Obituary: Annette Massie
Monday 22 February 1993
ANNETTE MASSIE changed the perception of dance in Britain. Western Theatre Ballet, the Australian Ballet, London Contemporary Dance Theatre, Ballet Rambert in its modern form, the Robin Howard Foundation, all owe their early public image in Britain to her. They are her memorials.
Born in Sydney, she was educated at Ascham, one of Australia's posher schools. With her sister Diana she came in 1947 to England, where their father worked for the British-Australian tobacco company. The sisters' arrival caused the sort of frisson Nettie went on creating throughout her life. A man on the boat asked them if they played tennis. When the boat docked they discovered they were entered for the Wimbledon junior doubles. The Americans were dismayed. Who were these unknown Australians? The unknowns survived the first round but not the next.
Diana became a notable model. Nettie established herself in public relations. I began to hear in the early 1950s of this fun-loving, gregarious, generous Australian with a macabre sense of humour. She worked with the impresarios Harold Fielding and Ian Hunter; formed connections with the concert agent SA Gorlinsky and others. These contacts she brought to Western Theatre Ballet when it was founded by Elizabeth West and Peter Darrell in Bristol in 1957. The first regional dance venture, breaking the mould of classical ballet at the time, the little company suffered incredible hardships in its early years. It was kept going not only by its founders, but by Anne Hewer as chairman, the most humane JP I ever met, and by Nettie Massie. Her flat in Cornwall Gardens, in South Kensington, became the company's home in London, an open house for dancers, designers, musicians, sympathisers, even critics. She projected the company at every level. Brenda Last, a dancer, later a principal dancer of the Royal Ballet, remembers her, tall and elegant, arranging several appearances in London at the Arts Theatre Club and Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. Nettie it was who persuaded Cleo Laine, then little known, to sing the lead in Brecht's Seven Deadly Sins which the company presented at the Edinburgh Festival in 1961.
Nettie Massie aimed always for the best, but shared the problems of getting there. 'Lots of times we were out of work,' remembers Oliver Symons, a dancer, now Assistant Ballet Master with the Royal Ballet. 'Cakes from Bertaux, the French patisserie in Soho, were our treat. When we were summoned to the flat and saw Bertaux cakes piled high for us we knew it meant bad news. We were out of work.' Nettie Massie supplied the cakes, just as she provided the context of support and laughter within which Western Theatre Ballet happened. Today after many changes, the company has become Scottish Ballet.
The eventful way of life continued. Returning to Australia, she was recruited by Peggy van Praagh, the Australian Ballet's director, to be the new company's first press representative. She stayed in Australia through 1962 for the first season, returned to London as press representative in 1963, then succeeded Stephen Arlen as the company's London representative in 1968.
In London she helped launch the restructured Ballet Rambert as a modern dance company. Working with Wilfred Stiff, she was placed in charge of publicity for Rambert, one of Stiff's clients, and recruited an ex-dancer, Val Bourne, as her assistant. The modern Rambert was launched successfully in 1966 and Val Bourne went on to become today's champion of contemporary dance in Britain, founder-director of the annual Dance Umbrella Festival. 'Nettie was at the centre of all things new in dance,' Bourne said, 'but always immensely human. She knew how to make people laugh.'
Looking back it is hard to see how Nettie Massie fitted in all her initiatives. Almost at the moment of launching Rambert she helped launch Robin Howard's Contemporary Dance School and Company. 'She was crucial to us,' says Janet Eager, today's administrator of the company. 'She was a major force, guiding our public relations from the beginning in 1967 until the 1970s. She put us on the map.'
Turning down an invitation to work for the National Theatre in 1968, Nettie and her sister undertook a risky trip through Afghanistan and India to Burma, then by boat to Australia. Nettie's life was full of such sudden excursions. In 1973 she handed over her Australian Ballet representation to David Palmer and went freelance. With a colleague she bought Les Cluzeaux in the Dordogne: 'a love affair with France', David Palmer said. The place was a 16th- century hamlet which they restored to make a guest house for part of the year. There she wrote a series of stories about her life which she read on Woman's Hour. But the open air, the sun and her passion for growing vegetables made war on her writing. Mostly the vegetables won.
In 1982 she returned to Britain. Much was changed. The fledglings she had nourished were grown-up. She began to feel lonely. She studied an arts course with the Open University, wrote for the Gulbenkian Foundation an account of the first 10 years of its annual International Dancers' and Composers' Course, and later a moving leaflet to help launch the Robin Howard Foundation for Contemporary Dance. 'She helped all contemporary dance in this country,' said Peter Williams, the former chairman of the Arts Council's dance panel and founder-editor of Dance and Dancers, 'but was not fully appreciated.' 'She set such high standards,' David Palmer said, 'in friendship as well as at work. She was wonderful company.'
At Colet Gardens, where she lived, her adored companion was her dog, Gussie, though the visitors were endless. She began a history of Western Theatre Ballet which she sent to me to continue. She had plans to place herself, her talent and her words at the service of dance.
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