The Royal Ballet tour of Australia, 1958: the launch of a photographer’s career and the debut of a swan

Today, when a ballet company goes on an international tour, the dancers are lucky to spend a couple of weeks away from home.

Yet in 1958, the touring company of the Royal Ballet flew from Heathrow to Darwin, to embark on a remarkable 34-week tour of Australia and New Zealand where they were to give more than 130 performances.

The 55 dancers of the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet travelled for several days on their journey to Australia, stopping en route in Frankfurt, Rome, Cairo, Calcutta, Bangkok and Singapore.

Colin Jones, one of the dancers, told me recently: “God, we were knackered by the time we got to Sydney”.

In Sydney, Jones and some other dancers stayed in Cremorne Point while his wife-to-be, Lynn Seymour, stayed in Bondi, taking the tram to the city where the company performed at the Empire Theatre.

They lived in flats and houses rented for the duration of the two-month seasons in Sydney and Melbourne and the three-week seasons in Adelaide and Brisbane before moving on to New Zealand where they were joined by Margot Fonteyn.

In 1958, Jones was in the corps de ballet of the company but by 1962, he began his new and very successful career as a photographer.

After our meeting in London Jones very kindly gave me three prints of his photos, taken as an amateur photographer with the first camera he ever bought, in Sydney. They show four of the dancers on the tour, another of dancers on board a boat sailing in Sydney Harbour near Clark Island, and the third of a tin roofed house they rented in Adelaide, a city suffering from a severe heatwave at the time (early January 1959).

Among the dancers on tour* were Rowena Jackson and Philip Chatfield, who had married in February 1958, Svetlana Beriosova, Bryan Ashbridge, Anya Linden and David Blair.

The touring party was led by John Field, founding artistic director of Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet, renamed Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet in1956.

A guest artist on the tour was Robert Helpmann, one of a number of Australian expatriates including Margaret Lee, Edward Miller, Kathleen Geldard and Alan Alder.

For the first three weeks of the tour, the touring party included Ninette de Valois, the artistic director of the Royal Ballet.

Before flying to Australia, she was interviewed in London by The Australian Women’s Weekly.

De Valois told the reporter, Betty Best, that Beriosova, a principal of the Royal Ballet, was going to join the company in Sydney on September 27, apparently to add more star quality to the troupe.

One former principal of the Royal Ballet, Elaine Fifield, was not on the tour. She had quit the company in 1957 when she was not chosen to return to her homeland as one of four Royal Ballet dancers, (Margot Fonteyn, Rowena Jackson, Bryan Ashbridge and Michael Somes), to guest with the Borovansky Ballet.

“I had set my heart on this trip”, Fifield wrote in her autobiography, In My Shoes.

Returning to live in Australia, Fifield danced with the Borovansky Ballet but she believed she had made a mistake.

As she wrote in the book, when de Valois was in Sydney during the 1958 tour, Fifield said to her: “Madam, I do realise that I’ve made a mistake. An awful mistake. I should never have left Covent Garden…I wanted to ask you if you would take me back”.

De Valois replied: “It is quite out of the question. I never take dancers back once they leave of their own accord”.

Before de Valois returned to London, she told Lynn Seymour that she was to be ready to dance Odette-Odile in Swan Lake within two months. Seymour, then 19, was staggered but began rehearsing the dual role in Sydney before she gave her debut performance in Melbourne partnered by David Blair.

At the Empire Theatre she was photographed, in her Odette costume, by Norm Danvers, the Sydney photographer and one of the founders of the Australian Photographic Agency. I’m not sure why the photograph was taken in Sydney when Seymour did not dance the role on stage until the Melbourne leg of the tour.

The Sydney season opened with Swan Lake, with Jackson as Odette-Odile and Chatfield as Siegfried.

The season included Giselle, Coppelia, Les Sylphides, the grand pas de deux from Don Quixote, Façade, Pineapple Poll, The Rake’s Progress, The Burrow, Peter Wright’s A Blue Rose, and Helpmann’s Hamlet.

Les Patineurs was added in Melbourne.

As for Colin Jones, that first camera purchase, “large format, a 6×6 camera, an imitation Rolleiflex that cost about 10 shillings”, led to a very illustrious career.

His photos have been published in many newspapers and magazines including The Observer, Life and National Geographic and he has had a number of solo exhibitions, among them those at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, and the Proud Gallery and the Photographers’ Gallery in London. His portrait of The Who, taken for the cover of The Observer colour magazine, is at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

* Other dancers on the tour included Gordon Aitken, Alan Alder, Susan Alexander, Donald Britton, Audrey Farris, John Frost, Kathleen Geldard, The ballet mistress was Lorna Mossford.