Dame Margaret Scott AC DBE (1922 – 2019)
- Dame Margaret Scott AC DBE (1922 – 2019)
Dame Margaret Scott AC DBE (1922 – 2019)
Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, on 26 April 1922, Margaret Scott began her dance training under the distinguished Royal Academy teacher Ivy Conmee.
After a successful audition, she joined the Rambert company as a principal dancer in 1943.
In November 2000 RMIT University conferred an honorary Doctor of Education on Dame MargaretScott. In his address the Vice-Chancellor said: ‘Dame Margaret Scott’s vision for the Australian Ballet School was epitomised by its breadth. She did not see students merely as performers. She was equally concerned to develop their intellect. Dame Margaret was also concerned to identify and encourage creativity and students with “other” talents. It was she, for example, who first recognised and strongly encouraged the outstanding choreographic talents of Graeme Murphy, Director of the Sydney Dance Company, and steered him into this field. Equally she encouraged students to pursue non-performance fields of interest, such as design. Dame Margaret Scott’s intellect and artistry have always steered her in the direction of broadening the concept of dance. She has been involved in most if not all of the major developments in dance education in this country since the mid 1960s, including the establishment of the country’s dance organisation, Ausdance. It is most fitting for RMIT University to grant Dame Margaret the award of Honorary Doctorate in Education in recognition not merely of one of its graduates, but of an outstanding dance educator who has done a great deal to foster dance and arts education internationally.’
Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, on 26 April 1922, Margaret Scott began her dance training under the distinguished Royal Academy teacher Ivy Conmee. After she won an under-15 championship she was taken by her mother to London where she auditioned successfully for the Sadler’s Wells Ballet School. She studied with Ninette de Valois and was soon accepted into the Sadler’s Wells company, which at that time included Michael Somes, Margot Fonteyn, Ray Powell and Robert Helpmann.
Though Scott eventually became a Wells soloist, she was attracted by the more adventurous repertoire of the Ballet Rambert. After a successful audition, she joined the Rambert company as a principal dancer in 1943. They toured widely and danced in factories and army camps as well. At war’s end they were sent to Germany to entertain the occupation forces. In 1947 Ballet Rambert came to Australia under the auspices of D.D. O’Connor and the British Council – the first major British company to visit Australia after the war. Scott was one of several Rambert dancers who remained here after the tour.
In 1949 Scott was a foundation member of Gertrude Johnson’s Melbourne-based National Theatre Ballet, which was directed by another Rambert principal, Joyce Graeme. At Christmas 1949 she was a featured dancer in The Glass Slipper, an elegant retelling of Cinderella, which the National and the Carroll–Fuller managements combined to present at the Princess in Melbourne. A few months later she was the Thipa Thipa Bird in Corroboree, the groundbreaking ballet choreographed by Rex Reid to John Antill’s music. Danced barefoot, Scott recalled it as ‘the most physical torture any dancer could endure’.
In 1951 Scott choreographed Apollon Musagète, with music by Stravinsky, for Laurel Martyn’s Victorian Ballet Guild. The following year she returned to Britain where she worked with a small experimental dance group established by John Cranko, and then rejoined Ballet Rambert as ballet mistress – the first time she was employed as anything but a dancer. In March 1953 Scott married an Australian doctor, Derek Denton, and settled in Melbourne. For two years she managed Paul Hammond’s dance school while Hammond and his wife, Peggy Sager, were away on tour. After that she ran her own school in a church hall in Toorak.
In the late 1950s Scott was a prominent member of a group brought together by Zara Holt to present a ballet and fashion display for television. Others involved were dancers Sally Gilmour and Rex Reid, designer Ann Church and administrator Geoffrey Ingram. Its success led to further meetings to plan a national ballet company and school. Derek Denton relayed progress to his friend, the Reserve Bank chairman and arts supporter H.C. ‘Nugget’ Coombs, who had fostered the establishment of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust in 1954.
With the demise of the Borovansky Ballet in 1961, the Elizabethan Trust retained the services of its director, Peggy Van Praagh, who was charged with the responsibility of setting up the Australian Ballet and School along the lines that the Scott’s group had recommended. Coombs commented: ‘It was an excellent illustration of the creativeness of a group of dedicated artists… The success reflects the drive and energy as well as the persuasiveness of Margaret Scott.’
The Australian Ballet debuted on 2 November 1962. Van Praagh appointed Margaret Scott to head the associated school, which was ready for its first pupils in 1964. Though the selection of Scott was controversial at the time – some better-established teachers were disappointed – it proved to be astute. The school has helped establish Australia’s international dance reputation and has turned out several generations of superb dancers.
Among Scott’s many innovations were Australia’s first orthopaedic and physiotherapy clinic specialising in dance injuries, the introduction of the Benesh notation system, and a project to record and notate Aboriginal dance. She appointed a counsellor to the school, a radical concept in its day, but one soon followed by other major dance institutions overseas. She also ensured that the school developed students’ knowledge and understanding of other disciplines, including music and drama. She was instrumental having the Australian Ballet School diploma accepted by the Commonwealth Office of Education, thus officially recognising dance as a career.
Scott’s later choreographic work included Classical Suite (Verdi) and Sonata Classique (Rossini) for the Australian Ballet School in 1967 and 1971 respectively, and Recollections of a Beloved Place(Tchaikovsky) for Ballet Victoria in 1975. Somewhat more bizarre was the pas de deux she choreographed for her students Eleanor Martin and Gary Norman to dance in the controversial 1970 film The Naked Bunyip.
Margaret Scott’s standing was reflected in invitations to serve on the jury of two International Ballet Competitions at the Bolshoi in Moscow. In the mid 1970s, on behalf of the Ministry of External Affairs, she led a group to teach at the Beijing Ballet and School and the Shanghai Ballet. She made a similar trip in 1985. In 1974-75 she was a member of the Dance Panel for the Theatre Board at the Australia Council. She was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1977 and was made a Dame in 1981.
The Australian Ballet debuted on 2 November 1962. Van Praagh appointed Margaret Scott to head the associated schoolTwo years later, however, she made a triumphant return to the stage as Clara the Elder in Graeme Murphy’s spectacular reworking of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker for the Australian Ballet. Murphy created the role with her in mind: he had been one of her pupils. Scott repeated the role in 1994 and 2000.
To complement decades of industry experience, Dame Margaret enrolled part-time in the Graduate Diploma in Visual and Performing Arts at RMIT University. She graduated in 2000.Dame Margaret enrolled part-time in the Graduate Diploma in Visual and Performing Arts at RMIT University. A studio at the Australian Ballet School is named in her honour and the Australian Ballet Society supports The Dame Margaret Scott Chair of Classical Ballet.
Dame Margaret Scott received Live Performance Australia’s James Cassius Williamson Award in 2007.
Frank Van Straten, 2007
H.C. Coombs: Trial Balance – Issues of My Working Life, Sun Books, 1983
Edward H. Pask: Ballet in Australia – The Second Act, 1940-1980, Oxford, 1982
Pamela Ruskin: Invitation to the Dance – The Story of the Australian Ballet School, Collins, 1989
Frank Van Straten: National Treasure – The Story of Gertrude Johnson and the National TheatreVictoria Press, 1994
Dame Margaret as Clara the Elder in The Nutcracker.
Dame Margaret in The Nutcracker.
Dame Margaret accepting the J.C Williamson Award at the 2007 Helpmann Awards.