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Lisner, Charles Maurice (1928–1988)

by Joanne Scott

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Charles Lisner, by Graham Garner, c.1965

Charles Lisner, by Graham Garner, c.1965

National Library of Australia, 45656693

Charles Maurice Lisner (1928-1988), ballet dancer, choreographer and producer, was born on 12 March 1928 in the 20th arrondissement, Paris, youngest of three children of Polish-born parents Joseph Hersz Lisner, tailor, and his wife Malka, née Shorka.  The family migrated to Melbourne, arriving in January 1937, and settled at Carlton.  Educated at Rathdowne Street State and University High schools, in 1942 Charles and his brother Tauvia (Thomas) attended a performance at Edouard Borovansky’s Melbourne Academy of Russian Ballet.  Keen to learn ballet, but fearing their parents’ disapproval, next year they secretly began taking dance classes at the academy.  Although a 'late-starter', Charles had a natural turnout and high elevation.  Benefiting from a shortage of male dancers in Australia, he was engaged by the Borovansky Australian Ballet Company in 1945.  After touring the country with the company he resigned and, in 1947, travelled to London.  Following an unsuccessful audition for the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, he secured a small part in the film The Red Shoes.  He auditioned again for Sadler’s Wells, winning a five-month scholarship to attend its school, and joined the company in 1948.

A severe bout of pneumonia caused Lisner to assess his career as a dancer and he returned to Australia in 1952, intending to form his own professional ballet company.  Choosing Brisbane as a suitable location because it had an active amateur dance and theatre scene but no professional performing arts company, he began by establishing (1953) the Lisner Ballet Academy at Fortitude Valley.  On 21 December 1957 at St Peter’s Church of England vicarage, West End, he married Valerie Margaret Brunne.  She had been one of the first students to enrol at the academy and had become a ballet teacher.

In July 1959 Lisner opened the Academy Theatre in Elizabeth Street, Brisbane, and two months later announced the formation of the Lisner Ballet Company, Australia’s first professional State dance company.  In its inaugural season in 1960, the company’s eleven dancers, all trained at Lisner’s school, performed four one-act ballets choreographed by Lisner, including The Gift, for which he had composed the music.  The company was renamed the Queensland Ballet Company in 1962.  Between 1959 and 1974, Lisner choreographed thirty-three ballets in which the influences of history, literature and art, and also contemporary social concerns, were evident; they ranged from Oedipus Rex to Cataclysm, a commentary on drug use.  His Danses Sacrées et Profanes became part of the Australian Ballet’s repertoire in 1972 under the title Images Classiques.

Lisner’s struggles to finance the Queensland Ballet had worsened when his theatre was destroyed by fire in 1965; next year the company was disbanded.  It re-formed in 1967 when the Queensland government offered a grant of $7500.  After travelling overseas in 1972 on a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust fellowship, to review the repertoire and teaching methods of ballet companies and schools, he returned to find his company in another financial crisis.  He lent it money and demanded that he be appointed chief executive officer as well as artistic director.  In 1974, satisfied that the Queensland Ballet was once again secure, he informed the board that he 'would now like to see the company flourishing without me there to prop it up', and resigned.  He was appointed OBE in 1976.  That year he became dance critic for the Courier-Mail.

In his autobiography, My Journey Through Dance (1979), Lisner declared that in his career he had been assisted by 'a kind of partial blindness, a great propensity for wearing blinkers, for looking neither right nor left but only straight ahead at the focal point of my objective'.  He advocated the development of a national style of dance and the use of Australian choreographers, and supported the establishment of regional dance companies.  His enthusiasm for dance was matched by his disdain for the 'asinine obstruction' of the 'amateurish' committees and boards that had hindered rather than helped his company.  He also wrote the polemical The Australian Ballet: Twenty-one Years (1984), and The Complete Guide for Australian Dancers (1988).

The Queensland Ballet appointed Lisner founder patron in 1984.  Survived by his wife and their son and daughter, he died of cancer on 16 June 1988 in Brisbane and was cremated.  The Queensland Ballet holds a bust of him by the sculptor Rhyl Hinwood; a studio and the library at its West End headquarters were named for him.

Select Bibliography

  • Queensland Ballet, Quarterly Report, 1988, p 21
  • Meanjin, vol 43, no 1, 1984, p 105
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 1 June 1973, p 21
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 7 June 1974, p 2
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 22 March 1988, p 22
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 18 June 1988, p 15
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 17 November 1979, p 12
  • Dance Australia, June 1982, p 9
  • Dance Australia, December 1987, p 19
  • Dance Australia, December 1990, p 29
  • Queensland Ballet archives, Brisbane
  • private information

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Citation details

Joanne Scott, 'Lisner, Charles Maurice (1928–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lisner-charles-maurice-14179/text25191, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 10 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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