Peggy Van Praagh

Peggy Van Praagh

Written by Brenda Hamlyn-Bencini

PeggyvanPraagh_thmMy memory of Peggy van Praagh is still vivid in spite of the many years that have passed since I first met her. I shall start with the following small introduction to make a beginning for when she first came into my life.

As a child I went to the Croydon branch of the Olive Ripman School of Dancing where I first learnt the Cecchetti method with Ms Lilian Thomas, until 1939 when war broke out. The school amalgamated with the Grace Cone School of Dancing and we continued our training in the country, away from the bombs. Margaret Marsh also joined us to teach the Cecchetti work. The school is now known as the Arts Educational. During this time I took my Elementary examination and the examiner was Peggy van Praagh. My 1940 diary entry comments that she was one of the most charming and encouraging examiners I’d had. From there I joined Madame Rambert’s company in 1940 when they were performing at the Arts Theatre, Leicester Square, London, where Peggy was one of the principal dancers.

The first time I saw her dance was in Antony Tudor’s ballet “Gala Performance” in which she took the part of the ‘Ballerina from Moscow’. The character of the role was created for the ballerina to portray a very exuberant and vivacious character with a superior opinion of herself determined to out-do the other two principal ballerinas in the ballet. The most outstanding memories I have of Peggy’s performance in “Gala” are the way she made her entrances onto the stage with her flashing personality and smile, dressed in a flaming red three quarter length tutu. Her technique was strong, her ‘fouettés’ brilliant, and the audience enthusiastic. During the first few years of the war the latter was of much importance at a time when public moral was very low.

In contrast I saw her dance in the ballet “Dark Elegies” also choreographed by Tudor, with music by Gustav Mahler. Peggy danced the 4th Song. The theme of the ballet is around the mourning for lost children. Peggy excelled dancing Tudor’s moving choreography to Mahler’s music, with the voice of the singer ‘live’ on stage.

When the season ended we used to go to her classes at the West Street Studios, Cambridge Circus where she inspired and encouraged us. Her vitality, dedication, professionalism and talent impressed everyone. She sometimes used the Cecchetti method in her classes along with free work, which for those of us who had been Cecchetti trained was an added bonus.

I have always been grateful for the times Peggy used to take me in a corner and speak to me about my work. On those occasions she became serious and not particularly scrupulous, when it might have been more appropriate for softening a necessary blow! The impact remained with me for life and served itself well for the ruthless treatment dancers generally received in those days whoever you were. It either made you or broke you.

Madame Rambert would sometimes invite her to watch rehearsals of the Tudor ballets to make sure we were dancing the choreography correctly. If sometimes we were not, she would tell us so in no uncertain terms. On one occasion we were to dance the ballet on the same day as the rehearsal which went on until it was nearly time for ‘curtain up’. When we finished the rehearsal none of us had had time enough to learn the changes properly. Worse still, Rambert had disappeared and Peggy couldn’t stay on that evening to see the performance!

When I was teaching at the Cecchetti Summer Schools in England Peggy used to come to the Committee Meetings when she was in London. On some occasions there would be discussions over technical points in the syllabus that she didn’t agree on. If the discussion was prolonged she nearly always won the day with her natural charm and firmness of character by simply ‘sticking to her guns’!

Peggy was a true professional with a warm and strong character, spontaneous laughter, and a smile that shone! Her smile stood out almost more than anything else I can remember.

Profile photo: Peter McCallum

Dame Peggy: Artist, Teacher and National Advocate for Dance
Written by Shirley McKechnie
(Published in Talking Pointe, The Australian Ballet, March, 2007)

I believe that the national significance of Peggy’s wide-ranging activities in Australia during her Artistic Directorship of the Australian Ballet has never been fully understood. The centre of her life was the ballet but the breadth of her interests was immense. Her energy seemed inexhaustible during those early years when the company was being established and her expertise and knowledge were ensuring an international reputation for the Company. One of the many institutions that recognised her value and sought her cooperation was the University of New England in Armidale in northern NSW. With Peggy’s support the University established a Summer School for dance. She presided over the first three of the four famous schools that changed how Australian dance artists viewed their art form and arrived at a new vision for Australian Dance. The critic, Blazenka Brysha, wrote about ‘The Legacy of New England’ in Dance Australia some years later (Issue 15, March-May, 1983). The first of these now famous schools was in 1967 and its programme was focussed on the history of Classical Ballet and the education of the dance audience. The university’s press release stated that the aim of the school was ‘to give to those who attend it insights into ballet as an art form and, by so doing, to create an informed public for ballet in Australia’.

In 1967 Peggy lectured on topics such as the history of ballet, the great dance schools of the world, the training of the dancer and the art of the choreographer. What began as an attempt to create a fuller appreciation of ballet grew into a series of events that changed the way Australian dance artists viewed themselves and each other. In 1969 the second school focused on the dance of the twentieth century including the wonderful innovations of the Diaghilev era and the interactions between the ballet and modern dance. For the first time, dancers from all parts of the country met together and understood that they were all part of the growth of a recognizable ‘Australian Dance’. It had been many years in the making and Peggy was probably the first to recognize in Australian dancers that their identity as Australians made a difference to the way they danced and the way they thought about their art form.

Those who were present at the 1969 school still recall one memorable event. At Peggy’s suggestion, two duets, one modern and one classical, were choreographed to the same piece of music. The classical duet was choreographed by Garth Welch and danced by him and Marilyn Jones. The modern duo for Jacqui Carroll and Brian Coughran was choreographed by Keith Bain. “Now”, said Dame Peggy, “Let us see what happens when both are performed at the same time.” Perhaps only Peggy understood beforehand what a revelation this would be. The scope of this small article does not allow for elaboration. Suffice to say that the summer school of 1969 was the beginning of a sense of a national identity for Australian dance artists. I was not alone in my perception of this and respect and admiration for Peggy grew accordingly. It laid the foundation for many lasting friendships and I became increasingly involved in the summer schools held in 1974 and 1976. These both took the form of choreographic workshops and were seminal events in every sense of the word.

Dancers, choreographers, dance teachers and musicians came from all over Australia. Schools for students took place in the daytime while the choreographers and dancers worked on developing new ideas they could show as sketches or rough drafts to this appreciative audience in the evenings. Seven of the twelve dance artists invited to take part in 1974 were members of the Australian Ballet: Garth Welch and Marilyn Jones, Ian Spink, Gail Ferguson, Paul Saliba, Julia Cotton and John Meehan. The other five represented all states and a variety of companies. Rex Crampthorne, then an emerging talent as a theatre director in Sydney was one of these. The impact that the young choreographer-dancers had on one another was profound, especially as most of them filled the dual role of both dancer and choreographer. In 1976, in spite of her illness and recent retirement, Peggy’s status and reputation ensured increased funding from several important sources. The Australia Council, the Gulbenkian Foundation, the British Council, the Myer Foundation and the Australia-America Educational Foundation all made important contributions. It was both the biggest of the series and the last, involving a large school for attending students. Six emerging choreographers and thirty dancers were the focus of the nightly showings over three weeks of excited activity. Among them were Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon and a number of dancers from the Australian Ballet School.

What has been described as the most distinguished faculty assembled for a dance school up to that time included Norman Morrice, then Artistic Director Elect of the Royal Ballet, Martha Hill, Head of the Dance Division of the Juilliard School in New York and Peter Brinson, Director of “Ballet for All”, and acknowledged in the UK as one of the most eminent dance scholars and critics of his time. The ‘Armidale years’ became a model for what could be accomplished with a powerful vision and sufficient support. Thirty years later the ripples created by Peggy’s foresight and determination are still travelling through the whole of the Australia Dance Community. Perhaps this could only have happened from the strong and supportive centre provided by Peggy’s position as Artistic Director of the Australian Ballet.

Cecchetti International Classical Ballet would like to thank Professor McKechnie for her kind permission to reproduce this article.

Written by Anne-Patricia Butler

PeggyVanPraagh4-300x211Peggy van Praagh, Ballet Mistress of the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet Company, was brought to Australia in 1960 by J.C Williamson to act as Artistic Director of the Borovansky Ballet for twelve months after the death of Edouard Borovansky. Her contribution to British Ballet was well founded and acknowledged before her arrival on the island/continent fondly coined “the land down under” – a place that van Praagh would proudly make her home.

Peggy van Praagh was a Cecchetti Major Examiner and conducted examinations whilst in Australia and adjudicated the 1960 Enrico Cecchetti Medal Tests, a revered competition for Cecchetti trained students of dance (along the lines of Mabel Ryan in England). Many recipients have gone onto establish themselves in the dance profession, like Simon Dow, Artistic Director of the West Australian Ballet (2002-06), who was the first male dancer to win the Australian Cecchetti Junior Medal [i]

Peggy van Praagh returned to Europe in 1961, as guest teacher to the Marquis de Cuevas Ballet Company in Paris. Peggy van Praagh had studied with Margaret Craske in London for ten years and she had also undertaken specialized studies with the great Diaghilev ballerinas; mime with Karsavina and repertoire with Sokolova. At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 she took over Margaret Craske’s professional classes and also became joint director of the London Ballet when the founder Antony Tudor sailed to the U.S.A to choreograph for the American Ballet Theatre.

In 1962 Peggy van Praagh returned to Australia as founding Artistic Director of The Australian Ballet. The company’s charter was to stage the classics from the nineteenth century, the most distinguished ballets of the twentieth century from all countries in both classical and contemporary styles, and new works of Australian origin. She guided the company’s growth from its beginnings to that of International status. In fact, on the company’s first international tour Dame Peggy van Praagh’s production of Giselle won the Grand Prix de Paris in 1965. Despite being a fledging company, new Australian works from the onset were included by – Betty Pounder, Robert Helpmann, and Rex Reid.

She insisted on a greater academic exactitude of technique, than had been previously experienced by the dancers she accepted in the Company.[ii] To quote principal dancer Garth Welch “Dame Peggy let no detail in class pass by…”[iii], whilst founding dancer and later Ballet Mistress, Rhyl Kennell stated:

Other things that I now know were part of her Cecchetti background were the insistence on the lower leg work, so necessary for those small fast allegros such an important part of our Cecchetti inheritance. This was all very important for the Ashton ballets especially.[iv]

Included in the company’s first programme November 1962, was the Lev Ivanov and Enrico Cecchetti production of Coppélia with revisions by van Praagh and Ashton’s Les Rendezvous.[v] Dame Peggy van Praagh’s association with The Australian Ballet spanned thirteen years as Artistic Director including a period of co-direction with Sir Robert Helpmann [vi]

The repertoire that she brought to the Australian Ballet Company included the great works of Ashton and Tudor. In fact, eight Ashton works were introduced into the repertoire under the directorship of van Praagh and/or Helpmann. Van Praagh had been one of Antony Tudor’s muses and principal dancer. She commissioned Tudor in 1969 to stage his Pillar of Fire and mount a new work for the company The Divine Horsemen. Overseas choreographers who ensued under her helm included John Butler, John Cranko and Glen Tetley.

Van Praagh was outstanding in her contribution towards the development and encouragement of Australian artists in the creation of new artistic endeavours. The sixties alone saw eight commissioned works by Australians. As time progressed choreographers such as Don Asker, Julia Cotton, John Meehan, Barry Moreland, Graeme Murphy, Robert Ray, and Paul Saliba had their works included in the repertoire of the Australian Ballet.

In 1969 Peggy van Praagh became the second patroness of the Cecchetti Society of Australia alongside Lady Brooks. Her patronage along with her working involvement – giving classes, conducting examinations, adjudicating, lecturing and advising was most treasured by not only the Australian Cecchetti Society but by other overseas branches and the then London headquarters of The Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing – Cecchetti Branch.

Continually advancing dance, Dame Peggy van Praagh, along with Mr. Athol Willoughby OAM initiated the Scholars’ Programme in 1981. Victorian Cecchetti students were auditioned – the original panel comprising Dame Peggy van Praagh, Laurel Martyn and Colin Peasley – for a place as the State’s top twelve junior and senior students. Acceptance gained the opportunity to take part in monthly classes conducted by the leaders of the dance profession. This programme will celebrate its 30th Year in 2011 and has been replicated throughout Australia. Being a “Scholar” has helped countless young aspiring dancers towards their professional goals. One such young scholar was Elizabeth Hill, who has had an illustrious career as dancer, choreographer and is currently Ballet Mistress of the Australian Ballet.

During 1984 the Cecchetti Society of Australia celebrated its’ Golden Jubilee Congress in Melbourne, Victoria. Dame Peggy van Praagh shared her knowledge of dance and her loyalty carrying on the legacy of Cecchetti. In an extract of a letter of thanks to the Society she expressed -:

“I was especially impressed by the growth of the Cecchetti method and the standard of the participants.”[vii]

Dame Peggy van Praagh continued her patronage to the Cecchetti Society of Australia until she passed away in 1990. The inaugural Cecchetti Ballet Australia Conference held in Melbourne, 2008 was dedicated to her memory and entitled “Dame Peggy van Praagh – A Woman of Vision”. Presented in the now state of the art studios of the company that she nurtured; over a hundred Cecchetti delegates gathered to hear and view lectures, demonstrations and performances recalling the past and enlightened by her vision for a future. Guest speakers included Dr Shirley Mc Kechnie; Marilyn Rowe OBE; Colin Peasley OAM; Athol Willoughby OAM; Barry Kitchner; Rhyl Kennell , Robert Ray and from overseas leading specialist in dance science from York University, Professor Donna Krasnow and from the faculty of Juilliard, Andra Corvino, who had studied under Dame Peggy’s teacher Margaret Craske. A beautiful statue “En Attitude” by sculptor Judith Ben-Meir was presented to The Ausralian Ballet in honour of Dame Peggy from her Australian Cecchetti family. Concluding celebrations were held at the National Gallery of Victoria overlooking the garden where her ashes now rest.

The Australian Ballet celebrated her vision in the 2010 season entitled “Peggy!” The programme included a visual montage in her honour along with performances of the Garland Dance from The Sleeping Beauty and the Giselle, Act One Pas de Deux, both dances that had been choreographed by van Praagh. The final part of the program was Gala Performance. The Russian Ballerina created on Dame Peggy by Antony Tudor. Brenda Hamlyn gives us an insight into these performances as part of our tribute.


In her illustrious career she was awarded many honours including CBE, 1966; DBE, 1970; honorary doctor of letters, University of New South Wales, Armidale, 1974; Distinguished Artist Award of Australian Art Circle, 1975; honorary doctor of laws, The University of Melbourne, 1981.

Her legacy to dance can be seen in The Australian Ballet; the development of Australian choreographers such as Graeme Murhpy AM, Ian Spink and Leigh Warren[viii]; dance in education (refer article by Shirley McKechnie), and in Cecchetti Ballet Australia. To quote, her long time friend, Peter Brinson, with whom she produced the profound “Choreographic Art” :-

“Her relations with the Cecchetti Society for whom her loyalty as a teacher and leading member of the profession has been absolutely cardinal.”[ix]

This quote remains close to the hearts of her Cecchetti family not only in Australia but worldwide.


[i] Born in Melbourne, Simon Dow began his dance training with Lucie Saronova, Athol Willoughby and William Carse. He won the Junior Enrico Cecchetti Medal in 1968 adjudicated by Gwenda Kaires. A graduate of the Australian Ballet School, professionally he danced with The Australian Ballet, Stuttgart Ballet, Washington Ballet, San Francisco Ballet and Boston Ballet. Associate Artistic Director of the Washington Ballet (92/93 and 96/97) and appointed Artistic Director of Milwaukee Ballet in 1999. He is an Honorary Member of Cecchetti Ballet Australia. Refer htt://
[ii] Interview Colin Peasley, 30th May 2007. Colin Peasley OAM is Patron of Cecchetti Ballet Australia and in 2008 received the highest award for his outstanding services to this organization.
[iii] Christopher Sexton. A Life in Dance, South Melbourne, Macmillan, 1985, p135
[iv] Interview Rhyl Kennell by e-mail 2/3/2007
[v] Dancers in the inaugural 1962 season, who were influenced by or later contributed to Cecchetti’s legacy in Australia included Colin Peasley, Rhyl Kennell, Robert Olup and Joan Boler.
[vi] 1962-1974 van Praagh was the founding Artistic Director of the Australian Ballet. Between 1965-1974 she shared the directorship with Sir Robert Helpmann. In 1978 she resumed sole directorship.
[vii] Extract of letter of thanks by Van Praagh to Cecchetti Society of Australia, July 1984.
[viii] Graeme Murphy AM is Patron of the NSW branch of Cecchetti Ballet Australia whilst Leigh Warren is an Honorary Member of Cecchetti Ballet Australia.
[ix] Sexton (1985), p xiii

Photos: Peter MacCallum – Photo presentation taken from opening power point AnneButler/Michelle Vennix, Dame Peggy van Praagh – A Woman of Vision, Melbourne, 2008.


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