At 82 years old, retired international dancer, choreographer, costume and set designer, and artist Peter Cazalet looks back on an extraordinary life of creative achievements, including designs so beautiful they’re still being used by ballet companies around the world and are sold as art at the Knysna Fine Art gallery.

WORDS Jacques Marais PHOTOGRAPHS Drieka Bester

“I don’t really sit much,” says Peter Cazalet when he finally settles for our interview at Village Antiques and Village Gallery in Sedgefield.

While his gallery is relatively new, Peter has been helping with the day-to-day running of the very popular Village Antiques with his partner, Peter Schnetler, for many years. He opened the adjacent Village Gallery in 2014, where his paintings and sketches hang alongside the works of various local artists.

“I always joked that I’d like a gallery and studio space one day. When Peter (Schnetler) decided to expand the antiques shop it presented an opportunity to do just that.” Peter’s vibrant and colourful artworks share space with the emotive photography of Leanette Botha and an eclectic collection of water colours, acrylics, oils and mixed media by local artists such as Alan Barnard, Lindsay Page and Jeanette Titterton.

Peter’s costume designs for international and local productions that are on display at 
the Knysna Fine Art gallery have a longer backstory. “I’ve never thrown anything away,” he says as he shuffles through set sketches for Western Theatre Ballet’s 1965 production of Home. This proclivity for holding onto his design sketches means that fans of ballet, opera, design and art have access to a very intimate record of an aspect of the theatre rarely visible to the audience.

Born in a northern Rhodesian (now Zimbabwe) mining town in 1934, he completed his schooling in Johannesburg. Peter went on to study architecture at the University of Cape Town, where he also learned to dance at the then University Ballet Club.

After completing his studies, Peter joined the Sadler’s Wells Opera Ballet in London at the age of 24. “In those days you had to go to London if you wanted to make it as a dancer,” he laughs. He also danced with the Edinburgh International Ballet as well as the Festival Ballet before finding his niche at Western Theatre Ballet in 1960.

His much-lauded acting talents worked well with his dancing ability and Peter became one of the company’s principal dancers. But it was during a tour of Scandinavia that he was asked to make a few set- and costume sketches for a production. “It didn’t receive rave reviews, but it did make people – including myself – sit up and realise that I could do this.”

Peter’s next venture into design was the costumes and sets for Peter Darrell’s new ballet, Home. An unusual theme for ballet, Home tells the story of a young, mentally unstable girl who, after having been abandoned by her family, finds the home she lacked in a lunatic asylum. “I was very inspired by the strong lines, colours and energy of the abstract expressionism movement. It was a style of design that had not really been seen in ballet before.”

This style worked well with the production’s theme and this time his work received well deserved, excellent reviews. Ballet critic, journalist and founding editor of Dance and Dancers ballet magazine Peter Williams wrote: “It is visually beautiful yet dramatically and atmospherically right and, to my way of thinking though possibly not everybody’s, amounts to extremely important ballet designing, which immediately puts Cazalet up into the first division of British designers.”

Peter continued designing sets and costumes for ballets across Europe while dancing with Western Theatre Ballet. He also became choreographer and illustrator, creating a satirical comic of a life in ballet called No Offence for Dance and Dancers. An injury closed the curtain on his dancing career in 1970 and Peter returned to South Africa in 1971.

“I designed sets and costumes for ballets on a freelance basis for a few years before joining the Cape Performing Arts Board (CAPAB), where I also began working on operas and a variety of productions. I was then offered the position of Head of Design in the late 1970s, a post that came with a full studio and staff.” Troves of these designs were rediscovered during office moves, his eventual retirement and the selling of his Camps Bay home. “CAPAB has, of course, become 
Artscape, but I still receive sporadic phone calls from them to tell me that they’ve found another stash of my designs.” These designs, created in watercolours for the ease and speed the medium allows, remain Peter’s property. Today the Knysna Fine Art gallery displays a selection of his designs and has compiled a portfolio that may be viewed at the gallery.

As Head of Design, Peter worked more on international productions. His designs have been used as far afield as the United States, London, Germany, Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo and New Zealand – and are still used today. The Singapore Dance Theatre performed a selection of scenes from Romeo and Juliet during their 2014 season, using Peter’s original designs, and the West Australian Ballet based their sets and costumes for their 2014 performance of Giselle on Peter’s original designs. “I just recently received a phone call from Milwaukee Ballet,” Peter smiles. “They are performing La Sylphide during their next season and will be using the sets and costumes 
I designed for the Boston Ballet’s production of this ballet in 2005.

“Of course it’s nice to receive a small royalty payment every now and then,” he says modestly. “But I absolutely love the fact that my sketches and designs – some dating from the 1970’s! – are still being used around the world so many years later. It’s very humbling.”

Peter moved to Sedgefield in 2009. “I started coming here in the early 1990s and developed quite a relationship with Sedgefield. Everything one might need is within walking distance or maybe a short drive away, it is a place that truly allows one to relax. Not that it seems that Peter does much relaxing between running the Village Gallery, helping out at Village Antiques and creating new art. “I mainly do figure drawings and paint seascapes. And while I still prefer working in watercolours, I now find the time to experiment with and learn new and different techniques.

“I’ve recently begun looking back at my life and I’ve realised that I’ve been fortunate to have seen and done a lot – so far. In retrospect, I believe that I’ve been very lucky. You know, sometimes you’re just in the right place at the right time.” It’s a sentiment that belies the humility of a very talented man. And while he may have had Lady Luck on his side, it is this humility, undeniable talent and inextinguishable energy that has allowed a successful career spanning disciplines, continents and decades.

Village Gallery/Village Antiques 044 343 2229