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The History Of The National Theatre Ballet School

The Story so Far……

In 1935 Miss Gertrude Johnson founded the National Theatre Movement as a future base of the performing arts in Australia; during 1939 the National Theatre Ballet School was opened under the direction of Jean Alexander with a faculty headed by Enrico Cecchetti’s pupil Madame Lucie Saranova. The Ballet School was unique in Australia in that it was the first such school attached to a performing theatre, thus enabling its students to have direct contact and involvement with the sister arts of Opera and Drama.

Under the guidance of Madame Saranova the Australian branch of the Cecchetti Society was founded with the National Theatre Ballet School as its headquarters; the teaching of the Cecchetti Syllabus provided a direct link with the glorious heritage of the Italian-Russian schools of dance. From its inception until 1948 the School presented two seasons of ballet each year at the Movement’s own theatre in Eastern Hill.

With the formation of the professional National Theatre Ballet in 1949, many pupils of the School were to dance within its ranks at the Princess Theatre. The faculty of the school has included many notable names in Australian and International Ballet, among whom should be mentioned Corrie Lodders, Jill Gregory, Serge and Kyra Bousloff, Marie Cumisky, Margaret Earl, Marita Lowden, Valrene Tweedie and Pat Martin.

Miss Martin remained connected to the National throughout her entire career; she joined the ballet company in 1944 under Jean Alexander, worked as Principal Ballerina until 1949, taught R.A.D. at the school and remained on staff as Ballet School Administrator until her retirement in 1979.

In 1958 the National Theatre Ballet School moved from its studios in the old King’s Theatre (now Russell Street Cinema Centre) to newly acquired premises in South Yarra and later to Toorak Road. During the late 1960s the Movement purchased the former Victory Theatre in St. Kilda which it converted to studios, offices and a performing and movie theatre; the new National Theatre was officially opened on 7th September 1974.

Following the death of Jean Alexander in 1972, the Australian Prima Ballerina Marilyn Jones was appointed Director of the School; she was joined two years later by Kathleen Gorham who brought with her the teaching methods of the Royal Academy of Dance. With the appointment of Miss Jones as Artistic Director of the Australian Ballet in 1979, Gailene Stock; herself a former principal artist of the Australian Ballet, became the school’s director.

Since then the position of Director has been held by Leigh Rowles and Anne Jenner. In 1995 Marilyn Jones O.B.E. returned to the National as Artistic Director and in January 1999 Miss Beverly Jane Fry, a former International Prima Ballerina, took over the directorship of the National Theatre Ballet School.

In 1994 the National celebrated the centenary of the birth of Gertrude Johnson. A gala evening in September was presented as a tribute to Gertrude and to coincide with the launch of a new book especially written for the occasion, entitled ‘National Treasure – The Story of Gertrude Johnson and the National Theatre’ by Frank Van Straten OAM. Today as the National Theatre Ballet School celebrates its seventy-fifth year of existence, one is reminded of words spoken by Anna Pavlova during her 1929 Australian visit:

The future of dance is its past; one must take something of yesterday, today, to build tomorrow….