Dame Peggy van Praagh: crusader for the creative spirit

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In recalling my most enduring memories of Peggy, I find myself thinking about her warmth, her humour and her wonderful sense of the ridiculous. She was earthy, forthright, funny and sometimes outrageous. Serious discussions about the future of dance in Australia were laced together with endless anecdotes, often jokes against herself.

Interviewers regularly asked her why she had never married. Her answer, always preceded by a chuckle, was invariably, ‘nobody ever asked me.’ The truth is that nobody ever dared! Peggy’s commitment to dance was total. It excluded the possibility of any other full-time relationship. She was married to the dance and she gave of herself beyond all possible expectations.

In remembering the things we talked about during the twenty years of our friendship I am conscious of the enormous influence of significant artists and teachers on her thinking and, inevitably, on the development of her career. She often spoke about the three people who most influenced the direction of her life.

The first of these was the great A.S. Neill who was her teacher at King Alfred School in London before he became widely known for his pioneering work in progressive education at the famous Summerhill.

The second was Margaret Craske, a dancer with the Diaghilev Company who, after sustaining an injury, was invited by the legendary Cecchetti to work with him as a teacher in his London studio. It was Craske who set the example of teaching an expressive technique within a framework of total discipline and dedication.

The third member of this illustrious trio was Antony Tudor, one of the great master choreographers of the twentieth century. Peggy’s respect for Tudor was boundless. He was the subtle, complex, enormously perceptive artist who provided the model for her ideal choreographer, the one she constantly sought and occasionally found among the young dance artists who came to maturity under her guidance.

Tudor, like many modern masters, worked best when his chosen dancers were able to enter his imaginative world, share his vision and find the qualities he sought for his creations. The choreographer's psychological insight and the dramatic and interpretative skills his works demanded affected Peggy deeply. Her roles in Lilac Garden and Dark Elegies, according to her own accounts, were among the most potent of these experiences.

Prior to the beginning of her new life in Australia these seminal influences continued to shape the woman who was to become the Founding Artistic Director of The Australian Ballet. Between 1947 and 1955 she was in a position to guide and support aspiring young choreographers at the Sadlers Wells Theatre Ballet in London. With new policies that supported the important field of choreographic invention the company blossomed. Kenneth Macmillan and John Cranko, among others, generously acknowledged the debt they owed to her.

In Australia a few years later she finally found the right confluence of factors to put all her previous experience to the test. The policies and current practices of the Australian Ballet are testaments to her wisdom and foresight.

Peggy’s early childhood experience at King Alfred School was a crucial component in the shaping of her artistic philosophy: she always understood the importance of respect for individual potential and the need to allow the freedom to fail. Without this freedom few risks are taken. Without risk there is no creativity.

In a tribute to Peggy published in Dance Australia after her death in 1990 Graeme Murphy wrote:

I am grateful for the early opportunities that she gave me. Her far-reaching vision saw beyond the frail fledgling that I was. Though sometimes puzzled by the form my choreography took, she encouraged and commented as always, with a brutal frankness that prevented any preciousness about my art form from stultifying me. Her influence went beyond mere commentary as she introduced me to designers, and of course, in the early days, to a stable of fascinating choreographers such as Massine, Tudor, Butler, Tetley, Ashton, Helpmann and Balanchine.

While always seeking out and nourishing the creativity of others Peggy’s personal creativity was differently expressed. She had in abundance a generosity of spirit and the talent she most valued in herself was that of the artist-teacher.

I can recall the enduring years of our friendship with the greatest joy. I remember the vibrant, vital woman who shared with me something of her unique inspiration. So many lives that she touched were enriched beyond measure and mine was one of them.

Peggy’s influence on choreographic development in Australia was immeasurable. Her legacy now ensures the future she envisioned.

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Lina Limosani awarded 2015 Dame Peggy van Praagh Choreographic Fellowship

An original member of Garry Stewart's Australian Dance Theatre (ADT), Lina as been a choreographer since 2000. Her recent work, A Delicate Situation, was shortlisted for the 2015 Australian Dance Award for Outstanding Contribution to Independent Dance. Lina will use her Peggy van Praagh Choreographic Fellowship honing her theatrical devising practices including her approach to constructing narrative and characters and working with the voice, particularly techniques for warm-up, projection, endurance and dynamic range.