Princess Theatre Melbourne, 1965Princess Theatre Melbourne, 1965. J.T. Collins collection, State Library Victoria, H98.252/1362. 

The AETT was founded in 1956 ‘to provide a theatre of Australians by Australians for Australians’. In Part Two of a three part series that charts the history of this important Arts institution, Robert Ray discovers that as well as drama there was a commitment to opera and later to ballet. Read Part 1 of this article»

The AETT Opera Company

One of the Trust’s greatest legacies was the founding of a national opera company, The Elizabethan Trust Opera Company, later The Australian Opera and now Opera Australia. It opened in 1956 with an all-Mozart program. The season went on to lose a mere £36 051!

Its initial charter was to tour all around Australia every year, which it did until 1962. From 1963 it restricted its touring to the capital cities, and then mainly Melbourne and Sydney. The ABC subsidised these performances by making its symphony orchestras available in each capital city. The company received its first state subsidy from the New South Wales government in 1961; that government was clearly looking forward to the opening of the potential white elephant Sydney Opera House. It needed an opera company, and a good one at that.

The AETT Opera Company received its major boost with the return of Joan Sutherland from international triumph in 1965. While this season was a joint venture with J.C.Williamson’s, its success gave the Trust a fillip for opera in Australia. Seven new productions of large operas were staged. Australian expatriate singers returned, as well as up and coming new singers, including a certain Luciano Pavarotti.

Since 1965 opera in Australia has hardly looked back. However, while the Sutherland-Williamson Opera Company was an artistic tour de force, it took the popularity of Gilbert and Sullivan to consolidate the AETT’s position fully. A season of Gilbert and Sullivan works was staged around Australia in 1969. The financial success of this season enabled the Trust to set up its company on a full-time permanent basis, which has existed ever since.

The Australian Ballet

The Australian Ballet’s predecessor, The Borovansky Ballet, had been presented by J.C. Williamson’s Theatres up until 1961. This was never a permanent company—the dancers regrouping for each season, taking jobs in pantomime or behind shop counters between times. Its founder, Edouard Borovansky, died of a (some said well-deserved) heart attack in 1959. Williamson’s immediately scoured the globe for a successor.

Borovansky had already approached Peggy van Praagh, from Britain’s Sadlers Wells Ballet, to become ballet mistress in 1960. She appeared the logical choice and was appointed successor. When she arrived to take up her appointment in 1960 she was dismayed with what confronted her. The dancers were used to the bullying tirades of a martinet, Borovansky; van Praagh with her more genteel Englishness seemed unable to take control. Box office receipts declined.

With shareholders to answer to, it became clear that Williamson’s could no longer carry the burden of box office failure. The company was in its death throes—some blamed Williamson’s and some van Praagh—however, what the critics failed to grasp was the changing times for the presentation of the arts. A new era was beginning.

‘The age of commercial management attempting to fulfil a role which, in the face of rising costs, could only be undertaken by government had passed. In the absence of any government support, such condemnation was not only totally uninformed but also quite absurd. Confronted with further crippling losses, J.C. Williamson’s had no option but to call a halt.’[1]

The Borovansky Ballet gave its last season in 1961.‘I gave a speech at the final curtain. I pleaded for the continuation of a professional ballet company in Australia, recalled van Praagh. ‘I asked the audience if they knew anyone who could help, then they should plead with them to do so. No sooner had I stepped off the stage when a young politician bounded around backstage. He said his name was Harold Holt, and he would do all he could to lobby Mr Menzies for such a company.’[2]

While the Hon. Harold Holt MP eventually did what he promised there was more going on than his supplications to [the then Prime Minister] Robert Menzies.

Margaret Scott, a dancer from Britain’s Ballet Rambert, had married an Australian doctor, Derek Denton. Through Denton’s university connections they had become acquainted with Dr H.C. (‘Nugget’) Coombs.

At one particular luncheon on 22 December 1958, at which the diners were Nugget, Margaret Scott, Derek Denton, Robert Helpmann, Geoffrey Ingram (who would later become the Ballet’s first administrator), Charles Lisner and John Field from The Royal Ballet, a report was formulated on the setting up of a national ballet company.

Nugget advised, however, that there was little likelihood of government support as long as The Borovansky Ballet was filling the bill. Further meetings led to the formation of the Australian Arts Enquiry Committee. On this committee were Ingram, Eric Westbrook (Director of the National Gallery of Victoria), architect Robin Boyd, television producer Hector Crawford, and publisher Andrew Fabinyi. This committee submitted a report which is credited with being responsible for the formation of the Australia Council.[3]

Ingram left this committee and formed another, which concentrated on ballet, comprising Margaret Scott, Sally Gilmour (another ex-Rambert Ballet dancer), Rex Reid, Paul Hammond, Tony Burke, Ann Church, Natasha Kirsta and Alison Lee, with Derek Denton as ex officio and host. Many of the meetings took place at the Dentons’ home in Toorak which, incidentally, the family still occupies. Denton advised the committee that Nugget had suggested they make a submission to the Trust. Hugh Hunt received this on 4 December 1959 and thought the submission as ‘the first satisfactory approach to the problem’.[4]

This submission preceded Borovansky’s death by only a fortnight. It wasn’t long before The Borovansky Ballet was no longer viable and this cleared the way for the submission, with the persuasiveness of Harold Holt, to land on the desk of the not over-enthusiastic prime minister of the day, Robert Gordon Menzies. The Australian Ballet was born.

Geoffrey Ingram had travelled overseas to learn and observe. He spent a fruitful time at Covent Garden, London, where the General Manager, Sir David Webster, had given him open house. Ingram returned to Australia. Peggy van Praagh, with Ingram’s input formulated a policy for the new company which would provide for:

  • a professional company offering full time employment,
  • a ballet school which would train dancers for the company and develop a national style,
  • a repertoire with one-third mixture of the classics, one-third important overseas works, one-third new Australian works,
  • the fostering of Australian choreographers, composers and designers,
  • educational programs,
  • international guest artists, and
  • the achievements of such artistic standards as to merit international recognition.

The new Australian Ballet Foundation came under the dual control of J.C. Williamson’s Theatres (Sir Frank Tait, Managing Director) and the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust (Dr Coombs, Chairman). Coombs looked after the finances and Tait, soon to be replaced by John McCallum, provided the administration, the theatres, production departments (sets and costumes) and generally provided the theatrical know-how for the new company.

What differed for Williamson’s and their connection with ballet was that they were no longer entrepreneurs. They didn’t stand to lose any money, although their involvement was still commercial. They received payments for their services, but there were many who attributed nothing to them but the most sinister of motives.[5]

The company gave its inaugural performance at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney, on 2 November 1962. Peggy van Praagh was the Artistic Director with Louis van Eyssen the first General Manager. Their initial seasons were popular successes. However, after disastrous financial tours of Australia and New Zealand (mismanaged by the Trust) they were in difficulties. Apparently the Trust thought they could fund the opera losses with the ballet successes. That was not to be. They experimented with a combined opera and ballet season, probably thinking they could replicate Covent Garden and other European opera houses.

The experience must have led van Praagh to say that whenever opera and ballet come together it is always the opera who is dominant.[6] The ballet always is treated as the poor cousin. The experiment was never tried again. It was clear that the Trust’s administration was not all it could have been. The climbing financial losses were putting the future of the new company in doubt. The buck was passed: poor van Eyssen was blamed and he was replaced by Ingram. There was a suggestion that the company go back to the Borovansky model and work sessionally. Van Praagh dug in her heels. She protested that a part-time ballet company was not an option. The very art of ballet demanded ongoing physical work. It was either a full-time company or none at all. She won.

The Australian Ballet School

By this time Margaret Scott and Nugget Coombs had become close friends. In view of her pioneering work in setting up the company, Coombs gave to Scott the task of setting up the national ballet school. Thus, The Australian Ballet School, under the auspices of The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, was established in 1964.


The school’s objectives were:

  • to provide full-time professional training for young dancers throughout the Commonwealth,
  • to provide fully trained dancers for The Australian Ballet,
  • to liaise with private ballet schools throughout Australia, and
  • to remove the need for dancers to travel overseas for training.

The course was for two years. As the training of a dancer takes eight years there was a need to co-operate with the private sector. The ABS, therefore, took dancers from 15 years of age following their initial training at private ballet schools. The course was extended to three years in 1980. While students paid token fees, the cost was mainly borne by the Commonwealth government through the Trust. There was no question of funding through education. That came later. Some state governments (like New South Wales’) contributed to the students expenses. The Victorian government did not.

NIDA and the Old Tote

So after 10 years of operation the Trust’s record looked quite impressive. They had established a national opera company, a national ballet company and a national ballet school, as well as supporting state theatre companies. In 1958 it had also entered into a triple operation with the University of New South Wales and the ABC, jointly founding the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA). Like the ABS it was to be a two year course with places for about 60 top students from the Commonwealth. Again like the ABS its aspirations were to train actors locally, removing the need for overseas training and to give them full-time professional training.

After 10 years the University of New South Wales could claim ‘Since only students of high promise are admitted and allowed to proceed to a second year of training, and since they are taught the disciplines of the theatre by experienced professionals, the young actors and actresses and directors who have graduated from NIDA exercise a conspicuous influence in Australian theatre.’[7]

NIDA was one of five separate drama fields which were cultivated at the university. The others were an academic School of Drama, the University of New South Wales Drama Foundation, the Old Tote professional drama company and the Jane Street professional experimental company. Between them all they had a profound influence on Australian theatre in the ’60s and ’70s. The activities of the University could be rivalled only by a few United States universities.

The Old Tote Theatre Company, formed in 1963 in the unlikely premises of the old wooden totalisator shed of the former Kensington racecourse (hence the name), while totally committed to advancement of Australian drama, in reality took a safer road and mainly presented the works of Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ionesco, Shaw, Brecht, Sheridan and others. Australian drama was still too risky at the box office. Sunday night readings of new Australian works were not encouraged by a largely indifferent and small audience.

The Old Tote was not going to bet on any uncertainties. However, the formation of the experimental company in an old church in Jane Street took off. The impossible happened—the organisers found some exciting new Australian plays and with many NIDA graduates one of Sydney’s all-time most effective theatrical ventures was born. There was help, not from the Trust directly but from the Drama Department at the University and $12 500 from the Gulbenkian Foundation of Lisbon.

The need for ‘something else’

Hal Porter, playwright, sums up the theatrical scene with candour, and perhaps a dash of bitterness, in his 1965 book Stars of the Australian Stage and Screen. He laments the shoddiness of Australian theatre at that time. There are the commercial managements, led by Williamson’s, importing overseas commercial plays and carbon copy productions of Broadway musicals with largely unheard of imports in the leads. The audience they attracted were the ‘let’s-go-out-for-mum’s-birthday’ crowd. The high camp failures of the Trust, according to Porter, were attracting nobody worth attracting!

‘Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust? Who fools whom? If one accepts—though why should one?—that a Mozart’s season loss of £36 051 is money well lost on pandering to a grouplet of Mozart fans, should one accept a loss on a season of Charley’s Aunt? Or should one ask what the Trust is really up to?’[8]

Porter’s portrait of the Trust’s role at that time is bleak and damning.

In hindsight the list of the achievements of the Trust is impressive. Its work in setting up opera and ballet in Australia was ground-breaking. When one compares what Australia has now in this realm compared with similar countries (such as South Africa, Canada and New Zealand) the Trust comes out favourably. While Canada and New Zealand have national ballet companies and schools they do not have national opera companies. New Zealand has struggled over this one for years.

Yet the Trust’s entrepreneurial role is not so impressive. It was too much like J.C.Williamson’s, with whom it did co-present many productions. But to one living through those times, the flavour was very different. A portrait of Queen Elizabeth II hung in every classroom and in many homes. We stood for the anthem before the movies, the theatre and concerts. It was an anglocentric society and the Trust reflected those times. Perhaps a more appropriate title would have been the ‘British Elizabethan Theatre Trust for Australia’.

While many of the philosophies were on the right track the Trust clearly did not manage the finances well. There were ambitious plans which, while artistically successful, proved financial disasters. The Australian Ballet, after the effort of its birth 1962, almost died after two years due to Trust mismanagement. At the time there were various scapegoats; even van Praagh was seen to be a culprit. Rather than dismiss her they brought in Robert Helpmann as co-director. It wasn’t until they took charge of their own fortunes, however, and split from the Trust, that The Australian Ballet started to prosper.

With the appointment of a dynamic administrator in Peter F. Bahen in 1966 The Australian Ballet started to prosper financially as well as artistically. Under Bahen, they would accumulate a surplus of $8 million. Similarly, in 1969, The Elizabethan Trust Opera Company became The Australian Opera and split from the Trust. These breakaways from the Trust were made possible by the establishment of the Australian Council for the Arts in 1968.


To be continued …


1. Charles Lisner, The Australian Ballet: twenty-one years, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1984.

2. A conversation with Dame Peggy van Praagh, remembered by the author.

3. Clem Christesen, Meanjin

4. Geoffrey Ingram, in discussion with Charles Lisner.

5. Charles Lisner, op. cit.

6. In conversation with the author.

7. From a brochure of the University of New South Wales, 1969.

8. Hal Porter, Stars of Australian Stage and Screen, Rigby, Adelaide, 1965