In 2023, Yvette Grant danced into the Library’s collections on a quest to revive the memory of four women in the story of Australian ballet. In doing so, she found boxes and boxes of evidence of their impact at the time and their lasting legacy in ballet today. These women were Laurel Martyn, Joanna Priest, Louise Lightfoot and Valrene Tweedie.

Woman with short, curly brown hair wearing a black top sitting at a table covered in old photos and manuscripts, smiling

Modern women making modern ballets

For a few years now, Yvette’s PhD research at the Victorian College of the Arts at the University of Melbourne had her investigating ballet in Australia before the formation of The Australian Ballet Company in 1962.

‘As I dug around, I discovered four modern women making modern, Australian ballets,’ Yvette said.

‘Despite being very well-known at their time and contributing to ballet in Australia extensively through companies, schools and creative works, these women have fallen out of cultural memory and the story we tell about ballet in Australia.’

To learn more about these women and their work, Yvette knew she needed to access the ‘extensive and exclusive’ dance collection at the Library, and began her journey as a National Library Scholar.

Woman in front of a black background, wearing a headdress and dance costume, posed so she's standing on one leg, leaning to the side, and lifting one arm above her head
Maurice Seymour, Valrene Tweedie as an Odalisque in 'Scheherazade', Chicago, Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, 1947-48nla.obj-143452131

Exploring their stories

Once Yvette arrived at the Library and got started, she found more than she bargained for.

‘During my six-week scholarship I looked through more than 50 boxes of archival material ... I knew there was a lot to look at, but I was still surprised by the sheer volume.’

Much of this material linked directly to the four women in focus, including photographs, programs from performances, interview recordings, scrapbooks and newspaper articles. Others provided historical context to the Australian ballet scene and culture of the time. Collectively, they provided a thorough and rounded picture of the careers of these four women and the works they created.

In centre stage 

A particular focus of Yvette’s research is the works of Laurel Martyn. Renowned for her career in ballet dance, choreography, administration and teaching, Martyn was a pioneer in Australian ballet. This is reflected in the Library’s collections, which include more than 10 boxes of manuscripts relating to her career. These include records relating to Martyn's directorship of the Ballet Guild, Victorian Ballet Company and Ballet Victoria, photographs of her performances, sheet music, and audio tapes which accompanied performances and dance classes.

Yvette’s research had her taking a deep dive into two of Martyn's works, Voyageur and En Saga, and reenacts both.

Photographs spread on a table, of a woman throughout her career in ballet, including photos of her dancing and portraits
Photographs of Laurel Martyn throughout her career from Papers of Laurel Martyn, 1901-1988,

Material that keeps you on your toes 

One thing Yvette learnt in her time at the Library, which she will certainly take with her in future research, is the importance of patience. Though the value of a source may not always be instantly evident, you should ‘always read or listen until the end’ as you never know what you might find.

'One of the best quotations I came away with came at the end of a very strange interview with Valrene Tweedie which seemed to only contain information I'd heard before. I almost stopped listening. Luckily, I didn’t and at the very end the interviewer asked, "Is there anything else you'd like to add?". This led to a surprisingly candid and personal statement which gave me great insight into how Tweedie was feeling at the time and shifted my understanding of her and her career.’

Woman with short, curly brown hair wearing a black top sitting at a table covered in old photos and manuscripts, writing in a notebook

Put on your dancing shoes with a Library Scholarship 

Following her time at the Library, Yvette will continue working towards completing her PhD and has hopes of turning her research into a book.

Overall, Yvette looks back on her time at the Library with fond memories and great new insights into her research subject.

‘My experience of the library was wonderful: staff were helpful, the environment was conducive to getting work done and requests to view material were always processed very quickly.’

In particular, she found that the time and space given as a National Library scholar, as well as the presentation at the end of her scholarship, allowed her the opportunity to ‘observe, capture, process and then revisit and reassess materials’. This brought her to new and unexpected conclusions that will guide her future work and ultimately, the experience is one she ‘highly recommends’ to others.

Learn more about the Library’s Fellowship and Scholarship programs.