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Mr Lee Christofis AM

Lee Christofis AM was destined for a life of selfless contribution to the performing arts.

While Lee never set out to be recognised in the Order of Australia – ‘I was completely flummoxed when the letter from Government House arrived in the mail! – and was, in fact, ambivalent about our Honours and Awards system for a long time, he has since changed his mind after seeing more artists, women and people from non-English speaking backgrounds appointed to the Order.

Mr Lee Christofis AM sitting in his office (photo is courtesy of Dance Australia)

Photo credit: Dance Australia

‘All of us know people who work quietly in the community, who care about the welfare of others and who give selflessly.

‘I felt that awards had been handed out too often to government officers, former pollies and people who had fat cheque books. But, now, I am thinking about nominating some people!’

The Christofis household in 1970s West End, Brisbane, had the welcome mat permanently laid out for visitors, particularly refugees who had arrived from Cyprus, Lee’s father’s home country, after the wars of the mid-1960s and in 1974. Lee’s parents were well known among the Greek Community. His father was a successful local café owner and, as community president, built Brisbane’s second and largest Greek Orthodox Church.

‘Our family firmly believed that all people should be treated fairly and that migrants and refugees should be cared for and supported. I see a parallel between my family’s care and support of refugees and my own attitude towards the arts. We must care for the arts. We cannot be starved of culture.’

Lee was appointed a Member of the Order in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in June 2021 for significant service to the performing arts, particularly dance.

‘Sadly, my career as a dancer was short-lived. I was not physically strong or technically gifted and, in the 1960s and 70s, unless you were attached to an organisation there was little money to train and learn. So I went into other fields. I even became Queensland’s first male kindergarten teacher.’

In 1981 Lee was invited to review dance for Radio National in Brisbane. ‘I had a loud voice and big opinions.’ After moving to Melbourne that year, Lee’s national profile began to grow, first as a freelance broadcaster and producer at RN and ABC Classic, Dance Australia magazine and, later, at The Australian. He also served as vice president of Ausdance National Council, and Curator of Dance at the National Library.

A common trait among Honours and Awards recipients is that they don’t do what they do for recognition; they do it because they want to make a positive contribution to their community. In 1997, Lee received the most wonderful of backhanded compliments after writing a not entirely favourable review of Monte Carlo Ballet’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre. His review was published on a Friday morning, ahead of the ballet’s third performance that night.

‘The curtain was half an hour late going up. I thought that someone had broken a foot!’ Far from it. Choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot had changed Act 2 as a result of Lee’s review, and cast, crew and patrons simply had to wait until things were ready. As a member of the company explained to Lee after the performance, Maillot was ropeable that ‘Romeo and Juliet’ had been reviewed by 30 critics in Europe and that none of them had worked out what was wrong with Act 2! ‘Finally, someone understood that I write for the dancers and the company as much as I write for the audience. It was a very nice compliment.’

The compliments certainly came thick and fast after Lee was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia.

‘My husband was very excited. My friends in the dance world, the arts and education, and colleagues at the National Library, were happy for me. I received congratulatory letters and Facebook messages from people I hadn’t seen for 30 or 40 years!’