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History Makers

by The Australian Ballet School |

Over six decades, many young and aspiring dancers have trained at and graduated from The Australian Ballet School. Each has their own story to tell. It is our joy, in our 60th anniversary year, to share with you some of these unique stories through this very special History Makers series. As Lisa Pavane prepares for the curtain call on her tenure as Director of The Australian Ballet School, it seems fitting to launch this series with her story. 

Audiences will remember Lisa Pavane as an esteemed prima ballerina in the 1980s and 1990s. After graduating from The Australian Ballet School in 1978, Lisa swiftly rose through The Australian Ballet ranks to become a Principal Artist before moving to London to become a Senior Principal at the English National Ballet. Her stellar international career also included many guest artist roles in the USA and Europe. Lisa retired from the stage in 1999 and joined The Australian Ballet School faculty in 2007, where she held leadership positions and was awarded a Churchill Fellowship. Building upon the legacy of founding director Dame Margaret Scott AC DBE, Gailene Stock CBE AM and Marilyn Rowe AM OBE, Lisa commenced as Director of The Australian Ballet School in 2015. Lisa concludes her distinguished tenure at the end of June 2024 and is succeeded by Megan Connelly.

Our History Maker - Lisa Pavane

By Rose Mulready

The fourth director of The Australian Ballet School has an origin story straight out of a novel. Lisa Pavane’s mother fell over in the bath in her 28th week of pregnancy. The premature baby weighed only two pounds. With her life hovering in the balance, she was baptised straight after her birth. Her mother chose to give her the name of a stately Renaissance dance. “I’m going to baptise her Lisa-Pavane, she’s going to live, and she’s going to be a ballet dancer.”

The baby did live. But her future as a ballet dancer must have been hard to envisage. She spent nine months in hospital, and for the first years of her life was plagued with chronic asthma. Doctors advised her mother to try swimming or ballet to increase her lung capacity.

Lisa took her first dance steps in a little local hall at the end of her road, with Judith Ravenscroft. At around five, she started classes with Tessa Maunder – a renowned Newcastle teacher who trained several principals of The Australian Ballet, including Marilyn Rowe, Marilyn Jones, Robert Curran and Olivia Bell. At first, Lisa had no thought of joining these illustrious ranks. “Really, I absolutely hated it. Physical exercise was not a joyous thing to me, I did it because it was medicine. And Tessa was tough! You had to be strong to survive.” However, as she grew out of her asthma and began to do well in competitions, her appetite for dance grew, and was fed by frequent trips with her ballet school to Sydney, where she saw “the Marilyns” (Jones and Rowe) perform. “They were my idols. The Australian Ballet was always in my sights.”

At 15, Lisa went to Sydney with Elizabeth Toohey, whom she’d met at Maunder’s, to audition for the The Australian Ballet School. Its director, Margaret Scott, was there with The Australian Ballet’s director, Peggy van Praagh, and the choreographer Ray Powell. “Luminaries!” She was accepted, and she and Toohey moved into a homestay in Maribyrnong to be close to the converted tyre factory in Flemington that housed the School. “It was exciting. Maggie was a hard disciplinarian, but she was loving and nurturing.” Lucette Aldous, who had danced in the film of Don Quixote with Rudolf Nureyev, was one of Lisa’s first-year teachers. And there was the novelty of male students – there had been no boys at Maunder’s school. Lisa studied pas de deux, “understanding how to hold your body with your partner’s and work together in a relationship – giving your trust to him to hold you up and make you look good.” She was an inaugural member of The Dancers Company, which performs on a pre-professional regional tour with The Australian Ballet. But one of her most enduring memories is learning to ride a bike in the School’s car park, because she had to ride one on stage in the Robert Ray ballet Poems. Maunder had forbidden bike-riding or horse-riding or sports of any kind, in case an injury interfered with training. 

When Lisa graduated and joined The Australian Ballet, she walked into a minefield. The dancers were embroiled in a strike over poor pay and working conditions and had refused to perform the opening night of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. “I was like a deer in the headlights – all I wanted was to dance.” Marilyn Jones, one of Lisa’s childhood idols, was replaced as director by another, Marilyn Rowe, who took over the company in a caretaker capacity. “She had always been a sort of mentor. I’d been her understudy in the After Eden pas de deux, and I’d got to know her quite well. I feel like our lives have always been intertwined, in a funny way.”

Rowe quickly promoted Lisa to soloist, and she was soon dancing principal roles with well-established stars like Kelvin Coe, Jonathan Kelly, Paul de Masson, Gary Norman and John Meehan. “What a privilege that was, what an education, with that experience and knowledge and safety behind you – that really helped propel me forward. I learnt so much from those men.” Sometimes, her lack of experience showed. Rehearsing the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet with Kelvin Coe and the famously passionate coach Anne Woolliams, Lisa found herself pulled up. “Anne came in and said, ‘Stop, stop, stop! Lisa – have you ever been kissed before?’ I think I probably blushed hot pink!”

In 1983, the English dancer Maina Gielgud took over the reins of The Australian Ballet. That year, at the age of 22, Lisa understudied Marilyn Rowe in the lead role of Spartacus. Clearly, the new director thought well of her. But then, after a prolonged period of nagging tendonitis, Lisa sustained her “one and only real injury” – which made the medical textbooks. After tearing her perineal tendon, she was left unable to plié, and in the process of treatment discovered that she only had one of the tendons, where most people have two – a curiosity that may have been due to her premature birth. 

Recovering from the injury, Lisa spent six weeks in plaster and had a revelation. Although she had been focused to the point of tunnel vision on her career, she now realised, in the face of losing it, that she truly loved to dance. She returned to debut as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, and shortly afterwards Gielgud made her a principal artist.

Under Gielgud’s directorship, Lisa danced lead roles in Checkmate, Études, Symphony in C, The Leaves are Fading and Suite en blanc, establishing herself as a ballerina of pristine classical technique. Cast as Odette/Odile in Woolliams’ Swan Lake, she was partnered with Greg Horsman, her future husband. “I was a little bit too tall for him, so we had to really work to get the partnering right, but we were both very classical dancers, our styles married very well. We used to fight like cat and dog! We were both stubborn and determined, and what we wanted didn’t always align.”

It was with Horsman that Lisa had perhaps the richest experience of her dance career. The Soviet prima ballerina Galina Ulanova, then in her late 70s, came to The Australian Ballet to coach Giselle. “She would only work with one set of principals, and Maina chose us. I don’t think we quite realised her legendary status. She hobbled into the room, an old lady, but when she started to demonstrate the first entrance, she suddenly looked like she was 16 years old. Her vibrancy, her delicacy, her voice, her knowledge about Giselle, the history, the artistry, the tradition, the secrets – unbelievable.”

At the Kirov Ballet (now returned to its original name, the Mariinsky Ballet), it’s a tradition that mentors nurture their pupils. Ulanova stayed in the wings to watch their performances. “Here is this legendary woman handing me tissues, handing me my towel. She stitched the flowers on my costume. She would have my shawl ready for me when I came off stage.” In 1989, Lisa and Greg were invited to guest with the Kirov, dancing Giselle and La Sylphide. Ulanova had them over to her house for a vodka party. “It was amazing, being in Russia, being treated with such respect. It made you aware of the honour it is to be a dancer.”

Giselle is a motif in Lisa’s favourite memories of her career. The shoes she wore on opening night of The Australian Ballet’s 1988 season at the Metropolitan Theatre in New York are the only ones she’s ever kept.

As the 80s turned into the 90s, Lisa and Greg felt that such triumphant moments were becoming rare. Gielgud had a passion for casting very young dancers in principal roles, and the couple were hungry for more performances. They began exploring opportunities overseas. English National Ballet was looking for principals; the company had a busy schedule, and they liked the repertoire. Living in London appealed. They packed up their two-year-old daughter, gave their dogs to Robert Ray, and were soon doing three performances of Swan Lake a week at ENB, where they would stay for the better part of a decade.

At first, the English critics looked askance at dancers from Australia, but they slowly came around. One incident in particular won their respect. Lisa and Greg had returned to Australia to take a summer school and had just arrived back in London. It was opening night of the ENB’s Swan Lake, and the ballerina dancing Odette/Odile injured her foot in Act II. Lisa and Greg were just falling into bed, flattened by jet lag, when they got the call. While the company held the curtain, they rushed to the theatre, putting on their tights and make-up in the back of the cab. They went out and did the last two acts, including the gruelling Black Swan Pas de deux, without even a warm-up. The next day, they made the front page of the papers.

Towards the end of their decade in England, Greg and Lisa separated, then retired. Lisa did a secretarial course and moved into an admin role at ENB, seeing the workings of the company from another perspective. Eventually she moved back to Australia, remarried, had another baby, and stepped away from ballet. However, when her daughter was accepted into the music program at the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School, the family moved back to Melbourne, and Lisa began thinking about teaching ballet. Marilyn Rowe was now director of The Australian Ballet School, and Lisa got in touch with her. “Later, she told me, ‘I was waiting for that call.’ She said she would make a place for me at the School.”

Lisa shadowed Michela Kirkaldie for a year, learning the Vaganova curriculum, then went through the pilot of a teacher training course created by Mark Annear. “I loved teaching, once I felt I’d learnt enough. Just because you’re a good dancer, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be a good teacher. You have to learn how to impart knowledge. You have to be able to work with the strengths and weaknesses of the individuals in your class.” Rowe was a guide and mentor, and eventually confided in her hope that Lisa would succeed her as director. Lisa secured a Churchill Fellowship, travelling to visit ballet schools around the world, and then did a graduate certificate in educational training. Having left school after Year 10, she found it a shock to be writing academic essays, but with the customary discipline and drive of a ballet dancer, she mastered the workload. In 2015, Rowe retired and Lisa became the School’s director.

It was a proud moment, and an emotional one. “What greater reward can you have than to give back to something that’s given you everything? This school, this company – they gave me my life. And I’m forever grateful for that.” However, Lisa acknowledges that her position can be challenging. “It’s a tough job. It can sometimes be lonely. The decisions stop with you and that’s a big responsibility. You have to put a team together that’s shaping the future of dance.” Rowe had faith in her. She told Lisa, “You are going to be strong enough for this.” 

Almost ten years later, Lisa has amply justified Rowe’s trust. Today, at The Australian Ballet School, the dancers don’t have to sacrifice their schooling for ballet, as she did: they study psychology, anatomy, music, human health and development, nutrition. “We make sure that our people, when they graduate, have everything they need for their next step.” A health team prepares the dancers for the heightened demands of modern technique, preventing injury and setting them up for a long career. And Lisa is looking forward, readying the School for cultural change.  In 2023 she attended the Assemblée Internationale, run by Canada’s National Ballet School, a meeting of 27 ballet schools from around the world. The directors compared notes on what they were doing to welcome and train students who are gender-fluid, or neurodiverse, or from ethnicities that are under-represented in the ballet world. The students were invited to join the conversation, which Lisa sees as absolutely necessary. “They are our future, and their voices are so strong. We need to learn from them.”

The ballet studio is traditionally a place of rigid hierarchy. Lisa has changed that. “You need to allow the voice of the student, to break down the barrier of power, so that they feel safe and can take risks. It’s a learning journey together.” Even though the demands of her job have meant that she’s largely moved away from teaching, Lisa has never lost her passion for it. “When I go back to the studio, I love it. To step away from the desk, the paperwork – it’s my happy place. It takes me back: it reminds me of the joy and gift it is to be in my position.”


Header Image: Lisa Pavane in La Sylphide