Dame Peggy van Praagh: an indomitable spirit

16 September 2009 | By Isabel Dunstan

With cane in hand, and a fiercely stubborn air, Dame Peggy van Praagh perfectly fit the dance teacher cliché. Peggy was The Australian Ballet’s founding Artistic Director, not only bringing success to the company, but invigorating Australian ballet, bringing the country’s dance up to an international standard. If you were a young dancer who caught Peggy’s eye there were great things in store for you. David McAllister, current Artistic Director, and Colin Peasley, the longest-serving employee at The Australian Ballet, were two boys – dancing decades apart – whom Peggy gave a real chance.

Peggy van Praagh was retired by the time David McAllister joined the company, but she returned to coach classes for the 1982 staging of Giselle for the regional touring arm, The Dancers Company. With little hesitation Peggy selected the wide-eyed David to play the peasant pas de deux. He was only in his second year. Two years later, David had reached grand new heights and was performing Franz in her interpretation of Coppélia. Peggy once pulled David aside and asked, “Do you know the dancer Graeme Murphy?” David replied that he had. “You remind me of him.” David was thrilled to be compared to the performer. Popping David’s quickly inflating ego Peggy declared: “You poke your neck forward like he does”. David continued to rise, and rise, throughout the company and now looks back on his experiences with Peggy fondly. He knows it was her doggedness and attention to detail that set the high standards of The Australian Ballet in the early days.  “She was controversial in some ways but she really spoke her mind. She told you exactly what she thought,” David remembers. “She tended to call a spade a spade.”

Colin Peasley’s encounters with the headstrong Peggy came years earlier. They met in 1959 when she came out to Australia to be the director of the Borovansky Ballet. Having seen Colin in rehearsals she asked him and another boy why they hadn’t auditioned for the Borovansky Ballet. Colin told her that they thought they shouldn’t be seen by an examiner before the exam. Peggy replied, “Oh, hogwash! Come back in my lunch hour and I’ll audition you myself!” At the end of the audition Peggy told the two boys she had one contract for a soloist and, given both were young students, neither of them were up to soloist standard. However, Peggy offered them free dance classes and the opportunity to audition for The Australian Ballet as soon as the company formed. Eighteen months later, in 1962, Colin auditioned for The Australian Ballet and was offered a contract. Under Peggy’s reign, Colin performed all over the world with the brand-new Australian company – including Berlin where he, and others from the company, supported Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev to a thunderous audience who demanded 60 curtain calls. A Guiness World Record. “Yes, we were there.”

Peggy van Praagh not only founded and developed the company, but set a precedent for artistic directors to come. “None of the artistic directors after her have really departed from her ideals,” David said “They really stuck after her.”

“Dame Peggy was a supremely capable woman” says Colin, “who, with focus and determination, was able to make her vision for the company a reality”.