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Louisa Mary (Louise) Lightfoot (1902–1979)

by Mary Louise Lightfoot and Marian Quartly

This article was published:

Louisa Mary Lightfoot (1902-1979), dancer, choreographer and impresario, was born on 22 May 1902 at Yangerry, near Warrnambool, Victoria, fourth child and third daughter of Victorian-born parents Charles Lightfoot, schoolteacher, and his wife Mary, née Graham. Louise was always fond of dancing, but could see no way to practise it as a profession. At the Catholic Ladies' College, East Melbourne, she won exhibitions in drawing and mathematics, and in 1920 her father sent her to study architecture at the University of Melbourne. She passed her final subjects in the diploma of architecture in 1923, the only woman to have then done so.

Lightfoot was tall, slender and graceful, striking in profile, beautiful rather than pretty. While still a student, she began a four-year apprenticeship in the innovative architectural office of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin in Melbourne. Late in 1924 the Griffins moved to Castlecrag, Sydney, a new suburb intended as an ideal community in anthroposophic harmony with nature and culture. Lightfoot went too, as companion and reluctant cook for Marion, as well as draughtswoman and designer in the Sydney office where, in Walter's words, she showed 'resourcefulness and trustworthiness, as well as artistic comprehension and diligence'.

Encouraged by Marion Griffin, Lightfoot began to study 'Eurythmic' Greek dancing, and found it 'a little dull'. On Anna Pavlova's first tour of Australia in 1926, Louise found her fusion of classical technique and romantic emotion a 'revelation'. Through the tour Lightfoot met the character dancer Misha Burlakov and persuaded him to teach her the Russian mazurka; later she wrote, her 'real happiness started' when she danced with him in peasant costume and red leather boots. She studied enough classical ballet to begin giving classes for children. In October 1928 she left the Griffins. She and Burlakov worked together preparing folk-dances for charity performances and amateur opera. After classes in the technique of Mary Wigman, Lightfoot added dances in that starkly modern style. By 1931 the 'Lightfoot-Burlakov Classic Dance School' became the 'First Australian Ballet' for a staging of Coppélia in the Savoy Theatre, choreographed by Lightfoot from a score and production notes discovered in the J. C. Williamson library.

Lightfoot choreographed and produced several ballets a year in the 1930s, sometimes from her memory of productions seen in Australia, often from descriptions in books and magazines. She also composed original ballets, including a set of abstract compositions 'in the modern expressive style', performed to percussion, and The Fruits of Forgetfulness, inspired by the paintings of Gaugin, set to a locally written avant-garde score. Pupils remembered her as aloof, a strict disciplinarian and an inspired choreographer.

In 1937 she and Burlakov visited London and Paris, securing the rights to perform a number of new ballets including Diaghilev's The Blue God. Lightfoot took classes with experts in modern, Spanish and Hindu dance; she was particularly impressed by the performance of the Indian Uday Shankar troupe and told the Woman's Weekly that she intended to create a new Indian ballet on her return to Australia. A two-week stopover in India extended to five months as she travelled to Kalamandalam in Kerala, where she began her study of the complex traditions of Kathakali dance.

After returning to Sydney early in 1938 and producing her own 'authentic' version of The Blue God, Lightfoot dissolved her partnership with Burlakov and went back to India. In the next half-decade she lived in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, learning the different techniques of the sacred dance styles Kathakali and Bharata Natya, keeping herself by teaching classical ballet to children of the Raj. She became a great publicist of Indian dance (despised or ignored by Indian high culture), organized tours by dancing troupes in South India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), worked with the filmmaker K. Subramanyam at Madras (Chennai) and published widely in the Indian press.

In 1947 Lightfoot brought the young Kathakali dancer Shivaram to Australia and trained a group of Australian dancers to work with him. Next year they introduced Kathakali dance to the British stage. In 1949 for the Australian National Theatre she presented Shivaram in a ballet of her own design, Indra Vijayam, and in 1950 he again toured successfully. Performances in Japan, the United States of America and Canada more often took the form of lecture-demonstrations in universities and galleries, with Lightfoot providing commentary. Shivaram made a series of visits to Australia, the last in 1976.

In 1951 Lightfoot had gone to the mountain state of Manipur to learn a third tradition of sacred dance. Here she discovered and popularized a form older than the Hindu traditions. She published a monograph, Dance-Rituals of Manipur (New Delhi, 1958); her recording of songs and ritual music was released in the American Ethnic Folkways series in 1960 as Ritual Music of Manipur. Lightfoot organized Australian, Japanese and North American tours for dancers and drummers from Manipur and Kerala.

From the late 1950s she worked with Shivaram to establish an Indian dance school in San Francisco, U.S.A. From 1965 she lived and worked at the yoga ashram of Swami Vishnudevananda in Montreal, Canada. Lightfoot never married. In 1968 she retired to Oakleigh, Victoria, where she continued to train dancers in the Indian styles. She died on 18 May 1979 at Malvern and was buried in new Cheltenham cemetery. The Cochin Indian Express lamented the death of 'Kathakali's Australian mother'.

Select Bibliography

  • E. H. Pask, Enter the Colonies Dancing (Melb, 1979)
  • E. H. Pask, Ballet in Australia (Melb, 1982)
  • J. Turnbull and P. Y. Navaretti (eds), The Griffins in Australia and India (Melb, 1998)
  • Dancing Times, Mar 1939, p 742
  • Brolga, no 2, June 1995, p 7, no 15, Dec 2001, pp 22 & 26
  • Dance Australia, no 94, Feb/Mar 1998, p 40
  • Sruti, May 2001
  • A. Card, History in Motion, Ph.D. thesis, University of Sydney, 1999, pp 119-130
  • L. Lightfoot, Memories of the Burley Griffins (typescript, folio 4, Anthroposophy collection, Willoughby Library, Sydney)
  • Lightfoot dance collection (Monash University School of Music Archive).

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Mary Louise Lightfoot and Marian Quartly, 'Lightfoot, Louisa Mary (Louise) (1902–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 16 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


22 May, 1902
Yangerry, Victoria, Australia


18 May, 1979 (aged 76)
Malvern, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.