Memories of My Mother by Ian Campbell

Audio Recording

My name is Ian Campbell. My mother, Mavis Sykes, taught ballet in Mosman for a remarkable 70 years, between 1923 and 1993. This is her story.

Birth and Immigration

Vera Mavis Sykes was born in Auckland on 2 December 1909. She was known as, and only ever used, her second name, Mavis. She was the second of four children, and eldest daughter, of Joseph Sylvester Sykes and Ida Jane Sykes. The Sykes family lived in Hamilton before migrating to Australia in 1920, when my mother was 11. I don’t know where they lived initially, though I believe that my mother attended Naremburn Primary School at some stage. By the time my mother was 14 the Sykes family, expanded by the addition of younger sisters Helen (known as Nellie) and Olga, were living in the ground floor apartment at 13 Wyong Road, Mosman. The first to move out was Godfrey, followed by Nellie. My mother moved out in 1944 when she married.

Mavis’ Passion for Ballet

Mavis developed a life-long passion for ballet from an early age. She began dancing and teaching ballet in Mosman at age 14, while she was still a schoolgirl attending North Sydney Girls High School. She averred that she had had no formal ballet tuition and had simply watched and copied others.

Initially, she taught pupils in the front room of the family home in Wyong Road, but she practised in the back garden as well. Among her early pupils were her younger sisters. My mother applied some of the money, from giving lessons, to pay for Nellie and Olga’s apprenticeships, Nellie as a seamstress and Olga as a hairdresser. At some stage, and while she continued to dance and teach, Mavis obtained her formal ballet teaching accreditation including solo seal from the royal academy of dance in London.

The Mavis Sykes Ballet Studio

Around 1930 my mother abandoned the front room of the family home and rented at the top of Bardwell Road, Mosman, opposite the Marist Brothers school. The Mavis Sykes Ballet Studio occupied that site for the next 36 years. The old building was demolished in 1966, together with the adjacent shops and houses fronting Military Road, to make way for the apartment block presently on that site.

The building at the corner of Nathan Lane and Vista Street, which was previously a Plymouth Brethren meeting hall, became the new home of the Ballet Studio in 1966. Weekly classes were also conducted in the Cammeray Community Hall for a number of years.

In the early 1980s the Vista Street building was to be demolished, so my mother moved the ballet lessons to the Mosman Community Centre at the corner of Short Street and Myahgah Road, which is now the home of the Mosman Art Gallery.

Ballerina and Ballet Mistress

From the time she was a teenager, my mother danced in many ballets, and continued to do so into her mid-thirties. She also took up more contemporary dance styles and this continued through the years of World War 2, about which I will say more shortly.

My mother danced in city theatres, as well as in suburban productions mounted by the Mosman Musical Society. By the time she was 19 she had been appointed the Honorary Ballet Mistress of her beloved Society. The earliest record of her as the ballet mistress of the Society is in the program for the “The Vagabond King” in August 1931 which was produced at the Mosman Town Hall.

Interestingly, my mother’s two sisters, Nellie and Olga, were members of the corps de ballet in the early 1930s. So was Nellie’s future husband, Sid Smithers. But the star pupil at this time was a young Charles Boyd. Charlie was already an accomplished and well-known dancer when he enrolled at the Mavis Sykes Ballet Studio. My mother and Charlie became dance partners, and danced together on a number of occasions.

Charlie left Australia in 1936 to dance professionally in Europe with the Ballet Rambert. He returned to Australia in 1939 to join the army. After the war he danced again in the Ballet Rambert and in the Edouard Borovansky Ballet in Australia. Charlie, Charlie’s sister Laura and my mother remained close, lifelong friends. Charlie was one of the mourners at my mother’s funeral in 1997, 64 years after they first met.

The War Years: 1939-1945

During World War 2 the Mosman Musical Society went into hibernation.
To fill the void and do something for the war effort, a number of dancers, including my mother, and other members of the Mosman Musical Society, volunteered to visit air force bases in Western NSW to entertain the troops with musical comedy and dance.

Travel was fairly rough and ready.
The travel was exhausting, requiring long hours spent on the road or in train carriages. Sleep was at a premium, and they obviously cat-napped whenever and wherever they could. The performers often slept at the bases they visited. The troops were very welcoming and appreciative of the diversion.

Marriage and Family

During the War not only did my mother continue to teach ballet in the Bardwell Road studio but she also taught ballroom dancing too. One aspiring ballroom dancer was a very tall and gangly young bank clerk from Mosman, named Donald Campbell.

They were mutually attracted and began seeing each other outside the dance lessons. They married on 24 March 1944. Don had been an A Grade tennis player in the 1930s, but his grace and skill on the tennis court was not matched on the dance floor. My mother later claimed that she married him to stop him from coming along to dancing classes. I was never quite sure if she was joking.

The newly-weds began their married life together in a gracious old federation house named “Farrfarm”at the corner of Harbour and Short Streets in Mosman. They lived with Don’s mother, Hilda, and his three sisters, Jean, Mary and Margaret. Mary moved out in October 1944, however the house still remained crowded.

On Sundays the newly-married couple escaped in my father’s car, driving to favourite playgrounds, such as Balmoral Beach.

Two weeks after I was born in June 1945 my mother was back at work, teaching ballet in the afternoons, while her mornings included much of the household shopping and housekeeping. Years later she would confide to me that she had been very unhappy living with Don’s family.

My parents raised me in the house in Harbour Street

Sunshine and fresh air were plentiful in the back yard. But, as can be seen from the bottom photograph in this collection, my arrival on the scene only heightened the need for the Sunday escape.

Sunday drives also introduced the new baby to Balmoral Beach, to my aunt Nellie’s family in Riverstone, to Charlie and Laura Boyd’s home in Turramurra and to many other friends all over Sydney. We also travelled to the Blue Mountains, where we stayed in what I believe was the Commonwealth Bank staff holiday apartments in Katoomba.

The (Temporary) Move from Mosman

In 1947 my parents purchased a bush block in Eton Road, Lindfield, for which they paid 180 pounds. They built a small cottage on this block and in 1950 my mother, my father and I moved to Lindfield.

There were significant disadvantages to living so far from Mosman. My mother continued to teach ballet in the Bardwell Road studio and to do the choreography for the Mosman Musical Society productions. This meant an early morning journey every day by bus to Roseville Station, by train to St Leonards Station and then by tram, and later by bus, to Mosman. The return journey was often well after dark. At this time, I was attending Mosman Primary School and made the daily journey with my mother. Despite this daunting journey every day, and despite my father’s earnest endeavours to teach my mother to drive, my mother never did learn to drive.

On Saturdays, we would all drive back to Mosman and while my mother conducted ballet classes all day, my father and I visited old friends, swam at Balmoral or dropped in on my grandmother and did maintenance jobs at Harbour Street. Well I remember at the end of Saturday mopping the timber floors of the ballet studio with my mother and father after the last class. We then drove home to Lindfield. Habitually, we stopped off at Chatswood to buy fish and chips for dinner, eaten as we gathered around the radio to listen to “World Famous Tenors” and “Quiz Kids” presented by John Dease.

The Expanding Family and the Return to Mosman

In 1954 a second son, my brother Douglas, was born. However, he did not make the journey to Mosman until mid-afternoon because a kindly new Lindfield neighbour, a High School teacher in Mosman, offered to drive me to Mosman Primary on school mornings. My mother readily accepted the offer. She cherished the chance to spend the mornings at home with her new baby.

This arrangement continued until 1956 when my grandmother died. She bequeathed the Harbour Street house to my father and his three sisters. By that time two of my aunts had married and no longer lived in Mosman. My parents purchased my aunts’ shares of the house, and our family moved back to Mosman. It was a great relief to us all that the six years of daily traveling from Lindfield was finally over.

In the post-War years my mother maintained an arduous schedule of classical and jazz ballet tuition. Her first classes of the day began for younger pupils as soon as school finished for the day and continued into the evenings for the older girls and working women, while on Saturdays she taught all day. My father usually cooked the evening meals because my mother arrived home quite late. However, on Sundays she often cooked up her wonderful specialty, Spaghetti Bolognese with citrus zest. My one true regret is that I never bothered to ask her to give me her recipe.

All of us relished the return to Mosman. I finished my final two years at Mosman Primary School, a brief 5 minute walk from home along Belmont Road, and began high school at North Sydney Boys in 1958. We all joined in the Mosman community life. I joined the scouts and the Mosman Junior Rugby Club and swam with friends at Chinaman’s Beach in summer. Douglas attended Mosman Primary school and played Saturday morning baseball at Allan Border Oval, named years later after one of his primary school classmates.

The Ballet Family

From these years, my mother had many long-standing pupils who she counted as good friends. I remember such names as Betty Souter, Lorna Lester, Betty Tribolet, Carolyn Hedge, Marjorie Crouch, Betty Gibson, Hilary Crampton, Shane Carroll, Jane Plomley, Alison Arnott, Eliska Sarka and Eleanor Virgona to name but a few.

Many of her past pupils brought their daughters and sons along to ballet. Quite often several generations of dancers from the same family graced the Mavis Sykes Ballet Studio. Marjorie Crouch was one example. Marjorie was one of those who entertained the troops during World War 2. Her eldest daughter, Lynette, learned ballet. Our families remained friends. Lynette made her debut in 1964 and I was Lynette’s beau.

A number of long-term former pupils had notable careers in the arts and other fields. For example, Hilary Crampton trained with my mother in her teens, before continuing full-time study at the Scully-Borovansky School in Clarence Street, Sydney. Hilary went on to become one of Australia’s most highly regarded dance academics and a passionate arts advocate, as well as a dance critic for The Age newspaper. Shane Carroll danced professionally in Europe with the Nederlands Dans Theatre, in Australia with the Sydney Dance Company and is now active in arts project management and consultancy. Alison Arnott went on to study at the Royal Ballet School in London and then danced professionally in the Ballet Staatstheater Nürnberg in Germany. Jane Plomley and her two younger sisters, Sally and Jo-Anna, studied ballet with my mother. Jane danced professionally in France. On her return to Australia she qualified as a lawyer and is now a leading intellectual property lawyer and a partner in a prominent law firm in Washington DC.

While these and other former pupils were outstanding ballerinas and forged illustrious careers in the arts and other professional fields, my mother firmly believed that the excitement of, and confidence to be had from, public performance, should not be confined to the particularly talented or gifted and should not be denied to any of her pupils. For many years and right up to her retirement in 1993 she produced an annual show at Mosman Town Hall for all her pupils. These shows featured ballet vignettes from the very youngest beginners to the veterans of the Mavis Sykes Ballet Studio.

My mother was held in great affection by the many thousands of boys and girls she had taught. One measure of this affection was the many wedding invitations she received from her current or past ballet students.
Another measure was the number of Royal Doulton or Wedgewood tea sets and other Christmas gifts that she had been given.

My mother was appointed a life member of the Royal Academy of Dance in recognition of her services to ballet and in 1958 the Academy appointed her an Australian national Childrens Examiner.

National Ballet Examiner

Her examining duties entailed an exhausting schedule of air, road and train travel across Australia to conduct examinations. Meanwhile, she continued to run the Ballet Studio with the assistance of friends and older students.

My mother was also invited by the Royal Academy of Dance to pioneer the examination of ballet students in Papua New Guinea. A former student, Dawn O’Hara, had started her own ballet school in Port Moresby. My mother made three examination tours to PNG in the mid-1960s. She encouraged promising ballerinas in PNG to advance their study of ballet for short periods in Sydney by accommodating them in our home in Mosman.

In due course, Dawn returned to Sydney and opened a ballet school in Five Dock. Many years later she wrote to me, after my mother’s funeral, and confided that that she regarded my mother as “… the closest I had to a mother after my own passed away…”

Family Life Unfolding

Despite my mother’s perpetual calm, almost serene, appearance in ballet classes, she suffered two devastating family blows in the 1960s.

Early in his life, my brother Douglas was found to have significant cardiac disease and, despite the best of care over the ensuing years, it became apparent in 1966 that corrective surgery could not be delayed. It was not enough to save his life and in December 1966 Douglas died aged 12 in the operating theatre. Neither my mother nor my father ever recovered from this loss.

A year or two later the then Sydney County Council issued a compulsory acquisition order over the family home in Harbour Street. Indeed the order related to all houses in the block, which was to become the electricity sub-station still situated there today. My parents were incredibly distraught about having to leave their home, but protestations and appeals were in vain. My mother went into a state of denial, so it was left up to my father to find a new home. Unable to find a suitable house in Mosman, he bought a house in Balgowlah and we eventually moved there in 1969.

Despite these setbacks, my mother’s energy for ballet teaching never flagged. My father had retired in 1968 and he was brought into service as chauffeur for the daily journey to and from Balgowlah to the ballet studio.

The 1970s provided some family respite. Both my mother and my father derived a great deal of pleasure from my graduation in law in 1970, which pleasure they thoroughly deserved, having supported me financially and otherwise for the 5 years of university education. My mother had always encouraged me to pursue an education and, at a stage when I studied in the city almost every night till 10pm, my mother would remain awake until I arrived home, greet me and sit on the lounge to discuss the day’s events while I ate.

While my mother never displayed any anxiety about my bachelor status, I know she experienced great joy when I married Virginia in 1974.

Family Life at a Distance

My mother and father were disappointed when, in late 1977, Virginia and I left Sydney to live in Brisbane, where our twin sons, James and Ben, were born four years later.

However, the pleasure to be had from grandchildren was not to be denied my mother. We managed to catch up every year to alleviate the pain of living so far apart. My father loved his caravan . My mother was less avid but she was stoic and recognised that the pleasure she derived on reaching Brisbane outweighed any trepidation she may have felt about being a grey nomad.

My mother became a delighted grandmother meeting James and Ben for the first cuddle when visiting us in Brisbane a month after they were born. This was the first of a number of caravan trips north in which my parents were to foster their relationship with their grandsons. We also spent time at the Gold Coast.

My mother occasionally combined the caravan trips north with ballet examinations for the Royal Academy while en route to, and in, Brisbane. It was not unusual to find a pile of her examiner’s reports on the dinette table in the caravan, readied for signature and posting.

Virginia, the boys and I also took our summer holidays in Sydney every second year.

After James, Ben, Virginia and I moved to Perth in 1986 my mother and father crossed the Nullarbor on several occasions, always in the caravan, to visit us.

So, notwithstanding, the distance my mother added the role of grandmother to that of ballet mistress, ballet examiner, wife, mother, mentor and all the other family and ballet roles she embraced.

Retirement and Declining Health

Eventually, the daily effort in teaching ballet proved too much and my mother retired in 1993 aged 84, after 70 years of teaching ballet in Mosman. Retirement afforded my mother and my father the luxury of more travel to see parts of Australia they had always wanted to visit but had not had the time to do so. They also flew to New Zealand to tour the length and breadth of the country and re-visit my mother’s birthplace.

However, as the years advanced my mother’s health deteriorated and the caravaning drew to a close. She was hospitalised in 1994, and we visited her in hospital in Manly.
She was, as ever, buoyant and in good cheer, being entertained by James and Ben. She insisted that they had “good pointes” and would have made good ballet dancers. This was the one occasion when her determination and drive did not prevail: she was not able to persuade them to give up soccer in favour of ballet but it was not without trying on her behalf.

My father’s health had also started to decline. He was admitted to hospital with my mother because he could not be left at home on his own. When my mother was discharged, she took my father home and cared for him until his death the following year.

My mother was determined to remain in the Balgowlah house after my father’s death. She had great difficulty in getting about and required help in the house, but good friends Judy and David Plomley, Jane Plomley’s parents, were of unwavering support for my mother at this time, often visiting and helping her by driving her about, by shopping and dropping in prepared meals from time to time.

Eventually, my mother’s health became so precarious that, in June 1997 she was admitted to a private hospital in Dee Why for exploratory surgery. It was found that nothing could be done as her disease was too far advanced. Judy and David Plomley maintained daily monitoring and kept me posted about my mother’s health. Thanks to them, I was alerted and able to take time from work and spend the last week of her life with my mother at the hospital. Aged 87, she died peacefully on 2 July 1997.

My Lasting Memory

I well recall my mother’s very last words to her surgeon, which rather summed up her life for me. He had confided in me that she had less than 24 hours to live. Later that same day she informed him that, on her discharge from hospital, she intended to move to Perth to live with me and my family.

The look on his face was priceless. It did not quite match the look of rapture on the faces of many thousands of ballet girls and boys to whom Miss Sykes had given so much pleasure over the decades. Nonetheless, he registered amazement, made speechless by the sheer willpower and tenacity that had so characterised the life of Mavis Sykes, ballet teacher of Mosman.

Mavis Sykes
10 July 2014