In anticipation of the circus

Posters have always played a crucial role in the promotion of travelling circuses. High Hopes: in anticipation of the circus celebrates the recent donation of the Vern Ellis Collection, consisting of over 40 circus posters, to Arts Centre Melbourne’s Australian Performing Arts Collection and provides an insight into the rich history of circus in Australia.

Dating from the 1920s to 1960s, these posters (also known as bills) were part of pervasive campaigns that announced the imminent arrival of each circus. Advance agents employed by the circus were sent out several weeks ahead of the company to paste posters in prominent locations across towns: on walls, billboards, shop windows and telegraph poles.

Gwen Chaplin and Olive Ellis promoting Wirth’s Circus, Brisbane, 1940s
Gift of Mrs. Barbara St. Leon, 2015
Arts Centre Melbourne, Australian Performing Arts Collection

During World War II when men were unavailable, Wirth’s Circus employed women to post bills in major cities. Wearing crisp white uniforms, they created a sense of excitement and additional publicity for the circus.

A well-designed poster differentiated a circus from its competitors and enticed potential visitors to attend. By the mid-twentieth century Australian circus posters had evolved from heavily text-based designs to more elaborate graphic imagery. Bold, eye-catching and colourful, these posters offered a glimpse into the circus tent, inviting audiences into a world of breathtaking skill and spectacle. Borrowing from the American circus poster and comic book traditions, posters often depicted complex narratives with aerial views of large performances contrasted with feature acts in close detail.

L-R: Poster for Perry Bros Huge Circus and Zoo, c.1920s–1930s; Poster for Perry Bros Huge Circus and Zoo, Wellington, 1929; Poster for Holden Bros Combined Comedy Stage Show, 1930s; Poster for Bullen Bros Circus, Townsville, 1961
Vern Ellis Collection, 2017
Arts Centre Melbourne, Australian Performing Arts Collection

Early posters made use of bold text to differentiate each circus from its competitors. As the number of circuses increased, and international companies toured Australia, further distinction was required to set each circus apart. Imagery became more elaborate as printing technology improved, while the claims on posters grew wilder in an attempt to draw larger crowds using phrases such as ‘death defying, danger deriding’, ‘the greatest’ and ‘the only big responsible show coming this season’. The location and date of performances provided the specifics of the event but were less prominent. This information was often handwritten, printed or attached to posters at each town, allowing a generic poster to be used for an entire tour.

High Hopes: in anticipation of the circus is on display from 29 June – 15 August, 2017 in the Smorgon Family Plaza, Theatres Building, Arts Centre Melbourne.

Nicole Bowller
Assistant Curator

Bold and Beautiful: The Creative Vision of Ann Church

A new acquisition capturing the creative vision of Melbourne born designer Ann Church joins Arts Centre Melbourne’s Performing Arts Collection. In a career spanning the late 1940s to the early 1970s, Church designed the set and costumes for companies such as the National Theatre Ballet, Victorian Ballet Guild, The Australian Ballet and the West Australian Ballet. This new acquisition  features set and costume designs, notebooks, photographs and newspaper clippings that provide a valuable insight into our early dance repertoire.

Set design by Ann Church for Les Belles Creoles, National Theatre Ballet, 1949 Gift of the Estate of Ann Church, 2017. Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Collection. Reproduced courtesy of Mrs Collins.

There are vibrantly coloured set and costume designs for one of Ann Church’s earliest commissions for the stage, Les Belles Creoles. Presented by the National Theatre Ballet in 1949, this production was choreographed by Australian dancer Rex Reid and was the first of many ballets on which they collaborated.

Church continued to design for the National Theatre Ballet’s following seasons.  A selection of costume designs from Margaret Scott’s production of Peter and the Wolf (1950) and the full-length version of Swan Lake (1951) are also represented and show the designers bold use of colour. They capture a sense of movement that makes her designs so in tune with the needs of dance.

Notebooks compiled by Ann Church during the 1950s and 1960s. Gift of the Estate of Ann Church, 2017, Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Collection. Reproduced courtesy of Mrs Collins.

Notebooks containing fabric samples and working drawings provide a rare glimpse into the creative process Church followed when developing new designs. In some we see whimsical ideas for future  ballets, while other pages tackle the practicalities of fabric selection, measurements and garment construction.

Set design by Ann Church for Melbourne Cup, The Australian Ballet, 1962. Gift of the Estate of Ann Church, 2017 Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Collection. Reproduced courtesy of Mrs Collins.

The costumes designed by Ann Church for the production of Melbourne Cup were donated by The Australian Ballet in 1998, as treasured pieces from the company’s inaugural season of 1962. This recent acquisition provides further representation of Melbourne Cup through a selection of set designs that formed the backdrop to these costumes. Based on the very first running of the famous horse race in 1861, Melbourne Cup presented a number of challenges for the designer. One of these was to capture the historic setting of the event on stage. A carefully compiled scrapbook of newspaper clippings and articles reveals the depth of research she conducted to recreate this spectacle. The scrapbook also includes photographs that capture the magical journey from page to stage.

Margot Anderson
Curator (Dance and Opera)

 

 

AN INTERACTION BETWEEN MUSIC AND PAINTING

This year Arts Centre Melbourne celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the creative collaboration between abstract painter John Peart (1945 – 2013) and composer Nigel Butterley (b. 1935). In 1967 the pair took to the stage of the Sydney Town Hall, along with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, to present the collaborative performance Interaction as part of the Last Night of the Proms.

Peart and Butterley conceived the performance as a creative interaction between music and painting, a live ‘happening’ where each could act in response to the other. Prior to the event, Butterley, a pianist and an established composer, wrote a work of five movements, each more energetic than the last. On the evening of the performance Butterley was seated at the piano and divided the orchestra into five sections. This allowed him to direct the various sections of the orchestra to come in and out, responding to Peart’s evolving painting.

Peart, who was only 22 at the time, was establishing a name for himself as an innovative abstract painter. During the performance he worked on the stage above the orchestra, with long-handled paint rollers on a large canvas stretched before the audience. For each of the five movements Peart painted with a different colour, the intensity of which increased as the performance unfolded; the palest used during the first, gentle movement and the darkest during the final, most vigorous movement.

The performance is fondly recalled by Peart’s close friends and directors of Watters Gallery, Geoffrey Legge and Frank Watters, who looked on with “amazed admiration at the way the vast painting came into marvellous and inevitable being as Peart proceeded”. They remarked that “he couldn’t step back and survey the work as it developed, he just flowed with the music. His application of black during the final exciting movement made it hard not to believe he was under the spell of an out-of-body intelligence so inspired did each new mark seem”.

Interaction, 1967, a recent donation to Arts Centre Melbourne’s Art Collection, was a preparatory study created during rehearsals. Although smaller in scale, Peart’s lyrical and direct brushstrokes capture the rhythm and movement of the improvisation on canvas. Produced at the beginning of Peart’s career, the work also signalled his lifelong commitment to an exploration of abstraction and experimentation. The addition of this artwork to the Art Collection enriches the historical interpretation of our Foundation Collection, particularly in the artistic connections with Peart’s abstract contemporaries, Yvonne Audette, Roger Kemp and Donald Laycock.

An Interaction between Music and Painting is currently on display in the Smorgon Family Plaza (May 20 – June 25), featuring Interaction, 1967, alongside the award-winning film, Interaction – music and painting, 1967 (directed by Gil Brealey, reproduced by permission of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation – Library Sales © 1969 ABC TV). This film, produced in the same year as the performance, captures the essence of the creative partnership between composer and painter.

Nicole Bowller
Assistant Curator