Alison Lee

Within the vast collection of Max Dupain’s dance photographs at the State Library of New South Wales is a sub group of nearly 60 separate images of Alison Lee, a strong and determined woman whose career as a dancer, teacher, and choreographer spanned more than 40 years.

Just why Dupain shot so many pictures of Lee remains a mystery as she was not – like so many of his subjects, an alluring foreign star such as the baby ballerinas of the Ballets Russes tours of Australia, including Irina Baronova, or the beautiful Sono Osato, but rather a girl from Perth, Western Australia who had a very lucky break at the outset of the second world war.

In 1940, she posed in Dupain’s Sydney studio and on the roof of the studio building in various ballet costumes, including a black tutu and, as pictured here, in flimsy harem pants and a sequined top. At the time, Lee was a corps de ballet member of Col. De Basil’s third troupe to tour Australia, the Original Ballet Russe.

Most of the library’s photographs of Lee are still negatives and none has yet been digitised.

Unlike Valrene Tweedie, another Australian member of the Original Ballet Russe, Lee danced with the company only in Australia, never overseas.

Like so many of the company’s dancers from Britain or Commonwealth countries, the two women were given Russian sounding stage names – Irina Lavrova (Tweedie) and Helene Lineva (Lee).
The tall and slender Lee was definitely not in the baby ballerina mould. She was 33 when she danced in the Original Ballet Russe and her height meant that throughout her career, she was often cast in the role of the Mother or Teacher.

Lee was never the star, but she did enjoy a little limelight during her choreographic career. At the time – in the 1950s – she gave an interview to The Argus newspaper explaining that it all began for her “way back when I was a toddler, and thought up funny little dances for my dolls”.

In Perth, her mentor was Linley Wilson, a Royal Academy of Dancing pioneer, and in 1930, she became Wilson’s assistant teacher. But Lee’s ambitions were greater than being second in charge. In late 1934, she sailed for Europe where she travelled to both Italy and France, watching rehearsals at La Scala, Milan, and ballet performances in Paris.

A year later, at the end of 1935, Lee resigned from her job with Wilson. Her frustration is expressed in her diary, quoted by the writer and academic, Lynn Fisher, in her article on Wilson and Lee, titled The cost of dancing the dream, published in Brolga, in June 2002. The diary entry of 12 September 1935 reads: “I wouldn’t take on all that the job meant for less than £10 pounds a week again. Teaching all day at the studio and at colleges – Ballroom, Babies work, and operatic – besides doing all the secretarial, accounts books etc, banking money, receipts at night and all business parts, as well as organising in West Aus. for the examinations of all schools, as well as entering myself for the examinations of all schools, as well as entering myself for exams, students to provide work for”. She resigned at the end of 1935.

Lee was a powerhouse when it came to her own exams. In her late 20s, she achieved the almost unbelievable feat of passing four major exams of the RAD within a few days, Elementary, Intermediate, Advanced and the Advanced Teachers’ exam. (This achievement was reported in The West Australian on 26 November, 1937).

When the first Ballets Russes touring company arrived in Australia, in October 1936, she and her friend the photographer, Axel Poignant, met some of the dancers at Fremantle and drove them to Perth where they toured the sights before visiting Lee’s studio which she had established that year. Among the group on the day were one of the principal dancers, Helene Kirsova and Arnold Haskell, the critic and author who accompanied the dancers on the tour.

Lee’s next adventure was sparked by the American dancer, La Meri, who, during her Australian tour of 1936, told Lee that she should go overseas to further her training and just over a year later, near the end of 1937, she sailed for Paris where she trained for six months with the distinguished Russian teacher, Olga Preobrajenksa , before moving to London to train with another Russian, Igor Schwezoff who danced as a soloist with the Original Ballet Russe in 1939/40.

Back in Australia, it was the fashion of the time to report every tiny detail of an Australian performer’s success abroad and so it was at The West Australian, in December 1939, when the newspaper covered Lee’s busy two years overseas including her performances in London, Paris and Milan, and her rush back to London to arrange her homecoming as war was about to be declared.

Lee must have used every contact she had to be sailing on the SS Orcades when it left England for Australia from Britain on 18 November 1939. On board were many members of the Original Ballet Russe troupe, including de Basil, Serge Grigorieff, the regisseur-general, and Anatole Oubouchoff, the ballet master.

She took class with the company during the voyage and was so anxious to stay with the troupe that she did not disembark in Fremantle, close to her home town of Perth, but sailed on to Sydney where the Original Ballet Russe opened its tour on 30 December.

Photos taken by Hugh P Hall during the national tour show Lee as one of the two teachers in the new ballet Graduation Ball, which premiered in Sydney in March 1940, and also as the Mother in Le Danube Bleu, in which she towers over the ballerina, Tatiana Riabouchinska.

When the company sailed from Australia, Lee returned to Perth where she once again presented solo dance recitals.

We can pick up the thread of her life through occasional press stories, one of which reported that Lee joined the “Department of the Army” in early 1942 and appeared in performances for Australian troops in the Pacific islands.

“It was in the early 40’s, when I found myself in the islands for two months, giving performances for the troops”, she told The West Australian. Her most embarrassing incident was “a big performance in Merauke [in New Guinea] when my underskirt slipped down before 2,000 men.

“I fled…but when I reappeared on stage they gave me one of the biggest ovations I’ve ever had”.

At the time of that interview, in September 1944, Lee was in the process of being transferred to the east coast. She was sorry to be leaving Perth “without having seen a ballet club established here”. Lee believed that the Borovansky Ballet in Melbourne “would provide wonderful training for Australians; he had found a number of artists who had shown real promise”. Lee herself went on to dance for Borovansky, then with the National Theatre Ballet, where she appeared in Rex Reid’s Corroboree, which premiered in Sydney in 1950.

Her path then led her to the Victorian Ballet Guild, directed by Laurel Martyn. As assistant director of the company from 1952-1955, she choreographed the circus ballet, En Cirque and with Martyn, staged Nutcracker, both in 1953. The following year, Lee told The Argus reporter “don’t ask me how many [students] I’ve taught in my three years here. I’ve lost count long ago. But every pupil has at least learnt one thing – that I hate noisy rehearsals”. The reporter thought this was “understandable for a woman who loves a quiet life, good music, and light reading”. Lee, the report concluded “rarely gets nervous. Her attitude to life is ‘accept things as they come’ – perhaps the secret of her success”.

Lee opened her own school in Melbourne and appeared once more on stage in 1959 as the mother of the Somnambulist in Rex Reid’s The Night is a Sorceress for the guild, but offstage she was playing a more important role for the future of ballet, one that takes on a special meaning in the lead up to the 50th anniversary of the Australian Ballet next year.

Events converged in 1958 when tours to Australia of the New York City Ballet and The Royal Ballet threw into sharp relief the need for a professional national ballet company with full year contracts for dancers in Australia. Lee was among a select group of Melbourne ballet teachers and former dancers who met in private homes, to discuss the pressing need for a new full time company, unlike the on-again, off-again Borovansky Ballet.

The group formed the entity, the Australian Ballet Theatre Group, approached H.C. (“Nugget”) Coombs, the arts patron and governor of the Reserve Bank, about funding and discussed Peggy van Praagh as a possible artistic director. Apart from Lee, the group included Geoffrey Ingram, Paul Hammond, the former Rambert Ballet dancers, Sally Gilmour and Margaret Scott, Scott’s husband, Derek Denton, Rex Reid, Tony Burke, Natasha Kirsta, and Ann Church. The lobbying succeeded, eventually. Australia got its full time company, led by van Praagh, and Coombs’ own lobbying efforts with Robert Menzies and Harold Holt put the national company on its feet.

Lee, who never married, died in 1984.

Her memory lives on, not just in newspaper files and in Dupain’s images, but also as a pioneer who passed on her passion for dance.

© Valerie Lawson 2011

Alison Lee, photographed by Max Dupain ca 1940, courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, call number, ON 249, box 19