Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

History revisited - University of Dance

Did you know that the University of New England made a significant, pioneering contribution to the development of dance in Australia? Did you know, too, that some of the luminaries of Australian ballet came to Armidale to teach?

I had known, but I hadn’t actually realised the importance of the contribution until I came to read dance educator Shirley McKechnie’s 1991 inaugural Dame Peggy van Praagh Memorial Address.

The University of New England summer schools were conceived in part as a way of fulfilling the University’s Northern outreach role, in part to utilise campus facilities left largely empty during the long summer vacation. By the mid sixties, they had become an institution in their own right.

Thinking about possible program ideas, Bernard James as Director of Continuing Education decided to include a ballet or dance component in the arts stream. The timing was perfect.

The 1950s and early 1960 had seen rapidly growing Australian interest in arts and cultural activities, including dance. In 1962, with the support of the Australian government, Peggy van Praagh became the founding artistic director of the Australian Ballet.

James approached van Praagh with his idea. She became enthusiastic and completely involved. Planning continued over 1966, with van Praagh directing every element of the evolving program.

The resulting school held in January 1967 was the first such event in Australian history. .It was a huge success, drawing one hundred people from across Australia with a few from New Zealand to a packed program featuring key figures from the Australian Ballet.

The next school held in 1970 was equally successful, as were those in 1974 and 1976.

Whereas the first schools focused on classical ballet, the next two in 1974 and 1976 were billed as choreographic and dance workshops, with Shirley McKechnie playing a lead role in association with van Praagh. By 1976, the last school, they had become an international institution, attracting tutors from Australia, London and New York.

It is hard now to visualise a world in which Armidale occupied a small niche on the international dance scene, equally hard to visualise the excitement generated by the Armidale summer schools. There creativity was fostered, there some of Australia’s most prominent artists made contributions, and there the talents of aspiring choreographers, dancers, writers and historians - some, such as Graeme Murphy, now with an international reputation - were nurtured.

What happened? Why was the 1976 school the last?

The world changed. A University of New England struggling with rising student numbers and limited resources, narrowed its focus, giving up elements of its role in the need to survive day-to-day. The importance of what had been achieved was simply not seen.

I am not being critical here. Only through the prism of history can we see the importance of what Bernard James achieved.

In 1974, the University of New England presented Peggy van Praagh with an Honorary Doctor of Letters. It was well deserved.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 29 January 2014. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the columns are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for2014.

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