Nutcracker – The Story of Clara

The Australian Ballet, Sydney Opera House, May 2.

Many decades ago, when I was visiting Canada, a young woman asked me whether Christmas was in June in Australia. She knew winter in the southern hemisphere happened in the middle months of the year. It followed then, that Christmas must be in June because Christmas is in the middle of winter. She was not in any way uneducated. It’s just that deep in her bones she knew Christmas was accompanied by snow and mistletoe. It was a winter festival.

Australians know all about a snowy Christmas in theory and not so long ago experienced aspects of it in practice. British colonialism and American influences – a huge roast for lunch, fivepences in the pudding and Bing crooning White Christmas – saw to that when I was a child. Except that on Christmas Day it was possibly going to be 40 degrees (celcius, of course), particularly in the southern states, and a roast with all the trimmings was an insane choice.

It’s this second kind of Christmas – our Christmas – that Graeme Murphy summons at the start of his Nutcracker – The Story of Clara. It speaks to us and our shared understanding of the way things are.

Nutcracker - The Story of Clara - 1pm Dress Rehearsal

Jarryd Madden and Leanne Stojmenov in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. Photo: Daniel Boud

As the ballet begins it is a hot, enervating Christmas Eve in Melbourne. Children play and squabble in the street as Clara slowly makes her way home after doing a bit of shopping. She is now elderly and ill and has no family, but there is a circle of friends who, like her, are former dancers who came to Australia after escaping the tumult of revolutionary Russia in 1917 and the mid-century European conflagration.

The ballet becomes a memory piece as Clara hears Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker music emerging scratchily from her wireless on this searing December evening. She and her friends dance joyously, if a bit creakily, to this music that means so much to them. What if these rackety old Russian chums go on a touch too much? In putting this Seniors Card group onstage Murphy pays sweet and profound homage to those who found refuge in Australia during and after World War II and sowed the seeds for his career and that of so many others. Indeed, those others include the great Colin Peasley, with TAB from the start in 1962. He’s now 82 and was onstage on opening night.

When her doctor comes to inquire after Clara’s health – yes, friends, the ballet is set in the 1950s – he brings a special gift, film of these dancers in their heyday. The fragile Clara’s mind turns even more deeply towards the past.

Nutcracker - The Story of Clara - 1pm Dress Rehearsal

Amelia Soh, Leanne Stojmenov, Ai-Gul Gaisina and Kevin Jackson. Photo: Daniel Boud

Murphy weaves familiar Nutcracker images into Clara’s memories of student days, stage triumphs, her strife-torn homeland, her doomed lover and years of travel with Colonel de Basil’s Ballets Russes. Most poignantly, Clara is now young.

Murphy, who created this narrative in 1992 with designer Kristian Fredrikson, lets us see Clara as a child and a starry ballerina as well as in her declining years. The moments when he puts all three together are deeply moving. On opening night there was intense pleasure in seeing septuagenarian Ai-Gul Gaisina’s Russian training brought to bear on Clara, the Elder – be in no doubt this is a dancing role, age be damned – and the restrained sorrow of her character. Eleven-year-old Amelia Soh was a beautifully poised Clara, the Child.

As the in-her-prime Clara, Leanne Stojmenov danced the heady first pas deux as if her spine were made of deluxe satin ribbon. She then transformed herself for the elegant, more contained formality of the splendid Act II grand pas deux, supported superbly by Jarryd Madden, who looks born to channel the Ballets Russes.

Kevin Jackson was Clara’s Beloved Officer on opening night. His dancing was big and generous and there is no higher praise than to say he continues the tradition of superb partnering established by the role’s originator, Steven Heathcote. Now a ballet master with the company, Heathcote is only one degree of separation from the Ballets Russes via his teacher in Perth, Kira Bousloff. Magic.

Nutcracker - The Story of Clara - 1pm Dress Rehearsal

The Snowflakes in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. Photo: Daniel Boyd

On opening night the corps looked somewhat ragged in the Snowflakes scene where tempestuous flurrying is the order of the day and the Waltz of the Flowers where it is not. In both sections, however, Fredrikson’s costumes were a fabulous diversion.

The application of Tchaikovsky’s score to this narrative isn’t always entirely satisfactory, a point underlined at the opening by a stolid performance from the Opera Australia Orchestra under Nicolette Fraillon. Murphy has always acknowledged the difficulties in Act II of inserting a string of divertissements into the action. He uses some of that music effectively in the depiction of Clara’s life and career – the Sugar Plum Fairy’s tinkling celesta accompanies a dance for Clara as she fends off jewel-bearing visitors to her dressing room – while the Spanish, Arabian and Chinese dances depict places Clara visits as she tours with Colonel de Basil’s company.

The Spanish dance is the most straightforward and the Chinese by far the best. After the sound of gongs there is a long silence as a group of tai chi practitioners emerges from the morning mist. When the Chinese music starts Clara enters to observe this new, to her, form of movement. What a relief it is to be spared the usual hideous caricature of the Chinese, all coolie hats, pointed fingers and waggling heads.

For this revival Murphy has reverted to his first thoughts for the Arabian music. We are portside in some Egyptian city and watch, lengthily and not terribly thrillingly, men haul on ropes and tumble about. It is preferable to the alternative seen in 2000 when Clara visited secluded women somewhere vaguely situated in the Middle East, but neither idea works brilliantly.

These are minor points. The ballet’s stream of emotional highs carry the day, in the ecstatic Act I pas deux, the richly furnished grand pas de deux in Act II, the touching depiction of young love cut short and the persistence of memories as life fades. And above all, of course, there’s that Christmas in summer, in Melbourne. Ours.

Nutcracker – The Story of Clara celebrates its quarter century this year and there’s no reason to think it won’t be around for another 25 years.

Ends May 20 in Sydney. Melbourne, June 2-10.

Everything old is new again

Capitol Theatre, Sydney, February 20 and February 24.

GRAEME Murphy’s Swan Lake has been a touchstone production – and a fortunate one – not only for The Australian Ballet as a whole but for many dancers. At its premiere in Melbourne on September 17, 2002, Simone Goldsmith started the evening as a senior artist and ended it as a principal. Steven Heathcote was Prince Siegfried, as he would be so frequently until his retirement in 2007 and Margaret Illman was an unforgettable Baroness von Rothbart, the third party in the tangled triangle at the heart of the ballet.

By the time the production opened in Sydney on November 28, 2002, senior artist Lynette Wills had assumed the role of the Baroness and she, like Goldsmith, found herself promoted to the company’s highest rank at the after-show festivities. She had waited a long time, and this role gave her the breakthrough.

Over the years young dancers who started out as wedding guests or swans in 2002 graduated to larger roles: the corps de ballet list in September 2002 includes Adam Bull, Andrew Killian, Lana Jones, Amber Scott, Leanne Stojmenov and Danielle Rowe, all of whom would become principal artists and dance Odette, Siegfried or the Baroness. All are still with the company with the exception of Rowe, now with Netherlands Dance Theatre.

In the case of Madeleine Eastoe, then a soloist and now a long-serving principal artist, the path to Odette was swift. I first saw her in December of 2002 and most recently five days ago when Swan Lake opened in Sydney. She was lovely then and is extraordinary now.

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

From the start audiences loved the interpretation created by Murphy, his creative associate Janet Vernon and designer Kristian Fredrikson. It looked absolutely luscious and its story, while being set in an Edwardian world, was clearly influenced by the troubled marriage of Prince Charles and Diana. It was, and is, a wildly glamorous and highly emotional piece of theatre. The AB didn’t hold back. The Murphy Swan Lake has been staged almost every year since 2002, although not always in Australia. It is the work invariably chosen to take on tour and has been seen in Paris, Tokyo, London, New York, Los Angeles and other cities. Later this year it will tour to Beijing.

For this Sydney season Swan Lake continues its role as a trailblazer. It’s not being seen at the AB’s usual home of the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House but is at the Capitol, a venue devoted almost exclusively to large-scale musical theatre. Amusingly, this is because the Wicked juggernaut is tying up Queensland Performing Art Centre’s largest theatre, which is where one would expect the AB to be at this time of year – and the Capitol is the very theatre vacated only last month by Wicked before it headed north.

There is obvious potential to broaden the company’s reach beyond the rusted-on ballet crowd by coming to this venue and the undeniable truth is that Swan Lake looks much better on the Capitol stage than at the Opera House (Opera Australia is ensconced there as usual in February so the Joan Sutherland Theatre was unavailable anyway).

Lockett, Bernet, Nanasca and Martin as the Cygnets. Photo: Branco Gaica

Lockett, Bernet, Nanasca and Martin as the Cygnets. Photo: Branco Gaica

Friday’s opening night was strong, which didn’t surprise given that the company knows the work inside out (this was the 185th performance). What lifted Swan Lake into another realm was the riveting connection between Eastoe and her Siegfried Kevin Jackson. This is truly one of the exceptional partnerships of Australian ballet.

She was all air, light as a feather blown across water; he was all earthy desire and anguish, a flawed and complicated man. As a partner Jackson is not quite in the league (who is?) of Heathcote and Robert Curran – they both danced with Eastoe many times in this ballet – but his immersion in the role and his interpretation of it were electrifying. He wasn’t afraid to look brutal in his treatment of Odette as she unravels on her wedding day, having seen the extent to which Siegfried is in thrall to the Baroness. But he seemed more desperately unhappy and frustrated than a hardened brute, and his Act II lakeside pas de deux was filled with tenderness.

Eastoe has not changed her approach to Odette; she just seems more and more luminous every time. Of the eight Murphy Odettes I’ve seen she is the most heart-rending. Each has had a strongly individual character – a hallmark of this production is that markedly different interpretations are equally valid – but with Eastoe you see innocence slaughtered. It is devastating.

Ako Kondo has exceptional allure but on Friday I thought her vampy Baroness was still a work in progress. In Tuesday’s cast Kondo’s fellow senior artist, Miwako Kubota, was more multi-layered and sympathetic. Kubota made you see the Baroness’s pain as well as her desire. (By the way, Kubota was also in the corps in 2002 when Swan Lake premiered.)

Senior artist Juliet Burnett finally got her chance to dance Odette, and did so partnered by fellow senior artist Rudy Hawkes. It was a persuasive match. Hawkes was an entirely different Siegfried from Jackson. Here was a prince entirely out of his emotional depth, fulfilling his duty as expected and finding things falling apart disastrously and unmanageably on his wedding day. Burnett’s Act I Odette was somewhat spiky in temperament and unstable. This bride, who appears compliant and unsure of herself, is not entirely subservient.

Burnett hasn’t entirely worked these contradictions into a seamless whole. It interests me that Burnett is a very fine writer about dance and thinks deeply about her work; on Tuesday, particularly in Act I, she telegraphed some of that thinking a little too forcefully. When her strong, clear ideas were transformed into action and into feeling they had powerful dramatic authority.

In pure dance terms Burnett and Hawkes had a few moments on Tuesday night that didn’t go entirely to plan – and they were just a few – but they also put their own stamp on the choreography, making many key images entirely fresh with different accents or textures. This is why balletomanes go to a particular ballet repeatedly: not to see it again, but to see it made anew.

Other thoughts:

Brooke Lockett, Benedicte Bernet, Karen Nanasca and Heidi Martin must now be the Cygnets of choice. They are adorable.

No one does a dash across the stage and hair-raising body-slam as vividly as Reiko Hombo (Young Duchess-to-be).

Sometimes it’s just impossible to erase memories of past exponents of certain roles. Take the Guardian Swans, for example. I can still see Danielle Rowe and Lana Jones. Perfection.

Colin Peasley – what can you say? He’s 80 and still getting out there on stage as the Lord Admiral, as ramrod straight as ever.

 Swan Lake ends on Saturday February 28.

La Sylphide

The Australian Ballet, Sydney Opera House, November 7

WHAT to do about a ballet as dreamily brief as La Sylphide? In the middle of this year West Australian Ballet took the minimalist approach and added nothing to fill out the evening. Over the years the Australian Ballet has taken several paths.

In 1996, under Maina Gielgud’s directorship (and in her final year at the AB), I saw Bournonville’s La Sylphide (1836) in Brisbane in July paired with the premiere of Stanton’s Welch’s Red Earth. Later in the year, in Sydney, La Sylphide shared the bill with Jiri Kylian’s Stepping Stones (1991). Both were a “something old, something new” combination that may appear to be, as Gielgud wrote about the Kylian program, ‘’as extreme a contrast as you can get”. In fact a case can be made for a connection, not only between La Sylphide and Stepping Stones, but also Stepping Stones and Red Earth, and therefore La Sylphide, if that’s not too circuitous.

The Australian Ballet in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

The Australian Ballet in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

Kylian, who came to Australia to oversee the final rehearsals of the first AB season of Stepping Stones, wrote in a program note of attending a 1980 gathering of Aborigines in northern Australia and being “deeply impressed by the central role which dance seemed to play in their lives”. He asked an old man why this was so, and received this response: “Because my father taught me and because I must hand my dance on to my son.” Culture equals history.

Kylian then wrote: “There is a line in my work which has – since then – been reflecting on this view of existence.” He was interested in “the traces old civilisations have left, traditions which show the way from out of a living past”. Welch’s Red Earth was concerned with the struggles white settlers had in trying to impose themselves on the ancient soil of Australia, and was danced to Peter Sculthorpe’s Nourlangie. (I think I’m right in saying Red Earth hasn’t been revived by the AB, although Welch staged it for Houston Ballet, where he is artistic director, in 2007.) As Sculthorpe wrote in a program note, the music’s name comes from a sacred rock in Kakadu and while the piece is not intended to be descriptive, “its concern is with my feelings about this powerful and serene place”.

It can be profitable to think of La Sylphide in the light of such reflections as more than just a silly fairy story, gossamer-light though it may appear. While its history is the swiftest blink of an eye compared with that of Aboriginal dance, La Sylphide comes, nevertheless, from the earliest days of what we recognise as ballet performance. Furthermore, ballet shares the old Aboriginal man’s tradition of – and reverence for – transmitting stories and history from person to person and body to body.

As for spiritual significance, the two traditions are divided by a gulf as wide and as old as the Australian continent. Yet in La Sylphide, as in Swan Lake and Giselle, there is a deep yearning for something beyond the tangible; a transcendence of quotidian relationships and responsibilities. In those three ballets, however, the spirit world represents the elusive and unattainable rather than Sculthorpe’s serenity.

Colin Peasley as Madge in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

Colin Peasley as Madge in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

My cast list from the November 30, 1996, matinee performance of Stepping Stones, by the way, shows it was danced by Vicki Attard, Miranda Coney, Lynette Wills, Rachael Read, Geon van der Wyst, Damien Welch, Li Cunxin and Adam Marchant. Lucinda Dunn was the Sylph on that occasion. I saw three other performances in that Sydney season, and other casts of Stepping Stones included Lisa Bolte, Kirsty Martin, Robert Curran and David McAllister. What riches.

In 2005, under McAllister’s directorship, the AB went for stylistic unity, prefacing La Sylphide with two short Bournonville pieces – an excerpt from Le Conservatoire and the pas de deux from The Flower Festival in Genzano – and Walter Bourke’s fizzy, taxing1974 Grand Tarantella. The Grand Tarantella casts included current principals Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello (then coryphée and corp de ballet member respectively); and Lana Jones (then a coryphée) with Remi Wortmeyer, now a principal with Dutch National Ballet. Good to see McAllister’s eye was nicely in.

Which is all a long way of getting to the current AB La Sylphide, in which the Romantic ballet is preceded by the wedding celebration from Petipa’s version of Paquita (1881), based on Joseph Mazilier’s 1846 original, in which Petipa himself once danced. Early Romantic ballet had given way to the grand classical style dominated by Petipa, but the bloodline is there.

Of these five approaches – one from WAB, four from the AB – my heart and my head are with the Stepping Stones solution. The connection was one of imagination rather than style, which is more interesting, I think – and I must also be honest and say Stepping Stones is an enduring favourite of mine.

Furthermore, on opening night last Thursday the AB didn’t really make a big case for the huge chunk of dance ripped from context that is Paquita. Given its essential meaninglessness, Paquita can work only as spectacle and illumination of the classical form with its array of principals, soloists, demi-soloists and corps.

Lana Jones was divine as leader of the pack, I’ll say that much. She presented a glowing image of the all-conquering ballerina, glamorous yet highly aware of her role as benefactress as she graciously inclined her head this way and that to acknowledge our presence. Her role was to be adored; ours was to adore. That was also the task of her cavalier, Kevin Jackson, who had his successes and shortcomings in the proceedings. Uncompromising purity of line and pinpoint accuracy were not always his to command, although his self-effacing demeanour and seamless partnering were attractive.

There was too much untidiness in the ranks for comfort and while the four solos were all attractively danced, only Ako Kondo in the third raised the spirits to the required level. Along with Jones she radiated the qualities of grandeur, composure, elegance, ease and sophistication that are the non-negotiable requirements if Paquita is to have any reason for being.

Ako Kondo in Paquita. Photo: Jeff Busby

Ako Kondo in Paquita. Photo: Jeff Busby

While Hugh Colman’s tutus are beyond delicious, Paquita otherwise has an unappealingly basic look. There are two chandeliers, which are fine; a backdrop of little points of light in a dark cloth, which is OK; and nothing else other than black tabs at the side of the stage. Talk about dreary.

To end on a happy note, La Sylphide is exquisitely staged and on opening night conductor Paul Murphy, a guest from Birmingham Royal Ballet, shaped the Lovenskjold score superbly, particularly in the overture. The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra did honour (mostly) to this uncomplicated but charming and effective music.

Gielgud used to say the AB “always had an instinctive understanding” of La Sylphide and under McAllister – who was invited to join the AB by Gielgud and whose career was shaped by her – that understanding continues. The airy delicacy of the upper body, crisp batterie, the upward trajectory in leaps, precision of mime, the softest of landings – all were present and correct.

Daniel Gaudiello as James in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

Daniel Gaudiello as James in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

With her slightly otherworldly air, Madeleine Eastoe is a natural for the Sylph. Daniel Gaudiello – and how wonderful it is to see him getting more opening nights – has matured greatly as an actor and on opening night gave James a credibly dark hue. Andrew Wright (Gurn) soared in his solo and also created a well-shaded character.

It was a joy to see Colin Peasley back on stage. A founding AB member, he retired formally last year during the company’s 50th anniversary celebrations – such a nice round number, he said of his half-century – but of course we hadn’t seen the last of him, nor should we.

Peasley is a quintessential creature of the stage. His Madge is better than ever, perhaps more nuanced than in the past and delivered with the wisdom of ages.

La Sylphide ends at the Sydney Opera House on November 25.

Colin Peasley retires

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.”