This transcript is from an interview that was first published on 18th of April 2017, several months before Noel was inducted in the Australian Dance Awards Hall of Fame.
Noel writes in his book about his dear friend Tommy, who he bonded with while living as a street kid. Tommy was deaf and together they developed their own sign language. One day Tommy was picked up by police and Noel was to never see or hear from Tommy again. The legacy of this relationship saw Noel learn sign language and he has remained an advocate for deaf communities since.
These transcripts are designed to provide material that has not previously been accessible to deaf audiences. It is with great pleasure that this first transcript is of Noel Tovey, who has long been an advocate and supporter of the deaf community.
This transcript has been edited slightly to help with clarity, the audio of this episode and more information can be found here. Transcripts are a new initiative of Delving into Dance and over the following months we will be experimenting with the form of the transcripts, we welcome any feedback regarding the form and layout. These transcripts are paid for through the support of audiences. You can contribute here.
Andrew: I started by asking what was Noel’s journey into dance. [1:48]
Noel Tovey: I always wanted to be a performer, my father, had a beautiful voice. Unfortunately, he was a drunk, as everyone in the house was and addicted to cocaine and I found out later on that my grandfather and my Uncle George were very famous as the Bohee Brothers. So I guess you know I am the fifth generation, but how did I start?
I’ve never been to school for, um, I was coming home from a rather heavy night of debauchery because I was a rent boy and I got stuck by the police and one of the detectives knew me and said ‘get a job or next time Noel, you're coming with us, so I got a job as a messenger boy at Collins Books Depot.
Well I sold newspapers first and I graduated to messenger boy and the girl who I worked with the first day was, she took me for coffee told me she was a lesbian, smoked black sobriety cigarettes, we became very good friends and she took me to a student performance of La Sylphide at the National Theatre in Melbourne, which was in St. Peters Hill near the fire station and ah, after the male solo she dug me in the ribs with her elbow and said you know you could do that and I knew I could and it was like turning a light on. I didn't know that you could buy tights or ballet shoes so the next day we went to Paynes Bon Marche in Bourke St and for 12 and 6 I bought a pair of long white underpants and a packet of, and for penny I bought a packet of black Dolly Dye, and that evening I went home and stitched up the crutch dyed them black in the copper, in the backyard and Jessica found the times of the beginners classes at the National and I went and, I mean, there was Gayrie MacSween and people that later on became quite something in the dance world, but they all thought that I was very odd because I had homemade tights and I was barefooted, and at the end of the class Miss Alexander told Bill Cast to take me aside and introduce me to the mysteries of the jockstrap.
So I stayed there for about three months and I knew there was something better, so I went to Borovansky, Madame Borovansky and she said to me ‘Noel you're talented but you need four classes a week’ I said ‘I can only afford one and I'm selling newspapers to pay for that’ and she said ‘I will give you three classes for nothing if you clean the studio for me’ and so that was my introduction. [5:13]
Andrew: So what age were you?
Noel Tovey: That was about 14 and that was really too late 14 is considered, you know some of the boys they're very young, these days they start like 7, 8, 9
Andrew: In your book you talk about your first debut in Paint Your Wagon and you describe that time is pretty hard and humiliating…
Noel Tovey: Oh, it was, I mean unbeknown to me, boys and some of the girls that included the principal dancer, went to the English choreographer and said they didn't want to work with me, she asked them why they said I was notorious that I’d been in jail but I was a notorious homosexual and that I was Aboriginal and… well in 2010 there was a reunion at Her Majesty’s and one of the dancers was there and he said to me, he told me this what had happened and apparently the choreographer said to the group she said ‘Well you can all leave, I can get more of you, but I can't get more of him’ and made me the understudy for the principal dancer.
But you know that they gave me hell and so then I practice how I walked and stood and looked and I waited until we went on tour to Sydney and when one of the boys tried to belittle me I turned around and let him have it and then told all of them individually how they’d hurt me, after that they left me alone. [7:08]
Andrew: What did she see in you?
Noel Tovey: Well I was a good dancer for one thing.
Andrew: She must have had so much belief in what you did to turn around to all of them and…
Noel Tovey: Well she did, she did because what I haven't told you is that there was only, I replaced Ron Ray who broke his leg and there was only a week for me to learn the show and I learned at all, of course
Andrew: So in changing your physicality and thinking about how you built that confidence, was that…
Noel Tovey: …. Well I knew that I wasn’t accepted by the Melbourne Theatre establishment and I knew that if I took a step forward, I’d take a step back right - I never worked for Williamson’s again, Betty Palmer made sure of that, but I did a lot of work for the Princess Theatre in a lot of musicals and my father had worked with Kitty Carol, Mrs. Carol when she was known as Pretty Kitty Stewart and was a Soubrette, so I heard her once, I was auditioning for Bells are Ringing and I had to say to the English director and choreographer, “take the tall dark boy on the end darling, we always use him”. So, I did Salad Days, Free as Air, The Music Man, Once Upon a Mattress, I did them all there at the Princess. [8:41]
Andrew: So, obviously you love performing
Noel Tovey: Oh I did
Andrew: What is that feeling like when you are on stage and you are in that moment?
Noel Tovey: There's nothing to compare it with, really. And also as a choreographer, there's nothing to compare that moment when they applaud - when you're onstage, like I did a lot of reviews with Mary Hardy and we could improvise and it was a wonderful feeling being able to take the audience to another place.
Andrew: Yeah, so the applause was, um, some performers talk about it you know the love coming over the footlights or you know different ways of describing the adoration.
Noel Tovey: It was the applause. If you were taking the piss out of somebody and they’re sitting there in a late night review and there were applauding you, you know, you knew that you'd done a good job. I did a wicked send up of Frank Thring in a in a Late night revue. I used to be able to impersonate him and I knew him very well in fact this whole thing was ‘I'm getting a teeny wary aren’t you of Olive and Bubba and Barney and Ru’, he actually loved it.
Andrew: So you're career was around 50 years or so. Like Choreography, Dancing, Directing.
Noel Tovey: As a director I started I was asked to direct something at the Mountview Theatre School. That was the first thing I directed that was quite early. But as a choreographer It started when I was asked to choreograph The Boyfriend at Leatherhead and Sandy Wilson came down to see it with Michael Codron, they were astounded by the quality of the production and Sandy said to me ‘We’re going to do it in the West End’ and then I went to Ibiza. I went to do a nightclub act in Ibiza the cast were, Judy Russell, John Muirhead, myself, Bruce George was the MD. [The previous sentence has been edited from the original at the request of Noel].
Yeah. So Terry Thomas, who was a friend of mine said to me, the others ‘came back’. I was going with a group - and Terry said to me, ‘stay and be a nanny and take care of Tiger’. Well, by the end of the day, I had Mike Nichols daughter and I had all the top brass from Hollywood, all their children. So I stayed for nearly a year in Ibiza.
In the morning the nannies would bring the children and I borrowed the key of the discotheque, belonged to a friend of mine. And I would give them dancing lessons and free dancing lessons and for maker and all sorts of things that I would tell them the story and then they would act it out for me and then meet there and take them, all these kids down to the beach and give them a sermon question. [12:14]
Andrew: Oh, wow. You had your own little company. Working both in Europe and in Australia were there big differences.
Noel Tovey: Yeah, because in Australia in my day, it was personality it was who you were, it was names blah blah. In England and Europe it was if you could do the job or audition and if you're good enough you got the job and no one cared, like I went into I went into denial of my Aboriginal heritage and took me 30 years to wonder why because no one cared. In England it was all about doing the job.
I was very fortunate because an English choreographer/director he was Australia, had come out from England, George Houghton-Carden, he is now dead, to direct and choreograph Anything Goes at The Princess Theatre and he came to a late night review and saw Mary and I in a review, he said he thought I should go to London. So eventually I did and then I rang him when I got off the boat I rang and said ‘oh George I took your advice I'm here’ and he said to me ‘If you can find your way to the folk dance society at Camden Hill you can work for me again, I'm directing and choreographing a series for ITV’ and in the first week I worked with Vera Lynn, Judy Garland, you know, I did the whole lot.
Andrew: What age were you when you make you made your way over?
Noel Tovey: In my 20’s
Andrew: It would have been such a big journey [14:20]
Noel Tovey: Oh, it was. Then I went into West Side Story and then I made my acting debut in a play with Stella Adler on the West End that was crazy, it was called Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung you in the Closet and I’m Feeling so Dad, was basically a tragic farce Theatre of the Absurd really. Then I made my singing debut in a musical written by Ron Grainer and he wrote Robert Elizabeth Caught on the Level and it was the first week in the West End and I was understudying one of the juvenile leads and he didn't turn up, at five to two, the stage manager came to me and said, ‘You're on’. Now, I hadn't had a rehearsal, not one understudy call because it was chaos, was absolute chaos, and Wendy Toye who was the director came to me and said, ‘Noel, you can do it. I know you can do it.’ And the American musical director… I'd never sung with a big band or with pit singers before… said to me ‘Noel, you got the job. You got the voice, I’ll nurse you through it’. And he did. And I just settled myself down. I was standing in the wings waiting to go on, a young stage manager came up to me and said, ‘Oh, no, you’re so lucky Barbra Streisand's in the second front row of the dress circle’.
Andrew: Oh my God
Noel Tovey:… and I went on. And after a very nervous start, I settled into it, it was fine. And there was a big dance number and you know, never had a rehearsal, but I was on stage during the stance numbers so I vaguely knew it but I improvised. And you know, I couldn't learn it after that I couldn’t, there were special calls for me to learn and I couldn’t.
Andrew: There’s so many performances that you’ve done and shows that you've worked on, are there ones that really stand out to you as being particular highlights?
Noel Tovey: When I choreographed the Danish version of Fiddler on the Roof that was a stand out. Yeah you know, when I came home to restage The Boyfriend, now remember I left here under a cloud because no one accepted me, but that didn’t bother me, and yet I came home as this visiting choreographer to re-choreograph my production of The Boyfriend in the West End and Sandy came with me and he directed it and when the audience applauded on the Opening Night, I couldn't believe…I was absolutely…Sandy said ‘they're applauding your work’, I couldn't believe it.
Andrew: What did it mean to you? [17:43]
Noel Tovey: It meant more to me doing it here than it did in the West End because in a way what it did was… I showed people that all I was interested in was performing. Like, in the West End I danced the Tango myself with a girl named Suzanne Kerchiss. I met Suzanne when I was in Canterbury Rep. This is why England produces such good actors. I did Treasure Island in the morning with the young Bill Zappa that I had just come out of drama school in the afternoon I did Aladdin, dressed in green, looking like Shirley Bassey in a wind tunnel and in the evening I played Harry Richie and Brigadoon.
Andrew: Wow, what a full day
Noel Tovey: That was a full day, that was during the holiday season. Funny enough, Bill Zappa was just out of college, drama school, it was snowing, we're having tea and he said to me ‘oh god’, he was really in despair about his career, I said to him ‘Why didn't you go to Australia? With your voice and your whatever, you know, you'd be an instant you'd get work instantly’ and eventually he came to Australia and he’s never looked back.
Yeah and Ron Falk was in Aladdin, he was an Australian actor, and I played the Genie and a very famous English actor played the Dame. Well he used to grab me from behind when, you know, when the audience…and of course the Genie can't do anything I stand like this. And he used to say ‘A long green thing like you came out of a little lamp like this.’ I waited until the last performance, I said ‘Madam, it may not be much, but I call it home’ and leapt off stage. [19:50]
Andrew: Look over such a period of time there's been so many changes in, kind of, Theatre and what performance is and dance. You know, you would have seen so many differences
Noel Tovey: I've worked with so many choreographers, but most of the choreographers, well all of the choreographers that I worked with, or studied with, like I studied with, when Katherine Dunham was there. I joined her company as one of the Dunham Dancers and she used to give these strange ballet classes, but every choreographer and teacher that I worked with and I studied jazz with one of the great American dancers, Matt Mattox, and in London, but they all started their career in ballet. See me, I'm a firm believer that only when you have the classical background can you break the mould as it were. But now I’m seeing lots of changes, some good, not all good. I hate seeing people rolling around the floor for no reason at all. So called ‘modern dance’ yeah
Andrew: Are there styles of dance that are around in this period of time that are new that you find really exciting?
Noel Tovey: Yeah I do I find I find American dancers, watching So You Think You Can Dance, I find the American contemporary dancing wonderful. It hasn’t sort of come through in the same way to Australia yet, but it will. There are some really great creative dancers doing modern dance. Legs on the Wall is great. We were talking about Legs on the Wall and you know I can remember seeing when Gideon [Obarzanek] at a festival in Sydney and they were up on a building during the thing that was wonderful. I think we Lucy Guerin’s work is great. Yeah,
Andrew: Historically, there’s been, guess a bit of a cultural cringe in terms of what's here in Australia. And the work that people are creating, and I look elsewhere to Europe to the US. Do you feel that that’s shifted over your lifetime?
Noel Tovey: It has. it's not a shift in work, but has shifted in mentality and that is the main thing. There are people who do great work. I think Graham Murphy’s early work was wonderful. Yes. The cultural cringe no longer really exists. It does in some aspects, but not in dance. So I think dancers are now trying to move away from it. [23:10]
Andrew: You explained yourself as a radical dancer. What does that mean?
Noel Tovey: Well, radical in the sense that I wanted always to find a different way of expressing myself. One of the things I was known for in London was that I could work with actors like Richard Eyre, Sir Richard Eyre now, called me into… when I went up to Edinburgh, to the Lyceum to do something, oh, West Side Story, I think, or something.
And Richard asked me to work with the actors because I would get them just to walk across stage and I could see the way they moved. And from that movement, I would then extend their natural. You know, it's no good trying to teach an actor to ballet.
You know, to dance and that. And that's where Australians made a lot of big mistakes. Because they got their actors to, and they looked very clumsy doing it, to dance. Instead of taking what they could do naturally and moving - and of course, when I went to Africa, South Africa, I saw a lot of lot of Africans the way they moved, walked, and I purposely found clubs that were banned where I could get in. Just to see the way they danced and moved [24:51]
Andrew: In the last year, I've been interviewing people living with HIV for a research project and I’ve read quite a few articles about the impact the AIDS epidemic had on dance and the arts. You know as well as a whole range of other areas it didn't occur there.
Noel Tovey: Oh, well as you know my lover of seventeen years died from, well he died from an HIV infection but it was before HIV had a name. It was only when Rock Hudson came out in Paris and told the world that he was dying and that he was gay, that it had a name. Because up until then people thought it was monkeys, you know…
Andrew: The Gay Plague
Noel Tovey: Yeah the Gay Plague and well, I saw when I was in America for an auction in New York, I went down to a club with a friend of mine after we had dinner, to Christopher Street, and I saw a poster and it said, circles performers for gay cancer. I said ‘What’s Gay Cancer?’. He said, ‘Oh, it's attacking young boys. But thankfully we’re now too old to get it’
That was one of the, one of the beliefs. And when Dave was dying, his own mother would not have a cup of tea in our house and I nursed him till he died and we put him back in hospital and it was New Years Eve and some friends had sent champagne from Paris.
And he didn't know where we were, except, he was on an oxygen mask. And I took it off him. And I said, I'm going to end it now. And in a moment of clarity. He said to me ‘Aren't you glad we stopped having sex?’ I said, ‘No.’ And his eyes filled with tears and they were the last words he ever spoke.
And I walked down the hall, I said to his doctor, you have to help Dave out now. He was put on - then they put him on a morphine machine. And on the third day he started fitting. I was in his room and he started fitting, which is like sitting upright in bed, and waving and doing - so I walked down the hall with his pillow, and I said to his doctor, ‘You have to kill Dave now, if you don't, I will.’
And the doctor said to me, ‘You know what you're asking me to do? It's illegal.’
I can tell you now, because it was 30 years ago. But so it’s off the statute, but I said, I said to him, ‘Look, if you can't do it, I can. I'm not going to see him suffer’ and so the doctor had a confab with the other doctors there and we walked back to Dave’s Room, he said, wait outside and um, almost immediately called me in. He said is ‘You can hold him’ and he'd been injected in the heart and died.
It was really bad. But for me personally, it was bad. But also it was, I lost about 80 friends in that first wave. 80 friends, business acquaintances, dancers, actors… [28:59]
Andrew: How did that shape, you know, the work that people making?
Noel Tovey: Well it shaped playwriting more than anything else, I think. There was a play, in fact I had money in a play, The Normal Heart, which um Martin Sheen did. People started…well it was difficult because there was a young New Zealand psychologist named David Green, he asked me to help them set up the first AIDS training clinic which was to dispel really the rumours floating around about the virus. The ways you catch it. and you know, we, Dave and I, and we had another boy here who was HIV positive but you know, what really made me in many ways, was – and Dave was dying, but he eventually died as you know, but I was also counselling other boys, young boys who had the virus who knew they're going to die and there was no cure there was nothing then – not like the retro-viral drugs around now.
And so I was having to tell parents that their son was going to die.
Andrew: Nothing can prepare you for that.
Noel Tovey: Well, no it can’t, but it’s sort of helped me express myself in many ways. Then I helped set up The Lighthouse in London, I had Princess Diana and she had a huge impact on the general public because she was seen holding my hand someone with AIDS yeah
Andrew: Such a profound gesture
Noel Tovey: Yeah.
Andrew: In your book and in your life, there's been a lot of pain and all sorts of things thrown at you and you just keep going in a way with so much grace and so much humility. You know what, what drives, like what’s that inner strength that you have?
Noel Tovey: I’ve often been asked about this before. If you're proud of your who you are. And I've always been proud of who I am, faults and all. If you can say I'm proud of being who I am, I'm proud to be black and proud to be gay, then it's another person's problem. You know dancing… when I danced in my world there was no racism, no one screaming abuse at me, no one bullying me, no one making me have sex with them, it was just me.
Andrew: Yeah, so the stage felt safe I guess?
Noel Tovey: Oh when I danced in my world that was very safe, yeah. You know, so I did in many ways of course I was my own worst enemy because I was naturally a very good dancer so I didn't work as hard as I should have.
Andrew: Do you ever miss those times on stage?
Noel Tovey: I do and I'm sitting in my wheelchair now and what I do is I put on a piece of music and I dance
Andrew: Beautiful. You’ve spoken previously about the power of performing arts to kind of engage young people generally, but First Nations people.
Noel Tovey: Oh, First Nations people, you know, Leah Purcell who I know very well, and I worked with, just received the Premier’s Literary Award. Well, that's what young indigenous people have to aim for. The page hate to go, it's no good.
Well, you know, when people my age, I'm 85 go, with the next generation goes hopefully there'll be more young people embracing the arts generally without the hate and hate is passed on from the older generation.
For instance, when I set up the performing arts course or the Aboriginal College in Sydney when I first came home to live, and I also took Aboriginal studies which was a loose sort of name for the class. And I had an older person and a younger person sitting either side of me in the mixed class and the older person said to me ‘Jesus, Noel you know I’ll never forgive the white man for what he did my parents. I said ‘But you wouldn't want Jim here growing up with that hate would you?’ and that made him think and made him think, made them both think he was passing on the hate to the younger person. [35:20]
Andrew: What is it about the Arts that can help shift –
Noel Tovey: The arts you can express yourself. I mean, that is one of the great things about the arts. I mean, if you're, you don't really have to be great, although I’ve worked and seen some of the great people, just the desire to do it, it can alleviate pain, in my case, alleviated the pain, the problems of every day, the family of drunks and drug addicts that I grew up with, you know, I was first sexually abused at the age of four by a drunk uncle who dislocated my anal canal and within that dislocation, the cancer grew, which is why I lost the leg.
So, the Arts, any form of the Arts, can help you cope with that.
Andrew: Something about the Arts, particularly, maybe dance, where there's a whole range of costs associated. And if you're studying dance young, you know, the expectation is that you do maybe three or four classes a week and that costs money. And in your book you explained stealing money. So -
Noel Tovey: Well, when I was an ice skater Yes. Stole purses and I think… it is expensive to begin now and I think that's where the funding should be. Yeah,
Andrew: How can we make it more accessible? Just through funding or through…?
Noel Tovey: Well, you know it’s a whole - if say one person goes to a ballet school right - at the moment I have a scholarship fund in my name. And I'm also supporting four students in Africa and it can be expensive. For instance the scholarship fund I wrote to every person that… I started with my own money then wrote to every one I've ever worked with and most of them all contributed so now it's in perpetuity with the Fruit Fly Circus.
See, teachers need to be paid. When I was a student I didn't, I didn't think about that as much as I do now because there's a whole chain of people have to be paid that have to make a living. So, I think essentially its funding, and I think there should also be like, like, there is in Russia today, even. Um, Children go through a whole process before they're accepted. And I think that has to be done here as well [38:42]
Andrew: To kind of help open it up, or?
Noel Tovey: To help open it up to say, ‘Look darling, you’ll never be an actor, you'll never be a dancer. Try something else.’ You know, it's fairly brutal, but one has to do it.
Andrew: If somebody had said that to you, do you think you would have kept going?
Noel Tovey: I would have kept on because that was the only thing that I knew that I wanted to do? So some way or other I would have made the grade
Andrew: Yeah, through passion and determination
Noel Tovey: yeah, I think it can be a spur, but I think when it gets back to funding thing. Something has to be - I think for three or four kids being helped this year on my scholarship fund, so they’re getting part of their fees paid.
Andrew: What an amazing legacy.
Noel Tovey: Well, in Aboriginal culture, I can't die before I give back. I was very fortunate, when I came out of jail some very kind people in Melbourne helped me turn my life around and they sent me to the Melbourne Conservatorium to study singing and music, which really was a help.
Andrew: Your book Little Black Bastard, was so revealing and so like incredibly well written, What is it like to have something that's personal out there for people to read?
Noel Tovey: I have to tell you, I the first draft when I read it, I threw it out because it only talked about my ‘glittering career’. And I said to myself, if this book is going to have any meaning at all, with the younger people, you have to tell the truth about your life in Melbourne. And so, as painful as it was I started it again, that autobiography, that’s going to be published and released here, by Magabala Books, It's called, And Then I Found Me. The more I talk to people… people ask me about Little Black Bastard, right? They said, but why did you gloss over so much in London?
So I knew that the more I thought, I knew that I have to get back there one day and do the research and write a book about it. So, this, the second book, also is not the glittering… although that talks about my career. It talks about my daughter who died from a heroin overdose. Dave, who died, there’s a whole chapter about our relationship and what happened in the AIDS. [42:07]
Andrew: So looking back, like having written down, looking back, does it make sense of your life?
Noel Tovey: Yes, in a way it does. Because it's like the truth, like I thought being beaten up by the police during the Stone Wall Riots, which I was, I thought, well, that's normal. And it but you know, only now when I talk about it…. that was in 1969, so it was a long time ago, and it's really helped shape the world and certainly shape gay rights. Because out of that….I went to New York to see the latest shows some, Jazz classes and it was the night of Judy Garland's funeral and I went with some friends, I went to class and then went uptown for dinner, with some friends and they said to me “look, there's a wake for Judy and we have all worked with her.. there is a wake for Judy at the Stonewall in Christopher Street. Do you want to go? and I said “I'd love to” and by the time we got to Sheridan Square all hell had broken loose.
So we joined in the crowd shouting “Gay Power! Gay Power! Gay Power!” and the police formed a V formation and they took out their club’s and there were beating all the gay and they were beaten over the head. Now when I talk about it’s part of history….
Andrew: Such an important part.
Noel Tovey: Yes because out of that, the next morning….by the weekend there were about 4000 people on the street and the number grew and I don’t know how many were there by last morning but you know, what happened was because of that riot the legalization of gay bars and clubs came into being in America, the gay rights movement was set up and from that there's been a gradual build up.
Andrew: I mean the changes that you would have seen, in seen in the amount of rights available?
Noel Tovey: Well, yes.
Andrew: So you finished your second book what's next? What's on the horizon?
Noel Tovey: Well, I'm hanging on because my doctors… I have two specialists, and I am due for two more operations but I've had 15 already and they can't guarantee that I’ll wake up from the aesthetic. This one this leg I have a blockage in the artery and they want to try and bypass and if it doesn’t work I will lose a leg. So, I'm holding on really until the book comes out then I’ll decided if I'm going to have the operations or not. I've been asked to give a series of master classes, which I will do. I love working with young people, young, young, serious people, whether it's in dance, not that I can dance anymore myself, but I certainly can certainly help their attitude towards it.
Andrew: Well you certainly have a legacy. Thank you so much. It has been an absolute pleasure.
Noel Tovey: You're very welcome.