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70 years or so ago, I had a brilliant idea to take this stunning girl who I craved for, to the ballet. I hoped it would impress her because she was an accomplished pianist and came from a musical family. The ballet was a production of the Borovansky Ballet, the only Australian ballet company in existence at the time. I must have struck the right cord because that stunning girl and I got married in 1958 and are now looking forward to our 64th wedding anniversary next year with a clutch of children and grandchildren who make life worth living.

This Souvenir Program is from the 1955 Australian Production 

I had ambitions for my daughters to become ballet dancers. They went to a local ballet class but they also went to a calisthenics class. They both opted to pursue a career in calisthenics. As Ned Kelly said “Such is life”.

Some years later I was presented with my one and only grand-daughter, the rest .are boys. This girl was born to be a ballerina; long legs, beautiful in the extreme, elegant, graceful and everything else. One day when she was about 8 or 9, I was working in my office at the computer and she came in to greet me. I said to her, ”Put these on.” , gave her the headphones and installed the finale of the Merry Widow. The one that I depicted in my comment on last Friday’s post on PR., The Joy of Music.

She listened like a dutiful little grand-daughter. When it finished I said to her “did you like that?” She said it was OK. Then I said to her would you like to be a ballet dancer?” She Said, “No. I want to be a footballer and play for Collingwood in the AFLW”. As Ned said, such.is life!!

The unintended consequence of my brain storm 70 years ago was that I was the one who got hooked on the ballet and have been a devoted fan ever since. A regular foray into the realms of the ballet is around the dinner table when the topic of re-incarnation arises. I have consistently stated that I want to come back to Earth as a Chinese ballet dancer. The question arises NOT why do you want to be a ballet dancer but Why CHINESE?  My answer always is “So I can marry a Chinese girl who can cook me Chinese meals.”

Notwithstanding this frivolity, it is a pastime that my wife and I enjoy doing together. It is nice to get dressed up for the occasion once in a while. We always make sure we are there early to enjoy a glass of champagne and some nibblies before we take our seats. Latecomers are not catered for at the ballet. As the performance is about to start warning bells are rung and as the orchestra are tuning their instruments the doors are closed and locked. Latecomers must wait until the first interval.

In the early days our attendance was casual to performances put on by Borovansky and other visiting ballet companies. The Borovansky Ballet was formed by a Czech dancer, Edouard Borovansky who was a dancer with the touring company of the famous Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova. While on tour decided to remain in Australia and in1939 established his own ballet school and dance company. This company was supported by J.C. Williamson Theatres Ltd until Borovansky’s death in 1959. Williamsons recruited Dame Peggy van Praagh as the artistic director and administrator until 1961 when they disbanded the company to join forces with the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust to form an Australian national ballet company. This was the formation of the Australian Ballet Foundation. The organisation was founded with a substantial federal government subsidy and The Australian Ballet was then formed in 1962. Its first performance was Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Sydney on 2nd November 1962.

Swan Lake by The Australian Ballet Company

The three leading artists were all Australians who had established reputations with overseas companies. The majority of the dancers were drawn from the remains of the Borovansky Ballet. Peggy van Praagh recruited Ray Powell from the Royal Ballet in London, temporarily, as the company’s first ballet master. He was followed in that role by Sir Robert Helpmann, an eminent Australian who moved to Britain in 1932. He became a leading actor, dancer choreographer and artistic director while continuing as a dancer partnering the leading ballerinas of the day, Alicia Marakova and Margot Fonteyn. Helpmann’s career is a story in itself. Along with Nellie Melba it could be said that he accomplished more in the field of theatre, drama, movies and dance than any other Australian before or since.

 

Robert Helpmann and Prima ballerina assoluta, Margot Fonteyn, Vogue 1951

In1962 Peggy van Praagh persuaded Helpmann to create a new ballet to mark the creation of the Australian Ballet. The new company quickly built a reputation from the vigorous performances of the mainly Australian cast. Helpmann wanted his new ballet to have an Australian flavour and he did that with the creation of his work, titled The Display, a story based around the life of the Lyrebird. It premiered at the Adelaide Arts Festival in March, 1964. It was a breathtaking work in its concept and sheer brilliance of display. The costumes and scenery were designed by Sydney Nolan. Helpmann himself took the lead role of the cock lyrebird. The final act drew audible gasps from the audience. My wife and I saw it when it came to Melbourne where it was performed at the Palais Theatre in St.Kilda.

The Bird Dance as envisioned by Sir Robert Helpmann in " The Display " 

 

Helpmann was appointed co director of the Australian Ballet in 1965. Together with Peggy van Praagh this marked the beginning of the most prolific period of development of the company. Under Helpmann’s leadership internationally renowned performers were attracted to dance with him as guest artists. The most notable of these was Rudolph Nureyev. Together they put together the ballet Don Quixote and made a movie of it in an aircraft hangar out at Essendon Airport. It was not the most ideal location. Acoustics and lighting suffered but in the end it was published internationally on DVD.

 

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The other major addition to the leadership of the Australian Ballet was the recruiting of John Lanchbery as principal conductor of the Australian Ballet from 1972 to 1977. Lanchbery was an English/Australian conductor and composer. He was universally regarded as the greatest ballet conductor of all time. His compositions and arrangements are so distinctive that one can immediately identify with them as soon as the overture commences. Together with Helpmann and Nureyev he did the arrangement for the re-creation and filming of Don Quixote but his standout contribution to the world of ballet was his arrangement for the production of The Merry Widow.

The Merry Widow is an operetta composed by Franz Lehar. It was first performed in 1906, a period at the turn of the 19th& 20th centuries when light operetta became very popular with productions such as The Desert Song, Rose Marie, and The Student Prince achieving world-wide acclaim. The greatest of these was The Merry Widow and Helpmann decided to use it to create a new ballet. With Helpmann’s choreography and Lanchbery’s musical arrangements they created a ballet that is the exclusive property of the Australian Ballet. It had its world premiere on 13th November, 1975 at the Palais Theatre in Melbourne with a raft of our most enduring stars of the ballet and all recognised internationally as such.

 

The Merry Widow 1975

It is performed by overseas ballet companies under licence but always forms a part of the repertoire of the Australian Ballet and is performed to packed houses wherever it is presented. When Helpmann first obtained the rights to create it the copyright holder, which is the estate of Franz Lehar, insisted that there be included a vocal component to accompany the performance of Vilja’s Song. This caused great consternation because it is fundamental to ballet that there be no vocal component. It is a medium purely for dance and instrumental .music. The copyright holder was not sympathetic and the early productions did include the vocal addition. My wife and I saw one of these and we both agreed that it was corny and did nothing to enhance the production. Many others must have agreed because it was removed in the second year of production. The Merry Widow is such an outstanding production that if it was performed every night of the year there would be a full house every time, it is so popular.

Robert Helpmann became sole director of the Australian Ballet in 1975. His last ballet creation in 1974 was a disaster, Peggy van Praagh was forced to retire due to arthritis and he was constantly at war with the board of directors over budgetary matters. He retired about a year after his appointment and took on the role as director of the Australian Opera. Helpmann died in 1986 and was given a state funeral with tributes from both houses of parliament. Simultaneously, a memorial service was held at St.Paul’s Church, Covent Garden. Princess Margaret attended and the epitaph was read by Dame Margot Fonteyn.

 

If one reads Helpmann’s CV on Wikipedia you cannot help but come to the conclusion that he was one of our greatest citizens ever. He excelled on the world stage for very many years in at least six major disciplines. His achievements exceed these of Nellie Melba and Don Bradman.

Peggy van Praagh is one of the unsung heroes of the Australia Ballet. It was she who had the vision to entice Helpmann to return to Australia in the formative years of the Australian Ballet. She founded the Australian Ballet School in 1964. The school provides full time education for students who seek a career as members if the Australian Ballet from the age of about 13. Standards are high and entry is very difficult.

Peggy Van Praagh Swan Lake 1962

Two well known songs have emerged from the “Widow”. Vilja’s Song commonly known as DEHLIA and the Merry Widow Waltz commonly known as WHEN YOU GROW TOO OLD TO DREAM. Vilja’s Song has been performed in solo by a young South African singer named Kimi Skota who was discovered by Andre Rieu and contracted to his orchestra. In a DVD made of this performance panned shots of the audience show tears streaming down the cheeks of many women and men. It is very moving. Regrettably, Kimi’s career did not last long. She was a member of a religious sect which was holding an international conference in Cambodia. During one of the sessions the building collapsed killing 88 members of the group, including Kimi.

 

There is another well-known identity associated with the Australian Ballet. His name is Li Cunxin, currently the artistic director of the Queensland State Ballet and who is regularly seen on TV adverts for APIA. His story is well known as Mao’s Last Dancer. It has been the subject of a book and a movie of the same name and is so well known it does not warrant me repeating it here. While dancing in London, Li met a ballerina from Rockhampton. They married in 1987 and moved to Melbourne in 1995 where he became a principal dancer with the Australian Ballet. Retiring from active dancing they moved to Brisbane where they now live with their three children.

 

The Australian Ballet is now one of our leading national institutions. It is not the biggest ballet company in the world but it is the busiest. It presents 200 performances each year within Australia and on tour throughout the world. It is also one of a few ballet companies that do not rely on government assistance to survive. Compare that with the Australian Opera.  It does receive some assistance from federal, Victorian and NSW budgets to encourage the cultural development of the population at large but as a commercial undertaking it is self-supporting from ticket sales and corporate sponsorship. Going to the ballet is not cheap but many regional performances are subsidised by government funding. When one goes to a performance it is not just the dancers who have to be supported. Behind the scenes is an army of costume makers, carpenters and painters constructing scenery, wardrobe attendants, lighting experts etc. The list is endless. The Australian Ballet does not support its own orchestra. In Melbourne it employs the Victorian Symphony Orchestra and in NSW the Opera Australian Orchestra. On tour overseas it uses local orchestras.

 

When one speaks of “the ballet” they are generally referring to what is termed the Classical Ballet. This was originally developed by Louis IV of France and Catherine II of Russia. It is very much a French/Russian undertaking. It is based on the production of folk lore and fairy tales from northern Europe and performed to classical music. In more modern times contemporary ballet has developed. It has no emphasis on costumes or melodious music. It is more like gymnastics performed to an accompanying noise. It is popular with the dancers but not with audiences. In the 1980’s there was a rising dominance of dancer control of the repertoire. Seasonal programmes had more and more contemporary content with a dramatic effect on box office takings. Personally I rate it in the same league as contemporary abstract art. If tickets were given away free I could not be bothered crossing the road. There is no spectacle and the “music” is a series of dirges

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