BRAVURA PER­FOR­MANCE

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Dance -

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.’’

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