These five people have the gift of old age. They see themselves, not as others see them, but as they were in their working prime. Because they are in their working prime, forever young.
Dancer Elizabeth Dalman is rising on her toes, discovering a new vocabulary to choreograph dancing for an older body. The founder of the Australian Dance Theatre, Dalman can choreograph any dance that comes into her mind – except one.
Her last dance.
Creative, courageous and curious, she nonetheless can’t see her last dance. She can see herself as a young dancer who found a sapling gum tree in Adelaide which came to represent her life, and those of all young dancers. She can see herself dancing when she is 100, and as composed as an old gum tree.
“Every week I would visit this tree,’’ Dalman says, reflecting on her youth in Adelaide. “Over the years it got mistletoe, the branches fell off, then it was one of these amazing statues we have in the Australian landscape, as a dead gum tree. Some are more beautiful than an evergreen.’’
To take an audience on a journey from the 1960s, when she founded the dance theatre, to an ageing dancer, she conceived ‘Sapling to silver’, weaving the story of the tree into that of her own. In her 20s she saw extraordinary actors in their 70s, even older. “I used to say to myself, why can an actor do that, and a dancer can’t?’’
Although her mother lived to 101, Dalman thought she should be retiring when she turned 60, “because we have this pressure in Australia of such a youth culture, in the dance world, from the classical ballet when you are 30, you should consider retiring.’’
Modern dancers are breaking this mindset. Dalman is at the forefront, inspired by pioneers like Martha Graham and Eric Hawkins who were dancing at 60. When she turned 60 she met Kazuo Ohno in Tokyo, the father of Butoh, an influential dance form in Japan. “He was 91 and invited me to his home to have a cup of tea and we were on the floor looking at his photos,watching his videos, he was thrilled to meet me,’’ Dalman says. ‘’He said he was always working with young people and it was nice to have a more mature artist to talk to, even though he was 30 years older than me.’’
Twenty six years ago Dalman settled in the foothills of an escarpment overlooking Lake George, a 30 kilometre-long flat pan that disappears into the horizon beneath her studio. Aboriginal elders once took her onto the lake, which shimmers in the moonlight when full of water, to explain its healing powers. After 11 years in Italy recovering from the worst set-back of her life, of being sacked from the dance theatre she created and nurtured, the ancient lake’s open spaces and gum trees have held and reassured her.
“When people talk about getting old, I talk about living longer. When people say, ‘don’t you think you should think about moving’ the [lake] won’t let me go,’’ Dalman says, looking beyond the warmth of her pot-belly stove out into the rainy mist hanging over the shallow puddles scattered across the dry lake.
She says wonderful teachers helped her early career. Nora Stewart, who had travelled to London to learn from Margaret Morris, an English pioneer of modern dance, was a special one. The other teacher – “my provocateur you might say ''- she met while studying in Germany in early 1960 was the black American choreographer Eleo Pomar. “I saw him perform, I said, there’s my teacher, that’s the way I want to move.’’
When she returned to Adelaide in 1963, she found a country constrained by traditional classical ballet companies, compared with Europe. Two years later, when she began teaching what she had learned in Europe, Dalman was regarded as a rebel. “To start teaching this other form was an outrageous thing to do. But the young people were really interested, so my school grew in numbers quickly. Because I was an artist I didn’t want to just teach, I wanted to extend my own choreographic and artistic expression.
‘’So when I had enough students who were ready for professional work, I formed a company, Australian Dance Theatre. It was new and different, even to dance in bare feet with very little costume. We performed in theatres a lot, we took it into streets, into art galleries and different kinds of spaces and places and outdoors as well. "
Together all day and every day, the dancers and their teacher became a family. In 1971 Dalman gave birth to her son Andreas, and the company toured Papua New Guinea, India, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan,Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia on a meagre budget.
“We did this extraordinary tour, wherever we went we were highly acclaimed, we had extraordinary audiences. They had never seen an Australian dance company before. A lot of countries had never seen an Australian performing arts company. We were like ambassadors as well as performing artists. The news came back to Australia from our embassies in all these different countries.
‘’The old saying, you are never a prophet in your own land. It still happens, I’m sad to say,’’ Dalman says. The Australian Dance Theatre became the national contemporary dance company and some members joined their teacher as significant forces for dance.
Later, her success came crashing down. Dalman says government influences on the theatre’s board decided her time was over by 1975. “In a very cruel and unlawful way I was actually dismissed and two years later they brought in someone else,’’ she says.
“A company that I had actually set up, invested my money and my whole life in for 10 years, that was really hard,’’ she says as tears well in her eyes.
"My son was 4, he kept me alive," she says, her voice shaking. She retreated to Europe for 11 years. Life in a small village, walking in the forests and teaching children to dance made her realise carrying bitterness was silly.
Instead of being her big enemy, as she had felt immediately after 1975, dancing was her life. She is collaborating with another dancer Kenneth Spiteri, researching movement to keep older dancers in the industry. "I have been a dancer all my life, but I wanted to find some different vocabulary for an older body, a more experienced performer."
Referring to a woman working to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, who said always keep learning and meeting new people, Dalman says: “Our brains make neurons all the time but we need to give them stimulation. Dance is the main activity people can do, and is medically proven because we work the right and left brain together, not just one. It keeps the mind working, as well as the physical activity.’’
In Dick Telford’s ideal team everyone must move and learn regardless of their age
Telford, one of Australia’s first full-time sports scientist, is adamant the younger players’ level of activity and learning is as crucial as the older members of the team. He prides himself in taking a broad-ranging view.
When the national cricket side’s batsmen collapsed in front of English bowlers in early August almost every cricket-loving Australian despaired – except Telford.
A former Sheffield Shield-winning coach, he penned a brief letter to The Canberra Times, rejecting calls for mass sackings and saying the English bowlers’ ability to swing deliveries with good pace in either direction was the culprit.
“The Australian team in England is our best team, and age is definitely not the problem,’’ Telford wrote, a point reinforced with the baggy green caps’ victory in the fifth Test.
Telford grew up when Australia’s obsession with sport enabled the nation to punch above its weight - until the rest of the world caught up with the green and gold. Today, the coach and researcher remains obsessed.
Every morning he puts a beanie on top of his wiry frame and is out the door for a six kilometre run regardless of the weather. On a mission for public health, he is convinced Australia must make that crucial connection between physical and mental wellbeing.
“Right now, right across Australia and certainly in the ACT, we do not have adequate physical activity and physical education in public primary schools. Consequently we are sending kids into secondary school with increased risk factors, ’’ he says.
Telford established the Lifestyle of our Kids [LOOK] study with 800 children as eight year olds. A huge undertaking, the children are now 17 and the most significant outcome is a clear warning severe consequences await future generations -rising diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression and other mental illnesses.
LOOK will carry through until the children are 80. He concedes he won’t be around when the study is completed, a rare concession for a man who sees himself as he did 34 years ago. That’s when then Australian swimming coach Don Talbot gate-crashed one of his lectures in Melbourne to offer him the Institute of Sport in Canberra’s sports scientist job.
The scientist and elite athletes coach says it is impossible to think about a time when he will retire. “There is no point in thinking that way because I am here at the University of Canberra two days a week. But I work [elsewhere] the full week because I have to, to get the things done.’’
He doesn’t charge money for his coaching and wants to prepare athletes for national and Olympic competitions, including women returning to the track. “They have had their kids and they are coming back and they still train with me and they are still very good. Lisa Weightman, who won a bronze medal in New Dehli, called her son Peter after her father and Richard [after Talbot], which was good.
‘’Little Peter is six-months-old and she is now training and getting back into reasonable shape with an ambition to run the Olympic Games in Rio.
“Now, how would it be to say to Lisa ‘I am retired?’ Or to [Commonwealth Games marathon gold medallist] Michael Shelley, ‘Sorry Michael, you are on your own now mate?’ Or how would it be if I said to the staff here, ‘Oh we just put in a bid for a new building with the Vice Chancellor’. What if I said, ‘ I’m not going to be involved in this physical interest anymore, some on else can do that?’
‘’It doesn’t work that way. Why would I want it to work that way?’’ Telford says even if he did take a back seat and everything around him was working like clockwork, he would continue trying to tie things together.
He says policy makers and scientists who don’t see the big picture as he does become too narrowly focussed and unaware of where children are heading with their health and wellbeing.
’’My role overall is tying things together. I work in cardiology, immunology, blood work with type two diabetes, epidemiology work, motor coordination. There are 35 papers we have written that I have been involved with, I sort of know about all the areas without specialising in one.’’
Telford conceived the LOOK study after reading a medical journal about three people aged 75, and thought the sample was too small and wondered what the outcome would be if 25, or even 50 or more people could be studied and followed into old age.
One of his studies, published and peer reviewed, showed children who participated in an intervention of physical education, compared to those who didn’t have that intervention, improved their NAPLAN scores by 10 points or more. Yet when school principals are presented with this evidence, nothing changes.
Racing around merino sheep on his quad bike, working two dogs and penning up the mob, Greg Hallam looks much like he did as a 16 year-old who couldn’t get out of school fast enough to join his father on the land.
Later he vowed he would never linger on the farm, only to find today at age 72, he is brimming with more energy than ever for growing fine wool.
“I used to say years ago, I’m not working as long as Dad did. He worked until he was 86. I’d say I’m getting out of here before I get that old. But I haven’t, and I’m loving it,’’ Mr Hallam said.
He married Trish in 1966 and together they battled through droughts, recovered in bumper seasons and together faced everything in between. Fifteen years ago, at a time in life most people consider slowing down, they switched to a more scientific breeding program for their fine wool. They farm today with the passion of newcomers.
They have made Springfield, their 800-hectare farm more profitable after adopting veterinarian and former CSIRO scientist Dr Jim Watts' Soft Rolling Skins breeding system. They left their smaller-framed sheep with crinkly fleeces and began producing a dual purpose merino, which is longer, plainer bodied and suitable for meat production as well as wool.
It has a higher lambing rate and does not need mulesing, a controversial practice of cutting strips of skins from sheep to avoid fly strike. The sheep produce more wool and are shorn three times every two years.
In the early days with his father Oswald, Hallam was wrapped up in the sheep industry. “I just followed Dad, until I got to a stage I knew we were going nowhere, I started to break out. I went shearing for a while, I learned more by getting away from our own place and having a look at someone else’s place. That was the start of the best education I had with sheep,’’ he said.
‘’I changed bloodlines, Dad used to source rams from local studs, all of them daughter studs of Merryville Stud. I wasn’t terribly impressed with them. As soon as I was on my own we started to change our bloodlines, then we started seeing things happening, didn’t we,’’ he says, looking at his wife who nods in agreement.
Hallam will shear when the need arises, and has organised his farm to avoid wearing out his body.
“I can drench sheep, the only thing I have given up on is the crutching of the sheep and the shearing. Everything else I can handle. I still do some [shearing], we get caught sometimes, blokes want a mob [finished] before dark, or before rain, I can do a few, if there is a spare stand.’’
Previously the farm’s most demanding tasks, shearing and lambing, are more manageable.
Under the SRS breeding program the Hallams shear every eight months, and the mobs are smaller so there is rarely more than a week’s shearing at any one time. Under the old regime the farmers had to check the ewes and lambs morning and afternoon, to keep up their survival rate.
Under their new regime the sheep and pastures are in better condition. “I can’t stop having a look around the sheep from time to time, but we don’t spend the time there we used to,’’ Hallam says. ‘’The only really stressful times come if you run into a real rough patch of weather at lambing, or during shearing, or afters hearing, they are the real worrying times.’’
He employs two people to catch lambs which he vaccinates, castrates and docks their tails. He jokes the most demanding work these days is splitting wood, until his wife says even that is handled with a mechanical splitter.
Dipping sheep used to be back-breaking, when farmers wrestled their sheep into a plunge dip. These days it is done with a machine and conveyor used for turning sheep upside down clipping hooves to treat foot rot. The disease has long gone but the machine has hit its straps.
“I was watching television and saw one rigged up to take sheep into the dip,’’ the farmer says. ‘’I thought, that’s not a bad idea, so I rigged mine up to do the same. We have to still have to feed the sheep into the conveyor, but the conveyor does the hard work, it brings the sheep along and drops them into the dip. Physically that part of the job is not hard.’’
Hallam says sorting through mobs of sheep, culling ones he doesn’t like and keeping the ones he does is the best part of his role. “This breeding system, I am just wrapped in it. We just love it,’’ he says.
Trish Hallam adds: “It keeps your mind active. All the research which is going into it, it keeps you active.’’
Handling sheep can leave him with stiffness, but as a regular golfer he soon bounces back. He enjoys getting together with other players for a drink after the game on Thursdays.
As a showgirl Shirley MacLaine’s legs were regarded as the best in the business. Even off stage they were said to be lethal in the sexual rivalries that sustain Hollywood’s legendary status.
None of which meant one jot to publicist Coralie Wood when MacLaine came to Canberra years ago. The contract was the only thing that mattered, as MacLaine’s lover Andrew Peacock found when Wood was handling the performer’s itinerary in Canberra, which included an appearance at the casino.
Earlier, Wood couldn’t resist trying on MacLaine’s flashy earrings. “I’m in the dressing room, she’s on stage. In he comes. He didn’t take much notice of the earrings and said, ‘Listen what’s all this business, she’s not going up to the casino at all. I mean no’.’’
Wood stood up and poked the silver-haired politician in the chest and said: “Look, it’s in the contract and she is going.’’ And so it went, MacLaine attended the casino for a drink as arranged, unnoticed by a crowd too intent on gambling.
As a little girl in corkscrew curls all Wood wanted was long legs to turn heads. Instead, she became a publicist who has out-lasted all the tight skirts and swinging legs that wilt in her industry. “I wish I was tall and thin and blond,’’ she says. “But I never have been and I never will, I just enjoy what I do,’’ Wood says. She still draws a crowd and uses her gift for telling an anecdote generously.
Wood learned about the entertainment business first from her family and then entrepreneur Michael Edgley. Synonymous with Russia’s Moscow Circus, Edgley’s advice when touring with a celebrity was broad-ranging: “I don’t care who it is or what it is, never have the radio on in the car because it could be someone talking about the star,’’he told her.
‘‘Never smoke in front of them. And always open the door for them, ‘’ Edgley said. Woods till marvels at his mother, a beautiful woman who gathered up all the free teabags at hotels while telling her: “I have to look after the Russians, dear.’’
Her time with Edgely was invaluable. “Some publicists come out of publicity school,flapping a bit of paper and wandering around with a clipboard with the most gorgeous legs you’ve ever seen,’’ Wood says. “I mean, I have never been like that. The old girls like myself, and there a few of us on the circuit, we were taught the same way, and they [celebrities] have gone back to the old girls.
Wood’s recollection of her first mentor goes back to when she was a girl on the stage.”My grandmother made me wear those dreadful corkscrew curls with two big bows on my head, I was vile really, I was a little fatty. She used to say to me ‘when you are going into the competitions you must shvay – she had a bit of an accent– so I shvayed and I shvayed and nearly fell off the piano stool, but I won the Dandenong eisteddfod.’’
Her mother Leila Dabscheck, who worked with Roy ‘Mo’ Rene as a child actor, encouraged her in the theatre. A mother of two, Wood nurtures scores of rising stars from the region through the Canberra Area Theatre Awards, now in their 21st year.
Over those years the number of judges has more than trebled to 21. More than 80 companies and schools compete, which has helped amateurs become professionals.
The tireless publicist engaged actor John Wood and long –time friend and entertainer Jon English as judges while driving them to and from engagements. ‘’They love to come and see the talent, I am so proud of it all,’’ she says. ‘’Gyton Grantley wants to be something in the awards. I said, ‘don’t know where I will fit you,we haven’t got any gangsters’.’’
The CAT awards shone early spotlights on Daramalan College’s Guys and Dolls star Lorina Gore, now a lead singer in the Australian Opera, and Wagga’s Mark Grentell, who encouraged by that success went to the National Institute of Dramatic Arts before becoming a top director.
Publicising events through the fickle media draws on her imagination. Recently awarded a contract from The Q, Queanbeyan’s Performing Arts Centre, she is promoting Reserved Seating Only, a comedy about AFL.
“I know nothing about football so I trotted along to meet the [Queanbeyan AFL] Tigers man and made out I knew everything which I didn’t. But he is going to do a promotion with me.’’
For the musical Grease restauranteur Soc Kochinos snapped up her invitation to use his new eatery, Grease Monkey, in Braddon, so named because it was previously a mechanics workshop. She’s woven Parliament House, a garbage dump and a youth detention centre into other show previews.
Wood’s eyelashes stand out like butterflies. Losing one in torrential rain during Elton John’s open-air performance in Canberra was a nightmare. Touring with English and Simon Gallaher was a dream.
‘‘We were doing Pirates of Penzance throughout Australia and we’d be going along I would think, oh well, let’s go to a hospital and we’ll take the pirates and eye patches and all sorts of things. We would only get in the door and the mothers in the maternity ward would come rushing out and Jon would disappear in there and I would never see him again.’’
She says when Kenny Rogers toured with Dolly Parton it was her job to order in pizzas and find palm trees for the country crooner. He left without touching either.
“So I’m left with the palm tree and pizzas. So I rang up all my mates, we sat under a palm tree in the dressing room and ate the pizzas,’’ Wood says contentedly.
Dr Philip Spradbery studies one of nature’s most brutal creatures, European wasps.
In the wasp community, the queen is the most evil of them all, turning on her own to destroy their reproduction. She is so bad she could anchor a season of Game of Thrones.
The queen secretes a chemical through the tip of her abdomen and paints it on the papier mache-like wasp combs.
Worker wasps pick this chemical up with their antennae. It gets inside their brain and prevents them from producing a juvenile hormone which in turn prevents them from developing their ovaries. They are left sterile. The queen does this so the other wasps will work in the colony, foraging, nest building, caring for the brood and forming a terrifying defensive line against intruders.
“We are getting to the really pointy end now, where we are trying to define which gland produces the chemical. I think we’ve got that already, then to find what the chemical is, to do that you have to fractionate your source gland into different compartments and test each of these against another.''
Each experiment he does takes six days. They can only be done in the wasp season from January through to May, when wasps build their nests,which are used in every test.
Each time he does an experiment he must go out wearing head-to-toe protection in a bee keepers suit, dig up one or more wasps’ nests. He brings them back to his little laboratory at home, sorts sections out, puts the brood combs into a 10-degree refrigerator and then rears wasps out to set up in a fresh experiment.
He establishes a control group of newly emerged adult wasps that receive non-active treatment, so they can be compared with the experimental group that is treated with the active component. Ten wasps are put into each bioassay [experiment] chamber and up to 10 chambers per treatment group.
He must feed his ‘controls’ [wasps] diluted honey two or three times a day while they develop their ovaries over a six day period.
“So if it is going to work, you get no ovary development, if it’s not working then the eggs develop.’’
He works alone, without help. He does 15 experiments a year, 300 overall since he began. “From a research point of view it is not much,’’ Spradbery says.
“I tried to get venture capital some years ago, I got very close, to within being offered $1 million, it may have been more, to proceed with this work. ‘’ That level of funding would have brought him a decent laboratory to replace the little office in the back of his home in Yarralumla, and two or three staff.
“Imagine the amount of work you could get through? Someone could go out and get all the wasp nests, a full-time job during the season.’’
Although on the brink of a discovery, Spradbery could not guarantee to his potential investor the chemical could control fertility in other insects.
‘’Because of that lack of confidence in my approach, I didn’t get that money. If I had, life would be so different.’’
In the wasp season, the 77 year-old entomologist also mans a hotline for the ACT Government, dispensing advice throughout the day about how to deal with the pest, which often puts people in hospital with painful stings.
Calls to the hotline in the past year totalled 2050, double the previous year.
‘’I get tired, physically and mentally tired. When you do your six days, three times a day, seven in the morning, two or three in the afternoon and 11 at night, you are not getting a decent sleep, it all adds up.’’
If the chemical was better understood and was effective on other insects, it could become a new insect growth regulator. “Developing new insecticides is an incredibly long-term, expensive process, and the use of IGR's is becoming fairly widespread. If you can come across a chemically new one, to which insects have no resistance, no exposure, it will be very effective,’’ Spradbery said.
His work is having a huge, positive impact mentally and physically. “I get depressed from time to time, if it is not working, or an experiment fails, or controls didn’t develop on their own, there has to be a scientific explanation for every failure. And that keeps you going. It is stimulating, I enjoy it.
“Digging up a wasps nest, or digging in the garden, same thing,and extremely good for you,’’ Spradbery says. I enjoy putting on the bee suit and digging out a wasps nest particularly if there are people around, neighbours, or the kids, who peer down the microscope for the first time. I say ‘look at your grubby fingers under microscope’ and they are blown away by it.’’