Marie Duthie (b.1923) in discussion with fellow dancer Katie Miller and host Paul Matthews as part of the Luminate Festival
From Loose Goose, to Dying Swan
You can often spot a future dancer in children; they are usually the ones boogieing before they can walk or talk! Born in 1923, Marie Pyper’s mother would comment on how, from an exceedingly small age, the presence of music would entice Marie to move, as she spotted hints of someone for whom movement and dance was a future. The clincher was that Marie was not solely copying the singing and dancing she would watch but visualise and conduct her versions of routines. This no doubt helped Marie when she was making her first public performances, a mere four years later, at her father’s concert parties. Her limber nature and spirit caught the eye of a fellow dancer and subsequent teacher Connie Reynolds (then Constance Gabrielle) who was a regular performer at these events.
Encouraging Marie and the other students not merely to echo the movements they had been taught but to get up on stage and experiment, Marie spent most days in Reynold’s studio. It was here that her penchant for ‘mucking around’ would be incorporated into routines, where Marie’s natural creativity flourished. Shortly after, in 1930 when Marie would move lessons from Connie Reynolds and hone her abilities in ballet, tap and more advanced acrobatics with Gabriel and Marjorie Middleton.
In the past, there was more of an amalgam, rather than individual shows. Productions would composite excellent singers, those who would entertain, comedians and those who would shift between different art styles. It became a thing for skits, and sketch shows to emerge from these groups, starting as an amateur field, Variety would gradually grow in popularity. Height would play a role in Marie’s shift towards the field, as she would be booked into a troupe to perform at the Palladium, which was located in Edinburgh – towards Tollcross. In 1932, Marie was only turning nine by the time an active interest in her future was unfolding. Though it may take some of us years to find fame, Marie achieved a noted response from The Edinburgh Evening Dispatch for her solo performance of the timeless Dying Swan, which was noted for its echoes of Pavlova.
A Sister act
With her wings spreading, now was the time for Marie to emerge into the Variety scene professionally, beginning in 1940, Marie began touring with a renowned troupe, this was with the Ganjou Brothers, a name forgotten by many, but in their day famous for speciality acts. Three brothers, they would engage in strength feats of movement and strength, tossing the smaller Juanita (real name Joy) from one side of the stage to the other. Marie was one of eight dancers who would perform a crowd opener before the main act would showcase. Once televised, the band of travellers went across the nation providing entertainment, levity and displays of choreographed physical wonderment.
There came a time to move from the Brothers, and to develop a ‘Sister Act’ with fellow performer Audrey Parsons, becoming The Raymond Sisters. Both Edinburgh gals, the pair decided that with their experience and talents, they could quite comfortably construct an act by themselves, branching out from the chorus, being lucky enough to keep the costumes from recently finished productions. Receiving praise from peers, The Ganjou Brothers placed the pair in touch with their agent, Bernard Delfont Ltd Agency. Everything fell into place, as the well-known agency began to start bookings for the ladies, chiefly as part of the Moss Empire Circuit.
Quite often, the best situations arise from chance encounters and whims, and this seems the case for the pair, and while there were no formal plans for their performance’s future, their talent was evident. A balance of solo and duo routines, there was a refreshing dynamic to the Raymond Sisters. A keen tap artist, Audrey would specialise in elevating herself – tapping on her toes, the perfect distraction to ensnare the audience’s attention as Marie would change. Usually into a trademark short kilt, white satin jacket and of course, a wee tartan hat. This would typically signal the arrival of Marie’s rendition of the then-popular Macpherson is Rehearsin’ to Swing. As Marie would perform, Audrey would don her matching outfit to join in for a finale of high cuts and Highland dancing. Then, just at it appeared as though the bag of tricks had been revealed, the Raymond Sisters would tap to the orchestra, belting out, what else, but Auld Land Syne. Not only a dab-hand on the stage, but Marie also strutted onto the silver screen in 1943, heavily made-up with powdered wig and costume in the film Variety Jubilee.
There were, as one imagines, ripples of a turbulent time in the 1940s. Now a frequent performer at the Empire Theatre, Marie and Audrey partook of a civic duty many of the arts played with its distant relation – war. Far from home, the Raymond Sisters performed for the allied troops in the bases of Germany – a stark difference from the local country flairs of Scotland. Late evening performances, with even later supper times, Marie grew accustomed, perhaps too accustomed, to the Saturday night packings and Sunday morning travels, the travelling performers life.
The Traveller Life & Passing The Craft
Arguably repetitious, though has always been the norm with touring productions, Marie would travel with the troupe, performing roughly the same routine week after week. She was only offered fleeting moments to return home, regularly performing in the North, right down to the South of England – this would be her new life. After a time, the effects of travelling would bear down on Marie, but this is, of course, part of the business, where people would often meet and forge new friendships and partnerships, both professional and intimate. Marie would step away from professional performances shortly following the end of World War Two, but like many, she would never stop dancing, sharing her talents with communities, family and friends.
Soon the fifties dawned, and Marie turned towards a new task – this time a touch closer to home – it was high time she would take-up Scottish Country Dancing. Across the next decade, Marie focused on a local level, choreographing the annual Mother’s Fellowship show for her neighbourhood church throughout the 1960s, which was easily the event of the year for the community. Movement never left Marie, and like many in her industry, she found time to pass the craft onto the next generations, training as a Scottish Country Dance teacher in 1970.
Then it happened, An Audience With… came together in 2016, and Marie’s skill and intricacy with the artistry of ballet and tap are expanded even more as part of the programme. Conveying the wonder, she feels in movement, in the ability to share her knowledge of the intricate steps. Marie’s journey, like all of these women, never ended, merely stepped backstage for a year or two. Together with Katie Miller, Marie regularly performs as a duo bouncing off one another, trading stories and choreography across the generations. In 2017, as well as 2019, Marie and the gang performed in two productions of An Audience With… as part of the illustrious Luminate Festival to a glowing review. A reminder that even after twenty years without a pair of tap shoes on, steadily we readjust to the knack of performance and that euphoric feeling which erupts from reclaiming a part of yourself.
After travelling the nation, Marie opens up about how, in our youth, taking things for granted need not be a negative attitude. That the genre of variety ebbed and flowed, and faded away, but no one was to blame – and that she appreciates this mindset, that not everything conducts itself to a grand design, which is precisely how Marie’s career beginning. Without a plan, without preconceptions but from a single opening number which spiralled into something special. To be happy to survive at that moment, doing something she adored with a fiery zeal, carrying on for as long as the world would allow her – and at 97 Marie has little intentions of stopping.
“I look back and think – good gracious! Did I really do that?”Marie Duthie – An Audience With…