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Pair s leap of faith
James Penberthy and Kira Bousloff watch a ballet rehearsal. Picture: WA Newspapers.

It was one of the most remarkable partnerships in WA's cultural history - a ballet dancer and a composer who between them laid the foundations of the State's 60-year-old ballet company.

Composer James Penberthy met Monaco-born Kira Bousloff of Russian parentage in Melbourne, where the classically trained dancer was performing and teaching after a career in Europe.

Bousloff had originally come to Australia in the 1930s as part of Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, a touring company of European classical dancers. Like a number of her fellow dancers, she liked the country so much that, after a second tour just before the outbreak of World War II, she decided to stay on.

Penberthy had grown up in Melbourne but he considered that Perth, where he had also spent some time at university, was a land of opportunity for those with artistic inclinations.

The couple, both divorced, married and began an artistic relationship that would see them move to Perth - she as a ballet dancer and teacher, he as a composer.

Over the next 20 years the couple would enlarge the experience of the arts for West Australians, starting with the 1952 foundation of the WA Ballet, a largely self-funded body until official government support in 1969.

As part of WA Ballet's 60th anniversary, Perth playwright John Aitken has written Madame Ballet, a play about Bousloff and Penberthy's remarkable relationship, while the play's director, John Senczuk, has also organised a tribute to the music of Penberthy, whose works are rarely, if ever, performed these days.

While the pair are credited with the foundation of the WA Ballet, Penberthy is also regarded as the co-founder of WA Opera with Giuseppe Bertinazzo.

Aitken, who met Bousloff and saw her ballet work while he was growing up, has based his play on taped interviews both artists gave to the National Library.

"What is remarkable is that Penberthy championed ballets on Australian themes and was able to persuade Kira that she should choreograph distinctively Australian works, despite her background in European classical ballet," Aitken says.

He says when the couple moved to Perth, they lived at Cottesloe because they shared a love of the beach. One of their earliest and most successful collaborations in the 1950s was a ballet called The Beach Inspector and the Mermaid, with choreography by Bousloff and music by Penberthy.

"I believe that they persuaded a group of surf lifesavers to be part of the production," Aitken says.

They also created the ballet production Koori and the Mists, based on an Aboriginal legend. Another was The Fire at Ross's Farm, based on a Henry Lawson short story, and the short work Brolga.

"The play is trying to reflect the journey of this couple, who deserve recognition for their achievements," Aitken adds. "Here is a woman who came out of the classical ballet tradition and ends up in the wilds of Western Australia with her partner. Both were intrigued by the sense of light and space and by the frontier sense of the land."

One of Bousloff's pioneering endeavours was to take ballet to the remote north of the State, performing in places such as Broome and Kununurra on makeshift stages over 44-gallon drums.

Aitken says his play presents Bousloff as a charming woman who insisted on being treated as the star. He says she was always addressed as Madame Bousloff, despite having divorced her first husband, Russian dancer Serge Bousloff, some years before she came to WA.

Aitken says there was a pragmatic streak to her personality and in the early years she always found a way to fund dance productions despite chronic funding shortages.

The couple's relationship ended in divorce after 20 years when Penberthy moved to Southern Cross University to set up an arts course and Bousloff remained in Perth, teaching dance virtually until her death.

Penberthy, who was to marry four times, died in 1999 and Bousloff - three years older - died in 2001.

For Senczuk, the music of Penberthy deserves to be resurrected, especially in the 60th anniversary year of the WA Ballet.

"He wrote operas as well as ballet music and string quartets, music for guitar and other works," he says. "But he was composing music in an era when there was no such thing as an Australian work. When he asked the ABC when they would program some of his work, the response was 'Never'."

Ironically, the ABC will record the special Penberthy music tribute under music director Jangoo Chapkhana and guest soloists.

The play Madame Ballet will feature Alinta Carroll as Bousloff, with Andrew Southern as Penberthy.

"Here is a woman who came out of the classical ballet tradition and ends up in the wilds of Western Australia with her partner." <div class="endnote">

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