The following material, with the exception of my Sunday Herald article about Taylor from 1989, I prepared for my Facebook initiative Project Borovansky. It was intended to be a few paragraphs and a few photos acknowledging Jonathan and his work, particularly in the context of the Borovansky shaped roll-out of history. And then it evolved into something bigger. For more information about Taylor please see Trove for a brief biography, Michelle Potter On Dancing for an obituary, VCA colleague Helen Herbertson for a tribute, and go to Rambert Voices to hear Jonathan on his early years and time at Rambert.
The death of Jonathan Taylor has been yet another major loss to the Australian dance community. Dancer, choreographer, artistic director and former Dean of Dance at the Victorian College of the Arts, Jonathan was known for his many artistic accomplishments but also for his vision of dance as a universal art with relevance for everyone. His warm hail fellow well met embracing of humanity, sense of humour and sheer pluck will be sadly missed.
Originally from England, Taylor first came to Australia in 1975 at the invitation of leading Borovansky Ballet alumni Laurel Martyn (1916–2013) and Garth Welch to stage one of his works, Listen to the Music, and create a new one for Ballet Victoria. Martyn, Edouard Borovansky’s company’s first ballerina, left the company in the mid-1940s and went on to direct the (Victorian) Ballet Guild, which became Ballet Victoria in the late 1960s. Welch joined the Borovansky Ballet in the mid-1950s. Having risen through the company’s ranks, he became one of the three Australian founding principals—all of them ex-Borovansky— of The Australian Ballet when it was formed in 1962. In 1975, Garth Welch was artistic director of Ballet Victoria.
Inviting Jonathan Taylor to choreograph a work was an inspired move because it resulted in the creation of Star’s End, an important artistic and popular success. In fact, Taylor so impressed that when Adelaide’s Australian Dance Theatre was re-formed in 1976, the board invited him to direct it.
Australian Dance Theatre was founded By Elizabeth Dalman and associate Leslie White in 1965 as a contemporary dance company and in its first decade achieved considerable recognition locally and abroad for the quality of its output, which encompassed both the creation of original work and the restaging of important modern dance works from overseas. Taylor’s brief as the new director was to revitalise the company and to generate box office. With the assistance of former Rambert colleagues Joe Scoglio as assistant artistic director and Julia Blakie as ballet mistress, both of whom initially also danced with the ADT, he auditioned dancers versatile enough to move between contemporary and neoclassical styles and introduced a repertoire of original new works as well as some restagings, which included pieces by noted choreographers such as Christopher Bruce and Norman Morrice. The range of Taylor’s own choreographic output was extremely broad. His comic ballets delighted audiences. Having a shrewd sense of humour and a keen eye for the ridiculous, he created a mini masterpiece in Flibbertijibbet (1977). Understanding popular culture and its taste for a dramatic attack on the senses, in association with Nigel Triffit he created Wildstars (1979), a theatrical extravaganza of dance immersed in amplified sound and bathed in lighting and special effects. But above all, his focus was on the essence of dance and this found its fullest expression in what is widely regarded as his masterwork: Transfigured Night (1980), a finely wrought meditation on love.
After nearly a decade, Taylor met the same fate as his predecessor Elizabeth Dalman when he fell out with the ADT board, which intended to replace him so he resigned.
On taking up his appointment as Dean of Dance at the VCA (1988–1997), by coincidence he replaced Garth Welch, who brought him to Australia in the first place.
Like Edouard Borovansky, Jonathan Taylor relished the artistic opportunities Australia offered and like Borovansky, he resettled permanently and very happily, with his theatre director wife Ariette and their three children, in his adopted country. Also like Borovansky, he was able to excite people about dance and worked hard at building audiences. While Borovansky was intent on dragging the masses to the ballet, Taylor worked relentlessly to attract the crowds to contemporary dance. The ADT was then jointly funded by its home state South Australia and by neighbouring Victoria, with both states enjoying the company’s strong presence. An ADT season was an eagerly anticipated event accompanied by an excitement hard to imagine these days. The ADT also toured overseas, something it started successfully in Dalman’s day and continues into the present, appearing in New York (May 3–6, 2019) as part of the Australia Festival. Taylor’s ADT was the first Australian dance company to appear at the Edinburgh Festival (1980).
While solid indication of the Borovansky Ballet’s public presence on the arts scene can still be found in the press clippings of its day, by Taylor’s ADT era it was much harder to garner attention from the mainstream media so we don’t have this resource. Nevertheless, Taylor was as attuned to the usefulness of the media as Borovansky. In fact, he was a major supporter of the establishment of Dance Australia magazine, founded by editor and publisher Dally Messenger in 1980. Messenger, who was a pioneer of civil celebrancy in Australia and personally appointed as a celebrant by Attorney General Lionel Murphy, started the financially fragile venture in response to his own dance-obsessed family’s inspiration. The dance community unanimously agreed that it was needed and while Messenger put his own neck on the line financially, he managed to garner support from the professional dance sector in the form of paid advertising. Taylor’s ADT was prominently among those who responded to the call. This lead to a close, enduring personal friendship between the two men and it was only appropriate that Dally Messenger was the officiating celebrant at Taylor’s funeral.
Along with their understanding of the value of media publicity, Borovansky and Taylor shared many other similarities, including their belief in developing Australian dancers as practitioner artists who performed with engaged understanding and commitment. Both also fostered supportive environments to encourage choreographers. Taylor did this at the ADT, at the VCA and for a time was even a committee member for Dance Creation, the ongoing chorepographer development initiative of the Australian Institute of Classical Dance, founded by Borovansky’s last ballerina and founding principal of The Australian Ballet Marilyn Jones.
Both Borovansky and Taylor inspired deep personal loyalty from their dancers. The Borovansky alumni network continues strongly, though with thinning ranks, over sixty years since Borovansky’s death. Taylor’s ADT dancers have their own Facebook page. Given that it is more than 30 years since the demise of Taylor’s ADT and given the tyranny of geography, a surprisingly large number made it to his funeral in Melbourne, where dancer Claire Stonier Kippen spoke as their representative.
While Borovansky worked within the strict confines of classical ballet, Taylor, a Genet medallist, who had studied with influential ballet teachers like Andrew Hardie and Stanislas Idzikowski, actually began his dance journey as a child tapper, something of which he was very proud and something that stood him in excellent stead when he worked in London’s West End, during the early ’70s, on the choreographic/direction side of theatre with the likes of stage and screen great John Mills, another tapper from way back. Taylor also studied with modern dance leaders like Anna Sokolow. One of his favourite quotes came from Sokolow: ‘If you don’t know why you’re moving, don’t!’ The quote was always delivered with acknowledgement of Sokolow and followed by a chuckle.
Like Borovansky, Taylor was a showman. Borovansky was famous for his curtain call speeches and while Taylor kept a low profile at ADT performances, he was also comfortable addressing audiences from a stage in other contexts. Only last July at the Cecchetti Annual Conference (Clock Tower Centre, Moonee Ponds, 8.7.2018) Taylor was one of an illustrious panel on Rambert featuring company veterans Audrey Nicholls, who is also a Borovansky ballet veteran, and Maggie Lorraine, as well as historian Dr Michelle Potter, Australia’s foremost authority on the Ballet Rambert Australian visit of 1947–49. Taylor rose to the occasion as its star. He brought to life his time with Ballet Rambert during its transition from a classical to a contemporary company. He vividly evoked Rambert’s steely personality with a range of memories, including his frustrated attempt to give his Albrecht a Bolshoi star flair in the manner of Fadeyechev’s dramatic conclusion to Giselle that had bedazzled British audiences during the historic 1956 Bolshoi Ballet visit. Taylor found Rambert’s ending very flat, so at one performance when he believed her to be absent, he fired things up dramatically, only to find himself ticked off by Rambert who was waiting for him off stage.
While Borovansky was notorious for his colourful, often insulting, sometimes cruel and abusive turn of phrase, particularly when correcting dancers in rehearsal, Taylor was low-key and considerate but didn’t refrain from offering his considered and plain speaking opinion on dance matters. Reflecting on one of my questions about the negativity surrounding the despair of young qualified dancers’ inability to find work locally, he shook his head thoughtfully and said, ‘If that was me, I’d be on the first cruise ship out of here.’
Interestingly, both Borovansky and Taylor relaxed with a recreational social sport very removed from the art of dance and its physical exertions. Borovansky was a keen angler whose fisherman mates knew him simply as ‘Ted’. Taylor was a dedicated lawn bowler. Both men also enjoyed getting away from the hurly burly of city life. Borovansky often escaped to what was then an isolated location on the Mornington Peninsula and Taylor loved the state forest at Taradale.
And so the threads of history are woven…
Jonathan Taylor was farewelled by family, friends and the dance community with a funeral at South Melbourne Town Hall on Sunday 14 April, 2019, followed the next day by internment at Taradale where the Taylor family spend much recreational time at their off the grid house in the state forest.
The proceedings were lead by celebrant Dally Messenger and the order of service was framed by eulogies from Taylor’s three children: Juliet, Ingmar and Rebe. Each of them dealt with a period of Taylor’s life, demarcated by geography, and covered both the professional career and touchingly personal details and memories. First was ‘England’ which focused on the early years, growing up, becoming a professional dancer, joining Ballet Rambert and establishing himself as a choreographer and theatre director. ‘Adelaide’ dealt with Taylor’s years as artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre (1976–1985) and ‘Melbourne’ covered the subsequent years, which also included the numerous years as Dean of Dance at the School of Dance, Victorian College of the Arts. Other tributes from colleagues were interspersed among these and also referred to those specific periods.
The flowers brought by most of the mourners to the funeral accompanied Jonathan Taylor’s coffin—decoratively painted by his grandson Harry, who was named in honour of the family’s great friend of nearly 60 years Harry Haythorne MBE (1926–2014)—to the graveside in Taradale’s historic cemetery, where Dally Messenger again officiated. He later described the burial as a very meaningful event, with the Thompson’s Foundry (brass) Band from nearby Castlemaine also in attendance.