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Brenan, Jennie Frances (1877–1964)

by Janet McCalman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Jennie Frances Brenan (1877-1964), dancing teacher, was born on 24 April 1877 at Carlton, Victoria, fifth daughter of James Joseph Brenan, Irish-born estate agent, and his wife Annie Bryce Cooper, née Livingston, of Edinburgh. She was educated at the Catholic Ladies' College, East Melbourne. Despite family disapproval, Jennie always wanted to dance and J. C. Williamson, a frequent visitor to the Brenan home, encouraged her to take lessons from Mary Weir. Her early training in 'fancy dancing', from the gavotte to the Irish jig, gave her an artistic eclecticism she never lost. In the 1890s she studied ballet in Melbourne under Rosalie Phillipini and in 1901-02 under Alexandre Genée in London.

Ironically, the qualities which were to impress her thousands of students, early restricted her stage career. One young pupil recalled Miss Jennie as 'a tall, graceful creature with a cloud of dark hair, lovely eyes, long legs like a race horse and elegant ankles'. Too tall for classical ballet, she recoiled from the immodesty of the popular theatre. At her début in J. C. Williamson's production of Trilby at Bendigo in July 1896, her high-kick number stopped the show, but shyness overcame her and she refused to dance in Melbourne where she knew too many people. Williamson persuaded her to turn to teaching and her first pupils were his daughter and the young Dorothy Brunton, who became a star in musical comedy.

Jennie Brenan opened her first studio in 1904 at 163 Collins Street and with her sisters Margaret (1884-1964) and later Eileen (b.1891), taught ballet, ballroom and fancy dancing. In the 1920s, she added the Embassy Cabaret to her enterprises, and the sisters taught in private schools in Melbourne, Geelong and Frankston, producing pantomimes and tableaux vivants on sacred themes, lavishly costumed from the J. C. W. wardrobe. The Brenan school became the major supplier of dancers for J. C. W. productions for more than thirty years and Jennie created ballet and dance sequences for operettas, musicals and pantomimes. Her insistence on decorum and elegance in her pupils helped to make theatrical dancing more respectable. Her outstanding pupils included Ivy Schilling, Joan Cadzow, Pat Keating, Phyllis Kennedy, Lois Green, Roy Currie and Martin Rubinstein.

However, it was as much as an 'entrepreneur of teaching' that Jennie Brenan made her contribution to the dance in Australia. With Eileen she travelled annually to London where they continued to study and could engage teachers of the highest quality for their school. Through her friend (Dame) Adeline Genée, president of the Association for Operatic Dancing of Great Britain (later the Royal Academy of Dancing), she organized the teaching and examination of its syllabus in Australia, and examiners were brought from London for the first tests in 1935. Academy scholarships then gave Australian students entry to the Sadler's Wells School. Jennie was the first president of the R.A.D. in Australia and in 1936 was the first overseas representative to be elected to its grand council. She died, unmarried, on 2 February 1964 and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery. In 1965 the R.A.D. (Victoria) gave a teacher's scholarship bearing her name.

Select Bibliography

  • V. Tait, A Family of Brothers (Melb, 1971)
  • J. Cargher, Opera and Ballet in Australia (Syd, 1977)
  • A. Lubbock, People in Glass Houses (Melb, 1977)
  • H. C. Walker, ‘A chat with Jennie Brenan’, Lone Hand, 1 Aug 1914
  • private information.

Citation details

Janet McCalman, 'Brenan, Jennie Frances (1877–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/brenan-jennie-frances-5343/text9033, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 16 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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