And they’re off!

02 November 2009 | By Jessica Thomson

In the twilight years of the Borovansky Ballet, Artistic Director Peggy van Praagh was keen to add a touch of Australiana to the repertoire. Something lighthearted and humorous was what she had in mind, a la Ballets Russes crowdpleasers Le Beau Danube and Gaite Parisienne, so loved by Australian audiences. Australia, Dame Peggy decided, needed a Gaite Parisienne of its own.

The proposed ballet was Melbourne Cup – a comic account of the very first running of the famous horse race, won by ‘Archer’ in 1861, to celebrate its centenary. But Melbourne Cup was not to be a Borovansky ballet; the company dissolved and plans for the bold new project went with it. Van Praagh got her wish soon enough, however, when The Australian Ballet was born in 1962, with Dame Peggy at the helm.

Choreographed by Rex Reid, Melbourne Cup was the fledgling company’s very first commission and took pride of place in its debut season. The colourful one-act ballet premiered not, funnily enough, in Melbourne, but in Sydney on 16 November, 1962. According to Geoffrey Hutton, theatre critic for The Age at the time, the performance “brought the house down”. Melbourne Cup, his review went on, “has style and humor (sic); the decor is lively and so is the music … with a little attention it can be made into a natural finishing ballet.”

As high-spirited and comical as the finished product might have been, efforts to evoke 1860s Melbourne were taken seriously by the ballet’s collaborators. The designer responsible for enlivening the decor was Ann Church. Her designs, in the words of Rex Reid, captured “the rawness and romance of the event” – in three scenes: the bar (naturally) of the Theatre Royal on Cup Eve, the ballroom of a well-to-do Melbourne home (of the period, of course), and last but not least, Flemington Racecourse.

A collage of 19th century tunes popular with Australian audiences, by the likes of Strauss and Auber, helped set the scene, while Church draped the dancers in colours fashionable in 1861 – including the horses. Tory Boy, Twilight, Price, The Moore and Archer – the winning horse – were all played by female dancers. “All wear the authentic colours carried in that first Cup,” Church told The Age in ’62. “The exception is Archer, who carried brown. We wanted something more glamorous, so have taken the liberty of changing this to a lovely gold.” Only fitting, one might say, for the likes of leading lady Kathleen Gorham, who danced the role – according to Hutton – with a “blend of warmth, precision and sheer sparkle” on opening night.

While the romance between a jackeroo and a debutante provides the ballet’s narrative thread, the high-stepping horses of the final scene steal the show. Church’s exquisitely delicate creations did likewise in the Melbourne Arts Centre’s 2008 exhibition of dance costumes, Seamless. And not a furry animal suit to be seen – she opted for the essence over the obvious. As the curator Margot Anderson wrote: “Church created short, perky tutus, using tulle to great effect in both the skirt and mane-like headdress to create the silhouette of a horse in profile.” Melbourne Cup would prove to be an amusing appertiser to The Display, in which Robert Helpmann plumbed the darker depths of Australian society two years later.

Jessica Thomson is a performing arts writer and has written for many publications including Dance Australia.

Kathleen Geldard backstage in Melbourne Cup costume, The Australian Ballet 1962. Photo Darryl Smythe.