Bush dance … Madeleine Eastoe in The Display. Photo: Jeff Busby
In 1955, Katharine Hepburn became obsessed with lyrebirds. Connecticut is a long way from the Dandenongs, but an Old Vic tour of Shakespeare's plays with her friend Robert Helpmann gave the actress an opportunity to fulfil a dream. This, in turn, led to the birth of one of Australia's greatest homegrown ballets, The Display.
''She had read a little book called The Lure of the Lyrebird,'' Helpmann told Fairfax in 1964. ''And she was determined to see them. We used to go to Sherbrooke Forest in the Dandenongs 'til I knew every tree; we went with sleeping bags, through the rain and through the sleet…''
In present-day Melbourne, Colin Peasley laughs down the telephone line. ''Oh, he's bullshitting!'' is Peasley's forthright response to his former boss's claims of the hardships endured in Victoria's countryside. Peasley danced in the first production of The Display and will close his career as the Australian Ballet celebrates its 50th anniversary later this year. He may have a finely tuned ear for Helpmann's tall tales but that doesn't change his respect for this genius of theatre and dance, and the role The Display - now part of the triple-bill Icons - had in putting Australian ballet on the map. ''It meant we had something we could go overseas with. They don't want you to go over and do another Swan Lake 'cause they see it all the time. They want to see something of Australia.''
There were almost 10 years between Hepburn's sighting of the lyrebird in the Dandenongs and the ballet's debut in Adelaide. But its themes have proved timeless: the Australian Ballet has performed The Display 288 times since its debut. The seemingly benign picnic setting is at odds with the ballet's violent denouement, which is more in line with the classic dark tragedies.
It is a beautiful and inspired work and is, as Peasley notes, very Australian. The Victorian bush is represented in Sidney Nolan's green-blue set design. Malcolm Williamson's dramatic score is in keeping with his belief that he was ''not bound by the prejudices of the strong European tradition'', as he told Fairfax in 1967. Then there is the lyrebird; a spectacular piece of costume design developed by Helpmann in collaboration with the ballet's prop's department.
''The ballet is both convincing and gripping because all its components, decor, music and choreography and dancing are inherent to this company and its creators,'' said the Herald review of the Sydney production in 1965.
The observations of the behaviour between the sexes are underpinned by smaller details that paint a portrait of Australian society; as the picnic wears on, the men drink beer from cans and play Aussie rules football. Helpmann, who had spent very little time in Australia since leaving Adelaide in the early 1930s, brought in then-VFL star Ron Barassi to coach the dancers in the sport's finer points. The boxer Harry Lister helped with the fight scenes, although Peasley ascribes both these plays more to Helpmann ''being a clever person'' who ''always understood publicity'', than the dancers needing any real skills.
The Display was one of three works performed by the Australian Ballet at its Covent Garden debut in 1965 for the Commonwealth Festival of the Arts. It was a triumph. ''Oh! [We received] a standing ovation!'' Peasley remembers with delight. ''We were nervous. It's 1965; [the company's] three years old. And we're over there performing at the Covent Garden, the home of the Royal Ballet for god's sake … So you can imagine we were very, very nervous going on stage. And there we are dancing in front of a knowledgeable audience and we got a standing ovation for 10 minutes! We were blown away. It was the first time I ever had tears in my eyes on stage.''
How does Peasley think The Display measures up among Helpmann's body of work? ''Ooh, that's a hard one. It's the one we keep doing all the time so I suppose it's the one that everyone thinks is the best. He does a wonderful Elektra with the most fabulous designs … I think that's a really good one, too.''
Icons is at the Sydney Opera House from November 8.