Laurel Martyn, once a dancer, always a dancer

As a child in the 1920s, Laurel Martyn saw Anna Pavlova dance in Brisbane.

Of course she found Pavlova’s performances beautiful. But that wasn’t the reason that Laurel decided to be a dancer.

Laurel once told me: “I was always a dancer. I just knew I was a dancer ever since I was 4”.

And I think she was a dancer to the end of her life aged 97. She died in Melbourne this month.

We had a few conversations over the years, and once, in her 80s, she danced with her arms. Sitting in a chair at her Melbourne home she showed me an elegant port de bras.

Another time, in 2002, she told me about her years as a young dancer in London and winning a gold medal in the Genee Awards in 1935.

Lauren was born in Toowoomba in 1916. Her surname was Gill but she changed it, she told me, because she thought it sounded “like a butcher’s name”. Perhaps she meant fishmonger!

But to go back to the beginning of her dancing days: “Kathleen Hamilton taught me in Toowoomba.

“She gave me a wonderful feeling for aesthetics, she answered my needs which were to find out more about dancing, not about the technique first. To find out how to dance better.

“If anyone told me just put your hand on the barre and stand still, I would have left.

“I went to Brisbane because I decided to go to university to do archaeology.

“Someone told me there wasn’t any archaeology in Australia so I decided I’d better keep on with dancing.

“My family said to me ‘we’d better let you try to get it out of your system’. I wanted to be a dancer since age 4”.

The Brisbane ballet teacher, Marjorie Hollinshed taught her “the beginnings of the Royal Academy of Dancing syllabus.

“She was a very intelligent woman and she had a wonderful mind for inquiry. That suited me because I’m always inquiring”.

Lauren visited Melbourne to get a further opinion about her dancing from Jennie Brenan, a woman who could never be accused of giving too much praise.

‘She said I was ‘quite nice’ (as a dancer)”.

In 1933, Lauren sailed to England on the Orient Line ship, the Ormonde.

“It was lovely. I love ships”.

She turned 17 on the journey.

“I auditioned at the Association of Operatic Dancing [the earlier name of the Royal Academy of Dancing] with Felix Demery. He said I think you should study with Phyllis Beddells [one of the founding members of the association].

“I did. I lived and trained with her in Maida Vale where she had her house. We got on very well.

“I sat my RAD Advanced exam at Holland Park (where the association had its headquarters) and I passed and I won a choreographic scholarship and was also runner up in the Pavlova Casket”.

The Pavlova Casket was a choreography competition. For her entry in 1935, Laurel created Sigrid, in which she danced the title role.

In the same year, she won her gold medal in the Genee competition, judged by Adeline Genee and Judith Espinosa.

“I remember Genee was very sweet and extremely nice to me, interested in my dancing from the word go. She loved my beats”.

The candidates had to dance a solo choreographed by themselves and a classical ballet dance but not a variation from a classical ballet such as Giselle.

Laurel’s own dance was called The Little Dancer from Spain.

The following year she was invited to join the Vic-Wells Ballet (later known as the Sadler’s Wells Ballet) by the artistic director, Ninette de Valois.

“I didn’t have the perfect figure, and not nice feet, but De Valois wanted me. She said I would be the allegro dancer. She made a mistake because I wasn’t an allegro dancer”.

“I joined the Wells corps de ballet and in two weeks I learned seven ballets. Not The Rake’s Progress though. De Valois decided I wasn’t suitable for that. Boro (Edouard Borovansky) didn’t want me to be a harlot in a ballet so that happened to me twice”.

The Rake’s Progress, choreographed by de Valois in 1935, has an orgy scene and five dancers who play the roles of Ladies of the Town.

Laurel told me she had her first pas de deux lesson with Anton Dolin and briefly travelled with the Markova-Dolin company.

She returned to Australia in 1938, supposedly on a year’s leave of absence from the Vic-Wells as Jennie Brenan had convinced her she needed her as an assistant with her Melbourne school.

But Laurel did not return to England due to the outbreak of the war.

She joined the Borovansky Ballet in 1940 and danced in that company as a principal until her marriage to Lloyd Lawton in 1945.

The following year, she became the director of the Ballet Guild, later titled the Victorian Ballet Company and eventually Ballet Victoria.

We didn’t speak of those times, unfortunately, but her Ballet Guild years are well documented in Ballet in Australia, by Edward Pask, and Australia Dances, by Alan Brissenden and Keith Glennon.

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Laurel Martyn as Odette in Swan Lake, 1944, photo © Ronald Esler

Laurel Martyn, 1942-43, National Library of Australia, photo © Athol Shmith