Dame Margaret Scott AC DBE, founding director of The Australian Ballet School and one of the country’s pre-eminent dance educators, has died aged 96.

Dame Margaret Scott. Photo © Roy McAuley

Born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1922, Scott’s love of dance was sparked from an early age. She attended ballet classes at the Conmee School of Dancing, where she was taught according to the syllabus of the Royal Academy of Dancing. After graduating, she was accepted into Sadler’s Wells Ballet School at 17 and became a principal dancer with the main company in 1941. She would stay only a year before departing to work with the more adventurous Ballet Rambert, where she was a principal from 1943 to 1948.

In 1947, the company undertook an Australian tour that was so successful it was extended several times, totalling a period of 18 months. When the tour came to an end, Scott remained in Australia. In 1949, she became a founding member of Melbourne’s National Theatre Ballet, dancing, restaging and choreographing her own works.

Scott returned to London in 1952, re-joining Rambert as ballet mistress and assistant to Madam Rambert. She returned to Australia the following year after marrying Australian scientist Derek Denton, where she gave private lessons and choreographed for Ballet Guild and Ballet Victoria.

Most notably, Scott was one of a group of people whose negotiations with the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust led to the founding of The Australian Ballet in 1962. She was appointed founding Director of The Australian Ballet School two years later, a position she would hold until 1990. She considered the School her crowning achievement in a life devoted to dance and was known for her passion for developing both a dancer’s intellect as well as technique. As Director, she nurtured some of Australia’s best dancers and choreographers, including Graeme Murphy, Meryl Tankard, Marilyn Rowe and David McAllister.

Although Scott officially retired in 1990, she continued to foster emerging dancers and choreographers, chairing the AICD (Australian Institute of Classical Dance) Victorian Committee for many years.

In 1992, Murphy created the role of Clara the Elder for Scott in his Nutcracker – The Story of Clara, a TAB commission. She performed the role in 1992, 1994 and finally in 2000, when she was 77.

Among her many honours, Scott was appointed Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1981 for services to ballet, made a Companion of the Order of Australia in 2005, and received an award for lifetime achievement at the Australian Dance Awards in 1998. In 2013, The Australian Ballet established the Dame Margaret Scott Fund for Choreography in her honour, acknowledging her significant contribution to ballet in Australia.

“Our thoughts are with Dame Margaret’s family, including her husband Professor Derek Denton and their two sons Matthew and Angus, during this sad time,” said Lisa Pavane, Director of The Australian Ballet School.

“She set the foundations of The Australian Ballet School, which paved the way for the School to become one of the world’s top ballet training schools. From the establishment of the curriculum, the health and wellbeing program, the administration and many other areas. She was my teacher, friend and mentor. I am deeply honoured to carry on her incredible legacy”.

“Dame Margaret Scott was a woman of vision and passion,” said David McAllister, Artistic Director of The Australian Ballet. “She was one of the leading forces behind the foundation of The Australian Ballet and the founding Director of The Australian Ballet School. The legacy of her amazing commitment to ballet in Australia will endure far into the future. She lifted talented dancers from around Australia and set them on a course to amazing careers both at home and across the globe. She worked with the master choreographers of her generation, such as John Cranko and Anthony Tudor, and she was passionate about nurturing new choreography. Her memory will very much live on through The Dame Margaret Scott fund for choreographers, which will continue to power creativity at The Australian Ballet.”

“Dame Margaret Scott (Maggie) enhanced our lives in so many ways,” said Graeme Murphy. “She was our teacher, our mentor and the greatest champion of choreographers I know. Her legacy reaches into eternity, everyone she worked with has spread her wisdom, love and incredible insight; into the profession that we love so much, the world of dance. She has changed the landscape of the arts forever in our country and we’re eternally grateful”.

The Australian Ballet and The Australian Ballet School have announced that a memorial for Scott will be held in the coming weeks, with details to be announced.