Colin Peasley’s golden years with the Australian Ballet

We knew it was coming but today, Colin Peasley announced that he would retire from the Australian Ballet at the end of this year, with his final appearance on 19 December at the Sydney Opera House in Stephen Baynes’s Swan Lake.

His debut with the company was 50 years ago, in November 1962, when the Australian Ballet gave its first performance in Sydney with a production of Swan Lake. Peasley danced in the corps de ballet.

Peasley will talk of his life in ballet at the State Theatre at the Arts Centre, Melbourne, on September 22 and at the Opera Theatre in the Sydney Opera House on December 1.

In the past 20 years, I’ve talked with Peasley many times about his years with the Australian Ballet. His anecdotes are hilarious, and his knowledge of the company’s history is invaluable.

Of the many stories he shared with me, my favourite is his memory of the Australian Ballet’s opening night in Berlin during its international tour of 1965/66. Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev were the guest artists.

The company performed in the Theater des Westens, which was, he told me “a wonderful old theatre with bullet holes on the outside of building. We made the Guinness Book of Records for the most curtain calls – 60 curtain calls”.

The corps de ballet lined up for 12 calls, leaving Fonteyn and Nureyev on stage. The corps dancers returned to their dressing rooms, stripped off their costumes and makeup and showered.

“And in those days, every male dancer in company had to supply their own dinner suit. We got into our dinner suits with all those studs and bow ties”.

The men, and the girls in their cocktail dresses, moved upstairs to a reception arranged by the theatre management.

“But about 400 Berliners were still standing in auditorium calling ‘Rudi, Margot, Rudi, Margot!’.

“Here [in Australia] when it’s two minutes into overtime they turn the house lights on.

“Over there, everyone stands. They brought in the fire curtain and in the fire curtain was a pass door. Fonteyn and Nureyev were walking in and out of the pass door. You’re never going to see that again”.

Meanwhile, in the reception room a long trestle table was laden with food. The hungry corps de ballet dancers went “down the length of the table like a pack of bloody locusts.

“Fonteyn and Nureyev finished all the curtain calls, came up there and everyone was stunned.

“Nureyev hadn’t eaten all day long. He had a proper breakfast and then all he had was Russian tea.

“By now he is ravenous. He looks at the table and says ‘Rudi eat!’

“Nothing except flowers and, at the end, a corner of a sandwich. We don’t know why it was left there. He picks it up and this photographer goes ‘click’.

“You probably never heard a Russian swear. It’s in huge phrases.

“Rudi throws the food down”.

“A little girl of about 10 comes over, with her program to sign.

“Bitte?” she says.

Nureyev tore up her program.

Peasley leapt into the fray. He was sorry, he told the child’s mother, reassuring her that Nureyev “is never like that. I’ll get him to sign a program and post it to you”.

“And the mother just goes ‘vasn’t he vonderful?’”