William Constable’s career as a scenic artist spanned some sixty years, working for leading companies in Australia and Britain, but as Judy Leech explains, it was through his close association with Edouard Borovansky from 1940-1956, that he honed his craft.
What would the Reverend Archibald Henry Constable, rector of Bendigo's St John's Church of England, make of the fact that one of his housemaids, on her day off, had taken his four year-old son, William, to a performance of a play! The reverend gentleman deplored the theatre and he had forbidden his three sons to ever attend.
The young William recalled, not the play nor the actors, but the colours, the painted walls and doors of the settings—his first experience, or exposure to, scenic design. The year was 1910.
In his teens William received some training or guidance in water-colour painting from the artist Meta Townsend, wife of Reginald Sturgess. These two had both been students at the National Gallery Art School of Victoria from 1909 to 1914. It was not until 1926, at the age of twenty, when William's apprenticeship at the Jolimont Workshops was terminated, that he could commence full-time study at the National Gallery, which was followed by a move to the UK and a period spent at St Martin's School of Art in London. He found work as a graphic designer and became involved in experimental theatre: at theatres such as the Embassy, in Swiss Cottage, now home to the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. He was influenced by the modern school of stage design first introduced by the English designer Gordon Craig and the Swiss architect and theorist of stage lighting and design, Adolphe Appia. These experiences set his passion for life.
Returning to Australia in the early 1930s William Constable was engaged by Gregan McMahon to contribute his design expertise to the inaugural production of James Bridie's Jonah and the Whale at the newly opened Garrick Theatre in Melbourne.
Thus began a long and astonishingly varied career in scenic design, for the theatre a long, long list of plays and operas in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane, New Zealand and the UK, for film and television both here and during the years he spent in London from 1955 to 1972. He illustrated books, produced paintings, prints and murals, his work was exhibited across Australia and England.
But the principal subject or aim of this article is to be Constable's design for the ballet, most notably for one particular ballet company here in Australia.
Constable acknowledged his formative experience with the McMahon company and later, his indebtedness to the three tours of the de Basil and Ballets Russes companies, from 1936 to 1941, visits that had an extraordinary impact upon designers for the stage, local artists, dancers and choreographers. At the conclusion of these tours, or a dancer's contract with a company, a number—around one dozen—preferred to remain in Australia, and for an understandable variety of reasons, given the current state of the world. A few endeavoured to set up schools or companies, others were to join forces with these new ventures. Edouard and Xenia Borovansky opened an Academy of Dance/Russian Ballet in Roma House in Elizabeth Street, Melbourne (Czechoslovakian born Edouard —originally Eduard Skrecek—met his future wife Xenia Smirnova when they were both members of Anna Pavlova's company), others, including Valentin Zeglovsky, were to join the soon-to-be-formed Borovansky Ballet Company.
Roma House, oil-painting by Daryl Lindsay.
Image from Borovansky Ballet in Australia and New Zealand by Norman MacGeorge
John Rowell's portrait of Edouard Borovansky.
Australian Ballet Collection
Constable met Borovansky through the photographer Eric Rowell when they both attended the 1939 opening of the Roma House Studio. This was the start of a creative partnership and friendship to last until Boro's untimely death in 1959.
Constable's early designs, Vltava, Pas Classique and Autumn Leaves in 1940 were for the Roma Studio's recitals to help raise money for war charity benefits, from 1939 through to 1943. His first professional dance commission was for En Saga in 1941, a ballet choreographed by Laurel Martyn (who had danced with Sadler’s Wells and Borovansky and was later to form Victoria's Ballet Guild) and performed at a Red Cross Gala in Melbourne University's Union Theatre. The ballet was, essentially, an expression of hatred and rebellion against war. With a Finnish poem as a basis, and with the music of Jean Sibelius—chosen from one of his Tone Poems—Constable created costumes inspired by the folk-dress of Finland against a bleak, windswept backcloth. The whole production was greatly admired—the principal dancers, the choreography, and most importantly, the design.
The following year, 1942, the newly-formed company presented Les Sylphides at the Princess Theatre—designs by Constable, no doubt following the usual romantic woodland-glade tradition. That same year, Harry Tatlock Miller, journalist, art critic and expert in paintings and antiques, assembled an exhibition of Australian art for ballet and theatre, which included work by Constable, Loudon Sainthill, Amie Kingston, Elaine Haxton, William Dobell, Daryl Lindsay—among others. Many of these artists had contributed designs for another ballet company, albeit a short-lived one, formed by the Sydney-based Hélène Kirsova, another one of the dancers who had ‘stayed behind’.
Ribbon Dancer from The Red Poppy ballet, never realised, c.1942.
Image from Present Day Art in Australia, edited by Sydney Ure Smith
Act 1, the ballet Giselle, 1943. Photo by Jean Stewart.
Image from Three Centuries of Ballet by Cornelius Conyn
In the early 1940s the dancer Valentin Zeglovsky, who had also chosen to remain in Australia, set up a school in a studio in the house in which he lived in Potts Point. He submitted patent applications to the relevant authorities for four ballets, one of which was The Red Poppy, a ballet first created for the Bolshoi in 1927 and the first Soviet ballet with a modern revolutionary theme. Who knows exactly what Zeglovsky had in mind—the original version had over sixty separate segments or divertissements! The most famous, and remembered, being the Russian Sailors' Dance. The music was by Reinhold Glière, the original choreography by Lev Laschiline and Vasily Tikhomirov.
There is no evidence of Zeglovsky's version, apart from Constable's beautifully rendered costume designs, shown here. A tragic waste! From Zeglovsky's autobiography, his Ballet Crusade, we know he danced in the original ballet with the Riga State Opera Company in 1929.
Design for Constable's Façade, 1942.
National Gallery of Australia, © Estate of William Constable, NGA 87.1940
Façade in performance, 1943. Photo by Jean Stewart.
National Library of Australia, PIC P348/BB/299 LOC Album 810/9
In 1943 the ballet Façade was to be presented by the Borovansky Ballet and with these designs Constable decided not to attempt to follow the lead of the London production at Sadler's Wells. When he began to prepare his designs, he had no knowledge of the score—he knew only the outline of the crazy plot. Once he had heard the music he scrapped all his designs and started over again. His keen musical sense dictated his designs—'you paint the music’ he was often quoted as saying. He considered the English costumes and decor far too literal and conventional for William Walton's marvellously ‘mad’ music.
The original Façade was first produced in July 1940 in London with sets and costumes by John Armstrong. The one-act ballet was freely adapted from poems by Edith Sitwell, but Walton's orchestral suite Façade was first used for a ballet by the German choreographer Gunter Hess, who created a series of six divertissements for his German Chamber Dance Theatre. First performed at the International Musical Festival in Siena in 1929 the Hess production inspired the Camargo Society (later to be known as Vic Wells, Sadler's Wells, and ultimately the Royal Ballet) to commission the English choreographer Frederick Ashton to create their own version.
George Upward, a scenic artist featured in previous THA articles, executed Façade’s scenery. He was well established as a designer and scenic artist with Kathleen Robinson and Alec Coppel's Minerva Theatre at Potts Point in Sydney when Constable, in 1941, was given his first commission for the play Mr Smart Guy. (Hélène Kirsova's 40-member ballet company had a six-week season at the Minerva Theatre in the same year, before relocating to His Majesty's Theatre in Melbourne.) Constable went on to create the designs, over the years, for at least two dozen productions at this theatre. Obviously, and as Scenic Director, he was under some form of contract with them as the scenery and costume designs for Façade were by courtesy of Robinson and Coppel's Whitehall Theatrical Productions. He would have used the company's paint-rooms and workshops at the Minerva Theatre, as Whitehall had held the lease since 1941, only vacating the premises in early 1950 when Metro Goldwyn Mayer purchased the building.
But for the most part, sets for Boro were constructed and cloths painted in Melbourne, in the dedicated areas behind His Majesty's Theatre in Cohen Place, once Brown's Lane.1. Constable, and Upward, called on the talents and expertise of scenic artists such as J. Alan (George) Kenyon and his son John, Rupert Browne, Cecil Newman and many, sadly un-named, assistants. Ballet programmes now, invariably, inform us where sets have been built, scenery painted, costumes created, and so on. Very few, back in the 40s and 50s, were so enlightening.
Constable and scale model of the Minerva Theatre stage, 1943/44.
Image from PIX Magazine, November 1944
The ballet Vltava, 1943.
Photo by Theon N. Mirfield.
In 1943 Constable created the designs for Vltava, a ballet he had first worked on during the studio recitals period. The music was written by Bedrich Smetana as part of a cycle of compositions entitled My Country (or Má Vlast). The ballet expresses the River Moldau, as it flows from its source to the sea, and old Bohemia with its legends, its castles, forests and plains.
Giselle, with very traditional decor and costumes by Constable, followed in 1944, and another exhibition of designs and drawings, created in connection with the company, was displayed in the foyers of the J.C. Williamson theatres. Constable again, along with Alan McCulloch, John Rowell, Daryl Lindsay, William Dargie and Len Annois. Also in 1944, Act 2 of Swan Lake was staged—designed by Constable.
The following year, 1945, would appear to be a year devoted to a formidable string of dramatic and comedic productions, predominantly in NSW for the Minerva, Independent and New Theatres, and for the Tivoli circuit.
Bill working on Terra Australis, 1946.
National Library of Australia, PIC P348/BB/251 LOC Drawer R6
The ballet Terra Australis, 1946.
National Gallery of Australia, © Estate of William Constable, NGA 87.1943
For the ballet Terra Australis, in 1946, Constable designed the decor for the Sydney version only. Eve Harris was responsible for the original Melbourne one and her design was criticised for its lack of depth. In the 1947 season Constable produced a new backdrop using a row of totem poles of diminishing height to create an illusion of greater depth. Terra Australis premiered in May 1946 and, as Boro's first work on an Australian theme, was considered his most important original creation. Based on a story by Tom Rothfield, the ballet was set to a score by Esther Rofe and told of the struggle between the white man, the Explorer as danced by Martin Rubinstein, and the Aboriginal (Vassilie Trunoff, late of the Ballets Russes), for the possession of Australia, represented by a young girl, as portrayed by Peggy Sager. Helen Ffrance created the role of the Earth.
The original costume designs by Leon Bakst for Diaghilev's 1910 production of Scheherazade in Paris had a considerable impact on fashion, French in particular, popularizing loose and flowing oriental-style garments. Obviously Constable used these designs, in 1946, as an inspiration—Edward H. Pask in his Ballet in Australia: the second act—claimed that ‘those of William Constable and Leon Bakst evoked a great deal more of the supposed sultry, mysterious and perfume-laden atmosphere than any subsequent production’. The photographs recording Boro's 1946 Scheherazade illustrate just how exotically dramatic and sumptuous the ballet was—if only there existed some film footage in colour!
Set design for the ballet Scheherazade, 1946.
National Gallery of Australia, © Estate of William Constable, NGA 87.1941
Scheherazade in performance, 1946. Photo by Jean Stewart.
Image in Three Centuries of Ballet by Cornelius Conyn
In this same year Constable was responsible for the designs for Coppélia and, thanks to Boro's wonderful characterisation as Dr Coppelius, and Edna Busse as Swanhilda, this ballet became a firm favourite of the company's repertoire. (In 1960 Kenneth Rowell was commissioned to create new designs for the ballet and in 1979 it was Kristian Fredrikson's opportunity.)
For the next two or three years Constable produced many designs for a variety of theatre companies, principally, again, in NSW. As financial assistance had been withdrawn from JCW, the ballet company had disbanded, but in August 1949 Boro's Educational Ballet Club was formed and programs were again presented at Roma House, even though a number of the dancers had headed for Europe or sought employment elsewhere in Australia.
The Black Swan, the second of Boro's Australiana ballets, was premiered at Roma House in September 1949 (but was fully and theatrically presented at the Empire Theatre in Sydney in June 1951). The story, set in three acts to the music of Jean Sibelius, tells of the 17th century visit to Western Australia by the explorer Captain Brandt of the Dutch East India Company. Of the decor and costumes the Age critic wrote: ‘William Constable's sets are superb: his design for the Black Swan's costume produced something ethereal and beautiful … However, more effective lighting on a larger stage would improve it [the set], but as it was presented last night the melancholy loneliness and wonder of an undiscovered land were not suggested’. No doubt with the re-staging of the ballet two years later these faults were rectified!
A newly re-formed Ballet Company assembled in late 1950, to commence rehearsals for a new season.
The ballet Coppélia, 1946.
Image from Australian Notes on the Ballet by Jean Garling
The ballet Black Swan, 1949.
Image in Three Centuries of Ballet by Cornelius Conyn
But earlier, in July 1950, Sydney was treated to the premiere of Rex Reid's Corroboree, choreographed for Melbourne's National Theatre Ballet Company, and to the world-acclaimed music of John Antill. It was built up from snatches of tunes of the indigenous people at La Perouse that Antill had heard and which had then taken him eight years to compose and complete as a score. The Sydney Morning Herald critic wrote, following the ballet's premiere on the 3 July 1950—‘Constable's decor, a rocky desert outcrop rising to a garish sky, is a masterpiece of theatre design’. And much later Olga Sedneva, writes: ‘… [he used] bold organic shapes, strong details, variation in textures and contrasting colours in set designs …’.2. He created a minimalistic composition that accurately translated to the desert of Central Australia to contrast with the night sky’.3. The ballet travelled to Perth and then to Melbourne in early 1951.
And, leaping ahead, in Sydney on 6 February 1954, a reworked version of Constable's set for Corroboree was the highlight of a royal gala for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Beth Dean (originally from Denver, Colorado and a lecturer, choreographer, writer and critic) was commissioned to completely re-choreograph the ballet. Dean and her husband Victor Carell had made an extensive study of the music, legends and dance of the Australian Aborigines. A more authentic production of Corroboree was created as a consequence.
Original study for Corroboree, c.1950.
Image from Australian Notes on the Ballet by Jean Garling
The ballet Corroboree in performance, 1950.
Photo by Hal Williamson.
And how interesting it is to observe the progress and development of Constable's style, or styles, from those first designs for the studio through to those of Terra Australis, Scheherazade and Corroboree. The early ballet decors, somewhat two-dimensional, simply replicated what had gone before, with other companies, but soon the versatile and creative Constable was illuminating our stages by demonstrating his true artistic prowess!
Nineteen fifty-one was to be an important and momentous year, being both the Centenary of Victoria and the Jubilee of the Commonwealth, and a year of the most extraordinary artistic achievements for William Constable!
- See Framing the Past, https://theatreheritage.org.au/on-stage-magazine/general-articles/item/558-framing-the-past
- See ‘Rediscovering the Stage Designs of Bill Constable: Corroboree and other ballet designs’, Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts, 18 October 2016, https://smsa.org.au/events/event/rediscovering-bill-constable-ballets-lost-designer
- See also William Henry Archibald Constable, Design and Art, https://www.daao.org.au/bio/william-henry-archibald-constable/biography
Cornelius Conyn, Three Centuries of Ballet, Elsevier Press, Houston, 1953
Jean Garling, Australian Notes on the Ballet, Legend Press, Sydney, 195-
Norman MacGeorge, Borovansky Ballet in Australia and New Zealand, F.W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1946, available online, https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-498778442
Edward H. Pask, Ballet in Australia: the second act, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1982
PIX Magazine, vol. 14, no. 19, November 1944, available online, https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-449744968/view?sectionId=nla.obj-478973642&partId=nla.obj-449934804#page/n17/mode/1up
Sydney Ure Smith (editor), Present Day Art in Australia, Ure Smith, Sydney, 1943 & 1945
Valentin Zeglovsky, Ballet Crusade, Reed & Harris, Melbourne, 1943
I am indebted to:
Australian Performing Arts Collection, AusStage, Tom Breen, Alan Brissenden, Cornelius Conyn, Frederick W.L. Esch, Jean Garling, Bob Hill, John Hood, Joan Kerr, Barry Kitcher, Norman MacGeorge, Edward H. Pask, Michelle Potter, Frank Salter, Olga Sedneva, Jean Stewart, Frank Van Straten, Pamela J. Zeplin Waite, Kenneth Wilkinson, and Valentin Zeglovsky