At the closing performance of the Borovansky Ballet in 1961, Peggy van Praagh stepped onstage and spoke about the importance of founding an Australian ballet company. Harold Holt, the serving federal treasurer, went backstage to pledge his personal support. Van Praagh’s celebrated history as a dancer and director overseas made her the perfect candidate to run such a company.
In the lead-up to the opening of the Australian Ballet, van Praagh, then working overseas, sent a flurry of letters to the members of the Australian Ballet Trust, an organisation created by the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust and J.C. Williamson Ltd. Van Praagh outlined her goals for the new company in her scrawling cursive handwriting, deliberated about repertoire and casting, created a concise plan for developing an ‘Australian idiom’, and elegantly navigated local resentment about the selection of a British woman to lead the first federally subsidised dance company in Australia.
Six artistic directors later (van Praagh actually served twice, between 1962 and 1974, and again in 1978), the Australian Ballet is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. In an attempt to capitalise on the enthusiasm in 2012, the company has released Luminous: Celebrating 50 Years of the Australian Ballet. This handsome coffee-table book features luminous dance photographs with essays on the history of the company by decade, written by Alan Brissenden, Valerie Lawson, Jill Sykes, Lee Christofis, Michael Shmith, and Deborah Jones, with introductions by Helen Garner and artistic director David McAllister.
Brissenden sets the stage for the foundation of the Australian Ballet in ‘Before the Ballet – The Russians are Coming’. He situates the company as the heir to the tours of Anna Pavlova, the Ballets Russes tradition, and the Borovansky Ballet. These international tours have had a profound impact on the psyche of Australian dancers and dance historians, most significantly by overshadowing local efforts to certify dancers in classical technique and to found numerous amateur ballet clubs, societies, and companies across the country.
Unfortunately, other significant events and individuals are also omitted or downplayed, such as the impact of Central European Expressionism, Laurel Martyn’s influence with Ballet Guild, and the tours of Ballet Rambert in 1948 and 1949. Rambert veterans Margaret Scott, Sally Gilmore, and Rex Reid were instrumental in creating the Australian Ballet Theatre Group, presenting themselves in 1960 as an alternative to the kind of national ballet company the Australian Ballet Trust had in mind with van Praagh at the helm. They were unsuccessful in their application, but some of the proposed repertoire and many of the members were folded into the Australian Ballet two years later.
Luminous, in Valerie Lawson’s chapter on the 1960s, leaps from the closing of the Borovansky Ballet straight to the opening night of the Australian Ballet, on 2 November 1962. Lawson is a gifted writer; a simple phrase about van Praagh peeling off her white gloves in preparation for the curtain rising immediately brings to mind a time when people dressed to impress for the theatre. Lawson’s chapter takes us through a decade when the Australian Ballet was directed firstly by van Praagh and then jointly by van Praagh and Robert Helpmann. As Jill Sykes explains in her discussion of the 1970s, tensions grew between the artistic directors of the Australian Ballet and the company administrators. In 1970, financial tensions triggered an industrial action that nearly crippled the company, with the dancers striking for fair pay (one placard read ‘Why pirouette into poverty?’). As Lee Christofis explains in his chapter on the 1980s, industrial action recommenced in 1981, with furious dancers closing the performance seasons in Melbourne and Sydney for twenty-six days. This tussle to satisfy national and international audiences, challenge the dancers with interesting work, and keep company operations in the black has been a prevailing issue.
Of the company’s artistic directors, van Praagh, Helpmann, Anne Woolliams, and Maina Gielgud also struggled with the company’s administration, and were pushed out before they were ready to depart. There are parallels here with other Australian dance companies from the same era. Meryl Tankard and Elizabeth Cameron Dalman were both dismissed by the board of the Australian Dance Theatre, and Laurel Martyn’s Ballet Guild folded underneath her because of financial mismanagement by the board.
As the story moves into the 1990s with Michael Shmith’s article, the relationship between artistic directors and their administrators settles down. The company found its new vision statement, ‘Caring for Tradition, Daring to be Different’, which captures the balancing act between traditional ballet, classical ballet, and contemporary Australian works that has been the hallmark of the company.
Deborah Jones, in her work on the 2000s, begins with a discussion of Graeme Murphy’s 2005 re-imagining of Swan Lake. Swan Lake has a special significance for the company: a traditional version was the first full-length ballet performed by the company in 1962; Murphy’s version has been a staple of the repertoire since its première; and the themes of the ballet also inspired contemporary dance choreographer Gideon Obarzanek’s decidedly non-traditional There’s Definitely a Prince Involved in 2012. A new version of Swan Lake by Stephen Baynes is due to première later this year, bringing the company’s obsession with swans full circle.
Jones also highlights some of the dancer-friendly programs that McAllister has championed, such as an impressive maternity leave scheme (so relevant in an industry comprised mostly of women of child-bearing age), training programs designed to minimise dancer injury and maximise dancer longevity, and an open dialogue with colleagues Nicolette Fraillon (music director and chief conductor) and Valerie Wilder (executive producer).
Behind-the-scenes anecdotes about dancer capers are a terrific addition to Luminous, as are discussions about the company on tour around the world and of individual dancers rising to artistic challenges.
As McAllister tells us in his eloquent introduction, Luminous is a dance history text, but it is also a celebration of dance photography. Between chapters, the book features galleries of full-page photographic spreads. The photographic talents of Walter Stringer, Jeff Busby, Branco Gaica, Jim McFarlane, and many others have often outlived the repertoire they captured. It is surprising, therefore, that the majority of the photographs fail to mention the name of the photographer. Only half of the photographs are even captioned, with many captions missing pertinent information, such as the name of the work shown, the choreographer, the dancers pictured, or the year. This makes tracing the development of photographers or choreographers over time difficult. Even when the photographs are iconic – such as the 1964 image of Barry Kitcher and Kathleen Gorham in Helpmann’s The Display – they are ruined by a thoughtless layout. In this particular case, the figures are centered across two pages, and are obscured and warped by the book’s binding.
These errors in layout, captioning, and referencing (endnotes appear at the end of the book rather than at the end of individual chapters, despite the numbers of sources on which the authors draw, and many pages of photographs have no page numbers at all) undermine the serious scholarship in Luminous. Books about Australian dance are few; there is something disappointingly light-weight about Luminous that belies its physical heft. It is almost as though the publishers have taken the artifice and ephemerality of classical ballet to heart and expected its audience not to care.The designers of Luminous clearly want the images to wash over us as we flip through the pages. And they do. Breathtaking photographs of the dancers on and offstage reveal their virtuosity and elegance: Madeleine Eastoe midflight as the sylph; Karl Welander balancing by the harbour at Kirribilli; Vicki Attard and David McAllister in El Tango.
Other excellent features of Luminous include appendices featuring the full repertoire of the Australian Ballet, dancers who performed with the company, and details of the thirty-one overseas tours.
Ultimately, lovers of the ballet will find much to love and admire about this book. It captures those precious moments and movements by a company that has given so much joy to its audience over fifty years.
CONTENTS: JUNE 2012