Dame Peggy: artist, teacher and national advocate for dance

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I believe that the national significance of Dame Peggy’s wide-ranging activities in Australia during her Artistic Directorship of The Australian Ballet has never been fully understood. The centre of her life was the ballet but the breadth of her interests was immense. Her energy seemed inexhaustible during those early years when the company was being established and her expertise and knowledge were ensuring an international reputation for the company.

One of the many institutions that recognised her value and sought her cooperation was the University of New England in Armidale in northern NSW. With Peggy’s support the University established an ambitious "summer school for dance".

She presided over the first three of the four famous schools that changed how Australian dance artists viewed their art form and arrived at a new vision for Australian dance. The critic, Blazenka Brysha, wrote about ‘The Legacy of New England’ in Dance Australia some years later (Issue 15, March – May, 1983).

The first of these now famous schools was in 1967 and its programme was focussed on the history of classical ballet and the education of the dance audience. The university’s press release stated that the aim of the school was “to give to those who attend it insights into ballet as an art form and, by so doing, to create an informed public for ballet in Australia”.

In 1967 Peggy lectured on topics such as the history of ballet, the great dance schools of the world, the training of the dancer and the art of the choreographer. What began as an attempt to create a fuller appreciation of ballet grew into a series of events that marked the rise of a new consciousness among Australian dance artists: a new confidence in how they viewed themselves and each other.

In 1969 the second school focused on the dance of the twentieth century including the wonderful innovations of the Diaghilev era and the interactions between the ballet and modern dance. For the first time, dancers from all parts of the country met together and understood that they were all part of the growth of a recognisable ‘Australian Dance’.

It had been many years in the making and Peggy was probably the first to recognize in Australian dancers that their identity as Australians made a difference to the way they danced and the way they thought about their art form.

Those who were present at the 1969 school still recall one memorable event: at Peggy’s suggestion, two duets, one modern and one classical, were choreographed to the same piece of music. The classical pas de deux was choreographed by Garth Welch and danced by him and Marilyn Jones. The modern duo for Jacqui Carroll and Brian Coughran was choreographed by Keith Bain.

“Now”, said Dame Peggy, “Let us see what happens when both are performed at the same time.”  Perhaps only Peggy understood beforehand what a revelation this would be. The scope of this small article does not allow for elaboration. Suffice to say that the summer school of 1969 was the beginning of a sense of a national identity for Australian dance artists. I was not alone in my perception of this and respect and admiration for Peggy grew accordingly. It laid the foundation for many lasting friendships.

This writer became increasingly involved in the summer schools held in 1974 and 1976. These both took the form of choreographic workshops and were seminal events in every sense of the word. Dancers, choreographers and musicians came from all over Australia.

Schools for students took place in the daytime while the choreographers and dancers worked on developing new ideas they could show as sketches or rough drafts to this appreciative audience in the evenings. Seven of the twelve dance artists invited to take part in 1974 were members of the Australian Ballet: Garth Welch and Marilyn Jones, Ian Spink, Gail Ferguson, Paul Saliba, Julia Cotton and John Meehan.

The other five represented all states and a variety of companies. Rex Crampthorne, then an emerging talent as a theatre director in Sydney was one of these. The impact that the young choreographer/dancers had on one another was profound, especially as most of them filled the dual role of both dancer and choreographer.

In 1976, in spite of her illness and recent retirement, Peggy’s status and reputation ensured increased funding from several important sources. The Australia Council, the Gulbenkian Foundation, the British Council, the Myer Foundation and the Australia-America Educational Foundation all made important contributions. It was both the biggest of the series and the last, involving a large school for attending students.

Six emerging choreographers and thirty dancers were the focus of the nightly showings over three weeks of excited activity. Among them were Graeme Murphy, Janet Vernon and Nanette Hassall.

What has been described as the most distinguished faculty assembled for a dance school up to that time included Norman Morrice, then Artistic Director Elect of the Royal Ballet, Martha Hill, Head of the Dance Division of the Juilliard School in New York and Peter Brinson, Director of “Ballet for All”, and acknowledged in the UK as one of the most eminent dance scholars and critics of his time. 

The "Armidale years" became a model for what could be accomplished with a powerful vision and sufficient support. Thirty years later the ripples created by Peggy’s foresight and determination are still travelling through the whole of the Australian dance community. Perhaps this could only have happened from the strong and supportive centre provided by Peggy's position as Artistic Director of The Australian Ballet.

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Dame Peggy: memories of a life in dance

Historians of the future will be able to tell us much about the founding and ongoing evolution of The Australian Ballet. There is however another story to be told: one that survives in the recollections and feelings of those who were part of its making.