The first decade: snapshots from the early years of the Australian Ballet

Noel Smith strode into the pit, picked up his baton, and gave the downbeat for the overture.

The chatter, the laughter, the buzz of the first night audience faded with the first notes of the oboe. Peggy van Praagh slipped off her fur wrap, peeled off her white gloves, grasped her evening bag and breathed deeply. Too late to worry now.

This Friday – 2 November 1962 – marked the birth of the Australian Ballet at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Quay Street, Sydney.

Van Praagh, the artistic director, had spent the last two months rehearsing Swan Lake, alongside Ray Powell, the man who took her arm as they walked into the theatre.

Backstage, they knew, was a man who would not let them down. How could he? Erik Bruhn was the finest male ballet dancer in the west, a product of The Royal Danish Ballet, a true prince to play the prince who falls in love with a swan.

Bruhn’s dance partner was his former fiancee, Sonia Arova, a Bulgarian ballerina known for her strong balances en pointe and her exotic good looks.

Capturing Arova at the airport and later in her dressing room was Darryl Smythe, whose photographs revealed Arova’s almond-shaped eyes ringed with black liner and her eyebrows winged as if for flight. And that was even without her stage makeup.

Smythe was there again with his camera in the wings of Her Majesty’s Theatre as the overture faded, and the 46 dancers of The Australian Ballet hovered in the wings or stared into their dressing room mirrors in that first-night state between excitement and nerves.

Yet each felt secure in the knowledge that, for the first time in Australia, they were employed as full-time dancers. No more stop-start contracts, as in the years of the Borovansky Ballet, but a pay slip 52 weeks a year.

Their paymaster was the federal government-funded arts body, the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, whose chairman, H.C. (Nugget) Coombs, was also the governor of the Reserve Bank. The Menzies’ government kept the trust on a short financial rein, so much so that the Swan Lake premiere was danced in front of refurbished sets from the defunct Borovansky Ballet and the costumes were also hand-me-downs.

“There were something like twelve names in the jacket I was wearing”, said corps de ballet member, Colin Peasley. “The smell of decades, and the remnants of greasepaint were encrusted around the neck, but for us, the night was magic”.

In 1962, Peggy Van Praagh, a brilliant teacher who had directed the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet, conducted a national round of auditions for the new company , offering contracts to 46 dancers, including 11 Australians who had returned from overseas.

On 3 September, rehearsals began for the inaugural Australian Ballet season at Albert Street, East Melbourne, in a building once home to a Presbyterian ladies college.

In the studios, the dancers saw before them a good-looking, middle-aged woman wearing a dirndl skirt and holding a walking stick in one hand (a necessity due to one of many hip operations van Praagh endured). Suzanne Musitz, one of the soloists, noticed her “fine eyes, intelligent eyes”, and her ‘terribly British” manner.

Some muttered that the new Australian Ballet would be a clone of The Royal Ballet, that under her tutelage, all the dancers would be stripped of the individuality and theatrical glamour encouraged in the Borovansky era. Others complained of van Praagh’s disconcerting frankness about their appearance or her habit of calling the dancers by their surnames.

Yet there was something about her that loved the Australian larrikinism, said Marilyn Rowe, now artistic director of the Australian Ballet School. She would laugh hysterically at some of the antics then really clamp down.

Van Praagh grappled with the question of what constituted an Australian ballet. One of the problems, she said, was a lack of experienced Australian choreographers.

Apart from Robert Helpmann, whose works dominated the repertoire from 1964, only four Australians choreographed works for The Australian Ballet in its first decade: Rex Reid, Garth Welch, Betty Pounder and Jack Manuel.

The strength of the new company lay not so much in its inaugural repertoire – one that lasted, with the addition of a smattering of pas de deux, until late 1963 – but in the quality of its dancers, led by three Australian principal artists: Marilyn Jones, Garth Welch and Kathleen Gorham; by Caj Selling, a former principal of the Royal Swedish Ballet, who remained for two years in Australia; and the guest artists.

Van Praagh’s sole artistic directorship of the Australian Ballet was to be short-lived. In 1963, Stefan Haag, executive director of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, had already set his sights on the multi-talented Robert Helpmann, who had lived in London since he left Australia in the 1930s.

Now that his British career as an actor and choreographer was winding down, Helpmann’s thoughts, too, were focused on his homeland and on his ideas for a new Australian production: The Display.

The ballet was destined to be a major turning point for both the Australian Ballet and for the flamboyant Helpmann himself, whose political savvy pushed the young company into the international sphere. Helpmann was not only energetic and amusing, but also a relentless self-publicist.

Helpmann flew into Australia at the end of January 1964 to rehearse The Display.

Set at a bush picnic, its title referred to the way in which male lyrebirds display their tails in courtship rituals, and also for the mateship displays of Australian men.

The Display broke new ground in two ways. Its creators were all Australian: Helpmann, composer Malcolm Williamson, and designer Sidney Nolan (although they all lived in Britain), and it reflected contemporary Australia. The ballet, which opened on 14 March 1964, was a great success, praised as a long awaited event, a wholly Australian ballet.

Every dancer in The Display has vivid memories of the work.

Barry Kitcher, the first to wriggle into the costume of the Lyrebird, remembers the bulk of the costume, a gigantic construction made of bamboo, nylon and horse hair, with a leather strap harness, two wings, a headdress with a beak, feathers and eyes, and a tail more than four metres long which became an iconic ballet image of the 1960s, so often photographed it seemed like the logo of The Australian Ballet.

The oddest incident of The Display’s life occurred when the Australian Ballet was on tour in France in 1965. During one performance the onstage football bounced into the orchestra pit and fell neatly into a trombone, causing a cut to the lip of a very disgruntled musician.

Noel Pelly, the future administrator of The Australian Ballet, believed The Display gave the company its passport to fame as Ian Hunter, a theatrical manager commissioned to run the first Commonwealth Arts Festival in Britain, invited the company to dance the ballet for the festival.

Within the AETT the move to recruit Helpmann as co-artistic director of the Australian Ballet was taking shape.

Haag thought that Australian theatre could play a major ambassadorial role in projecting the nation’s image to the world and, with Coombs’ backing, decided to recruit Helpmann.

His co-artistic director was announced on 18 February 1965 from the stage of Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide, after the curtain fell on the premiere of his new ballet, Yugen.

Again, Helpmann’s understanding of the Zeitgeist came to the fore.

Based on a Noh play about a moon goddess, Yugen premiered at a time when Australia was forging further connections with Asian nations.

With subsidies from the government, The Australian Ballet left on its first international tour on 6 August 1965, with two Helpmann ballets in the repertoire: Yugen and The Display.

With Japan now Australia’s main export market it was perhaps not surprising that in August 1968 Helpmann’s next ballet, Sun Music, also had an Asian aspect, not least in its Balinese-influenced score by Peter Sculthorpe.

For 17-year-old dancer Graeme Murphy, Sun Music was “the first time I had ever been choreographed … I loved being part of it. It felt like doing something now”.

For Murphy, one of the most memorable moments of 1969 came during a short season in Papua New Guinea where the Australian Ballet performed at a Port Moresby rugby league oval.

Among the ballets they danced was Giselle, in which the heroine’s mother warns that the night is full of the spirits of betrayed women who force men to dance to their death.

Murphy remembers that Giselle had two audiences: “The gentry who sat on tiered cushioned seats” and others who could not afford the ticket prices: the local indigenous population.

This audience sat on trees behind the fence to watch the action. “They understood those warnings of spirits”, Murphy said, “and they had much more fun than anyone else”.

This short extract from my chapter, The Sixties, in ‘Luminous, Celebrating 50 Years of the Australian Ballet’, was first published in on 22 December 2011 by The Australian. It was edited from the original text.

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