2020 MarilynJonesWomansWeeklySch1955

History of the Sydney Eisteddfod Ballet Scholarship

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Published: 15/09/2020 2:00pm

Dance entered the Sydney Eisteddfod Syllabus in 1934. It began as a small category, but by the early 1940’s, sections for Scottish Irish national dancers, Scottish national dancers and ballroom couples studded its program.

There were small selections of operatic dancing events for classical dancers, along with others for tappers as well as song and dance artists. With very few changes, this type of programming continued throughout the next four decades, and although many outstanding classical dancers graced its stages during this period, apart from two special events staged 15 years apart, prizes were minimal. 

The first major dance event to grace the Sydney Eisteddfod program was The Grand Ballet Scholarship that Australian Women’s Weekly sponsored in its framework in 1955. It carried a £500 prize, along with a guaranteed place at the Sadler’s Wells Ballet School (now the Royal Ballet School) in London. Four talented ballet students eventually qualified for the final, and 61 years on, the winner Marilyn Jones OBE is still regarded as Australia’s prima ballerina assoluta. The other three finalists, Barbara Krouthen, Jeanette Liddell and Margaret Lyons all enjoyed professional careers dancing with overseas companies. 

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Marilyn Jones backstage with fellow dancers at the Sydney Eisteddfod Australian Women’s Weekly Grand Ballet Scholarship in 1955 

Despite its success, The Grand Ballet Scholarship was never repeated, so to provide incentive for its growing pool of budding ballerinas, Sydney Eisteddfod introduced a £50 Intermediate Ballet Scholarship into its program. This proved exceedingly popular, and until the early 1970’s, it reigned as Sydney’s premier competition for developing dancers and served as a launching pad for the city’s most gifted. Kathleen Geldard, who went on to become an Australian Ballet principal, was an early winner. 

In 1970, Sydney Eisteddfod received a $500 donation from the Captain Cook Bi-Centenary Celebrations Committee and used it to showcase the city’s wealth of dancing talent in the Captain Cook Ballet Contest. The winner Kim Reeder hastened abroad and once he excelled in his studies abroad, he joined the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet. It was at this point that the Eisteddfod organisers realised it was time to include a major ballet award in its annual program and began canvassing for a suitable sponsor. This was no easy task, but in 1974, the Peter Stuyvesant Trust for the Development of the Arts answered its call and a major ballet scholarship has featured in Sydney Eisteddfod’s program every year since. 

The Sydney Eisteddfod Ballet Scholarship has evolved through the following sponsorships:  

1974-1977     Peter Stuyvesant Trust Ballet Scholarship 

1978-1987     Peter Stuyvesant Cultural Foundation Scholarship 

1988-1990     Rothmans Foundation Ballet Scholarship 

1991               Coca-Cola South Pacific Ballet Scholarship 

1992-1993     City of Sydney Ballet Scholarship 

1994-1996     GIO Ballet Scholarship 

1997               The Pearl Pollard Ballet Scholarship 

1998-2015     Sydney Eisteddfod McDonald’s Ballet Scholarship 

2016-2020     Sydney Eisteddfod Ballet Scholarship

Over the past 46 years, its total prize purse has increased twelve-fold from $3000 to in excess of $36,000. In 1998, it then began offering two scholarships annually, which has remained to date. The outright winner now receives $18,000, the best performer of the opposite sex to the winner $12,000 and the six unplaced $1,000 each.

Since 1974, these scholarships have attracted a total of 4,721 entrants, of these, 221 females and 88 males have progressed into the finals.

Since ballet attracts more females than males, girls have more difficulty finding work as dancers, and since 1974, 13 males and 33 females have emerged as the outright winner of this prestigious award. Unfortunately, in the early years, the names of the unplaced finalists were not always recorded, but according to the information available, 309 entrants have danced in the final at the Sydney Opera House, 221 females and 88 males.

While females represent just on 72% of the total numberthe male finalists who stand for just 28% of the total, have performed so exceptionally over the years with the number of male finalists increasing year to year.

With Royal Ballet principal Steven McRae at its helm, Australia is gaining reputation as a producer of excellent male dancers. Over the years, seven females and seven males have attained principal status. Regarded internationally as one of the greatest male dancers in the world today, McRae heads a list of former Sydney Eisteddfod champions that includes, two principals of the Australian Ballet, two principals of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, a former principal of the Royal New Zealand Ballet and another from the San Francisco Ballet. 

In addition, two other male finalists are now calling the shots as artistic directors of very different companies. Stanton Welch AM, who is also an internationally acclaimed choreographer, has been artistic director of the Houston Ballet since 2003. Not to be outshone, Kyle Page, who was appointed artistic director of Dancenorth in 2015, was also named as one of the most influential people in North Queensland. 

As aforesaid, female dancers find it harder to achieve amongst so much competition, so Sydney Eisteddfod takes pride in the seven principal female ballerinas who have emerged from its scholarship program. Five have become principals of The Australian Ballet, one is now starring with Birmingham Royal Ballet and the other danced principal roles with the Bolshoi Ballet.

To sum it up, a very high proportion of finalists from the past five years are still engaged in advanced pre-professional training and an astounding 92% of finalists have actively sought careers in dance.

Of these, 77% or more are known to have made careers as dancers, teachers or specialists in other dance related areas.

In a field where roughly only 10% of the best trained manage to make a living in dance, we are so proud that Sydney Eisteddfod's Ballet Scholarship has well and truly proved it's value, making a significant contribution to the cultural capital of the nation.

*Article credit to Jennie Rowley Lees *

This article was researched and written in 2015. Some details may therefore not be current. Apologies for any omissions.

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The team at Sydney Eisteddfod are so thankful for your support at this time.

Please help us to continue to hold the Sydney Eisteddfod Ballet Scholarship for years to come so that we can continue our work to benefit future generations of aspiring professional ballet dancers.

All donations over $2 are tax deductible. Head to our link below for more.

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