National Archives of Australia

Issue 8 October 2012

The Australian Ballet in pictures

The Australian Ballet is celebrating its 50th birthday. The national ballet company performed its first production, Swan Lake, on 2 November 1962 in Sydney. To mark this milestone, Kellie Abbott takes a look at the history of The Australian Ballet in pictures from the Archives’ collection.

Sir Robert Helpmann and Barbara Chambers in Coppelia, 1969. NAA: A1500, K20992

Like many young girls, I dreamed of becoming a ballerina. I attended ballet classes in the mid-1980s in the small south-west town of Busselton. My ballet teacher was Kiril Vassilkovsky, who had danced with the famous Ballet Russe and the West Australian Ballet. I remember him as a small wiry man, who moved with precision and grace. I didn’t – hence my short-lived tuition and the end of my dream of dancing with The Australian Ballet.

The Archives’ collection includes many photographs of The Australian Ballet that bring the dream of the ballet to life for even the most uncoordinated of us. Most are from the Australian News and Information Bureau and showcase many of The Australian Ballet’s major productions from its early years in the 1960s to more recent times.

Other photographs capture the talented people who have shaped Australia’s national ballet, such as Dame Peggy van Praagh, the English-born dancer who played a leading role in the establishment of the company. Dance historian Valerie Lawson writes of the dancers’ first impressions of van Praagh: ‘Steely determination, a sharp eye for detail, an aristocratic English accent, a habit of licking her lips, and a fondness for calling them by their surnames’. She was the first artistic director, a role she held from 1962 to 1974, returning in 1978.

Margaret Scott was also there at the beginning, and was the first director of The Australian Ballet School in 1964, holding the role until 1989. Sir Robert Helpmann – artistic director, dancer, choreographer, actor – is also well represented in the Archives’ collection, along with dancers such as Garth Welch, Marilyn Jones, Lucette Aldous and Kelvin Coe.

These images capture striking sets, beautiful costumes and graceful dancers, but also provide a glimpse of the hard work at rehearsals and behind the scenes that makes the apparently effortless performances possible. We invite you to celebrate 50 years of The Australian Ballet with a small selection of the thousands of images in the Archives’ collection.

Dame Peggy van Praagh, the first artistic director of The Australian Ballet, 1965. NAA: A1200, L51201

Sir Robert Helpmann in a 1969 production of Coppelia. NAA: A1500, K21002

Rehearsal in Canberra, 1963. NAA: A1200, L45259

Margaret Scott, director of The Australian Ballet School from 1964 to 1989. NAA: B4498, 21G4

Janet Karin and Warren de Maria in Sir Robert Helpmann’s Elektra, 1966. NAA: B4498, 23C10

Rehearsals, 1973. NAA: A6180, 29/10/73/26

Marilyn Rowe prepares to perform Swan Lake with The Australian Ballet, 1978. Photographer: John Crowther. NAA: A6135, K16/6/78/4

Want more?

See more photographs of The Australian Ballet on Flickr

The Archives holds many other photographs of The Australian Ballet, which can be viewed on RecordSearch. Simply enter the keywords ‘Australian Ballet’

See some records about the establishment of The Australian Ballet in the papers of HC Coombs

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