Noel Tovey honoured

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Noel Tovey, Australia's first male ballet dancer of Indigenous heritage, will be inducted into the Australian Dance Awards Hall of Fame in a presentation at the Australian Dance Awards on Sunday September 24 at the State Theatre in Melbourne.

Tovey has lived an extraordinary life.

He was born in Carlton, Victoria, on Christmas Day 1934 to Frederick Morton and Winifred Ann Tovey. His mother had Aboriginal and New Zealander heritage and descended from the Carmody’s of South Australia. His Father had African Canadian and Scottish Heritage. Tovey's grandfather James and great uncle George were popular African-Canadian performers, 'The Royal Bohee Brothers' in the 1880s.

Admired by the Prince Edward, James opened a banjo studio in London under royal patronage. Frederick Morton is believed to have performed as a third Bohee in an 1893 production of Uncle Tom's Cabin at the Fremantle Town Hall, and is recorded as appearing as 'the Original Coon Singer' at the Tivoli, and in Chu Chin Chow at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne, in 1912.

Despite such talents, a history of alcoholism and cocaine addiction led to Morton's five illegitimate children growing up in extreme poverty. Tovey's childhood and adolescence were marked by institutionalisation in The Royal Park Welfare Depot for Children, repeated sexual abuse and psychological trauma by his foster father and unjust incarceration in Melbourne's Pentridge Prison.

At 15, told to get a job by the police a girl who he worked with at Collins Book Depot took Tovey to see Les Sylphides at the National Theatre. This inspired him to begin ballet classes with Jean Alexander at the National Theatre Ballet School, After taking classes with Alexander, Tovey studied with Madame Borovansky, then joined the Ballet Guild where he danced in En Cirque and The Sentimental Bloke with Corrie Lodders and Alison Lee, Jack Manuel and Laurence Bishop. He also studied modern European dance and improvisation with Hanny Exiner.

In time, theatre attracted Tovey as strongly as dance had, and he appeared in amateur and pro-am productions and led a bohemian life. Tovey made his professional debut in Paint Your Wagon at Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1954, He later appeared Bells are Ringing, Salad Days , Music Man, Once Upon a Mattress, and Witness for the Prosecution at The Princess Theatre. He also performed in the radio serial At Noon on Saturday with Bunney Brooke and many revues with comedian Mary Hardy.

Recognising his need for a stronger acting basis, he convinced the legendary actor-director Hayes Gordon who he saw in Kismet at the Princess Theatre in 1956 to take him on as his student.

In 1960 Tovey married Barbara Hickling, with whom he had a daughter Felicity. The couple moved to London, where, with few, brief visits to Australia, Tovey was to spend the next 30 years building a long and diverse career. He became a principal dancer with the Sadler's Wells Opera in 1961, and the same year made his acting debut with legendary American actress Stella Adler in a production of Oh Dad, Poor Dad by Arthur L Kopit. He made his singing debut at the Saville Theatre in On The Level, a musical by Australian Ron Grainer.

Tovey's career as a choreographer and director in the West End was launched in 1967 when he was asked to choreograph a production of Sandy Wilson's The Boyfriend at the Comedy Theatre . A resounding success, it toured the United Kingdom. He restaged his choreography for the Australian production (1968) He directed and choreographed the South Africa production (1969). He choreographed or directed other musicals such as Bakerloo to Paradise, Connaught Theatre (1969), Charley's Aunt (1969) for BBC TV, Birds Of A Feather, The first all male revue in the West End at the Royalty Theatre 1970, Anything Goes, Richbrooke Theatre Sydney 1971, Fiddler On The Roof, Denmark 1972, Dean, a musical based on the life of James Dean London Casino Theatre (1977), The Streets of London, Her Majesty’s Theatre (1980) for Australian director Diane Cilento.

He also choreographed Guys and Dolls (1981) with director Leslie Lawton at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh, and original Victorian pantomimes there such as Dick Whittington (1971) with Sir Richard Eyre. He directed and choreographed Jack and the Beanstalk (1972-73), and enticed Patricia Kirkwood out of retirement for her last pantomime season for his production of Aladdin,Theatre Royal Newcastle (1973).

In 1970, while rehearsing the European Premiere of Kenneth Tynan's infamous nude revue Oh! Calcutta!, Tovey met David Sarel, who would be his life and business partner until Sarel's death in 1986. Shortly after they met, Tovey re-staged the choreography for the Paris and German productions of Oh Calcutta!. In 1971 he and Sarel took a stall in London's Antiquarius Antiques Market. Their business grew so quickly that they established an antiques gallery, L'Odeon, which specialised in early 20th century decorative art pieces. L'Odeon grew out of Tovey's childhood passion for collecting that developed after admiring Lalique glass birds in Cattanach's Jewellers in Bourke Street. For 20 years L'Odeon sold works by artists including Lalique, de Lempicka, da Silva Bruhns, Man Ray, Miró and Picasso to such galleries as the Victoria and Albert Museum UK, Rijks Museum Amsterdam, Museum of Modern Art New York, the National Gallery of Australia , Toledo Museum of Fine Art, Ohio. USA. Brighton Museum UK. He also donated pieces to The V&A, Brighton and The Toledo Museum.

Tovey's personal interest in and investigation of the ceramics of English artist Clarice Cliff led to her rehabilitation and in turn an international craze for her work. Unable to find a publisher for the ground-breaking book Clarice Cliff by Kay Johnson and Peter Wentworth-Sheilds to accompany the L'Odeon Clarice Cliff exhibition in 1976, Tovey published the book privately, after which it became the basis for new ceramics scholarship.

On the death of his partner and mother in close succession, Tovey soon lost interest in his gallery. L'Odeon closed in 1990 and a year later Tovey returned to Australia where he actively campaigned for Indigenous rights, with a particular interest in deaths in custody. He set up a performing arts course at Eora the Aboriginal College and met performers such as Deborah Mailman, Rachael Maza and Trisha Morton-Thomas. He was a guest lecturer for Indigenous Art at the Art Gallery of NSW working with Daphne Anderson, and directed several Indigenous plays including The Aboriginal Protestors, the first Aboriginal Play in the Sydney Festival which was later invited by the German Government to the Munich and Weimar Arts Festivals. He directed A Midsummer Night's Dream for the Sydney Theatre Company with an entirely Aboriginal cast for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Arts Festival of The Dreaming and was the artistic director of the Indigenous welcome ceremony for Juan Antonio Samaranch, the Olympics Sydney 2000.

Tovey's autobiography, Little Black Bastard (2004), for which he received the 2000 Indigenous Fellowship to write, was published by Hachette in 2004. The book was inspired by a tram ride through Melbourne, seeing many familiar and traumatic places from his childhood. On the advice of his cousin Libby Gleeson, herself a successful authoress, Tovey wrote and performed a one-man play of the same name, directed by his lifelong friend Robina Beard. It was performed to considerable acclaim in Australia and New Zealand and the UK. In London the play was part of The Origins Festival Of First Nations Peoples 2011. 

Tovey has been the recipient of many awards in Australia and overseas and received The Order of Australia Medal in the Australia Day Honours List in 2015. The same year he was inducted into the Victorian Aboriginal Roll of Honour.

See here for our preview of the Australian Dance Awards.

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