Mary Poppins, please turn out your toes

Mary Poppins started her life as peg doll. But it wasn’t long before the wooden body with a wooden expression was transformed by the pen of Mary Shepard into a dancing, flying nanny who often stood, or flew, with her feet turned out in a balletic position.
Shepard was given the peg doll as an example of how the nanny should look by Pamela Travers, the Australian writer of Mary Poppins, first published in 1934, and Shepard went on to illustrate all the Poppins books that followed. Shepard thought of herself as Eeyore, the downcast donkey in Winnie the Pooh, illustrated by her father, Ernest Shepard. Somewhat gloomy and easily persuaded by the bossy Travers, Mary Shepard did what she was told, but why the position of the turned out feet of Poppins?
The answer may lie in Travers’ background. Long before she was a writer, Travers was a dancer and actor, performing in pantomimes in Sydney and later dancing as an interlude within Shakespeare productions. In any case, Shepard was just as keen on a dancing Poppins as Travers, deciding that the nanny might be shown standing in a ballet fifth position, the heel of one foot lined up with the toes of the other. Travers objected, hence a compromise, with Poppins more often standing in first, second and fourth positions. When I researched Travers’ life for a biography in the 1990s, I noticed the turned out feet and how so many characters in her stories, not just Mary Poppins, danced or floated above the ground and I was given an unpublished manuscript by Shepard outlining the conversation between the two women on the appearance and stance of Poppins.
When Poppins became a stage musical, one of the two choreographers, Matthew Bourne and his creative collaborators saw that dancing is often used as a metaphor in the books for taking off. As he told Dance Magazine in 2006: “Once you start dancing, eventually you take off from the ground and you become light as a feather. In the stories, dancing seems to be the height of joy”.
The two English choreographers, Bourne and Stephen Mear, created three major dance pieces for the stage musical, Jolly Holiday, in which statues come to life, Step in Time, a showstopper for the chimney sweeps, and Supercalifragilistic for Mrs Corry and the ensemble.
The dancing in Jolly Holiday, set in the park, suggests something of the Diaghilev era, with the statues resembling the Spirit of the Rose in Fokine’s Le Spectre de la Rose. Mear, a tap dancer as well as a choreographer, created Step in Time in which the sweeps tap on the rooftops and Bert dances upside down behind the proscenium arch (just like Astaire dancing on the ceiling in Royal Wedding).
In Supercalifragilistic each letter of the word is spelled out in sign language. Bourne explained that the choreographers “tried to find a gestural language to create the letter shapes instead of just doing another dance routine”. They started with the sign language for the deaf but stylised it. Why sign language? Because, Mear said, “my partner is deaf, so we used that knowledge and then made it bigger”.
I’ve seen the musical in Britain and in Melbourne, and believe me, if you see it in Sydney or anywhere else it’s still playing in the world, Supercal will lodge itself in your brain for a long, long time.
Previews for the musical begin on April 17 at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre, where the auditorium is an accommodatingly large space for the final coup de theatre, when the nanny flies off the stage up into the heavens of the dress circle and beyond.

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