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Celebrating Dame Margaret Scott

Remarks as Master of Ceremonies at State Memorial Service for Dame Margaret Scott AC DBE LLD (Hon), Great Hall, National Gallery of Victoria, 22 March 2019

Good morning and welcome to this State Memorial Service for Dame Margaret Scott, Companion of the Order of Australia, Dame Commander of the British Empire, Honorary Doctor of Laws – and Australian national treasure.

This morning, we gather here to celebrate the life of Dame Margaret Scott – our beloved Maggie – and share our memories of her in the many roles she played in our various lives: as wife, mother, dancer, teacher, friend, mentor, colleague; as inspirational leader of one of our great national institutions; or simply as someone who, directly by her own performances and through the performances of the legions of dancers she nurtured, gave for so many decades so many Australians, and so many audiences around the world, so much sheer blissful, aesthetic pleasure.

There are many here today who could be standing in my place. People who knew Maggie personally, and her husband Professor Derek Denton, the founding Director of the Howard Florey Institute and one of our most brilliant scientists, our beloved Dick, even longer and more closely than have my wife Merran and I.

That said, our association does go back some 40 years, to the late 1970s, when Merran first joined the Board of the Australian Ballet School and later the Australian Ballet itself. And I do suspect we can hold our own with any other of Dick and Maggie’s friends (maybe even Robin Hughes, who will speak to us shortly) in terms of the number of dinner conversations we have had over the years about South Africa, sheep and salt, as well as the labyrinthine politics of the Ballet Boards – certainly a match for anything I experienced in Canberra!

And there are of course among us today a number of real giants of the ballet world who could, and arguably should, be filling my shoes on this platform – although we will have the pleasure of hearing from two of them, Graeme Murphy and David McAllister, a little later on.

I suspect the main reason I have been asked by Dick and the family to be MC today is that, as the current Chancellor of the Australian National University. I might be thought as having been sprinkled by that office with just a little of the stardust of my legendary predecessor in the role, the late, great Dr HC ‘Nugget’ Coombs.

Because it was Nugget who did more than any other official Australian of his time, while Governor of the Reserve Bank but wearing his hat then as Chairman of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, to persuade the Government of the day to turn Maggie Scott’s dream – of a national Australian Ballet company supported from the beginning by a national Australian Ballet School – into wonderful, concrete reality.

Nugget Coombs understood, as not enough of our leaders have, the critical importance of national institutions – and especially national educational and cultural institutions – to any country’ sense of itself. He got it when establishing the Australian National University in the post-War year; he got it when establishing the Australian Council for the Arts in the mid-‘60s.

And he certainly got it when he was charmed and cajoled and pursued and persuaded by Maggie – and the extraordinarily talented and enthusiastic group of dancers and designers and choreographers, many of them previously associated with Rambert and Borovansky, she assembled under her wing at her and Dick’s riverside house – as to the absolute necessity for Australia to have a new, genuinely national, dance company, and a new, genuinely national, ballet school.

And so it was, with his relentless lobbying of a very sympathetic Treasurer Harold Holt finally overcoming Prime Minister Menzies’ rather visceral distaste for any government support for the Arts, that the Australian Ballet was born in 1962, followed just two years later by the opening of the Australian Ballet School. But Nugget Coombs left no-one in any doubt that without Maggie none of this would have happened: as he wrote in his autobiography, it was all the result of “the drive and energy as well as the persuasiveness of Margaret Scott”.

Plenty of us here have experienced, in the years that followed, and all of us have benefited from, that extraordinarily persuasive charm – with all the drive and energy and steel that lay underneath – that have made both the Ballet and the School such world-class and world-renowned institutions, inextricably now part of our national identity, and a hugely significant and attractive part of the face Australia presents to the world. Maggie Scott’s legacy to this country is towering, and will be forever remembered as such.

Introduce Premier. Maggie’s contribution not only to the nation but to Melbourne and the State of Victoria has also been a towering one – cementing through the location here from the beginning of the Ballet School our well-deserved reputation as not only the sporting capital, and food and wine capital, and political ideology and intrigue capital, but also the cultural capital of Australia.

Our Premier, the Honourable Daniel Andrews -- like his predecessor John Cain, with us today, who did so much to establish the whole Southbank Arts Precinct in which we revel today – absolutely gets it about the centrality of great cultural institutions like the Australian Ballet School to the life, and reputation, of both the State and the nation. I invite him now to speak to us.


Introduce Matthew Denton. It’s now my great pleasure to invite to the platform, to speak on behalf of the family, and to present to us the wonderful visual tribute to his mother that he has compiled, Mr Matthew Denton.


Introduce Robin Hughes. Dr Robin Hughes has been a very close and longstanding friend of the family going back to the time, more decades ago than probably either of them want to remember, she first engaged with Dick as a science producer for the ABC. Robin is now an independent writer and film-maker but has previously worked as a producer, writer and director in the film and broadcasting industry, for the BBC, ABC and commercial television.

Among other specific roles, she has been CEO of Film Australia, Chair of the Council of the Australian Film Television and Radio School, and a cherished colleague of mine as Pro-Chancellor of the Australian National University.


Introduce Graeme Murphy. While it is inconceivable that Mr Graeme Murphy will need any introduction to this audience, it is worth reminding ourselves just what a giant of the dance world he is. Trained by Maggie at the Australian Ballet School, then a dancer with the Australian Ballet and Sadler’s Wells, and then as Artistic Director of the Sydney Dance Company for 31 years, he is acknowledged as Australia’s greatest and most productive choreographer, with more than 70 dance works to his credit, over 30 of them full-length – works that move across the boundaries between classical and modern, past and present, invariably diverse, challenging, and distinctively Australian.

Who of us can fail to remember, on this occasion, perhaps the most unforgettable of all Graeme’s ballets, Nutcracker – The Story of Clara, and that magical and moving moment in 1992 when Maggie Scott stepped out on stage, at the age of 70, in the title role.


Introduce David McAllister. There is a lovely story about our final speaker this morning, Mr David McAllister, told by one of his former teachers. Waiting for a tram beside a busy intersection on Mt Alexander Rd, Moonee Ponds, she was startled to see when the lights changed a young man, whom she recognised as one of her pupils, not slouching across the road with a shoulder bag like his fellow pedestrians, but doing a series of exuberant grand jetes. Remarkably, she said, no one else seemed to take much notice; nor did the boy appear to be really showing off; it was just David doing his thing…

Well David, to the joy of us all, has been doing his thing ever since. Dancer with the Australian Ballet since 1983, Principal Artist since 1989, playing multiple principal roles in Australia and around the world with a crackling style all his own, he retired from the stage in 2001 to become Artistic Director of the Australian Ballet, which role he retains to this day.


Concluding Remarks. This has been an occasion not for mourning a life lost, but celebrating a life marvellously and fully lived, the life of a wonderful woman who has given – by her talent for performance, her talent for teaching and mentoring and institutional leadership, her talent for recognising talent including of budding choreographers, and above all, perhaps, her talent for friendship – has given so many of us such abundant pleasure.

So it’s not with heavy hearts that we should depart now from this State Memorial Service for Maggie Scott – it is with the lightest of hearts, and the lightest of steps… So, while this might not be very sensible for those of you whose infrastructure is as decayed as mine now is, for those of you who are up to it, do feel free to perform just a little grand jete – or two or three – on the way out. Thank you all, and good morning.