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Dame Maggie Scott and her life of ballet

Some people can pinpoint the moment when they knew what they wanted to be: a flash of inspiration that led them in a particular direction. Others arrive at their calling by chance or by increment, the idea melding with their minds through osmosis.

But for Dame Maggie Scott, there was no such moment: dance was always the only thing that made sense.

"I never wanted to be anything else," she says.

From her early days learning ballet on a concrete floor at her boarding school in South Africa to her role as the founding director – and force behind – the Australian Ballet School, Scott, 92, has for many years been an important and persuasive figure in Australian ballet.

Her journey from dancer to director is captured in a new biography, Dame Maggie Scott: A Life in Dance by historian Michelle Potter. It  is published just as director Marilyn Rowe – Scott's first ballerina at the school – steps down and former principal dancer Lisa Pavane takes over, becoming only the fourth director in the school's 50-year history.

In the sitting room of the Toorak home she shares with her husband, Professor Derek "Dick" Denton, which has windows looking out on to the beautiful garden she maintains, Scott talks about the life that saw her alone in war-time England at 16 pursuing a career in dance, and later saw her become instrumental in the founding of not just the Australian Ballet School but the company itself.

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Born in Johannesburg in 1922, Scott remembers being captivated by native dancers as a very young child, and when she and her twin older sisters Joan and Barbara were allowed to choose one extracurricular activity at the school they attended, Scott decided hers would be dance. And even though the conditions were somewhat rudimentary, she was fortunate to have an excellent teacher in Ivy Conmee, who encouraged her with her dancing and put her through Royal Academy exams.

When her sisters finished school, their mother took the three girls to visit their grandmother in Birmingham, England. It was 1939, and shortly after, war broke out.

Scott auditioned for the prestigious  Sadler's Wells theatre (now the Royal Ballet) and was accepted, soon living in a boarding house and travelling a great deal to perform. The company toured constantly as one of the arts outfits engaged to entertain those involved in war duties, which often meant performing in less than ideal conditions.

"It was the biggest boost ballet has ever had, because it was a captive audience," she reflects. "They'd never been to the ballet before, and they became devotees afterwards. They loved it."

In 1942 Scott joined the Ballet Rambert, which was performing some of the most interesting choreography of the time, and in 1947 it travelled to Australia with a view to doing a six-month tour.

Although there was not a great deal of ballet available in Australia at the time – the Borovansky Ballet, which was the precursor to the Australian Ballet, was itinerant and had significant periods when the dancers weren't performing – Scott bridles at any suggestion Australia at the time may have been culturally a little backward.

"I've never called it backwards, I've never believed in the cultural cringe," she says firmly. "I think being so isolated has actually been to our benefit. It's kept us pristine. We've never been a copy of anybody else."

While she was performing in Melbourne she met a young doctor, Derek Denton, who at the time had just taken principal dancer Sally Gilmour out to dinner, and then came back to the dressing room that Gilmour and Scott shared, not realising it was not the done thing. "This blonde icicle was in a long, tartan dressing gown and looked ferocious. But I discovered later on, in the weeks that went by, that she wasn't an icicle," Denton says with a chuckle. The two were married in 1953 and had two sons, Matthew and Angus.

Scott's career was not without its setbacks. In 1942, she suffered a terrible blow with a back injury that she believes was initially caused by a diving injury when she was a schoolgirl. The result was six months in a body cast able to move only her arms. This would be a devastating injury for anyone, but for a dancer, no doubt a terrifying one too.

"I think one doctor came in and told me I'd never walk again, and I was very, very depressed about that," Scott recalls.

But she did recover and, remarkably, danced again.

Her life took another turn in 1954, when Peggy Sager and Paul Hammond asked her to take over their ballet school in Melbourne while they were away. Scott had never thought about teaching dance as a career option, but set about learning the Royal Academy syllabus and found she very much enjoyed it - so much so that when the pair returned and no longer needed her, she opened her own small school in Toorak.

Around this time there was a growing feeling that Australia needed its own government-funded national ballet company – quite aside from the cultural importance of such a body, Scott worried that there simply wasn't enough work to keep dancers employed at home, forcing them to take their talents overseas.

When Edouard Borovansky died in 1959 it seemed an opportune time, and with the support of influential public servant H.C. "Nugget" Coombs, it was agreed there should be a national company and that Peggy van Praagh should be its artistic director. While van Praagh was rounding up Australian dancers in England and preparing to take up her new post, Scott ensured that the dancers had access to classes every day.

"So the whole time that Peggy was away, the dancers were kept in training," she says.

The next logical step  was to establish a ballet school that  would draw the best talent from around Australia and feed into the company.

Although she initially had no ambitions to be its director, Scott says, she was no doubt the obvious choice. In that role Scott identified and nurtured some of the finest dancers and choreographers this country has produced, including Graeme Murphy, Meryl Tankard, Marilyn Rowe and the Australian Ballet's current artistic director, David McAllister.

He remembers Scott as a teacher who was "demanding ... but exacting", with a scientific approach to dance and anatomy and the possibilities of what the body could do.

And there is no doubt that Scott has been an enormously influential figure in the history of ballet in Australia, not just for her talents as a teacher and administrator, but for the way she was able to use her connections and bring people together.

"I think she really built the international reputation of the school," McAllister says.

The school has about 140 full-time students and more than 300 more who take classes, with about 700 hopeful young dancers vying for one of its prestigious places every year. While she still takes much pleasure in the school she established, Scott is quick to point out that she observes from afar these days.                                                                                    

"It's not my school any more," she says. "I gave them a Rolls Royce to run, and it's up to them to run it."

Dame Maggie Scott: A Life in Dance, $49.99, is published by Text.