Judy Leech concludes her look at the life and work of Australian scenic artist William Constable, with particular focus on his creations for the ballet stage and his designs for Edouard Borovansky’s company. Click here to read Part 1 of this article»
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!
In February, as part of these celebrations, the National Theatre Arts Festival Committee held a Theatre Arts Display in the Print Gallery of the then National Gallery in Swanston Street, Melbourne. The artist, teacher and stage designer John Rowell (brother of William and uncle to Kenneth) was appointed convenor and various items, equipment, costumes and designs were lent by the Myer Emporium, J.C. Williamson Ltd, the Ballet Guild and the Victorian and New South Wales Galleries. Puppeteer Don Nicol and Swinburne Art College lecturer Mrs Winter, and her students, created a puppet theatre, complete with performances.
Over one hundred items were exhibited, including those of John Brunton, W.R. Coleman, Phil Goatcher, Ann Church, J. Alan (George) Kenyon, Daryl and Norman Lindsay, John and Kenneth Rowell, Loudon Sainthill, George Upward—to name only a few—and, of course, Bill Constable.
Alan McCulloch (also represented) wrote an excellent and enlightening foreword entitled ‘Designing for Theatre’. ‘The year 1909,’ he wrote, ‘When Serge Diaghilev produced the first Russian ballets in Paris, marked the beginning of a new era in the art of designing for the stage.’1.
The Constable designs displayed were decors for Petrouchka, Aurora's Wedding and Scheherezade. A celebration indeed.
On the 6 April at Sydney's Empire Theatre the ballet Petrouchka was premiered. The choreography was by Borovansky, after Michel Fokine, with the music of Stravinsky, a ballet first presented to the world in 1911, at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, by Serge Diaghilev's Russian Ballet. Forty years later, William Constable truly did the ballet justice. In the original 1951 programme Thomas Essington Breen wrote: ‘His work is exciting, imaginative and real theatre. While principally confined to the perceptual, Constable's decor is always at one with the dancing, the while commanding separate attention and yet fusing into the whole. When Constable appends a faded and forlorn-looking rose on the heart of Petrouchka, one respects his innovation. Constable says that the rose makes Petrouchka seem most pathetic—and I agree with him. Pursuits may consider this to be sacrilege, but, set in the subtle variations given by Constable to the costume, it is not.’2.
Breen was a journalist (plus a man of many passions and interests) on The Sydney Morning Herald where he covered his long-term loves, the ballet and the theatre. He had married the sculptor Charlotte ‘Bill’ Hart and her clay figurines of Petrouchka and other characters from the ballets were displayed in the foyer of the Empire.
Breen also wrote of Petrouchka that Constable's decor for the opening scene had ‘more theatre feeling’ than Benois' original which preserved the real appearance of a Russian Fair. And, again, of Constable's costume design for Petrouchka: ‘It shows a masterly conception of the character's profound tragedy. If anything, Constable has deepened this aspect of the character.’3.
In 1976 the late-lamented Ballet Victoria (originally Laurel Martyn's Ballet Guild) staged this ballet at the Palais in St Kilda and their sets were based on the original Alexandre Benois designs of 1911. Dennis Law was the Scenic and Property supervisor. Where are these designs now—where indeed are those of Benois? not to mention those of Constable?! But the Petrouchka of 1951 will long remain in the memories of many—the combination of Stravinsky's music, the Fokine based and inspired choreography and Constable's vividly imagined and executed sets (assisted by Michael Biddulph) and frankly, gorgeous costumes.
Opening scene from Petrouchka, 1951.
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.
Scene from the one-act ballet La Boutique Fantasque, 1951.
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.
Two weeks later, La Boutique Fantasque premiered in Sydney. The music was by Gioachino Rossini, arranged and orchestrated by Ottorino Respighi, and the choreography was by Leonide Massine, on which Borovansky based his. In fact Borovansky stole the show, time and time again, dancing the role of the bewildered and befuddled shopkeeper. In 1919, in the original Ballet Russe production, this role was played by the legendary Enrico Cecchetti.
This is a ballet that really should be re-staged—it is a delight from start to finish, although one should be prepared, very possibly, to be moved to tears by the sad plight—albeit temporary—of the two ‘can can’ dolls! Many a local ballet school has attempted to reproduce this ballet but what it requires is a fully professional re-creation, and as close to the original 1919 designs of Andre Derain as possible—or to those of Constable in 1951!
On the 4 May 1951, Aurora's Wedding (the final act of the full-length ballet, still in the planning stage, The Sleeping Princess) had its first performance at Sydney's Empire Theatre. Another magnificent backdrop by Constable, and a mere fourteen days later the premiere of The Outlaw, and Boro's second major work on an Australian theme, relating to episodes in the life of Ned Kelly, the country's (in)famous outlaw. Boro commissioned the music and worked closely with the composer Verdon Williams (the following year he was appointed Musical Director of the National Theatre Ballet), Clive Turnbull wrote the Prologue, and after hearing the story and the score, Constable set to work on both the sets and the costumes.
In this same year, on the first of June, there occurred one of the most important events of the season. A new work set to the music of Schumann, his Piano Quintet, Op. 44. The ballet Chiaroscuro was contemporary in all senses of the word. Choreographed by the Australian Dorothy Stevenson, a highly-regarded and stunningly beautiful dancer, for both the abstract decor and the costumes Constable made much use of shades of grey, and of yellow and white. Winding motifs were appliqued on the costumes, setting off the sensitively-lit and extremely striking ‘modern’ decor.
Drop curtain design for The Outlaw, 1951.
Photo by Barrie Avery, from Ballet in Australia by E.H. Pask.
Chiaroscuro in performance, 1951.
Photo by Hal Williamson, from Australia Dances by Brissenden & Glennon.
What with the preparations in 1951 for so many new ballets, the Paint Frame at Sydney's Theatre Royal would have been stretched to its limits, and this just happened to be the year that Paul Kathner commenced work in the painting department, thanks to Bill Constable and to a newly created vacancy, brought about by the departure of a staff member having been diagnosed with a form of colour-blindness. Paul had been working as an office boy at J.C. Williamson's in Sydney and had become curious about the painting of scenery, having avidly followed the ballet, from Kirsova's Company and the Ballet Rambert tour, through to Boro's.
Once again, I am greatly indebted to the words and findings of designer Rosemary Simons.
Paul, at sixteen, was now assistant to Bill—who headed the Scenic Art team—a team consisting of Rupert Browne and Irishman Tommy Moor. Daily, Paul had to arrive before Constable and prepare the paint and equipment, which included setting up the pallet—large movable tables for blending paint—assembling and positioning the required buckets of water, ensuring the glue-size was heated to the right consistency and making sure the primer, made from a combination of whiting, glue-size and water, was mixed and ready. This was an established daily routine for Paul although, generally, Bill was not a highly regimented person, in fact could be quite haphazard in his approach. Nevertheless, he taught Paul the craft of ‘getting a show on stage’.
Constable and Rupert Browne were the two most influential scenic art teachers in Paul's career—the former a graphic artist and serious painter and Browne, who had been formally trained and worked alongside Constable on many of the ballets. Paul spent a lot of time just watching Rupert paint. Bill painted his own designs and his scenic art style was often tailored to the needs of these designs—he invented techniques to suit. In those days it was common practice for designers to execute their own designs. Paul was greatly influenced and impressed by Bill's commitment to designing ballets while listening to the ballet's score, allowing time for the music to sink in. He maintained that a good ballet design was an exercise in ‘painting the music’.
Constable at work painting his own décor for Petrouchka, 1951.
Petrouchka souvenir programme.
The glue formula as discovered on the wall of the Paint Frame at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne.
Photo by Judy Leech.
Still in this same year, 1951, Paul, Rupert and Bill moved to Melbourne, to the King's Theatre, to work on Boro's Sleeping Princess. At this time the theatre, near the corner of Russell and Little Collins Streets, was principally a cinema, however scenic artists could hire the old paint frame located above the stage. Paul remembers it as a ‘lovely paint room’, bigger than either the Princess or Her Majesty's paint rooms, with skylights so large you could paint relying just on natural light.
On the first of December, Melbourne was treated to the premiere of a ballet by Paul Grinwis (Belgian dancer and choreographer who had, that same year, choreographed and created the decor and costumes for his interpretation of L'après-midi d'un faune) entitled Les Amants Éternels —The Eternal Lovers—(a story) telling of Romeo and Juliet united and awake in the after-life. Constable created a surrealistic and very dramatic decor in ochre and grey—shades of Dali and Loudon Sainthill! Set to Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet fantasy overture, this was the only original work that year to be included in further seasons, its final performance occurring in 1960, with a 1954 revision of the work by Grinwis, when the ballet gained in dramatic force and showed more clearly the struggle between Love and Death.
Scene from the one-act ballet Les Amants Eternels (The Eternal Lovers).
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.
Scene from Act 1 of The Sleeping Princess, a ballet in three acts and a prologue.
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.
Intended as a Christmas attraction, on the 22 December 1951, at Her Majesty's Theatre in Melbourne, the full length ballet The Sleeping Princess was presented and again, Constable was responsible for the designs. The ballet was first produced at the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, in January 1890, but was not seen by the west until a good thirty years later, when it appeared in London and was presented by Diaghilev's Ballet Russe.
Boro's ballet boasted three intervals and an astonishingly long list of cast members, including students from Madame Borovansky's Ballet School. According to many, the production, set in five scenes (with 300 costumes), was far too colourful and the costumes distractingly lavish, but according to the programme notes it was ‘the first production in Australia of the most spectacular ballet ever produced’.4.
How many assistants, over 1950-1951 would Constable have needed in order to create this staggering line-up of ballets? (It was not until 1960 and long after Bill had left Australia for the UK that Ross Turner—much later to found, along with Paul Kathner, the firm Scenic Studios—joined Williamson's and the staff of scenic artists and designers based at Her Majesty's Theatre's Paint Frame in Melbourne.)
Due to the sudden death of King George VI in 1952 the proposed Royal Visit by Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip was cancelled, which meant the cancellation also of a Royal Command Performance of the Borovansky Ballet. It was not until early 1954 that the company reformed (having been somewhat decimated in late 1952) and once again Constable's work was displayed upon the ballet stage, although in the interim he had been far from idle, producing glorious settings and costumes for four important opera companies, one of which happened to be the début performance of Joan Sutherland!
January 1954 saw Constable's fabulous designs for the ballet Symphonie Fantastique, with choreography by Kiril Vassilkovsky based on that of Leonide Massine. Vassilkovsky had danced here in the original Ballets Russes production in 1939-1940. Two months later Fokine's Prince Igor was presented, and in April the ballet Candide. In one of the company's 1954 programmes, Constable wrote ‘ballet is a blending of three arts ... a meeting of the poetry of movement, music and painting—a poem distilled of three arts and beyond the need of the spoken word’.5.
Set to Hector Berlioz's powerful and haunting score, for Symphonie Fantastique Constable produced surreal and strikingly macabre decors for the ballet's five scenes. They follow the drugged Musician's wandering mind where he imagines his Beloved, the woman whose image haunts him, has been transformed into the leader of a Witches' Sabbath. Constable presents a ballroom, a peaceful rural place, a landscape with spinning-top-like shapes and a further two settings. The Age reviewer wrote that the ballet ‘has many memorable moments. Among them are the vermilion and white ballroom scene with its swirling choreography; the idyllic pastoral scene and the leering, grotesque March to the Gallows, with its Daumier-like costumes and attitudes’.6. And the Melbourne Sun's reviewer: ‘Here is a company of more than 50 dancers of world standard, a symphony orchestra, and a lavish artistry of costume and decor which would receive acclaim in any country.’7. It was a hugely successful ballet according to many, but to others, not, it is reported, a completely satisfying production. It would really be something to see it reproduced, with reference to either these designs of Constable, or those of the original designer, Christian Bèrnard.
The Polovtsian Dances from the opera Prince Igor, by all accounts extremely colourful and energetically danced, was a ballet that actually brought about the reinstating of the male dancer. The wild barbarity of these dances (Fokine's choreography, reproduced by Vassilie Trunoff, another of the Ballets Russes dancers) had been enthusiastically welcomed, back in 1909, when Diaghilev's company first presented them. The ballet is an excerpt from the second act of the opera, by Aleksandr Borodin. The original backdrop, by Nicholas Roerich, and of which there are many records, revealed an empty, desolate landscape, in which were pitched the beehive tents of the Polovtsi, with the smoke from their camp-fires trailing across the sky. We can only imagine that Constable produced something similar and that Roerich's wonderfully textured and patterned costumes also inspired him.
Symphonie Fantastique: Constable’s design for the Second Movement, the ballroom, 1954.
Image from Australia Dances by Brissenden & Glennon.
A scene from the one-act ballet Prince Igor, featuring Eve King and Vassilie Trunoff, 1954.
Photo by Argus. Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.
For Candide—a ‘Farcical Ballet in One Act—A Parody by Kiril Vassilkovsky’—Constable made use of a screen for the Lovers and others to hide behind, a lovely light Rococo-inspired setting. The music, chosen from Rossini overtures, thoroughly matched the choreography and the telling of the tale, an adaptation from Voltaire, with a cast of characters that included Candide, Cunegonde, Paquette, Pangloss and The Baron. Bill designed the scenery, Jean Miotte the costumes. Miotte (1926-2016), was a French abstract painter, in the style known as l'abstraction lyrique. Born in Paris, he was greatly influenced and inspired by the Ballets Russes. Unfortunately, the ballet Candide was only moderately successful and did not remain long in the repertoire.
Now we come to 1955 and Les Presages—or, Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. In Paris in 1933 this ballet, choreographed by Leonide Massine, sparked a controversy worthy of the old Diaghilev Ballets Russes days, purely because it was danced to a symphony. Shock! Horror! Critics, musicians and angry balletomanes proclaimed that the use of a symphony for a theatrical dance work was sacrilegious. Simply—not on. Later, in London, leading British music critic Ernest Newman was overwhelmingly in favour ‘... the inner life of the work, as an organic piece of musical thinking, is not diminished but actually enhanced’.8.
In the Borovansky production, choreographed by Warsaw-born Yurek Shabelewski, the 1955 programme states: ‘The choreographic design of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony is inspired by the composer's notes to his score which reflect his fatalistic nature and his fear of the inadequacy of man in the face of Fate.’9. The ballet is in four movements—Action, Love-Passion-Fate, Volatility and Conquest.
In Australia Dances, Michael Brissenden (with Keith Glennon) wrote: ‘The most effective feature of the production was William Constable's scenic design.’10. Edward Pask wrote that the ballet ‘was designed in splendid style by William Constable’.11.
Candide: page from Borovansky Ballet programme, Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, April 1954.
Scene from Les Presages, featuring Kathleen Gorham, Jocelyn Vollmar & Royes Fernandez,1955.
Photo by Herald Sun. Jean Stewart Collection.
In November 1955 the ballet, Francesca da Rimini, by David Lichine and Henry Clifford, and choreographed by the former, was presented at Sydney's Empire Theatre. With music by Tchaikovsky this ballet was first performed by Colonel de Basil's company in 1937 at Covent Garden and was now restaged by Lichine for Boro, with all new sets and costumes by Constable. The ballet was in two scenes, and featured a huge castle doorway at the rear of the stage, to the left a throne on a dais, and to the right a row of pillared casements. The richly coloured costumes created an atmosphere of Renaissance luxury and decadence. The story is taken from the Fifth Canto of Dante's Inferno. Boro had created the role of the chief spy, Girolamo, in the original 1937 production. In 1955, Frank Salter danced this role—he went on to write Borovansky: the man who made Australian ballet, a biography published in 1980 by the Wildcat Press.
Also in 1954 Bill was involved, in a major capacity, in the production of the film Long John Silver (and later the TV series The Adventures of Long John Silver) at Pagewood Studios in Sydney. He was appointed Production Designer on what was to be the first Cinemascope film to be shot in Australia. For more on this period in his career please refer to Bob Hill and his article ‘The Strange and Wondrous Tale of Bill Constable and the Cinemascope Pirates of Pagewood’.
On the 17 February 1956, David Lichine presented the world premiere of Corrida, a Spanish ballet set to music of Scarlatti—a dramatic and violent tale of a great matador who is driven mad over a love obsession that goes horribly wrong. This remarkable setting, with strikingly colourful costumes, was Constable's—I have counted up to two dozen!—last design for the Borovansky Company.
Design for the two-scene ballet Francesca da Rimini, 1955.
National Gallery of Australia, © Estate of William Constable, NGA 73.625.
Design by Constable for the Spanish ballet Corrida, 1956.
Photo by Barrie Avery, from Ballet in Australia by E.H. Pask.
But by the end of 1955, and at the conclusion of his work in Sydney with the film and television studios, and the ballet, with Sophie his second wife, and their very young daughter Deirdre (Dee), Constable had left their Castlecrag home in Sydney and set off back to London. Over the next sixteen years old acquaintances and connections were renewed, much film work ensued—he worked on at least a dozen productions, including The Trials of Oscar Wilde, Dr Who & the Daleks and Lord Jim—and in 1959 the London Festival Ballet, now the English National Ballet, commissioned him to design sets and costumes for the ballet London Morning. The music and libretto were by Noel Coward and the choreography by Jack Carter. According to The Sphere, a London illustrated newspaper, ‘Coward was commissioned to write the work (performed at London's Festival Hall) which brings to the stage a number of London characters and types in what some purists regard more as dance revue than true ballet’.12.
The choreographer Jack Carter was to create, five years later, the ballet Agrionia, in which Joyce Graeme dominated. She had directed the National Theatre Ballet Company here in Melbourne from 1948 to 1951, having stayed on after the Ballet Rambert's tours in the 1940s. Clement Crisp wrote of her ‘a superb dance artist—her Myrtha (in the ballet Giselle) with Ballet Rambert still remains the best I ever expect to see’.13.
Back in Australia that year, 1959, two days after delivering his usual opening-night speech in Sydney at the first performance of a revival of The Sleeping Princess, Borovansky suffered a heart attack. Less than a week later in hospital, he died, shortly after suffering a second attack. On the 18 December his death was announced to the audience, after the company—both shocked and stricken with grief—had somehow managed to perform, to ‘carry on’. When Constable had met up with him in London the year before, he had found him aged, exhausted, and in a futile search for a new assistant, an ‘artistic controller’, having very recently lost his long-time personal assistant/stage manager Colleen Gough. He felt that he had been abandoned—by everyone. Their farewell was intensely distressing to Bill, and he realised that it really was, this time, goodbye.
Rough sketch for the ballet London Morning, Act 3, Buckingham Palace, 1959.
National Gallery of Australia, © Estate of William Constable, NGA 87.50.
Commemorative plaque for Edouard Borovansky.
Australian Ballet Centre, Melbourne.
In 1966 Constable was back in Australia, briefly, to design the sets and costumes for the Australian Opera's (now Opera Australia) Boris Goudonov. Sadly his sets were replaced three years later as they were thought to be ‘over-saturated with colour’.14.
But in 1973 Constable returned permanently to Australia. He worked briefly for J.C. Williamson and was asked to design the house curtain for Her Majesty's Theatre in Sydney, which, happily, was recently discovered in Adelaide and now hangs in the Queensland University of Technology Gardens Theatre. The original 1973 design depicts the muse of the theatre, instead of the rather obvious phoenix, rising from the ashes, flanked by candy-striped banners symbolising light entertainment and sombre ones symbolising opera and tragedy. This theatre had first burnt down in 1902 (having been built in 1887) and then again in 1970. Two other major works of Constable's, during the 1970s, were lost to fire or demolition.
A digression I feel must be made, in view of several recent articles dealing here with theatre design and ballet: very understandably, through J.C. Williamson's, Constable had become acquainted with Sir Frank and Lady Tait and their three daughters, Isla, Ann and Sally. Over the 1950s and later, when he had returned to Australia in the early 1970s (and after Frank Tait's death in 1965), Bill had become a real friend of the family. Ann, an artist (illustrator and doll-maker) in her own right, and because of their shared interests and passions, was most probably the one closest to him.
Principally Constable was now concentrating on painting, exhibiting extensively artwork and prints of Central Australia and the Great Barrier Reef. So many paintings, illustrations, set and costume designs for theatre, ballet, opera and film—his list of achievements is staggeringly long. In late 1987, and into 1988, the Performing Arts Museum (now Australian Performing Arts Collection) mounted an exhibition and celebrated his life and work as ‘one of Australia's most noted stage, film and television designers: a lifetime of achievement presented against an exciting insight into the development of the performing arts since the 1930s’.15.
When William Constable died, on the 22 August 1989, in Melbourne, you may be sure his easel, paints and brushes were not so very far from his side. His establishment of the stage designer as a profession is one of his many important legacies to us, and most particularly, as I hope I have somehow managed to convey here, to the world of ballet.
- Theatre Arts Display, National Theatre Arts Festival, Melbourne, Feb 1951, p. 2.
- Borovansky Ballet Jubilee programme, Apr 1951, p. 17.
- Borovansky Ballet Jubilee programme, Dec 1951, p. 16.
- William Constable article in Borovansky Ballet souvenir programme, 1954.
- J.B. McA., ‘Brilliant spectacle at ballet opening’, The Age (Melbourne, Vic), 1 Feb 1954, p. 2, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/206087351
- The Sun (Melbourne, Vic), Jan 1954.
- Valerie Lawson, ‘The Birth of Symphonic Ballet’, 2007.
- Borovansky Ballet programme, 1955, p. 17.
- Australia Dances by Alan Brissenden & Keith Glennon, p. 29.
- Edward H. Pask, Ballet in Australia, p. 81.
- The Sphere (London), 15 Aug 1959, p. 39.
- Clement Crisp, unidentified clip, Sep 1964.
- Frank Van Straten, ‘William Constable 1906-1989’, 2007.
- Performing Arts Museum Exhibition schedule, 1987.
Alan Brissenden & Keith Glennon, Australia Dances: creating Australian dance 1945-1965, Wakefield Press, Kent Town, SA, 2010
Valerie Lawson, ‘The Birth of Symphonic Ballet’, 2007, https://dancelines.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/Pages-from-Destiny-2007.pdf
Edward H. Pask, Ballet in Australia: the second act, 1940-1980, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1981
Frank Salter, Borovansky, the man who made Australian ballet, Wildcat Press, Sydney, 1980
Theatre Arts Display, National Theatre Arts Festival, Melbourne, Feb 1951, p. 2.
Frank Van Straten, ‘William Constable 1906-1989’, 2007, Live Performance Australia (website), https://www.liveperformance.com.au/halloffame/williamconstable1.html
Again, I am most indebted to the following:
Australian Performing Arts Collection, AusStage, Alan Brissenden, Deirdre Constable, Mimi Colligan, Claudia Funder, (the late) Keith Glennon, Bob Hill, Barry Kitcher, Joan Kerr, Elisabeth Kumm, Paul Kathner, (the late) Edward H. Pask, Michelle Potter, Simon Piening, Frank Salter, Olga Sedneva, Viola Ann Seddon, (the late) Jean Stewart, Rosemary Simons, Ross Turner, Frank Van Straten, and Pamela J. Zeplin Waite