Dr Brissenden honoured by the Australian dance community

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Dr Alan Brissenden was thrilled to be honoured at the 2013 Australian Dance Awards with his induction into the Hall of Fame. Here is his acceptance speech.

Thank you, Robyn [Archer] and thank you David [McAllister] for all those very kind words. It’s an absolute pleasure and honour to have you presenting this totally unexpected and astonishing award. 

Alan at the ADAs in Canberra, 5 August. (L) with David McAllister AM and Robyn Archer OA. (R) with Kimball Wong from Australian Dance Theatre (Outstanding Performance by a Male Dancer, 2013) and Chloë Fox (State member for Bright in South Australia).

Robyn and I have known each other since she was an English Honours student at Adelaide University—I remember her singing with her guitar at lunchtime student gigs, and just look at the starry career that that resulted in—and it’s been a similar delight to watch the rise and rise of David, by a series of very grands jetés, from the corps de ballet in 1983 to the directorship of The Australian Ballet. 

And now—congratulations to all the award winners tonight, and to all the nominees. It speaks volumes for the vital state of our dance that they represent such a wide range of styles and come from so many different places. 

I could spend the much time thanking people who have helped me on the way to this award tonight—it’s just awesome, as my grandsons would say. But I’ll just thank whoever it was who made the nomination, and those who agreed to it, and say how supportive the dance community has always been, and especially Ausdance. [Added: However I must mention our daughter Celia, who suddenly appeared next to us in the theatre this evening, having flown over especially from Adelaide to be with us tonight—another complete and delightful surprise.]

(L) Alan with his wife Elizabeth. (R) Alan and Elizabeth's daughter, Celia

But my biggest and richest bundle of gratitude is for my darling wife, Elizabeth, my loving partner in the great dance of life for the past 53 years. We went to our first ballet together on 11 December 1959 and so witnessed an historic event—Marilyn Jones, partnered by Garth Welch, making her last-minute debut as Aurora in Borovansky’s Sleeping Princess

Since then dance has taken us to many places around the world, and it has been quite clear that Australian dancers, of whatever kind, have a distinctive vitality and individuality—reason enough why you’ll find so many of them in so many companies worldwide.

I cut my critical teeth in Sydney during the 1950s, when the Borovansky Ballet would settle into the Empire Theatre for two or three months. Life was fairly free and easy then, and I got to know several of the dancers. Two of the principals, Peggy Sager and Kathleen Gorham, shared a dressing room, and I remember being there one afternoon when Peggy had been given a huge box of chocolates by a fan. When she invited me to help myself I picked up a chocolate and was surprised to see a dent in the bottom. "Oh yes", she said, "Kathie doesn’t likes soft ones, so she always goes through the box testing to find the hard ones." You can see from that why Kathleen Gorham made such a mischievous Pineapple Poll in John Cranko’s ballet, which in 1954 he had come out to produce (and said the opening night performance was "better than any [he] had ever seen").

Later, it was in the Royal Ballet’s repertoire when it toured in 1958. I wrote at the time that I found the lead "coy and insipid"; what’s more, the tour had opened with what I described as "a waterlogged Swan Lake".  I had also lamented that we were seeing Andrée Howard’s lightweight piece Veneziana when the strongly dramatic Mirror for Witches, about witch trials and burnings in Brittany and New England, would have been a far better choice. 

I was not the only writer who was cool towards the company, and founder-director, Dame Ninette de Valois, invited a few of us to coffee. At one stage she looked at me sharply and said, "What do you know about Mirror for Witches?" So I told her, and said a few other things as well. Thought I’d overstepped the mark a bit in fact. But as we were leaving the coffee shop she held me back and said in a low voice, "Now when you come to London, come and see me". 

So, a couple of years later I climbed the stairs to her office at Covent Garden, where she briskly unrolled on a desk the large current performance schedule, took a pencil and pointing to this one and that commanded, "You should see this ….  and this …  and this….and this …  You will sit in my box. I won’t be there every time."  By now my head was whirling, and I left with a list of ballets I was going to see with Margot Fonteyn, Michael Somes, Svetlana Beriosova, Donald MacLeary and other leading dancers of the day. And see them I did,  with a few adventures along the way.

Writing about dance is a privilege, and it can also help you into privileged places. Elizabeth and I have stood on the stage of the Bolshoi (I’m not too sure I would want to do that today), watched from a box at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg, been enthralled by a national Flamenco competition in Cordoba, joined in festival folkdance in Brittany, thrilled to dance in America and discussed movement and meaning with indigenous dancers from Mornington Island. I have enjoyed and gained much from interviewing directors, choreographers, teachers and performers, some now gone, like Glen Tetley, Zora Semberova, Dorothy Stevenson, Keith Bain and Tanja Liedtke, and many others who are still happily with us.  

Through it all, it has been exciting to see dance in Australia developing in all its diversity. In recent years computer technology has opened whole new worlds, for exampl—extending the boundaries of dance, indeed dissolving the boundaries between dance, technology and other performance styles—and then just think of the ever-widening range of dance theatre.

What is of concern is that not enough of us are able to see what other people are achieving. In the 1970s funding was made available to bring together regional companies and The Australian Ballet for annual performances and discussions—stimulating and worthwhile occasions, dance people getting together, seeing one another’s work, making useful, creative contacts.

It was here in Canberra in 1977 that I first saw a Graeme Murphy piece—it was called Tip, and had music by Carl Vine. In 1978 Peggy van Praagh brought out John Percival of The Times and Clive Barnes from the New York Post for a day’s public discussion of the works we were seeing. Held in the Sydney Opera House, it was a huge success. But funding dried up.

The same thing happened with Made to Move, a program in the 1990s which subsidised interstate touring by regional companies. That was how, in Adelaide, we were able to see the West Australian Ballet’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and Queensland Ballet’s Carmina Burana. We haven’t had visits from either company since then, and Australian Dance Theatre’s recent visit to Melbourne was its first in a decade.

What a challenging opportunity awaits us all here to encourage our funding bodies and arts centres to begin such a program again! 

But it’s time to end.

I just want to say that I have been quite overcome by the extraordinary honour that induction into the Hall of Fame places upon me. I believe I am the first non-practitioner to be so honoured. Does this mean that perhaps the pen is as powerful as the pointe shoe, the computer-generated word comparable with the cabriole? Whatever the case, I still find it hard to believe, and and I am truly and humbly grateful.