Dancing for life – an interview with Eileen Kramer
How did you become interested in becoming a dancer and where has your dance career taken you?
I was studying music and singing at the Conservatorium in Sydney New South Wales as I wanted to become an opera singer. One day in 1940 my mother took me to a concert at the Conservatorium of Music and I saw a dance recital by the Bodenwieser Ballet. And then decided to become a dancer instead.
I subsequently met with Madam Bodenwieser, who had left Vienna with some other dancers who were members of her company because of World War Two, and showed her what I could do by dancing around. She like liked it enough and said I could become a teacher. But I said I wanted to be in her company and she smiled.
After 3 years learning with Madam (we always called her Madam) I joined her company and became a dancer with Bodenwieser Ballet for the next 10 years.
We would rehearse in Sydney in Pitt Street. We looked through the window down onto Pitt St and saw people going by and would say to each other, there go our potential audiences.
We toured all over Australia, from Queensland all the way to Perth. Most of us loved tours. Eventually we went overseas to South Africa and India. I went to London on my own and gave a concert at Australia House, then returned to Australia and joined the company again.
Viennese dancer Evelyn Ippen was the costume designer for the company as well as being a beautiful dancer. At the end of World War 2 the Viennese dancers from Bodenwieser Ballet returned to Austria and, apart from Madam Bodenwieser, we became an all-Australian dance company instead of a Viennese company.
And so I became the costume designer. I would show my designs to Madam, she would say “No surprises for Frau Gertie (as she called herself).” Recently I have been going through all my drawings which I did after the concert, and Madam ALWAYS got surprises, every time.
The costumes have been preserved by Barbara Cookson, who was a child then. Her parents helped Madam a lot, looking after her when she got ill and then when she died in 1959. Barbara took on the job of caring for all the costumes from Bodenwieser Ballet. The costumes are all in the dance archives in Canberra, where I have done a very long interview.
How did you come to live and dance overseas?
As Madam said, she didn’t like tours as someone always left the company and stayed in Paris, or Africa or got married. After a tour I stayed in Paris and became a model. Eventually came back to Australia and re-joined the company.
When Madam finally died in 1959 it was very sad for us as she was very great teacher. She insisted we dressed well and looked glamorous. She introduced us to the history of dance and European ideas about women, dance fashion and everything else and then she died.
After Madam died, I got married to someone I met in Paris in the 1960s and wasn’t dancing much. But we did work in film and over several years we made one together based on one of Madam’s great dance works, a two and a half hour long animation.
And now I am working in film again, working with Sue Healy and Shane Carroll here in Australia. I am also now preparing for something a bit novel – two tea parties. I’ll introduce my Australian tea party friends to my tea party friends in West Virginia where we will show costumes and talk about dance.
How did your recent resurgent career come about?
When I came back to Australia at age 99 in 2013 I was living in Thurles Castle (an Anglicare hostel) in Chippendale Sydney and there was a coffee shop next door. I met Shane Carrol there and introduced myself as having belonged to Australia’s first modern dance company. Shane introduced me to Maggie Haertsch before I turned 100. Maggie was very keen to support my creativity and I became involved with Arts Health Institute as an ambassador.
Maggie thought my life would make a terrific documentary and through that I met many people, and the ABC show One Plus One produced a documentary about me. View the ABC interview here.
Maggie and others set up crowd funding to support my creativity which got a lot of attention and through that we managed to produce a film. View Eileens’ films on her website.
I recently connected with two German musicians who wanted me to participate in their album. And recently the Washington Post wrote a piece about my film.
Madame Bodenweiser was such a great teacher that we felt we were members of a great company. And I am very thankful that she set helped me onto the path of my life as a dancer.
How have you managed to sustain your physical wellbeing over many decades?
I’m just lucky I guess. Every day I practice, I am now living in a residence (I don’t like to use the word “Aged”). There’s a bar outside my room and every evening I exercise for an hour and that’s how I keep my dance skills alive. And I always liked the soft work, I never did high leg lifts or the very deep bend backs. I have always liked to do very expressive work.
How has your dancing changed over time?
It hasn’t! I still work in the very beautiful expressive style of Bodenweiser. Australian filmmaker and dancer Sue Healey has affected me as well and we have made a contemporary dance film together. My association with her has changed me a little bit. I have only ever danced with two companies – Trillium in West Virginia and Bodenweiser. Trillium is the company I’ll be hosting a tea party with in West Virginia.
Have there have been times you haven’t danced?
When I was a model in Paris I didn’t dance, but I think modelling is like dancing as far as I’m concerned. I have always been a Bodenweiser dancer, I still am and I love it.
How do you maintain your health and wellbeing?
I’ve been lucky with my health. I have never had to take medicine, just some supplements. It’s rather strange. I see a lot of people in wheelchairs and in bed, but fortunately for me my health is very good – they tell me I have good genes! For a while I lost my balance but I exercised it back.
I have always been creative. I have written four books. One is called the Heliotropians – Space and Time Travel. And I have written a book about being with Bodenweiser and a book about the basic shapes for cutting shapes for costumes circle, square, rectangle.
With Cathy Gray, Eileen has set up a self-publishing company and published Elephants and other stories. In 2018 through Melbourne Publishing, Eileen’s beautiful hardcover book Eileen: Stories from the Phillip Street Courtyard was published in 2018, and is about Sydney during World War 2, when she lived in Philip St just up from Circular Quay. Read about Eileens’s books.
I lived in Philip Street with a room with a very big courtyard where we would have parties and dinners with a close group of 4 girls. I realise now we were living in history. Phillip Street is now tall buildings, with no residences. And my book Eileen: Stories from Phillip Street Courtyard is about that time.
As someone who is a dancer, a costume maker, a choreographer with Trillium Dance Company, a writer and a visual artist, can you talk about what creativity means to you?
I don’t talk about it, but other people use the word creativity when they talk to me. Dance, costume making, writing, drawing all go together. I suspect that I am still like I was when I was a child when I made my first doll’s dress, and basically I haven’t changed.
I’m not smart, I’m not ambitious. The way I invented myself as a child is still with me. As a child I got my brother to hang a big sheet and cut some slits through it. We put boxes behind it and we got some friend to put their heads through the sheet with their hair twisted up – for Bluebeard’s Wives.
My attitude now and my feeling about it is the same as then. But of course you do learn things as you travel through life. I’m not smart, I’m still fiddling around making masks. In Lewisville, West Virginia, when I lived with my companion Bill in a big southern “Gone with the Wind” type house, Bill said the house was full of masks.
I think I haven’t changed very much since I was a child. But that’s alright, as Picasso says we have to learn to paint like children.
I don’t like people to talk about age. When people ask me about how old I am I say I’m not old I’ve just been here a long time. Nobody is old, they just think they are.
Eileen Kramer was interviewed by OPAN on 1 March 2022