#1: Narnia (1973)


7 February 2019

In 1973 Sydney Dance Company, then called The Dance Company, were a young company with uncontainable ambitions. Choreographer and dancer Chrissie Koltai remembers creating Narnia for the Sydney Opera House’s opening season, a mini-masterpiece acclaimed for its trailblazing music and sets, and dancers “coolly radiating all sorts of contemporary yearnings”.

Poster for Sydney Opera House Opening in 1973

“I was 23 and a dreamer, and at that stage of the Company, it was all very new and a bit wild. ‘Narnia’ was extraordinary right from the beginning. The composer, Roy Ritchie, had to supply his own sound system, which was stolen. No one knew how to make the production side of things work. But we were really young, so we made it happen in its own mysterious way. I slept on the green room couch for two or three nights, and woke up with  cleaners hoovering around me.

Sketch of Narnia set.

The dancers were a wild bunch: opinionated, a little bit crazy, very individual, and very special people: Maureen Quirk, Delwyn Rouse. Jean Louis, who worked with Betty Bloch, made all the costumes: bodysuits with cassocks over the top. Lycra was very new at that stage, and Jean Louis made them so tight they were like skin. One of the dancers, Graeme Watson, fainted, so we had to pull him offstage: I’m not sure if the costumes were to blame. The set, a mirrored platform, was by sculptor Mike Kitching: I’d seen his work in the Bonython Gallery in Paddington and just fell in love it, and asked the gallery for his phone number: naiveté is a wonderful thing. And Jeannie Lewis, an extraordinary Australian singer, did the vocal sounds. The music and the sculpture was integral to the work. ‘Narnia’ got great reviews, although people were a bit confused and thought it was about the book ‘Narnia’, whereas the title came from the composer: it was more about a spiritual journey.

Narnia in rehearsals featuring Kathy Chard and Delwyn Rouse.

Narnia Production Image, 1973

Sydney Opera House had been part of my life for so long, because it was always coming: I was dating architecture students that were working on the build and I’ve got photographs of us on the top shells, standing on our heads, hanging over the sides, and holding onto the railings, because we could.

At that stage, we were riding a wave of possibility in the arts, thanks to the Whitlam Government. I think the most important thing is to just imagine what you want, and just do it. Because there’s always a way.”

Young Chrissie Koltai (left), Chrissie Koltai standing on her head on top of the Sydney Opera House’s 2nd highest shell (center), and recent photo of Chrissie Koltai dancing (right)

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