Joan Halliday: a driving force

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Joan Monica teaching at a 1964 Jackaroo Ballet Camp in Kenthurst, NSW, which she established with her twin sister, Monica.
Photo kindly supplied by Beth Bluett, a former pupil who is founding director of Living Dance International.
Joan Monica teaching at a 1964 Jackaroo Ballet Camp in Kenthurst, NSW, which she established with her twin sister, Monica. Photo kindly supplied by Beth Bluett, a former pupil who is founding director of Living Dance International.

9 February 1919 – 22 August 2019

Joan Halliday and her twin sister Monica were a driving force in Australian dance in the 20th century, as it developed from little girls dreaming of being a ballerina to become a community of professional performers across a wide variety of styles.

When Joan Halliday celebrated her 100th birthday in February, she was given a handsome regal sash with the words 100 Years Loved in gold.

And loved she was. At her funeral on August 29, there were former students whose own ages hover around 80, as well as representatives of a younger generation, a large family contingent from interstate adding to her Sydney relatives, and many friends.

Born in Melbourne, the girls and their brothers, Phil and Cam, grew up in Queensland, where their father, a journalist, encouraged them to learn ballet. It was the start of an extraordinary dual lifetime.

“All their lives, Joan and Mon lived in the same homes together, danced together, ran a successful business together – an elite ballet school – then retired together at age 80,” said their nephew, Chris Halliday, who with his wife Christine has been Joan’s caring mainstay of her later years, in delivering the eulogy at her funeral.

Joan was only 20 when The Telegraph in Brisbane reviewed “Misses Joan and Monica Halliday in Carnaval… Miss Joan Halliday danced with astounding elan.”  Just over a decade later, in 1950, she had moved to Sydney, opened the Joan Halliday School of Ballet, and launched the Sydney Ballet Group with Monica. By then, she had performed with the Kirsova Ballet, Ballet Rambert and the Borovansky Ballet.

But it was her pioneering work as a dance teacher and presenter that was most important to the art form in this country. Australia Dances, by Alan Brissenden and Keith Glennon notes: “Although the Sydney Ballet Group seldom gave more than two or three performances a year, its contribution to Australian ballet was significant. Presentations were usually above the merely competent and choreography was frequently fresh and inventive.”

The Hallidays’ dance studios moved around over the years, but they were always in central Sydney. The first was in George Street, near Dymock’s. After that they went to Liverpool Street, Parker Street, Campbell Street and, finally, Holt Street, Surry Hills.

The young dancers who studied and worked with her in the early days included Wendy Burr, Annette Dunlop, Kathleen Geldard, Meredith Kinmont,  Suzanne Musitz, Joanne O’Hara, Patricia Saill and Peter Brownlee. Most went on to performing careers and later involvement in dance as teachers, directors and administrators.

At Joan’s funeral, Kathleen Geldard said she had known the Halliday sisters for 68 years, first as a student then as a professional dancer when they invited her to call them Joan and Mon. “When I joined the Australian Ballet, leaving after a show through the stage door, both of them would be waiting and give me notes about my performance – always the teachers!”

Portrait from a Sydney Ballet Group program.
Portrait from a Sydney Ballet Group program.

Emailing from the UK, Meredith Kinmont recalled moving from another ballet school to the Hallidays’, where “I suddenly understood what high standards and professional aspirations might be. Joan, in Monnie’s lifetime, was able to play the bright funny side of the twin equation. Monnie embodied the serious disciplined part of our training – she would grill us technically, subtly developing our physical confidence, leaving it to Joan to sweep in and fire us with the joy of dance. “Between them they had an hilarious saying as they called us from the barre to the centre or as we sat on the floor changing into pointe shoes. ‘Rush up!’ And we would rush, with an eagerness usually impossible to muster in teenagers.”

Patricia Saill remembers Joan as “a very persuasive teacher and sometimes a little sarcastic as well. She had a stick which she would bang on the floor or poke your feet, knees or whatever she thought needed a poke. Imagine doing that now! But she always had a smile or a laugh to glaze over the embarrassment or hurt feelings you may feel at the time.”

Sydney Ballet Group’s repertoire included classics such as Les Sylphides and Swan Lake Act II, but it was most concerned with dance-making of the present, from reproductions of short works by John Cranko and Kenneth MacMillan to many original pieces by Joan, Monica, Helene ffrance, (correct) Ronne (correct) Arnold, Peter Brownlee and others.

Designs for some ballets were invited from specialists, others done by the choreographers. They used a wide range of music, with many original works including a commissioned score by Richard Meale for The Hypnotist, by Judith Burgess. Often the dancers performed with live musicians – pianists or a chamber orchestra.

The Hallidays’ renown as teachers went around the world. Joan was the first Australian to be accredited as an overseas examiner by the Royal Academy of Dance. Both sisters received an order of Australia and an Australian Dance Award for services to dance education, as well as having awards named after them.

When Joan turned 100, she had messages of congratulation from many people in high places, including Queen Elizabeth and Pope Francis. But it could be the admiration and affection in which she was held that were her greatest rewards.

Chris Halliday made a strong point at her funeral about what many regarded as her second family, the dance world: “Please let me say that the ballet community and family, led by the RAD, is a stunningly close, well organised and dedicated group of people that support those members in need of assistance and continued friendship. Our wider community can learn a lot…”

After her twin Monica died 11 years ago in 2008, family and friends were concerned how she would cope alone after a lifetime of activities entwined with her sibling, but there was a sense she was still there, in the wings. Joan would occasionally tell visitors Mon had gone to the shops, or say wistfully “Monnie could have waited for me”.

And on Patricia Saill’s last visit to her, she recalls Joan remarking: “’Monnie’s down the road, I should go and see her’. I feel this was Joan’s way of letting me know it’s time to bring the curtain down.”

- JILL SYKES (Sydney Morning Herald dance critic.)

(Reprinted with permission from 'The Sydney Morning Herald'.)

See a delightful clip of the Hallidays teaching at their Jackaroo Ranch Holliday camp: here. Many thanks to Beth Bluett for pointing this out to us!


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