Terri Charlesworth looks back on a full life filled with ballet

Terri Charlesworth with a young student
Terri Charlesworth with a young student

Perth ballet teacher Terri Charlesworth was doing what she loved best, teaching dance with the added bonus of living in Monaco, driving to the ballet school each day from her home in the hills above the principality.

“They were great times,” Terri said.

“I spent three years in Monaco at the Princess Grace Academy as a tutor and choreographer. 

“I even choreographed a work based on the circus for Prince Rainier, whose family has a deep love of the art.”

Terri, now 85 and still teaching, is looking back on a life dominated by dance. Charlesworth Ballet celebrated 60 years in dance in 2020 but, because of Covid, the event to commemorate the milestone did not happen until recently, when an anniversary gala featuring classic and contemporary works by dancers from Youth Ballet WA delighted a big crowd at Crown.

Terri was joined on stage by dance contemporaries Colleen Reynolds, Diana de Vos and Margaret Atkinson.

Perth born, Terri grew up in Melbourne and recalls she was about six when she saw children dancing in the street. 

“I said, ‘I would love to do that’ and my first teacher, Miss Lawrence, suggested I go to an established ballet school which I did. 

“I finally ended up living in East Malvern with my grandmother and attended class for talented students at Malvern Town Hall. Laurel Martyn, the director of the Ballet Guild of Victoria, contracted polio and engaged Kira Bousloff to teach. Kira was a member of the Ballets Russes whose members became stranded in Australia in 1939 when war broke out.

“Kira was ballet artistic director of the National Theatre in Melbourne which covered opera, drama and ballet and I was invited to join the youth ballet. She then went overseas and eventually settled in Perth.”

Terri had left school, wanted to continue ballet and was invited by Bousloff in 1952 to join the fledgling WA Ballet. 

“I ran home and told my mother I was returning to Perth which I did on board a 12-seat Fokker aircraft.

“It was a wonderful time establishing the WA Ballet and I was part of its first season in 1953. In 1957 I was invited to go to Moscow for its international arts festival. Both Kira Bousloff and her music director husband James Penberthy were interested in Aboriginal dance and so I danced the Brolga theme and story by Harry Butler.

Terri Charlesworth in Petrushka
Terri Charlesworth in Petrushka

“I was awarded the prestigious Ulanova award. I also performed in China and ended up in London before going to Italy where I performed in the north of the country. I eventually returned to WA, rejoined the WA Ballet and became its principal ballerina touring around WA and helping further develop the company.

In 1960 Terri established her own ballet school while continuing to dance with the WA Ballet until 1966. “I started in a church hall in Nollamara finally establishing a program funded by the Commonwealth Tertiary Allowance Scheme in 1973. But when the WA Academy of Performing Arts evolved that funding was cut.”

Terri then headed overseas to travel and study on a cultural exchange program, visiting the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. Back home in 1979 she established a junior professional dance course with luminaries including Tonya Batalin (now McCusker), Miranda Coney and Sian Stokes, later to join the Australian Ballet as soloists and principals. She founded WA’s first professional contemporary dance company Kinetikos Dance Theatre.

In 1981 Terri was invited by Dame Maggie Scott to join the Australian Ballet School in Melbourne as a senior classical teacher where she remained for five years. She then went to Japan, Hong Kong and Monaco, also teaching in Greece and Italy.

“I came back to WA from overseas because I wanted to start a full-time dance program for talented students. The program commenced at Swanbourne Senior High School and we organised a full-time course with half a day devoted to dance and the remainder for academic study.

“When the school closed, the course moved to purpose-built ballet studios at Subiaco’s Perth Modern School. In 2002 my daughter Sonya Shepherd privately established another full-time program with a non-profit organisation Youth Ballet WA.”

Terri Charlesworth in Swan Lake
Terri Charlesworth in Swan Lake

For years, Terri took groups of talented young dancers overseas to audition for leading dance companies in Europe. She was included in the Order of Australia honours for her services to dance in 1994 and in 2006 was made WA Citizen of the Year for arts, culture and entertainment. She was also awarded the Australian Dance Lifetime award in 2016 and the Australian Independent Dance Teachers award in 2015.

These days Terri coaches young dancers at Youth Ballet at Burswood three or four days a week and is currently working with Diana de Vos to establish a Classical Ballet Teachers Association in WA.

She has four children, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Granddaughter Briana Shepherd, formerly a dancer with the New York City Ballet, is now a journalist and presenter with the ABC.

“It has been a wonderful life,” says Terri who names Giselle as her favourite ballet.