Beth Dean: a dancer many steps ahead of her time

It may have been the oddest introduction of the royal tour of 1954.

”Your Majesty,” said the general manager of the ABC, Charles Moses. ”May I present Beth Dean. She will become an Aboriginal boy in a few minutes.”

The Queen laughed politely. The brief meeting came near the end of an interval during a gala performance at Sydney’s Tivoli Theatre.

Minutes later, Dean raced to her dressing room, peeled off her white kid gloves and sparkling evening gown and pulled on her costume to dance the part of The Initiate, the male lead role in her own creation, the ballet Corroboree.

The premiere came four decades before Aboriginal dance became an established theatrical art form with the emergence of Bangarra Dance Theatre. Dean was a woman far ahead of her times.

As a choreographer, she based her works on indigenous dance forms from Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and the south-west of the US. She danced in those works herself, taking recital tours throughout the world. And as a writer and critic, she chronicled performances and dancers’ lives both at home and overseas as the dance writer for The Sydney Morning Herald and as a correspondent for the American publication Dance Magazine.

Ruth Elizabeth Dean was born on April 26, 1918, in Denver, Colorado, the youngest daughter of Charles Dean, an engineer, and his wife, Winifred. As a child, she showed talent as a dancer, singer and swimmer, but dance was her greatest love.

After early dance lessons in Denver, the 10-year-old Dean travelled with her mother to Paris, where she trained for three years with Leo Staats, the dance master at the Paris Opera Ballet. The family reunited in San Diego, where Charles had moved. They then settled in Los Angeles, where Dean attended Hollywood High School and continued her dance training at the school of Theodore Kosloff, a former dancer with the Ballets Russes.

The family returned to Denver, where Dean graduated from high school then continued her dance training at the Cleveland Playhouse, where her teachers were the Russian Serge Popeloff and Edward Caton, who had trained in St Petersburg and once danced with Anna Pavlova.

In 1936, Dean moved to London to study with another Russian teacher, Nicholas Legat, whose students included Margot Fonteyn, Anton Dolin and Alexandra Danilova.

But the travelling years came to a sudden end with the threat of war. Dean returned to the US, where her career splintered into many directions, from solo ballet performances to the vaudeville circuit, and from exhibition ballroom dancing to musical comedy and operetta. Then Dean was cast in an operetta, The Waltz King, in which her future husband, the Australian baritone Victor Carell, sang the principal role of Johann Strauss.

He had been born Victor Cioccarelli in Sydney in 1916 and left Australia to study in Rome before his career took him to London, Canada and the US, where he sang with the Chicago Opera. In 1944, during the tour of The Waltz King, he married Dean in Detroit.

Both Dean and Carell were offered contracts to tour to Australia for J.C. Williamson’s production of Annie Get Your Gun, which opened in Melbourne in July 1947. The musical toured to New Zealand and Sydney and played for three years.

Dean’s future career hinged on a chance meeting with an Australian anthropologist, Charles Mountford, who had toured the US in 1944-45, showing films and lecturing on Aboriginal culture.

During the run of Annie Get Your Gun, Dean and Carell studied Aboriginal and Maori dance and after the musical closed, they toured Australia and the US, staging recitals in which Dean danced solos based on Aztec, Navajo, Creole, Australian Aboriginal and Maori dances.

Back in Australia in early 1953, Dean presented a brief concert season at Sydney’s Phillip Street Theatre. At the end of the first show, the NSW president of the Arts Council of Australia, Dorothy Helmrich, went backstage to ask Dean to choreograph a work to John Antill’s score, Corroboree, first performed as a concert suite in 1946.

The first dance version of Corroboree was choreographed by Rex Reid for the National Theatre Ballet in 1950 but Helmrich wanted a new production to premiere during the royal tour of 1954.

Dean accepted Helmrich’s offer and in 1953 set off with Carell on an eight-month expedition to study and notate the dance movements of various Aboriginal tribes in Arnhem Land, with the Tiwi people of Bathurst Island and the Daly River people and finally in Yuendumu, north-west of Alice Springs. The result of their study was a 45-minute work that featured more than 20 dancers and told the story of a boy’s journey into manhood, from his break from the women of the tribe through to his trial by fire and his final initiation.

After the premiere, then a country tour of Corroboree, Dean and Carell travelled to Papua New Guinea to work on a documentary film, Softly, Wild Drums, and later a book of the same name, published in 1958. The couple eventually wrote 19 books together, including their memoir, Twin Journey in 1983.

Once again, Dean’s career spread in many different directions. For the Arts Council Ballet in 1958, she produced such staples of the classical repertoire as Coppelia and Les Sylphides and she opened her own dance studio in Parramatta, where she taught until 1965.

Remarkably, Dean also had the energy to maintain a part-time career as dance writer for The Sydney Morning Herald from 1965 to 1972.

She devoted much of her time in the 1970s choreographing for arts festivals (such as the Mexico Cultural Olympics, where her ballet Kukaitcha was performed by the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico), working with Carell in the Cook Islands, where the couple had established the Cook Islands National Arts Theatre in 1969, and living for a time in Fiji, where Carell oversaw the first South Pacific Festival for the Arts.

The last important dance venture of Dean’s life was a restaging of Corroboree for students of the Australian Ballet School in 1994. The work, videotaped and notated by Meg Denton, forms part of the dance collection at the National Film and Sound Archive. In her 80s, she continued to exercise, doing ballet barre exercises every day.

Dean donated her papers to the State Library of NSW and memorabilia from Corroboree to the National Museum of Australia.

Beth Dean Carell is survived by her niece and nephew, Melanie Roeder and Dean Kehmeir in Denver, and by the nieces and nephews of Victor Carell in Sydney, Angela Potts, Livio Carli, Therese Lindwall, and Tom and John Cioccarelli. Victor died in 2001.

This obituary first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald on 12 May, 2012