Dame Peggy: memories of a life in dance

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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.

The triumphs and tragedies of Peggy’s life came into a sharpened focus when she reluctantly tendered her resignation to the Board of The Australian Ballet in June of 1974. For the fourteen years of her life in Australia she had battled the increasing disablement of arthritis. On 16 June 1974 the Sunday Telegraph reported

after massive operations on her arthritic hip and in agony so severe that she can hardly stand upright, Dame Peggy has announced that she is quitting as resident director of the Australian Ballet.

The writer, Barrie Watts, went on to say

It will be a painful parting because to many, Dame Peggy is the Australian Ballet – the woman who more than anyone else, made it first a national and then an international success. 

Certainly the acclaim The Australian Ballet received on its first international tour in 1965 was a testimony to Peggy’s achievements in that first three years. The records of The Australian Ballet are detailed.

The triumphs of the following years tell of her many successes, of her sustained support for Australian choreographers, the increasingly rich repertoire, her unquestioned commitment to her company and her dancers. Among them were her ‘artistic children’ Marilyn Rowe and Kelvin Coe, two of the great artists who came to maturity under her guidance.

Peggy’s contributions to British Ballet had been acknowledged long before her arrival in Australia and in 1970 she was invested as a Dame Commander of the British Empire. And there were Australian honours too. In April of 1974 the University of New England awarded her an Honorary Doctorate of Letters in recognition of her contribution to dance and dance education in Australia.

A second Honorary Doctorate, a Doctor of Laws, was awarded by the University of Melbourne in 1981. Peggy valued this honour from her adopted hometown so much that her friends and colleagues wondered if they should address her as Doctor-Dame or Dame-Doctor.

Peggy’s retirement in 1974 had brought to an end her years as co-Artistic Director with Sir Robert Helpmann who in 1965 was contracted to spend six months of each year with the company. The relationship between Dame Peggy and Sir Robert was not always an easy one. With differing values and beliefs they held diverse views on many things. They did however have a genuine respect for each other’s abilities and managed to maintain this through their commitments to the professionalism they both embraced. 

Without the challenges of company life Peggy found herself lonely and with no sense of mission. She was easily persuaded to return to the company for one year in 1978. It was a busy and successful year but it was to prove a time of self-appraisal and reflection on her physical capacity to fulfil her duties as Artistic Director. Necessary surgery on her right hip resulted in ten operations between 1968 and 1985. Her suffering was intense.

Most distressing to those close to her was the gradual loss of her extraordinary mental powers, the saddest feature of her final years. In April of 1990, not long after her death, Dance Australia published a series of tributes to the memory of Dame Peggy van Praagh.

Here are some excerpts from those tributes:

The Peggy van Praagh we all knew did not really die early this year. Sadly, that Peggy left us some time ago. Now I feel sure she has found the peace she deserves and we can look back on her life and enjoy, in reflection, some of the special moments that enriched our lives as dancers. (Marilyn Rowe)

Somewhere in the terrible years of her illness I lost the memory of Peggy at the height of her powers. Now that she is released from her suffering I can recall the early years of our friendship with the greatest joy. I can remember and celebrate the vibrant vital woman who shared with me something of her unique inspiration. Her love of dance, her intellectual curiosity, her great sense of humour are with me still and always will be. (Shirley McKechnie)

To those who knew, loved and admired her as I did, the things they will remember always will be that indomitable spirit—often referred to as ‘van bloody Praagh-matic’— and the reverse side of this shining British coin—which was itself spent in Australia—the feminine, soft and quite beautiful gentlewoman, Dame Peggy van Praagh—our Peggy.  (William ‘Bill’ Akers)

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