Athol Willoughby with Noelle Aitken and Naeidra Torrens, 'Swan Lake', National Theatre Ballet, 1950s.

Athol Willoughby. Lifetime Achievement Award 2018

The Australian Dance Awards committee has announced that the Lifetime Achievement Award for 2018 will be presented to Athol Willoughby, OAM, in recognition of his exceptional contribution to the dance profession in Australia for over 65 years. The presentation will take place in Brisbane at the Australian Dance Awards ceremony on 8 September.

Willoughby has had a long and distinguished career as one of Australia’s leading ballet dancers and teachers and as an adjudicator and examiner for Cecchetti Ballet Australia. His performing career connected him with significant developments in mid-century Australian ballet, in particular with the National Theatre Ballet and major figures who directed it including Joyce  Graeme, Walter Gore and Valrene Tweedie.

Valrene Tweedie and Athol Willoughby in Le Coq d’or, National Theatre Ballet, 1955. Photo: Walter Stringer. Personal collection of Athol Willoughby

Willoughby’s introduction to dance came when, as a young boy, he had a job sweeping out a cinema in Hobart prior to weekend screenings. He can still recall the excitement of seeing the stars of Hollywood musicals on screen—Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly were among them. But the real start of his long and illustrious career as a dancer, teacher, examiner, adjudicator and mentor came when, by chance, he was sitting next to a priest in the Theatre Royal in Hobart during a performance by the Borovansky Ballet. The priest arranged a meeting for him with local ballet teacher Beattie Jordan. Willoughby never saw the priest again but Jordan accepted him as a pupil and set him on his career path.

Later Willoughby was thrilled by performances in Hobart by the Melbourne-based National Theatre Ballet and made the decision to move to Melbourne where he was taught by esteemed Cecchetti teacher Lucie Saranova. He eventually joined National Theatre Ballet and performed with them, dancing both the classics and the repertoire of two directors of the company, Walter Gore and Valrene Tweedie. In 1958 Willoughby left for London where he took classes with Anna Northcote and Stanislas Idzikowski. He took on various theatrical and non-theatrical jobs before joining Peter Darrell’s Western Theatre Ballet.

In Melbourne in the 1950s Willoughby had gained his Cecchetti qualifications and had begun teaching, including for Margaret Scott at her newly opened ballet school in Toorak. On his return from England he performed in pantomimes over the Christmas period and took up teaching again, largely in regional Victoria. But his work as an educator and mentor began in earnest in 1963 when he bought the Essendon Academy of Ballet, where he was director until his retirement in 1997. He also returned to the stage as a guest artist with the Australian Ballet in Anne Woolliams’ Swan Lake and Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker.

The students whose careers the charismatic Willoughby nurtured have gone on to dance across the world, have become teachers and examiners, and have had their lives enriched by his continued service to dance, in particular to the Cecchetti approach to ballet. But he is nevertheless humble enough to say, ‘I was just there to try to teach them classical ballet correctly—I like to see it done correctly—and with discipline.’

In 2017 Willoughby celebrated his 85th birthday and his Lifetime Achievement award is formal recognition by the dance community of his extraordinary contribution.

See this link for further posts about Athol Willoughby. The citation above is a slightly expanded version of that issued under my name by the Australian Dance Awards committee.

  • Quoted from an oral history interview recorded in 2013 for the National Library of Australia’s Oral History and Folklore Program. TRC 6514

Michelle Potter, 14 August 2018

Featured image: Athol Willoughby with Noelle Aitken and Naeidra Torrens in Swan Lake, National Theatre Ballet, 1950s. Personal collection of Athol Willoughby

Athol Willoughby with Noelle Aitken and Naeidra Torrens, 'Swan Lake', National Theatre Ballet, 1950s.

SPLIT. Lucy Guerin Inc. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

SPLIT. Lucy Guerin Inc.

12 August 2018. The Studio, Sydney Opera House

SPLIT began with two dancers, one wearing a rather drab, blue-grey dress, the other naked, performing on a marked-out square on the floor of the Studio, the Sydney Opera House’s most intimate performing space. Both dancers executed the same movements in unison. At times the choreography consisted of small movements of the arms, even just the fingers. At other times it gathered momentum and was almost wild as arms flew up and around. Sometimes it was done on the spot. Other times it moved around the marked-out square. The dancers were astonishing, both of them, in keeping together no matter what the choreography encompassed. They reminded me of the best Cunningham dancers whose sense of ‘body time’ produces similar qualities.

But, in this opening section, what fascinated me more than anything else was how different the choreography looked on the naked dancer (Lilian Steiner) from the view one had of it on the clothed dancer (Melanie Lane). On the naked body the choreography showed how remarkable and articulate the dancing body can be. This is not at all to take away from the performance of Lane but it was a shock to see how much of the mechanics and beauty of Lucy Guerin’s choreography was lost with a covered up torso (as naive as that might sound).

After this opening, and also longest section, the splits occurred. Over the course of the performance the dancers stopped several times and, using white tape that adhered to the floor, divided into two the space in which they had been dancing. After several such divisions, the space was so small that the show came to an inevitable end. And of course as the space got smaller the connections between the dancers was affected, as of course was their freedom to move.

But, while the split caused by these divisions was spatially determined, there was also an emotional split between the dancers. The  unison dancing gave way to what was a kind of anger-driven connection between them. There were times when silent screams seemed to fill the air and in one tortured moment it looked like Steiner was ripping out Lane’s insides and eating them. A few recurring motifs indicated ongoing conflict.

SPLIT. Lucy Guerin Inc. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

SPLIT. Lucy Guerin Inc. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

But in my mind there was also a split in Guerin’s approach. At times she seemed to have made SPLIT from a totally intellectual point of view. The beautiful unison of the opening section was quite matter of fact in many respects and throughout that opening section there was no real emotional connection between the dancers and us—no change of facial expression for example. And the spatial division made in subsequent sections was also quite matter of fact. It was simple geometry. Even the timing was intellectually motivated with each section being half as long as the preceding one. So how then did we sit on the edge of our seats as the work progressed? That effect was not matter of fact but emotional involvement. Extraordinary really.

Music was by London-based electronic musician Scanner and was just a two and a half-minute sample on a loop. (I read this in an interesting article about Guerin and her musical tastes in the August 2018 edition of Limelight). It was relentless, as one might expect, but its match with the choreography was absorbing. I also enjoyed being drawn in by the lighting (Paul Lim), which moved between down lights and side lights, with the latter projecting shadows of the dancers onto a white screen at one side of the performance area.

SPLIT was a totally absorbing 45 minute (or so) show and was brilliantly danced by Lane and Steiner. I look forward to Lucy Guerin’s next show and regret it has been so long since I saw her work.

Michelle Potter, 13 August 2018

Featured image: SPLIT. Lucy Guerin Inc. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

SPLIT. Lucy Guerin Inc. Photo: Gregory Lo

Scene from 'Where we gather' from Two Zero, Quantum Leap, 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Two Zero. Quantum Leap

For reasons that escape me, my Canberra Times review of Quantum Leap’s Two Zero, filed first thing Friday morning (the morning after!), has not yet appeared online, as is the usual practice. The review may appear in the print edition of The Canberra Times on Monday 13 August. In the meantime, here is an expanded version of that review.

9 August 2018, The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre

Two Zero celebrates twenty years of dance by Quantum Leap, Canberra’s youth dance ensemble and the performing arm of QL2 Dance. The program was set up as a continuous performance in eight sections, three of which were restagings of works from previous seasons with the other five being works newly created for this particular occasion.

In the terms of choreography, the standout work was Daniel Riley’s Where we gather. It was first seen in 2013 as part of Hit the Floor Together and was remounted for this 2018 season by Dean Cross with final rehearsals overseen by Riley. Where we gather explored the idea of young people from Indigenous and non-Indigenous backgrounds working together. It showed Riley’s exceptional use of organic and rhythmic movement patterns, and his remarkable feel for shape, line, and the space of the stage. It had been so well rehearsed and was so beautifully danced that it was hard to accept that the dancers were part of a youth ensemble. The film that preceded it (also from 2013) was a fascinating piece of footage showing, with close-ups and long shots, dancers performing outdoors in a landscape that epitomises the ‘wide brown land’ of Australia. The seamless transition from film to live performance was engaging to say the least as a scrim that had been the screen slowly lifted to reveal the dancers onstage in more or less the same position as the final screen image. And the dancing began. Where we gather with its accompanying film opened the show and set the scene for an evening of which QL2 Dance can only be extraordinarily proud.

'Where we gather' from 'Two Zero'. Quantum Leap, 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim

From film to performance of Where we gather from Two Zero. Quantum Leap, 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Jodie Farrugia’s This land is calling from the project Identify of 2011 was remounted for this season by Alison Plevey and was perhaps the most moving work on the program. Its focus on aspects of migration to Australia from the arrival of convicts to the present waves of refugee migration was powerfully yet simply presented. Suitcases were used as props by some, others had nothing, a convict was chained round the wrists. Groupings were sometimes confronting, sometimes comforting. It was a thoughtful and forceful piece of choreography enhanced by lighting and projections that opened our eyes to the extent and diversity of migration to this country.

Scene from 'This land is calling' in 'Two Zero'. Quantum Leap, 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Scene from This land is calling from Two Zero. Quantum Leap, 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

I was intrigued by Eliza Sanders’ section called Bigger. It was a new work for ten female dancers, which examined the impact of shared female experiences and their outcomes. Sanders choreographs in a way that seems quite different from her colleagues. Her movement style is mostly without the extreme physicality of other Quantum Leap alumni and yet is fascinating in its fluidity and emphasis on varied groupings of dancers. I was not all that impressed, however, with its opening where all ten dancers were huddled (or muddled) together each holding some kind of reflecting object. It turned out to be a sort of perspex magnifying glass that indicated (we slowly discovered) the growth of experience. I could have done with less emphasis on the magnifications. The moments without them were full of joyous movement.

Scene from 'Bigger' in 'Two Zero'. Quantum Leap 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Scene from Bigger from Two Zero. Quantum Leap 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Other works were by Sara Black, Fiona Malone, Steve Gow and Ruth Osborne. All added an individualistic perspective to the evening.

One aspect of the show bothered me. Black and white striped, calf-length pants were a feature of the costume design for several sections and were worn under differently coloured T-shirts. They worked in some but not all sections. In Ruth Osborne’s Me/Us, a new work in which the dancers spoke of their thoughts about themselves and where they saw their place in society, they were at their best. Similarly they worked well in Steve Gow’s strongly choreographed Empower. But I thought they looked ugly underneath the white floating garments used in Bigger.

Scene from 'Me/Us' in Two Zero. Quantum Leap, 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Scene from Me/Us from Two Zero. Quantum Leap, 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Nevertheless, Two Zero was a thrill to watch and its finale Celebrate! showed us a mini retrospective of what had happened before. The achievements of Quantum Leap, its collaborators across art forms, and the remarkable list of alumni who have emerged from it over twenty years, are spectacular. May the work continue for at least another twenty years.

Finale to ‘Two Zero’. Quantum Leap, 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim

Finale to Two Zero. Quantum Leap, 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Two Zero: Choreography: Sara Black, Jodie Farrugia, Steve Gow, Fiona Malone, Ruth Osborne, Daniel Riley, Eliza Sanders. Music: Adam Ventoura, Warwick Lynch. Film: Wildbear Entertainment. Lighting: Mark Dyson. Costumes: Cate Clelland.

Michelle Potter, 11 August 2018

UPDATE (13/08/2018): see the shorter review online in The Canberra Times at this link.

Featured image: Scene from Where we gather from Two Zero. Quantum Leap, 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Scene from 'Where we gather' from Two Zero, Quantum Leap, 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Edna Busse and Kenneth Gillespie in 'The Black Swan', Borovansky Ballet, 1951

Edna Busse celebrates 100 years

Former Borovansky Ballet dancer, Edna Busse, has just celebrated her 100th birthday. Busse was born in Melbourne in 1918 and received her early dance training with Eunice Weston. She was for a time junior assistant to Weston but later studied with Xenia Borovansky at the Borovansky Ballet Academy and subsequently danced with the Borovansky Ballet from its earliest days. With that company she danced a variety of roles including those in Borovansky’s restaging of Anna Pavlova’s Autumn Leaves and in Frederick Ashton’s Façade staged by Laurel Martyn. She also danced in the classics as produced by Borovansky, as well as in a number of Borovansky’s own works such as L’Amour ridicule and Fantasy on Grieg’s Piano Concerto.

Edna Busse and dancers of the Borovansky Ballet in 'Autumn Leaves', 1946. Photo Hugh P Hall

Edna Busse and dancers of the Borovansky Ballet in Autumn Leaves, 1946. Photo: Hugh P Hall. National Library of Australia

By 1946 she was prima ballerina with the company and the first fully Australian trained dancer to reach the rank of principal. Her most frequent partners were Martin Rubinstein and Serge Bousloff.

Edna Busse and Martin Rubinstein in the Blue Bird pas de deux, Borovanksy Ballet 1940s. Photo: Phil Ward
Serge Bousloff with Edna Busse (left) and Rachel Cameron in 'L'amour ridicule', Borovansky Ballet 1940. Photo Hugh P Hall

 

(left) Edna Busse and Martin Rubinstein in Bluebird pas de deux. Photo Phil Ward; (right) Serge Bousloff with Edna Busse (left) and Rachel Cameron (right) in L’Amour ridicule. Photo: Hugh P Hall. Borovansky Ballet, 1940s. National Library of Australia

One of the most remarkable works in which she took the leading role during her career with the Borovansky Ballet was The Black Swan, Borovansky’s second ballet on an Australian theme following on from his Terra Australis of 1946. Danced to music by Sibelius and with designs by William Constable, The Black Swan was based on an historical incident in 1697 when a Captain Vlaming from the Dutch East India Company encountered and named Rottnest Island and the river on which the city of Perth now stands. He was particularly struck by the number of black swans on the river and his crew captured several and took them back to Java. A libretto, written around this incident by M. Millet, told the story of the Captain entranced by a black swan as a symbol of a new (to him) land. The work was first performed in 1949. Busse took the role of the Black Swan in productions of 1950 and 1951.

Scene from The Black Swan. Borovansky Ballet, 1951

Scene from The Black Swan. Borovansky Ballet, 1951

Busse went to London in 1952 where she danced at the Palladium in a variety of shows, including in the pantomime Cinderella in 1953. While overseas she studied with Mathilde Kschessinska in Paris but came back to Australia in 1955 when family illness required her return. In Australia she was given a contract by entrepreneur Harry Wren and continued to dance for another few years, including in the Tivoli Circuit’s production of The Good Old Days (1956–1957) and as a guest artist with Laurel Martyn’s Victorian Ballet Guild. Injury forced her to retire. Busse then taught in Melbourne for several years before opening a ballet school in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, in 1968. With the support of a local consortium she established Inland Ballet and, over many years, produced both the classics and new works for this company.

Edna Busse was interviewed for the National Library of Australia’s Oral History and Folklore Program in 2014 and her time in Wagga Wagga is discussed in more detail there. The interview, which has been debated somewhat on this website, is not available online but copies are available via the National Library via the ‘order a copy’ tab.

Michelle Potter, 9 August 2018

Featured image: Edna Busse and Kenneth Gillespie in The Black Swan, Borovansky Ballet, 1950–1951. National Library of Australia

Edna Busse and Kenneth Gillespie in 'The Black Swan', Borovansky Ballet, 1950

Jocelyn Vollmar in the Borovansky production of 'Symphonie fantastique', 1955. Photo: Walter Stringer

Jocelyn Vollmar (1925–2018)

American ballerina Jocelyn Vollmar has died in San Francisco at the age of 92. Born in San Francisco, Vollmar began her dance training aged 12 at San Francisco Ballet School under William Christensen and Gisella Caccialanza. As a student she danced in the first American Coppélia and the first American full-length Swan Lake in 1940. She joined San Francisco Ballet in 1943 and her roles in the following years included the Snow Queen in Nutcracker in 1944, and Myrthe in Giselle in 1947 with guests Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin. In the late 1940s she danced as a principal with New York City Ballet and Ballet Theatre and studied further in Paris with Lubov Egorova and Olga Preobrajenska. She also danced with the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas in the early 1950s.

Vollmar was invited by Edouard Borovansky to come to Australia as ballerina with his Borovansky Ballet for his season beginning in 1954. Her first role with the Borovansky company was the Street Dancer in Le beau Danube where critics praised her ‘talent for mime’ and her ‘spirited dancing.’ Over the course of a two year term with the Borovansky Ballet, Vollmar  danced leading roles in all the company’s productions including the classics such as GiselleLes SylphidesNutcracker in a new production by David Lichine, and Swan Lake Act II, and in the Borovansky Ballet’s stagings of the Ballets Russes repertoire including PetrouchkaLes Presages: Fifth SymphonyLa Boutique fantasqueScheherazade and Le beau Danube. Her partners with the Borovansky Ballet included Vassilie Trunoff and Royes Fernandez and fellow principal dancer, Peggy Sager, spoke of the great versatility she brought to the company during her brief time with them.

Vollmar returned to San Francisco when the Borovansky Ballet went into recess in 1956 and, although invited to return to Australia for the next Borovansky season, she decided to stay in her home city. She danced with San Francisco Ballet until 1972. On retirement from performing Vollmar took up teaching and when Helgi Tomasson took over San Francisco Ballet in 1985 he invited her to teach in the company school, where she taught and coached upper division classes until 2005.

Jocelyn Vollmar. Born San Francisco 25 November 1925; died San Francisco 13 July 2018.

Michelle Potter, 8 August 2018

Featured image: Jocelyn Vollmar in the Borovansky production of Symphonie fantastique, 1955. Photo: Walter Stringer

Dance diary. July 2018

  • New patron for Canberra’s QL2 Dance

It has just been announced that Canberra’s youth dance organisation QL2 Dance has a new patron, Sydney Dance Company’s artistic director Rafael Bonachela. He joins Shirley McKechnie, AO, as co-patron following the retirement of Sir William Deane, AC, KBE, QC and Lady Deane who had been much respected patrons for fourteen years.

Bonachela has worked with many former QL2 dancers some of whom have joined Sydney Dance Company to pursue their professional careers, including Sam Young Wright now dancing in Germany with Jacopo Godani’s Dresden Frankfurt Dance Company. Other alumni include Daniel Riley now dancing with and choreographing for Bangarra Dance Theatre, Jack Ziesing formerly with Expressions Dance Company, now with Dancenorth, and James Batchelor, independent artist. Bonachela has recognised the qualities of alumni of QL2 saying:

It is an honour and a privilege to be the QL2 Dance Patron for 2018. QL2 Dance truly sets the example for quality dance in Canberra and nationwide. Over my choreographic career I have worked with many artists that have passed through their doors and commend them all on their professionalism, technique and creativity. The training and performance platform that QL2 offer to youth dancers and emerging artists in Australia is of the highest standard; an invaluable asset to the local community. I look forward to joining and supporting QL2 on their journey into the future.

Quantum Leap, the QL2 performing arm, will celebrate its twentieth anniversary from 9–11 August at the Canberra Theatre Centre with a production called Two Zero. Choreography will be by Eliza Sanders, Stephen Gow, Sara Black, Ruth Osborne, Alison Plevey, Dean Cross and Daniel Riley, with the Quantum Leap Ensemble.

Sam Young-Wright and Chloe Leong in ‘Variation 10’ from Triptych, Sydney Dance Company, 2015. Photo: © Peter Grieg

  • Dame Gillian Lynne (1926–2018)

I was sorry to hear of the death of Gillian Lynne early in July, although I had heard when last in London that she was not at all well. In my April Dance Diary I recalled briefly her work for Robert Helpmann in Australia and more recently for Birmingham Royal Ballet, and also commented on how much I enjoyed reading her autobiography A dancer in wartime. Here is a link to an obituary published in London by The Guardian.

Some time ago now (in 2011 to be exact) when I was working on an article for Dance Research about the Dandré-Levitoff tours, I posted an article on Alexander Levitoff. Very recently a comment on that article was made and in it was included an extremely interesting catalogue of photographs, including some of Levitoff. But there are many others that I have not seen elsewhere.  Here is the link to the 2011 post. Scroll down for the comments and the link.

  • Press for July 2018

‘Dark Emu lacking in structure.’ Review of Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Dark Emu. The Canberra Times, 30 July 2018, p. 20. Online version at this link.

Michelle Potter, 31 July 2018

Featured image: Portrait of Rafael Bonachela (detail), 2013. Photo: © Ben Symons

Dancers of Bangarra Dance Theatre in 'Dark Emu', 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Dark Emu. Bangarra Dance Theatre

Below is a slightly expanded version of my review of Dark Emu. The online Canberra Times review was posted earlier at this link.

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26 July 2018, Canberra Theatre

Dark Emu, Bangarra Dance Theatre’s newest production, is inspired by a book of the same name by Bruce Pascoe. In the book Pascoe examines aspects of Aboriginal life prior to the arrival of British settlers. In particular he shows quite convincingly that Aboriginal people were not simply hunters and gathers living in a kind of rudimentary lean-to structure. On the contrary, they cultivated the land, build sturdy and lasting housing for themselves, built dams and used irrigation techniques for their crops, stored food, governed themselves and so on. The history that in general has been passed down to white people simply doesn’t tell us such things. But reading the book in the week before the show, I wondered how Pascoe’s story would translate into dance.

I don’t think it translated very well to tell the truth and I wish I hadn’t read the book in advance. There was a strong historical argument in Pascoe’s book, but in setting out that argument he used very specific examples. In one section of the book, for example, Pascoe talks about the Indigenous use of fire for back burning. A section of the dance clearly was about fire—if nothing else the lighting told us so. But the choreography didn’t really give us the significance of the use of fire, nor that its use was seen very differently by white settlers. The later sections, however, were more obvious when there was some conflict between groups and when Indigenous culture stood tall and proud at the end. I guess the show was meant to portray the spirit of the book and convey an emotional message. But it was somewhat frustrating trying to understand where the work was going.

But putting that aspect of the show aside, there was some excellent dancing and every dancer deserves praise for the poise and commitment they demonstrated throughout the work. I enjoyed the rhythmic movement patterning of sections such as Kangaroo Grass. I also especially liked a trio, Grain Dust, performed by Kaine Sultan-Babij, Beau Dean Riley Smith and Yolande Lowatta. It had some beautifully organic moves and Smith in particular stood out for the way in which he used every part of his body so expressively. In fact, whenever he was on stage, even when wearing that red wig, it was hard to look at anyone else.

Beau Dean Riley Smith and dancers of Bangarra Dance Theatre in 'Dark Emu', 2018. Photo: Dancers of Bangarra Dance Theatre in 'Dark Emu', 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Beau Dean Riley Smith and dancers of Bangarra Dance Theatre in Dark Emu, 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

I also admired Jacob Nash’s backcloth. Structurally, it reminded me of a kind of Blue Poles set in the bush. In many respects, with its complex lines and swirls and gentle colours, it carried the strongest message of the inventiveness of Aboriginal activity prior to British settlement. But I was surprised when I saw Jennifer Irwin’s costumes close up in media images. From where I was sitting, or  perhaps with the kind of lighting being used, I didn’t notice the extent of the detail that she used (as she usually does) in her choice of fabric. I was not a huge fan of the music (by Steve Francis). Most previous Bangarra productions have always seemed to have had a stronger Indigenous resonance in their scores.


Dancers of Bangarra Dance Theatre in Dark Emu, 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Last year’s Bennelong was always going to be a hard act to follow. It managed narrative and emotion and gave us both in spades. Dark Emu was emotive but seemed not to have a strong enough structure to make it as powerful as I had hoped, even with input, apparently, from dramaturg Alana Valentine.

Michelle Potter, 27 July 2018

Featured image: Dancers of Bangarra Dance Theatre in Dark Emu, 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Ballet Rambert in Australia, c. 1948. Collection of Pamela Vincent

Ballet Rambert in Australasia 1947–1949

Early in July I gave a brief presentation in Melbourne at the Cecchetti Ballet conference for 2018. The conference included a session relating to Marie Rambert and the tour made by Ballet Rambert to Australia and New Zealand between 1947 and 1949. Other speakers for this session were Jonathan Taylor, Audrey Nicholls and Maggie Lorraine who spoke about their experiences with the company after the Australasian tour. As we each had just 10 minutes each my introductory talk was necessarily brief. Nevertheless, I am posting it here.

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Ballet Rambert, led by the irrepressible Marie Rambert, came to Australia in 1947 for a tour that lasted until January 1949. On this slide you can see two of the dancers who made a particular impact in Australia, Belinda Wright and John Gilpin, both very young at this stage in their careers. In many respects the Rambert tour has been somewhat neglected compared with the attention that has been given to the Ballets Russes companies whose tours to Australia took place largely in the mid to late 1930s and in 1940. Today I only have 10 minutes to talk to you about the Rambert tour, which I delved into while writing my biography of Dame Margaret Scott. Maggie, as you most likely know, first came to Australia with the Rambert company and then made her subsequent career in Australia.

On this slide I have listed the towns and cities visited by the company. Unfortunately, the information for the New Zealand leg of the tour is not complete. I didn’t investigate that side of the company’s activities in great detail because Maggie Scott didn’t go to New Zealand. She was lying in bed in a plaster cast in St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney. So, the New Zealand leg of the tour needs a bit more research.

Perhaps the most surprising part of the tour is a visit to Broken Hill, a three-night stand made in January 1948. It was made possible by sponsorship from several mining companies in the area. A local newspaper, Barrier Daily Truth, reported that Marie Rambert had introduced each ballet. ‘She was almost a star turn in herself, for she made no weary speeches but tickled the audience’s fancy by her humorous and witty remarks and explanations of the ballets’. But I’m sure it was a somewhat remarkable experience for the dancers to go to Broken Hill. This is what Broken Hill looked like then in a photo, sadly badly faded, from the private collection of one of the dancers.

And the weather was enervating. It was well over 100⁰ Fahrenheit in the shade each day and the dancers were sometimes performing in costumes that were heavy and very hot to wear. Those for The Fugitive for example were made of heavy English felt. But Cecil Bates, an Australian member of the company, recalls that they were well looked after. ‘The local people kept a running chain of iced orange juice in huge metal ice cream containers. They just kept a continuous line of it and as we came off stage we would have a glass of icy cold juice and then go back on. We would have passed out otherwise’.

But the tour was extensive and, on this slide, I give you Mme Rambert herself.

You see her on the left in Brisbane in 1948 looking very smart as she signs some document or other, while on the right you see her accepting applause for the opening night performance, the first performance in Australia in Melbourne. I know that other speakers will have more to say about Mme Rambert so I will simply let you heart her voice. She is speaking from Adelaide in 1948 giving the interviewer her thoughts on the success of the tour. And you’ll hear Ron Sullivan, the interviewer, attempting to get a word in every so often….but failing! Voice of Marie Rambert.

Not only was the tour extensive in terms of cities visited and time spent in Australia, the repertoire was also interesting.

This page from the souvenir program gives you an idea of the variety of fare that Australian audiences saw. There were classics of course but also works from English choreographers who were in the early stages of their careers—Frederick Ashton and Antony Tudor, for example—as well as female choreographers such as Andrée Howard and Ninette de Valois, as well as others from within the company including Walter Gore and Frank Staff.

And I’d like to play you some comments about the tour by Australian designer Kenneth Rowell. Rowell was an emerging designer at the time and for him major commissions were few and far between in Australia. He was offered the commission to design Winter Night, a ballet by Walter Gore, which was the only work created in Australia by the Rambert company. Voice of Kenneth Rowell

And on the next slide I have some photos taken by two Australian photographers who did much to document the tour: Jean Stewart with some portraits of dancers, and Walter Stringer with a variety of performance shots.In the top row you see Sally Gilmour in Peter and the Wolf, Joyce Graeme in Peter and the Wolf, Margaret Scott in Gala performance, and Brenda Hamlyn in Soirée musicale.

One aspect of the tours that I found quite fascinating was the extra-curricular activities of the dancers and support staff. It was quite well known that, while in Australia, the Ballets Russes dancers engaged in all manner of socialising with visits to koala sanctuaries, swimming parties, dinners given by fans and sponsors and so on. But so did the Rambert dancers. And in this next slide are two images from the personal scrapbook and album of Pamela Vincent, a Rambert dancer who incidentally married an Australian musician, Douglas Whittaker. I was lucky enough to have access to Pamela Vincent’s material at the Rambert Archives in London. So, the Rambert dancers also had good times on their days off.

And when in Sydney, the dancers frequented a bohemian establishment called Merioola, home to artists, photographers, poets, and writers. Here you see Walter Gore at Merioola and the big house itself (now demolished) which was in Woollahra. And if you think back to the repertoire list I showed earlier, that page and much of the souvenir booklet was designed by Loudon Sainthill who was part of the Merioola group,

Another extra-curricular activity that is quite interesting relates to the ballet Simple Symphony, which was created in England by Walter Gore during World War II when on leave from duty in France with the armed forces and which was created largely on Sally Gilmour and Margaret Scott. It premiered in Bristol, England, in November 1944 and was performed throughout the Rambert Australasian tour. A note in Rambert Australian programs says it was ‘a thank-offering created by Walter Gore … a few months after he was twice torpedoed on D-Day’. It was also filmed during the Australian tour at Sandgate, a beachside suburb north of Brisbane. It was anticipated that the film would be distributed to schools in Queensland, although I am not sure whether this ever happened. The photo you see was taken on location during the filming in September 1948 and a copy of the film is now in the National Film and Sound Archive.

So, thank you. There is so much more to say, listen to and watch of course but I hope this has given you a glimpse of the Ballet Rambert tour. Should you be interested in more, you may like to read my biography of Dame Margaret Scott, which is still available through the website of Text Publishing here in Melbourne. Thank you.

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Dame Maggie Scott cover

Follow this link for information on how to order via the Text website.

Here is a taster of what Maggie and her friend Sally Gilmour experienced on their first day in inner city Melbourne: ‘The first day we woke up I heard this noise, a commotion outside. You really wouldn’t believe it but there were some sheep dogs rounding up a flock of sheep outside the hotel—getting them out of the doorways, running along their backs. It was really quite extraordinary.’

 

See also an article published in December 2002 by the National Library in their monthly magazine (now defunct unfortunately) National Library of Australia News. Here is a link to that article.

Michelle Potter, 24 July 2018

Featured image: Ballet Rambert in Australia, c. 1948. Collection of Pamela Vincent. Marie Rambert in the sulky perhaps?

Ballet Rambert in Australia, c. 1948. Collection of Pamela Vincent

Beau Dean Riley Smith (centre) as Bennelong, Bangarra Dance Theatre 2017. Photo: Vishal Pandey

Australian Dance Awards 2018. The short list

The names of short listed nominees for the 2018 Australian Dance Awards have just been released. As usual the list shows the amazing variety of dance and dance practitioners we have in Australia, so it was not easy to decide which image to use as the featured one on this post. In the end I opted for an image by Vishal Pandey, a photographer who is relatively new on the Australian dance scene and who has been active in Canberra recently. It is of Beau Dean Riley Smith who is nominated for his role as Woollarawarre Bennelong in Bangarra’s work, Bennelong. Joining Smith on the short list for the award of Outstanding Performance by a Male Dancer are Richard Causer, Nelson Earl and Kimball Wong. All gave spectacular performances in particular works in 2017 and any one of them could take out the award.

Here is a link to the media release, which gives the full short list. The recipient of the award for ‘Lifetime Achievement’ will be made public shortly before the awards ceremony. The ceremony for 2018 will be held in Brisbane at the Powerhouse on 8 September 2018. Tickets for the ceremony are available now. Follow this link. The booking link also contains all kinds of useful information about the event and the venue

Michelle Potter, 9 July 2018

Featured image: Beau Dean Riley Smith (centre) as Bennelong, Bangarra Dance Theatre 2017. Photo: Vishal Pandey. With Smith are (left) Tara Robertson and (right) Kaine Sultan-BabijBeau Dean Riley Smith (centre) as Bennelong, Bangarra Dance Theatre 2017. Photo: Vishal Pandey

Verve. The Australian Ballet

29 June 2018, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

The Australian Ballet’s latest triple bill, Verve, once again raises the fascinating question of what is contemporary ballet? And once again the three works on the program, one each from Stephen Baynes, Tim Harbour, and Alice Topp are examples of how varied answers to that question can be.

Constant Variants from Baynes was first made in 2007 although this is the first time I have seen it. It opened the program. It is impeccably constructed and is so at one with the music, Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, that it is like seeing as well as hearing the sound. It gives us lyrical movement and sculptural poses. There are moments of playfulness and moments of wonderful unison from the dancers—a male trio stands out in particular. Michael Pearce’s set of partial picture frames, variously coloured, glow beautifully under Jon Buswell’s lighting. Constant Variants is calming, beautiful and recognisably classical.

Andrew Killian, Ako Kondo, and Brett Simon in 'Constant Variants'. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Andrew Killian, Ako Kondo, and Brett Simon in Constant Variants. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

The evening closed with Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow, first seen in 2015. I felt uneasy in 2015 and still do. Choreographically it is detailed in the extreme and the dancers capture that detail beautifully. But they constantly move sharply, cutting the air with their limbs, and I longed for a bit of curve to break up the razor-edged look. Aggression and anger predominate. But what makes me especially uneasy is that Filigree and Shadow doesn’t lead anywhere. I can’t see a structure, just a constant coming and going. For me that doesn’t work.

Scene from 'Filigree and Shadow'. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Scene from Filigree and Shadow. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Placed in the middle of the program was Topp’s latest creation, Aurum, danced to four separate works by Ludovico Einaudi. And it was astonishing. There is a choreographer’s explanation for the inspiration behind the work, which is the Japanese art of repairing broken ceramics with gold or metallic lacquer. But to tell the truth Aurum exists without an intellectual explanation. It is completely visceral. It is about us and how we connect and we are just carried along by its emotional power.

Its surging choreography is compelling (althought there were a few moments when I felt I was watching a phrase or two from a work by Jiri Kylian). But I loved the gorgeous, swooping lifts, the stretched and elongated bodies, and the often precarious balances. A particularly moving pas de deux between Adam Bull and Coco Mathieson stood out.

Adam Bull and Coco Mathieson in 'Aurum'. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo:Scene from 'Filigree and Shadow'. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Adam Bull and Coco Mathieson in Aurum. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

And of course there was that amazing group section, the third of the ‘movements’. It completely engulfed the audience as it pounded its way to a conclusion when the audience broke out into an uproar of pleasure and excitement (and it wasn’t even opening night). Then there was the final section, another pas de deux this time between Kevin Jackson and Leanne Stojmenov, which played with shadows and was thrillingly lit by Jon Buswell. It seemed to resolve all the emotional drama that had gone before it.

It is hard to remember another work that has had such an instant impact in Australia, except perhaps Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room. Let’s hope Aurum gets another showing soon.

Michelle Potter, 1 July 2018

Featured image: Kevin Jackson and Leanne Stojmenov in Aurum. The Australian Ballet 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby