Marie Duthie, June Don Murray and Doreen Leighton-Ward are three women from the golden age of Variety. Aged 94, 90 and 85 respectfully, they are all still dancing. Brought together by director and choreographer Janice Parker these consummate dancers are guaranteed to both awe and entertain.
In early 2016 Janice was approached by the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh to contribute to their engagement programme. Interested in the idea of authorship, agency and the legacy of older performers in today’s dance world, she put out a call looking for dancers from the Variety era who had at one time or another performed on the stage of The Empire, now Festival Theatre, Edinburgh.
Marie Duthie (nee Pyper) was born in 1923 and trained in Edinburgh. She first danced publicly as a toddler at her father’s amateur concert parties where she met her dance teacher Constance Gabrielle. By 1930 she was also training in ballet, tap and acrobatics with another Edinburgh teacher, Marjorie Middleton. In 1932, at the age of 9, Marie performed the dying swan solo and was noted by Edinburgh’s Evening Dispatch newspaper who said, “memories of Pavlova are brought to mind”. By 1940 she toured the country with The Ganjou Brothers and Juanita. Acrobatics was her speciality and in 1942 she became one half of The Raymond Sisters, extensively touring the UK on the renowned Moss Empire Circuit with her double act, which ended with them in mini kilts singing and tap dancing to Macphersin’ is Rehearsin’ to Swing.
Marie herself says: “I’ve been dancing from the word go. My mother used to say whenever there was any music on I was twitching and moving, always dancing and doing my own version. I feel so at home the minute I put my tap shoes on”.
June Don Murray was born in 1927 into a theatrical family in Scarborough, the daughter of performer and theatre manager Roy Don Parker and dancer Phyllis Ward and grand-daughter of renowned Variety performer, Happy Tom Parker. The family moved to Edinburgh when June was three and her father became manager of the Palladium Theatre. June began her formal training at Madame Ada’s dance school and went on to perform across Scotland and the UK with the Adaline Calder Girls, the Hamish Turner Dancers and then with the Moxon Girls. In 1955 June became the assistant to Australian illusionist The Great Levante, taking part in disappearing acts, bullet tricks and was regularly fired out of a canon.
June says: “Oh, it’s a laugh a minute, we love it, but nobody knows what goes into making a show, the time it takes, how hard we work, the precision”
Doreen Leighton-Ward was born in 1931 in Edinburgh and began her dance training in Madame Ada’s Dance School in Picardy Place Edinburgh as one of the Calderettes. At the age of 15 she becomes a Calder girl and toured in pantomime across the country before becoming head girl with The Hamish Turner Troupe. In 1953 Doreen attended an Equity meeting, initiated a strike, and successfully challenged and changed the working pay of dancers in Variety theatre. She appears as an unnamed mystery woman in a photograph of that meeting in The Scotsman. Doreen went on to dance in musical theatre and to appear in many TV dramas. She was recently choreographer for The Last Post, directed by Susan Worsfold as part of the Made In Scotland Showcase 2017.
Doreen says ‘’Ours was a small piece of a large jigsaw from which other dance styles evolved. I’ve a renewed sense of worth in the work we did 65 years ago. This is exciting, heady stuff.”
Director Janice Parker commented: “These women have never stopped dancing and continue to transmit their love of the art form and for the act of dancing. They have so much knowledge, skill and passion. True forces of nature. For a year now we have been working together a day a week collecting, gathering, exchanging and dancing. We have two young dancers in their 20s in the company, Katie Miller and Daisy Douglas, who are learning choreography and technique from Marie, June and Doreen. They are also learning about the life of these women and its relevance and contribution to dance now.
We are three generations of dancing. I turn 60 this year and long to give agency, authorship and relevance to older women dancing, to their continuing possibilities and to the stories our bodies tell.
There is so much to share. At the peak of their careers Variety dancers were in the main unnamed. Some weeks they were doing 13 shows a week and travelling to the next venue with their costumes, sheet music, and the occasional dog and kangaroo. And all on their day ‘off’!” An Audience With… is a way of giving voice and recognition and a means to share the energy and vivacity of these dancers.”
The live events take place, aptly, in the Festival Theatre’s Empire Rooms. Structured loosely around a guided tour. An Audience With… is a live and virtual experience with six dancers, from three generations who share their dancing lives, past, present and future.
Marie, June and Doreen say: “We dance. We talk about dance. We talk about the profession then and the profession now. We talk about ourselves. We’ve danced in the studio, the dressing rooms, in the theatre bar, in the foyer and back on the main stage Janice, Katie and Daisy are learning to tap dance. We do the five positions of ballet. We work on portable tap mats and sometimes ballet barres. We experiment with seated dance, and a bit of creative contemporary. We teach class. We talk about dance not just as the mastery of steps but also as the ‘feeling’ of movement, swinging, hanging loose and feeling the music. We know the importance of rehearsal and repetition. We choreograph. And we think about what it means to be an older dancer, what it feels like to not be able to do what you once could and did do, and what it means to do it differently.”
Paul Hudson, Forget Me Not Co-ordinator says: “To actually have people in-residence in the building has brought our history and our stories alive and gives perspective on what we are doing now. The staff love watching these women dance and hearing about their time on the Empire stage.”
In 2018, An Audience With… will also produce a book and a film, and the dancers will continue meeting weekly. They are also interested in meeting other dancers from that era.
An Audience with… will be at the Empire Rooms in the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh on Saturday 21, Thursday 26 and Saturday 28 October 2017 from 3pm to 4.30pm, the venue is wheelchair accessible and guide dogs are welcome.
Images: Greg Macvean