A more life-affirming, moving and ultimately inspiring “happening” (in the words of the performers), you are unlikely to experience than An Audience With… Created after choreographer and dance-maker Janice Parker put a call out to dancers from the Variety era who had performed on the stage of the Empire (now Festival) Theatre in Edinburgh. Answering that call from Parker were: Marie Duthie (94), June Don Murray (90) and Doreen Leighton-Ward (85), all seasoned stars of the Variety stage.
Their rich lives and legacy are the core of this promenade performance. And oh, what lives they’ve lived. Their memories of the golden age of Scottish variety are a glimpse into an almost lost world.
June Don Murray still shows the spark that served her so well as a performer. Born into a family of performers and theatre managers (one of her father’s illustrations adorns the walls of the performance space, an illustration that the theatre knew no backstory to, until June herself spotted it), she takes us through our paces in a dance lesson, performs a dying swan ballet sequence and recounts some of the hair-raising feats she performed. Along with being a Moxon Girl, Scotland’s answer to the Tiller Girls, June was Australian illusionist The Great Levante’s assistant and was shot out of a cannon into a basket in the gallery of the theatre on a nightly basis.
Doreen Leighton-Ward as well as being acclaimed for her dancing skills, organised a strike to obtain a pay rise and better contracts and conditions for Scottish dancers. An act that led one spiteful theatre manager to sack her, however, this quiet, but strong woman, expresses no regrets.
Marie Duthie née Pyper, began her dancing career as a toddler at her father’s amateur concert parties. In 1932, at the age of 9, she performed the dying swan solo and Edinburgh’s Evening Dispatch newspaper said, “memories of Pavlova are brought to mind”. By 1940 she toured the country with The Ganjou Brothers and Juanita and in 1942 became one half of The Raymond Sisters, extensively touring the UK on the renowned Moss Empire Circuit, ending the act in a mini kilt singing and tap dancing to Macphersin’ is Rehearsin’ to Swing.
We are led through the private corridors and side rooms of the theatre, experiencing different aspects of these remarkable women’s careers. They are joined by two more generations of dancers, creator Janice Parker, and two young dancers, Daisy Douglas and Katie Miller, whom the women are teaching to tap dance.
These women have never stopped dancing, and to this day are still passing on their techniques and wisdom to a new generation of dancers. Their legacy too, is getting the recognition it deserves with a book and film due next year.
Celebratory, moving and inspirational in turn, the joy in the room is palpable. The enthusiasm they transmit for dance is measured by the scrum to don tap shoes and take part in a lesson at the end. This life-affirming production proves that love for, and participation in dance, has no age limit, it will leave you with a song in your heart and wings on your heels. Truly joyous.
There are further performances of An Audience With… on 26 and 28 October 2017 at The Empire Rooms in Edinburgh Festival Theatre.
Header image: Niall Walker