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Barr, Margaret (1904–1991)

by Garry Lester

This article was published online in 2014

Margaret Barr, with a student, 1969

Margaret Barr, with a student, 1969

National Library of Australia, 45756553

Margaret Barr (1904–1991), choreographer and teacher of dance-drama, was born on 29 November 1904 at Bombay (Mumbai), India, younger of two daughters of American-born Mungo Barr, dentist, and his English wife Margaret, née Aukett, nurse. Young Margaret and her sister Betty spent much of their childhood and adolescence in the care of relatives, first in Illinois, United States of America, for two years, and then, after a brief return to India, almost nine years in Horsham, West Sussex, England. Contact with their parents was cut off because of World War I, but the family was eventually reunited and sailed for the United States in 1919, where they settled in Santa Barbara, California. Margaret later reflected that this peripatetic life helped her develop an independent cast of mind, and that her mother’s entreaty to write frequently honed her powers of observation and analysis.

Encouraged by their mother, the Barr sisters took part in the local arts scene while completing their schooling. They trained in drama with Maurice Browne and Ellen Van Volkenburg, pioneers of the Little Theatre Movement, and studied the Denishawn dance style, a forerunner of modern dance, with Geordie Graham, sister of the dancer and choreographer Martha Graham. In 1925 they opened a ‘Studio of the Dance: Aesthetic, Pantomime, and Character Dancing.’ The pair travelled to New York late in 1927 to study acting with Eva le Gallienne. Betty did so, but Margaret fell under the spell of Martha Graham and modern dance. In Graham’s studio she choreographed her first two works, Earth Mother and Hebridean Suite, the latter remaining a staple of her repertoire for fifty years. While the association with Graham lasted no more than eighteen months, Barr later stated that she had the greatest influence of any person on her life.

Barr sailed to London in 1929 and started her own group called ‘The Workshop of the Dance.’ The following year Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst invited her to establish a school of dance-mime at Dartington Hall Estate in Devon. By 1932 the New York Times critic John Martin called it ‘perhaps the most significant dance movement in the country.’ People appear to have been drawn not only to the work, but to her ‘forceful personality’ and ‘gifted and elemental character’ (Bonham-Carter 1958, 127). In her tenure at Dartington she created a number of highly acclaimed works including Funeral and Wedding (1931), The People (1932), and The Three Sisters (1934), which was compared favourably with The Green Table, a seminal anti-war work by Kurt Jooss.

After Jooss was invited to direct professional dance activity on the estate in 1934, Barr decamped to London, where she was involved in direct political action and her work became more polemical. Barr’s dance work was theatrical with overt political messages about contemporary economic and social conditions, set to music by modern composers including Edmund Rubbra and Michael Tippett. It was anti-war, and drew on communist ideologies. She lived with Douglas Bruce Hart, a carpenter, communist, and fellow pacifist, before they married on 28 March 1936 at the register office, Hampstead. He being a conscientious objector, the couple sailed to New Zealand in 1939 to escape World War II.

In Auckland Barr worked briefly in a munitions factory, under manpower regulations, before beginning to teach movement and dramatic improvisation for the Workers’ Educational Association. She collaborated with the poet R. A. K. Mason in two works, China (1943) and Refugee (1945). By the end of 1946, however, she seemed disillusioned with theatre and invested her energy in helping Hart build a yacht, with the intention of sailing the world. She was one of few women at the time to gain a yacht-master’s certificate. Her marriage to Hart was over by 1949, and she had formed a relationship with a younger man, Walter Brown, with whom she moved to Australia that year. They later separated.

At the urging of dance colleagues, in 1951 Barr opened a studio and formed a group called ‘Sydney Dance-Drama Group’ (renamed ‘Margaret Barr Dance-Drama Group’ in 1968). She created a major new work each year, often collaborating with Australian composers—including John Antill, Arnold Butcher, Laurence Hagerty, Bruce Hembrowe, and Richard Meale—and revived standards from her repertoire until her final work, The Countess, in 1990.

Barr’s work was distinguished from other modern dance by her insistence on the development of both physical action and dramatic intent in equal measure: dance-drama. Her works, all of which expressed her social consciousness, fall into three broad categories. An Australian Suite, including Flood (1955), Bushfire (1955), and The Breaking of the Drought (1958), portray the devastation of a harsh environment, while works such as Three Households (1959), Our Son, Our Daughter (1960), and Three Sisters of Katoomba (1975) concern conflict and possible reconciliation between Aboriginal people and white settlers. Although she did not consider herself a feminist, stating she had never felt discriminated against, works such as New Sonnets from the Portuguese (1975) championed the endeavour of strong women. Throughout her long career she produced a number of anti-war works, among them Processions (1943), A Small People (1966), The Hurdlers (1969), and O Padre (1984).

Becoming the inaugural movement tutor at the National Institute for Dramatic Art (NIDA) in 1959, Barr held the post for seventeen years. She died on 29 May 1991 at the Royal North Shore Hospital, Sydney, and was cremated; she had no children. A portrait by Anita Rezevska hangs in the Rogues Gallery at NIDA.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Bonham-Carter, Victor. Dartington Hall: The History of an Experiment. London: Phoenix Press, 1958
  • Brissenden, Alan, and Keith Glennon. Australia Dances: Creating Australian Dance 1945–1965. Kent Town: Wakefield Press, 2010
  • Lester, Garry. ‘Galvanising Community: Margaret Barr at Dartington Hall 1930-34.’ Pts. 1 and 2. Brolga, no. 25 (December 2006): 39-49 and no. 26 (June 2007): 39-55
  • Martin, John. ‘The Dance in England.’ New York Times, 14 August 1932, X5
  • Von Sturmer, Caryll. Margaret Barr: Epic Individual. Sydney: L. Von Sturmer, 1993.

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Garry Lester, 'Barr, Margaret (1904–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/barr-margaret-14855/text26040, published online 2014, accessed online 23 October 2018.

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