On the wings of a song, Eileen Kramer is a media darling at 100

They say “once a dancer, always a dancer”. But by “always”, they don’t often mean until you are 100. Or even when you’re approaching 40.

That’s when most professional dancers gracefully retire or the artistic director suggests it’s definitely the time to exit the stage door, permanently.

When I recently told a few people about the Australian, Eileen Kramer, still dancing at 100, the response was “what? What do you mean a hundred? That’s weird”.

Not so weird when you think about the graceful way she can still move her arms, her theatrical manner and her charm, but her renaissance is also due to something else – good luck and support from those who know how to bring a forgotten artist back into the limelight.

In just under one year, Kramer has gone from “Who?” to featuring in 13 clips on YouTube, giving live performances, spending time in Bundanon as an artist in residence, and being the subject for the online crowdfunding platform, Pozible, to raise money for her next work, on Ten’s The Project, Radio National’s Life Matters and last week’s ABC TV’s Compass program, titled Dancing @100.

A major element in her reincarnation was her collaboration with the singer, Lacey Cole, who asked her to dance in a video to promote his single, Nephilim’s Lament, recorded in 2014.

Kramer’s publicity came soon after she returned to live permanently in Australia, aged 99, after living for 40 years in the United States.

She had, however, visited her homeland from time to time and in 2008, she self-published (through Trafford Publishing) her memoirs, with the very Australian title, Walkabout Dancer in which she wrote of her dancing life, beginning with her years in the company founded in Australia by Gertrud Bodenwieser.

A Viennese dancer and choreographer, Bodenwieser sailed to Australia in 1939 where she formed the Bodenwieser Ballet.

Kramer’s memories of Bodenwieser are poignant, especially as they relate to the disappearance of Bodenwieser’s husband.

For nearly three years, from mid 1938, Bodenwieser was unable to find out what had happened to her husband who had stayed in France when she sailed to South America on tour with her European dance company. He was arrested by the Gestapo and taken to Auschwitz where he died some time after August 1942.

Kramer remembered how Bodenwieser often seemed preoccupied with her own inner thoughts.

“Although she had the manners and deportment of what used to be known as a grand dame”, wrote Kramer, and although she “gave no sign of loneliness, I became aware of it.

“I never spoke of this to anyone because I had seen something one evening that I felt was too private for me to spread about. Passing her dressing room on my way to take my place at the barre, I happened to glance at her door. It was ajar and there I saw Madame’s bitter tears. She was sobbing quite violently. A few moments later she was at the head of the class with Emmy (Towsey/Taussig) beside her. She was smiling as if she had never known a moment’s sorrow”.

Kramer wasn’t a founding member of the Australian Bodenwieser company but was drawn to dance after her mother took her to see a performance by the company in 1939 at the Sydney Conservatorium. The performance was life changing and Kramer, in her own words, was “lured by the footlights”.

Just as Emmy Taussig changed her name to Towsey, Kramer changed her stage name surname from Kramer to Cramer, presumably because neither wanted to be too closely associated with German heritage during the post World War II years.

Kramer’s father had a German background and migrated to Australia after travelling through South Africa. She was born in Sydney in 1914 but in 1927, when Kramer was 13, her father’s drinking problem ended with his separation from his wife.

Kramer married twice and was widowed twice, but had no children and spent much of her life travelling and living in India, Paris and then the United States, but in her later years, she continued to make brief visits to Australia.

In 2003, on one of those visits, she agreed to an oral history interview for the National Library of Australia.

When she finally returned to her home city, Kramer lived in the suburb of Chippendale where she met Lacey Cole, the singer, but also the manager of a local café.

He asked her to collaborate in a promotional video for his new album, Other Ways to Say the Same Thing, released in April 2014. He sang and she danced to Nephilim’s Lament

There are some intriguing gaps in Kramer’s story. I wonder how she managed the physical and emotional demands of the return to her homeland aged 99 and who helped her relocate. Moving from one country to another is stressful at any time, but at nearly 100 years old it must have been very difficult.

I’m also curious about how the story of her life in the last year or so has become so prevalent in the media. What triggered what and how did the rolling stone of publicity keep on rolling?

However it happened, it’s good news that a woman of her age can still perform, still charm and still make an impact.

Kramer seems happy to be lit by the footlights again. Maybe she never drifted far away from centre stage.

In searching the National Library of Australia’s website, Trove, which includes digitised newspaper and magazine articles, I came across several articles she had written for The Australian Women’s Weekly, including one published early in December 1962.

Under the headline, Nightfall: New York, the introduction described Kramer (or Cramer as she was known then) as “an artist, dancer, model and costume designer”.

Written in verses, Nightfall described the tension in New York at the peak of the Cuban missile crisis and Kramer’s own deep feelings as she watched the sun set over the wedge-shaped Flatiron Building on the corner of Broadway and 5th Avenue.

She wrote of the deep red sky lighting up the Hudson and the funnels of ships, of waiting for a letter from “the one I loved”, and of the fear of men “shouting” for war.

The recent burst of media stories have only skimmed the surface of her extraordinary life.

It would take a very dedicated person to tackle a biography and it couldn’t be done without letters and possibly diary entries.

But a publisher would be very unlikely to commit to a biography unless it was underwritten with money by the author or her friends.

We’re in the world of quick bites, heavily publicised, and soon forgotten.

2 Comments

  1. Stephanie
    Posted March 24, 2015 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    Hi Valerie,
    What a story, and what an incredible lady!
    I hope to still be dancing when I’m 100, or at least for as long as I’m alive on this earth.
    Stephanie

  2. valerie
    Posted March 29, 2015 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    I was pleased to hear from the dancer, choreographer and teacher, Barbara Cuckson, a student of Gertrud Bodenwieser, who gave me a very useful list of research resources for the life and work of Bodenwieser.
    “Shona Dunlop wrote a first hand view of Bodenwieser, titled Ecstasy of Purpose, and Bettina Vernon, (a member of the Viennese Ballet group who came to Australia in 1939) wrote Gertrud Bodenwieser and Vienna’s Contribution to Ausdruckstanz.
    “Empire of Ecstasy, by Karl Toepfer, has a wonderful chapter on Bodenwieser, and Bodenwieser’s own book, The New Dance, is essential for understanding her work.
    “There are collections of material (donated by my family) in the National Library of Australia, the National Museum of Australia, the Mitchell Library in the State Library of NSW, the Performing Arts Collection in the Arts Centre, Melbourne, and at the Museum of Performing Arts, at His Majesty’s Theatre in Perth”.

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Eileen Kramer, date and photographer unknown, supplied by ABC TV Compass program

Eileen Kramer, date and photographer unknown, supplied by ABC TV Compass program

Eileen Kramer in front of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, 2014

Eileen Kramer in front of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, 2014

Bodenwieser Ballet, Wheel of Life, Coralie Hinkley, Eileen Cramer (Kramer) and Mardi Watchorn, 1945, National Library of Australia

Bodenwieser Ballet, Wheel of Life, Coralie Hinkley, Eileen Cramer (Kramer) and Mardi Watchorn, 1945, National Library of Australia

Anca Frankenhauser, Patrick Harding-Irmer, Anya McKee and Gavin Clarke with Eileen Kramer at Bundanon

Anca Frankenhauser, Patrick Harding-Irmer, Anya McKee and Gavin Clarke with Eileen Kramer at Bundanon