Dancing Under the Southern Skies: A History of Ballet in Australia

Are you an author who describes yourself as self-employed on LinkedIn?

If so, the description is probably half true.

Self, yes.

Employed, probably no.

Authors, especially in Australia, tend to write as a labour of love.

Love first, income last.

In 2008 I left The Sydney Morning Herald with a plan to write a book on the history of ballet in Australia within two years.

Two years? That was a dream.

But despite the long haul, (eight years), lost sleep, the purchase of numerous photos, the piles of research papers in folders, boxes, on the floor, on the bed and in bookshelves, and the fear it would never be finished, I was determined to write a book on a subject I loved most.

This book, my fourth, was an outsider, nothing like the biographies I’d written before.

Unlike publishing in Australia in the 1990s, when contracts and advances were relatively easy for authors, I began to write my new book at a time when contracts and advances in Australia were limited, especially for books that were seen by publishers as niche.

There were sad days, the first when. in 2010, a publisher cancelled our contract because I wrote a short chapter for Luminous, the Australian Ballet’s 50th anniversary book.

Why, asked the publisher, didn’t the Australian Ballet use my book as their 50th anniversary book?

Because it was the company’s own book of course, one that covered the company’s life from the 1960s to 2012 rather than a century of ballet in Australia and the history of many companies who danced here.

Later, several other publishers were keen to sign a contract but their marketing teams though otherwise because they were convinced that books on the performing arts in Australian wouldn’t sell.

It wasn’t until Australian Scholarly Publishing understood the themes of the book that the writing began in earnest.

Books on ballet in Australia had been published before but most were written decades ago or were focused on specific companies or within a time frame.

I read and admired these books, among them, Enter the Colonies Dancing and Ballet in Australia, The Second Act, by Edward H. Pask; Opera and Ballet in Australia, by John Cargher; Borovansky, the Man Who Made Australian Ballet, by Frank Salter; The Ballets Russes in Australia and Beyond, edited by Mark Carroll; and Australia Dances and Creating Australian Dance 1945-1965, by Alan Brissenden and Keith Glennon.

But I wanted to explore more, to tell the stories of both the dancers who toured to Australia and their directors and producers, the dancers who made their careers in this country and to explore the cultural history of Australia, our cultural cringe in the first half of the 20th century, and the way in which we escaped that cringe and found a way of expressing our country on stages and screens.

Letters from dancers to their families in Europe and oral histories in the National Library of Australia helped and so too did newspaper articles, some of which were given to me from former dancers and balletomanes.

The two years that became eight years have come to an end and while that’s good, I still miss the late night writing, the research and the interviews I’ve enjoyed with so many dancers, directors and designers.