The Importance of Dance in Australian Culture.
Posted by amy goreham on
We can pinpoint the moment Australia fell in love with ballet to a winter's day in 1913 when Adeline Genée sailed into Sydney harbour.
The diminutive ballerina was greeted by cameramen, filming her walking on the deck of the liner, Makura, and by reports eager to interview the dancer billed as "The ideal of Our Age" and "The World's Greatest Dancer".
The Sydney Morning Herald headlines its report: "A Famous Dancer", describing Genée as a "dainty little lady with a radiant smile and a rare charm of manner".
Later that day she was the guest of honour at the restaurant, Paris House, where the chef created a dish in her name, Mousselinne Genée patisserie. At the end of her tour, Genée was presented with boomerang with the inscription that she would soon return to Australia.
In the 19th century, many dancers had toured to Australia, among them Lola Montez, who thrilled audiences in the 1850s with her suggestive "Spider Dance", but Genée's visit was the trigger for the nation's 20th century love affair with theatrical dance.
Thanks to the publicity skills of J.C. Williamson, the firm that brought a galaxy of European dancers to Australia from the 1920s to the 1950s, the nation's appetite for dance grew to such an extend that audiences became connoisseurs of the art form.
With the long tours of the Russian ballerinas, Anna Pavolva and Olga Spessivteva, the balletomanes were not only fans but also developed friendships with the dancers on tour. Such social connections reached a peak when Colonel de Basil's Ballets Russes' troupes toured Australia from 1936-40.
The photographer, Max Dupain, remembered the way "Australia and Australians just wallowed" in those tours. "You know full houses every night and they were taken into the bosom of Sydney, feted and entertained. They were very interested people, very interesting for Australia at that stage. If they came today you'd probably take it for granted".
In every city of those tours the dancers were invited to numerous lunches, dinners, cocktails, picnics, art gallery openings, visits to universities, and parties at swimming pools, beaches, parks and private houses.
The impact on Australian culture was profound. Artists, composers, photographers and amateur filmmakers were enthralled by the Ballets Russes dancers. The artists Donald Friend and Sidney Nolan were commissioned to design for the companies while Daryl Lindsay and Enid Dickson sketched and planted the dancers and the composer, Margaret Sutherland, wrote the score for one production.
By 1939, such tours had helped shape the cultural landscape of Australia.
The Second World War both hindered and helped that relationship. The growing dangers of sea travel both to and from Australia meant that more dancers remained in Australia but also more dancers took their chances to emigrate. Among the dancers who decided to stay were the Danish dancer, Helene Kirsova, the Czech, Edouard Borovansky who could not return to his homeland, and those who had to flee from Europe, including the Austrian Gertrud Bodenwieser. Each of these three added to the cultural landscape of Australia by training Australian dancers and establishing their own companies here.
Borovansky's company was one of the few that experimented with Australian themed ballets such as Terra Australis and The Outlaw, although he thought John Antill's Corroboree "was interesting - but not ballet".
No, it was not ballet but it was a flicker of the flame that helped lead the way to our own indigenous dance company. In the 1950's the Australian dancer, Rex Reid and the American dancer, Beth Dean, both choreographed Corroboree to Antill's core and many years later, Bangarra Dance Theatre evolved from the National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA) Dance College.
Due to the resilience and determination of H.G. ("Nugget") Coombs, an economist, governor of the Reserve Bank and renaissance man, the Australian Ballet began in 1962. Soon after, the company embarked on international tours, taking homegrown Australian works by Robert Helpmann and later Graeme Murphy. The old order had changed. Dance was made here to take out there, around the world.
Murphy, who led Sydney Dance company for more than a decade, was the linchpin in the growth of Australian dance, based on our own stories, from Rumours to his masterpiece, Nutcracker, that told the tale of ballet in Australia through the eyes of the fictional Clara, a Russian ballerina who settled in Melbourne.
From a nation that took Genée to its heart more than a century ago, Australia has become home to more than 50 dance companies.
In the words of the choreographer, Nicolo Fonte, "dance is a primal instinct...but it also goes with the trends of popular culture".
Visit any big city dance studio and you can see that in action, with classes from hip hop to tap, ballet to jazz, contemporary to salsa and tango.
We not only think we can dance, we do, whether aged 7 or 70, at thousands of dance schools around the country.
The choreographer, Agnes de Mille, a woman who helped define American dance with her work for Oklahoma! and Rodeo, read widely and travelled far. She wrote the words that apply to Australia in the 21st century: "The truest expression of a people is in its dance and in its music. Bodies never lie".
Author: Valerie Lawson
Valerie is an author and journalist based in Sydney, Australia. She is the former Arts Editor and Dance Writer for The Sydney Morning Herald (1990 to 2009). Valerie was also the Dance Critic for The Australian Financial Review (1994-2002). At Fairfax Media she was the Foundation Editor of The Good Weekend Magazine as well as the Times on Sunday. Today Valerie is a freelance writer and her articles are published in newspapers and magazines around the globe including the theatre programs of The Australian Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, Ballet National of Cuba, Hamburg Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet, English National Ballet, Nerderland Dans Theatre and Sydney Festival.
In addition to her numerous journal articles, Valerie is the author of three non-fiction books Connie Sweetheart (1990), The Allens Affair (1995) and Mary Poppins She Wrote, a biography of Pamela Travers (1999). Valerie is currently writing a history of ballet in Australia and we at Amy Louise Dance are honoured that she agreed to be our first blog author.
Valerie trained at the Royal Academy of Dance schools in New Zealand. In addition to holding a Teaching Diploma from the Royal Academy of Dance, Valerie graduated with a B.Phil (Hons) in Ballet and Contextual Studies from the University of Durham, United Kingdom (2002). In 2010 she was awarded the Nancy Keesing Fellowship at he State Library of New South Wales where she researched the ballet and dance collections. Recently, she launched her own website www.dancelines.com.au in which she covers developments and events in the dance industry from around the globe. This is a wonderful resource not only for lovers of dance, but young budding professional dancers who need to have a sound knowledge of who's who and what is happening in the dance world. We encourage you to visit Valerie's website (click the image below) and subscribe.