Minnie Everett- JCW Ballet Mistress

In the early 20th Century it was difficult for a woman to play a major role in theatre production. One woman who succeeded was Minnie Everett. Minnie began as a JC Williamson chorus dancer. She worked her way to ballet mistress and producer. By the time of her death in 1956 she had become a legend of the Australian stage.

Minnie Rebecca Everett was born on in Beaufort Victoria in 1874. Her father George was a builder. Her mother was the former Eliza Hardy or Harding. Minnie had several siblings including a younger sister called Lillian who later worked for Pollards Opera Company and JC Williamson. (JCW).

Minnie began her stage career as a chorus dancer at a very early age. She was one of twelve permanently engaged girls for JC Williamson’s theatrical company. One of her early dancing teachers was Emilia Pasta, who came to Australia with an Italian Opera Company in 1876. Minnie later remembered being thirteen years old and rushing from one production to another in two different theatres on the same night. It was a busy schedule for a young girl.

By the age of eighteen, Minnie was working with the Royal Comic Opera Company. She was one of eight dancers dubbed, ‘the Royal ballerinas’. In 1892 they were trained and choreographed by Marie Reddall. They performed in both Sydney and Melbourne. In January of that year they played in The Merry Monarch at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne. Spring found them in The Gondoliers at her Majesty’s in Sydney. At that time, Marie Reddall was returning to England. Her ballerinas presented her with a dressing case backstage to thank her for her hard work. In another change, one of the eight, Laura Healy, was leaving the stage to get married. The career of dancer was seen as a prelude to a longer career of marriage.

Minnie eventually became a solo dancer. She was working as such when she met William Rice, the son of Watty Rice, who was a conductor of the JCW orchestra. William was a viola player in the orchestra. Minnie and William married in 1895 and Minnie left the stage.

Her retirement lasted a year. During that year she gave birth to a daughter, Florence Gladys Beatrice Rice. Minnie returned to JC Williamson and became ballet mistress. She was in her early 20s and her responsibilities included choreography of large choruses for the annual pantomimes. The position of ballet mistress was one that she would hold for the rest of her life.

In a later interview she discussed her work;

How do I get my ballets? Of course all the steps, all the movements, in every new

ballet have to be thought out-have to be originated by me. And every new production

requires new ballets. I must confess that sometimes I feel stuck. I nibble at my pencil

until I think I am never going to get anything new. Suddenly, I get a flow of ideas

-enough in fact for all the steps and movements of a complete ballet!

Amongst Minnie’s work in the early years included the corn and poppy ballet for Aladdin. This involved thirty-six dancers. She also organised the ballet champetre for Little Red Riding Hood. This also involved thirty-six dancers. Minnie often incorporated different cultural aspects into her work. For example for Alfred Hill’s opera ‘Tapu’, Minnie consulted with a Maori dancer about the ‘Poi’ dance.

What I did in Tapu was to take the salient features of the Poi dance and

build up around there a dance of my own.

When it came to dance, Minnie was prepared to seek influences from various sources and adapt it to her own purposes.

Although Minnie was kept busy as ballet mistress, she still appeared on stage. In 1899 she appeared with sister Lilly in a production of The Geisha at Her Majesty’s in Sydney. Minnie played ‘O Hana San’ and Lilly played ‘o Kiku San’, geisha girls.

In 1906, Minnie became a producer for the first time. It was an unusual role for a woman and illustrated her standing in the company. Minnie was listed as co producer for the first season of Utopia Ltd in Australia. The Gilbert and Sullivan Opera was staged at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne and starred Howard Vernon, Charles Kenningham and Dolly Castles. It was to be the first of many Gilbert and Sullivan productions for Minnie.

Between 1910 and 1920, Minnie worked as ballet mistress for several productions, including the yearly pantomimes. Each year Williamson’s produced a pantomime in Melbourne for Christmas. The show would then be taken to Sydney for Easter. The JCW pantomimes were lavish productions, with large casts and elaborate sets and costumes. As ballet mistress, Minnie was responsible for inventing and arranging all the dances for the pantomimes. She organised hundreds of dancers, choreographed soloists and liaised with musical conductors. In addition Minnie trained several private students at the same time.

In 1914, she choreographed the dancers for ‘Cinderella’. Amongst these were, ‘The ‘Wildflower’, ‘Hunting’ ‘Boudoir’ ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Fairy Transformation’ ballets. The Argus said that they ‘all delight the eye for movement and lovely colouring’. In 1918, Minnie arranged the ballets for the annual pantomime Dick Whittington. In 1919, she was doing the same for Goody Two Shoes. The latter included hundreds of chorus dancers, and had Maggie Dickinson in several solos. The pantomime featured the extravagant ‘March of the Suits’ in toyland. Minnie was responsible for inventing and arranging the dances of the entire show.

Her work was not restricted to pantomime. She was also responsible for the ballets in JCW’s  musicals. In 1919, she invented and arranged the ballets in ‘Going Up" The musical included Cyril Ritchard and Madge Elliott in "Memories’. Minnie choreographed the dance. The two dancers were her protegees and later became household names in Australia and overseas.

In 1920, Minnie added more production credits to her resume. She produced a season of Gilbert and Sullivan at His Majesty’s in Melbourne. The season included productions of ‘Yeoman of the Guard’, ‘The Mikado’, and ‘Iolanthe’. All involved huge casts and lavish spectacle. It was highly unusual at that time for a woman to be a producer. Minnie’s loyalty to Williamson’s and her obvious talent for management were being recognised by the company.

She continued her non stop working schedule until 1923. That year the Referee newspaper reported that "Minnie Everett is suffering from severe nervous strain.’ Given her constant employment, this was not a surprise. Minnie slept only five hours a night and spent every waking moment in a theatre. In 1923 she had just launched another protege, Josie Melville in a production of ‘Sally’ in Sydney. Both Josie and ‘Sally’ were a hit and ran over nineteen weeks at Her Majesty’s Theatre.

Nervous strain did not stop Minnie and she was soon back at work. In the 1920s she produced grand opera and in 1926 she was again producing Gilbert and Sullivan. That season included performances of The Mikado, Iolanthe, Princess Ida and The Pirates of Penzance. By the end of the decade, Minnie could claim to be the only woman to have produced both grand opera and Gilbert and Sullivan in Australia.

Although theatre production in Australia stalled during the 1930s, Minnie’s work schedule did not. She was heavily involved in producing musicals and operas for JCW during the decade. This included producing two seasons of Gilbert and Sullivan in 1931 and 1935.

By the end of the 1930s, the list of performers Minnie had worked with read like a who’s who of Australian Theatre. They included Maggie Dickinson, Howard Vernon, Carrie Moore, Gladys Moncrieff, Cyril Ritchard, Nellie Stewart, Madge Elliott, Ivan Menzies and Bernard Manning. She had produced Grand Opera and light opera, had invented hundreds of ballets for musicals and pantomimes and had become an institution at JCW.

In 1940, Minnie was sixty six and still producing. That year she was listed as producer for The Gondoliers. It starred Ivan Menzies, Max Oldaker, Evelyn Gardiner and Viola Wilson. Minnie Everett was coaching a whole new generation of Australian musical theatre performers. In a short article in the programme it was stated that Minnie had produced for JCW in South Africa, London and Australia. She listed her greatest achievement as producing Grand Opera in the mid 1920s

In June 1956 Minnie was admitted to the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne suffering from burns. She died in hospital on June 7th She was 81 years old. Even at that age she maintained the title she had attained in the 1890s. Her death certificate lists her occupation simply as ‘ballet mistress."

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