Robert Ray

Robert Ray

Trained initially as a dancer, Robert has held teaching positions both in Australia and New York, created courses and programs for the Australian Ballet School, the University of Melbourne and New York's Joffrey Ballet School. Robert was formerly Postgraduate Diploma Course Director and Lecturer in Dance at the Victorian College of Arts, and continues to be actively involved in the direction of and choreography for Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas.

Thursday, 01 December 2022

Only Make Believe

In February 2023 Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Victoria (GSOV) will be staging a garden concert of highlights from Broadway Operetta, entitled ‘Only Make Believe’. ROBERT RAY, who will be directing the show, provides a short history of Operetta, from the genre’s beginnings in France to its heyday in the first two decades of the twentieth century.


Tthe description of a piece of musical entertainment as opera is much more clear cut than the term operetta. We know an opera when we see and hear it. But with an operetta it can be also named a light opera or a comic opera, or even a musical comedy. Operetta literally means a small opera. It was initially popularised in France in the 1850s. It was in response to the need for shorter, and more light hearted works of entertainment, than the common opera of the day. Operas of the day could last for 4–5 hours, be rather grim or tragic, and often based on mythology or gods, and contain much thunder and lightning. If Jacques Offenbach wasn’t the first to write an operetta then he was the first to make it into an indispensable entertainment of France’s Second Empire.

Shorter in length, operettas were usually humourous, and satiric, contained spoken dialogue and usually incorporated ballet and dance. They usually ended happily. They were also often rather risqué. The popularity of French operetta spread around the world, and countries such as Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain, England and the United States developed their own forms. In Spain, they developed the zarzuela, in Italy the opera buffa, as opposed to the opera seria. In England, the works of William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan were and continue to be, enormously popular in English speaking countries. Their mantle was later assumed by Edward German, and later Lionel Monckton. Germany, Hungary and Austria gave us works by Franz Lehár, Carl Millöcker, Oscar Straus, Johann Strauss Jnr, Emmerich Kalman, and Franz von Suppe. In the United States, inspired by both Offenbach and Gilbert & Sullivan, Victor Herbert (an Irish immigrant) created charming operettas. He was followed by Sigmund Romberg and Rudolf Friml.

In England and America, in the 1890s a more popular entertainment was developed and called Musical Comedy. These works differed from operettas, in that the musical sequences were even shorter. The big Act Finales disappeared, and no song lasted more than 2–3 minutes. The plots were usually set in contemporary times, and even less consequential than in operetta. However, there was one work, outstandingly popular which stopped Musical Comedy from entirely supplanting operetta. Lehár’s Die Lustige WitweThe Merry Widow created an international sensation, especially in Berlin, Vienna, New York and London. It ran for years, and was seen by thousands. It seemed operetta had not died.

Popular operettas in English across the Atlantic were Babes in Toyland (1903), The Red Mill (1906), Naughty Marietta (1910), Sweethearts (1913) and Eileen (1917) all by Victor Herbert (1859–1924). Herbert wrote a whopping 43 operettas. In London, The Arcadians, The Geisha, A Country Girl continued the tradition of Gilbert & Sullivan. The enormously popular Chu Chin Chow, by Australian Oscar Asche, to music by Frederic Norton, ran for an enormous five and a half years in London. Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Victoria have recently staged all of these works. Noel Coward and Ivor Novello continued the British tradition with Bitter Sweet, Operette, Conversation Piece, The Dancing Years, Glamorous Night, King’s Rhapsody, among many. Austrian composer Robert Stolz with Ralph Benatzky created the mega-hit Im weissen Rössl or The White Horse Inn in 1930 and like The Merry Widow was an international hit. Johann Strauss’s music was re-employed to make such hits as The Great Waltz, and Casanova.

But from the 1930s operetta had had its day. Increasingly out of fashion, the world preferred even more light weight and often sillier entertainment. Most of the 30s works, even by masters like George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Jerome Kern are un-produceable today, unless severely re-written. Jerome Kern had created in 1927 an endurable masterpiece in Show Boat. But he never followed it with anything like its quality. After the World War II there was a re-kindling of interest in operetta. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf recorded her ravishing version of The Merry Widow, which brought the work back to popularity. MGM had a huge hit with the Mario Lanza dubbed film of The Student Prince. The Merry Widow, The Desert Song, The Great Waltz, all received the big Hollywood treatment, and were very successful.

Broadway musicals nodded to their operetta-esque ancestors, and works like Carousel, Brigadoon, The Most Happy Fella, Kismet, The Song of Norway, sound to this writer’s ears more operetta than musical comedy. There have also been blatant attempts to recreate an operetta in such works as Candide, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Phantom of the Opera, and most recently A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.

In February 2023 Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Victoria (GSOV) are staging a garden concert of highlights from Broadway Operetta, titled ‘Only Make Believe’. There will be highlights from Babes in Toyland, The Red Mill, Naughty Marietta, Eileen (Victor Herbert), The Firefly, The Vagabond King (Rudolf Friml), The Desert Song, The Student Prince (Sigmund Romberg) and Show Boat (Jerome Kern). To book go to

Staged by this writer, with musical direction by Geoffrey Urquhart, this will be a delightful tribute and remembrance of music that almost got away. Operettas remain not only as relics of gone by musical tastes, but a testament to a time when melodies were not only abundant but there was charm and grace in their performance, which is totally lacking in today’s popular entertainment.

Monday, 14 December 2020

Frank Lasslett: Looking back

BOOK REVIEW: Frank Lasslett: Looking Back by Graham Ford, self published, first edition, August 2020

frank lasslettFrank Lasslett: Looking Back by Graham FordGRAHAM FORD WROTE IN 2001 a very detailed and affectionate history of FRANK LASSLETT’s working career. He collaborated with Frank not long before Frank’s death in 2003, and this history is rich in detail.

Frank Lasslett spent his life in the theatre, as a singer, and later in just about any other capacity from stage manger, dresser to machinist. The history reads just as a diary would, with each year articulated into what he did and what he did next. Many reviews are quoted, and his many successes are celebrated. It also paints an affectionate picture of Melbourne theatre especially from the 40s to the 70s.

Frank was also a friend of my friend, Jeff Warren, and I met him on several occasions at Jeff’s home in South Melbourne. I wish I had had Graham Ford’s history then, as I only got a vague idea of what Frank had done. Graham was lucky to hear all the stories.

It is important that people like Frank Lazlett are not forgotten, as they contributed much to the artistic growth of the arts in Australia. My only wish in this history is that we got to know more about the man himself, rather than only what he did. There is no history of Frank Lasslett's personal life, which was probably his preference before he died. I suspect he was a private person in regards to that, as even meeting him several times, I knew little about him. But here is a very scholarly record of a life. It includes a long appendix of letters from 1944-45 and a list of all his roles throughout his life. It would be of help to any future writers on the history of theatre in Australia. 


Graham Ford’s biography of Frank Lasslett is available to read in full via the THA website courtesy of the author. Click here to download Frank Lasslett: Looking Back by Graham Ford

Comedy Theatre Comedy Theatre, Melbourne.

This is the third and concluding part of a paper prepared by choreographer, dance educator and THA Committee Member, ROBERT RAY, first published in On Stage in the Autumn, Winter and Spring 2000 editions. Adapted from a paper he prepared for his Master of Education (Arts Administration) at RMIT University late in 1999, it charts the history of this important Arts institution, founded in 1954 ‘to provide a theatre of Australians by Australians for Australians’.


While the Trust had achieved a great deal, there were serious concerns about its ability to take the arts in Australia forward. There were too many financial bungles. Clearly the entrepreneurial role of the Trust was not working. The arts companies seemed to prefer to entrepreneur themselves. The Australian Opera, for example, did much better to hire Harry M. Miller to take over their promotion; he developed the idea of a subscription season which was hugely successful. There needed to be another way of government funding for the arts.

The Australia Council

So on 8 July 1968 the Australian Council for the Arts met for the first time, with Dr H.C.Coombs as Chairman, and nine Council members—Prof. K.C. Masterman (Deputy Chair), Peter Coleman, Virginia Erwin, Mary Houghton, Barry Jones (Deputy Chair), Dr Karl Langer, Betty Archdale, Jeana Bradley and Geoffrey Dutton. In February of the following year the first round of grants was announced.

There seemed to be plenty of money. For example, the grants to the Australian Opera rose from $193,000 to over $650,000 in 1971. In 1970 it developed an Aboriginal Arts Program which sought support from local authorities and the indigenous people themselves. In 1973, with the election of the Whitlam government, the arts funding scene began to be much more rationalised.

Whitlam announced an arts policy to combine several already existing arts advisory bodies into one statutory body. These bodies were the Australian Council for the Arts, the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board, the Commonwealth Literary Fund and the Commonwealth Assistance to Australian Composers.

The new Council was made up of seven boards: Aboriginal Arts, Crafts, Film and Television, Literature, Music, Theatre, and Visual Arts. Nugget Coombs remained Chairman with Dr Jean Battersby as Executive Officer. The major companies, such as the Australian Opera and Australian Ballet, were funded through the Council. There was also a broader brief: to fund individuals and smaller grassroots groups.

During the Whitlam years the arts in Australia flourished. There was a confidence and assuredness in the future. The arts paid over $450 million a year in wages and salaries—about 1.5% of the Australian total—and comparable with that paid in agriculture and mining.

In June 1974 Nugget Coombs retired as chairman and was replaced by Prof. Peter Karmel, CBE. In March 1975 it was renamed the Australia Council. Central to the Australia Council’s policy was, and still is, peer assessment. This is claimed to be the fairest of all processes for arts funding. Politicians are seen to be the last people who should decide on artistic merit. Also, with changing governments (and with their changing attitudes to the arts) an organisation at arm’s length from government was seen to be the most stable.

Major organisations such as the Opera and the Ballet, however, bridled under the system. Why should they be sat in judgment upon by the ‘little people of the arts’? Some of the peers used for assessment were not particularly illustrious or open minded. Many had axes to grind against the ‘fat cats’ who they saw as being over funded at the expense of community arts, etc.

The Fraser government took the authority to fund the Opera and Ballet away from the Australia Council and gave them direct-line funding. Only in the past few years has the funding of the Australian Ballet been given back to the Australia Council. Opera Australia remains directly funded from Cabinet.

The Australia Council is proud of its achievements. Many state theatre, opera and dance/ballet companies have been nurtured with their support. They have also funded an impressive list of independent artists. Like the Trust, however, they have not been free of criticism. Peer assessment has its flaws. Impartiality among artists is unheard of. While an artist might be in a position to assess the merit of another artist, what can happen is that the assessor can often be a rival to the applicant, and meanness ensues. However, the Council defends its funding policy, as still being the best there is. With the establishment of the Australia Council the Trust’s role became more and more entrepreneurial. Coombs had switched his vision to the Council. The Trust was left with nothing much to do and very little money to do it with.

By 1975 the Trust had only minuscule amounts to play with. In 1975 it allocated itself an entrepreneurial fund of $46,000, but in 1976 this was cut to $21,000, not much more than half of the general manager’s salary.

Earning the funds

Instead of allocating resources for the job, the Trust made the decision to earn them. [1] Witness of its poor judgment in this was their investment in three Edgley and two Brodziak shows imported through the Theatre Royal, Sydney. The plays—Dead Eyed Dicks (with Peter O’Toole directing and starring), The Two of Us with Sheila Hancock, The Pleasure of His Company (with Douglas Fairbanks, Jnr) and Lauder (with Jimmy Logan)—were of such poor quality that the suggestion was made they might do permanent damage to Australian light entertainment.

‘We have not actually spent, in the nett, one dollar of government money on commercial investment,’ the Trust defended itself over the losses on these shows. ‘And that money has been used to pick up the losses in excess of these other shows.’ [2]

It’s an account of what might be called the ‘peanuts problem’: the Trust sets itself a national mission, but allocates peanuts to realise it. A confusion of activities is then probably unavoidable, with one set of priorities to promote Australian theatre and another (frequently contradictory) set to raise the cash to do it. The way out of the bind is for the Trust to hit a commercial jackpot— but the jackpot never seemed to come. [3]

If the Trust saw its role as the nation’s official entrepreneur it was guided by an overridingly cautious business approach. If it was to take the commercial successes from the subsidised theatre companies and tour them nationally, it would then employ a policy which said: wait for the right venues, give publicity and marketing a chance, bide your time. While this cautious policy might have been the right one, reticence lost such prizes as Gordon Chater in The Elocution of Benjamin Franklin which was toured by Wilton Morley. Because of lack of funds the Trust made the decision in 1977 to axe the Playwrights’ Conference which was seen by many as essential to the growth of Australian playwrighting.

Many other inexplicable decisions seemed to alienate the Trust more and more from the community’s good will. One of its last remaining functions was as a channel for arts donations. To qualify for tax exemption, donations to the arts had to be made to the Trust. The donor would indicate who the funds were for, but the Trust was under no legal obligation to follow these instructions. In short, they could give the money to whomever it chose. While this rarely happened in practice, it was enough to make donors nervous of giving to their favourite companies. The Trust also ran a superannuation scheme for artists.

The demise of the Trust

The year 1991 saw the collapse of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust. The tax laws were changed, allowing arts organisations to set up their own Foundations which could accept tax-deductible donations, making redundant this last remaining role of the Trust. In view of its history it is hardly surprising that it was wound up. Was it timely? One has to say it probably went on longer than it needed to. It was troubled from the start. It was born in a time when commercial success was more important than development of the arts, a time when foreign was better, especially if it was British; a time when government was only dipping its toe into support for the arts.

Nugget Coombs had been the principal persuader in setting up the Trust, but by 1969 he had clearly become disillusioned with colleagues such as Hugh Hunt, who was his target in an address made to a UNESCO seminar on the Performing Arts in Canberra. ‘The arts in Australia have too long continued to arise out of and to reflect the Western European tradition from which they derived and have been too little influenced by the environment, dreams, prejudices, interests and values which are peculiarly Australian,’ he said. ‘I believe that this failure to be influenced by and to reflect our own especial way of life has been part of the reason why the Arts have often been regarded as suspect by so many of our people, many of whom still see them as alien, an expression of snobbery and of privilege, or simply as “strictly for the birds”.’ [4]

Coombs might have dissolved the Trust at that time, or change it. It was easier to start something new—an Australian Council for the Arts. It is my opinion that, with the formation of the Council, the Trust should have been wound up. By 1970 its best work was behind it. It had set up a national ballet company, a national opera company, training schools in drama and ballet. As the companies it helped found pulled away from it, the writing was on the wall.

An evaluation in hindsight

The criticism of Anglo-centricity is a new one, and reflects our present times rather than the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. As we yearn towards a republic it is no longer fashionable to be British. Yet, can we really complain that our heritage in drama was founded from a country which today has arguably the most fertile drama scene in the world?

While the connection is a sound one, however, there was too much of a need by imports, such as Hugh Hunt, to replicate little-Britain-down-under. This was also true of the Australian Ballet. While Peggy van Praagh professed a wish to develop a national Australian style, what she taught was purely British. What else could she teach? What else did she know? Nevertheless, this accent on all things British still resonates around our society.

Coincidentally, since the Trust’s demise in 1991 as a funds provider, funding for the arts has declined. Each successive government seems to care a little less. There were rays of promise with the Keating government’s Creative Nation policy of 1994 and Arts Victoria’s Agenda 21. Clearly the work of the Australia Council has gone way beyond the original intentions of the Trust.

The Trust’s charter was briefer: the establishment of Australian opera, ballet and drama. The Australia Council funds a wide range of visual and performing arts, all indigenous. It does not act as an entrepreneur. It does not import stars of the British theatre in British plays. However, it does have its own deficiencies, worthy of another paper.

The hero of our story has been Dr H.C. Coombs. His vision, personal culture and powers of persuasion were largely responsible for the Trust’s role in Australian culture. Its best achievements were with him as chairman.

His role is under-appreciated. So much credit is given to the Whitlam government for the nurturing of arts in Australia, but an historical opinion differs. Only with Coombs’ effort does this country have opera and ballet companies as well as state drama companies which are of an international standard.

The Trust’s role was largely over by the time Coombs retired from its chair in 1974. He must have seen the formation of the Australian Council for the Arts as a relief over the Trust’s possible conflict of interest in its role as adviser to government and as an entrepreneur involved with commercial managements.

His legacy was not only arts. He was also passionate about Aboriginal welfare. When he died in 1997, the Governor-General, Sir William Deane, paid tribute to him: ‘He was a visionary who had a tremendous effect on the shape of our society. We are all in his debt.’


Image credits

All images from Elisabeth Kumm Collection, except where noted.


1. David Marr, Theatre Australia, July 1977

2. Jeffrey Joynton Smith, Trust’s General Manager, Theatre Australia 1977

3. David Marr, Theatre Australia, July 1977

4. Tim Rouse, Arguing the Arts, 1985


Leslie Rees, The Making of Australian Drama 1973

Hal Porter, Stars of Australian Stage and Screen, 1965

Charles Lisner, The Australian Ballet, Twenty One Years, 1984

John West, Theatre in Australia, 1978

David Marr. ‘The Peanut Problem’ from Theatre Australia, July 1977

Richard Fotheringham, Performing Arts Policy in Queensland in the 1990s

Tim Rouse, Arguing the Arts, 1985

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

Auditorium of the Elizabethan Theatre in Newtown, Sydney.  Elisabeth Kumm Collection.Elizabethan Theatre, Newtown, 1955. From The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust: the first year. Elisabeth Kumm Collection.

This article, by choreographer, dance educator and THA Committee Member, Robert Ray, was first published in On Stage in the Autumn, Winter and Spring 2000 editions. Adapted from a paper he prepared for his Master of Education (Arts Administration) at RMIT University late in 1999, it charts the history of this important Arts institution, founded in ‘to provide a theatre of Australians by Australians for Australians’. Read Part 2 of this article»

With a few exceptions, principally the formation of the Australian Broadcasting Commission in 1932, the arts in Australia have only survived on patronage. The setting-up of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust saw a new age dawn. The Trust preceded the Australian Council for the Arts, which later became the Australia Council. These bodies have been the funding arms of government. Through them, at arm’s length, the government supported and supports the arts.

The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust has folded—but its history is illuminating in the way governments have thought in the past. The Trust’s rise and demise reflects an era of arts funding in which the arts have grown up in Australia. Were its coming and going timely?

The early years

The early years of government funding of the arts began before the First World War. The Commonwealth Literary Fund was founded in 1908 and the Commonwealth Advisory Board in 1912. However, it wasn’t until the setting up of the Australian Broadcasting Commission in 1932 that government support became really serious.

The ABC’s charter was to provide quality broadcasting, especially music. By 1936 it had formed symphony orchestras in each state. In 1942 its Act was amended to make it mandatory for the ABC to give live symphony concerts. Until the 1950s it also maintained such diverse activities as dance bands, and small ensembles. These gradually disappeared. The Act was amended again in 1980, removing the legal obligation to provide live concerts—nonetheless they continued.

The Dix Report recommended a separate arm be formed and named Music Australia. It would be responsible for entrepreneuring the orchestras and raising sponsorship. The ABC declined to go down this road and continued to present concerts, with ticket prices subsidised by government. This was the last vestige of government funding with voluntary sponsorship. Only in the mid- and late-1990s has the ABC relinquished control of the state orchestras.

The ABC was the only government funded organisation until the setting up of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust in 1954. However, with its live symphony performances, its importation of soloists—both vocal and instrumental—as well as conductors of high international reputations, it was a potent force outside of broadcasting. It had enough power to change the design and concept of the Sydney Opera House from an ‘opera house’ to a ‘symphonic hall’. (This muscle flexing of the time has left Sydney without a suitable venue for opera and ballet. The Sydney Opera House is an opera house in name only).

Enter Nugget Coombs

In the 1950s government patronage of the arts outside its support for the ABC was minimal. At that time, the Menzies government didn’t even support the universities. The chief advocate for government support for the arts was Dr H.C. Coombs, better known as ‘Nugget’ Coombs. He was a legendary bureaucrat, intellectual and, privately, a cultured man.

Herbert Cole Coombs was a youngish Western Australian who had trained at the London School of Economics. Maynard Keynes, an economist who had married a Russian ballerina, Lydia Lopokova, had influenced him. Keynes was also a member of the Bloomsbury set, and while not an artist himself, was passionate about the arts.

Nugget seem to follow his lead, and married a woman who was passionate about music. He was one of the ‘brightest boys’ of the home front before and during the Second World War. Prime Ministers Curtin and Chifley made him successively Director of Rationing, Director-General of Post War Reconstruction, and Governor of the Commonwealth Bank. He had shown himself to be an ‘organiser and administrator of great power and ability’. [1]

Coombs moved in artistic circles and was befriended by their members. With his links to banking he had direct access to the Treasurer and the Prime Minister. It was probable that there was much talk about the arts, if not officially then over a cup of tea or drinks.

He was in an ideal position and was the ideal person to start a campaign to raise £100 000 and get the government on side. He saw a way to Menzies’ heart for supporting the arts with the visit of the new Queen, Elizabeth II, to Australia in 1954. While Menzies didn’t care much for the arts he did care about royalty, in particular the new Queen. Dr Coombs proposed the formation of a Theatre Trust in her honour. [2]

An offer too good to refuse

How could Menzies refuse with a title like The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust? Linking ‘Australian’ with ‘Elizabeth’ was a well-considered and clever move. ‘The ultimate aim of the Trust must be to establish a native drama, opera and ballet which will give professional employment to Australian actors, singers and dancers and furnish opportunities for those such as writers, composers and artists whose creative work is related to the theatre,’ Coombs said ‘The Trust would usually proceed by offering financial support by guarantee or by direct financial participation on a profit sharing basis to existing organisations or to companies to present opera, ballet and drama in Australia.’ [3]

He went on to add that while the Trust did not undertake to solve all the problems of Australian theatre, he thought by lending administrative and financial support it would make it easier for artists to be creative and present their work. He also had a vision of an environment where creative artists ‘should come to flower, when many of them now are mute and inglorious from lack of opportunity’.

It cannot be underestimated that the success of Dr Coombs lay with his personality. He was agreeable, modest and good humoured. He was also gently persuasive. Leslie Rees referred to him as ‘the great persuader’. His gentle insistence must have been an effective tool behind the scenes. He didn’t ally himself with any factions and remained above petty jealousies and feral egos. The Royal Tour of 1954 was the biggest show in town. The royal progress was filmed, broadcast, written about relentlessly.

The star of the tour gave her name willingly to a Trust whose main aim was for the promotion of the arts beyond commercial management. By the end of 1954 £90 000 had been raised by committee. Banks, insurance companies, city stores, soap and aspirin manufacturers, mining firms, and newspapers all gave privately.

To this was added £30 000 from government, or more precisely £29 836 on the principle of £1 for every three raised. The Trust was set to go. But to go where? It had no access to theatres (they were all either owned by Williamson’s or the Garnet Carroll-Tivoli circuits), and there was no staff.

An Englishman, Hugh Hunt, was appointed its first Artistic Director in February 1955. Hunt had been associated with the Abbey Theatre Dublin, the Bristol Old Vic and the Old Vic in London. There seemed to be no Australian who could match his experience. However, like so many subsequent appointments of English men or women instead of Australians, his appointment was coloured by his ‘ruling class’ aloofness and sense of superiority.

Hal Porter’s view

Playwright Hal Porter’s contemporary reflection of such appointments, without naming names, was typical of what the locals felt:

‘The use of homosexuals in the theatre is as old as the theatre. As talented heterosexuals do, talented homosexuals rise to various planes of fame … What does alarm is that, during the last 10 years or more, there have been imported a coterie of untalented English homosexuals, English tonks unheard of outside their own country, to dominate sections of the Australian theatrical scene. If one cannot protest about the employment of a Pommie poofter, instead of the Aussie poofter, one can record dismay at the employment of the fifth-raters who got nowhere near even spear-holding in Drury Lane, yet who are invited to pit a puniness of vision, and a cockeyed theatrical sense, against the perception of the highly sensitised Australian public.’ [4]

The founding governors of the Trust, while worthy and sincere, were not experienced theatre people. The local theatre people who had been battling for years were excluded. Their opinions were not sought, as it was felt that if given a say they might, out of self-interest, fight among themselves. [5] While Dr Coombs’ stated intentions for the Trust were noble and clearly resonated with government, they were also quite vague and lacking in detail. The objectives were there, but not the methods of implementation.

Hugh Hunt had a natural mistrust of locals. He imported English actors, English plays—even going to the trouble of importing an English secretary! His style and manner naturally put him off side with Australian artists everywhere.

A Majestic beginning

Despite the problems, which weren’t so apparent at first, the Trust began with great panache. It leased its first theatre in Sydney’s inner (then exclusively working class industrial) suburb of Newtown. It rescued the once fine Majestic Theatre from 30 years of movies and renamed it The Elizabethan Theatre.

Renovations were made. Business firms donated furnishings. Myer of Melbourne even donated the chandelier. The seats were replaced and for a donation of £10 you could have your name on a brass plate attached to the back of a seat. Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh succumbed. The new theatre opened on 27 July 1955 with a company of H.M. Tennant’s that Garnet Carroll had imported by arrangement with Binkie Beaumont in London.

The plays were Separate Tables and The Sleeping Prince by Terence Rattigan starring Ralph Richardson, Sybil Thorndike and Lewis Casson. While the company did feature some Australian actors, it was hardly very Australian or new. It had already played Melbourne at the Princess Theatre, doing well enough as a commercial presentation, without the help of government money.

The Trust got closer to its initial intention with the returning of Judith Anderson in her American triumph of Robinson Jeffers’ adaptation of Euripides’ Medea. The Australian cast gathered around her included Clement McCallin and Doris Fitton.

Medea inaugurated a pattern the Trust was doggedly to adhere to, made an expensive Commonwealth tour, and a meagre profit of £2742. Albeit meagre, it was a profit. Later attempts to herd shrewd Australians together in a “theatre of Australians by Australians for Australians” were scarcely so successful.’ [6]

One of its earliest ambitions was to set up a national professional theatre company which would train actors to ‘West End standards’. [7] This company would tour to all major centres. It comprised Clement McCallin, Leonard Teale, Ray Lawler, Ethel Gabriel, Peter Kenna, Gordon Petrie, George Ogilvie, Dinah Shearing, Madge Ryan, Zoe Caldwell and Malcolm Robertson among others.

The cost of going on the road

Even in the 1950s, however, touring Australia was expensive. More often than not the Trust had to work in collaboration with J.C. Williamson’s Theatres. Many thought this was selling out the ideals of the Trust which were, clearly, to present theatre which wasn’t necessarily commercially viable.

The Trust responded in two ways—it reduced touring and concentrated its efforts with sponsorship of already existing companies, The Union Theatre Repertory Company in Melbourne and The Old Tote Theatre Company in Sydney. These companies were already attempting to present plays outside the safe ventures of Williamson’s.

The Union Theatre Repertory Company had been formed at the University of Melbourne in 1952 by John Sumner, an Englishman who had been brought to Australia to manage the university’s theatre.

In 1954 it got lucky with a play by an Australian about Australians—Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. The author was Melbourne born Ray Lawler.

The Playwrights’ Advisory Board, which had been set up in 1938 to encourage Australian playwrighting, awarded Lawler its 1955 Prize. Its chairman, Leslie Rees, was an enthusiast who showed the play to Hugh Hunt. After the play made £1800 for the UTRC in three weeks, Hunt announced he had bought the rights for the Trust.

Because of prior commitments, the Elizabethan Theatre was free only for three weeks in January. Presented in this un-airconditioned theatre in the blazing heat of a Sydney summer, audiences didn’t need too much imagination to believe they were in Queensland.

Nevertheless, the play was a sell-out and went on to reverse the trend. It was presented in London’s West End in 1957 where it played for seven months at the New Theatre. The London season was ended abruptly for it to play on Broadway where unfortunately it failed.

The next home-grown venture was the less than fabulous Lola Montez, a musical. Like the Doll it had been tried out at the UTRC and there were hopes it might become the Australian Oklahoma!. The book was by Alan Burke, with music and lyrics by Peter Benjamin and Peter Stannard. Alas it wasn’t to be. The importation of an (unheard of) English dancer Mary Preston, who couldn’t sing, didn’t help the hokey musical. It lost the Trust £31 581.

To be continued …


1. Leslie Rees, The Making of Australian Drama: a historical and critical survey from the 1830s to the 1970s, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1973

2. Author’s discussion with Dame Margaret Scott

3. H.C. Coombs, ‘The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, Meanjin, vol. 13, no. 2, Winter 1954, pp. 283-285

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

5. Leslie Rees, op. cit.

6. Hal Porter, op. cit.

7. Tim Rowse, Arguing the Arts: the funding of the arts in Australia, Penguin, Ringwood, Vic, 1985


Dancing Under Southern SkiesDancing Under Southern Skies by Valerie LawsonBOOK REVIEW: Dancing Under Southern Skies

Review by Robert Ray

Some years ago, while looking at the ballet books in Dymocks, I picked up a recent book on Britain’s Royal Ballet. I can’t remember the name of the book or its author. I turned to the index to see if there was mention of my friend, Gailene Stock, who had recently been appointed as the Director of the Royal Ballet School. Yes, and there was a paragraph about her. She was quoted by the author as saying something along the lines of that the English boys lacked the robustness of their Australian equivalents, and that perhaps they spent too much time at a computer, where the Australian boys were more active with sports. To which he responded:
“To think we have come to this! Where we can be mocked by ex-colonials! Who, in Madame's (de Valois) day didn’t have a tutu between them from Perth to Sydney!”

Well, this wonderful new book by Valerie Lawson, certainly puts him in his place! I hope, whoever he is, gets to read this book, as he will blush with embarrassment at his ignorance. Far from having no tutus from “Perth to Sydney”, Valerie Lawson records a very rich history of Classical Ballet in our country going back to the 19th century.

The tours of Anna Pavlova, in 1926 and 1929, created a firm foundation for the love of ballet to flourish in Australia. She was tireless and toured extensively. Providing the inspiration to many to follow her steps, including a young man in South Australia, Robert Helpman(n). There are many links in this book back for dancers of my generation. Leon Kellaway who taught me at the Australian Ballet School had danced with Pavlova. I found the details of Pavlova’s tours very interesting and charming.  I found myself saying often, as I read this book “This would make a marvellous movie”. 

Especially moving is the tragic story of Olga Spessivtseva, a fragile Russian beauty caught up in the bloody Bolshevik Revolution. Like Pavlova she was an enormous success with the Australian audiences. However, her tour of Australia was cut short when she went mad in Sydney. Well, I suppose it can happen. Lighter relief comes with the braggadocio tours of Colonel de Basil. Because of our isolation, our better climate, and living standards, many of the foreign dancers did not leave. Valerie Lawson quotes fascinating excerpts from one, Algeranoff, who stayed and whose letters back to his mother survive, and are a rich record of the period. Also, the dancers who stayed behind and became teachers trained many generations of Australian ballet dancers.

Through the rich times of the Borovansky Ballet—the main home grown ballet company to the celebrated long stay of the Ballet Rambert, the book is full of detail, and many, many things I did not know. I found the first part of the book the most interesting and entertaining. When we come to the Australian Ballet times, its history much overlaps my time around it, at the Australian Ballet School as a student with Margaret Scott, and Peggy van Praagh, and as a choreographer working with Marilyn Jones, Marilyn Rowe and Maina Gielgud. I lived through most of this history, and while knowing the broad details, Valerie Lawson again fills in much I did not know. She quotes and/or mentions a deal from dancers who have sadly now prematurely passed on like Kelvin Coe, Gailene Stock and Ross Stretton. However, as many of the other protagonists are still with us, happily I add, she has not been able to critically judge them to the same degree that she was able to do with the earlier ones. But, what I especially liked about the book was that it records and celebrates the many achievements of Peggy van Praagh. 

Valerie Lawson devotes much of her later pages to her admiration of Graeme Murphy and the designer Kristian Fredrikson. While this is entirely justified, it does narrow the scope of the book somewhat. Her focus is clearly on the Australian Ballet, but this rich history of ballet in Australia, has even more people, ballets, to describe and celebrate.

I heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in the Arts in Australia. It is a very valuable history of where we have been. The steps we have executed with aplomb. Quoting Merce Cunningham, who said to me once: “We cannot know where we are going, unless we know where we have been.” 

Dancing Under Southern Skies: a history of ballet in Australia by Valerie Lawson, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2019, ISBN 9781925588743, $59.95



Robert Ray

Trained initially as a dancer, Robert has held teaching positions both in Australia and New York, created courses and programs for the Australian Ballet School, the University of Melbourne and New York's Joffrey Ballet School. Robert was formerly Postgraduate Diploma Course Director and Lecturer in Dance at the Victorian College of Arts, and continues to be actively involved in the direction of and choreography for Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Remembering Dame Maggie

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.

February 2019


Cover image

Margaret Scott in Aurora's Wedding, 1951-54. Photo by Walter Stringer. W.F. Stringer Collection, National Library of Australia.

Director, choreographer and lecturer Robert Ray is passionate about G&S, and since 2007 has been involved in mounting productions at the annual G&S Festival at Harrogate in England. Robert was a guest speaker at The Channel in July 2018 and THA now has the pleasure of welcoming him to the Committee.


Pre-Raphaelite group - Beginning of Act 2Pre-Raphaelite group - Beginning of Act 2With the disbandment of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company in the early 1980s, father and son Ian and Neil Smith decided to do something about it. Something to keep the flame alive, something to keep these masterpieces of English light opera before the public. They started a Festival in Buxton, Derbyshire in 1993, at the Frank Matcham designed Buxton Opera House.

As well as establishing a small professional company, The Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company, they invited participants from all over the world. It was a roaring success. In 2007 and 2011 Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Victoria participated. Both times we took our own sets and costumes, and still made money! (Mainly from generous donations and fundraising). We took Patience first in 2007 and then The Yeomen of the Guard and The Arcadians in 2011. A competition between the non-professional groups was established, with an adjudicator giving an on-the-spot evaluation of the performance in front of the final curtain. For Patience we came third, and our soprano, Stephanie Gibson, won Best Female Voice for Yeomen. The Arcadians wasn’t adjudicated, but declared the “hit of the Festival” by Neil Smith. 

William Remmers (Grosvenor) & Martin Everall (Bunthorne)William Remmers (Grosvenor) & Martin Everall (Bunthorne)Such groups as The Savoy Company (USA), Fraser Valley Singers (Canada), South Africa G&S Society supported such British groups as Trent Opera, Southampton G&S Society, Derby G&S Society among many. In 1999 the SavoyNet Online Chat group mounted a production of Cox and Box. SavoyNet is an international organisation of G&S academics, performers and lovers.

Since then, they have mounted a production at the Festival every year. It has now performed the entire canon, including Thespis. The only company to do so. Our own Diana Burleigh has played a major part in the SavoyNet shows. She has directed The Sorcerer, The Gondoliers, Iolanthe, Princess Ida, Utopia Limited, and her The Yeomen of the Guard won many awards, including Best Director for Diana, and as International Champions that year. Bravo!

In 2014, after a dispute with the local council, and one councillor in particular - there is always one - the Festival moved to the larger North Yorkshire city of Harrogate. Instead of an Opera House, there was the Frank Matcham Royal Hall, (it had been originally called The Kursaal - but anglicised after the war in 1918). Mainly built as a recital or dance hall, it is still a magnificent interior, which has been fully restored. Nellie Melba, Sarah Bernhardt, Clara Butt, and the Beatles,  have all performed there. 

William RemmersWilliam RemmersThe way SavoyNet works is thus: The Director and Musical Director (MD) are chosen from a wide field of applications from around the world. Once they are appointed, they call for auditions, which were once made as DVDs, but now are posted privately on YouTube. Once it is cast, the Director usually sends out the moves on paper, although some choose to do it all on the spot. There are only 7-8 days to rehearse and get the show on. Likewise, the MD sends around links to rehearsal midi files. Everyone must arrive off-book. Costumes are hired locally, and Paul Lazell, a gifted scene painter, has a set of sets for all the operas. 

In 2006, I directed Ruddygore, which was a re-production of the original opening night version of 1887. After that Gilbert and Sullivan made many cuts and alterations, including changing the racy title to Ruddigore. On a very hot night in August 2006, the experiment was a part failure. The lengthy and rather aimless second act seemed interminable. Not for nothing did Gilbert and Sullivan trim it. For once, Gilbert’s expert sense of construction failed him, as the second act is clumsy and uneven. The hastily revised version is better, but still not a patch with the best of them. 

After a few knock-backs I was chosen to direct Patience this year, with one of my old ghosts from Ruddygore, Eric Peterson as MD. A wonderful partnership as it turned out. I had directed Patience twice before for Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Victoria, and remember I took it to Buxton. I think it one of their best works, and it plays beautifully in performance. It was then cast, with some very exciting talent, including a 6’7” tall William Remmers as Archibald Grosvenor. Hiring costumes can be a bit of a hit or miss experience, so I decided to ask for the loan of GSOV’s costumes, which I had worked on with Janice and Shona Donnelly in 2006. I brought them home to Sassafras, and over an 8 month period refurbished and re-designed them. I bought an overlocker, and extended my very modest costume making skills. I also made most of the hats. I had such fun. 

Alexander Conway (The Duke)Alexander Conway (The Duke)I wrote out all the moves, and sent all the choreography via private YouTube videos. Had to figure out how to get 20+ costumes at a minimum cost. Decided with an allowance of four suitcases (my partner Brian came with me), to bring them on the plane with us. Some of Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Victoria ladies were also cast, and each carried two dresses. Hats and some props were mailed by Australia Post. I did all the preparation I could before leaving for the UK.

Music rehearsals started on 8 August, continued on the 9th, and I started the stage direction on the 10th. We would perform on the 16th, so I really had to have my skates on. Knowing what I was doing was a big help - no time to improvise or try a few different versions. Rehearsals, while very stressful, went smoothly and happily. Everyone pulled their weight, with only one or two of the men being severely challenged figuring out which was their left and which was their right. “No, no your other left foot” I would helpfully say.  (In true military fashion I made sure they started every move with their left foot. But that was too complicated for some. Sigh). 

The rapturous maidens had their dresses to rehearse in, which as they had long trains was a big plus. They moved beautifully. Why are women so much better at this than men? The other costumes were hired, although I made Grosvenor’s vests, and Bunthorne’s big bow tie. On the day of the performance, Paul Lazell and the crew had the set up by 10 am - a record. We could place a few of the numbers in the break. Then Dress Rehearsal at 2:30, which went surprisingly well, although the projection of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings during the overture presented some problems which were never really resolved. A short meal break, and then we were on!

Interior of the Royal Hall, Harrogate, set up for PatienceInterior of the Royal Hall, Harrogate, set up for PatienceThe one and only performance went very well. While I always try to stick to what G&S had in mind originally I hoped there were enough innovations, and new ideas,  to keep the audience happy. It seems there were. At the fall of the Act 1 curtain, the applause and cheers were thunderous. Unlike Act 2 of Ruddygore the Act 2 of Patience runs like the clappers. One show stopper after another. The tradition of a SavoyNet show is the cast all conceal the flags of their countries, and pop them out and wave them during the curtain calls. Always an impressive sight - to know so many have come near and far to make this happen. The audience was ecstatic. What do they say about the sound of applause?

The adjudication by Tony Finnegan was extremely complimentary and positive. He paid me the enormous compliment that if Gilbert had been still alive, this is the sort of innovative production he would have staged. There was nothing but praise for Eric’s Musical Direction, and for all the artists. He called tall William Remmers’ Grosvenor “a tour de force”. There was not one negative in his adjudication. In other words: quite a rave review. 

As we were at the half way mark of the Festival, it would be another week and a half before the Awards were announced. I didn’t stay around, naturally, but went to see a city I have longed to see all my life: Copenhagen. I wasn’t disappointed. Coming back to Australia through Heathrow, I was alerted that the Awards Ceremony was being broadcast on FaceTime. After grappling with   the dodgy reception on my iPhone, and trying to hear in a very noisy Heathrow, I was over the moon to hear that “Patience” had won the Best Production Award, and was declared the International Champions! It was also awarded Best Traditional Production, and I also won for Best Costumes. Eric won for best MD, and there were awards for William Remmers, Angela Lowe (Lady Jane), and Best Duet (“Long Years Ago”). The most nominations and awards of any SavoyNet show! What a thrilling and really unexpected end to a very memorable experience. 

I didn’t see much of the spa town of Harrogate, alas. But what I did see charmed me very much. The nearby town of Knaresborough is one of the prettiest places I have every seen on this planet. I expected North Yorkshire to be all rather Wuthering Heights. But far from it. The rolling hills, the green countryside, the large open park in Harrogate called The Stray, the charming sandstone Victorian buildings, many of them curved around crescents, and the friendliness of the people, ensures I will go back. Hopefully if and when I get picked again to direct another SavoyNet show.