Canberra dance critic Michelle Potter writes biography of Dame Maggie Scott

I first met Dame Margaret Scott in March 1993. Of course I knew of her before then. Everyone in the dance world in Australia did. Just the year before our meeting, at the age of 70, she had given a series of memorable performances with the Australian Ballet as Clara the Elder in Graeme Murphy’s remarkable ballet Nutcracker: The Story of Clara.
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That initial meeting was a business one, part of my work for the National Library of Australia to record oral history interviews with eminent Australians from the world of the arts. As I walked down Orrong Road towards her Toorak home, carrying a heavy Nagra reel-to-reel tape recorder – state of the art in professional audio circles at the time – I wondered what she would be like. After all, she was a Dame of the British Empire. Well, Maggie (as she likes to be called) was warm, welcoming, and an easy conversationalist. We laughed a lot. She was a perfect subject.

At the time, I had no idea that the interview, which was recorded on  two days, would become the basis of a biography. In fact, it was more than 20 years later that an unexpected but welcome series of events led to a commission from Text Publishing in Melbourne to write the story of Maggie’s life. I hesitated slightly – the time-frame for submission of the manuscript was somewhat daunting. The biography needed to be published in 2014 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Australian Ballet School, of which Maggie was founding director. I had seven months in which to present a final manuscript to Text. But, with the thought that the oral history interview could be the basis of the biography, and knowing too that extensive secondary- source materials were available in several of Canberra’s cultural institutions, I signed the contract.

I was fortunate to be able to work closely with Maggie and her husband, Emeritus Professor Derek (Dick) Denton, during those seven months. In January 2014 I spent a week living in their home while they were on their summer holiday, with full access to Maggie’s collection of letters, photographs, clippings and other personal memorabilia. She gave me instructions not to feel as though I was prying, but to feel completely free to look at anything and everything. Some amazing finds were made during that week: Maggie’s school records from Parktown Convent in Johannesburg and some eisteddfod and examination reports from her early ballet days, for example, as well as personal correspondence from her wide circle of friends, including Australian stage designer Kenneth Rowell, South African poet David Wright, English composer of ballet music Arthur Oldham, and esteemed choreographer-at-large John Cranko. I returned to Melbourne several times to visit Maggie and Dick and am grateful for their kindness and generosity towards me, and for their openness in answering every question I posed to them. Again, we laughed a lot and I enjoyed many a delicious quiche Lorraine from the local bakery as we continued to talk, and laugh, during lunch.

In Australia, Maggie is indeed probably best known as founding director of the Australian Ballet School. The publication of her biography in the 50th year of the school’s existence is a celebration of her commitment to the young men and women whose careers in dance she guided in the 27 years that she held the post of director. But, as readers of the book will discover, Maggie’s life has been an adventurous one, and has been lived across continents and cultures.

Born in 1922 in Johannesburg, she spent her childhood as one of “three rambunctious South African children”. But dance was her destiny and, when she was 17, she made her way to England, arriving in London in 1939 just weeks before World War II erupted. Her determination to be a dancer had her touring endlessly during the war years, first with Sadler’s Wells Ballet and then Ballet Rambert. She endured bombings, some occurring during performances; lost her first love, a sergeant in the Glider Pilot Regiment; and danced on every kind of stage imaginable.

Her journey to Australia in 1947 as a principal dancer on tour with Ballet Rambert marked the beginning of a new phase in her life. But in Australia she suffered a serious injury to her spine and lay in hospital for months. Would she ever dance again? She did, this time with the Melbourne-based National Theatre Ballet of which she was a founding member. But eventually, she returned to England where she performed in the early 1950s with a small, experimental dance company led by John Cranko. In England she also enjoyed socialising with her English and Australian colleagues, from Benjamin Britten to Donald Friend. With Friend, Maggie and Dick made an exuberant journey by car through Europe. Friend recorded it all in his diaries.

It was only after her return to Australia in 1953 that Maggie began to look for ways in which a national ballet might be developed to provide permanent employment for dancers. Readers of her biography will discover the little-known, behind-the-scenes story of how the Australian Ballet really began, and the intrinsic role Maggie, mentored by the distinguished public servant Dr H. C. “Nugget” Coombs, played in the flagship company’s beginnings. Then came the era of the Australian Ballet School, established in 1964 and built by Maggie from scratch into a world- renowned institution.

There were, of course, moments in Maggie’s life when not everything went according to plan. In particular, she was unhappy with the way she was asked to finish up her career as director of the school. But her dance background kept her strong and, now in her 93rd year, she continues to talk with unabashed pleasure of her return to the stage in the 1990s in works choreographed by her former students – as Aunt Sophy in Robert Ray’s Nutcracker, as Mary Ward in Nicholas Rowe’s In the Body of the Son, and as Clara the Elder in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker: The Story of Clara.

I doubt I could have written Maggie’s story in the short space of time I had without the quite astonishing resources available to me in Canberra, in particular those of the National Library, the National Archives, and the National Film and Sound Archive. But I also needed to investigate some critical archival material in England. So in March 2014, I made a flying research visit –just ten days – to London and worked mostly in the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Rambert Archive and the Imperial War Museum, with a day spent at Henley-on-Thames visiting the Kenton Theatre, a tiny, beautifully restored Regency theatre in which Maggie danced as part of John Cranko’s company.

On my way home from London I happened to be on the same plane as the British royal family, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and their baby son Prince George, who were setting off on an official visit to Australia. At one stage, Prince George showed exceptional interest in my laptop and thought he might add a few words to the story. So, I thought, my manuscript has been touched by royalty. How appropriate for a biography of a Dame. And when the story of my brush with royalty appeared in The Canberra Times, there was an unexpected bonus. I was contacted by a Canberra resident who had read the story and who had been a student of Maggie’s in Melbourne well before the formation of the Australian Ballet and the Australian Ballet School. I added her recollections of Maggie and her teaching to the narrative.

I loved writing this biography. So many artists in Australia have come to admire dance across its pages. So many of Maggie’s former students have told me how they were touched by her spirit. I think I was too.

Michelle Potter is a Canberra Times dance critic. Dame Maggie Scott: A Life in Dance is published by Text. $49.99.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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