Eileen Kramer may well be the longest working dancer and choreographer in Australia, if not the world. The 103-year-old continues to create dance every day and is about to launch her first book, Eileen — just in time for her 104th birthday.
The vital woman came to dance relatively late in life, joining Australia’s first professional modern dance company, the Bodenwieser Ballet, around 1940, when she was in her mid-20s. Kramer then left Australia for 60 years to perform around the world, rubbing shoulders with legends like Ella Fitzgerald, Chico Marx and Louis Armstrong before returning home four years ago.
This month, Kramer speaks to Dance Informa about her latest project and offers encouraging words of wisdom to those who feel like they’ve left it too late to follow their passion for dance.
Congratulations on writing your first book at 103 years young! What a remarkable achievement. Your book is in the form of a series of short stories and discusses your life in Sydney before you became a dancer. Why did you decide to write it in this way as opposed to a more traditional autobiography?
“I was more interested in the stories of the other people I lived with in the Phillip St courtyard. I actually expected to write more stories about them than I did. As we started, the book became just as much about me as it did about them.”
Have you found any parallels between creating dance and writing?
“Oh yes, of course. First of all, it’s a question of composition — knowing how to compose a paragraph interestingly is the same as, you know, how to choreograph a section of a dance. No matter what, it still has to be interesting and attractive to the audience. Knowing in your gut that it looks right or sounds right — some people achieve that with knowledge, and others achieve that with instinct. The creative side of yourself, like anything else in the world, it’s very rare that you go straight off from the page without much trouble.”
While many people much younger than you spend most of their days seated, you still dance every day. What inspires you to keep going? Are there things you find hard as an older dancer?
“I do what is available to an older dancer. I try to perfect what I’m still able to do. I don’t try to do what I can no longer do. And that doesn’t bother me one bit. My creative spirit is stronger than my physiological problems!
I’m still a human being. I still want to be loved, I still want to be thought of as beautiful, so I’m still vain. I’m still nervous before going on stage, I still have to question myself as to whether I’m telling the truth.”
A lot of dancers in their teens worry they’ve started too late, but you started dance late and here you are, still dancing. What would you say to those who are picking up the art form at some point after childhood?
“I think the school of expressive dance has no age barrier; you can start whenever you want. Don’t forget your childhood [and] how simple it was to say what you wanted. There were no policemen there to tell us we couldn’t do something artistically. So I’d tell people to forget about age, just remember what you did and how you felt when you were a child, and what you’ve done with the experience you’ve had since then.
I can only speak for myself, but I’ve noticed that the more technically brilliant a dancer may be, [the more] she or he seems to feel that s/he can no longer do what they once could. For me, dancing was mostly to do with enjoying what movement I was able to create with my upper body. I was never a very acrobatic dancer who was able to do amazing physical things with my legs, not like some of the other Bodenwieser dancers who had started at the age of four.
Madam [Bodenwieser] was a very loving teacher, and she had assistants who paid more attention to the technical side of things while she was there to teach us to be expressive. Now that she has gone, I realise how much she actually did teach me. I can analyse a movement and see the possibilities which could emerge from that one organic movement. I was a late starter, but instinctively, I think, I was always a dancer.”
What do you hope your readers will take away from the book you’ve written?
“I hope they’ll say that it was a great little book! I also hope that they’ll feel they’ve had a glimpse into early Sydney — into what it was like living in the centre of the city in the late 1930s; that they’ll be able to imagine living in the Phillip St courtyard with my friends, all artists, all learning about the world around us. Like Rosaleen Norton, a very sweet and forthright girl who was my dear friend. I went away from Australia for 60 years, and in that time Rose became the ‘Witch of Kings Cross’. When I lived with her, I only thought she was pretending to be a witch! Some people said she went on to be notorious, but I never saw that aspect of her. She was my friend, and I loved her.
I hope the reader will get a snapshot of a Sydney that was much simpler. We didn’t used to say, ‘Oh, Madam is coming over soon to choreograph a dance.’ We would say, ‘Madam is coming over to make up a new dance.’ It was all spontaneous.”
Do you have any plans yet for your 104th birthday this month?
“I think [my main plan involves] getting over the book launch the night before! So I think I’ll be taking it easy. There is to be a little entertainment for our guests. I’ll be performing on the night. Sue Healy and I have ‘made something up’! I will be performing with my illustrations, which means I will be dancing with the people in the stories! And Ita Buttrose is launching the book.
This is not just a story by one person. I wrote this book with Tracey, and there was the publisher’s input (Melbourne Books), and all those lovely people who crowdfunded to raise money so that the book could be hardcover and the illustrations coloured. I’d like to dedicate this book to them.”
Eileen Kramer’s self-titled book, published by Melbourne Books and distributed by Penguin, will be in select bookshops from November 15. You can also purchase a copy online via the Melbourne Books website, www.melbournebooks.com.au/products/eileen.
By Grace Gassin of Dance Informa.