Francesco Ventriglia, artistic director, Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Stephen A'’Court

Francesco Ventriglia. Royal New Zealand Ballet’s artistic director

My interview with Francesco Ventriglia, which I conducted in Wellington earlier in August, is now available on DanceTabs at this link.

Follow the tag link Royal New Zealand Ballet for more stories and reviews about the company, including posts from Wellington-based dance writer, Jennifer Shennan.

Michelle Potter, 24 August 2016

Featured image: Francesco Ventriglia, artistic director, Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Stephen A’’Court

Francesco Ventriglia, artistic director, Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Stephen A'Court

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‘The diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky’. Paul Cox’s ‘cinematic poem’.

The death earlier in June of film maker Paul Cox sent me in search of a DVD copy of his film The diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky. The backstory is that Cox heard actor Paul Schofield on British radio reading from Nijinsky’s diaries (cahiers), which were first released in 1936 after having been rearranged and edited dramatically by Nijinsky’s wife, Romola.From that moment Cox was smitten and wanted to make a film based on the diaries. The making was a drawn-out experience (it took three years),2 but the film was eventually completed in 2001 and released in 2002. Cox has referred to it as a ‘cinematic poem’: it is certainly far from a documentary in the commonly understood meaning of the term.

Nijinsky began writing down his thoughts as a kind of diary on the morning of his last public performance, which he gave at the Suvretta Hotel in St Moritz on 19 January 1919. He wrote his last entry on 4 March that same year, the day he was to go to Zurich to see the psychiatrist, Eugen Bleuler, who would decide that he was suffering from incurable schizophrenia and who would advise, among other things, that he be admitted to a sanatorium. There are three exercise books of writing and drawing, with the first two books containing sections of Nijinsky’s own form of dance notation. The fourth notebook contains several letters to family, friends and others. The three diary books are held by the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. The fourth book of letters is held in Paris by the Department of Music, Bibliothèque nationale.

I found Cox’s film (which I must admit I had never seen before) absolutely mesmerising. It is in many respects a collage of images that flash past us, some of which return hauntingly throughout the film. Sometimes they are photographs of Nijinsky in his well-known roles for the Ballets Russes, such as the image at the top if this post, which shows Nijinsky as Petrushka. Sometimes they are images from nature, with flowing water and birds, in particular a crane, appearing frequently. Cox also plays with light and shade and there are many fleeting, emotive moments where shadows flicker over walls, water, and natural features of the landscape. The images reflect Nijinsky’s words as they are written in the diaries and are spoken as a voice over by Derek Jacobi.

The film begins with a funeral procession, Nijinsky’s funeral. As the coffin and the mourning party move down a pathway we see ‘ghosts’ of Nijinsky hovering in the background and sometimes merging with the funeral procession. They are characters Nijinsky played in the ballets that made him the famous male dancer that he was—the Spirit of the Rose from Le spectre de la rose, the Golden Slave from Scheherazade, the Faune from L’Après-midi d’un faune, and so on. These characters appear, disappear and reappear throughout the film, slipping between the other images, always reminding us of Nijinsky’s remarkable dancing career.

The dancing components, like the characters who hover around the funeral procession, are interspersed seemingly randomly between the flow of non-dancing imagery. David McAllister and Vicki Attard appear as the two characters in Le Spectre de la rose, while dancers from Leigh Warren and Dancers take on most of the other dancing roles. I admired Aidan Kane Munn’s ‘War Dance’, which he choreographed as a tormented, quivering solo and danced blank-faced. This was the item Nijinsky chose to dance at Suvretta House: ‘Now I will dance you the war … the war which you did not prevent.’ It is described by Joan Acocella (following Romola Nijinsky’s description) as ‘a violent solo, presumably improvised’ and analysed by Ramsay Burt in relation to Nijinsky’s thoughts on war and peace.I also especially admired Csaba Buday’s performance as the Faune in a version of L’Après-midi d’un faune choreographed by Alida Chase and set outdoors in a clearing surrounded by trees and bushes. There was an animal-like awareness to Munn’s reactions as the Nymphs passed by, and his closing scene with the veil was gentle yet blatantly sexual.

There is a kind of narrative component to anchor the imagery and dancing. We meet Romola and her parents and the various doctors who examined Nijinsky, for example. But we never hear them speak, although their body language and facial expressions give us clues as to how the story and their thoughts about Nijinsky are unfolding. Their presence forces us to face the reality that is behind the film.

DVD cover

The diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky is a truly beautiful, painterly film. Like John Neumeier’s Nijinsky, which Hamburg Ballet performed in Australia in 2012, it is absolutely compelling and arouses so many thoughts about the nature of Nijinsky—the man and the dancer. But, in contrast to the Neumeier work, the Cox film is almost serene in its overall mood, despite some confronting and bloody images relating to Nijinsky’s vegetarianism, and the challenging words and ideas spoken forcefully by Jacobi. That I find the mood serene is is not to suggest, however, that Cox has not presented the drama and the confusion of thought that permeated Nijinsky’s life. It is just felt in a different manner. The film and the dance work complement each other in a very unusual way and, having at last seen the film, I look forward immensely to seeing the Neumeier work again when it is performed by the Australian Ballet later this year.

Michelle Potter, 25 June 2016

Featured image: Vaslav Nijinsky as Petrushka. Photographer and source unknown

1. Joan Acocella, in her introduction to the unexpurgated edition of the diaries, published in English in 1999 as The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, explains in detail how Romola altered the diaries in that first publishing endeavour of 1936. In particular Acocella notes that around 40% of the contents of the diaries was omitted. Acocella’s introduction is, as is all her writing, lucid and informed: Joan Acocella (ed.), The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1999).

2. Philip Tyndall describes the development of the film saying that Cox ‘did much of the cinematography himself in addition to the writing, directing, co-producing and editing.’ Philip Tyndall, ‘The diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky. The culmination of a career.’ In Sense of Cinema. Issue 20, May 2002. Accessed 25 June 2016.

3. Ramsay Burt, ‘Alone in the world. Reflections on solos from 1919 by Vaslav Nijinsky and Mary Wigman’. In On Stage Alone. Soloists and the modern dance canon, eds Claudia Gitelman and Barbara Palfy (Gainesville FL: University of Florida Press, 2012).

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‘Tutu’. The National Library of Australia Magazine, June 2016

One of the unfortunate consequences of the Federal Government’s so-called ‘efficiency dividends’, which have been forced on our cultural institutions over more years than I care to count, has been the demise of the National Library of Australia’s quarterly print publication, The National Library of Australia Magazine. The current issue, June 2016, is the last that will be printed. The magazine began in 1990 as a monthly publication with the title National Library of Australia News. Its intention, as explained by current Director-General, Anne-Marie Schwirtlich, was ‘to raise awareness of the diversity and strength of the Library’s collections’. One of the Library’s great strengths has been its exceptional collection of dance materials and, while I am more than sad that the publication is closing up shop, I am also pleased and honoured to have an article in the final issue. It is the 35th dance-related article I have written for the magazine.

My article for this final issue is called simply ‘Tutu’ and on the front cover it is mentioned with the words ‘Triumph of the Tutu’. Those who are aware of my dance writing may know that I have published on this topic before, always with a different slant to suit different publications. This time the article uses some wonderful illustrations drawn from the Library’s Pictures Collections and draws on the words of designer Hugh Colman from an oral history interview recorded for the Library in 2012. The full article with the inclusion of the front and back cover is at this link. And what a great cover it is too!

The full list of my articles for the National Library’s magazine is at this link.

Michelle Potter, 10 June 2016

Featured image: Walter Stringer, Dancers of the Australian Ballet in Swan Lake, 1977 (detail)

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The Royal Danish Ballet, 3rd Bournonville Festival [2005]

My recent visit to Copenhagen, and the amazing production of John Neumeier’s Romeo and Juliet I saw there, sent me searching for something I wrote in 2005 for ballet.co in the UK (now DanceTabs). It was published in the ballet.co magazine in August 2005 as Royal Danish Ballet, 3rd Bournonville Fesitval, some personal thoughts.

As my ballet.co articles are not presently available online due to a server change, and also because I only recently found the text of the Bournonville article, which I thought was lost, I am re-publishing it below. Sadly, I do not have access to the images that accompanied the article, but I am including a wonderful photo of Erik Bruhn from an Australian production, which I mention in the text.

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I suspect there aren’t many choreographers whose 200th birthday is marked by a display of fireworks. But as we spilled out onto the square in front of the beautiful old Royal Theatre in Copenhagen on the final night of the 3rd Bournonville Festival, fireworks cascaded from the clear night sky. The square was packed with onlookers and the Danish royal family stood on the theatre balcony to watch. August Bournonville, ballet master, choreographer and theorist, whose work lives on in the repertoire of the Royal Danish Ballet, would probably have been surprised. He is recorded as saying that he thought his work would quickly be forgotten after his death. It hasn’t, as nine days in Copenhagen between 3–11 June 2005 made clear.

Performances of nine different Bournonville works, plus a gala performance, gave a wonderful insight into the rich heritage that the Danes enjoy as inheritors of the Bournonville legacy. And pretty much every museum in Copenhagen, along with the famous Tivoli Gardens, had embraced the Bournonville festivities in some way and exhibitions and other events added context to the danced performances. To the large contingent of Danish and international press, the Royal Danish Ballet School also opened its classrooms, and the main company was more than generous with company classes to watch, receptions every night, a bulging press pack, and a host of guided tours—all to give us the best possible understanding of the nature of the Bournonville legacy.

I have to admit, however, to feeling a little Bournonvilled-out by the end of nine days. Quite honestly some of the Bournonville repertoire probably should be put out to pasture, or perhaps not paraded so publicly. In particular Far from Denmark, a work which describes how Danish naval marines hosted a party on board their ship to repay hospitality they had received while in Buenos Aires, sits uneasily (to put it mildly) in the context of the twenty-first century when it is not ‘done’ to stereotype others according to ethnic and racial characteristics. Gone are the days when people can black-up as Creoles and move a little like performers in a Black and White Minstrel show, or perform a ‘Red Indian’ dance as if at a pow-wow, without it looking embarrassingly out of place. Curiously, we can still go to an art gallery and look at paintings depicting events and aspects of life in ways that are now considered out of place. But put this kind of thing into dance, onto living, breathing twenty-first century human bodies, and it becomes inappropriate and, what’s more, laughable.

But there is, of course, so much about the Bournonville repertoire that is not like this. Two Festival performances of the best known of Bournonville’s still-extant creations, La Sylphide, would alone have been worth the trip from the other side of the world. In Australia La Sylphide is well-known to us, having been first staged here for the Australian Ballet in 1984 by Erik Bruhn, who then also danced the role of Madge in some performances. It has been restaged several times, most recently early in 2005.

Erik Bruhn as Madge in 'La sylphide', the Australian Ballet, 1985. Photo: Walter Stringer
Erik Bruhn as Madge in La Sylphide. The Australian Ballet, 1984. Photo: Walter Stringer Collection, National Library of Australia

So to see another staging, especially in Copenhagen by the Danes, was a much-awaited treat. Two casts, the first, led by Gudrun Bojesen and Thomas Lund, the second by Caroline Cavallo and Mads Blangstrup offered very different experiences. Thomas Lund is a breathtaking Bournonville technician, buoyantly soaring through jumps, beats and turns with apparent ease. And as James he alternated between bewilderment at what was happening to him and a passionate involvement with his Slyph. Bojesen, on the other hand, seemed not so involved, and not so easily able to connect with Lund as he was with her. With the second cast the roles were reversed, with Cavallo entering the role in a way that Blangstrup did not, despite his prodigious technique.

But perhaps most interesting of all with this Danish La Sylphide for me was the fact that the role of Madge, in both shows, was danced by a woman: Jette Buchwald in one cast, Lis Jeppesen in another. When the role is taken by a man it seems too easy for it to degenerate into pantomime and become sillier and sillier—certainly this has become the case with the Australian Ballet’s production where Madge seems to be less and less part of the Romantic duality of La Sylphide as time goes on. There was nothing silly or in the mould of pantomime from Buchwald or Jeppesen, just a quiet strength that allowed the story to move forward without unwanted distraction.

The presence of Buchwald and Jeppesen, who also appeared in senior roles in other performances during the Festival, was a reminder of the European custom of keeping older dancers on to perform character roles, and usually to teach as well. The other side of this custom was also noticeable in La Sylphide, although perhaps more so in Napoli. Bournonville choreographed for the children of the Royal Danish Ballet School as well as his company dancers, old and young. Almost any current dancer in the Royal Danish Ballet will regale you with stories of being ‘on the bridge’ as a child in the last act of Napoli to watch the onstage festivities as the two young lovers, Gennaro and Teresina, celebrate with their friends. It is so satisfying to see dance and its performance being shared across generations in this way

A conversation during the Festival with Royal Danish Ballet principal, Andrew Bowman, however, drew out a rather more political or perhaps nationalistic side of dancing Bournonville. Bowman was born in New Zealand where he received his early dance training from his mother. He completed his formal ballet training at the Australian Ballet School and was instantly noticeable when he joined the Australian Ballet. His attention to his partner was always visible, and still is, as was and is the huge pleasure he takes from being onstage. He joined the Royal Danish Ballet in 1996 and he still relishes telling the story of how he asked for a job after drinking tequila shots with Danish dancer and teacher Johnny Eliason in Brisbane, Australia, during one of Eliason’s coaching stints for the Australian Ballet. Now Bowman could easily pass for a Danish dancer so accomplished and at ease is he with the Bournonville technique. But during the interview Bowman reminds me, without bitterness I should add, that he will probably never dance the coveted role of James in La Sylphide. These leading Bournonville roles, with one or two notable exceptions— Lloyd Riggins being one, are reserved exclusively for Danes.

Beyond the performances one major, gorgeous-to-look-at, exhibition, called Tulle and Tricot: Costumes for the Bournonville Ballets, which was curated by Viben Bech of the National Museum of Denmark where it was on show, generated some philosophical questions. For example, how do you make an exhibition of dance costumes and related material come to life in the manner in which dance is alive? Can such a show ever capture the feeling of the live performance? Many costume exhibitions don’t even come close to being theatrical but Tulle and Tricot was a wonderful exhibition that engaged the viewer in so many ways. Costumes were hung so that they swayed gently in the breeze. Video footage showed them in motion in the ballets for which they were made. The space was lit beautifully. The captions were inviting. It was a real coup and deserves many bouquets.

And back to the Danish royal family: as an Australian I was of course fascinated when Crown Princess Mary, though now officially a Dane but always to us an Australian from Tasmania our ‘Apple Isle’, accompanied her mother-in-law, Queen Margrethe II to two performances at this Festival. The Queen herself attended every show and some of the receptions. She even received the press on one occasion. I couldn’t help but think how lucky the Danes are to have such prominent artistic leadership.

I look back on this Danish experience with much pleasure.

Michelle Potter, 14 August 2005

Gary Harris. Man of the theatre

On my recent visit to Brisbane to catch a performance of Greg Horsman’s Sleeping Beauty by Queensland Ballet, I was especially taken by the designs of Gary Harris. In particular, I loved his sets with their sweeping sense of space, which is clearly evident in the image below from the Queensland Ballet season.

Yanela Pinere as Aurora 'The Sleeping Beauty', Queensland ballet, 2015. Photo: David Kelly

 Yanela Piñera as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, Queensland Ballet, 2015. Photo: © David Kelly

I recall talking to Harris, over ten years ago now, while he was artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet and I recently came across the text of the article based on that interview. I wrote it for ballet.co in the UK, where it was published online in May 2003. As my ballet.co articles are not presently available online due to a server change, and also because I only recently found the text of the ballet.co article, which I thought was lost, I am re-publishing it below.

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‘Oh he’s wearing a shirt with Mambo written all over it today,’ the theatre usher tells me as I wait in the foyer of the Princess Theatre in Launceston, Tasmania. Gary Harris, artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet, is running late (or has forgotten our appointment?). He arrives, Mambo clothes and all, full of apologies. It’s the final day of performances for the sixteen dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet who are on tour to Tasmania for the biennial festival, Ten Days on the Island. It’s just a short season, four performances in three days—3–5 April 2003. The rest of the company, another sixteen dancers, is touring back home in New Zealand. We find time for our interview over a meal between the late afternoon matinee and the evening show.

London-born Harris, a warm and engaging man, first visited New Zealand in 1996 as guest teacher for Royal New Zealand Ballet and kept returning over the next few years. In 2001 he was appointed artistic director of  the company and is full of enthusiasm for his job and his dancers.

‘I loved the honesty I found amongst the New Zealand dancers,’ he explains. ‘They are so versatile too. They work beautifully with what they’ve got and respond to the space they’re in. I want the company to keep that honesty and to have a real understanding of the rules of classical ballet and of correctness of presentation.’

Watching his dancers in the repertoire they have brought to Tasmania—a mixed bill comprising four works—there is certainly a distinctive quality to the way they move. Dancing on the tiny stage of the Princess Theatre is not an enviable task. There’s not much space to fling oneself around and Harris’ staging of Paquita Variations, the opening work on the program, perhaps suffers most. The formal quality of its choreography, which Harris based on that of Petipa for the original Paquita of 1846, really needs a bigger stage to do it justice. But the delicious freedom that the dancers have in the upper body makes up for the feeling that things are a bit cramped. The sense of the body moving through rather than in space is also quite noticeable, as is the turn-out of the feet and legs. There is real teaching going on behind the scenes of this company.

‘I really like teaching,’ Harris says. ‘And I love getting together with the dancers for the process of rehearsing. The New Zealand dancers here are very responsive and I love getting an energetic atmosphere going.’

In addition to showing the classical strengths of the Royal New Zealand dancers, Paquita Variations shows up Harris’s talents as a designer. The costumes are his design, with the women’s tutus inspired, he says, by a Degas sculpture of which he is very fond. The softness of the skirts is beguiling. A blouse-like top and a corset-like bodice, which fits closely from the top of the rib cage to the hips, completes what is a beautifully old-fashioned costume. Harris says he loved to draw as a child and also mentions that his father made him a play theatre, complete with working lights. So his wide-ranging involvement in all aspects of getting a show on stage is something he accepts as a perfectly normal part of an artistic director’s life.

Harris’s international connections are clearly evident in the company’s repertoire, although he is quick to mention that nurturing New Zealand artists is part of his plan. Nevertheless in Launceston, along with Paquita Variations, the company danced two works by Mark Baldwin, Melting Moments and FrENZy, and one by Javier de Frutos, Milagros.

The de Frutos piece, a commissioned work and de Frutos’ first for Royal New Zealand Ballet is the surprise package. Milagros takes its name from the Spanish word used to describe both miracles and votive offerings, and the work is danced to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring recorded on a piano roll. Played on a pianola the music sounds distorted and lacks the orchestral colour that the ear expects. But the drama is still there, the rhythms are still frenetic and the new and unexpected sound sets the scene for a work that is far from ordinary. Both the men and women wear long white skirts that swirl and swing with the motion of the dancers. On top both sexes wear flimsy, white, straight-cut shirts with long, loose sleeves. On the back of each shirt, quite hard to see but definitely there, is a number. The costumes, designed by de Frutos, give a clue to the piece. There is uniformity yet diversity. There is calmness and purity yet an eddy within.

Dancers of Royal New Zealand ballet in 'Milagros'. Photo: Bill Cooper

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Milagros. Photo: © Bill Cooper

Choreographically de Frutos juxtaposes highly sculpted sequences—long lines of dancers, clear circular formations for example—with phrases that appear to be wildly individualistic. This dualism is accompanied by other sets of opposites. Some movements flow expressively, others look quite stilted. At times the dancers react with restraint to their colleagues; at other times they appear to be absolutely fired with passion. The light changes back and forth from a stark white to a soft gold. The work also has a few unusual phrases of movement that keep occurring and remain in the memory afterwards. There is a limping step. There is another where the dancers thrust the chest out, fling the head and one arm back and move purposefully forward by transferring the weight on and off one heel. And another where a woman in a deep plié in second position with hands on hips propels herself in a circle, again using the heels to give the momentum. Sometimes dancers make their exit by walking on their knees as if doing penance. It’s absolutely mesmersing choreography.

Milagros on the one hand discomposes the viewer. It never answers the questions that it seems to present. It suggests both vodoo activities as well as organised religion. But it is also an incredibly satisfying piece that speaks to the viewer on an intuitive level. There is something inevitable about the way it unfolds and something fulfilling about its unexpectedness.

The two Baldwin pieces look a little tame by comparison. While Melting Moments is a lyrical and seamless duet, a serious piece, first made for New Zealand’s Limbs Dance Company in 1980, its vocabulary seems dated, almost contrived, by comparison with the de Frutos work. FrENZy on the other hand is great fun. Danced to a selection of top of the pops songs from the band Split Enz, it was first performed by the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2001. It has a contemporary edge that recalls, without appropriating, the vocabulary of William Forsythe. There’s lots of movement that’s upside down, off centre, racy. There’s lots of glamour, lots that’s out there and in your face. It’s a real crowd pleaser. How often does a contemporary ballet have an audience whistling and shouting with enjoyment at the end? Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room has that effect and so does Baldwin’s FrENZy.

Royal New Zealand Ballet has lots to offer, not the least of which is its own, unique repertoire. Its dancers are unpretentious, technically capable and move with a real freedom. It’s history is fascinating too. The company is fifty years old this year having been founded in 1953 by Poul Gnatt who trained at the Royal Danish Ballet School and was a principal with the Royal Danish Ballet. Gnatt is also fondly remembered in Australia as a principal with the Borovansky Ballet and as a teacher in the 1960s at the Australian Ballet School.

Christopher Hampson’s Romeo and Juliet is Royal New Zealand Ballet’s next work. It opens in Wellington on 6 June 2003. And the company has been invited to appear at Sadler’s Wells next year. Plans for a five week tour include visits to Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Next year Adrian Burnett, a New Zealander by birth who is currently a senior artist with the Australian Ballet, will be making a work for the company. And Harris mutters about wanting a Nutcracker in there somewhere. He wants a repertoire that is solid but that also challenges and educates and he’s well on the way to having it.

Michelle Potter, 4 November 2015
(originally published in the May 2003 edition of ballet.co magazine)

‘Melbourne Cup’: a ballet by Rex Reid

As Australia gets ready for the running of the 155th Melbourne Cup today, the first Tuesday in November, I can’t help recalling the ballet Melbourne Cup that was part of the Australian Ballet’s inaugural season in November 1962. Choreographed by Rex Reid, designed by Ann Church, and with assorted 19th century music arranged by Harold Badger, it was, according to Reid in an oral history interview recorded by James Murdoch in 1986, a ‘pot boiler’. It was indeed a popular success, although not lauded by all critics.

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Suzanne Musitz as the Pink Bonnet Lady in Rex Reid’s Melbourne Cup, 1963. Photo: Walter Stringer

The idea for the ballet is usually attributed to Geoffrey Ingram, administrator of the Australian Ballet 1963–1965. Edward Pask writes it was ‘strung on a slender story by Geoffrey Ingram and Rex Reid set at the time of the original running of the now-famous horse race in 1860′. There is, however, a precedent for the ballet, which has largely been overlooked in general discussions of the Australian Ballet production.

In 1957 Maggie Scott was working with Zara Holt (later both were honoured with the title of Dame of the British Empire!) on a dance and fashion show, which was eventually given a one-off performance in the Toorak Village Theatre. Rex Reid, who was a colleague of Scott during her days with Ballet Rambert and the National Theatre Ballet, choreographed a horse racing vignette for the show and the dancers’ costumes were designed by Ann Church, who had also worked with the National. In it three horses, French, British and American, competed for the prize of a cup. Scott believes that this was the forerunner to the Australian Ballet’s production, and I discuss the production and its effects for the future of Australian dance in a little more detail in my biography of Dame Margaret.

Michelle Potter, 3 November 2015

 

James Batchelor: new choreographic perspectives

James Batchelor’s performance installation, Island, developed as part of a Housemate Residency at Melbourne’s Dancehouse and presented in Canberra in April 2014, has had some outstanding critical response. It received a Canberra Critics’ Circle Award in 2014, was lauded by two separate reviewers in the Dance Australia Critics’ Survey for 2014, and was shortlisted for a 2015 Australian Dance Award in the category Outstanding Achievement in Independent Dance.

James Batchelor and Amber McCartney in 'Island', 2014. Photo © Lorna Sim
James Batchelor and Amber McCartney in Island, Canberra 2014. Photo: © Lorna Sim

But it was also noticed by an academic, Professor Mike Coffin, from the University of Tasmania’s Institute of Marine and Antarctic Sciences, who happened to be in Canberra during the season of Island and chanced to go along to a performance. Professor Coffin contacted Batchelor after the show and the ensuing conversation so impressed Coffin that he invited Batchelor to accompany a research voyage to the Southern Ocean.

Batchelor and visual artist Annalise Rees, who is undertaking a PhD at the Institute, will set sail with a team of international scientists in January 2016 on board the RV Investigator heading towards Heard and McDonald Islands. The scientific aim of the voyage, Batchelor says, is to produce three-dimensional, high-resolution maps of the seafloor surrounding the islands to reveal relationships between submarine volcanoes and biological activity in the Southern Ocean.

RV Investigator port view

RV Investigator, port view

Batchelor completed his degree at the Victorian College of the Arts only in 2012 and, for a choreographer in such an early stage of his career, this invitation is an astonishing event. He hopes to develop a new performance work based on the experience and says of his and Rees’ participation in the voyage:

Our roles as artists will be to document and analyse processes taking place on the voyage and to form a creative dialogue about ways research findings can be interpreted and communicated.

Batchelor’s work emerges from unusual and often highly intellectual thought processes. Island, for example, set out to investigate the role of structure in how we perceive and respond to the environment. He says his question as he prepares to undertake this new adventure is: Can the environment be constituted into another physical language?  He hopes that he and Rees can create a mapping system that utilises movement, sound and installation.

If Batchelor’s previous work is anything to go by, the performance work that will no doubt emerge as a result of the voyage is likely to be exceptionally accessible, notwithstanding its intellectual framework, and visually fascinating as well.

For more from this website on Batchelor’s works see this tag. See also my story about Batchelor published in The Canberra Times in April 2014.

Michelle Potter, 24 October 2015

‘Carmen Sweet’: Expressions Dance Company

Natalie’s Weir’s Carmen Sweet already has an enviable performance history. It began as a commission from the Queensland Symphony Orchestra to provide a dance work to Rodion Shchedrin’s 1967 score, Carmen Suite, which was to be performed as part of the QSO’s 2012 season. Weir says she was especially interested in taking on the commission because she would have to consider making something to suit an audience that was not specifically a dance one.

‘Our audiences have been growing,’ Weir says, ‘but at Expressions we are still working hard to make our repertoire accessible and to grow an even stronger audience base.’

Carmen Sweet‘s success with QSO audiences was such that  Weir decided to develop her work a little further and to present it as a piece for her Expressions Dance Company.

Since then Carmen Sweet has toured to the Noosa Long Weekend Festival and
 Singapore Dance Theatre’s Ballet Under the Stars event in 2013, and has had seasons in Brisbane and across regional Queensland. Now Weir’s dancers are embarking on a ten week tour to seventeen different venues across New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. And Canberra audiences just have to slip over the border to Queanbeyan to catch it.

 

Dancers of Expressions Dance Company in Carmen Sweet. Photos: Dylan Evans

‘I made it especially for touring,’ Weir says. ‘We had such success when we toured R & J. It was accessible in that it told a story and yet it was still a contemporary dance work. It provided audiences with a link between classical ballet and some of the more abstract contemporary works being seen in Australia at the moment. Carmen Sweet falls into a similar category.’

The work is made for six dancers. Although Weir essentially remains true to the Carmen story as we know it from the opera, in Carmen Sweet we see Carmen in three different guises, at three different eras in her life: the matriarchal, knowledgeable Carmen, danced by Elise May;  the unattainable Carmen danced by Michelle Barnett; and the young, flirtatious Carmen from Rebecca Hall. Jack Ziesing dances the soldier, Don José, who falls in love with Carmen; Benjamin Chapman plays Escamillo, the matador who steals Carmen’s heart; and Daryl Brandwood is the Fortune Teller who warns Carmen of her death.

There is also what Weir refers to as ‘a community section’. Ten young dancers from each region will be selected to join the cast as the entourage of Escamillo. In a tongue-in-cheek reference to a popular television show each of these dancers will carry a single rose.

‘It’s a bit of a romp,’ says Weir, although others have described Carmen Sweet as a tale of love, lust and revenge. But we can be sure of exciting and dramatic choreography—Weir is renowned for it; an unusual and thought-provoking take on a well-known story—again a characteristic feature of Weir’s work; and some fabulous design from Bill Haycock, a long-time collaborator with Weir. It is the last chance, too, to see Daryl Brandwood, who will be retiring from Expressions at the end of this season.

For performance details follow this link.

Michelle Potter 29 September 2015

Harry Haythorne as Father Winter

An Australasian affair …

There was one empty seat in the front row at the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s inaugural Harry Haythorne choreographic awards last weekend…odd since a good view in a studio setting is always at a premium and the house was otherwise full to overflowing. Perhaps Harry was playing ‘the angel at the table’—occupying that seat to keep a keen eye on proceedings, pleased to see that his encouragement of emerging choreographers is being remembered, and that today’s young dancers who never met him can nevertheless tell what kind of initiative he brought to his term as artistic director here, 1981–1992. Let’s cheat Death awhile.

Harry Haythorne

A small group of Harry’s colleagues and friends had met to plan these awards, the idea and koha for which grew from the spirited party held in his memory back in January, in tandem with the festive gathering in Melbourne. It’s interesting to ponder on the New Zealand and Australian inter-twinings in our company over decades. Harry for starters, himself Australian through and through, yet we think of him as a New Zealander emeritus. Australian Mark Keyworth as company manager, navigated with him.

Promising young choreographer Loughlan Prior won both the panel’s and the people’s award, with the striking imagery of his work, Eve, set to song and spoken poetry. Loughlan was born in Melbourne though did later training in New Zealand.

'Eve' by Louhglan Prior

William Fitzgerald and Laura Saxon Jones in Eve by Loughlan Prior, 2015. Photo: © Evan Li

On present membership, over one third of the RNZB dancers are from Australia, and/or trained there, so more threads are in the weave. Cast a thought back to the middle decades of the 20th century, when the Borovansky Ballet’s regular tours were so welcome here. It was their 1952 tour that brought dancer Poul Gnatt, who looked around, hunched that New Zealand might like a ballet company, returned to found one the following year—and the rest is history.

Peggy van Praagh was involved in staging several productions for New Zealand Ballet in early years here, not least Tudor’s Judgment of Paris. She and Russell Kerr arranged for dancer exchanges between Australian and New Zealand companies, and also masterminded two landmark fortnight-long residential courses of dance appreciation at University of Armidale in NSW. Both schemes should have continued ever since. I still treasure my notebooks from things we saw and heard there in 1967 and 1969—from van Praagh, Algeranoff, Beth Dean, Marilyn Jones, Garth Welch, Karl Welander, Keith Bain, Eric Westbrook—films of Martha Graham and of Jose Limon—good things that last, seeding an awareness of dance for a lifetime.

Many here have wished that we might have seen more of Graeme Murphy’s choreography in New Zealand over the years. There was his searingly memorable Orpheus, commissioned by Harry for the Stravinsky Celebration season in 1982. Sydney Dance Company brought the greatly admired Some Rooms to the first Arts Festival here, and Shining followed soon after that. Then Matz Skoog in 1997 brought Murphy’s quietly powerful The Protecting Veil, a work that suited our company particularly well…but we could have done and seen so much more of his remarkable oeuvre. Harry brought Jonathan Taylor’s impressive Hamlet, and ‘Tis Goodly Sport—suiting our company so well. Kristian Fredrikson, local boy made good, began his training here in Wellington, and continued to design and dress so many memorable productions on both sides of the Tasman, adding to the ties that bind. RNZB have also toured a number of seasons in Australia over the years.

But with the brand new ballet from Liam Scarlett, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, pioneering as a co-production with Queensland Ballet, there’s an inspired possibility of further exchanges within the choreographic repertoire, with rich benefits for those two companies and their audiences on both sides of the Tasman. Directors Li Cunxin in Queensland and Francesco Ventriglia in Wellington will no doubt be already thinking ahead. They could be onto a winner here. I’m just going to see one more performance of this scintillating faerie ballet shortly, and will then write about it. It’s quite on the cards that many who were so enchanted by the premiere season here will want to travel to Queensland next year to catch it on the rebound. Nothing wrong with falling in love again. I’m sure Harry would agree.

 Jennifer Shennan, 15 September 2015

Featured image: Harry Haythorne as Father Winter in Cinderella. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1991. Photographer not known

The New Zealand Dance Company and New Zealand Army Band, 'Rotunda'. Photo: John McDermott

‘Rotunda’. the New Zealand Dance Company and New Zealand Army Band

In many a park in New Zealand … the same in Australia I’m sure … sits an octagonal band rotunda … shades of Vauxhall Gardens and the public pleasures of outdoor music played by local brass bands or other ensembles. These days children play in a rotunda, not much good for hide’n’seek since the sides are open, but its roof will shelter you if there’s a sudden downpour on your picnic.

Mostly rotundas are quiet sentinels to an earlier era of music-making. In peacetime, well and good, but, in wartime, brass bands are readily associated with the many concerts and farewells involved when the armed forces are on the move. Drum roll. Slow March. The Last Post. You know it well.

2015 is the year commemorating Word War I and the scar on the Anzac nation that the Gallipoli landing represents, 25 April 1915. It’s also 70 years since the end of World War II, 40 years since the end of the Vietnam War, one minute since the latest slaughter somewhere in the name of power, wealth or religion … and so it goes … every year marking some anniversary of the human propensity to conflict, to fight, rather than, as Shakespeare pithily put it … ‘to dance out the answer’.

Thoinot Arbeau’s dance manual, Orchesographie from France, 1589, offers a fascinating glimpse of martial arts overlapping with dance practices of the time, and remains accessible today in a Dover edition, with an appendix of Laban notation. Another important book on the topic, Keeping Together in Time, by William H. McNeill has rightly been described as a tour de force of imagination and scholarship.

There are several classics of what one might call ‘war dances’ choreographed in the 20th century—the indelible masterpiece by Kurt Jooss, The Green Table, Jiri Kylian’s extraordinary Soldiers’ Mass (which will be restaged by the Royal New Zealand Ballet mid-2015), and Jose Limon’s heartfelt Missa Brevis to Kodaly’s mass. Each of them contains witness to war that translates into a prayer for peace. Nijinsky, in his last performance, ‘danced the war’ and we all know what happened to him after that.

The New Zealand Dance Company has joined forces with the New Zealand Army Band, in the production of Rotunda, a full-length work which has recently toured New Zealand, had earlier been performed in Europe, and will shortly tour to Australia. The Army Band plays a range of New Zealand compositions and the incorporation of its players into the heart of the staged work is memorable. The result is impressive, highly unusual, spectacular, powerful and poignant by turns.

'Rotunda'. The New Zealand Dance Company (1). Photo: Caroline Bindon

Rotunda. The New Zealand Dance Company, 2015. Photo: Caroline Bindon

For the cast of four male and four female dancers, the choreographic focus is on the young … boys playing shoot-outs with twigs from the apple tree, bang bang you’re dead, but not too much later they are on a battlefield, shooting and being shot with real guns now. One of them stays down, bang bang you’re dead alright. But your mate can’t believe that, so lifts you and carries you to dance. It is a painfully exquisite duo that would bring you back to life, but if course, it can’t.

Another duo between a young woman in a poppy-red dress, full of all the reasons youth have to live, dances with her dazed, glazed shell-shocked young man but he cannot be persuaded to thaw from the horrors of what he has seen. ‘Incurably insane’ is what the medical records called them. [Trudi Schoop, dancer and cabaret artist in Switzerland during World War II, turned after the war to a career in dance therapy, stating that she would thereafter work with catatonic schizophrenics, who were just that, whereas the men who had manufactured the war were the criminally insane].

'Rotunda.' The New Zealand Dance Company, 2015. Photo: Caroline Bindon

Rotunda. The New Zealand Dance Company, 2015. Photo: Caroline Bindon

In choreographing a commemoration of ‘the’ war (as in ‘The War to End All Wars’), one wishes neither to celebrate triumphs (they are few) nor record casualties (they are many), but rather to remember, lest we forget.

The stage set and lighting of the performance are inspired. A white silk banner flies high and swoops low, caught and tossed in the updraught of a circle of fans placed on the stage. A dancer engages with it before it is swept away and up. Image of a soul, a spirit, a person, gone. But not forgotten.

'Rotunda', the New Zealand Dance Company, 2015. Photo: Celia Walmsley

Rotunda. The New Zealand Dance Company, 2015. Photo: Celia Walmsley

Jennifer Shennan, Wellington, April 2015

Australian schedule for Rotunda:

  • Adelaide: Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre. Friday 1 May, 7.30pm; Saturday 2 May, 2pm & 7.30pm
  • Melbourne: The Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne. Thursday 7 May, 8pm; Friday 8 May, 8pm;  Saturday 9 May, 2pm & 8pm
  • Parramatta: Riverside Theatre, Parramatta. Wednesday 13 May, 8pm; Thursday 14 May, 8pm; Friday 15 May, 8pm; Saturday 16 May, 2pm & 8pm
  • Geelong: The Playhouse Theatre, Geelong Performing Arts Centre. Thursday 21 May, 8pm; Friday 22 May, 8pm; Saturday 23 May, 1pm

Publications mentioned in the text:

  • Arbeau, Thoinot. Orchesographie, edited by Julia Sutton, translated by Mary Stewart Evans (Dover: New York, 1967)
  • McNeill, William H. Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1995)

Featured image: The New  Zealand Dance Company and New Zealand Army Band, promotional shot for Rotunda. Photo: John McDermott