Canberra Dance Theatre (CDT) is about to celebrate its 45th birthday and part of its celebrations will take place in Civic Square in Canberra City on 15 October. Amongst other activities, CDT is staging a Great Big Community Dance at 2:15 that afternoon. The media release says: ‘There’s no need to learn our fabulous dance first. Simply join the group, check out who the leaders are and follow along. It’s all about participating, connecting with others, sharing a joyful experience and having a great time.’
The Canberra drumming ensemble Tanamasi will be playing live music and the community dance has been choreographed by Gretel Burgess, Max Burgess, Rachael Hilton, Levi Szabo and Jacqui Simmonds.
Canberra Dance Theatre grew out of the National University Dance Ensemble (NUDE), established by Graham Farquhar in 1970. In 1977 it became Canberra Dance Theatre and was under the leadership of Diana Shohet, Lorna Marshall and Graham Farquhar. Its artistic directors since then have been:
Dr Stephanie Burridge (1978–2001)
Amalia Hordern (2002–2006)
Megan Millband (2007–2009)
Liz Lea (2010–2016)
Jacqui Simmonds (2020–current and Artistic Coordinator from 2018-2019)
The company has had a remarkable history of collaboration over its 45 years and has included collaborations with Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Dance Theatre Student Ensemble, Mirramu Dance Company as led by Elizabeth Cameron Dalman, and a list of individual artists too long to mention but who include Phillip Adams, Jennifer Barry, Julia Cotton, Patrick Harding-Irmer, Russell Page, Paul Saliba, Cheryl Stock, and Jade Dewi Tyas Tunggal.
CDT is also the home of the GOLDS, Canberra’s much admired group of dancers over the age of 55.
Jack Riley and Nikki Tarling
Once again a portrait of dancer Jack Riley, this time with fellow dancer Nikki Tarling, has made it to the finals of the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ prestigious prize, the Archibald. The portrait, reproduced below, is by artist Marcus Wills. Read a little more about it here.
Jack Riley was the subject of another portrait, also by Marcus Wills, which reached the finals of the Archibald in 2020. See this link.
Ron Barassi (1936–2023)
I don’t usually write about football or football players on this site, but Ron Barassi, Australian Rules footballer, coach and mentor, is an exception. Barassi died on 16 September 2023 aged 87. His connection with dance goes back to the 1960s when he was responsible for input into Robert Helpmann’s then iconic creation The Display. Barassi was called in to ensure that the male dancers in the ballet, who were passing a football amongst each other, were doing so correctly. 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.
Further discussion of various aspects of The Display are at this link.
I bought myself a Bangarra YES T-shirt ahead of the forthcoming referendum on the Voice to Parliament. It was quite expensive as T-shirts go but 50% of the profits from the sales will be donated to the Mangkaja Arts Resource Centre in Fitzroy Crossing, Western Australia. The T-shirt features artwork by Lynley Nargoodah and I can attest to the quality of the product and the beauty of the artwork that adorns the word YES. I think the supply is almost sold out but check here where there is more information about the design.
More on Strictly Gershwin
To close this months dance diary here is another photo from Queensland Ballet’s fabulous Strictly Gershwin, which I can’t get out of my mind! Read my review here.
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.
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.
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
* 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.
Bryan Lawrence, who has died in his 81st year, was born Brian Lawrence Palethorpe in Birmingham, England.He began his dance training at an early age in regional schools in England and then trained, on scholarship, at the Sadler’s Wells Ballet School (later the Royal Ballet School) from the age of thirteen. After moving into the senior school he began performing in walk-on parts with the Sadler’s Wells Opera and Ballet. He never legally changed his name but used ‘Bryan Lawrence’ throughout his professional career.
Lawrence joined Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet in 1954 and was promoted to soloist in 1955. His first professional dancing part, undertaken while still a student at the Sadler’s Wells School, was in the corps de ballet of The Firebird, as staged by Lubov Tchernicheva and Sergei Grigoriev for Sadler’s Wells Ballet in 1954. Lawrence joined the company a little later and toured with them to regional venues in England until 1957.
Following a period of national service with the RAF he joined the Royal Ballet in 1959 and became a soloist in 1961. In 1964 he moved to Australia at the invitation of Peggy van Praagh and joined the Australian Ballet as a principal dancer.
While with the Australian Ballet, Lawrence partnered all the leading dancers in the company, including Elaine Fifield, Marilyn Jones and Kathleen Gorham. He toured with the company on their early overseas engagements, including to the Commonwealth Arts Festival and various cities in Europe, 1965–1966, and on a major tour to Montreal, Canada, for Expo ’67 with subsequent engagements in South America and elsewhere. In an article for The Canberra Times in 1968 he recalled some of the memorable off-stage experiences during the early part of the 1965 tour:
I recall riding a camel across the desert at 4 am to see the Pyramids after a long overnight flight from Perth to Cairo, and doing a class in the temple ruins at Baalbeck at seven o’clock in the morning when the sun became so hot we were unable to continue.
In his career with the Australian Ballet he is especially remembered for his role in The Display, in which he played the role of the Leader. Of his work on that ballet with its choreographer Robert Helpmann he remarked, in an oral history interview for the National Library of Australia in 1986:
It was interesting working with Bobby. I did, I think, most of the choreography for my bits myself. Bobby was inclined to do that. He worked out, obviously, the general thing, the story, but I can remember him saying before lunch one day, ‘Well, you know, think about something to do there.’ And I just worked something out myself and it was accepted.
Lawrence resigned from the Australian Ballet at the end of 1967 and in 1968, along with fellow Australian Ballet principal, Janet Karin, founded the Bryan Lawrence School of Ballet in Canberra. Together, Lawrence and Karin trained many fine artists, including Ross Stretton, Joanne Michel and Adam Marchant, all of whom rose through the ranks of the Australian Ballet to dance principal roles before going on to expand their careers in other significant directions.
The school’s performance group, the Bryan Lawrence Performing Group, presented its first classical production, excerpts from Coppélia, to Canberra audiences in 1970, and its first full-length ballet, Giselle, in 1974. Lawrence appeared in the school’s productions on occasions and was especially admired for his performances as Captain Belaye in Pineapple Poll, Albrecht in Giselle, and Dr Coppélius in Coppélia.He also occasionally choreographed short works for the school’s annual performances.
Lawrence left Canberra for Sydney in 1986. In Sydney he undertook a variety of jobs including a brief period of work as a teacher at the McDonald College. Lawrence remarried in Sydney and lived towards the end of his life in Victoria Falls in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. He was an accomplished pianist and in his retirement enjoyed composing original, short works for piano.
After he left Canberra, the Bryan Lawrence School of Ballet was renamed the National Capital Ballet School in 1987 and the associated performing company became the National Capital Dancers.
Bryan Lawrence is survived by his first wife, Janet Karin, with whom he had two children, a son Nicholas and a daughter Isobel (deceased). He spent many happy years with his second wife, Lyn Palethorpe.
Brian Lawrence Palethorpe: born 4 September 1936, Birmingham, England; died Katoomba, New South Wales, 8 July 2017.
Michelle Potter, 9 July 2017
Featured image: Bryan Lawrence in Les Sylphides. The Australian Ballet, 1964. Photo: Walter Stringer
Thank you to those who have logged on to my website over the past year, especially those who have kept the site alive with their comments. I wish you the compliments of the season and look forward to hearing from you in 2013.
The best of 2012
Lists of the ‘best of’ will always be very personal and will depend on what any individual has been able to see. However, here are my thoughts in a number of categories with links back to my posts on the productions. I welcome, of course, comments and lists from others, which are sure to be different from mine.
Most outstanding new choreography: Graeme Murphy’s The narrative of nothing(despite its title), full of vintage Murphy moves but full of the new as well.
Most outstanding production: Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Terrainwith choreography by Frances Rings and outstanding collaborative input from the creative team of Jennifer Irwin, Jacob Nash, Karen Norris and David Page.
Most disappointing production: The Australian Ballet’s revival of Robert Helpmann’s Display. I’m not sure that anyone in the production/performance really ‘got it’ and it became simply a reminder that dance doesn’t always translate well from generation to generation, era to era.
Surprise of the year: Finucane and Smith’s Glory Box. While some may question whether this show was dance or not, Moira Finucane’s performance in Miss Finucane’s Collaboration with the National Gallery of Victoria (Get Wet for Art) was a wonderful, tongue-in-cheek comment on the angst-ridden works of Pina Bausch, and as such on Meryl Tankard’s more larrikin approach to serious issues.
Dancer to watch: Tammi Gissell. I was sorry to miss the Perth-based Ochre Contemporary Dance Company’s inaugural production, Diaphanous, in which Gissell featured, but I was impressed by her work with Liz Lea in Canberra as part of Science Week 2012 at CSIRO and look forward to the development of that show later in Canberra in 2013.
Beyond Australia: Wayne McGregor’s FAR, in which the choreography generated so much to think about, to talk over and to ponder upon.
Most frustrating dance occurrence: The demise of Australia Dancing and the futile efforts to explain that moving it to Trove was a positive step.
17 November 2012 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
A second viewing of Icons, the Australian Ballet’s triple bill tribute to 50 years of choreographic exploration by the company, confirmed much of what I thought from my previous viewing. In particular I think it was a mistake to revive The Display. Despite well danced performances by Rachel Rawlins as the Female, Brett Simon as the Leader and Ty King-Wall as the Outsider the work overall looks old-hat. The kind of behaviour on show in the ballet was perhaps an accurate view of male/female relations in Australia in 1964 but it doesn’t have the shock value it had 48 years ago—times change. And while Katharine Hepburn might have been turned on by lyrebirds, I’m not sure any of the Australian Ballet dancers are, or even pretended to be. What’s more much of Robert Helpmann’s choreography looks a little like that from a musical (and not such a good one at that), while Sidney Nolan’s set, so evocative in its day, lost much of its appeal on the tiny stage of the Joan Sutherland Theatre, especially from J row in the stalls. Memory is a funny thing of course but I also seem to remember the lighting and general visual ambience being softer, hazier and thus more affecting. But I may be living in my dreams! In any case the revival has been a huge disappointment.
Gemini on the other hand still looks fabulous and its choreography was given great treatment by Leanne Stojmenov, Juliet Burnett, Andrew Wright and Kevin Jackson. While I was attracted by the opening night cast in Melbourne by their cool, technical reading of the work, not to mention their spectacular energy, the cast I saw in Sydney brought a whole new element to it. Not to say that there was not also a strength of technique with this cast—there was—it was beautifully danced by all four. A duet between Stojmenov and Jackson (who seems to get better and better every time I see him) was remarkably powerful with its dramatic lines and enfolding of bodies one with the other; and Burnett has an unusual mixture of fragility and strength that brought a new quality to the work. But there was a hint of the sinister, or at least something disquieting or provocative, and more than a hint of emotion in the performance from this cast. For me this Gemini had a feeling of humanity about it, as well as being a ballet about contemporary technique.
As for Beyond Twelve, well my companion said as we stood up to leave: ‘Graeme Murphy makes ballet for adults!’ With all its slapstick humour, its phallic references, its comments on youthful immaturity, and its poking fun at Australian society it is still an immensely moving ballet. And the trio between the Beyond Twelve, Beyond Eighteen and Beyond Thirty remains one of Murphy’s most heart-warming choreographic accomplishments, as does the beautifully staged ending full of resignation, or is it wistfulness, or is it just time to move forward?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
* 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.