The dancer aged 106 who bans the word 'old'

By Gary Nunn

  • Published
Media caption,

Meet 106-year-old Australian dancer Eileen Kramer

At 106, Eileen Kramer seems more productive than ever.

She writes a story a day from her Sydney aged-care facility, publishes books and has entered Australia's most prestigious painting competition.

After decades living abroad, Ms Kramer returned to her home city of Sydney aged 99. Since then, she's collaborated with artists to create several videos that showcase her primary talent and lifelong passion: dancing.

Ms Kramer still dances - graceful, dramatic movements mostly using the top half of her body. In more recent years, she has also choreographed.

"Since returning to Sydney I've been so busy - I've performed three big dance pieces at NIDA [the National Institute for Dramatic Art] and independent theatres.

"I've participated in two big dance festivals in Adelaide and Brisbane, I've been in a film, given many smaller performances, written three books, and today I'm having a free day talking to you!" she says from her home.

Something she often gets asked is where all her energy comes from - and whether there's a secret to dancing into old age.

Her response is that she banishes the words "old" and "age" from her vocabulary. She admonishes me for using them later in our chat.

"I say: I'm not old, I've just been here a long time and learnt a few things along the way.

"I don't feel how people say you should feel when you're old. My attitude to creating things is identical to when I was a child."

Image source, Sue Healey
Image caption,
Ms Kramer, working this year on the set of The God Tree film

Inspired by home

In recent years Ms Kramer has crowdfunded, choreographed and performed several dance works that draw from her life.

She was halfway through creating a new dance video when a lockdown in Sydney temporarily frustrated her plans. But not for long.

"I couldn't go out to the location of the video, so I wrote a book instead," she says, laughing. "It's a story about how we made the film."

The film's location is special to Ms Kramer. It takes place inside a giant Moreton Bay fig tree in the Sydney suburb of Glebe.

The smell of gum trees, the sight of the huge Moreton Bay figs and the sound of laughing kookaburras perched on them are the things that enticed Ms Kramer back to Sydney.

"The tree inspired my choreography," she says.

"Have you ever seen one up close? You feel as though you're in a haunted fairy tale palace. It took me back to my childhood."

Image source, Sue Healey
Image caption,
Ms Kramer performing in The God Tree

Ms Kramer has a few more shots to film, then it will be edited and set to music.

Meanwhile, as the head of her own publishing house, Basic Shapes, she'll release her book about the project later this year. Since entering her centenarian years, she has also published a short story collection: Elephants and Other Stories.

The Covid lockdowns left her thoroughly unfazed.

"I haven't minded Covid one bit," she says. "I haven't felt lonely or confined - when you write, that's your company."

Ms Kramer has become somewhat of a local celebrity in the inner city suburb of Elizabeth Bay, where she lives.

A party was put on by a team of performer friends outside her window for her 106th birthday in November.

"I was surprised, delighted - and very touched," she says. "They fixed a chair inside my bay window and gave me balloons to shake when there was a pause."

Image source, Sue Healey
Image caption,
Ms Kramer and friends celebrate her 106th birthday

A colourful life

From posing as a nude model to becoming the oldest ever entrant - aged 104 - in Australia's most prestigious portrait art prize, The Archibald Prize; creative flair and defiance of conformity have defined Ms Kramer's life.

Born in Sydney's Mosman Bay, Ms Kramer trained as a dancer then toured Australia with the Bodenwieser Ballet for a decade. She travelled to India, and later settled in Paris and then New York - where she lived until she was 99.

Her dance career spans four continents and one century, and it has always been her first love.

"Having been in the company of dancers most of my life, I haven't felt alone," she says.

"Unlike me, some married and had children or returned to Europe. I put up with the inconveniences of the dancer's life."

Image source, Bodenwieser Dance Company
Image caption,
Ms Kramer (top) and Jean Raymond in a 1940 performance for the Bodenwieser Dance Company

Living in Paris for much of her earlier life, Ms Kramer says the only way to pay rent was to be an artist's model.

"It was slightly dangerous to pose, but I knew the customers and their manners," she says.

The nudity was "no big deal" because it was for the purpose of art: life drawing classes.

She fraternised with, and learnt from, famous Parisian artists. She was taught to do The Twist by Louis Armstrong at a casino in Dieppe, before moving to New York.

On returning to Australia, she was pleased some things hadn't changed - such as seeing people eat fish and chips - and delighted other things had - such as greater recognition of Aboriginal culture.

The best advice she ever received was from Madame Bodenwieser, founder of the Bodenwieser ballet, about temporary love affairs when touring dance shows.

"She said the woman on the spot gets the man - not those passing through," she says. "We left behind some broken hearts!"

Today, her collaborator, Sue Healey, describes working with Ms Kramer as "like experiencing a living history".

"She's a tangible connection to the early days of modern dance in Australia - and for me, as a choreographer, this is gold!" says Ms Healey, honorary fellow at the University of Melbourne's arts faculty.

"She tackles life with elegance and creative gusto. She's completely in control and constantly making something new."

Ms Kramer says she has "never been interested in being sick like some are", adding: "I don't take any pills except some doctor-ordered vitamins."

And with that there's a knock at the door, interrupting our conversation - it's for a Covid vaccination.

"I'm dreading it!" she says. "But it'll continue to prevent me from getting sick."

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