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Coe, Kelvin (1946–1992)

by Lee Christofis

This article was published online in 2020

Kelvin Coe (1946–1992), ballet dancer and teacher, was born on 18 September 1946 in North Melbourne, son of George Henry Aloysius Coe and second son of his wife Margaret (Peggy) Christie, formerly Collard, née Carson, both Victorian born. His parents had difficult childhoods: George was raised in an orphanage, while Peggy was a victim of polio. She had longed to dance but instead became a champion cyclist. Having been widowed in 1938, when her elder son was four years old, Peggy took factory work, then opened a sandwich shop, where George joined her after they married in 1945. Educated at North Melbourne State School and Princes Hill High School, Kelvin studied piano and tap-dancing and dreamed of dancing like the Hollywood star Fred Astaire. He appeared in pantomime at the Tivoli and Princess theatres, and excelled at the Royal South Street Eisteddfod, Ballarat, where the local newspaper described him as a ‘Cheery Tapper’ (Courier 1956, 2).

Leaving school at fifteen to study intensively with the dancer-choreographer Rex Reid, Coe secured his first paid work in May 1962, as an uncredited dancer in the Australian Broadcasting Commission television production of the musical Lola Montez. It was at Reid’s studio that (Dame) Peggy van Praagh, the founding director of the Australian Ballet, first saw Coe dance. When he turned sixteen, she recruited him as an apprentice for the company’s debut season at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney, in November 1962. He danced in Swan Lake and was inspired by the handsome, Danish guest artist Erik Bruhn, the era’s iconic danseur noble. Humble corps de ballet parts led to small ensemble work for Coe as he grew in stature in the company.

Coe’s progress was influenced by the Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev, who was a guest artist during the Australian Ballet’s British debut in 1965. Nureyev gave Coe his first soloist role in a production of Marius Petipa’s Raymonda and told van Praagh that she should nurture Coe’s talent. At the Adelaide Festival in March 1970 Coe alternated with Nureyev in the leading role of Basilio, the larrikin barber in Petipa’s Don Quixote; he also followed him in the lead role of Sir Robert Helpmann’s condensed psychodrama Hamlet. Coe later described Nureyev as a ‘flamboyant personality’ and ‘a kind of divine bastard’ who had ‘completely revolutionised’ the role of the male dancer (Coe 1992).

Debonair but self-effacing, Coe was the first man in the Australian Ballet to rise from apprentice to principal artist (1969). He danced scores of ballets, including the Tchaikovsky classics, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker; but he was drawn more to the Romantic repertoire such as Giselle and Coppélia. He took challenging roles in two classics by the Englishman Sir Frederick Ashton: Colas in La Fille mal gardée (1967, 1978), and Oberon in The Dream (1969). Several roles were created for his talent and distinctive nobility: in Helpmann’s Sun Music (1968) and The Merry Widow (1975), and in Graeme Murphy’s Beyond Twelve (1980) and Homelands (1982).

Coe performed with the leading Australian ballerinas of his generation—Lucette Aldous, Kathleen Geldard, Marilyn Jones, Marilyn Rowe, and Christine Walsh—and danced with several international artists, including (Dame) Margot Fonteyn, Carla Fracci, Galina Samsova, and Maina Gielgud. In 1973 he and Rowe won silver medals at the Moscow International Ballet Competition, stirring audiences to cheer ‘Rowe-Coe’ repeatedly and to shower them with flowers. The pair were later (1978) guest artists in Don Quixote with the Bolshoi Ballet. In 1974 Coe joined the London Festival Ballet, forging rewarding partnerships with Elisabetta Terabust and Eva Evdokimova, and dancing Albrecht in Giselle, his favourite role. While he was in England a critic remarked that his ‘cheerful, open Australian face is hardly suitable for the Prince in Swan Lake.’ Coe later recalled: ‘What critics say never worries me. I just laugh all over my cheerful, open Australian face’ (Shmith 1992, 11).

Plagued by homesickness, Coe returned to Melbourne and the Australian Ballet in November, dancing leading roles in Romeo and Juliet (1974–75) and Onegin (1976), both productions created by John Cranko with the Stuttgart Ballet, and in Swan Lake (1977), produced by the company’s new artistic director Anne Woolliams. Despite the Australian Ballet’s growth under Woolliams’s direction, tensions between her and the company’s management led to her resignation in 1978, ushering in a period of artistic and industrial unrest. Coe freelanced with the Chicago Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, then toured Australia with the promoter Michael Edgley’s ‘Stars of World Ballet.’ Rejoining the Australian Ballet, he danced Vronksy in the world premiere of André Prokovsky’s Anna Karenina (1979) with Samsova. He was appointed OBE in 1980.

In 1979 Marilyn Jones had been appointed artistic director of the Australian Ballet, and the company’s general manager, Peter Bahen, began to pursue a more commercial repertoire. The dancers soon expressed concerns about the artistic value of new productions and by 1981 Jones was unable to stem their dissatisfaction. With the dancers’ contracts and salaries also under review, industrial action followed in October and Coe, reluctantly, became the artists’ spokesperson during a twenty-six-day strike. He believed the settlement offered to the dancers was poor and resigned in December.

Moving to Sydney, Coe performed with Murphy’s Sydney Dance Company and in Opera Australia’s Die Fledermaus and Alcina, both starring Dame Joan Sutherland. To the public’s delight, Maina Gielgud, who had replaced Jones as artistic director, invited Coe and Rowe to perform in the Australian Ballet’s first national live telecast, of Woolliams’s version of Swan Lake (1983), and later in other performances. His last season of Giselle, in 1986 with Christine Walsh, was nationally televised and commercially released.

After a short-lived investment in a Sydney dance studio, Coe returned to Melbourne and became a teacher (1985–92) at the Australian Ballet School. Increasingly debilitated by the symptoms of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), and furious that the Herald-Sun had exposed his status as a sufferer of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) the day his father died, he retired in 1991. His partner Stuart Robertson sought revenge by pouring red paint over the responsible journalist. An artist to the end, in a very weak state and in severe pain, Coe gave his last performance in December 1991 as Clothilde, one of the comic stepsisters, in the Australian Ballet School’s Cinderella. He died on 9 July 1992 at home in Carlton and was cremated. He was remembered for a dancing style that was ‘graceful, elegant, relaxed and poised … [but] never showy or vulgar’ (Shoubridge 1992, 3). The next year the Friends of the Australian Ballet created the Kelvin Coe memorial scholarship for young dancers.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Christofis, Lee, ed. ‘Just a Tap Dancing Kid: An Interview with Kelvin Coe Recorded by Michelle Potter in 1992.’ Brolga: An Australian Journal about Dance 2 (June 1995): 30–53
  • Coe, Kelvin. Interview by Michelle Potter, 1 May 1992. Esso Performing Arts collection. National Library of Australia
  • Coe, Kelvin. Interview by the author, 1990
  • Coe, Peggy. Interview by the author, 1994
  • Collard, Noel Jeffrey. Interview by the author, 13 March 1994
  • Courier (Ballarat). ‘Cheery Tapper.’ 13 September 1956, 2
  • Pask, Edward H. Ballet in Australia: The Second Act 1940–1980. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1983
  • Scott, Kate Rachelle, ed. Luminous: Celebrating 50 Years of the Australian Ballet. Southbank, Vic.: The Australian Ballet, 2011
  • Shmith, Michael. ‘A Star of Australian Ballet.’ Age (Melbourne), 10 July 1992, 11
  • Shoubridge, William. ‘A Dancer’s Dancer and a Great Teacher.’ Australian, 10 July 1992, 3.

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Citation details

Lee Christofis, 'Coe, Kelvin (1946–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/coe-kelvin-29641/text36607, published online 2020, accessed online 5 July 2020.

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