02 June 2009

The Australian Ballet: Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker

On Friday 5 June The Australian Ballet will commence its Melbourne Season of Graeme Murphy’s wonderful presentation of Nutcracker.

This is no ordinary Nutcracker; it is a quintessentially Australian reinterpretation created by the incomparable Graeme Murphy, who was for many years the driving spirit of the Sydney Dance Company. It is a reinterpretation that celebrates the history of ballet in Australia, and of the Australian Ballet itself with its links to the great Russian ballet tradition. In this version, Clara is not a child but a frail Russian ex-ballerina, reliving her illustrious career on a hot summer night in Melbourne, and looking back on her St Petersburg days with a group of her fellow expatriate dancers. In the course of this career we see child Clara on her opening night, Clara at the height of her career, and the older Clara looking back.

The history of ballet in Australia, and of The Australian Ballet Company, derives directly from the tours of Australia that were undertaken by three of the Ballets Russes that had been founded with the dissolution of Serge Diaghilev’s original Ballet Russe following his death in 1929. These companies made extended tours of Australia between 1936 and 1940, and these tours had an important and long-lasting impact. Dancers who elected to remain in or return to Australia founded no less than four ballet companies – the Kirsova Ballet, the Borovansky Ballet, the West Australian Ballet and the Polish Australian Ballet (for more detail see Australia Dancing’s Ballets Russes Australian Tours, which includes a marvellous 1940 Max Dupain photo of Tamara Toumanova and Paul Petroff of the “Original Ballet Russe” at French’s Forest).

The most significant of these ballets was the Borovansky Ballet – formally registered in 1940 as the Borovansky Australian Ballet Company Limited – which provided Australian audiences with their main source of ballet entertainment for over two decades. In its early years it employed a mixture of Australian and overseas stars, but Borovansky steadily recruited up and coming young Australians including, in the late 1950s, Garth Welch and Marilyn Jones.

Borovansky died in 1959, but the company continued as the Borovansky Ballet, under the direction of Peggy van Praagh, until early 1961 when it was disbanded. The Australian Ballet was established the following year, again under the direction of Peggy van Praagh. It built on the firm foundation laid by the Ballets Russes and the Borovansky Ballet, and adopted their model of operating as a touring repertory company. Just how firm a foundation it was is indicated by the fact that the Australian Ballet’s first ever performance, on 2 November 1962, was a full-length performance of Swan Lake, with principal artists Kathleen Goreham, Marilyn Jones, Garth Welch and Cai Selling.

The Australian Ballet has returned to the Russian well from time to time since its foundation. In the early 1970s, when I first became a regular attender of Australian Ballet performances in Canberra, the company included a young ballerina named Ai-Gul Gaisina. Ms Gaisina was born in Kazan and educated in Leningrad at the Vaganova Choreographic Institute, aka the Kirov Ballet School. In 1973 she left Russia and, at the invitation of Sir Robert Helpmann and Peggy van Praagh, joined the Australian Ballet and pursued a successful career, appearing inter alia as Kitri in Nureyev’s Don Quixote. She still lives in Melbourne, where she spent ten years as a teacher at the Australian Ballet School before returning to the Australian Ballet as a guest teacher and coach.

Each time the curtain opens on Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker a notable participant in the history of our great national ballet company can look back on her own career: Marilyn Jones and Ai-Gul Gaisina will play the older Clara on alternating evenings. Take your pick.

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