Dance


Children of the Modern School, Hobart, with a maypole dance, 1900 (AOT, PH30/1/4425)

Since the earliest recorded ballet performance in Van Diemen's Land in Australia's oldest surviving theatre, the Theatre Royal in Hobart (Beauty and the Beast, 10 July 1837), the fortunes of dance in Tasmania continue to reflect small-scale opportunities, attract irregular 'mainland' and other interest, and experience the vicissitudes of government financial support and, mostly, traditional audience expectations. Nevertheless, there have been identifiable milestones.

In the late nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century, entrepreneurial ventures were few and far between. Unless fortunate enough to be in Melbourne or another mainland capital at the time, Tasmanians missed out on important national tours like those of Adeline Genee and members of the Imperial Russian Ballet in 1913, Anna Pavlova in the 1920s, the de Basil Company in the 1930s, Borovansky Ballet in the 1950s even Dame Margot Fonteyn later. The Borovansky Ballet did perform in the state in 1944 and 1945, however, as did Melbourne's Ballet Guild in 1947.

The establishment of the Australian Ballet in 1962, its tours to the state (especially in 1963 and 1970) and, perhaps more importantly, those of its Dancers Company and the Sydney Dance Company in recent years, have undoubtedly contributed to more regular entertainment for serious theatre-goers. Neither should one forget the accessibility of widely distributed dance films featuring the Bolshoi Ballet, Royal Ballet and including the Australian Ballet in this period.

The most significant state-based companies have been Kenneth Gillespie's classically oriented Tasmanian Ballet Company, established in 1974 as the state's first fully professional company, and its successor today's TasDance. The latter, founded in Launceston in 1981 with Jenny Kinder and currently under the direction of Annie Greig, has adopted a more realistic and contemporary approach to repertoire and recruitment to its ranks. While TasDance occasionally suffers from uneven programming and limited audience interest, the company has attracted considerable diversity and strength among its dancers (for example Wendy McPhee, Trisha Dunn, Jonathan Rees-Osborne) and from choreographers (Chrissie Parrott, Sue Healey, Julia Cotton), composers (Stephen Leek) and designers (Garry Greenwood). Graeme Murphy could be regarded as a mentor. TasDance has also been active in providing effective school dance education programmes across the state: it should be able to present its performing ability to a wider audience outside the state more often than it does. Less prominent groups like Jerri Rechter's Stompin Youth Dance Company, demonstrably energetic and popular in the 1990s, have been more short-lived.

Among the many private teachers of ballet, the accolade must rest with Joan Burnett who arrived in Launceston soon after the Second World War and, despite some apparent competition from Gillespie in later years, firmly grounded her appreciative students in the tradition of London's Royal Academy of Dance. In Hobart, the National Theatre Ballet School, under the direction of Mischa Slavensky and Judith Ker, included elements of the Russian style of teaching with less lasting repute. Other well-known Hobart-based teachers have included Beattie Jordan and Barbara Todd. The careers of Graeme Murphy, Justine Summers, Kate Nockels and Natasha Middleton confirm that the more promising students have been given early encouragement.

In summary, while the collective opportunity to enjoy dance in Tasmania has had its limitations, the state can claim some satisfaction in the creative and often exceptional achievements of several individuals.

Further reading: E Pask, Enter the colonies dancing, Melbourne, 1979; and Ballet in Australia, Melbourne, 1982; Dance Australia, SLT; Tasmanian Ballet Company and TasDance programmes, TL.

Lorraine Macknight