Colin Peasley gave his last performance as a member of the Australian Ballet on December 19, 2012. A shorter version of this profile first appeared in The Australian newspaper on Saturday December 8.
A PHOTO in Luminous, a book of essays and images celebrating the Australian Ballet’s 50th anniversary, says it all. The occasion is a performance of The Sleeping Beauty in London in 1988, the bicentenary year. The AB’s then artistic director Maina Gielgud is seen presenting Queen Elizabeth II to dancers David McAllister – future artistic director of the company – and Elizabeth Toohey, heavily made up and in costume. And who is the other resplendently dressed man, the one looking directly into the camera? That would be Colin Peasley, smack bang in the centre of things.
At the time of the photo opportunity with Her Majesty, Peasley had already been with the AB for a quarter of a century and was only at the halfway mark of his career. He finally calls it quits on December 19, having racked up 50 years in a profession notorious for offering the life-expectancy of a mayfly. He’s been a dancer, a ballet master, founder of the AB’s education program and artist in residence.
Above all, he has been, and will always be, one of a kind. His length of service is highly unlikely to be matched or exceeded, but it’s absolutely certain the shape and manner of his career will never be seen again.
Peasley, now 78, is a brilliant advertisement for ballet. One is tempted to go looking for the portrait in his attic, the one that takes on all the unkind wrinkles, sags and bags of old age while its subject – slim of figure, upright of carriage, bright-eyed, sharp-witted – appears lightly marked by the passing years. On top of this he is famously, irredeemably loquacious, which gave added piquancy to the speech he recently delivered to the AB’s Melbourne staff as part of what McAllister calls Peasley’s “festival of farewells”. Appropriately enough it was November 2, the 50th anniversary of the company’s debut and of the day Peasley started.
The dancers, ballet staff and administrators who had crowded into the unglamorous company canteen settled in for a longish haul as Peasley announced he had prepared two speeches: a short one and a long one. The room laughed knowledgeably. “The short one is ‘thank you’,’’ said Peasley. “The long one is ‘thank you very much’. And with that he stopped, having in one stroke confounded expectations, made a joke insiders would appreciate and suggested a depth of emotion too great for words. It was a bravura performance from one whose life has been irrevocably committed to performing.
The ballet has been his life and his family, to the exclusion of other bonds. “Really close friends never came within a whisker of my relationship with the company,” says Peasley. He sometimes thinks it a pity he didn’t have “a home life, a family life. But what I had few people can have. The joy of performing, the kudos of being in a performing arts company, the elation …”
When the AB first took to the stage with Swan Lake in late 1962 Peasley was an extremely happy member of the corps de ballet, invited to join by founding artistic director Peggy van Praagh. He didn’t have to do much more than “look for swans” as part of the royal entourage, as he drolly puts it, but despite the humble task he was thrilled. “The curtain goes up in Sydney, my home town, and I’m in the Australian Ballet, down there at Railway Square,” he says. “All the people I wanted to impress were there.”
All those people included Peasley’s parents, which may seem obvious. Except that this being the early 1960s there had been big ructions at home regarding Peasley’s choice of career. It may have been the swinging 60s elsewhere but there weren’t many homes in suburban Australia where dance was considered a desirable job for a man. “We had trouble with my parents,” says Peasley with uncharacteristic understatement, “but yes, they did come to opening night.”
There wasn’t only parental disapproval to overcome. Peasley’s appearance that night was a triumph of passion and will over experience and training. “I came up when boys didn’t dance; boys didn’t do anything in the arts,” he says. “It wasn’t looked on as a respectable job for a decent guy.” Having had his first ballet lesson at the age of 21 – unimaginably ancient for the needs of the art form – he was nearly 28 when the AB took him in. He never left.
“DREADFUL. No, dreadful. Honestly. Dreadful!” Peasley has just been asked to rate himself as a dancer and, far from grabbing the chance to mythologise on the eve of his retirement, he goes in hard. This isn’t entirely unexpected. Peasley has flair for the dramatic touch, his eyes sparkling at the sniff of a story and his hands ever ready to embellish an already highly polished anecdote.
In this case, however, there’s no false modesty. Peasley has done a lot of frontline teaching and knows exactly what he’s saying: his standard was lower than that of boys in years 4 and 5 at the Australian Ballet School today – boys of about 14 or 15 who can do “double every bloody thing”. “The boys in years 6, 7 and 8 are FANTASTIC,” he continues. “Look at the shape of their bodies! But they’ve been dancing since they were eight or 10.” Peasley says there are at present two classes at the ABS where there are more boys than girls. Then he adds, rather poignantly: “When I talk to the guys I’m always amazed that they have been allowed to dance from such an early age.”
Peasley had no such advantage but was able to get away with it, he says, because he could act. “That’s what I used to do – I used to act dancing.’’ He quickly became the go-to man for what are called character roles and could be relied on to bring depth and humanity to parts that on paper could be dismissed as caricatures: a trusting, slightly foolish old gent with a young wife; an aging Russian émigré who doesn’t mind a drop; a dollmaker who thinks he can breathe life into an automaton; a rich, ridiculous fop; an old witch; a clog-dancing widow. Apart from the gratifying visibility of such roles they weren’t dependent on youth. In fact, they were best performed by a mature artist.
Peasley’s entry into ballet started because of his family, oddly enough, not despite it. It was the early 1950s and his younger sister, Jacqueline, wanted to make her debut. She needed a partner and Colin was roped in. Liking to do things properly, he started lessons in ballroom. “I was about 16, 17. No, I was probably 18. Because I’m the sort of person I am, I need to know what I’m doing. I don’t want to muck up.”
He came from “an ordinary family; ordinary family” in which the arts didn’t figure. He had no athletic interests. Then he gives a big laugh, recalling that his sister “became a Bjelke-Petersen movement girl”. Calisthenics was “the closest we ever got to any movement art”.
Once Peasley started to dance, “the bug bit. From there I went to adagio dancing, from adagio to acrobatic, tap, I did jazz, Indian, you name it.” He was working during the day as a shop assistant, supposedly to pay his way through a course in architecture, but was also moonlighting in the evenings as a commercial dancer on TV. Peasley thought he was going to give his father, a printer, a seizure until he was able to flourish a sizeable pay cheque. Eventually he found his way into a ballet class and the bug strengthened its grip.
Because he was by then in his early 20s he was never going to be good enough to be the prince in Swan Lake, or any other romantic story ballet (he was handsome enough though, as early photos prove), but that didn’t quell his ambition. His first ballet teacher was blunt about his prospects. “Val Tweedie said to me, ‘Colin, stay with the jazz and tap and that sort of thing because you’ll never be a classical dancer’, and I was determined to prove her wrong. But she really was right in a way. I was too old to become a classical dancer.”
Peasley may not have been conventionally gifted but he got to work with the best. Kelvin Coe, one of the AB’s most extraordinary stars, was an early friend despite being significantly younger. Coe became quite a favourite with Peasley’s parents, who came around to their son’s career once they realised ballet wasn’t the den of iniquity they had imagined. “The sad thing was they preferred Kelvin to me,” Peasley says with a great gust of laughter. In those days dancers were paid very little, a situation that would later lead to strike action, so when in Sydney Peasley would stay at the family home in Oatley, on the Georges River. “In the car home all they’d talk about was what Kelvin did on stage. I was pissed off,” he says firmly, leaning into the recorder for emphasis.
The AB had a long and close association with Rudolf Nureyev, to this day the dancer Peasley cites as the most exciting he has seen. Clever, too. “Nureyev understood that what he was doing in Russia wasn’t what dance was all about,” says Peasley, and he came to the West to learn. He was canny enough to develop his partnership with Margot Fonteyn, who also danced with the AB and helped build its international profile.
“We were young, we were enthusiastic, we were as rough as old bags, and suddenly we were behind a classical ballerina – she had style, she had grace, she knew how to wear Dior – and Nureyev, who was the epitome of the hard-working male dancer. It brought everybody up,” says Peasley. “I loved that man. We had fights, but I loved him. But he had fights with everyone.”
Peasley also adored another larger-than-life personality, Robert Helpmann, artistic director from 1965-1976. “I’m amazed he was ever a dancer. I actually don’t think he liked dance. He liked theatre.” Helpmann was astute enough to see Peasley would be a gifted teacher, and Peasley now calls his time on the ballet staff “one of my happiest”. “I’ve always loved teaching,” he says, and being asked much later to start the AB’s education program turned out to be an extension of that.
“Surprisingly, because I didn’t really want to do it … I thought, this is a job you have when you don’t have a job. [But] I love it, I love it. I love people I can enthuse. To be able to invigorate them with my passion for dance. I’m still teaching occasionally. It’s one of my core needs, to get into a classroom and say, point your foot.”
Peasley has some teaching coming up as usual in January, but when the AB goes back to work after its summer break he will have to face the fact of his retirement. If indeed he is retiring in the usual sense of the word. Yes, he wants to travel, particularly to Cuba; and yes, there’s all that delayed home maintenance at his Kensington terrace in Melbourne. But he also indicates – no, puts it pretty definitively – that he will be available for guest roles at the ballet.
He would love to reprise the role of the witch Madge in La Sylphide next year (it’s a role taken as often by men as by women), and the AB is also doing Don Quixote, in which Peasley is a celebrated Gamache. And next year sees yet another revival of Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake in which there are walk-on parts for gentlemen of certain years, so one would be unwise to count on never seeing Peasley on a stage again. He wouldn’t mind continuing his Ask Colin column on the AB’s website either …
Everyone asks about The Book, of course, because Peasley knows everyone and everything and it’s assumed he’ll have time to get a few thoughts down. He admits to having started but that publication may have to wait until he is dead. “The warts are fairly large but they’d be very interesting, particularly if people are dead and I can say what I like,” he says comfortably. It’s a project made for cold winter days in Melbourne, “particularly if they don’t ask me back”. He’s joking, probably.
With his level of energy and passion it doesn’t seem entirely right Peasley should be retiring, but he is a pragmatic man, and an orderly one. Fifty is a satisfyingly round number. It lends itself to the send-off celebrations Peasley has been enjoying over the past couple of months.
Swan Lake has a meaningful part to play too, in the new Stephen Baynes production that opened in Sydney a week ago. Peasley will be onstage for every performance, making a tiny appearance as a courtier.
“I like being on stage. Which is why I’ve said yes to this little Swan Lake thing,” he says. “It’s really just a walk across the stage, but it rounds the whole thing up. It closes the circle. Start with Swan Lake, finish with Swan Lake. I don’t care that it’s just walking around. That’s okay.”