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Coe, Kelvin (1946–1992)

by Michael Shmith

from Age (Melbourne)

Kelvin Coe, who died yesterday after a long, AIDS-related illness, wanted to be another Fred Astaire. "A musical comedy lovely,'' he said. Instead, he became one of Australia's best and most popular classical and contemporary dancers, whose career spanned four decades.

The centre stage of his professional life was the Australian Ballet, which he joined on its formation in 1962, appearing as a page in the company's first production, 'Swan Lake'. By the time he left in 1981, after the dancers' strike against the then management, he had performed the leading role in almost every full-length work in the company's repertoire, as well as creating roles in such ballets as 'The Merry Widow', 'The Last Vision' and 'Sun Music'. His two favorite parts were Albrecht in 'Giselle' and Lensky in 'Onegin'.

Kelvin Coe was born in Carlton in 1946. His father was in the army; his mother, a former cycling champion, ran a sandwich shop. Young Kelvin became attracted to dance — tap was the first form that took his fancy — when he was nine years old and living in North Melbourne. He was not allowed to play football because of a minor bone disorder.

He took lessons from Rex Reid and, at 15, was spotted by Peggy van Praagh, who was establishing a new national dance company to replace the Borovansky company. Coe was one of the youngest dancers to join the Australian Ballet (special permission had to be obtained, as he was under-age) and the first male dancer to work his way from the corps to principal rank.

In 1967, when he was 21, he danced with Margot Fonteyn in 'Raymonda', and that was also the year of his first Albrecht in 'Giselle' — a role he was still dancing in 1986, in Maina Gielgud's new production.

In 1973, Coe and another Australian Ballet principal, Marilyn Rowe, won silver medals at the International Ballet Competition in Moscow. Five years later, Coe and Rowe returned to Moscow to dance with the Bolshoi in 'Don Quixote'. They were probably the first Australian pair to perform with a major Russian company.

Following his initial Moscow success, Coe took a year's leave of absence abroad, mainly as a principal with the London Festival Ballet (now the English National Ballet). He returned to the Australian Ballet in November 1974. About this time he suffered glandular fever, which caused trouble to his left arm for the rest of his career. He suffered many injuries, including hip and spine problems. The spine injury was caused in 1977, when he dived into 'Swan Lake' and overshot the mattress.

But, as with many dancers, such occupational hazards did not seriously affect Coe's career. The high point was possibly his partnership with the Italian ballerina Carla Fracci, who was regarded as the definitive Giselle of her generation and danced it with the Australian Ballet in 1976. Coe's partnering of Fracci as Albrecht won so much critical and popular acclaim that the company took the unusual step of including his name (though in smaller type!) beside hers in advertisements. Coe's other partners included Marilyn Jones, Christine Walsh, Lucette Aldous and the Australian Ballet's current artistic director, Maina Gielgud.

Coe's career as a star virtually ended with the dancers' strike 11 years ago, when he took a prominent role in the dancers' successful campaign for a better deal from the then management. Coe complained that from 1976 there had been an obvious decline in the company's artistic standards. He resigned from the Australian Ballet in December 1981, saying he could see no sign of artistic improvement. "I would rather do something constructive with the last years of my dancing life,'' he said.

A month later Coe was signed up by the Sydney Dance Company, whose artistic director, Graeme Murphy, created the ballet 'Homelands' for him. Coe also worked with Joan Sutherland in the gala sequence in Act II of Strauss's 'Die Fledermaus'.

In 1983, the Australian Ballet's new artistic director, Maina Gielgud, persuaded Coe to return to the company to make several guest appearances. These included Graeme Murphy's 'Beyond 12' (the story of a dancer's life) and, in the same year, 'Swan Lake'.

In 1986, Coe began to teach at the Australian Ballet School. A year later, in addition to this, Coe succeeded his former partner, Marilyn Rowe, as director of the Dancers' Company, comprising Australian Ballet School senior students and guest artists from the company. He directed the company's tours (of mainly country areas) for 1987, '88 and '90.

Kelvin Coe continued to dance, but on a more restricted basis. His last major performance was in 'The Merry Widow' in 1990, as Camille, the role created on him when the ballet was choreographed in 1975. At the end of last year he appeared in a tribute to the company's retiring administrator, Noel Pelly. His last stage appearance was as one of the ugly sisters in the Australian Ballet School's Christmas production of 'Cinderella'.

'The Age' dance critic Neil Jillett said yesterday: "Kelvin Coe was one of the stars of what is generally regarded as the first golden age of the Australian Ballet, in the mid-'70s. He was one of the company's best and most popular dancers. His abilities were perhaps less spectacular than some of his contemporaries, particularly John Meehan. But anyone who saw him partnering Carla Fracci in 'Giselle' could be in no doubt he was a dancer of world class.

"One of his most engaging characteristics, which has become almost a traditional trait among the company's dancers, was a refusal to take himself too seriously. The long-legged Kelvin Coe was one of the Australian Ballet's most elegant dancers, although he was notably less handsome than some of the other leading males.

"Kelvin himself recalled of his year abroad in the '70s that English critics didn't like him much in anything. 'For one thing I don't look their idea of a dancer,' he said. 'They write things like "His cheerful, open Australian face is hardly suitable for the Prince in 'Swan Lake'.'' What critics say never worries me. I just laugh all over my cheerful, open Australian face.'''

Original publication

  • Age (Melbourne), 10 July 1992, p 11

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Citation details

Michael Shmith, 'Coe, Kelvin (1946–1992)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/coe-kelvin-29641/text37372, accessed 12 August 2020.

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