The James Gleeson oral history collection
James Gleeson interviews Australia's major artists
Venus modest lady 1978
Drawing, pencil, coloured pencils and watercolour
34.8 h x 24.9 w cm
The Alan Oldfield Bequest
1 August 1979 [unknown location]
James Gleeson: Well, Alan, that’s good. Anything—oh yes, of course, the sets and costumes for Rumours.
Alan Oldfield: Oh yes, right.
James Gleeson: We haven’t got those actually in, but they are due to come in so perhaps we can talk about those.
Alan Oldfield: Yes.
James Gleeson: How did that come about?
Alan Oldfield: Well, how it came about—well, what Rumours is first is a ballet, which was put on by The Dance Company, who are Sydney based. It was choreographed by a very brilliant choreographer called Graeme Murphy and it used an Australian composer for the music and I was asked to design it.
James Gleeson: Who was the composer?
Alan Oldfield: Barry Conningham—I’m sorry I should have said that—who’s a young guy. Its rare claim to notoriety, or whatever you’d say, is it’s the first full length Australian ballet which is a complete home product with an Australian designer and an Australian choreographer and an Australian composer. Graeme Murphy saw my last show and then asked me—well, that’s the simplest way of stating it, I suppose—to design Rumours, which of course I immediately refused to do. But later I was convinced because I went up to Canberra to see them dancing Poppy, which was their previous production, which I hadn’t seen.
James Gleeson: (inaudible)
Alan Oldfield: Yes. I fell deeply in love with all things balletic, and particularly The Dance Company. So I accepted and I did it. James Mollison heard about that and thought it would be a good idea if it was in fact commissioned—though I believe that’s technically not the term to be used, but that’s in fact what happened—by the National Gallery, which was of course an enormous help because The Dance Company couldn’t have afforded to have put it on, I don’t think really, without that sort of assistance, which means in return that you will receive all the drawings for the costumes and the sets which go into the collection because you’re building up your collection—which is a very fine collection, I might add. I’ve seen some of it, it’s stunning. But it was a very exciting thing to do because I knew nothing about ballet. I’d never actually even seen a ballet before. I know an awful lot more about it now. Also Rumours, when I was commissioned to do it, it’s a ballet in three acts but, in fact, only one act had been choreographed, and then not fully.
James Gleeson: I see.
Alan Oldfield: So I was involved with the creation of the ballet itself, which is quite different of course to what designers do. You know, they get it as a fait accompli. Receive, you know, this is a brief, this is what we want. Well, it wasn’t like that. I went to as many rehearsals as possible, which is what Graeme Murphy wanted me to do. It’s all so complicated now, they’re whole ideas. I mean, it’s interesting. There’s been articles written about it in which he said, ‘We couldn’t ever sort out who was responsible for what idea even’. There are certain things that I disapproved of and they became casualties. Lots of things he disapproved of that I wanted to do and, of course, they were casualties. I mean naturally I wasn’t responsible for the choreography but it was a complete inter-working. It was quite, you know, a marvellous thing to be involved in. And an opportunity that few artists have, to work with someone who really is as good as Graeme Murphy is. We are going to do another one.
James Gleeson: Are you? That will be exciting.
Alan Oldfield: Yes. Yes, we don’t know when. Well, we were going to do one in about a year’s time, but that’s rather been shot to pieces because I’ll probably be going overseas again, I think. But it was very exciting. I think it’s a good ballet, actually.
James Gleeson: I missed it for some reason, I don’t know why, because I admire his work. I liked Poppy very much.
Alan Oldfield: Well, everybody said, you know, ‘I suppose you’ve learnt so much from it’. I don’t think I’ve learnt anything from it really. Because what my brief really was was to make it look—ideally–as if it was a moving painting ballet. Well, of course, I discovered that was simply impossible. I couldn’t do that, it doesn’t work. You can’t translate across that directly.
James Gleeson: No.
Alan Oldfield: Really it’s only in the last act where I have a wonderful, you know, free for all time, do whatever I like, and it does look a bit like a picture of mine. Well, what I was asked to do was give them the look. Of course, when I arrived with all these things which were in colour, they freaked out because The Dance Company has never done anything except it was in black and white or grey. I’ve never seen such terror in my life. You know, there they were having to wear primary colours on stage and stuff. They went crazy. They thought, ‘No’. But it was very interesting and I designed the lot down to the leotards. In fact, the leotards are not like any leotards you’d ever see because they were cut—well, not cut by me but the cutting was under my direction. I became very fascinated with it. It seems to me ballet has a lot of possibilities, you know. Or contemporary dance has a lot of possibilities. But only if you get a company as daring as The Dance Company because, you know, there they are, one of the very advanced companies and of course all advanced companies now use almost no sets, no design, no nothing, just lighting.
James Gleeson: Yes.
Alan Oldfield: There he was reintroducing it all.
James Gleeson: Exactly, yes.
Alan Oldfield: Which was fairly brave, I thought. But the major stimulus of it was working with people who are just so extraordinarily disciplined and talented. I think dancers and choreographers are more disciplined and talented—well, not more talented, but more disciplined—than any other people I’ve ever met in my life, you know. All they do is work. They’re workaholics really. But it was a very exciting thing to do. It was wonderful.
James Gleeson: Well, that’s marvellous.
Alan Oldfield: Very exciting.