A MUCH-LOVED principal dancer with the Australian Ballet for over 20 years, and latterly a respected teacher, Kelvin Coe was one of the artists on whom the company's present high international reputation was founded. News of his death as a victim of Aids reached friends and colleagues in the company during their present 30th-anniversary season at the London Coliseum, where Maina Gielgud, director of the Australian Ballet, paid him warm tributes from the stage before dedicating Thursday night's performance to his memory.
The programme included Giselle, in which Coe had danced a memorably courteous and eloquent Albrecht - one of the leading roles that he performed in all of the full-length ballets in the company's repertory. To these he added a wide range of roles in shorter works by Frederick Ashton (Oberon in The Dream and Blue Boy in Les Patineurs), Glen Tetley (Gemini), John Butler (Threshold) and Graeme Murphy (Beyond Twelve, in which he was last seen in London at Covent Garden in 1988). Several roles created for him included works by Robert Helpmann (Sun Music, 1968), Ronald Hynd (The Merry Widow, 1975) and Igor Moiseyev (The Last Vision).
As a boy, Coe studied dance in Melbourne, and was just 16 when Dame Peggy van Praagh recruited him for the inaugural season of the Australian Ballet she was asked to form as a national company in 1962. While still a member of the corps de ballet he was cast by Rudolf Nureyev for a solo role in Nureyev's production of Raymonda, and was given principal status after only four years, the first member of the company to achieve this from the corps de ballet. From then on Coe's direct and clean-limbed style, very much that of an all-Australian boy, brought a distinction of manner to his growing variety of roles, from strong classical cavalier to contemporary virtuoso.
He first caught my eye when he danced a volatile and delightfully cheeky Basilio in Nureyev's version of Don Quixote that the Australians brought to London in 1973. In the same year Coe won the silver medal at the Moscow International Competition and began to spread his wings as a guest with other companies, including the Bolshoi Ballet. In 1974 he spent a season with London Festival Ballet where, in addition to leading roles in Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and Giselle, he took great delight in recovering a childhood skill in tap-dancing as part of the title-role in Prodigal Son in Ragtime, choreographed by a fellow-Melbournian, Barry Moreland.
During this season the ballerinas he partnered included Maina Gielgud (in the John Taras ballet Piege de lumiere), Eva Evdokimova and Elisabetta Terabust, while on other occasions in Australia and elsewhere he also partnered Margot Fonteyn, Carla Fracci, Valentina Koslova and Galina Samsova, as well as the leading Australians Elaine Fifield, Marilyn Jones and Marilyn Rowe. I remember on these occasions Coe showing the skill and taste to know just when the support for the ballerina was most needed and when else he could claim the central focus for his own accomplishment.
Coe was appointed OBE in 1980, and in 1986 he began a full-time teaching appointment at the Australian Ballet School in Melbourne, where he took particular pleasure in passing on the fruits of his own experience to a further generation of dancers from that country, on several occasions directing tours by the Dancers' Company of graduating students. He would have been proud of the success gained by the Australian Ballet in London this time, and of the standards he helped to set under Maina Gielgud's direction.