March 2011

Arts & Letters

Maggie’s war

By Peter Robb
Margaret Scott, pictured here in 1994, was a pioneer of Australian ballet and became the first director of the Australian Ballet School in 1964. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia. © Angela Lynkushka
A chapter in the life of ballet legend Margaret Scott

When her sister was dying in Africa, Maggie flung some things into a bag and flew from Melbourne to the farm in Swaziland she’d hardly seen in 50 years. There were delays in Johannesburg and more in Swaziland, and Maggie arrived four hours too late for her sister.

Maggie slept at the farm in her parents’ old bedroom. It was next to the kitchen and in the early hours of the morning she could hear the soft deep voices of the farmhands who were making coffee at the end of the night round, guarding the land with their guns. She heard the clicks of their speech – three kinds of click, made at the back, middle and front of the palate – and the sound of their voices calmed and comforted her, and took her back in time. They reminded her of Nelson Mandela’s when she spoke to him after he was freed from prison.

She remembered going to the creek with the oxen to fill the drums with water for the farm. There were two teams on the farm, a span of 16 Black Angus in eight pairs and another of 16 red Herefords. When the men were assembling the ox span to pull the long heavy cart to the water, they laid out the harness and called the oxen by their names. One by one the animals stepped up to be harnessed. The children rode on the cart with the men and, while the drums were being filled at the creek, the men modelled little human figures for them from the river clay.

Maggie was only at the farm on school holidays. From the time she was seven she went to board at a Catholic convent several hundred kilometres away, in Johannesburg, and she was there for eight years. When she first arrived, she put up her hand to go to the toilet and wasn’t allowed. She wet herself, and the nun hauled her up and humiliated her before the other children. After this Maggie said she “shut down”. She developed a stammer and spent her school years trying to avoid the attention of the group. The stammer stayed all through childhood and adolescence, and into early adulthood. She overcame it only after she married.

The convent years were alleviated by dance classes. Each child had an extra activity and Maggie chose ballet. Dancing, she could express herself physically and silently, and her talent and intensity were encouraged by the kind and perceptive woman who taught her dance all the way through school.

By the time Maggie finished at the convent school, a couple of years after her elder twin sisters, it was 1939 and she was 16. Her mother decided to take the girls to England. Not a propitious time, and fast getting less so, but the Old Country and Europe were a long way off and on the farm in Swaziland nobody paid much attention to politics.

They went to Maggie’s grandmother’s house in Birmingham. They heard war with Germany announced on the radio at the end of summer and knew this house was not a good place to be. It was close to the Birmingham Small Arms Company, and soon the Luftwaffe bombers would arrive. Maggie and her sisters were sent to stay in Bournemouth, with an elderly couple called Tipper, who left the girls alone in one part of an enormous house. Maggie found a piano and tried to learn to play, and once the Tippers took them for a picnic where they sat in a car at the end of Bournemouth pier and looked out at the dull grey sea. Maggie confided her frustrations to a diary that Mrs Tipper found, read and burnt.

Maggie ran away. At the end of the year, she turned up alone on a freezing day at the Sadler’s Wells Ballet – later to become the Royal Ballet – for an audition with a frightening and imperious lady. Ninette de Valois had been a dancer with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. “Sit down, girl,” she commanded. “Take off your coat and shoes.” Shivering, Maggie pointed her toes and did what she could at the bar. “You’re red in the face, girl,” remarked de Valois, who was Irish and lived to be 102. “Show me how high you can jump.” Maggie was in.

Her prodigious memory for choreography was one reason that a few months later, between the Fall of France and the Battle of Britain, Maggie was abruptly promoted from student to dancer and put on a train next day to tour wartime England with the company. Memory then helped her through her first lead role, when a dancer sickened just before a performance in Grimsby and Maggie had half an hour to learn her part in The Wise and Foolish Virgins.

It was an amazing start, but Maggie wasn’t happy. Her stammer persisted and people called her the Silent One. Climbing high into the flies above the stage one night and looking down at an immaculate performance, she felt she didn’t belong in this classical company, that she had no future there. She resigned.

She was nearly 18 and knew what she wanted. She wanted the creativity and experimentalism, the innovative choreography of the Ballet Rambert, England’s other dance company. Marie Rambert too had been involved in Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and had once nearly married Nijinsky. But Rambert was diametrically opposed to the classical de Valois. In her case, the French name overlaid birth in Warsaw, Russian and Polish–Jewish origins and an early bedazzlement by the wild art of Isadora Duncan. Her company got no public money, was run on a shoestring and under Rambert’s rackety administration not everyone always got paid. After fights with her husband, Rambert would stand on her head to regain equilibrium, or memorise a Shakespeare sonnet. Maggie got in without an audition and in a couple of years would be a principal dancer.

Maggie was on her own in London during the Blitz. She and her mother had been to check on the empty house in Birmingham and were sheltering from an air raid in the cellar of the grand house opposite when a direct hit obliterated its upper storeys. Her mother was hysterical, the canary stunned in its cage. Maggie calmed her mother with a slap and revived the canary with cognac. The drunken bird carolled madly through the night.

 In 1941, her sister Barbara went back to Africa as a nurse escorting children out of harm’s way, and their mother soon followed. Her sister Joan disappeared into secret work on radar defence. At first Maggie lived in a grim boarding house full of the very old and the very odd. From her open window she heard the pianist Clifford Curzon practising in the house across the road.

Later, she shared a flat in Knightsbridge with Sally Gilmour, Rambert’s prima ballerina, and – until he was called into the navy – Sally’s dancer boyfriend, Walter. Sally’s mother had been killed when the Japanese took Singapore and her father was a prisoner in Changi. The dancers lived just round the corner from Harrods and where the bombs were falling. Through freezing winters in which she gave up her hot water bottle to a patriotic rubber drive, made dresses out of tea towels and became close to an elderly local pawnbroker, Maggie got used to finding in the morning that one more house nearby had become a hole in the ground overnight.

One night toward the end, at the time of the V-2s in 1945, she was dancing in the Lyric, Hammersmith, when there was an almighty explosion. The theatre shook and filled with a dense cloud of dust. The music stopped, the dancers stopped. There was a calm silence among the audience. Then, softly, the pianist began to play. The dance resumed.

The Ballet Rambert was on tour for much of the war, providing respite and the solace of art to the factory workers and fighters. The former were not mad on snooty girls in tutus and nancy boys in tights capering around their canteens between shifts. The military responded more warmly and entertained the dancers afterward. Maggie met her first Australians when she danced for the Australian Bomber Command late in the war. She could see the audience counting the planes as they passed overhead. Dancers partied in the moonlight with the Australians and at dawn they went out onto the aerodrome to see the fewer bombers returning one by one to base from night over Germany.

When war in Europe ended, Rambert was sent with her corps to maintain morale among the occupying troops. On another freezing day in late 1945, the dancers were packed into a small boat with a crowd of soldiers at Dover. It was standing room only, and the ferry broke down and got fogbound on its way to Ostend. It wallowed lost and adrift all night in the English Channel, blowing its foghorn, until it was found and towed to port in the morning. They got to Brussels by train and next morning the dancers began their long rail journey east. It took a long time to get to Hamburg. The railway line was still being fixed from the bombing. Children and old people ran alongside the train, their feet shod in old newspapers tied with string, begging for food. The dancers handed down the cut lunches they had kept from the boat.

Hamburg was an expanse of rubble. The streets were tracks bulldozed through ruins by the victors, and along these the dancers were taken in military jeeps to the army camp. That night they were taken to the Opera House for a circus show at which the dancers were the only audience. A man in a gorilla suit swung out over the auditorium on a trapeze and landed in the dress circle beside Madame Rambert, who screamed in terror.

The train journey east from Hamburg to Berlin took all of another freezing day, a slow, slow ride across the northern heath, often stopped by repair work on the line. The last bit was in a bus along an autobahn to Berlin’s Russian sector. They passed through the American sector and got to the British sector, where the British Army took the ballet dancers straight to a lecture room, sat them down and delivered a stern talk about not fraternising with anyone. They were taken to their barracks.

Then the dashing young British officers came screeching up in their jeeps to take the dancers round town. They were the cherrypickers of the 11th Hussars. They’d fought through North Africa and Italy, and their mess uniform’s crimson trousers were Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha’s personal livery conferred when he married his cousin Victoria of England.

Maggie, whose personal memory of dancers, dances, choreographers, musicians, performances and places is mostly faultless, has forgotten what she danced in Berlin, where and for whom. She remembers rehearsing in a theatre in the Russian sector, and the German crew’s efficiency at setting up the stage. She remembers getting special treatment as the friend of prima ballerina Sally.

She remembers the Berlin Opera House, which was still intact and where, not many months before, after the last gala concert of the Third Reich, boys of the Hitler Youth had stood in the foyer with baskets, handing out cyanide capsules to Berliner society. When Maggie went there, the Berlin Opera House was the theatre of a mass political meeting of the Red Army. Soldiers and commissars fell silent when the loud young British officers and their ballerinas walked in, and stayed so until they left.

She remembers going to an august reception given by the Soviet deputy foreign minister. Andrei Vyshinsky had been Stalin’s attack dog at the Moscow trials in the 1930s – “These mad dogs of capitalism,” he had railed against the old Bolshevik leaders, “should be shot, every one of them” – and in four years he would be the Soviet foreign minister. He was in Berlin to keep control of Georgi Zhukov, who had defended Moscow against the Nazis in 1941 and had now conquered Berlin. Zhukov was already in trouble as a popular hero and the rider of the white stallion at the victory parade, the horse that had thrown Stalin.

When Maggie arrived at the reception with the other dancers, Russian soldiers met them holding trays of little glasses. Everyone downed a shot of vodka before they joined the crowd inside. Enlivened by hers, Marie Rambert startled Vyshinsky and his apparatchiks by flinging herself through a string of manic cartwheels across the floor.

Maggie remembers the day the young officers took her to Hitler’s ruined Reich Chancellery. Albert Speer had kept thousands of workers labouring round the clock to finish it in one year: Hitler thought Speer a genius and put him in charge of forced labour for the war. From the entrance courtyard and reception room Maggie followed the path of vanished diplomats through double doors 5 metres high into a big hall. She went up a flight of stairs, through a round room with a domed ceiling and walked down the long unadorned gallery lined with high marble alcoves that led to the Führer’s office.

At the centre of a huge room was the desk where Hitler had sat. The crystal chandelier hanging above it had fallen in the Russian bombardment and lay shattered on the marble. Hitler’s official correspondence was strewn around the floor. Maggie picked up a letter sent in 1939 by the Gauleiter of Kiel. Soon after this the Russians demolished the whole place, and took its marble to build a monument to their war dead.

Hitler had died in his bunker a few metres from the ruined chancellery and Maggie and the officers went to see that too, but greatcoated Soviet soldiers with Mongol faces barred their way. One of Zhukov’s first mistakes had been to announce Hitler’s death, just as Stalin was deciding people should think he was still alive. In the streets of Berlin people offered Maggie swastika armbands for cigarettes.

The company went to Brunswick, where Maggie stood in the dress circle of a roofless theatre and stared through its elaborate proscenium arch at the winter sky beyond. She met a young man who took her photograph and told her of the book burnings he’d seen as a child. They danced in Lübeck, Thomas Mann’s old city on the Baltic. The debonair cherrypickers took them to a party on board a Soviet troopship. Maggie was still not fraternising, but Sally and the Russian commander vanished somewhere on the boat. A bearded officer saluted, stared into her eyes and sang a Russian song in a deep baritone. Maggie responded with all she could think of, a song that was doing the rounds of London. “I want the whole world to love you. But you must only love me.”

That was the end of Maggie’s war. In 1947 the Ballet Rambert came to Australia and, when the company went back to England at the end of their triumphal tour, Maggie stayed.

Peter Robb
Peter Robb is the author of Midnight in Sicily, which won the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for non-fiction and was named a New York Times Notable Book. His other books include A Death in Brazil (the Age Non-Fiction Book of the Year in 2004) and Street Fight in Naples.

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