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van Praagh, Dame Margaret (Peggy) (1910–1990)

by Christopher Sexton

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

Peggy Van Praagh (right) with Kathleen Gorham, 1962

Peggy Van Praagh (right) with Kathleen Gorham, 1962

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L42238

Dame Margaret (Peggy) van Praagh (1910–1990), ballet dancer, producer, director, teacher and administrator, was born on 1 September 1910 at Hampstead, London, younger child of Harold John van Praagh, an English physician of Dutch-Jewish extraction, and his Scottish wife Ethel Louise, née Shanks. Peggy was educated at King Alfred School, Hampstead, under the renowned education reformer A. S. Neill, who greatly influenced her future liberal thinking on artistic creativity and the place of dance in the community. Aged 4, she started dancing lessons at the Hampstead Conservatoire of Music. She gave her first public performance in 1917, at the Torquay Pavilion, Paignton. During her school years she staged local and school dramatic and dance productions.

Pursuing a career in dance, van Praagh continued with her classical ballet training and auditioned for Anna Pavlova, for her company, without success. She opened her own teaching studio in 1929. Later that year she was invited to dance with a small company formed by (Sir) Anton Dolin. Although the engagement lasted only two weeks, it led to an important move to a new teacher, the legendary Margaret Craske, a former Diaghilev dancer and guardian of the Cecchetti method of dance. Under Craske’s tuition, van Praagh studied mime with Tamara Karsavina, repertoire with Lydia Sokolova, modern expressionist dance with Gertrud Bodenwieser and ballet history with Cyril W. Beaumont.

In 1932, at the instigation of (Dame) Marie Rambert, one of the adjudicators of van Praagh’s final advanced Cecchetti examination, she was chosen to perform in Antony Tudor’s new ballet, Adam and Eve, for the Carmargo Society in London. A year later she secured her first permanent position as a member of Rambert’s Ballet Club, with which she danced on Sunday nights at the Mercury Theatre, Notting Hill Gate. In 1936, as a full-time member of the Ballet Rambert, she danced her first major role in Tudor’s Jardin aux Lilas. Tudor created another role for her in his 1937 masterpiece, Dark Elegies. The American choreographer Agnes de Mille recalled van Praagh’s technique in that work: ‘[She] had the finest port de bras of anyone I saw in England, wonderfully rich, simple, velvety, creamy. It was like a fine cello tone and always extremely expressive . . . Nobody could match her’.

Leaving the Ballet Rambert in 1938, van Praagh joined Tudor as principal dancer and ballet mistress with his newly formed company, the London Ballet. The next two years were particularly stimulating and rewarding for her, as she performed in several Tudor ballets including Gala Performance, Soirée Musicale, Gallant Assembly and The Planets. At the same time her choreographic tastes were broadened by a number of experimental influences, most notably the works of the German choreographer Kurt Jooss. It was, however, in the interpretative field and the psychological ballets of Tudor, where he used classical ballet movement to convey human passions and relationships, that she found her particular value as a dancer and her creative strength.

Tudor sailed for the United States of America in 1939, leaving van Praagh as a principal organiser of the London Ballet. A shortage of male dancers led to an awkward merger with the Ballet Rambert: the London-Rambert Ballet Company, which disbanded in 1941. During the Blitz, she almost single-handedly instituted the ‘lunch-hour ballet’ program at the Arts Theatre. In 1941 (Dame) Ninette de Valois invited van Praagh to join her company, the Sadler’s Wells Ballet (later the Royal Ballet). There, for the next five years, van Praagh was engaged principally to teach, and to fill in as a soloist when dancers were injured. She appeared in the rout in (Sir) Robert Helpmann’s ballet Comus, as the fouette girl in Les Patineurs, in the waltz in Les Sylphides, as the Violet Fairy and Fairies Gold and Silver in The Sleeping Princess, and as the Leading Foolish Virgin in The Wise Virgins. For four years she retained the leading role of Swanilda in Coppelia, sharing it with (Dame) Margot Fonteyn and Pamela May.

On the formation of the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet in 1946, de Valois offered van Praagh the job of ballet mistress and producer. While this effectively signalled an end to her stage career, it also heralded an important new phase as a future director, assisting the accouchement of a new generation of British dancers and choreographers. In 1951, when the company went on tour to North America, she was appointed assistant-director. According to (Sir) Kenneth MacMillan, then a young member of the company, she had ‘an extraordinary understanding of the individual’ and ‘a warm approach . . . that was also disciplined’. Van Praagh’s encouragement of new choreographers and the emergence of a range of gifted artists under her guidance produced a creative harvest in British ballet in this period.

After ten years de Valois dissolved her position with the company. She became a freelance producer, staging the English ballet classics for Continental companies, including the Royal Danish, Royal Swedish and Norsk ballets. Between 1956 and 1959 she was a roving ambassador for British ballet. A dance director of the Edinburgh Festival Ballet in 1958, she also spent some months in 1959 teaching at Jacob’s Pillow in the USA.

In 1960 van Praagh received an invitation from Australia to act as artistic director of the Borovansky Ballet, following the death of its founder. After her one-year term with the company, she returned to Europe where she took up the post of professor of dance with the Grand Ballet de Marquis de Cuevas in Paris, and taught Rudolf Nureyev. In 1962, with the support of the Australian government, van Praagh became the founding artistic director of the Australian Ballet. The company opened its first season on 2 November 1962 with Swan Lake at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney, starring the guest artists Erik Bruhn and Sonia Arova. The vibrant new company had as principals Marilyn Jones, Kathleen Gorham and Garth Welch, and it developed a repertoire quite different from Borovansky’s.

From 1965 to 1974, until her retirement, van Praagh shared the artistic directorship with Helpmann. She returned in 1978 as sole artistic director for that year. For the most part, the van Praagh-Helpmann arrangement was workable: she, the pedagogue, teacher and administrator; he, the consummate showman. The hallmark features of her directorship were her vision, perseverance and courage. She committed a third of the company’s repertoire to maintaining the great ballet classics, a third to new works by the foremost contemporary choreographers, and a third to new Australian works. As Geoffrey Hutton remarked: ‘Some thought her devoted to the nineteenth century classics. In fact, she was catholic in her tastes, with a strong feeling for modern dance forms and an urge to keep the company looking forwards’.

In 1965 van Praagh received a Queen Elizabeth II coronation award from the Royal Academy of Dancing. She was appointed OBE in 1966 and DBE in 1970. The University of New England conferred on her an honorary doctorate of letters (1974) and the University of Melbourne an honorary doctorate of laws (1981). She wrote How I Became a Ballet Dancer (1954) and Ballet in Australia (1965), and with Peter Brinson, The Choreographic Art (1963).

Van Praagh could be indomitable and forthright; she called a spade a spade. A highly attractive, dynamic woman, she had her share of romantic liaisons, but it was dance that ruled her world. Her great regret was that she never married. Possessed of enormous physical and emotional courage, she had suffered a bad strain of the sacro-iliac joint when only a second-year student. In 1961 in London she had her first operation for arthritis of the hip, followed by a succession of further operations until her last in Melbourne in 1984. She refused to allow her physical handicap to impede her work. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1987, Dame Peggy lived in a nursing home at Camberwell, Victoria, until her death on 15 January 1990. Following a funeral service at St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne, she was cremated. Her contribution to Australian ballet was recognised posthumously in her induction in the Hall of Fame at the 2000 Australian Dance Awards.

Select Bibliography

  • I. Brown (ed), The Australian Ballet 1962-1965 (1967)
  • C. Sexton, Peggy van Praagh (1985)
  • Dancing Times, December 1974, p 128
  • M. Rowe, The Ausdance Dame Peggy van Praagh Memorial Address, 2000 (http://pandora.nla.gov.au/pan/39426/20090603-0000/www.ausdance.org.au/resources/publications/PVP_address/pvp6.html), accessed 27 April 2011, copy held on ADB file
  • National Library of Australia. Van Praagh papers
  • private information

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Christopher Sexton, 'van Praagh, Dame Margaret (Peggy) (1910–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/van-praagh-dame-margaret-peggy-15898/text27099, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 24 September 2017.

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

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