Australia has produced many great and legendary dancers. For example, Cyril Ritchard, Madge Elliot and Robert Helpmann. One dancer who delighted audiences through the dark years of the First World War was Victorian born Maggie Dickinson.
Margaret Esme Dickinson was born in Flemington in 1894. As was typical of the time, she began her theatrical career at an early age.
In 1910, aged 16, she appeared in The Arcadians at the Theatre Royal in Melbourne. The Arcadians was a musical starring The New English Comic Opera Company. The company consisted of imported stars mixed with local talent. One star of the show was Australian born soprano, Maie Sydney. Maggie Dickinson was credited as Aleto (an Arcadian) and billed second last, just above 'Dreamland', a horse.
Maggie appeared in the JC Williamson pantomime, Puss in Boots for the Christmas 1912 season. She danced a comic number called "Everybody’s doing it now." She continued in this production until Easter 1913.
Perhaps the most influential event in Maggie’s life was the tour of Adeline Genee in August 1913. Genee was the most famous dancer of the era, known for her technical ability and personal charm. Maggie was included in the cast of Genee’s tour. Later accounts suggested that Genee thought that Maggie had a great deal of potential and prophesised a great future for her.
After receiving good notices from the Genee tour, Maggie soon rose to become a principal dancer. She was in great demand for pantomimes. They would soon become the focus of her career.
At Christmas 1913, Maggie appeared in "The Forty Thieves", the annual JC Williamson company pantomime. Maggie played "the spirit of mischief" and also appeared in the Black and White ballet. She showed good technique, particularly in terms of rhythm.
Not only does the music catch her feet, but her lithe body sways in unison with it.
In May 1914, Maggie showed herself capable of improvisation, when her dancing partner, Mr Lauschmann, injured an ankle. Maggie expected him on stage, but he did not appear. She immediately improvised a series of pirouettes and an oblivious audience applauded wildly.
Theatre Magazine published a major article about Maggie in June that year. The article praised Maggie for her technical skills.
Her steps are true; she has supple-rather than subtle-grace and abundant suggestion of enjoyment.
It criticised her however for ‘a touch of exaggeration’.
Natural exuberance is always infectious in dancing
but when it is overdone so as to appear strained
it ceases to be joyous.
The writer suggested that Maggie was imitating Genee. A natural course for a young dancer to take. Furthermore the article stated that she should concentrate on developing her individuality as a dancer, implying that the imitation was limiting Maggie’s growth.
It concluded optimistically by stating that
One feels that Miss Dickinson will find her own means of expression.
The fact that this article was written suggested that by 1914 Maggie was being recognised as a major dancing talent. She soon proved this through a succession of highly regarded performances in pantomime.
Pantomime was highly popular in Australia during World War 1. J C Williamson, a major theatrical company were the keepers of the pantomime tradition. Every Christmas they would produce an extravagant, expensive and gigantic pantomime. It would be staged in one of their large theatres in Melbourne for the Christmas period and then travel to Sydney for Easter. After that it would be taken to New Zealand for a long tour. The casts were enormous, the ballets exquisite and the jokes outrageous. Traditional pantomimes such as Dick Whittington or Cinderella were altered to include topical references. The pantos made stars and created household names. Performers such as Arthur Stigant, and Florence Young appeared in J C Williamson pantomimes. They became an important means of stirring patriotism and lightening spirits during the First World War.
Maggie became a familiar face to pantomime audiences. For many years she was a featured dancer in the pantos. Her career peaked during the years of World War 1.
Maggie appeared in Cinderella in 1914. Cinderella mixed patriotic themes such as The march of the Allies with comedy routines, topical songs such as ‘As we stroll down Swanston Street’ and beautiful ballets. It opened in Melbourne at Her Majesty’s theatre in December.
The principal dancer in The Wildflowers ballet was Maggie Dickinson. The ballet had sunshine, rain and rainbow effects. She featured as ‘a red poppy’. Maggie also appeared in a unique tableau where the heads of singers became notes on a music sheet. Minnie Everett, the famous JC Williamson ballet mistress choreographed the ballets. Maggie travelled with Cinderella from Melbourne to Sydney and then to New Zealand.
Maggie’s next pantomime was Mother Goose in 1915.By that time, her appearances in pantomime were an expected highlight for Australian audiences. A picture in Theatre Magazine at the time of Mother Goose, showed her from the waist down. She was wearing high heel ballet shoes and an above the knee skirt. The photo focussed on the dancer’s legs.
As the war continued, JC Williamson continued to produce the annual pantomime. Maggie had become a major part of the tradition. For the 1916 Christmas season, Maggie danced in The House that Jack Built. By August the show had visited Melbourne and Sydney and continued to New Zealand. In September a New Zealand correspondent of Theatre Magazine wrote a fullsome and poetic tribute to Maggie.
Faery Sunbearn! A name suggestive of sunlight, grace and joy. So, for a
few fleeting moments, she appeared in our midst; and now she is gone!
Her cheering presence for a brief season enchanted our eyes, and has left
us the brighter and happier for her coming. Maggie Dickinson is easily
the star attraction in the pantomime which has just left us, and her wonderful
grace and charming vivacity were a revelation to those who appreciate good dancing;
and there are many such in Wellington. She brought light and gladness into many hearts
sad and war worn these dreary days.
The importance of theatre and in particular the ability of dance to lighten the darkness of war was eloquently expressed by these words. Maggie had become a symbol of hope and joy for many.
For this correspondent the highlight of the pantomime was The Dance of the Emotions.
‘wherein every feeling of the soul from grief and despair to triumphant
joy was expressed with the most exquisite taste and delicacy of touch. Miss
Dickinson enters heart and soul into the joy of her work , and thus
charms all eyes and hearts.
Clearly Maggie had succeeded in expressing her individuality in a touching and exquisite manner which moved all of those who saw her.
The last Christmas pantomime of the war was Dick Whittington. It starred Vera Pearce as principal boy and was peopled ‘with a world of beautiful girls gorgeously frocked, fairy land palaces, quaint characters in weird costumes who caper and tumble and crack jokes to the huge delight of childish hearts.’
Minnie Everett was again ballet mistress and choreographer. The most striking ballet staged was The War ballet. In it Maggie played peace, her dance partner, Sydney Yates played civilisation and Ruby Grainger played war. All the nations involved in the war were represented. War, ‘a grim,swift and black garbed figure’ swayed the countries and thrusted peace and civilisation aside. Thus setting all the nations against each other ‘in the terrible clash and slaughter of battle.’
It was a dramatic ballet which caused much comment amongst critics and audiences. Forceful and harsh it was a potent reminder of the horror of war.
Maggie featured in another, more light hearted ballet. The Vogue ballet, had Maggie and Sydney Yates dressed in Georgian costumes dancing with six girls representing Vogue covers. Maggie was described as ‘graceful and elusive as floating tufts of thistle down.’
The Referee praised her for the versatility she showed in the pantomime.
"there are dancers whose capabilities are displayed in only one
particular style of dancing, but Miss Dickinson’s art has a wide range
Maggie described the secret of her success to the newspaper.
I eat well, sleep well, keep in the fresh air as much as I can
and always try to be happy.
In the March 1918 edition of Theatre magazine, Maggie appeared in a large advertisement for ‘Dr Sheldon’s magnetic liniment." She cheekily posed on her ballet shoes and peaked over her shoulder at the reader. She was described as "Miss Maggie Dickinson, the delightful dancer."
Her 1918-1919 pantomime outing was in Goody Two Shoes. Maggie was billed as "Australia’s own brilliant young dancer." Her first appearance was in scene seven singing, "Bubbles". This was followed by a solo dance in ‘ The ballet of the fortune tellers.’ She appeared as the French Doll in the Children’s toy ballet and in a dance duet with Sydney Yates. According to reviewers
…all her grace and diablerie were shown in the pirouettes and entire chats
of her pas de deux with Sydney Yates.
Maggie was greeted with great enthusiasm by the crowds who flocked to see Goody Two Shoes in Sydney.
The 1920 pantomime offering was Sleeping Beauty. It featured Maggie dancing a specialty with Sydney Yates. It was called "The Fox and the Pheasant." In July 1920 the pantomime toured New Zealand, perhaps Maggie’s Kiwi admirer saw her again.
In 1921 it was announced in The Sydney Mail that Maggie Dickinson was to marry Sydney Culver, a fellow dancer. The two married in Melbourne that year. The official record names the groom as Sydney Culverhouse.
The newly married pair travelled to England where they intended to stay for six months. They probably mixed their honeymoon with theatrical appearances. The couple were due to return to Australia for the next Williamson pantomime, Babes in the Wood.
Pantomime was fading in popularity. It was being supplanted by moving pictures and other forms of entertainment. Maggie did not appear as regularly during the mid to late 1920s as she had during World War 1. In 1924 it was noted that she and husband Sydney were developing a ‘revuette’ called ‘The Sauce Box.’, in London.
By 1932 Maggie was back in Melbourne acting as ballet mistress for JC Williamson. She choreographed the dances for a production of Bitter Sweet.
Maggie Dickinson, one of Australia’s most popular performers died in Elwood Victoria in 1949. She was 54 years old. In her 54 years she had delighted thousands of people during a dark stage of human history. Her large eyes and cheeky grin preserved in pictures, gives some idea of how this slight young Australian mesmerised a generation.
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