Jean Stewart 1921-2017

Jean Stewart (1921–2017)

Jean Stewart, esteemed dance photographer, has died in Melbourne aged 95. Jean was a radiographer by profession but had studied photography at RMIT. Ballet was her passion and she created an amazing archive of photographs of Australian companies in the 1940s and 1950s, especially of the Borovansky Ballet and Laurel Martyn’s Ballet Guild. She also photographed Ballet Rambert during its momentous tour to Australia 1947–1949. Later she took casual shots of dancers in social rather than performance settings.

Her work is currently represented in various libraries and performing arts collections around Australia. Her material is of inestimable value to those who take an interest in our balletic heritage.

 

I first met Jean in 1996 when I was curating a National Library exhibition, Dance people, dance. I used a number of her photographs in that exhibition and since then have used her work in various of my publications, more recently in my biography of Dame Margaret Scott, Dame Maggie Scott. A life in dance. I greatly appreciated Jean’s generosity in giving permission for her work to be used.

Above is a random selection of her photographs. With the exception of the photograph of Gailene Stock and Gary Norman, all are from the collection of the National Library of Australia

Jean Stewart: Born Melbourne, 31 October 1921. Died Melbourne, 18 August 2017.

Gallery: (top row) Walter Gore in The Fugitive, Ballet Rambert, c. 1948; Martin Rubinstein in Le beau Danube, Borovansky Ballet, c. 1946; Eric Brown in The Sentimental Bloke, Ballet Guild, 1952. (middle row) Edouard Borovansky in Le Carnaval, Borovansky Ballet, c. 1944; Janet Karin and Ray Trickett in Voyageur, Ballet Guild, 1957; Gailene Stock and Gary Norman, Melbourne, 2012. (bottom row) Peggy Sager and Martin Rubinstein in Terra Australis, Borovansky Ballet, 1946; Laurel Martyn in Coppélia, Ballet Guild, 1952; Joyce Graeme in Peter and the Wolf, Ballet Rambert Australian tour, 1948.

Michelle Potter, 21 August 2017

‘Blue Love.’ Shaun Parker & Lucia Mastrantone

17 August 2017. Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre

I have to admit to being curious as to what Blue Love would be like. The last time I saw Shaun Parker he was a dancer with Meryl Tankard Australian Dance Theatre and, for a whole variety of reasons, I had not seen the works he had performed in or made after leaving the company and taking on his own, independent career. Well, I have to say I loved what he presented in Blue Love. It was outrageous at times, very clever at others, sometimes hilarious, and always entertaining.

Much of the pre-show media mentioned that it was a multi-media experience, which it was, especially as a result of the three short films that were screened during the evening. Parker had made these films close to 20 years ago and they showed him and his original co-performer, Jo Stone, engaged in various social activities, occasionally of a somewhat dubious nature. But, as interesting as these films were as a look-back at a certain lifestyle from the 1970s, I was more taken with other aspects of the show.

The way in which Parker involved the audience was a bit like a children’s pantomime for grown-ups, beginning as we entered the auditorium and were welcomed as guests at an intimate party in the home of Glenn Flune (Parker) and his wife Rhonda (Lucia Mastrantone). And you wouldn’t believe the people who were there! As people walked in and settled into their seats, Parker kept spotting (imaginary) celebrities—from Cate Blanchett to Pauline Hanson! Warming up to the laughter all this caused, Parker continued throughout the piece to ask questions of and make comments to the audience. Perhaps the most startlingly hilarious was ‘Would you like a grape?’ during a near nude scene between the Flunes. Glenn Flune’s only covering (apart from shoes and socks) was a strategically placed bunch of grapes. He faced the audience displaying his grapes and asked the question.

Shaun Parker and Lucia Mastrantone in 'Blue Love'. Photo: © David James McCarthy

Shaun Parker and Lucia Mastrantone in Blue Love, Canberra 2017. Photo: © David James McCarthy

I also loved the dance moves that peppered the piece. In fact the dancing in Blue Love was often quite physically demanding. There were many times when Parker lifted Mastrantone and flung her this way and that—not easy by any means. And both performers just took those moves in their stride. Then there were the costumes, so redolent of the 1970s. Mastrantone wore a blue mini-length dress and boots, Parker a brown suit. Then there were the flowers in the hair, the fox fur wrap, the hairstyles, and so on.

Shaun Parker and Lucia Mastrantone in Blue Love, Canberra 2017. Photo: © David James McCarthy

But in the end Blue Love set out to examine human relationships, or those between a man and a woman, in a search for perfect love. There were the cosy bits and the not so cosy, and the unfolding of the ups and downs of the couple led to the finale when the dialogue was composed pretty much entirely of lines from popular songs, mainly from the 1970s with some a little earlier and some a little later. Much laughter here too—laughter that we recognised the sentences, laughter at how smart it all was? And with the final exhortation to love the one you love the Flunes retired to their bedroom.

Blue Love was just a wonderfully entertaining show, behind which there was a clever mind at work focusing the show in a certain direction. I occasionally could hear Meryl Tankard’s voice behind it all, which is not surprising given Parker’s long association with Tankard. This is not to say that Parker does not a have a voice of his own. But there was a wonderful association with what Tankard was able to do—present a larrikin show, wonderfully Australian on the surface but with a more serious subtext. More please.

My preview story for Blue Love is at this link.

Michelle Potter, 20 August 2017

Shaun Parker and Lucia Mastrantone in Blue Love, Canberra 2017. Photo © David James McCarthy

‘The search for identity. Australian dance in the 1950s’

In March 2017 I was a speaker at the first BOLD Festival, an event directed by Liz Lea and held in Canberra. It set out to examine dance heritage in Australia.

BOLD press release detail

The paper I presented at the National Film and Sound Archive, The search for identity. Australian dance in the 1950s, had a narrow focus, despite its title. I made some comments on my paper in my Dance Diary for March 2017, but I have been wanting to publish the full text on this site for several months. Unfortunately, I cannot add the vision I used, which came from the collection of the National Film and Sound Archive, but here is the link to the text and PPT images.

In addition, here is the link to the audio I used from an oral history interview with Valrene Tweedie, and also the link to Dr Liz Conor’s article on Aboriginalia, to which I refer in the text of the paper.

Michelle Potter, 13 August 2017

‘La Fille mal gardée.’ Queensland Ballet

9 August 2017. Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

It is always refreshing to see a different version of a well-known work. And so it was with Queensland Ballet’s La Fille mal gardée. The version that is well-known to many Australian dance-goers is by Frederick Ashton, which Ashton made for the Royal Ballet in 1960, and which has been in the repertoire of the Australian Ballet since 1967 (although it hasn’t been shown for several years). On the other hand, Queensland Ballet, in a co-production with West Australian Ballet, staged a relatively new version by French-born, freelance choreographer Marc Ribaud, which he made in 2000 for the Nice Opera Ballet.

Ribaud has retained the basic narrative. It follows the story of Lise and Colas who wish to marry, but whose wishes are thwarted by Lise’s mother, the Widow Simone—she would prefer that Lise marry the eccentric and wealthy Alain whose greatest love is for his umbrella. But the overall tone of Ribaud’s Fille, which is set in the south of France in the 1950s, is quite different from that in the Ashton work. The choreography for Ribaud’s work is classically based but is boisterous and full of fast-paced dancing. It seems to fill the stage in an entirely different way from Ashton’s work, which seems very English in its rather gentle and considered choreographic approach. Ribaud’s Fille, at least with the cast I saw, also has strong overtones of slapstick. While Ashton gives us references to pantomime, his are much more restrained. Perhaps more subtle?

Ribaud has also retained some audience favourites from the Ashton version, albeit with changes. The famous clog dance is there although the Widow is accompanied by four village lads who tap away beside her as she goes through her clog routine. The chicken dance is also there but in a variant form. There are no dancers dressed in chicken outfits, just four male friends of Colas and Lise, dressed in jeans and giving us chicken-like gestures—chins poking forward as they move, hands with fingers spread to represent a chicken’s comb and so on. It was hilarious and very clever.

As Lise, Lina Kim with her smooth and lyrical technique was absolutely charming—it was her first performance in the role too. She showed such a variety of emotion, depending on who else was involved at any one time, and her mime scene in the last act, when she imagines what might be should she marry Colas, was just gorgeous, as was her later embarrassment when she thought Colas had seen her. Shane Wuerthner was an ardent Colas and in the opening pas de deux set the scene beautifully for what was to follow. I was impressed, in fact, with all Ribaud’s pas de deux, which often reminded me of the style of Bournonville as so often Lise and Colas danced side by side in a complementary manner rather than the man having a more supportive role. That is not to say, of course, that there were no lifts and, in fact, when they occurred they varied from soaring lifts to shapes, often with upturned feet, in which Lise’s body wrapped round or curled up to that of Colas.

Despite a little trouble with his umbrella (it broke) and his hat, Ze Wu gave a strong performance as Alain and I look forward to seeing more of him in the future—his technical range looks prodigious. The umbrella and hat problems were beautifully and professionally handled by the cast, to the extent that the Widow Simone adopted the broken umbrella and stroked it lovingly! Joel Woellner as the Widow was totally outrageous. He was the slapstick hero(ine) and milked the audience at every opportunity. And of course the audience loved it and responded with laughter and cheers. And I enjoyed that Lina Kim gave back the way she did every time she was scolded.

Costumes by Lexi De Silva, sets by Richard Roberts and lighting by Jon Buswell provided a great background for the dancers of Queensland Ballet. Music was performed by Camerata—Queensland’s Chamber Orchestra and conducted with his usual skill by Nigel Gaynor. This Fille is a little gem and Queensland Ballet continues to show what a terrific company it has become. Bouquets to all.

(I have no images of the cast I saw, unfortunately. But below are some from another cast.)

Jack Lister as the Widow Simone and Camilo Ramos as Alain in 'La Fille mal gardee. Photo: David Kelly
Victor Estevez as Colas in La Fille mal gardee. Queensland ballet 2017. Photo: David Kelly

 

Artists of Queensland Ballet in 'La Fille mal gardee', 2017. Photo: © David Kelly

Artists of Queensland Ballet in La Fille mal gardée, 2017. Photos: © David Kelly

Michelle Potter, 12 August 2017

Featured image: Artists of Queensland Ballet in La Fille mal gardée, 2017. Photo: © David Kelly

‘Blue Love.’ Shaun Parker & Company

Recently I spoke to Shaun Parker about his work Blue Love, which will have a short season at the Canberra Theatre Centre later in August. I was somewhat taken aback (to put it mildly) when I saw the byline for the article that appeared in the print version, and its digital copy, of the The Canberra Times (Panorama) this morning (Saturday 5 August 2017). Apparently someone thought Karen Hardy wrote it. She didn’t. I did. Here is the unchangeable byline I saw this morning.

Here is my text.

Dancer and choreographer Shaun Parker always enjoyed taking dance classes as a young boy in Mildura, Victoria, where he was born. But he went on after he’d finished school to study science at Monash University, and it was there that dance re-entered his life. He discovered a dance society at Monash and found himself dancing every night. Dance, with its wide range of collaborative elements, became an all-consuming passion for him and he enrolled at the Victorian College of the Arts with the aim of eventually pursuing a professional career as a dancer.

Not long after graduating from his tertiary dance training he was selected by Meryl Tankard to join her company, Meryl Tankard Australian Dance Theatre, which was just starting up in Adelaide. He stayed with Tankard for seven years, touring across Australia and around the world with her company.

‘It was a wonderful time with Meryl,’ he says. ‘They were formative years for me and it was such a great experience to learn from her and to be exposed to her knowledge. I was heartbroken when Meryl was removed from her role as artistic director. We were leading the world when she was dismissed. It was brutal and a very traumatic time. All the dancers resigned in protest.’

Parker worked as an independent dancer for the next six years with companies in Australia and overseas, including with leading choreographers and directors such as Kate Champion in Australia, Meredith Monk in New York, and Sasha Waltz in Berlin. But eventually the lure of choreography took over and he began working as a freelance choreographer. It was not long, however, before he realised how difficult it was to work in that way, self-producing, writing grants alone, under-taking all the administrative tasks single-handedly, and so on. It was time, he thought, to set up his own company. It took a year or two of organisation, but Shaun Parker & Company came into being in 2010.

‘I needed someone to help me with the day to day aspects of working independently,’ he explains. ‘Now I have that, and I have a group of dancers that I call on from project to project. I make mainstage dance-theatre works with a humanistic element. And, now that I have a daughter—she’s 11, I have begun making works for families and children. This latter part of my work gives me a lot of joy.’

For Canberra, Parker is restaging Blue Love, a work that began back in 1999 when Parker and fellow performer, Jo Stone, were working in Vienna. They went to a karaoke bar one night and started singing along for fun. Parker says they were ‘daggy pop songs’, but they were all about love and it struck him that sometimes a one-liner from a pop song could be intense and meaningful. It set off a chain of events that culminated with Parker and Stone making three short films, shot in North Bondi. The films were screened around the world—Athens, Berlin, Krakow, London, Melbourne, San Francisco, Verona.

Blue Love, the stage show incorporating the films, premiered in 2005. It examines the idea of perfect love and takes the audience on a multi-media expedition in search of the perfect relationship through the experiences of a couple, Glenn Flune played by Parker and his wife Rhonda performed by Lucia Mastrantone. It is a work that Parker describes as part lecture, part operatic theatre, and part group night, and the films are projected onto the wall of the room that forms the set. They become the home movies of Glenn and Rhonda, which they share with the audience.

But Parker also remarks that Blue Love is a highly physical work and he is only too aware of its demands on his body, especially as he has not performed himself for a while now. So he has been taking ballet classes, doing yoga, doing push-ups, running along the beach, and engaging in other physical activities to get back his former strength. But he says he keeps thinking about what he has to offer audiences who come to see Blue Love now.

‘Bringing Blue Love back after several years allows me to dance for a little longer. It’s wonderful to feel that I haven’t yet been put out to pasture. I think it’s a shame that, after all those years of training, dancers are often cast aside when they are quite young. It’s possible to celebrate maturity. When audiences look at the films we are screening, which were made 18 years ago now, they can see young people. But on stage they see an older couple clearly looking back at a former version of themselves. To me that’s quite poetic.’

Michelle Potter, 5 August 2017

Featured image: Shaun Parker and Lucia Mastrantone in Blue Love.  Photo: Simon Wachter