Elaine Fifield, the first Butterfly

This month’s reprisal of Madame Butterfly by the Australian Ballet evokes memories of the late Australian ballerina, Elaine Fifield. The diminutive Sydney-born dancer was the first to portray the Japanese heroine in a full-length ballet production based on the story of Madame Butterfly.
Frederick Ashton chose the then 25-year-old to dance the lead role in his 1955 ballet, Madame Chrysanthème, the title of the 1887 book by Pierre Loti that inspired Puccini’s 1904 opera and all subsequent works based on the betrayed bride from Nagasaki.
Fifield was “as pertly pretty as a young Elizabeth Taylor” when she first came to the attention of Ashton, wrote Julie Kavanagh, his biographer.
“Fifield’s thin, wistful fragility was exactly the quality Ashton wanted…he also used her doll-like expression and kittenish qualities to great effect”.
Intrigued by the story for some years, Ashton had choreographed a Madame Butterfly solo for Margot Fonteyn in 1954. (Fonteyn wore a costume by her favourite designer, Christian Dior, when she danced the role.) The following year, Ashton’s full length Madame Chrysanthème – danced by Sadlers Wells Theatre Ballet – premiered at Covent Garden in London with Fifield and Alexander Grant.
Japan was in the air that year, as Kavanagh recalled. In 1955, Kurosawa’s films were finding an English audience and the Azuma Kabuki troupe was to appear at the Edinburgh Festival.
Fifield’s highly arched feet were shown to advantage in Ashton’s choreography that involved the pointing and flexing of Chrysanthème’s feet.
Fifield, the first Australian to rise to the rank of principal at Sadlers Wells Theatre Ballet (later the Royal Ballet), was acclaimed for her performances in Coppelia, John Cranko’s Tritsch-Tratsch (1947) and Pineapple Poll (1951), Alfred Rodrigues’ Blood Wedding (1953) and Ashton’s Homage to the Queen (1953) and Birthday Offering (1956).
Fifield, the second child of Leonard and Elsie Fifield, was born in Sydney’s inner-west into a family of Seventh Day Adventists. With her friends from Guilford Public School, she attended a ballet school run at the back of a Merrylands’ cinema. The principal begged her mother to let her dance. As the family moved around Sydney, Fifield trained with Frances Lett in Kogarah, then Sheila Whytock, the Frances Scully Ballet School and Leon Kellaway. When she was 14, Kathleen Danetree awarded her Solo Seal, the top examination of the Royal Academy of Dance, an honour that led to a scholarship to study in England. From 1946, Fifield trained at Sadlers Wells Ballet School, but in 1947, at the suggestion of Dame Ninette de Valois, founder of the two Sadlers Wells ballet companies, Fifield joined Sadlers Wells Theatre Ballet. The ballet mistress, Peggy Van Praagh, saw “a shy and rather beautiful young Australian girl . . . her first role was the Polka in Ashton’s Facade. Even in rehearsal, her remarkable talent was displayed, especially in her wonderful pirouettes, and we all sensed that in our midst was a star in the not too distant future”.
In 1953, on tour in the United States, she married John Lanchbery, then conductor of the Sadlers Wells orchestra. The following year, she moved to the main Sadlers Wells Ballet Company at Covent Garden and was promoted to the rank of principal in 1956.
Fifield resigned from the company a year later to return to Australia where she made guest appearances with the Borovansky Ballet. In 1960, she married her second husband, Les Farley, with whom she lived at Cape Rodney, near Port Moresby. A year after their marriage he told reporters, “you can take it from me, Mrs Farley will never dance professionally again”. They had two daughters, Louise and Joydie, but Fifield became miserable in PNG. She returned to Australia to dance from 1964 to 1966 as a principal artist with the Australian Ballet. In 1968, she lived with Farley in Cairns, and taught children ballet in north Queensland. She danced professionally in 1969 with Ballet Victoria, from 1969 to 1971 with the Australian Ballet and in 1971 with the West Australian Ballet and retired to live in Perth. She died in 1999.
As for Butterfly, there were three more ballet productions between Ashton’s and Welch’s – the first choreographed by Jonathon Thorpe in 1979, then by Charles Moulton in 1993 and finally by Paul Rizo in 1994.
A year after the premiere of Welch’s Madame Butterfly in 1995 at Melbourne’s State Theatre, David Nixon choreographed his own full length Butterfly for BalletMet in Ohio. In the Australian Ballet’s Melbourne season this month, the leading role will be danced by Rachel Rawlins, Madeleine Eastoe, Kirsty Martin, Miwako Kubota and Erina Takahashi, guesting from English National Ballet.