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The Buzz, 8-28: The Wizard of Oz
Australian Ballet Bids Adieu to Noel Pelly

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003 The Dance Insider

We've been speaking, dance insider, about grace -- the lack of grace shown by New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik in believing that while he's entitled to his performing arts, performing artists aren't entitled to a safety net, and the grace of those performing artists by which festivals exist. With all due respect to those artists, performing arts endeavors also succeed by the grace of dedicated and driven administrators determined to "make it so." For the Australian Ballet, one person embodied that infrastructure more than any other in its 42-year history: Noel Pelly, the administrator with an uncanny ability to make others feel important. So it's fitting that tonight in Melbourne at the State Theatre of the Victorian Arts Centre, the Oz Ballet is dedicating the Melbourne run of its "Bella" program, centered around Jiri Kylian's (graceful) 1995 "Bella Figura," to the memory of Mr. Pelly, taken by cancer last Thursday at the age of 76.
Former Australian Ballet Administrator Noel Pelly (right), at the Adelaide airport in 1964, with Sir Robert Helpmann and Sheila Helpmann, Sir Robert's sister. Photo courtesy Australian Ballet.

"It's difficult to think of the Australian Ballet without Noel Pelly," Rudolf Nureyev, a frequent guest artist with the Oz, commented in 1991. "He is the heart, the soul of the company."

From 1961, when he drafted its first press release, to 1991, when he retired as administrator of the company, it was Pelly who, as former artistic director Maina Gielgud told The Buzz this week, "made the wheels of the car turn -- and, as was sometimes said, it was (and in large part thanks to him, still is) like the Rolls Royce of ballet companies, running as smooth as silk.... No one could be a better example of the ideal administrative partner to an artistic director: devoted to getting their artistic dreams and ideals to audiences -- in a practical manner. Always ready with advice, and ideas, but never interfering with artistic matters."

On taking the reigns of the Oz Ballet in 1983, Gielgud arrived in its Flemington office, picked up the phone, and discovered to her chagrin that she could not dial outside Australia. Overseas calls had been blocked by the previous administrator. "NP just said quietly 'that will be arranged,'" she recalled. "And of course, by the afternoon it was."

Later that year, Gielgud remembered, "we were in a plane together, and I was sort of thinking out loud, starting to realize that many of the dancers actually believed that elsewhere in ballet companies the grass might be greener. So I said/thought, 'It would be so good if some of them could go overseas just for a little while, on their Christmas holidays or something, and see the conditions and way other dancers in companies overseas work.' 'Mmm,' said Noel. 'I should think that could be arranged. We should be able to get some scholarships for something like that.' Within a couple of weeks, we were arranging for the first 'Christmas Kids' to do just that. And every year since, up to six dancers from the company have toured Europe and the US, visiting, doing classes, and watching rehearsals and performances of many of the major companies in the world. They came back much the wiser, and I believe we lost much less dancers to overseas than we would have without this."

The entire company would go overseas when, in 1987, Pelly negotiated tours to Japan and China. In 1988, as part of the Australian Bicentenary, he organized the company's tour of the USSR, the United Kingdom, and Greece, and, in 1990, a US tour to the Metropolitan Opera House, Kennedy Center, and Orange County Performing Arts Center. In 1987, in recognition of his contributions to the performing arts and to the Australian Ballet in particular, Noel Pelly was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia.

Pelly retired as administrator in 1991, but continued to contribute to the company as a director, or board member, through 2000. In essence, he has been with the company since its founding, its history embodied in one man. But his reach extended beyond the dance and beyond Australia. Joining the press department of the Australian Elizabethan Trust in 1961, he toured with Trust artists and attractions including Zoe Caldwell, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Edward Everett Horton, Jose Limon Dance Company, the Indian Song and Dance Theatre, and the Elizabethan Trust Opera Company, and promoted the first season of Sydney's Old Tote Theatre Company, now the Syndey Theatre Company.

"Noel was an incredible man of the theatre," said David McAllister, the Oz Ballet's current artistic director. "He was always so generous with his knowledge and enthusiasm throughout the Australian Ballet's 42-year history, and was a wonderful mentor to all who worked with him. We will miss him terribly, as will his many friends throughout the world."

In addition to the Australian Ballet, those friends will have the legacy of their personal memories, including, for Gielgud, "the party in Melbourne, when we all went on the lake, and several of us fell in. I have a photo of Noel in the water with just his head and straw hat showing!"

In print, Pelly's legacy includes a just-completed biography of the late composer and conductor John Lanchbery, and "Zita," the story of Zita Gordon Gielgud, the Hungarian actress who went on to serve as a lieutenant for Allied intelligence during World War II, and who is Maina Gielgud's mother.


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