When Dame Margaret Scott AC DBE, dancer, educator, choreographer and administrator, died on 24 February 2019, aged 96, the dance world mourned the loss a grand lady of the ballet. In his eulogy at Dame Maggie’s funeral, Robert Ray paid tribute to his teacher, mentor and friend.
I first met Maggie, as Miss Scott, at my first audition for the Australian Ballet School in 1967 at the Lorraine Norton Studio in Sydney. Her hair was yellow gold, she wore a white dress, and white socks with yellow ballet shoes. I remember how pretty she was with her retroussé nose, and ‘English rose’ demeanor. Despite my unspoken admiration she didn't take me! I had only been learning ballet for six months. Happily, I got in the next year when the School was still at the old pub in Fitzroy. Everything about the training there I liked, after the rather rigid and narrow English training I had been receiving in Sydney. Maggie or Miss Scott, as Director of the School, introduced me to art with Dawn Syme, the paintings of Erica McGilchrist, music with Norman Kaye, the songs of Margaret Roadknight, modern dance and jazz with Jack Manual, notation with Elphine Allen, and particularly drama and mime with George Ogilvie. Subjects other international ballet schools did not take up until many years later. Some still don't. Maggie certainly was a visionary.
I was very fortunate in that I rented a small flat in Hope Street, South Yarra with another student Paul Saliba. Maggie would pick us up on most mornings as she dropped off her sons, Angus and Matthew, at Melbourne Grammar, and drive us to the School in Debney’s Paddock, Flemington. Fortunate in that I got to know Miss Scott as a warm, friendly and intelligent person, away from the stern Director role she thought she needed to play. I think I owe my lifetime of friendship with her, to those morning car rides.
After not attaining my goal of getting into the Australian Ballet I disappointedly wandered off working in musicals, and with the West Australian Ballet and The Dance Company (NSW)—later Sydney Dance Company. From Perth I was awarded a scholarship to study Modern Dance and Composition in New York with Merce Cunningham, a legendary pioneer of contemporary dance. Maggie helped me obtain a Myer Foundation grant. After two years there, I was ready to come home. I asked Maggie for a reference for a directorial position in Adelaide. I received a telegram back saying ‘immediate vacancy for you on the staff of the Australian Ballet School’. I was over the moon, and although I did end up being selected for the job in Adelaide, I chose to be with Maggie in Melbourne. I was the first full time Modern Dance teacher at the Australian Ballet School.
As my boss, Maggie was tough but usually fair. You always knew where you stood with her. No sugar coated compliments—rather I can still hear her say: ‘Dancers are a dime a dozen. This is an overcrowded profession, and you have to be the best.’ She was very supportive of my choreography and I created with the students, ballets like Poems and City Dances which were taken into the Australian Ballet's repertoire. In 1985 she commissioned me to choreograph the first full-length production for the school—The Nutcracker. ‘The best Nutcracker I have ever seen’ declared Dame Peggy van Praagh, the founding Director of The Australian Ballet.
My years teaching with her at The Australian Ballet School, were the happiest years of my career. Never following the established ballet systems like Royal Academy of Dance or Cecchetti Imperial Society, she was always looking for a system of training rather than a syllabus unique to the ABS. The inspiration came from visits by Marika Besobrazova from Monte Carlo and Evgeny Valukin from GITIS in Moscow. With fellow teachers like-minded teachers such as Terri Charlesworth, Lucette Aldous, Janina Cuinovas, Bruce Morrow, Paul Hammond and myself the school developed its own curriculum, which Maggie's successor Gailene Stock asked me to write out and codify in 1995.
As a school director Maggie could be fierce, insulting and demanding but also the flip of that: encouraging and caring. I would advise students if they found her intimidating, that there was no better person on this earth to help them if they were in trouble, if they only asked. She supported and reveled in individuality and eccentricity. Meryl Tankard was allowed to wear the latest hat she had created to school whenever she wished. Maggie said only through individuality will we get creativeness and choreographers. And get them she did. During her time as director she commissioned over 300 choreographed works.
Her words and her wisdom shaped my whole teaching career. When she watched me teach a class only a few years back, she said she heard her own voice in much of what I had to say. I agreed. My favourite was her name for her imagined autobiography, which she planned to call ‘The Aggression of the Untalented’. She would explain, that the students who thumped her desk demanding roles and complaining, she never heard of them again. While the others with sheer hard work and talent, who never thumped her desk, went on and became stars. My other favourite was that our job as dance educators was to put students on the stage. That was it! Only that! We were dance teachers and not counselors, physiotherapists or anything else. She would say, ‘We are not running a clinic you know’. And her quote from Nugget Coombs: ‘I don't know why he hates me. I've done nothing for him.’
Her words could be acerbic, but always on target, and often very witty. In telling me of some tough contractual negotiations with a male teacher: ‘He does the bargaining aspect so well. He should be in some square selling carpets.’ And her recent chagrin at the Australian Ballet Centre being named after a certain wealthy, high society lady: ‘With all the contributions to the Australian Ballet over the many years from Peggy (van Praagh) and Bobby (Helpmann) onwards, they name the building after a fund-raiser!’
Bless you dear Maggie, and thank you from the bottom of my heart for all you have given, not just to me, but to the whole generation of Australian dancers and choreographers who today still keep adding to this wonderful if painful world of classical ballet. Your work will last and go on, and you will always be blessed and never forgotten.
Margaret Scott in Aurora's Wedding, 1951-54. Photo by Walter Stringer. W.F. Stringer Collection, National Library of Australia.