On a Tuesday night, I fancied myself carved from the pages of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. I cast myself as Gwenda Reed from Sleeping Murder. The year was 1951, and I pinned a bakelite Bluebird of Happiness brooch to my coat lapel. I swapped The Duchess of Malfi for Coppélia because this was fantasy, and made for the Palais Theatre in St Kilda. And true to the liberties of daydream, 1951 rolled into both 1962, when the Australian Ballet first performed Coppélia during its inaugural season, and 1979, when founding artistic director Peggy van Praagh and former theatre director George Ogilvie revived the production.
On the stage in ’79, Ann Jenner had assumed the role of the wilful Swanhilda, Kelvin Coe, her foolish fiancé, and Ray Powell had donned the many-eyed cloak of Dr. Coppelius, Keeper of the Girl with the Enamel Eyes. But on this particular night, soloists Dimity Azoury and Jarryd Madden were to be my mischievous two, and Jacob Sofer, my misunderstood doctor of mechanical dolls. Entering the theatre, the company’s return to the Palais stage 22 years since their last appearance was infectiously nostalgic (hence the unexpected appearance of Agatha Christie). Currently wrapped in covers and scaffolding as it undergoes major restoration, the theatre conveyed a sense of also being bundled up in sentimental longing.
As recalled by current artistic director, David McAllister, “I feel like I’m surrounded by ghosts of dancers past…. It’s an extraordinary theatre and I started my career here as a dancer so it’s very exciting to be back…. It was Dame Peggy, it was George Ogilvie, it was Kristian Fredrikson. It has this feeling of great pride in our repertoire. So all the dancers coming to this production for the first time feel like they are stepping into the history of the Australian ballet.”