van Praagh, Peggy (1910–1990)

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van Praagh, Peggy (1910–1990)

British ballet dancer who was largely responsible for the development of the Australian Ballet. Name variations: Dame Margaret van Praagh; Dame Peggy van Praagh; known professionally as Peggy van Praagh, despite the penchant for adopting exotic or at least dignified names among the ballerinas of her day. Born Margaret van Praagh on September 1, 1910, in London, England; died in Melbourne, Australia, on January 15, 1990, at age 79; daughter of a family doctor; educated at the King Alfred school in Hempstead and then trained under a series of dancers and dance teachers; received her diploma from the Cecchetti Society, in 1932.


Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award (1953); Royal Academy of Dancing Award (1965); Commander of the Order of the British Empire (1966); Officer of the Order of the British Empire (1966); Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (1970); honorary doctorate, University of New England (1974); honorary doctorate of letters, University of New South Wales (1974); Distinguished Artist Award of the Australian Art Council (1975); honorary doctor of laws, Melbourne University (1981).

Made her debut at the London Coliseum (1929) opposite Anton Dolin in Revolution; danced for the Camargo Society (1930–33), in ballets Revolution (1929) and Adam and Eve (1932); danced with Ballet Rambert (1933–38), in ballets Mephisto Waltz (1934), Valentine's Eve (1935), Circus Wives (1935), The Planets (1937), Dark Elegies (1937), Jardin aux Lilas (1938), and Gala Performance, Soirée Musicale; was co-director of the London Ballet with Maud Lloyd (1939–40); was a teacher and dancer with the Sadler's Wells Ballet (1941–46), for ballets Coppélia, Les Patineurs; was producer and ballet mistress with the same company (1946–52); was associate director of the company (1952–55); was a freelance producer and television dance director (1955–62); served as director, Borovansky Ballet, Melbourne (1960); was artistic director of the Australian Ballet (1963–74, 1978–79), with Robert Helpmann from 1965; retired (1979).

Ballet dancer, teacher, and artistic director, Margaret van Praagh was born in London on September 1, 1910, the daughter of a family doctor of Dutch descent, and was educated at the King Alfred School in Hempstead. First exposed to dance when taken to a Christmas pantomime at the age of three, she began performing dance pieces for her family, relatives and guests. Encouraged by her parents, she was soon studying ballet under Aimée Phipps and Margaret Craske (1892–1990).

At the time that van Praagh began her studies, there was no native ballet in Great Britain, classical dance being regarded as a predominantly French, Italian, or Russian art. After the Russian Revolution, however, a number of ballerinas of the first rank settled abroad, including Matilda Kshesinskaia in Paris and Tamara Karsavina in London. Both began to teach. The great Anna Pavlova also settled in London, and though she was almost constantly on tour, her repeated performances in Britain made a strong impression on a generation of young girls (and not a few boys), who went on to become members of the first generation of British classical dancers.

In classical ballet, Peggy van Praagh received her main training under Margaret Craske, the leading exponent in Britain of the teachings of the Italian ballet master Enrico Cecchetti (1850–1928), who had settled in London in 1918 and whose method of training for the classical ballet had a major influence on ballet in the Western world. Craske had studied directly under Cecchetti and then had danced with the brilliant and innovative Ballet Russe of Sergei Diaghilev. Van Praagh also trained later under the British dancer Lydia Sokolova (1896–1974) and the Russian émigré Vera Volkova (1904–1975), and studied mime with Tamara Karsavina and modern dance with Agnes de Mille (1905–1993).

Peggy van Praagh made her debut at the London Coliseum in 1929, in the ballet Revolution, in which she partnered Anton Dolin (1904–1983), who was one of the younger members of the Diaghilev troupe in its last years. Having made her debut, van Praagh thereupon began studying regularly with the Camargo Society under whose aegis she performed in Anthony Tudor's Adam and Eve.

The deaths of Sergei Diaghilev in 1929 and Anna Pavlova in 1931 had created a momentary crisis in the dance world of Britain, for upon the deaths of their founders, both of their companies immediately disbanded. On the other hand, these closings set free a number of important dancers who immediately began to generate creative activity on their own. The Camargo Society was an organization founded after the death of Diaghilev by Ninette de Valois , Philip Richardson and Arnold C. Haskell for the production of ballets in Britain. The Society, in which Karsavina was also active, established a school of ballet at the Sadler's Wells theater in 1931, staged ballets there and at the Old Vic (becoming known as the Wells-Vic Ballet), and encouraged such new young British choreographers as Anthony Tudor (1909–1987) and Frederick Ashton (1904–1988).

Leaving the aegis of Camargo, van Praagh then danced as a soloist with the Ballet Rambert (1933–38), founded by Marie Rambert , a dancer of Polish origin, who like Peggy van Praagh had studied with Craske, and had been teaching in London since 1913. By then, the Ballet Rambert had become a major force in the formation of British ballet. While dancing with the group, van Praagh created roles in several other ballets by Anthony Tudor, including that of Episode from His Past in Jardin aux Lilas (1936), Russian Ballerina in Gala Performance, Bolero in Soirée Musicale, and Mortal Under Mercury in The Planets. She also created both female roles in Dark Elegies (1937), works which became standards in the repertoires of British ballet companies. Her other roles included the Chatelaine-Bride in La Fete étrange and Venus in The Judgment of Paris.

Peggy van Praagh's performance in Jardin aux Lilas (also known by its English title Lilac Garden), a ritual of bereavement set to the music of Gustav Mahler's melancholy Kindertotenlieder, was particularly impressive and has been called the great breakthrough in her career as a dancer. Originally creating the role of Episode in this work, she later danced the part of the heroine Caroline. The ballet concerns a young woman, Caroline, about to be married to a man she does not love. At a party in her honor, she meets not only her former lover but also the woman (Episode) who has been the mistress of the man to whom she is about to be married. The ballet has been described as a continuous series of secret meetings, sudden interruptions and hasty partings, "the characters concealing their anguish behind a mask of upper class manners." The final irony of the ballet is that, "though all these people are well-to-do, their money and social positions actually hinder their search for personal happiness." With its heavy psychological overtones and generally dark mood, Jardin aux Lilas was considerably more weighty in theme and content than the typical stuff of ballet plots, and Peggy van Praagh triumphed in both roles that she undertook. Lilac Garden was probably the high point of her career as a dancer, and it was what brought her to the attention of everyone in the nascent British ballet world of that time.

In 1938, at age 28, van Praagh became one of the two principal dancers of Anthony Tudor's short-lived London Ballet, a position she held for two years. Tudor was arguably the first important English choreographer, and like Anton Dolin had been one of the younger members of the Diaghilev's Ballet Russe. In 1939, he left the London Ballet to go to America, and van Praagh and Maud Lloyd took over the direction of the company. Great things were expected of the London Ballet, but it lasted only until 1940. It was at this time, with the outbreak of the Second World War, that those unable to fight took it upon themselves to do whatever they could for the war effort. Van Praagh's contribution made a great impression at the time. With most of the theaters closed because of the fear of nighttime air raids, she introduced a series of afternoon performances at the Arts Theater called "Lunch-Hour Ballet," a much-appreciated booster to wartime morale.

The year after the dissolution of the London Ballet, van Praagh joined the Sadler's Wells Ballet of Ninette de Valois, later to become the Royal Ballet. Though engaged as a teacher with the company, she was soon performing as principal dancer in such roles as Swanilda in Coppéllia, Blue Girl in Les Patineurs. After the war ended in 1945, van Praagh, though only 35, retired from dancing but remained with the Sadler's Wells Theater Ballet in both a teaching and administrative capacity. Ninette de Valois, who with Lillian Baylis had founded the school that evolved into the Sadler's Wells Ballet, was a dancer, choreographer, and teacher, as well as a first-rate administrator. The skills she saw in Peggy van Praagh would lead to van Praagh being endowed with the future responsibilities that would make her name on the international ballet scene.

Immediately following the war, the Sadler's Wells Ballet was invited to establish its home at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. This created a great deal of soul searching on the part of de Valois, partly because of the obligation to serve as the ballet for the operas staged at the Sadler's Wells Theater, and partly because of the increasing sense that the company had a responsibility to tour in the provinces. The solution settled upon was the establishment of a second, smaller company, averaging 30 dancers, that would remain at Sadler's Wells as the Sadler's Wells Ballet Theater and that would undertake the chores of touring. Though de Valois held the title of general director of the new company, van Praagh served as its ballet mistress from 1946 to 1952 and then as the company's artistic director from 1952 to 1955. In these roles she busied herself with the multifarious details of managing a large company while de Valois saw to the negotiations and planning that led to the establishment of the original Sadler's Wells company as the Royal Ballet. Between 1949 and 1958, van Praagh also staged several ballets for BBC television, serving as the organization's ballet producer. As a teacher, she nurtured such dancers as Elaine Fifield, Maryon Lane and David Blair. These instructional, administrative, directorial, and production experiences were to serve van Praagh well when she transferred her activities to Australia.

For all her success with the Sadler's Wells Ballet Theater, which with great diplomacy, tact and sympathy for her dancers, she had led through its formative years, and to which she had given a stamp of true independence and individuality, van Praagh never felt truly one of the company. While most of the members of the organization, slightly more than a decade old, had been with it from its inception, she had joined it not as a beginner but as someone entering from another company outside of it. She was particularly disappointed when the directorship of its touring company, which she had expected to be offered to her, was denied, and she resigned in 1955. Van Praagh then offered her services as a freelance artist which were immediately taken up. Traveling to Canada, West Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the United States, and France, where she staged various ballets by Ashton, de Valois, and Tudor, she brought considerable international luster to the reputation of British ballet. Among her various productions in these years was The Rake's Progress for the Munich State Opera and The Sleeping Beauty for the Royal Swedish Ballet in 1956–57.

In 1957, Peggy van Praagh journeyed to Toronto, where she served as guest producer for the National Ballet of Canada. Ballet as a native art was then new to Canada, the company under the direction of Celia Franca being then only five years old. At that time there was not only no government support for the arts in Canada but there was not even a national arts council. Thus, to raise funds, the ballet was forced to compete with other dance companies, symphony orchestras, and even medical research for such private donations as might be managed, all in a country with at that time fewer than 30 million people. Despite these drawbacks, Franca had put together a company of 36 dancers, 14 of them men, and had developed both a surprisingly large and varied repertoire and an ambitious schedule of touring around the vast country. Van Praagh worked for two months with the company's summer school, teaching the students Ashton's Les Rendezvous. She was a great inspiration not only to the company but also to Franca and to those who supported her work. Following her success in Toronto, van Praagh taught briefly at the Royal Ballet School in London in 1958, and the same year she also served as guest producer for the Norsk ballet in Oslo, Norway, and directed the resident company of the Edinburgh International Ballet in a production of Ballet Premières staged for the annual Edinburgh Festival. The following year, she was in the United States serving as a guest teacher at the prestigious Jacob's Pillow summer festival, the socalled "University of the Dance," then still under the direction of the renowned Ted Shawn.

In 1960, van Praagh made her first visit to Australia as the artistic director of the Borovansky Ballet, a company founded by the Czech dancer Edouard Borovansky who had died the year before. Borovansky, who had formerly danced with Pavlova, had struggled for some time to establish a permanent ballet company and school in Melbourne, which, without government support, had been drifting toward financial ruin. The call to take over his foundering company proved to be a turning point for both van Praagh and the development of serious dance in Australia. On her opening night, she made a curtain speech pressing for national support for a native ballet. Soon after, she made a plea to the Australian government to consider the establishment of a national ballet company. Surprisingly, her proposal fell upon sympathetic ears, and two years later she immigrated to Australia permanently, returning by government invitation to become the first artistic director of the new Australian Ballet (1963), a position she held until 1974, jointly with the Australian-born dancer Robert Helpmann for the last nine years (1965–74). The Borovansky Ballet, or what remained of it, was merged with the newly founded company and a permanent ballet presence in Australia was born.

During her Australian years, van Praagh devoted herself tirelessly to sowing the seeds of the British classical ballet tradition in the then not especially promising soil of a country devoted to athletics. Upon arriving in Australia in June 1963, she embarked on a tour of the Australian provinces, visiting every state to conduct auditions for the Australian Ballet. The summer was spent in planning, the company being formed and coming together for the first time on September 3. Eight weeks were spent in rehearsals in Melbourne, which became the central base of operations for the new formation.

At its inception, the Australian Ballet consisted of 44 members: a corps de ballet of 16

women and 12 men, 12 soloists and 4 principals. Of these young people, 42 were native Australians, and two were especially imported, one, Caj Selling, as a principal dancer and the other, Karl Welander, as a senior soloist. The news of the formation of the Australian Ballet created a considerable stir both in Australia and abroad. No fewer than 11 of the dancers returned to their homeland to take part in the project and Ninette de Valois lent Ray Powell in the role of ballet-master to help van Praagh in the formation of her company, eventually extending the loan indefinitely. The remaining 31 dancers were students, some trained in the Royal Ballet School in London, some in Australian schools and some drawn from the Borovansky Company. The problems involved in developing a uniform style for a company whose members had been trained in such a variety of dance traditions were formidable but eventually were successfully overcome. The original repertory of the Australian Ballet consisted of standard classics (Les Sylphides, Swan Lake, Coppelia), revivals of British ballets (Les Rendezvous, Lady and the Fool, One in Five), and a few new works, including Melbourne Cup, choreographed by Rex Reid, Just for Fun (Ray Powell), and The Night is a Sorceress (Reid), which was actually a revival of a work earlier performed in Melbourne by the Victorian Ballet Guild. The company gave its first performance in Sydney on November 3 with Sonia Arova and the famous Danish premier danseur Erik Bruhn as guest artists, and there and in other Australian cities it had a most encouraging success.

By 1965, van Praagh felt sufficiently confident to take the Australian Ballet abroad to the International Festival of Dance in Paris, where she won a prize for her production of Giselle. Two years later, she took her company on a wider international tour, performing in London, Canada, China and elsewhere in the Far East. Everywhere, the Australian Ballet, so recently put together, was recognized as a company of international stature.

Apart from her teaching chores, van Praagh took on all of the major and ceaseless administrative burdens of running a ballet company. It was she who was responsible for the continuous efforts to raise money, lobby politicians, charm wealthy patrons, give interviews, and see to the publicity. Robert Helpmann, who had made a celebrated name for himself in London, was of inestimable service to her in this last regard simply by being the kind of attention-getting personality whose every activity caught the notice of the press. Her one regret as the increasing success of her company began to make itself felt was that she had been unable to find or develop in Australia a choreographer of the caliber of those such as John Cranko and Kenneth MacMillan, whom she had sponsored in Britain during her years with Sadler's Wells.

In 1970, van Praagh's distinctive achievement was recognized, and her career was crowned when she was created a Dame Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II , the female equivalent of a knighthood, one of eight ballerinas to have been so honored. The others were Adeline Genée (1878–1970), Ninette de Valois (1898–2001), Marie Rambert (1888–1982), Alicia Markova (1910—), Margot Fonteyn (1919–1991), Beryl Grey (1927—) and Merle Park (1937—). Among her other activities, Dame Peggy van Praagh was an examiner and council member of the Cecchetti Society from 1935 and taught for the council in its summer seminars in the United States. She staged Soirée Musicale for the Robert Joffrey Ballet in America, and in 1961 was a guest teacher for the Ballet International du Marquis de Cuevas, during which time she gave lessons to Rudolf Nureyev upon his defection from Soviet Union. She was the author of two books, How I Became a Dancer (1954), written for children, and The Choreographic Art (1963) with Peter Brinson, a work which had a broad influence in its field.

In her later years, Dame Peggy, who had never married, was afflicted with serious arthritis and in 1974 was forced to retire for a time because of ill health following her third hip operation. After her recovery, however, she returned to teach at the Australian Ballet School (1975–82) of which she was a council member, and returned to the Australian Ballet as artistic director for two final years (1977–79), after which she retired definitively at the age of 69. Still suffering from arthritis, van Praagh was in poor health for the last decade of her life; she died in Melbourne on January 15, 1990, at the age of 79. A handsome, dark-haired woman, gifted with a warm and vivid personality and a keen intelligence, she was noted for her theatrical flair, musical sensibility, administrative and educational skills, and great zest for life. Her death was mourned internationally, above all in Australia where it was treated in the press and other media as an event of national importance.

Dame Peggy van Praagh was a fine dancer, whose strong technique and expressive dramatic range made her especially effective in semi-character roles, but she was not a great one and in the history of British ballet she has been over-shadowed by her better-known contemporaries. She was, however, a great dance teacher and one who inspired enormous dedication in her students. One of her most significant achievements as an instructor was the manner in which she managed to reconcile the requirements of the traditional conservative ballet audience while at the same time deepening and satisfying the creative needs of a youthful and vigorous company through the undertaking of innovative and experimental ballets. A pioneer and a missionary, van Praagh devoted the last half of her professional life to sowing the seeds that would lead to the successful development of two national ballets of international stature, one in Canada and the other in Australia. To the extent that ballet has become an accepted and permanent feature of the cultural life of both of these large and increasingly important countries, she has earned her place in the history of world dance.


Andrews, Deborah, ed. The Annual of Obituary, 1990. Chicago-London, 1991.

Music Department, Free Library of Philadelphia.

Sexton, Christopher. Peggy van Praagh: A Life of Dance. South Melbourne, 1985.

Van Praagh, Peggy. How I Became a Dancer. London, 1954.

——, and Peter Vincent. The Choreographic Art. London, 1963.

suggested reading:

Bland, Alexander. The Royal Ballet: The First Fifty Years. Garden City, NY, 1981.

White, Joan W., ed. Twentieth Century Dance in Britain. London, 1985.

Woodcock, Sarah C. The Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet. London, 1991.

Robert H. Hewsen , Professor of History, Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey

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