During the 2021 lockdowns in the ACT, the National Library’s Reading Room Operations team worked on a themed book display for the Main Reading Room to coincide with On Stage: Spotlight on our Performing Arts, an exhibition which opened in March this year. The exhibition features a diverse selection of performing arts and artists in Australia, and the team focused on creating an equally diverse book display.

Interested in learning more about Australia's performing arts history?

Explore the exhibition online

Dance in Australia

As a ‘dance mom’ with an enthusiasm for all things ballet, this project provided staff member Lisa Slingsby with an opportunity to explore a few beautifully illustrated dance titles selected from the catalogue.

Book cover featuring a ballerina on a dark background; book cover featuring a ballerina in white on a light background; book cover featuring a close up of an embroidered stage costume
L-R: Robert Bell and Christine Dixon, Ballets russes: the art of costume, 2010, nla.cat-vn4979133​​, Jane Pritchard and Caroline Hamilton, Anna Pavlova, twentieth century ballerina, 2012, nla.cat-vn6219845, Michelle Potter, Kristian Fredrickson: designer, 2020, nla.cat-vn8553864

For those interested in ballet history, the Ballets Russes is an entertaining starting point. The 1936 – 1940 tours brought dance, music and design to Australia on an epic scale and have had a lasting influence on our performing arts scene.

Tour scrapbooks, theatre programs and a sound recording of an interview with legendary ‘baby ballerina’ Irina Baranova (who performed with the Ballets Russes in Australia in 1938) are amongst the treasures that can be accessed in Trove.

Touring European ballet companies inspired many Australian dancers, choreographers and designers, including New Zealand-born designer Kristian Fredrikson, who created costumes and stage sets for opera, theatre and dance companies in his home country and in Australia.

Peggy van Praagh, the Australian Ballet’s first Artistic Director, commissioned Fredrikson to design her 1964 staging of Aurora’s Wedding. This sparked Fredrikson’s interest in ballet and he went on to create almost a dozen productions for the company.

The influence of the sumptuous Ballets Russes era is most notably reflected in Fredrikson’s collaboration with Graeme Murphy in the creation of the Australian Ballet’s Nutcracker – the Story of Clara, which tells the story of a former star of the Ballets Russes journey from Russia to Australia.

A collection of Kristian Frederickson’s costume designs from 1996 to 2001 and an interview with the enigmatic designer are freely available on Trove.


Staff member Kelly Torrens was also working to select items from the Library’s online resources for the book display, including ebooks and material available through the eResources portal.

She looked for as many circus themed texts as possible. There is a long history of circuses in Australia, and through the National Library’s collection the evolution of this unique performance type can be observed.

Three colourful vintage circus posters advertising various performances
L-R: Ivan Bros. International Circus issuing body, Ivan Bros. top of the world International Circus, 1935, nla.cat-vn6536016, Emery Bros. Circus issuing body, Emery Bros. Circus: sixth year of continued success, 1915, nla.cat-vn7755639, Silvers Circus issuing body, Silvers Circus & zoo, 1950, nla.cat-vn7337472

Over the course of the project, Kelly was interested to find that Trove holds a range of digitised scrapbooks relating to performing arts, particularly about ballet or theatre productions. Some examples include J. C. Williamson scrapbooks of music and theatre programmesMusical activities in Australia including Australian artists abroad, 1936 – 1966 and Circus, vaudeville, theatrical performers, sports athletes, other curiosities in Australia and New Zealand, 1912 – 1937.

These collections of newspaper clippings and photographs really give you an opportunity to immerse yourself in history, and they can reveal many fascinating details about performances that often aren’t included in more traditional texts. They simultaneously provide a broader yet more intimate view of an historical production or performing group.  These resources are available online and can be accessed from home.

Another discovery was a book entitled The Final Confession of Mabel Stark by Robert Hough. It is a fictional biography of a real-life, world-famous tiger trainer, Mabel Stark. She was incredibly courageous (and eccentric), and this fictional retelling of her life promises to be an entertaining and inspiring read.

Explore the Circus exhibition

Performing arts biographies

Colleagues Adiba Jadeer and Sue McKellar worked together to choose hard copy biographies of Australian performing artists from the Library’s collection for the display.

Searching the Library’s catalogue, Adiba found the collection was rich in material related to music, opera, dance, drama and other performing arts. The material came in a range of formats, including books, serials, programs, brochures, publicity information, photographs and oral histories. She particularly enjoyed learning about Dame Nellie Melba, whose career gained her international recognition.

Sue explored biographies of musicians she grew up listening to, and biographies of artists whose work she enjoyed. She learned some surprising facts about some of the performing artists she thought she knew well.

On Stage: Spotlight on our Performing Arts is open at the National Library of Australia until 7 August 2022.