North Queensland Ballet Company

 A Brief History by D’Esley Smith

The idea for a ballet company in North Queensland was probably always in the back of Ann Roberts’ mind as a natural extension of her passionate commitment to the promotion of dance in the community. She had been teaching in Townsville since the 1940’s, and by the middle of the 1960’s, three other schools were in operation, with high standards of dance being attained across the board. Some students went on to professional careers, others just wanted to continue dancing as an enjoyable recreation.

Interest in establishing a ballet company was brewing, as several essential ingredients were available in the city at that time: dancers, a suitable theatre, rehearsal space, and most of all, an enthusiastic team of interested parents already vitally involved in the practicalities of performance for eisteddfods and concerts.

These parents were keen for their children to be involved in educationally enriching experiences which would give them more opportunities to develop their interest in dance. One parent in particular, Mr. John Evans, had many discussions about the wastage of talent and enthusiasm, not just in Townsville, but in all of North Queensland.

Knowing such a company would need to be community-based and have wide public support, Mr. Evans, with Miss Roberts’ support, decided to “test the waters” and call a public meeting to assess community interest in forming a North Queensland Ballet Company. This meeting, attended by almost 100 people was held on the 5th June 1969, at 8pm at Pirani Hall. All those present or tendering their apologies, became foundation members of an association to be known as the North Queensland Ballet and Dance Society. The title reflected the fact that the objective was, from the start, to draw from and to service the whole of the North Queensland area with a variety of dance forms, not just classical ballet.

A steering Committee was elected to draft a constitution and set down the aims and policies of the Society. In the next six weeks, Mr. Gordon Abel and Mr. John Evans, Chairman and Secretary of the Steering Committee respectively, laboured mightily through a draft constitution and in discussions with many people in Townsville and Brisbane.

The first general meeting of the society was held at Pirani Hall on July 17th 1969. This meeting heard the reports of the Secretary and the Chairman on the work of the steering committee so far and a constitution was presented. The Chairman recommended that the Society act as the controlling body for the administration and financing of the NQ Ballet Company and Mr Evans reported that discussions in Brisbane had indicated that finance and assistance from government and semi-government sources was a possibility for the future. Mr. Evans’ approaches had produced enthusiastic responses from all over North Queensland. An account was opened with a donation of $100 from Miss Roberts who also donated the use of her studio for classes and rehearsals.

The meeting was a lively one, with motions and amendments to motions producing vigorous discussion. In the end, the wording was agreed upon, the constitution finally adopted and the first committee of the Society was elected, consisting of Messrs H. G. Abel, N. Baker, J. Evans, W. K. Foley, R. Costigan, T. Walker, and J. Brunskill, and Mrs. J. Roche.

On September 25th, 1969, a special general meeting was held to inform more than 50 RAD teachers from all over North Queensland about the Society’s plans. They were in Townsville learning the new Margot Fonteyn children’s syllabus and communications were estabilished with teachers from other dance centres, Cairns and Mackay in particular, which were to prove invaluable to the company in the first years and indeed these links continue to the present time.

Excitement began to build as auditions loomed closer. Miss Pat MacDonald, in Townsville to conduct RAD exams, ran the auditions on the 19th and 20th October, 1969, for 56 people, from which 41 students were accepted. These included one from Ayr, five from Cairns and one from Mount Isa ( a boarder at St Anne’s School in Townsville). Thus it was truly a North Queensland Company from the start, although unfortunately it was not possible for the dancers from outside Townsville to take part in the first season. In later years, dancers travelled down from Ingham and up from Ayr to participate in other seasons and finally in 1978, local dancers performed in Cairns and Mackay.

After the excitement of the auditions, Miss Roberts, in characteristic fashion, allowed no time to be wasted, but had the students hard at work immediately. The first class was on Sunday afternoon, November 2nd. Meanwhile, in October, an auxiliary committee was formed with representatives from all the dance schools in Townsville, for the purpose of fund-raising, the only source of finance for the first performance.

Phyllis Danaher arrived from Brisbane in December, 1969 to take the first rehearsals for “Graduation Ball”. While there were plenty of female dancers, there were only four male dancers in the company, so 12 young gentlemen from the general community had to be co-opted to take the parts of cadets.

Then in January, 1970, Martin Rubenstein arrived from Melbourne to teach “Les Sylphides” and “Le Pas de Quatre”. The first performance, comprising these three works, took place on the 9th of April, 1970, at the Theatre Royal, Townsville. “To me, this is one of the most exciting opportunities for the advancement of cultural activities in North Queensland.” This statement was made by the first patron of the Society, J. C. Butler, echoing the feelings of many others in his address in the programme for the premiere season.

In that first year, the Company toured to Mackay to an enthusiastic reception. A railmotor, with a banner mounted on the side, was hired for transport and streamers (strangely resembling toilet paper!) were flown from the windows. The trip set the tone for future tours – the fun they always seemed to have is a memory all dancers share.

The first twelve months were highly successful. The initial excitement and enthusiasm paved the way for expansion in the next season, when the first grants were received: $1,000 from the Queensland Government through the Cultural Affairs section of the Department of Education and $363 from the Federal Government through the Australian Council for the Arts. Although the titles of the funding bodies have changed over the years, the company has never ceased to receive grants from both state and Federal Governments on an increasing scale, a recognition of sound financial management and planning – never at any time during the operation of the Society in the first twelve years did they overstep the budget. This secure financial footing enabled the company to expand its horizons each year.

In 1972, everyone associated with theatre in Townsville suffered a severe shock when Townsville City Council closed and sold the Theatre Royal. The Company took part in the final performance in the theatre on April 7th, 1973.

The alternative was the Wintergarden Theatre, a large movie theatre that had accommodated some touring productions prior to the 1960’s. It was a wonderful mixture of classic European architecture, with sweeping dress circle and ornate boxes, and ‘classic’ North Queensland practicality – louvered side walls to catch the breeze. It was not ideal, but it was the scene of one of the most memorable occasions for the Company. This was the 1971 main season, whose programme included “Songs and Interludes” by Jacqui Carroll and the full length ballet, “Coppelia”, with design by Anneke Silver. The house was packed and some patrons had to be turned away. A great accolade for the young Company.

The 1975 season was dedicated to touring, because of performance venue limitations. There was also a slight policy change to accommodate the increasing rehearsal load with the Company’s growth in style and scope. Miss Roberts, while still retaining control over the main direction of the Company, relinquished some of the work to a Choreographer/Director, Miss Patricia Cox. She was the Company’s very first guest artist, and the first of a series of Choreographer/Directors in the years that followed.

In 1976 and 1977, the Company first established an association with the Lavarack Army Base in Townsville, performing in the Lavarack Theatre. (Dance North resurrected this association through its residency programme in 1987). The Company’s identification with North Queensland was underlined in 1977, when it presented its first work based on a local theme. This was “Steps On The Corner”, choreographed by Kathryn Lowe and based on the history of Ravenswood, a gold mining town in North Queensland.

The year of 1978 was a turning point for the Company in many ways, with the opening of the new Civic Theatre in Townsville in that year coming at an opportune time. The new Theatre offered new opportunities, but some of the “old guard” in the management team, including Mr Evans and Mr Abel, decided it was time to step aside. Both retired and their indefatigable efforts on the Company’s behalf were recognised with awards of life membership. On retirement, Mr Evans gave his projections for the future, foreshadowing the establishment of a professional company, but formal moves along these lines did not really begin until 1980. Other valuable people had joined the committee over the preceding 10 years, often staying for long periods. The continuity and consistency that these people provided was part of the strength of the organisation.

The limited facilities available since the closing of the Theatre Royal, while not hindering the development of the Company, had been a source of frustration, but by 1978, the work being produced by the Company had matured to such a degree that much larger scale works could be mounted, using dancers from within the company’s own ranks as soloists. Up to this point, guest artists had been employed to take major roles or to present pas de deux between major works. The administrators deeply appreciated the assistance given by the Australian Ballet Company through its policy of releasing its dancers to perform as guest artists in North Queensland several times during the fledgling years of the Company. This presented a wonderful opportunity for the young dancers and was precisely the type of experience that the organisers had hoped to provide when they worked so hard to establish the Company. Being able to watch and work with people of such high standing in the ballet world was one of the advantages of being in the company. That benefit was, and still is, valued by the members of those years and is regarded as one of the most memorable aspects of their association with the Company.

Not to be outdone by the progress in the standard of dancing, the expertise of the technical crew had also improved over the years. Working in theatres of such diversity as were found in North Queensland at the time had sharpened their resourcefulness and honed their practical skills to a remarkable degree.

Miss Roberts always demanded, and was given, a high standard of presentation, and a professional attitude and commitment to the work was developed within the Company. The funding bodies took note and continued their support. In 1978, the increased funding enabled the employment of a choreographer/director for a full 6 months (later extended by 3 months). Miss Roberts still kept overall guidance and control of the artistic direction of the Company but the actual choreography and rehearsal was handled by several talented people in the next four years.

In the meantime, the Company continued to expand. Three important innovations occured in 1979. On the administration side, a permanent office with part-time clerk was established in the city at the Arts centre, which the Company “still calls home”. Secondly, one of the foundation Company members, Debbie Costigan, was commissioned to create a piece, “Zzaj Vibrations”, for the 1979 season. Debbie also created another work, “Nightflight” for the 1981 season. The third important aspect of that season was the return of one of its members as guest artist. Alan Cross, with his partner, Josephine Jason, performed two pas de deux. Bill Pengelly had returned in 1976 as guest artist to supplement the small number of male dancers in the Company but this was the first time one of the past members had returned as a soloist.

Another foundation member of the Company, Jane Pirani, was engaged for three months in 1982 as scenic designer and guest artist. Jane was also commissioned to choreograph a piece for the season, “Pages from a Diary”. The provision of opportunities to showcase such North Queensland talent had always been one of the aims of the Society. Proof of further growth, if proof were needed, came in 1980 with the recognition of the need of a Co-ordinator. Thus began the 10 year association of Mrs. Meryl Weston with the Company.

At this time, after a decade of activity, the Company, although firmly established, needed to re-assess its position. It had fulfilled the original aims of the Society, enshrined in the 1969 Constitution. It had provided “…in North Queensland the means for continued interest and participation for dancers in Ballet and other forms of dance”. Modern dance works as well as classical works and even some of “The Classics” had been presented. Their touring programme had taken them throughout North Queensland and in some cases, dancers from centres other than Townsville had been included in performance. In 1978, Gary Hill, as Choreographer/Director, had travelled to Cairns and Mackay to mount a work, “Tidepool”, specifically for dancers in those centres to perform in conjunction with the tour of the main Company.

The Society had also encouraged “local artists to contribute to the creation of new Ballets and other dances for the Society?. As well as past members returning as guest artists for performance and choreography, local visual artists such as Anneke Silver had created programme cover and set designs for the Company. A musician born locally, Robert Keane, had been commissioned to write music for a ballet, although this was never used, and other North Queensland-born artists such as Gary Hill, Ray Cook and Robyn Harvey, were invited to mount works for the Company. “Performers of international renown” had been encouraged “to dance with the Society as Guest Artists” and young Australian choreographers were also given the opportunity to develop their craft.

Finally, particularly after the Civic Theatre was built in 1978, the Company had begun “to develop an education programme providing lectures, demonstrations and special school matinees to increase the interest and knowledge of Ballet and Dance forms among young people with a view to building future audiences”. Although the first tentative educational programme had been offered for schools in 1971, the Company continued to participate in many community projects such as the City Council Entertainment in Parks and Pacific Festival Programmes. This facet of the Company’s activities was made much easier by the new theatre. Community groups also often called on the services of dancers from the Company for entertainment.

However, the Society also achieved another success apart from these stated aims. Over the fifteen years of operation of the NQ Ballet Company, almost 25% of the membership went on to be either professional dancers, teachers, choreographers, choreologists or arts administrators. Some trained at the Australian Ballet School, others went on to newly established tertiary dance programmes in institutions such as Kelvin Grove for further training. A few were accepted directly into professional companies. Subsequently, many of these dancers had careers of differing duration with various Australian and international companies. Dancers who went on to develop professional careers regard their time with NQ Ballet Company as crucial to their development. It gave them some insight into life of a professional dancer and the incentive to persevere with their studies. The extra classes helped to develop technique and the constant exposure to teachers, choreographers and performers of international standing in both classical and modern styles expanded their experience. Most of all, they were offered many more opportunities to perform than were available just through their own studios.

So by 1979, the major aims of the Society had been achieved and the success of the Company as an amateur institution was widely acclaimed. In the light of this information, the Board now felt that it was time to move forward to the next stage- that of a professional company. There had always been ideas of progressing towards a professional company. Mr Abel’s Presidential address to the first annual general meeting proposed that “it should become a highly professional company capable of taking its place with the well known companies of Australia”- prophetic words! But it took more than just words; there were legalities to be observed. In order to become an employer, it was necessary that the Society become incorporated, and the structure of the governing body needed to be changed from a Committee to a Board of Directors or Trustees. Another meeting was needed. It was held on the 26th November, 1980.

Those attending decided to explore the prospects of establishing a Limited Liability Company with Articles of Association that would allow the employment of a small nucleus of dancers, while maintaining the amateur group as support dancers. This investigation was protracted because there was no precedent for this situation. The final decision to become incorporated was not made until the 5th of April, 1982, the date of the special general meeting at which the North Queensland Ballet and Dance Society was dissolved. It was replaced by the North Queensland Ballet and Dance Company, limited by guarantee under the Companies Act of 1961-1981, with Memorandum and Articles of Association to be prepared by the Society’s solicitor.

The wheels of the law revolved slowly, however, and legal processes were not finalised until 14th December, 1982, an uncertain situation which caused many problems for the administrators. There were also differences of opinion about the artistic policy, structure and projected operation of the new company, and personality clashes caused further disruptions.

However, commitments still had to be met in the meantime. There was the Pacific Festival programme, “An Evening of Dance”, which was performed on the 5th June. This concluded the major season for the N. Q. Company in 1982. There was also the schools’ performance and the Townsville City Council Entertainment in Parks programme. The final performance of the North Queensland Ballet Company in its fully amateur status was at one of these entertainments on the 30th October, 1982. At the Annual General Meeting held on 13th of October, 1982, a new committee was elected and the next step in the evolution of the North Queensland Ballet Company was taken: the Company entered upon a new phase of its existence in 1983 in a Pro-am format.

Government grants had been requested and work had been done to obtain corporate sponsorship. Some of these funding sources were sceptical about the need for a professional company in the North but the reputation that the company had built over the years was a strong influence in gaining their support. The fact that Miss Roberts was to remain as a member of the Board of the company was another positive factor. The Queensland Government Directorate of Cultural Activities within the Department of the Arts, National Parks and Sport, awarded the company a grant. The Queensland Arts Council awarded money for a thirteen-week schools tour programme and a grant was received from the Federal Government through the Theatre Board of the Australia Council. It was stressed that the project was to be considered as a 2 year “Pilot” scheme and further funds could not be guaranteed. Future availability of funds depended on the company’s performance and acceptance by the community.

Corporate sponsorship was eventually forthcoming in the form of a small grant from Mt Isa City Council, Mt Isa Television, Mt Isa Mines, Priceways Transport and Radio 4LM Mt Isa. This funded a tour to Mt Isa. Then, towards the end of 1983, the regional television company, “Telecasters North Queensland”, and the Townsville City Council both offered financial support and have continued to do so ever since. Advertisements for professional staff, both performers and administrators, were placed nationally. Auditions were held in three states and Gary Hill was appointed Artistic Director. Meryl Weston was re-employed as Administrator. Six professional dancers were engaged but only eleven amateur dancers presented themselves for inclusion in the Company. The fact that so few amateur dancers were available undermined the success of this aspect of the enterprise.

The new Company members came together in mid-January to begin preparing the year’s programme. Their first commitment was an Arts Council tour starting in February, and extending over an area from Ingham in the north to Mackay in the south and to Mt Isa in the west. It was undertaken over thirteen weeks, spread through the 26-week contractual period. The first performance of the company was a Gala Premiere in Townsville on the 18th of March for one night only, with a repeat performance at the new Burdekin Theatre in Ayr on the afternoon of Sunday the 20th of March. Another programme consisting of a full length ballet, “Cinderella”, was presented at the end of April and they toured this presentation throughout May to coastal towns, then to Mt Isa at the beginning of June. A third programme was arranged for the beginning of July and in the meantime, visits were made to schools throughout North Queensland until the end of the first 26-week contractual period at the end of July. Considering the time and distance involved in travelling through North Queensland, it seems incredible that the Company were able to complete such a packed schedule. Afterwards, some of the dancers stayed in Townsville and supported themselves by dancing or choreographing for various community groups, until a second season began in December, 1983 with a Christmas pantomime. This continued in 1984 with more touring of both the pantomime and the schools’ programme. The heavy schedule, the continual bouts of illness and injury, the difficulties of working with both amateurs and professionals, and the rapid changes being proposed, resulted in stressful times for all. Gary Hill resigned before the major season but the strength of the Company ensured that the season was completed nevertheless.

On the whole, the first period of operation of the professional North Queensland Ballet Company had been artistically successful. Audiences had been appreciative, although not always as large as the administrators would have liked! Working with limited resources made life ‘interesting’, but the company survived and the Board of Directors began making plans for the future, as the end of ‘pilot’ period approached. Strengths and weaknesses had been revealed, but if the project was to progress, the administrators had to face difficult decisions which would capitalize on their assets and profit from their mistakes.

With great courage, the Board decided to make a quantum leap into the future and jettison the amateur company, establishing a new fully professional company, with Cheryl Stock as Artistic Director for 1985. The management team included three others: Lorna Hempstead as General Manager, Meryl Weston as Liaison Officer and Andre Reynaud as Production Manager. The Arts Centre became the company headquarters. Apart from the office already established, extra space in the building was acquired for a rehearsal area and Green Room facilities. Six dancers were employed for a 26 week period.                

The new team formulated new artistic and administrative policies, creating a totally new entity with totally new aims and objectives. Funding bodies underlined their confidence in the administration by approving grants for the company, whose new style, everyone felt, needed a totally new name. “Dance North” was born. From that time, the Company has gone from strength to strength. Dance North has achieved a greater national profile through a touring programme which has been extended to cover the whole of Australia. Very successful tours have also been undertaken to South East Asia. The Integrated Residency Programme applied in touring means that “Dance” is taken to a far wider section of the community than could have been envisaged by the first Company.

The Artistic Policy continues to promote Australian choreographers, artists and musicians. The geographical location of the company with its close proximity to South East Asia and the many contacts the Company has made with Aboriginal Communities in Northern Australia have added a twofold purpose to the Artistic Policy of Dance North: there is now a conscious effort to forge a link with the artistic product of those countries nearest to North Queensland and to promote dance in the context of the multicultural heritage of Australia. Neither has the local dance community been forgotten. A youth arm of the professional company was established in 1987 with the title “Dance North Extensions”. Under the direction of Jane Pirani, this company of young dancers, 50 strong, has already been highly acclaimed and is a developing a national profile. Tours to other Queensland centres have been conducted and this year, Extensions performs at the International Youth Festival in Adelaide, “Come Out ’91”. Many of the aims of the original Society have been incorporated into the artistic policy of Extensions, but they have their own individual image as well, separate from, but closely allied to, both the North Queensland Ballet Company and Dance North. The links are very strong, not only from a historical aspect, but through direct lineage – Jane is the daughter of Ann Roberts.

From the humble beginnings of 1969, not one, but two companies have emerged over the 21 years. While one is professional and the other amateur, both have achieved notable success and, as the descendants of North Queensland Ballet and Dance Company, they are “capable of taking [their] place with the well-known companies of Australia.”

D’Esley Smith                    

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