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Dance in Australia
Daniel Gaudiello in Giselle. Photo Danielle Lyonne

Daniel Gaudiello in Giselle. Photo Danielle Lyonne

1796 – 1900

The earliest dance performed in an Australian theatre was not a ballet but a 'hornpipe', a divertissement following a play, The Tragedy of Jane Shore, at the Sydney Theatre on 30 July 1796. From such humble beginnings, dance, particularly ballet, became a central platform in Australia's arts and entertainment.

As the colonies flourished then grew wealthy with the discovery of gold, theatres became grand and plentiful and manager-promoters like George Coppin in Melbourne and JC Williamson in Sydney created regular audiences for very diverse dancers and ensembles from the northern hemisphere.

The first ballet presented was The Fair Maid of Perth at The Theatre Royal, Sydney in January 1835.The best of Europe's Romantic-era ballets, La Sylphide, La Fille mal gardée and Giselle appeared soon after. But the most famous arrival, in 1851, was Lola Montes, an Irish woman posing as a Spaniard whose personality, famous Spider Dance and colourful private life – she was like a pop star of her era – entertained gold miners and city folk alike.

Novelty was important and amongst the Russians, Spaniards, Italians and family troupes who performed in the late 1880s. Filippo Taglioni's comic ballet Jocko, the Brazilian Ape, and the routines of the one-legged dancer Signor Donato were extremely popular.

Australia's talent pool expanded at this time, supporting such shows as Italian ballerina Emilia Pasta's pantomime Sinbad the Sailor, and supplying the in-house corps de ballet for major theatres. And in the 1890s two talented teachers, Alice Mason-Beatty and Jennie Brenan, opened studios in Brisbane and Melbourne respectively.

1900 – 1950

The new century was marked by long and repeat tours by famous 'Russian' ballerinas and ensembles, although not all were Russian nationals. In 1913 Danish ballerina Adeline Genée had great success with Coppélia, Les Sylphides, Arabian Nights and Robert le Diable and established a local taste for Russian and French repertoire.

The ethereal Anna Pavlova, billed by JC Williamsons as “the greatest dancer of all time”, came in 1926 and again in 1929, when she introduced ballet to huge, captivated crowds from North Queensland to all the mainland capitals.

If Pavlova's tours were exciting, Colonel de Basil's Ballets Russes tours between 1936 and 1940 caused a revolution amongst Australian artists and audiences. People queued overnight for tickets, hunted autographs and repeatedly watched favourite dancers in performances of more than 40 ballets. Many were masterpieces of the 20th century including Léonide Massine's Les Présages and David Lichine's Graduation Ball, danced on different tours by famous artists Helene Kirsova, Irina Baronova, Tamara Toumanova, Tamara Tchinarova, Tatiana Riabouchinska, Anton Dolin and Paul Petroff.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, the scene began to change. Kirsova settled in Sydney and her school provided the dancers for Australia's first professional ensemble. Others made homeless by the war stayed too. Edouard and Xenia Borovansky's Melbourne studio formed the basis of the Borovansky Ballet; Kira Abriccosova Bousloff went to Perth and built the West Australian Ballet; and Raissa Koussnetzova formed the short-lived Polish Australian Ballet. Building on local talent, Borovansky employed Australian dancer-choreographers Dorothy Stevenson and Laurel Martyn as leading artists. Martyn would later found the Victorian Ballet Guild in 1946 which operated well in the 1980s.

In 1947, London's Ballet Rambert planned to tour here for six months but was so popular that it stayed 18 months and brought with it a new, English aesthetic with psychological themes. Rambert dancer Margaret Scott settled here and in 1964 became the founding director of The Australian Ballet School. Another dancer, Joyce Graeme, was appointed director of the National Theatre Ballet in 1948, an initially successful company which lasted only till 1954 with Sydney-born Valrene Tweedie as a most creative director.

Influential companies continued to tour in the 1950s – The Royal Ballet and New York City Ballet, Alvin Ailey African American Dance Theatre, Katherine Dunham's Afro-Caribbean troupe and the revelation of the Bolshoi Ballet from Moscow with its strapping men and technically gifted ballerinas.

All the early Australian companies seemed to adopt the principles of Diaghilev's legendary Ballets Russes (1909-29): strong collaborations between local composers, designers and musicians, training dancers seriously, as well as exploring Australian themes. Borovansky's Terra Australis, The Black Swan and The Outlaw, Rex Reed and Beth Dean's versions of Corroboree and Martyn's Mathinna were the earliest serious Australian works, performed next to Ballets Russes revivals, new modern and abstract works and familiar classics. Standards rose quickly but could suffer for lack of funding.

Madeleine Eastoe and Ty King-Wall in Halcyon. Photo Jeff Busby
Madeleine Eastoe and Ty King-Wall in Halcyon. Photo Jeff

1960 to present day

After many successful years, Borovansky died in 1959. British dancer-director Peggy van Praagh came to lead the company, and after it closed in 1960, a government initiative allowed it to be reborn as The Australian Ballet in November 1962. Like the West Australian Ballet and Queensland Ballet (founded by Borovansky student Charles Lisner in 1960), The Australian Ballet continues to thrive to the present day. Of the small school or project ensembles that arose around the country, only Ann Roberts' North Queensland Ballet survives, transformed into the contemporary company, Dance North.

Rudolf Nureyev's defection to the West from the USSR in 1961 was a watershed and The Australian Ballet welcomed his influence when he brought his brilliant, classic revivals of Raymonda and Don Quixote. Soon after, the 1970s dance boom changed ballet world wide, elevating the standards and the status of male dancers to new heights. Stars and companies of highest quality toured to Australia, showing local dancers that they could become part of a new elite team and Australians left to work abroad in increasing numbers while The Australian Ballet became our greatest artistic ambassador.

The three main ballet companies in Australia have now been joined by a number of professional contemporary companies, which along with the high standard of many dance schools, demonstate that dance is alive and well in Australia. The most significant and gratifying changes in the past decade include the increasing numbers of boys and students from many culturally diverse backgrounds who have been attracted to the art form.

Lee Christofis, Curator of Dance, National Library of Australia

Fun facts

The Paris Opera Ballet was formed in 1671, Royal Swedish Ballet in 1773, Mariinsky Ballet, St Petersburg in 1783, Royal Danish Ballet in 1784, Royal Ballet, London in 1926, and The Australian Ballet in 1962.



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