Vale Alan Brissenden (1932-2020)

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It with much sadness that I write of the death of Dr Alan Brissenden AM, much loved colleague and friend of Dance Australia, on September 9, 2020.

Alan was what can be called a true man of letters: a scholar, writer and critic, having published, written and edited numerous journals and books. Although best known to the dance world as a dance specialist, he was a member of the English Department at Adelaide University for more than 30 years, retiring in 1994 but continuing as an Honorary Visiting Research Fellow, and much of his life was devoted to literature, including his other passion, Shakespeare. (Indeed he wrote a book that combined both: Shakespeare and the Dance, in 1981). 

The first piece I can find of his for Dance Australia was in Issue 17, of a “Choreographic Showing” by Australian Dance Theatre in 1984. It already demonstrated his characteristic style. He had a scholar’s incisive mind and a gift for analysis, and a clean, supple writing style with opinions clearly and honestly expressed. He never missed a deadline and his grammar was always perfect. He liked to use Roman numerals. He was honest but kind in his criticisms – perhaps more kindly as the years went on.

By the time that review was published of course he was already an experienced critic. He first began writing for the Sydney University magazine, Honi Soit, when he was a student of English there in the 50s and was dance critic for the Sydney Morning Herald from 1952 to 1955. He graduated as a school teacher, and after various teaching jaunts in country NSW and the UK, he returned to Australia to live in Adelaide in 1963 and became dance critic for The Advertiser from 1976. He reviewed continuously from that point, for print as well as radio, most recently for The Australian and of course for this magazine.

He became an important figure in Adelaide cultural life as well as further afield. The breadth of his influence can be seen in the many organisations with which he was involved. He was an early champion of the Adelaide Festival of the Arts, and was at various times a member of the Adelaide Festival Board of Governors, the Adelaide branch of the English Association, the Arts Council of South Australia, the Australian and New Zealand Shakespeare Association, Friends of the State Library of South Australia and Ausdance. He received an AM for his contribution to drama and dance in 1996 and an Australian Dance Award in 2013. As was noted in his citation, “We often forget that those who have not danced themselves but have spent a lifetime of intellectual endeavour in the service of dance are fundamental to its ecology”. In June 2020 Ausdance SA honoured Alan with a lifetime membership.

Alan's publications include the Oxford World’s Classics edition of As You Like It (1993), Australia Dances: Creating Australian Dance 1945 –1965 (2010, co-author) and numerous contributions to scholarly journals, essay anthologies and reference books, including The International Encyclopedia of Dance (1998) and The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare (2001).  He was an editor of the Australian dance journal, Brolga. On the Australian literature side, he edited such journals as Angry Penguins, the selected poems of Max Harris. 

Alan Brissenden never danced himself – he just fell in love with it from an early age. His position as an observer rather than a participant, combined with his interest in literature and theatre, his broad intellect and academic background, gave him a unique perception and appreciation of the place of dance in Australian arts.

I last saw him at the Adelaide Festival of Arts in March, his familiar tall figure in the place he belonged – a theatre foyer. He was gentlemanly and polite as always, slyly witty, always curious to hear another viewpoint. But he was not well. His wife, Libby, had died not long before and such was his devotion to her that he had never been the same since. Having made the decision to retire after 70 years of reviewing, Alan could attend this last Festival without needing his notebook, but he was so used to having a deadline to meet that he could not imagine a show without one. 

Farewell Alan, your contribution has been immense and your support of Dance Australia much appreciated. You will be greatly missed.

The funeral will be 11am ACST Friday 25 September, but also available afterwards at the same link.


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