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William Arthur (Bill) Akers (1929–2010)

by Malcolm Brown

Bill Akers, by John McGarry, 1964

Bill Akers, by John McGarry, 1964

National Library of Australia, 25963830

Bill Akers was a sensitive soul, a production counterpart of the lion of Australian ballet, Sir Robert Helpmann. But where Helpmann in his early careers dazzled on stage, taking to production later, Akers, who was with the Australian Ballet from its inception and was associated with the company for 32 years, found his natural forte behind the scenes.

He once said: ''I prefer to be a man that wangles things from behind.'' He performed that role with aplomb.

William Arthur Akers was born in Sydney on May 10, 1929, son of William Akers and Nella (nee Livingstone). He started out as an actor, winning a part as a child extra in the film Forty Thousand Horsemen.

But the war years brought hardship of a particularly upsetting kind. While his father was serving with the Australian forces in Darwin, his mother took off to New Zealand with Akers's younger brother, Ernest, and another man. She left Bill with a couple of aunts. He attended Randwick High School and set out to become an actor. He worked in radio serials, then won a scholarship to the Rathbone Academy of Dramatic Art, where a fellow student was Joan Sutherland.

Akers also studied at the studio of ballet teachers Joan and Monica Halliday. He joined the John Alden Shakespeare Company. With matinee-idol looks, he might have been suited for a career under the spotlight.

But Akers became more interested in production and he was engaged by J. C. Williamson Theatres in the 1950s as the assistant stage manager of the Borovansky Ballet. During his period with the ballet, Akers worked closely with Edouard Borovansky and became fascinated by the influence of light. On the death of Borovansky in 1959, Akers administered the Borovansky Ballet for a year.

In 1962, Akers joined the Australian Ballet in its first season as technical director, alongside its founding artistic director, Dame Peggy van Praagh. He also worked closely with Helpmann, who returned to Australia in 1965 to co-direct the ballet company. Akers provided the lighting for works involving Helpmann, including The Display, Yugen, Sun Music and Perisynthyon. Akers toured internationally with the Australian Ballet. Their tours included a trip to Cambodia in 1968, to perform at a new theatre. On the trip, Prince Norodom Sihanouk presented Akers with the Chevalier de Sahamet'rei award.

Known for his dapper dress style and quirky humour, Akers became a great friend of most of the stars who came to Australia. In 1975, after Dame Peggy van Praagh left and Helpmann had become sole director of the Australian Ballet, Akers was appointed the theatre planning co-ordinator of the Victorian Arts Centre Building Committee and followed that by becoming the production director for the Victorian Arts Centre Trust.

He rejoined the Australian Ballet in 1983 to become the director of productions.

In a career spanning half a century, he staged works for every leading ballet company in Australia. Pamela Ruskin, writing for the magazine Dance Australia, said: ''On the technical side, it is Akers who puts the magic into ballet performances. His use of lighting is so clever and subtle that what might look ordinary or tawdry close up is transformed into beauty by his expertise.''

The chairwoman of the Australian Dance Awards panel, Robina Beard, says his contribution to theatre extends well beyond Australia's borders. ''He has been an ambassador for Australian dance around the world and raised the standards of production and lighting design for both theatre and ballet,'' Beard says. ''He is recognised by choreographers the world over for his lighting for theatre and dance.''

Akers worked with Maina Gielgud, who became artistic director of Australian Ballet from 1983. He provided lighting for most new ballets commissioned during her time in Australia.

In 1987, Akers was presented with the Green Room Award, the theatre industry's highest award for lighting, and in 1988 he received an AM for his services to lighting ballet and the theatre.

Productions he did with Gielgud included The Sentimental Bloke, My Name Is Edward Kelly, Of Blessed Memory and Madame Butterfly.

Akers retired in 1994 and went to live on the Mornington Peninsula. In his later years, he became a mentor for young people starting out in the world of ballet. On June 20 this year, he was awarded with the Australian Dance Lifetime Achievement Award at the State Theatre in Melbourne.

Akers died of cancer at Shoreham House in Melbourne on November 22. He is survived by his partner of 45 years, Roger Myers.

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Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Akers, William Arthur (Bill) (1929–2010)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 17 June 2024.

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