THE 1920s

THE 1930s




Sutcliffe103ADuring Leweck's visit to Toronto, she and Sutcliffe travelled to the Sutcliffe family's cottage on the French River near Sudbury, Ontario. Her time at French River has always been important to her and she has travelled there from childhood right through to her nineties. French River has become a family retreat. Sutcliffe and her husband, Corry Brigden, bought a cottage near the Sutcliffe family cottage and current generations continue to visit.

For Edgar Stone's production of Peter Pan, Sutcliffe arranged the dances and also performed as Tiger Lily and the Never Bird. Captain Hook was played by Percy Schutte and his nemesis, Peter, was played by Elaine Wodson. Wodson was becoming well known in the little theatre movement in Toronto having performed with the Dickens Fellowship, the Arts and Letters Players, Central Technical School and Hart House Theatre. In August of 1933 she set off for England to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) where she won the Lady Tree prize for dramatic recitation. At RADA, she studied dancing, Eurhythmics and fencing in addition to acting, directing, writing, producing and costume design.

On January 12, 1933, Sutcliffe was involved in an evening program with the Dickens Fellowship. The house program began, "You are invited to spend the evening at The Maypole Inn on March 19th, 1753", making reference to the location in Charles Dickens' novel Barnaby Rudge. The evening consisted of a lecture by Magistrate J. Edmund Jones and a dramatization adapted by Raymond Card from Dickens' Barnaby Rudge. Card and his brother Bronlow and sister-in-law Patricia were prominent figures in the local little theatre movement through their group the Chester Players, the Dickens Fellowship and their Canadian Drama League; Patricia Card also ran a theatrical costume business. Sutcliffe arranged the dances for the evening's entertainment and she and Winnifred Fax performed the roles of Gypsy Dancers. What exactly was said by the guest speaker, Magistrate James Edmund Jones (1866-1939), is unclear; he had contributed to the Anglican Church's Book of Common Praise in 1908 and then its revision in 1938 so perhaps his work in hymns was the topic. The program merely says, "We have with us as Speaker to-night Magistrate J. Edmund Jones, who needs no introduction to our members" - perhaps the magistrate was also a Dickens fan. The Dickens Fellowship was founded in 1905 as a study group focussed on the works and life of Charles Dickens - dramatizations were one way to promote and popularize the author's novels and they were often staged in the auditorium of Jarvis Collegiate. The funds raised through the group's performances were donated to local children's charities.

The production Bits from Hits consisted of excerpts from various theatrical hits from the stages of London and New York and Sutcliffe performed alongside Jane Mallett, Dora Mavor Moore, Lorna Sheard, Elaine Wodson and Mavor Moore, among others. Melville Keay staged the evening in such a way that the audience felt like they were observing a party and, over the course of the evening, the party-goers presented "bits from hits" to entertain each other.

The Children Players production of February 1933 was the first in which Sutcliffe worked with the group under the direction of Dorothy Goulding. Goulding was born a Massey - the famous Canadian family known for its farm implement business and for its philanthropy in the arts and social causes. Her father, Walter Massey, disapproved of his children performing plays, unless they were biblical charades, but he did let the children attend theatre performances - they were always chaperoned for these events because Massey and his wife never attended shows. By the late 1920s, Goulding was staging plays at home with her four daughters. She was reluctant to let her daughter Susan perform in the first production of the Experimental Group but, despite any initial apprehension, she very quickly began volunteering and was asked for her opinion on productions by Sheard. This involvement led to some directing work and then, in October 1932, when Sheard announced that she and her family were moving to Montreal, Sheard asked Goulding if she would take over the complete direction of the Children Players.

For Goulding's first production, the group performed Fanchette from France by Frances Helen Harris and an Arabian Nights comedy titled Twice is Too Much. Sutcliffe staged the dances for the latter play and there were some adult performers mixed into the cast including Fred Manning who played "Abu Hassan", as well as dancers Bettina Byers and Violet Andras. Byers was a student of Sutcliffe's who became a dance teacher and was the first organizer for the Royal Academy of Dancing in Canada. Byers ran a successful school in Toronto and was a prominent figure in the Canadian Ballet Festivals of the 1950s.

Sutcliffe's recital of her Toronto Conservatory students on June 3rd and 5th was well received by local critics such as Augustus Bridle; "originality" was the common praise expressed by critics. Two large-scale works included on the bill, featuring casts of twenty or more, were The Royal Navy Salute and All in a Day at the Metropolitan Opera House, which was inspired by her years at The Met.

Sutcliffe101AFollowing the recital, Sutcliffe packed her bags and headed overseas to spend nearly three months training in ballet and Spanish dance in London. Sutcliffe chose to focus her training on the syllabus of the Association of Operatic Dancing of Great Britain, known as the Royal Academy of Dancing (RAD) after 1936. She studied primarily with well-known British dancer and teacher Phyllis Bedells, but also with Nicolas Legat and a few others, in addition to Spanish dance classes with Elsa Brunelleschi. Her letters to her mother indicate the inspiration and frustration of such intensive study and by the end of the summer she had passed the Association's elementary, intermediate and advanced exams - an unusual feat in such a short span of time. She says in her letters that she really struggled with the language - in the course of her prior studies, the French ballet terminology was apparently not always used or made clear to her, but she got around this problem by learning and repeating what was demonstrated in classes and rehearsals without necessarily knowing the names of each movement. Nevertheless, her tenacity and adventurous spirit carried her through a remarkable summer. She returned to Toronto in late September and resumed her teaching duties at the Conservatory in October.

While Sutcliffe had attained her Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced certificates from The Association of Operatic Dancing of Great Britain, she was not a strict practitioner of the academy's technique and in fact let her membership lapse in the late 1930s. However, she was approached by RAD organizer Audrey Butterworth in April 1939 asking for assistance in promoting and arranging lectures and demonstrations of the Academy's work for Butterworth's visit to Canada in the fall of 1939. Butterworth planned to visit Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver and hold lecture demonstrations; she had also arranged to examine students in Winnipeg and Vancouver. It is unclear whether Butterworth came or not. She was set to visit Boston first so she would certainly have been en route before Britain declared war against Germany on September 3. It is notable that in Sutcliffe's school advertisements for the 1939/40 season, she lists herself as an "Advanced member of the Royal Academy of Dancing of Great Britain".

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2008, Dance Collection Danse
Alison Sutcliffe Exhibition Curator: Amy Bowring
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French River


Bits From Hits


Frances Helen Harris' Fanchette from France










1930 - 1931


1932 - 1933


1933 - 1935


1935 - 1936


1936 - 1937


1937 - 1939