Current Issue #488

Remembering Alan Brissenden

Michael Lim
Alan in 1996, the year he was made a Member of the Order of Australia

With the passing of Alan Brissenden AM on 9 September, the performing arts in Australia – and dance in particular – has lost one of its great champions.

My first contact with Alan was in my second year at Adelaide University in the English Department where Alan (‘Dr Brissenden’ at the time) was my assigned tutor. In those days, tutorials had around 6 participants – sitting knee to knee in the tutor’s small office debating the book we had just read. I had no idea that by the early 90s, university budget cuts consigned that practice to the dustbin of history. Intimate discussions on a work of literature were replaced by the inferior “seminar” model for 16 students in a hall. That said, my clearest memory of Dr Brissenden from my university days involved a tute I was required to present (on my birthday) on Lawrence Sterne’s ‘anti-novel’ Tristram Shandy. It’s what’s known as a picaresque novel; that is, one in which any semblance of a purposeful narrative is undermined by the scatterbrained digressions of the wastrel protagonist. Looking back, I can see that, at 19 going on 20, I was remarkably well equipped to relate to its themes: I filled my days in the lead up to the tute with pleasing but pointless diversions from the path whose unavoidable end involved myself in a very intimate setting facing the expectant stares of my colleagues, thirsting for enlightenment.

While a more mature student might’ve realized that all was lost and either rung in sick on the day or confessed all to the beneficent Dr Brissenden, I arrived after a wine-fuelled birthday lunch and embarked on the folly of confidently debating the merits of the novel having skimmed a copy of Monarch notes half an hour before showtime. Dr Brissenden had doubtless seen this foolishness innumerable times before but he did not embarrass me in front of my peers; instead his bemused eyes and small shake of the head as I exited his office intimated that it might be an idea to avoid this kind of situation in future.

My next encounter was after I joined the Adelaide Festival as joint artistic director. Since leaving university and working in the arts in Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne I had become aware of Alan’s reputation as a highly respected specialist on Australian dance – he worked regularly as a dance reviewer for The Australian (for some 30 years) as well as contributing to other journals and newspapers. With Keith Glennon, he was co-author of Australia Dances: Creating Australian Dance 1945 –1965; he was editor of the Australian dance journal, Brolga andhe madenumerous contributions to scholarly journals, essay anthologies and reference books, including The International Encyclopedia of Dance (1998). In 1996 Alan was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for his services to the arts and in 2013 he was inducted into the exclusive Australian Dance Awards Hall of Fame.

Alan and Rachel Healy at the 2017 Adelaide Festival

In a 2013 interview with Stephen Beaumont, Alan explains that his lifelong passion for dance, somewhat unusual for a country boy from rural NSW in the 1930s, started when he was only six years old: “My parents got a journal called the Sydney Mail, and in 1938 the Ballet Russes came to Sydney… and the Sydney Mail ran a series of articles with rather fuzzy photographs. They were among the first action photographs that had been taken of dance in Australia, I imagine. And for some reason I was captivated by them. I never learned dancing though I had six tap dancing lessons once in Cowra! But my brother encouraged it. He sent me a book, Arnold Haskell’s book on ballet, just called Ballet, the Penguin book, when he went to University.”

And the early passion that was aroused in that small country boy was the source of the same fierce advocacy for dance some 78 years later when he good-naturedly button-holed me at the launch of the 2017 Adelaide Festival program, the first of my tenure (with Neil Armfield) as joint artistic director. Our dance program was, admittedly, small but contained three extraordinary works from Canada, Israel, and France plus the premiere of an exquisite new work from Adelaide’s Restless Dance Theatre, a company that had never previously been included in an Adelaide Festival program. Alan, eyes merry, was most complimentary of our program but his verdict was decisive: “That’s not enough dance! We need more!”

It made quite an impression. In the following four years, we’d anxiously ask each other “Is it enough? What will Alan think?” and at every program launch we’d stand on the stage looking out at the assembled crowds from the podium and say “Alan – are you listening? This year’s dance program is our best ever!”

Alvin Ailey said, “Dance is for everybody. I believe that the dance came from the people and that it should always be delivered back to the people.”

There is an enormous debt of gratitude owed to you Alan, for delivering this most revealing of art forms to all of us.

Editor’s note:

Alan Brissenden has been a valued contributor to The Adelaide Review since 2003, one small part of a long and storied career in the arts. It was always a pleasure to receive Alan’s copy, insightful and passionate, generous but sharp, and always reliably filed within hours of the curtain call. In an arts media landscape that has grown ever thinner, and perhaps a little shallower in recent years, Alan’s writing contextualised the latest new thing in Australian performing arts with the decades of work that came before it.
In early 2020 Alan’s health forced him, reluctantly, to take a step back, with his last review – Billy Elliot The Musical – published in The Adelaide Review on 7 January. As his daughter Celia remarked to us other day, the story of a young, small-town boy whose life is transformed by dance makes for an appropriate full stop on his time with this magazine.
Amidst the chaos and cancellations of 2020, and those months without a single dance performance to review, his absence from our pages was perhaps less noticeable to readers than it might otherwise have been. Another bittersweet thought to add to 2020’s mountain. But as performances gradually return to South Australian stages, the impact of his absence in the stalls on opening night, and in the arts pages the next day, will be profound and long-lasting – we know we won’t be the only ones who will miss Alan

Rachel Healy

Joint Artistic Director, Adelaide Festival
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Originally from Adelaide, Rachel has been working in the arts and cultural sector for nearly 30 years including as Director of Performing Arts for Sydney Opera House and General Manager of Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre. She has been joint artistic director of the Adelaide Festival alongside Neil Armfield since 2015.

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