1920 – 1932
Born Laurel Martyn Gill, 23 July 1916 in Toowoomba, Queensland Australia
- Early dance training in Queensland
- Pupil of Kathleen Hamilton, Toowoomba, then
- Marjorie Hollinshed, Brisbane
In 1929, as a young ballet student aged 13, Laurel was chosen to present Pavlova with flowers when on tour in Brisbane.
(Incidentally this same tour was Eduard Borovansky’s first visit to Australia – see later entry)
- Travelled to London for advanced dance training
- Became a pupil of Phyllis Bedells.
In Phyllis Bedells School a broad dance education was expected. Classes included classical ballet, Greek, tap, character with Stanislas Idzikowsky, modern (based on Wigman), Spanish with Elsa Brunelleschi, and ballroom.
In addition, Laurel also took private classes in French and singing.
Laurel Martyn won the first choreographic competition arranged by the Association of Operatic Dancing (later the Royal Academy of Dancing). Exile was her first composition, with a costume also made by Laurel (see photo opposite)
De Valois taught the six scholarship winners about form and principles of the great classical ballets. Ursula Moreton taught classical mime, Ruth Driver taught Dalcroze, three or four classes were taught by Legat.
First Australian winner of Adeline Genee medal
There were two parts to the competition –
- Part 1 (details not confirmed)
- Own choreography – ‘Little Dancer from Spain’, music composed by Cyril Scott
Choreography notes and diary entries, photographs in costume made by Laurel, and the original medal and certificate (shown below) are held in the collecton of The Laurel Martyn Foundation.
Won second prize in the Pavlova Casket choreographic competition for her ballet SIEGRIED
In 1936 Siegried (later Sigrid) premiered at the Rudolf Steiner Hall, London on 27 July 1935 in the Pavlova Casket choreographic competition, and won Laurel the second prize.
The first Australian performance of the work was in Toowoomba on 17 April 1940 as part of a program created and performed by Laurel Martyn and Dorothy Stevenson to raise funds for the war effort.
It was also performed in Melbourne in 1940 in two programs for the Melbourne Ballet Club (later renamed Ballet Guild), and then by the Borovansky Ballet in 1942, and was included in programs in Melbourne and toured by the Borovansky Ballet to Perth and New Zealand until 1945. Subsequently Sigrid was performed in many seasons by Ballet Guild and Ballet Victoria.
Arranged the dances for THE WALTZ KING, a West End production
Genee liked Laurel’s dancing, and especially her beats, and was always very encouraging. She took Laurel to tea at Claridge’s and introduced her to Dora Bright who had written The Waltz King, a musical comedy to be performed in the West End. Laurel was invited to arrange the dances, her first choreography for payment.
During this time, Laurel also arranged two dances for herself which she performed solo at several socialite balls.
- Composer Sibelius, a tone poem of the same name
- Original choreography was for a charity matinee in London organised by Lady Moyne
- Lady Moyne’s daughter, Grania Guiness, was the lead dancer
Conducted by Malcolm Sargeant who tried to convince Laurel to choose an easier score.
This performance was not successful – ‘a disaster’ – but it was a very good learning experience.
Back in Melbourne, Laurel still wanted to use the music, and reworked En Saga as a war story. The choreography was heavily based on character dance and the female performers wore character shoes.
“It is, I think, my best ballet.— Laurel Martyn’s journal
It really means something;
it really says what I set out to say.”
This was performed in the early Borovansky programs, and also in the professional company, with a professional premiere at the Princess Theatre on 19 December 1941.
Ballet Guild also performed the work many times, and Laurel taught the work to students undertaking a Bachelor of Arts (Dance) course at the University of Adelaide as part of the Australian Choreographic Project, when it was notated in Labanotation by Cecil Bates.
Member of VIC-WELLS (later SADLERS WELLS, then ROYAL BALLET) touring company, London
“Ninette de Valois had got to know my work in the choreographic course and in 1936 asked me to become a member of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, to begin with as a member of the First Sadlers Wells tour, with Markova and Dolin”— Laurel had to learn nine ballets in two weeks.
Laurel was the first Australian woman to be accepted into the company and by 1938 was a soloist Her first solo was in the Mirletons (she hated it).
“I danced some interesting things with the company eventually becoming a soloist”— Laurel Martyn
Fellow artists in the company included –
Alicia Markova, Anton Dolin, Robert Helpmann, Pearl Argyle, Bill Chapell, , Walter Gore, Harold Turner, Margot Fonteyn, Pamela May, June Brae, Mary Honer, Molly Brown, Jill Gregory, Joy Robson.
Company classes at the Wells –
- Ninette de Valois — “gave very good classes”
- Nicholas Sergeyev
- Margaret Craske (Cecchetti teacher)
- Mlle Anna Pruzina
- Dolin – pas de deux coaching
Performed in Frederick Ashton’s new works; BAISER DE LA FEE, NOCTURNE (below), HOROSCOPE, APPARITIONS and A WEDDING BOUQUET as well as JOBE in THE SUNS OF MORNING by Ninette de Valois
Laurel Martyn on Frederick Ashton
[he was] “my kind of choreographer”
Other strong influences included
Conductor: Constance Lambert
Designers: Chappell, Karinskaya, Cecil Beaton
Laurel would Paris study trips in summer holidays:
With Margot Fonteyn, Pamela May, Mary Honer, took classes with the Russian emigré ballerinas Lubov Egorova (Laurel’s favourite – a grande dame) and Mathilde Kchessinska (very bouncy, very lively, always wore a piece of lace in her hair).
Returned to Australia (after the death of her father).
Laurel then taught for Jennie Brennan (RAD) in Hardware Lane, working from 9am in the morning til 9pm at night with sandwiches for lunch.
The young students (under 10) included –
- Martin Rubinstein
- Joan Cadzow
- Phyllis Kennedy
Laurel enjoyed teaching but missed dancing.
1940 – 1946
Borovansky Ballet – dancer, choreographer, teacher, ballet mistress, personal assistant to Edouard Borovansky
Borovansky began performances with principal dancers Laurel Martyn, Dorothy Stevenson and Serge Bousloff as well as dancers from his school. Laurel was now also teaching at the school.
Edna Busse also became a principal dancer.
Melbourne Ballet Club formed after the de Basil visits to listen to music and look at films such as those of Ringland Anderson of The Ballet Russe in Melbourne. They decided to support Borovansky’s efforts to produce performances, helping to build a stage in one of the dance studios.
Being wartime, a lot of soldiers and war correspondents came to performances, with consistenly good houses and atmosphere.
Painters including Daryl Lindsay who drew the dancers. Many artists had studios in Bourke St at that time. It was a very lively atmosphere, and company morale was high.
Laurel danced and created leading roles with Borovansky including the Spirit of the River in Borovansky’s meditation on his Czech homeland, Vltava.
She restaged Sigrid and reworked what is probably her best known work, En Saga, which premiered for the Borovansky Ballet in 1941.
Façade, staged by Laurel,was the first Australian staging of an English ballet, for which Laurel thought she had permission from Ashton and de Valois. Although there was some disagreement from Sadlers Wells about this, Borovansky continued to include this work in his programs, although his interpretation varied from the original.
Performances of note include:
- Vltava: Checkoslovacia. (Neo-classical, Free flowing depicting moods)
- Giselle: Boro’s version. In 1941 Laurel was the first Australian ballerina to dance the title role.
- Borovansky danced Pierrot in the première cast of Le Carnaval, Laurel Martyn danced Columbine
- Tours to Western Australian and New Zealand
Laurel applauded the development of real Australian ballet, with works such as Dorothy Stevenson’s Sea Legend for Borovansky Ballet in 1943 with music by Australian composer Esther Rofe, but she felt this was not the general direction of the company.
The visits of the Rambert company had a strong influence on diverting the direction of dance in Australia to follow the English mould, which Laurel did not wish to follow.
BALLADE, First performance of Ballet Guild, later Ballet Victoria
1n 1946, at the request of the Melbourne Ballet Club, Martyn took on the role of Artistic Director and principal dancer of Ballet Guild, later called Victorian Ballet Company (1963 – 1967) and Ballet Victoria (1967 – 1976). She agreed to the position of Artistic Director and principal dancer of this new company on the condition that she could also set up a school, primarily to produce dancers for the company.
The policy of Ballet Guild was to create original works using Australian composers and artists, and to develop an Australian style of dance.
The company initially consisted of 5 dancers: Laurel Martyn, Corrie Lodders, Noel Murray, Grace McLean, Max Collis – and students of the school. Soon after by Strelsa Heckleman, Lesley Sexton and Rita Banks also joined as dancers.
“The company always gave the audience the pleasure of feeling that they were part of the dance; that the joy of dancing and experience of moving and being expressive was conveyed in an honest and truthful fashion.”— Laurel Martyn
1946 – 1976
30 years as performer, choreographer, teacher, artistic director of Ballet Guild.
During this time, Ballet Guild produced 90 ballets, 25 of them were works by Laurel.
THE SENTIMENTAL BLOKE, 1952
Music written for the work by John Tallis
Costumes based on the illustrations by Hal Gye
Sets by Charles Bush
“I believe that we did have that quality all the way through of dance being a really expressive art form; not just for technique, not just for showing off.”— Laurel Martyn
A true story of an aboriginal girl adopted by Sir John and Lady Franklin in Tasmania
Music written for the work by Esther Rofe
“It can touch them, and move them to understand other people, other situations.”— Laurel Martyn
For inaugural ABC TV program. See more under TV Performances and Broadcasts below. .
SYLVIA – Three acts, 1962
“Some people thought that was very good. That was quite an epic, and it was very varied.”— Laurel Martyn
THE EVE OF ST AGNES, 1966
Poetry by Keats, music by Vivaldi in between
“Quite interesting – it nearly came off.”— Laurel Martyn
Music Beethoven. Suggested by Margaret Scott.
‘Really very nice. A nice lyrical ballet, and it worked.’— Laurel Martyn
Act 2 GISELLE, 1975
Guest artists Makarova & Baryshnikov
“There were others, but those were the ones that I would say were of any value. There were some that I had to do because we needed that sort of ballet in the program. Otherwise [other than those listed above], they were competent (choreography), but they really weren’t very good.”— Laurel Martyn
Martyn collaborated with many Australian composers of note, including Dorian Le Gallienne, Margaret Sutherland, John Tallis, Esther Rofe, and Verdon Williams, and Australian designers, including Alan McCulloch, Len Annois, and John Sumner.
Students from the Ballet Guild school augmented the professional dancers in productions. As the school evolved it was divided into progressive sections, with several teachers trained in Russia on the faculty, and many guest teachers offering a wide range of specialist areas.
The school and company produced some distinguished dancers who continued their careers with the Australian Ballet and international companies.
Victorian Ballet Schools
The Ballet Guild school became recognised tertiary training provider, and also branched out into suburban and country dance schools. Laurel felt that people in the country should have access to good teaching in dance. Dancers went one day a week. Ballarat, Bendigo, Hamilton, Geelong and suburbs.
On the demise of Ballet Victoria, the school became the foundation of VCASS, and the teachers who had been running the suburban schools took them over.
Tours to country schools 1960s
The company was enlarged and toured extensively in the country, particularly to schools presenting Making a Ballet. This played for about 15 years, presenting to 6,000 children, primary and secondary, in its last year.
TV performances and broadcasts
About 25 ballets were staged for ABC TV including a series on dancing technique. The ABC reused the tapes so no archival material is available. Copies were 20 pounds at the time, Laurel couldn’t afford to buy them. (But we do have Voyaguer and L’amour Enchantee)
Ballet Studio 10. Producers: Chris Muir, Jim Davern Ballet Guild submitted the programs. (25 or 30 – to be confirmed).
Voyageur Included in the first television program of the ABC in Melbourne, 1956. Music written for the work by Dorien Le Gallienne. Douglas Smith designed the sets and costumes. The story of wild goose, shot in the wing and rescued by a domestic goose. Later flew off again with the wild geese.
‘It was a good ballet – that was one of my good ones.’— Laurel Martyn
L’amour Enchantee also produced on ABC TV. A fairytale. Principal dancer Janet Karin. Music written by Esther Rofe for the work.
Once Upon a Whim, created as a pure television ballet for the ABC, later put on stage.
“That was a mad ballet… Amusing.”— Laurel Martyn
Also Radio Programs on 3XY.
Awarded OBE (Officer, Order of the British Empire) for services to Ballet
Inaugural Dance Awards, Lifetime Achievement Award
1982 – 86
Young Dancers Theatre (YDT)
Instrumental in forming the Young Dancers’ Theatre for which she choreographed several works.
No backing at all for first performance at the National Theatre. Laurel Martyn choreographed Children Dancing to some of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words –
“very simple, in tunics and flat shoes – very lyrical, a nice little ballet, worth doing.”
Developed a specific method for teaching dance especially to children, the principles of which she published in her first book. Let Them Dance, a manual for teaching a preparatory dance program for 5-9 year old’s. (Laurel Martyn Dance System)
Laurel was unable to draw enough information from these Russian teachers to satisfy her own requirements, and so she studied Russian in order to read the text books on the Russian training in the original versions. From this grew the theory and program of studies, as well as the development of the preparatory work contained in Let Them Dance.
After the demise of Ballet Victoria, Laurel took 4-5 years writing down the system and her philosophies, published by Dance Books, London.
Established an association of teachers, Classical Dance Teachers Australia, using the Laurel Martyn Dance System. Later became Classical Dance Education Board, then Movement and Dance Education Centre.
Writing a theory of classical work, translating the Russian system to be used in Australian circumstances. Doesn’t put exercises together, tells how to do each movement, what it’s for, and how the development happens. Each teacher is still creative, and have to be able to create their own exercises and enchainements. They have to know the feeling of dance to be able to put them together, instead of following slavishly the rules of (dance societies).
Diploma of Dance Teaching and Management
Laurel was very concerned about the standard of training available for dance teachers. She collaborated in course writing and a pilot year of the course with Isabel Gabriel and Helen Cameron.
1990 – 1994
Laurel became Coordinator of Diploma of Dance Teaching and Management at the Centre for Performing Arts, Box Hill Institute, Victoria – the first accredited dance teaching course in Australia (and possibly the world).
Guest artist Australian Ballet
Mar in The Bloke (1985)
Mother of James in La Sylphide (1985)
Berthe, Giselle’s mother (1986)
Miss Maud in The Competition (Le Concours) (1989)
Reproduced Michel Fokine’s Le Carnaval (1989)
Laurel Martyn died in October 2013. Her legacy lives on through her children and her work, especially as progenitor of the progressive system that is the Laurel Martyn Dance System and the founding of the Movement & Dance Education Centre.