I first came across the incredible Noel Tovey in 2009 a friend and I saw Little Black Bastard, his solo show. It was such a brave performance and Noel exuded such grace and humility. But what we were blown away by was his story of survival. His life started in neglect and poverty, he endured frightening amounts of sexual abuse and now had an incredibly successful career as a dancer, choreographer, actor and director.
Noel Tovey’s life has been utterly extraordinary. Living as a street kid and rent boy in Melbourne during the 1940 and 50s, he was sent to Pentridge Gaol in 1951, when he was 17, after pleading not guilty to the crime of buggery. It was only in 2016 that the Victoria State Government apologised to men like Noel, men who were incarcerated and persecuted as a result of unjust laws that marked homosexuality as criminal. Noel was an important advocate in the campaign that lead to the apology, and he was present for the apology.
Noel’s interest and passion in the performing arts took him from Melbourne to London and across Europe to New York. He started ballet classes with the famous Madame Borovansky, where he cleaned the studios in exchange for classes. He started his professional dance career in 1954 with Paint Your Wagon at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne. Replacing a boy who broke his leg in rehearsal, Noel become the first Indigenous male ballet dancer in Australia.
After several years working in Australia, Noel left for the footlights of London. Noel made his acting debut in the West End production Oh Dad Poor Dad with legendary American actress Stella Adler in 1961. He became a principal dancer with The Sadler’s Wells Company. His choreographic career started in 1966 with a production of Sandy Wilson’s The Boyfriend.
During the premier season of Oh! Calcutta, Noel met his long term partner David (Dave) Sarel. Together they opened L’Odeon, an art gallery specialising in 20th century decorative art. Noel lost Dave to AIDS in February 1986. After which time Noel devoted himself to fighting against the myths related to HIV/AIDS and to helping increase education about the disease by working with AIDS Trust in London.
Noel moved back to Australia in 1991and continued working in the performing arts including directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream with an all Indigenous cast for the first Olympic Festival at Sydney Theatre Company; Spirit Time and Place, Adelaide Festival; Sky Light, Darwin Festival; The Aboriginal Protesters, Sydney, Munich and The Weimar festivals; The Stars Come Out, Sydney Mardi Gras Festival. His one man play Little Black Bastard based on his autobiography of the same title, has been performed around the world including La Mama Melbourne, Darwin Arts Festival, Belvoir Street Sydney, Perth International Arts Festival, The Herald Theatre Auckland, Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Origins Festival London.
In 2010, Noel received the ALSO Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2014, he was awarded the Uncle Bob Maza Memorial Lifetime Achievement Award for outstanding contribution to Victorian Indigenous theatre. And in 2015, he was made a member of the Order of Australia.
Noel has set up scholarships for two recipients from socially disadvantaged backgrounds to attend the Flying Fruit Fly Circus School.
This interviews covers a look at Melbourne in 1940 and 50s, Noel’s professional career, his latest book, the AIDS epidemic and his being at the Stonewall Riots. This wide-ranging conversation contains adult content, listener discretion advised.
If you enjoyed this interview, please share Noel’s incredible story on social media. Stay tuned for another stimulating episode, hitting the web in two weeks. Check out previous interviews from Deborah Jowett, Gideon Obarzanek, Rafael Bonachela, Lucy Guerin & Anouk van Dijk. You can now find Delving into Dance on Facebook, as well as Twitter and iTunes.