC, DBE, OBE.
Born Johannesburg, South Africa, 26 April 1922
Died Melbourne, Australia, 24 February 2019

Michelle Potter, 24 February 2019

Featured image: Dame Margaret Scott, 1994 (detail). Photo: © Angela Lynkushka. Used with the kind permission of the photographer

Dame Margaret Scott. Photo Angela Lynkushka
June Greenhalgh & Russell Kerr in Prismatic Variations.Choreographed by Russell Kerr and Poul Gnatt. New Zealand Ballet 1960

June Kerr (1932–2018)

by Jennifer Shennan

Russell Kerr has been the treasured father of ballet in New Zealand since he returned here in 1957 after some years dancing in UK, where he had married fellow dancer, June Greenhalgh. His directorship of New Zealand Ballet in 1960s was a visionary and courageous one and his loyal contribution has continued in all the years since. June danced in the celebrated United Ballet seasons of 1959–1960, but then became the mother of two children. Her contribution to ballet in this country may not have been as publicly visible as her husband’s but it was just as real, and she was with him every step of the way.

June Kerr, nee Greenhalgh, was born in 1932, in Southend-on-Sea, England, the youngest of three children.  Her father had started his seafaring career on sailing ships and later became a merchant navy captain while her mother held the home fires during his extended periods of time away at sea.

As a child June attended the Cone-Ripman school where the curriculum combined general education with ballet and related theatre-arts training.  Originally based in London but relocated during WWII to Hertfordshire, it later became known as Arts Educational School.

Anton Dolin, having danced with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, became a pioneer of ballet in England (and toured New Zealand with the Covent Garden Russian Ballet in late 1930s). Dolin visited the Cone-Ripman school after World War II and selected 12 young dancers, June Greenhalgh among them, to join a troupe he and Alicia Markova were forming. This later developed into a permanent London-based company, Festival Ballet, of which June was thus a foundation member. (Renamed English National Ballet in 1989, this is the company that performed a season of Giselle in Auckland earlier this year. The ballet world sits across national boundaries and through time, its best dancers becoming citizens of an international ‘country’).

In 1952 Anne Rowse, a young New Zealand dancer training in London, also joined Festival Ballet, and she and June became instant friends. Anne spoke movingly at the funeral of the  lifelong friendship that ensued.

June Greenhalgh in Ruth Page’s The Merry Widow/Vilia. Festival Ballet 1953

In 1953 another young New Zealander, Russell Kerr, joined Festival Ballet. He and June held hands, but he explained to her they’d better not get too serious because he would at some stage be returning to New Zealand, feeling a moral obligation to do that on account of the Government bursary he had been awarded. ‘Not a problem. I’d come too,’ replied June, and so they were married without delay.

Festival Ballet, under the Polish impresario Julian Braunsweg, toured and performed in UK, Europe, Canada and US with memorable programs, and the likes of Igor Stravinsky conducting in the pit. In 1957 the Kerrs left all that behind and came to settle in New Zealand. (Lucky I was, to be a child pupil at Nettleton-Edwards School of Ballet in Auckland where Russell became a partner. I continue to learn from him to this day).

Make no mistake—Russell would become the lion, and June the lioness, of ballet in this country when they moved to Wellington in 1962 and he became director of New Zealand Ballet. (Poul and Rigmor Gnatt had been the pioneering tiger and tigress who preceded them, since 1953). With unstinting loyalty, Kerr delivered pedigree standards of heritage repertoire (Swan Lake, Petrouchka, Prince Igor, Schéhérazade, Coppélia, Nutcracker, and much more), to put New Zealand firmly on the world ballet map. His own choreographic output was enormously prolific and gave the Company some of its greatest hits—Prismatic Variations, Carnival of the Animals, Peter Pan, A Christmas Carol, Terrible Tom … it’s a very long list.

The spouse of such a driven choreographer is the supportive, attentive, unpaid and often invisible, kindest critic who stays calm and acts as a beacon when storms rage and finances plummet—or, in the Kerrs’ case, when Russell worked himself close to death to sustain the company endeavour, through to 1969. A disastrous fire that had destroyed almost all the Company’s resources in 1967 had not helped.

There were later periods directing Auckland Dance Centre, then the Kerrs moved to Christchurch which would remain their home until today. Southern Ballet Theatre was a highly enterprising initiative and for years productions were mounted there on a miniature scale but uncompromising in dance and music standards. There were numerous collaborations with composer, Philip Norman, and designer, Peter Lees-Jeffries, so Christchurch was well served in that time. No-one can remember how it was financed probably because there was no budget worth remembering.

June would accompany Russell to Wellington whenever he was engaged by Royal New Zealand Ballet to stage a production on the company. She was always so pleased to walk in the Botanical Gardens, to visit a gallery, or over a coffee to swap family news, always with the kindest interest and sweetest nature. ‘No I won’t have another coffee thanks. I’ll be meeting Russell for lunch in the rehearsal break so I’ll have one with him then.’ In later years the dear couple would still venture out together to a local café and continue their lifelong habit of people-watching in public places. ‘That’s where you learn about different characters—how they move, what they look like, you can guess much of their experiences from such things. It’s like research for choreography,’ Russell would say.

They were still holding hands when June died last week. The photos on the order of service show a fine-boned, wide-eyed, gorgeous redhead, gamine beauty, a shade reminiscent of Moira Shearer (the ballerina in the famed film, The Red Shoes ). Ballet in New Zealand owes much to the Kerr family.

In 1940, June, aged 8, was on the list of children to be repatriated out of war-time London to live out the duration of the war elsewhere, in her case on the SS City of Benares to Canada. For reasons never explained, her parents removed their daughter from the passenger list the day before it sailed, and just as well because the ship was torpedoed in mid-Atlantic.

June would later tell that story, and when asked ‘What happened to the 90 children on board?’ would answer ‘Oh, they were all saved’ and she went to her grave believing that to be so. In fact, 77 of the 90 children on board died, but it’s a reasonable guess June’s parents believed that an 8-year-old didn’t need to know that. It was a heart-stopping moment at the funeral to learn about what was probably the only ‘lie’ anyone ever told to this kind and trusting woman

June Kerr: Born South-end-on Sea, England, 12 June 1932; married Russell Kerr, 1 son, 1 daughter; died Christchurch, New Zealand, 29 October 2018

A version of this obituary first appeared in The Dominion Post on 24 November 2018. Sources: Russell Kerr, David Kerr, Anne Rowse, Keith McEwing.

Featured image: June Greenhalgh & Russell Kerr in Prismatic Variations. Choreographed by Russell Kerr and Poul Gnatt; designed by Raymond Boyce. New Zealand Ballet 1960. Photo: © John Ashton

June Greenhalgh & Russell Kerr in Prismatic Variations.Choreographed by Russell Kerr and Poul Gnatt. New Zealand Ballet 1960