Australian who took charge of Britain's Royal Ballet
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Australian who took charge of Britain's Royal Ballet

PETER JAMES BROWN

1929 – 2018

Peter Brown working with Ninette de Valois, founding director of the Royal Ballet, in 1965.

Peter Brown working with Ninette de Valois, founding director of the Royal Ballet, in 1965.

Photo: Supplied

Australian dancers grace the stages of the world. But it's not so often you find an Australian behind the scenes of a dance company, powering the organisation that enables the presentation of what we see in the theatre.

Peter Brown, better known as Peter Brownlee, was one of these rarities. Most of his career unfolded in London, where his crowning achievement was 17 years as general manager of Britain's Royal Ballet.

Peter Brown in Sydney in 1973 at the opening of the Sydney Opera House.

Peter Brown in Sydney in 1973 at the opening of the Sydney Opera House.

Photo: Supplied
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Back in Australia over the past five years, Peter died in Sydney on January 11 aged 88. Messages of condolence were received from around the world, reflecting the respect and affection in which he was held by dancers and managers alike.

He was fortunate to work in London in a golden age for ballet and the performing arts generally. Like many arts lovers of his generation, in 1953 he set off for London, travelling on the same ship as composer Peter Sculthorpe and theatre director Robin Lovejoy, both to become important contributors to the arts in Australia.

He got into the Royal Ballet School in the same class as Kenneth MacMillan and John Cranko, who became the leading ballet choreographers of the mid-20th century, and Peter Wright and Peter Darrell, who also made their mark as choreographers and directors of British ballet companies. They became colleagues and friends for life.

As a dancer, he first went into the opera ballet at Covent Garden, then joined London's Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet), where his colleagues included Australians John Auld and Wendy Barry. A private company without government support, Festival presented the classics and contemporary ballet around Britain and internationally to the US and Latin America.

Peter Brown, better known as Peter Brownlee, in his dancing days before 1960.

Peter Brown, better known as Peter Brownlee, in his dancing days before 1960.

Photo: Supplied

At 30, Peter decided he wasn't going to advance to the great ballet roles and set about becoming a trainee TV director. Instead, Festival's Julian Braunsweg and Anton Dolin convinced him to move into the company's management.

His preparation for a life in ballet was at first unlikely. The son of businessman and AIF member Monty Brown, who took part in two world wars, and Ada (nee Byrne), Peter's teenage years were spent boarding at St Stanislaus' College, Bathurst. He was athletic and became a late starter in dance, learning from the legendary Halliday twins, Joan and Monica, and taking acting classes from Alice Crowther.

After a brief period as a Fairfax cadet reporter, Peter worked in retail design for the Sydney stores Farmer's and Mark Foy's. One of his colleagues shared his name, so Peter Brownlee was born, which turned out to be appropriate for the theatrical career ahead of him.

He made his stage debut in the first of what became the famous Philip Street Revues, before moving to Britain, where his first job was in a pantomime with Evelyn Laye and Robert Morley. That was also memorable for the tough touring days in regional Britain that sparked such classic anecdotes as his well-remembered bath-time baptism of fire. "When do you bath?" asked the landlady. "In the morning," he replied. "No," she said, "which day of the week?"

His early days in management coincided with the arrival of the British ballerina Beryl Grey as Festival's artistic director, and her recently published autobiography includes some photographs and complimentary references to him.

In 1973, Peter moved to Covent Garden as coordinator for Sadler's Wells Ballet and the Royal Ballet, then press officer for the Royal Ballet and, in 1978, general manager of the Royal Ballet, the position he held until 1995, when he retired.

Throughout his career he worked with dance luminaries, including Royal Ballet's founding director, Ninette de Valois, and ballerinas Margot Fonteyn and Alicia Markova, along with a new generation of outstanding younger dancers and choreographers. As well, his working life involved many other important 20th-century performing arts contributors in theatre, opera, design and media.

As Mary Pat Laffey-Inman, of Seattle, wrote at the time of his death: "Peter succeeded at the bastion of Commonwealth culture, London, to become a dancer then manage the Royal Ballet. Quite an accomplishment."

London-based Monica Mason, first a dancer then artistic director of the Royal Ballet, took the trouble to call on Peter's former secretary, Barbara Booroff, to tell her the sad news before emailing that she wished she could be at the funeral.

Former Royal Ballet dancer Ros Eyre wrote: "His sharp wit and sometimes wicked descriptions of people were hilarious and usually spot on – a great judge of character. He was kind, thoughtful and liked everything to be just so."

Julie Lincoln, a former company member who now restages MacMillan ballets around the world, wrote about Peter's "lasting support, loyalty and friendship" and the "happy, funny memories" he leaves behind.

New York company manager Michael Zande recalled meeting Peter on a Royal Ballet tour in 1981: "Under that faux gruff exterior I discovered a man as delightful and enchanting as I could ever hope to meet: gracious and considerate, with abundant charm, great eloquence and an absolute razor wit."

Francoise Findlay, widow of Paul Findlay, who was general manager of the Royal Opera, wrote from London: "I shall be thinking of you [at the funeral] and hope your friends will gather around and hug. My arms are not long enough, sadly."

Floral tributes at his funeral came from the Royal Ballet, English National Ballet and a wreath from the Japan Performing Arts Association with a message that reflected his legendary status in Japan as a performing company tour manager: "We enjoyed working with the amazing 'Mr Bus'".

Among Peter's treasures was a heart-warming book of farewell messages from members of the company when he retired. He also had a couple of personal letters from high places. After a Royal Ballet tour of the Soviet Union (that began with sorting out the problem on arrival of a touring party of 80 being allotted only 20 bedrooms), Peter wrote to prime minister Margaret Thatcher to say how helpful the British ambassador had been. She wrote a warm letter back, saying she would let the ambassador know.

Princess Margaret was patron of the Royal Ballet and she sent a long, handwritten letter on his retirement, which included the following: "I feel you will be greatly missed and I send my best wishes for a very happy retirement with my warmest thanks for all you have done for the Royal Ballet."

Sadly, it was hard to get Peter talking about his life and career, and he refused to do an oral history interview for the Australian National Library. He was never one to put himself forward. The company always came first, and the dancers loved him for it.

Peter leaves two siblings. His younger brother, David Brown, also went into the arts. After two years in marketing for The Evening Standard in London, he became the first publicity manager of the Sydney Opera House, appointed three years before it opened in 1973. Their sister, Sally Anne, trained as a nurse like her mother, married farmer Leon Reardon and became the mother of four sons.

Jill Sykes, dance critic, The Sydney Morning Herald

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