Poetry in Motion, part one: Jim McFarlane and the art of ballet photography

11 October 2010 | By Anna Sutton

The inception of Jim McFarlane’s career as a photographer for The Australian Ballet also reveals the power of ballet to transcend political boundaries, writes Anna Sutton.

The production of Peggy! was a nostalgic moment for Jim McFarlane.

His first assignment was to photograph Dame Peggy van Praagh’s farewell speech in Melbourne. That memory is a throw back to the old days, when The Australian Ballet was based in the former tyre factory and Jim’s partner Yvonne (who is now the company’s director of special projects) was also working there, after coming from a ballet teaching background herself.

The seed of Jim McFarlane’s passion for ballet came from his mother, a Japanese war bride, Setsuko, who met the Ringland Andersons while on the boat ride to Australia in the 1950s. Setsuko’s voyage to Australia was preceded by Cherry Parker, the first Japanese war bride to come to Australia, at a time when the White Australia Policy still loomed like a pasty spectre over the cultural landscape. Cherry’s being here was so deeply unpopular that she required a personal bodyguard, McFarlane explains. It is evident when talking to McFarlane that his involvement in ballet is the legacy of Ringland Andersons’ generosity towards his mother, who went on to become friends with them. “My association with them is a deep one and the fact that they were kind to my mother at a time when it was unfashionable has been an inspiration to me,” he says.

Dr Joseph Ringland  Anderson is well known for his moving pictures of the Ballets Russes tours during the 1930s, and McFarlane has fond memories of visiting their house in Toorak as a child. The connection to ballet continued to flourish when McFarlane’s mother became friends with Algeranoff, who was introduced to her by the Ringland Andersons in the early 1950s. McFarlane had always been interested in photography and recalls admiring issues of National Geographic and the British Journal of Photography. He trained as a draftsman and by 17 was working as a technical illustrator at General Motors, a stint which he describes as being “like stuck in a box”, although it did give him a good technical grounding. He went on to study fine arts at Prahran College, where he found his true calling in what he describes as a transformative art form. “Look at the recognition of figures like Nureyev, who was loved as a dancer. The arts transcend religious and political barriers and politics is no issue.  I’m living proof of that.”