ON Wednesday week, early in the evening, Colin Peasley will go through a routine as natural to him as breathing. He will go to the Sydney Opera House, put on his make-up and costume, and take to the stage for the Australian Ballet — something he has done more than 6000 times. He has only a tiny role in Swan Lake but it will be greeted with a mighty ovation from a house full to bursting, because when the curtain finally falls that night it will also fall on Peasley’s unparalleled career with the AB, an unbroken 50-year run as a dancer, ballet master, founder of the AB’s education program and, finally, artist in residence.
Peasley has finally got around to retiring, although at 78 he is quite possibly the best advertisement ballet could have. He remains slim of figure, upright of carriage, bright-eyed and sharp-witted, the latter quality to the fore when AB staff farewelled him in Melbourne last month.
Peasley is noted far and wide for his volubility so colleagues settled in for a longish haul when he announced he had prepared two speeches: a short one and a long one. ‘‘ The short one is ‘ thank you’,’’ said Peasley. ‘‘ The long one is ‘ thank you very much’.’’ And with that he stopped, having in one stroke confounded expectations, made a joke insiders would appreciate and suggested a depth of emotion too great for words. It was a bravura performance from one who has been irrevocably committed to performing.
The ballet has been his life and his family to the exclusion of other bonds. ‘‘ Really close friends never came within a whisker of my relationship with the company,’’ says Peasley, who started with the AB at its foundation. He sometimes thinks it a pity he didn’t have ‘‘ a home life, a family life. But what I had few people can have. The joy of performing, the kudos of being in a performing arts company, the elation . . .’’ In recognition, the AB this week made Peasley a life member, a rare honour that has never before been given to a company dancer.
When the AB first took to the stage with Swan Lake in late 1962 Peasley was an extremely happy member of the corps de ballet. ‘‘ The curtain goes up in Sydney, my home town, and I’m in the Australian Ballet, down there at Railway Square,’’ he says. ‘‘ All the people I wanted to impress were there.’’
All those people included Peasley’s parents, which may seem obvious. Except that this being the early 1960s there had been big ructions at home regarding his choice of career. It may have been the swinging 60s elsewhere but there weren’t many homes in suburban Australia where dance was considered a desirable job for a man. ‘‘ We had trouble with my parents,’’ says Peasley with uncharacteristic understatement, ‘‘ but yes, they did come to opening night.’’
There wasn’t only parental disapproval to overcome. Peasley’s appearance that night was a triumph of passion and will over experience and training. ‘‘ I came up when boys didn’t dance; boys didn’t do anything in the arts,’’ he says. ‘‘ It wasn’t looked on as a respectable job for a decent guy.’’ Having had his first ballet lesson at the age of 21 — unimaginably ancient for the needs of the art form — he was nearly 28 when the AB took him in.
It’s a career that will never be replicated. Asked to rate himself as a dancer, Peasley ignores the chance to mythologise. He has a flair for the dramatic touch, his eyes sparkling at the sniff of a story and his hands ready to embellish an already highly polished anecdote, but he’s not exaggerating now. ‘‘ Dreadful. No, dreadful. Honestly. Dreadful,’’ he exclaims.
He describes his standard as lower than that of boys in years 4 and 5 at the Australian Ballet School today — boys of about 14 or 15 who can do ‘‘ double every bloody thing’’. ‘‘ The boys in years 6, 7 and 8 are fantastic,’’ he continues. ‘‘ Look at the shape of their bodies! But they’ve been dancing since they were eight or 10.’’ Then he adds, rather poignantly: ‘‘ When I talk to the guys I’m always amazed that they have been allowed to dance from such an early age.’’
Peasley had no such advantage but was able to get away with it because he could act. ‘‘ That’s what I used to do — I used to act dancing.’’ He became the go-to man for character roles and could be relied on to bring depth and humanity to a slightly foolish old gent with a young wife; a rich, ridiculous fop; an old witch; a clog-dancing widow. Apart from the gratifying visibility of such roles they weren’t dependent on youth. In fact, they were best performed by a mature artist.
Peasley’s entry into ballet started because of his family, oddly enough, not despite it. It was the early 50s and his younger sister, Jacqueline, wanted to make her debut. She needed a partner and Colin was roped in. Liking to do things properly, he started lessons in ballroom. ‘‘ I was probably 18. Because I’m the sort of person I am, I need to know what I’m doing. I don’t want to muck up.’’
The bug bit. ‘‘ From there I went to adagio dancing, from adagio to acrobatic, tap, I did jazz, Indian, you name it.’’ Peasley was working as a shop assistant, supposedly to pay his way through a course in architecture, but was also moonlighting in the evenings as a commercial dancer on TV. Eventually he found his way into a ballet class.
By then in his early 20s, he was never going to be good enough to be the prince in Swan Lake (he was handsome enough, though, as early photos prove), but that didn’t quell his ambition. His first ballet teacher was blunt about his prospects. ‘‘ Val Tweedie said to me, ‘ Colin, stay with the jazz and tap and that sort of thing because you’ll never be a classical dancer’, and I was determined to prove her wrong. But she really was right in a way. I was too old to become a classical dancer.’’
Peasley may not have been conventionally gifted but he got to work with the best, including Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn, who helped build the AB’s international profile. ‘‘ We were young, we were enthusiastic, we were as rough as old bags, and suddenly we were behind a classical ballerina — she had style, she had grace, she knew how to wear Dior — and Nureyev, who was the epitome of the hard-working male dancer. It brought everybody up,’’ says Peasley. ‘‘ I loved that man. We had fights, but I loved him.’’
Peasley also adored another larger-than-life personality, Robert Helpmann, artistic director from 1965 to 1976. ‘‘ I’m amazed he was ever a dancer. I actually don’t think he liked dance. He liked theatre.’’ Helpmann was astute enough to see Peasley would be a gifted teacher, and Peasley now calls his time on the ballet staff ‘‘ one of my happiest’’. ‘‘ I’ve always loved teaching,’’ he says, and being asked much later to start the AB’s education program turned out to be a satisfying extension of that.
Peasley will do some teaching as usual in January, but when the AB regroups after its summer break he will have to face the fact of his retirement. If indeed he is retiring in the usual sense of the word. Yes, he wants to travel, particularly to Cuba; and yes, there’s all that delayed home maintenance at his Kensington terrace in Melbourne. But he also indicates — no, puts it pretty definitively — that he will be available for guest roles at the ballet. And he wouldn’t mind continuing his Ask Colin column on the AB’s website either.
It doesn’t seem entirely right Peasley should be going but he is a pragmatic man, and an orderly one: 50 is a pleasingly round number.
Swan Lake has a meaningful part to play, too, in the new production that opened in Sydney a week ago with its cameo for Peasley as a courtier. ‘‘ I like being on stage. Which is why I’ve said yes to this little Swan Lake thing,’’ he says. ‘‘ It’s really just a walk across the stage, but it rounds the whole thing up. It closes the circle. Start with Swan Lake, finish with Swan Lake. I don’t care that it’s just walking around. That’s OK.’’