Our evening function on 25 May 2010 was held in honour of Dame Peggy van Praagh, founding Artistic Director of The Australian Ballet, who would have been 100 years old this year. Her story was told with customary verve by our good friend Colin Peasley. First, he reviewed Dame Peggy's career as a professional dancer and teacher, which began in 1933 with Ballet Rambert. She moved to the Sadler's Wells Ballet under Dame Ninette de Valois and on to teaching assignments throughout England and in Canada and Scandinavia. In 1960 and 1961, she directed the Borovansky Ballet and in 1962 was appointed Artistic Director of the newly-formed Australian Ballet.
Colin Peasley OAM in contemplative mood, with Society President Josie Woodgate OAM.
Colin listed the key principles for the establishment of the new company, which she hammered out with management.
- That the dancers be engaged on annual contracts and be members of Actors Equity,
- That the repertoire include the established classics, revivals of the best international works, and new works commissioned from contemporary choreographers,
- That the company actively foster Australian choreographers, composers and designers,
- That it should employ guest artists and teachers until it was properly established,
- That a National Ballet School be established to ensure a steady supply of dancers of high quality,
- That education programs be devised for high schools, to build potential audiences of the future,
- That in addition to touring the capital cities of Australia, the company should tour the dance capitals of the world to establish an international reputation.
Colin laid particular emphasis on Peggy's affection for her dancers and her determination to do her best for them. Until her appointment dancers in Australia had been hired for limited seasons and left to maintain their skill and fitness between times as best they could. On one occasion, a group of dancers on tour were told that their salaries were being paid into their bank accounts, but arrived home to find it was not true. Under Dame Peggy, attendance at four classes per week was part of their contract, and covered by their salary. The result was improved and consistent technique. Colin remembered Dame Peggy's classes as "a joy" because of her attention to detail, which carried through into rehearsals.
The first three years of Dame Peggy's tenure led to the famed international tour and the special relationship with Fonteyn and Nureyev. It laid a firm foundation for the present great success of The Australian Ballet.
Colin also spoke of the difficult period of Dame Peggy's enforced collaboration with Sir Robert Helpmann as co-Artistic Directors, and of her long battle with arthritis. He noted that Dame Peggy was, and needed to be, tough and resilient. (Ninette de Valois had provided her with an excellent role model!) She was direct in her dealings and could be startlingly frank. It took some time for Australians to warm to her, her refined English accent being something of a handicap - as was the fact that she was not male. However, it soon came to be recognised that she was whole-heartedly committed to developing a uniquely Australian company with its own Australian style.
Members were appreciative that Colin had come to speak to us again, so soon after a severe illness. We were delighted to see him back, very much on form. After a brief question-and-answer session, supper was served, and a queue quickly formed to congratulate and talk to Colin.
More information on Dame Peggy may be found on the Australia Dancing website. Details of performances celebrating the 100th anniversary of Dame Peggy's birth may be found on the web site of The Australian Ballet.