Tales of Peggy van Praagh’s Coppelia, from the first Swanilda, Ann Jenner, and the producer, George Ogilvie

When Peggy van Praagh asked the Royal Ballet principal, Ann Jenner, to come to Australia in 1978 as a guest dancer with the Australian Ballet, both women thought she would stay for six months.

The Royal Ballet’s artistic director, Ninette de Valois, told Jenner she could definitely return to the company in London.

That didn’t happen. Jenner never left Australia except for a brief time teaching at the San Francisco Ballet in 1985.

Earlier this month, at an event held by the Friends of the Australian Ballet in Sydney, she charmed her audience as she recalled her days at the Royal Ballet and the Australian Ballet, and in particular her first performances as Swanilda in the Australian Ballet’s new Coppelia, produced by Peggy van Praagh and the theatre producer, George Ogilvie, in 1979.

Australian audiences have seen many interpretations of Coppelia, but the Van Praagh-Ogilvie-Kristian Fredrickson production is the standout, one that’s had the longest and most successful life. The costumes by Fredrikson are beautiful and Ogilvie created a strong narrative, using his theatre experience to bring every character to life.

For the Friends, Jenner explained that she first came to Australia to dance the role of Lise in Frederick Ashton’s Fille mal Gardee, a role that she had performed many times at the Royal Ballet.

In Australia, she danced five performances of the ballet in one week.

“I’ve never done so many performances in my life. In the Opera House in London there were only two or three performances a week, and because we had dancers like Margot Fonteyn and Svetlana Beriosova, people like me never got a look in”.

In London, she was often sixth cast, and along with other dancers, she “never felt good enough”.

Maybe that “not good enough” feeling was exacerbated for many dancers due to the brutal truth that they often had to deal with from the ballet staff who never hesitated in pointing out their defects. Dancers might be told, I like your face, pity about your teeth, or love the way you dance, pity about your short legs.

Perhaps Robert Helpmann followed the 1960s’ London trend, as he was known for stage whispering in Australian studios: “I’ve seen better legs on a piano”.

Jenner’s connection with van Praagh began at the Royal Ballet School, where Jenner began training aged 10. Six years later, when Jenner was cast as one of the cygnets in Swan Lake for a school performance, she met van Praagh.

In 1979, van Praagh chose Jenner as first cast Swanilda, a role van Praagh herself had danced in the UK in de Valois’ production of Coppelia.

Of course, van Praagh knew the role well, but in 1979 she was starting to be affected by her gradual loss of memory.

When van Praagh rehearsed Jenner in Melbourne she took her through the steps of Swanilda’s Scottish dance in Act II. Afterwards, Jenner asked her “what about the Spanish dance”, the one that follows the Scottish. Van Praagh was confused, asking “what Spanish dance?”

Hosting the Friends’ event, the Australian Ballet’s artistic director, David McAllister asked Jenner and Ogilvie for their initial thoughts when they were at the Palais Theatre, Melbourne, in 1979, waiting for the ballet to begin.

How did Jenner feel?

“I could never say I’ve been very confident about anything. I was just hoping I would be good enough for this beautiful production”.

As for Ogilvie, he was “terrified” as he took his seat in the theatre. But as the curtain rose he soon thought “this is magic!”

Ogilvie’s connection with the Australian Ballet began when he was working with John Sumner at the Melbourne Theatre Company.

Sumner told him “I think there’s somebody you should meet”. The somebody was Margaret Scott, director of the Australian Ballet School.

Ogilvie was asked to teach the ABS students acting and mime. Ogilvie knew a lot about mime as he had spent three years in Paris, working with Jacques Lecoq, an actor, mime and teacher. Lecoq “wouldn’t allow a single ballet dancer to come into his classes.

“I said to Margaret ‘I don’t know what you expect of me, but God help you!’

“I began to teach and very few of the students knew anything about acting. I brought in music from Swan Lake, played the music and they said ‘yes, of course we know that’.

“I put out tables and chairs and said this is a restaurant and you will have lunch’.

“They tripped over each other, couldn’t stop laughing…but one dancer, Graeme Murphy, leapt into it and was quite wonderful”.

Scott suggested that Ogilvie study dancing, to find out what it is like to be a dancer. Ogilvie would have none of that, at least in the beginning but he succumbed in the end, playing the role of the Headmistress in Graduation Ball.

“I leapt into the role in a long skirt and leapt into the arms of my partner, all helpless with laughter, and that’s how I began to understand and realise what a dancer was, compared with an actor or mime”.

Later, van Praagh asked Ogilvie to direct Coppelia, and while he first told her “I can’t do that, it’s a ballet”, he ended up working with Fredrikson and “having the most wonderful time of our lives creating Coppelia”.

Van Praagh told Ogilvie “I want you to do it the way you see it. If I shout at you, you shout back”.

Whether they ever shouted at one another I don’t know, but they did create a very impressive production of Coppelia, one that will soon be on the stage again in Melbourne at the Palais Theatre at the end of September and at the Sydney Opera House in December.

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Ann Jenner, in her Fille mal Gardee costume, 1976, photo © Bern Schwartz

Kelvin Coe and Ann Jenner, Coppelia Act 3, Australian Ballet,1979

Leanne Stojmenov in Coppelia, Australian Ballet, photo © Branco Gaica

George Ogilvie, photo © Stephen Baccon