The birth of Gemini: Marilyn Rowe remembers

Glen Tetley’s ballet, Gemini, was created in 1973 but it still looks as fresh as a brand new day.

In the Australian Ballet’s Icons season, now playing at the Sydney Opera House, it’s the central gem within the triple bill that includes The Display and Beyond Twelve.

As danced by Lana Jones, Amber Scott, Adam Bull and Rudy Hawkes, it shines like a yellow diamond. These dancers know the ballet inside out as they danced it first in New York last year and then again through the Melbourne season in August and September.

Jones danced the role created on Marilyn Rowe who told me earlier this year of how Tetley worked and how Gemini came into being.

Here’s the article I wrote for the Australian Ballet program on the birth of the ballet.

Gemini began with a letter under a doormat in Umbria.

Written by Peggy van Praagh, it was the latest plea in her campaign to bring Glen Tetley to Australia where he could make a new work for the Australian Ballet.

But the elusive Tetley was a man on the move, working in the Netherlands, England and the United States, so finding the choreographer in late 1972, a time of no emails and no mobiles, was not as simple as it would be today.

Van Praagh gave the letter to her colleague, the Australian Ballet’s administrator, Peter Bahen, who took it to Europe where the search ended at the door of Tetley’s estate in Umbria. No one was at home.

Bahen slipped the letter under the doormat. And waited.

Eventually, van Praagh’s begging and nagging did the trick. Tetley could hardly resist as van Praagh had spent three years on his trail.

In March 1973, he arrived in Melbourne, watched class for two weeks, picked just four dancers for his new work, and banned van Praagh from the studio.

“She kept coming along the corridor and trying to peek in”, said Marilyn Rowe, one of the four dancers, “but Glen wouldn’t let her. He said that’s the way he worked. It was new – the beginning – and to start is the most difficult thing and that’s why she wasn’t allowed in”.

For many weeks in those early autumn days, Rowe – with John Meehan, Gary Norman, and Carolyn Rappel – worked intensely and in secret with Tetley as he created Gemini, a work that reflected the vast continent of Australia.

In her director’s office at the Australian Ballet School’s headquarters, Rowe stood, and placed her arms in a wide, curved gesture.

“Gemini was a reflection of the country and the expansive movement he wanted, which is why there’s a certain shape in the arms”, she said. “He loved Australia and he wanted to be able in his choreography to reflect the big country.

“He used to say ‘you’re like an eagle at the edge of a cliff’, so it’s got this big shape of the arms, like wings, rounded, all very stylised”.

The breadth of Australia and its endless horizons were reflected as well in the size and shape of the jumps for the two couples, the one sensual, the other cool and calm.

Rowe remembered: “He was very quiet, with a sort of a spiritual thing about him. He spoke quietly as well but with authority. We were all very nervous. It started with just me in the studio with Glen. He just kept going and pushing and pushing. For the first girl, (Rowe) there’s a solo and then a pas de deux. Exhausting. It was the style, too, so different for us then. We had never worked with anybody like Glen, we didn’t really have contemporary work”.

Tetley, an American, trained and danced with many choreographers, among them Hanya Holm, Martha Graham, Jerome Robbins, John Butler, Robert Joffrey and Marie Rambert.

His own choreography reflected his past, but he broke new ground by successfully merging the floor work and acrobatic elements of modern dance with the lines of classical ballet.

For Gemini, the use of Graham’s dance vocabulary was paramount.

“Even though Gemini has got Graham technique, it’s en pointe, so it’s still got that classical basis to it and then Glen’s own style as well,” says Rowe.

“A lot of companies find it difficult to get a cast to do it because it’s so exhausting and it needs to have the dynamic body. And if the music’s played too slowly you lose that dynamic. It just grinds to a halt.”

After Tetley created two movements, van Praagh was permitted into the studio.

“Peggy was stunned,” says Rowe, “and the first time the company saw it they couldn’t believe it. They shouted and screamed. It was so different.”

The premiere at Sydney’s Elizabethan Theatre on 6 April 1973 was greeted with glowing reviews. In The Sydney Morning Herald, Jill Sykes found it “an electrifying piece of work … bold, beautiful, sensual, delicate, joyful, wistful, passionate and lyrical”.

Set to Hans Werner Henze’s Symphony No. 3, the ballet was designed by Tetley’s favourite designer, Nadine Baylis, who came up with second-skin, sheeny chrome-yellow unitards.

Two months after the premiere, van Praagh took her two favourite protégés, Rowe and Kelvin Coe, to an international ballet competition in Moscow.

When the couple danced excerpts from Gemini “It was hysterical,” Rowe recalled.

“Some of the Russians were horrified. It looked like we were nude.”

At the time, The Australian Ballet was deciding its repertoire for a long international tour of the northern hemisphere that included Moscow.

Gemini was on the list, “but the Russians said ‘no, you can’t take that, it’s too suggestive’”, said Rowe.

However, when the company performed at London’s Coliseum in October 1973, Gemini was back on the program.

The dance writer Richard Buckle loved what he saw.

“No story or drama,” he wrote, “but a sculptural exploration of angelic acrobatics which amounts to love. The dancers performed it gloriously.”

In London, Gemini created a spin-off benefit for The Australian Ballet.

Van Praagh had her heart set on a work by Jerome Robbins, who just happened to be watching a dress rehearsal of Gemini at the Coliseum.

Rowe remembered: “He was really impressed with Gemini, and he said ‘you can have Afternoon of a Faun’ – as long as Gary and I did it.”

(The Robbins work finally came into The Australian Ballet’s repertoire in 1978).

Gemini remains a pivotal part of Rowe’s career.

Last year, she coached four dancers of The Australian Ballet in the ballet before they flew to New York to perform in the city’s annual Fall for Dance season.

Lana Jones, Amber Scott, Rudy Hawkes and Adam Bull had learnt Gemini from a choreologist; over four days, Rowe passed on what Tetley had told her.

“Don’t start being overly careful, don’t be too cautious, you’ve got to have risks. It’s a complicated work. You need to really listen to the music. You’ve got to keep counting – one, two, three, four, five – one two, one two – until it really becomes part of your being.

“The main thing is the stamina it requires. That’s the hardest thing.”

How, then, did Rowe prepare for this, the most challenging work she had ever performed? Was there any special way she readied herself for the physical and mental effort to come?

“No. It was ‘please God let me get through this’, particularly if you weren’t feeling 100 per cent. But it was the most wonderful experience working with Glen. For the four of us it was very, very special.”

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Lana Jones, Rudy Hawkes, Adam Bull and Amber Scott, Gemini, photo © Jeff Busby

Lana Jones, Rudy Hawkes, Adam Bull and Amber Scott, Gemini, photo © Jeff Busby

Marilyn Rowe and John Meehan,  Gemini, photo © Gregory Weight

Marilyn Rowe and John Meehan, Gemini, photo © Gregory Weight