The Australian Ballet is the largest classical ballet company in Australia. It was founded by J. C. Williamson Theatres Ltd. and the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust in 1962, with the English-born dancer, teacher, repetiteur and director Dame Peggy van Praagh as founding artistic director. Today, it is recognised as one of the world's major international ballet companies.
The roots of the Australian Ballet can be found in the Borovansky Ballet, a company founded in 1940 by the Czech dancer Edouard Borovansky. Borovansky had been a dancer in the touring ballet company of the famous Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova and, after visiting Australia on tour with the Covent Garden Russian Ballet, he decided to remain in Australia, establishing a ballet school in Melbourne in 1939, out of which he developed a performance group which became the Borovansky Ballet. The company was supported and funded by J. C. Williamson Theatres Ltd from 1944. Following Borovansky's death in 1959, the British dancer and administrator Dame Peggy van Praagh DBE was invited to become artistic director of the company. J. C. Williamson Theatres Ltd decided to disband the Borovansky Ballet in 1961.
In 1961, J. C. Williamson Theatres Ltd and the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust received federal subsidy towards the establishment of a national ballet company. These organisations established the Australian Ballet Foundation to assist with the establishment of a new company, which in 1962 became the Australian Ballet. Peggy van Praagh, who had been kept on a retainer by J. C. Williamson Theatres Ltd through the intervening year between the disbanding of the Borovansky Ballet and the establishment of the Australian Ballet, was invited to become the founding artistic director of the company. The majority of the dancers employed by the fledgling company were drawn from former members of the Borovansky Ballet.
The first performance by the Australian Ballet was Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, staged at Her Majesty's Theatre, Sydney on 2 November 1962. The principal dancers in the first season were Kathleen Gorham OBE, Marilyn Jones AM OBE and Garth Welch AM. Van Praagh also invited the Royal Ballet's Ray Powell to temporarily became the company's first ballet master, with Leon Kellaway (brother of Cecil Kellaway), a former dancer with the Covent Garden Russian Ballet, as the company's first ballet teacher. In later years Sir Robert Helpmann CBE, Marilyn Jones AM OBE and Maina Gielgud AO made major contributions as Artistic Directors of the Australian Ballet.
In 1964 van Praagh established the Australian Ballet School, which was formed specially to train dancers for the company and remains the company's associate school to this day. Dame Margaret Scott AC DBE was the founding director of the school, followed by Gailene Stock CBE AM, Marilyn Rowe AM OBE, and now Lisa Pavane, all three former company principal artists.
Today the company is based in Melbourne; its Southbank headquarters is the Primrose Potter Australian Ballet Centre, named after its long term supporter Lady (Primrose) Potter. The company tours to mainland state capital cities within Australia, with annual seasons in Melbourne at the State Theatre (accompanied by Orchestra Victoria) and in Sydney at the Sydney Opera House accompanied by the Opera Australia Orchestra. Other venues are the Lyric Theatre at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre in Brisbane, and the Adelaide Festival Centre in Adelaide. The company also tours internationally, and performs annually in an intimate outdoor setting on Hamilton Island.
Box office sales, derived from its strong and loyal audience base, are the foundation of the company's income stream. The Australian Ballet also receives funding from the Australian, Victorian and New South Wales governments, corporate sponsors, private donors and bequests.
The Telstra Ballet Dancer Awards have been made annually since 2003, in support of the aspirations of The Australian Ballet's elite young dancers. It is the biggest prize available specifically to a dancer in Australia, with a cash prize of $20,000 to the winner. The Telstra People's Choice Award is made to the most popular of the nominees in that year, using internet and SMS voting. The winner of the People's Choice receives a cash prize of $5,000.