‘Reef UP!’ Liz Lea and dancers

7 October 2017,  Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre

I’ll reverse the usual order of things here and put the verdict first. It comes from my young companion, Ollie, aged 8, who said as we left the Courtyard Studio, ‘It was just too good. I loved it and would like to see it again.’

Liz Lea’s Reef UP! is a show for children (although it’s fun for adults too) about the Great Barrier Reef and some of its inhabitants. It examines the effects that climate change, human intervention, and other problems of our era are having on this magnificent world heritage site. But while it is a didactic piece in so many ways and exhorts us to ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’, it is just gorgeously presented with spectacular costumes, wigs and lighting; decorative props filling the performing space; and underwater footage playing continuously in the background. It is expertly performed by three dancers (Liz Lea, Liesel Zink and Michael Smith), who all are required to make a myriad of quick changes to become different reef creatures; and one imposing gentleman (Greg Barratt from Canberra’s GOLD company) as King Neptune.

Reef UP! is a little in the tradition of the now old-fashioned panto. The performers constantly invited audience involvement, and the children in the audience responded with gusto; and there was a lot of patter and some ad-libbing from the performers as well. But there were also enough contemporary references to make it relevant to young folk today. David Attenborough was referenced several times. His research provided some of the scientific data about various creatures, and about the Reef itself. There was a murmur through the audience whenever his name came up. Then there were references to Star Wars at times, including a fight using a light sabre against the Crown-of-thorns character.

Choreographically the show was uncomplicated but fast-moving and performed to a grab bag of songs and symphonies—from pop to Beethoven. While all the performers carried out their many roles with aplomb and true professionalism, I couldn’t help but admire Liesel Zink in particular. Pure joy in moving coursed through her body. Such a pleasure to watch.

Lea, once again, has surpassed expectations and given young people a new way of looking at a topic through dance. After Canberra, Reef UP!, Lea’s third educational show with a scientific bent, is touring schools in regional Queensland with an Engaging Science Grant from the Queensland Government.

Michelle Potter, 8 October 2017

Featured image: Cast of Reef UP!, Canberra 2017. (l-r) Liesel Zink, Liz Lea, Michael Smith, Greg Barratt. Photo: © David Turbayne

Dalisa Pigram in 'Gudirr, Gudirr' Photo: © Heidrun Lohr

‘Gudirr, Gudirr.’ Dalisa Pigram

30 September 2017, Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre

Gudirr, Gudirr is a solo show, a dance format that we don’t see all that often. A solo show needs a strong performer for a start—someone who single-handedly can hold the audience’s attention for an hour or so. Dalisa Pigram did exactly that in Gudirr, Gudirr. But just as importantly, a solo show needs a powerful idea behind it, and a coherent structure in which the idea can develop. Gudirr, Gudirr had both the message and the structure.

Gudirr, Gudirr is a production by the Broome-based company Marrugeku, of which Pigram is co-artistic director along with Rachael Swain. The focus of the work is a small bird, called Guwayi in the Yawuru language of the Broome area, and using the bird as a pivot for her work was suggested to Pigram by a relative, traditional lawman and cultural adviser to Marrugeku, Senator Patrick Dodson. Senator Dodson is Pigram’s great uncle—her mother’s mother’s brother in the Yawuru kinship system. He explains:

The Guwayi bird flies very low across the intertidal area to warn people out on the reef that the tide is coming in. It warns people that it is time to move because the tide brings danger. It is a warning to take heed of, and not to ignore the signs. The Guwayi bird does not tell lies. I told this story to Dalisa because the story of the Guwayi bird can be used to reflect on the social challenges that Indigenous people face today. The warning sign from the Guwayi bird can go one of two ways. We are either going to drown because we are not reading the signs of our disempowerment, or we will hear the warnings and we will take steps.

Pigram believes strongly that the young people of the Broome community must read the signs and take those steps.

The work begins with words scrolling down a screen at the back of the performing space. The words were written by A. O Neville, so-called ‘Chief Protector of Aborigines’ in Western Australia from 1915 for several decades after that. The words are nothing short of confronting with their reference to ‘quadroons’ and ‘h/c’ people. But, while I was expecting the show to continue to be confronting, ultimately it was moving, powerful and totally absorbing.

In a series of disparate scenes, some accompanied by projections of the faces of people from Broome, or footage of young people engaged in a bit of a street fight, Pigram worked through her frustrations at the difficulties she believes Indigenous people face. These scenes, including the section in which pretty much every word Pigram spoke started with ‘f’, were sometimes hilarious. How quickly can the meaning and impact of a word be changed when used over and over? Great theatre!

Dalisa Pigram in 'Gudirr, Gudirr'. Photo

Dalisa Pigram in Gudirr, Gudirr. Photo: © Terry Murphy and Helen Fletcher-Kennedy

Choreographically, Pigram drew upon the variety of dance styles that have been part of her cultural heritage. In the opening moments her movement derived from silat, a Malaysian form of martial arts that Pigram learnt from a relative. At other times, Pigram’s Indigenous heritage was clear in movements that were quite grounded and recalled women’s dances where the body is bent slightly forward and the feet move with slow, tightly held walking steps.

But for me the most interesting sections were those when Pigram made use of the suspended fishing net that was part of the set/props. She has spoken of it having multiple functions, from entangling her to giving her freedom. She used it early in the piece in a joyous manner when she swung backwards and forwards and recalled with pleasure the times she spent out on the water fishing with her father. But at other times she looked as though she was indeed tangled in it, trying to escape.

I loved this show. So many emotions were expressed and felt and, while the difficult moments, such as those when Pigram dwelt on youth suicide, were indeed confronting, I felt that the anger was mine not Pigram’s. She was bent of presenting herself as a woman of mixed heritage making an effort to understand and deal with the situation in which she found herself. That we could all have the courage to confront the issues that confound us!

Michelle Potter, 4 October 2017

Featured image: Dalisa Pigram in Gudirr, Gudirr. Photo: © Heidrun Lohr

Dalisa Pigram in 'Gudirr, Gudirr' Photo: © Heidrun Lohr

Amy Harris and Adam Bull in 'The Merry Widow'. The Australian Ballet 2018 season. Photo: © Justin Ridle

Dance diary. September 2017

  • The Australian Ballet in 2018

Details of the Australian Ballet’s 2018 season were revealed in September and this year Canberra audiences can anticipate a program from the national company. The Merry Widow, which David McAllister has called ‘a fantastically well-constructed soufflé’, was created for the Australian Ballet in 1975 as the first full-length production commissioned by the company. It will open at the Canberra Theatre Centre on 25 May and run until 30 May. Based on the operetta of the same name, it has choreography by Ronald Hynd, a scenario by Robert Helpmann (in 1975 artistic director of the Australian Ballet), and music by Franz Lehar. It will also have seasons in Sydney and Melbourne.

But beyond soufflés, and for those who like their ballet to have more intellectual input, an interesting program is scheduled for Melbourne and Sydney. Called Murphy, it honours the contribution Graeme Murphy has made to the Australian Ballet, which he joined from the Australian Ballet School in 1968. Programming is not yet complete, apparently, but we know that the main item on the program will be the return of Murphy’s Firebird, which he created for the Australian Ballet in 2009.

Lana Jones in Graeme Murphy's 'Firebird'. The Australian Ballet, 2009. Photo: © Alex MakeyevLana Jones in Graeme Murphy’s Firebird. The Australian Ballet, 2009. Photo: © Alex Makeyev

Here is a quote from Murphy from a story I wrote for The Weekend Australian in February 2009:

I want to give the audience the magic that they believe Firebird is. It will be a rich and opulent experience for them. Besides, the score is completely dictative of the narrative, which makes it hard to stray from the story. Firebird is imbued with Diaghilev’s thumbprint.
I am keeping all the elements of the work, the symbols of good and evil for example, but I will be focusing in a slightly different way. It will be a little like the world of winter opening up to let in the spring.

As for the rest of the season: Maina Gielgud’s production of Giselle will return for a season in Melbourne, while Sydney will have a return season of Alexei Ratmansky’s wonderful Cinderella; there is a new production of Spartacus in the pipeline, which will be seen in Melbourne and Sydney; Melbourne will have an exclusive season of a triple bill called Verve with works by Stephen Baynes, Tim Harbour and Alice Topp; and Adelaide will see The Sleeping Beauty.

For dates and further information see the Australian Ballet’s website at this link.

  • Jennifer Irwin. Frocks, Tales and Tea

Jennifer Irwin, costume designer par excellence and recipient of the 2017 Australian Dance Award for Services to Dance, will be the special guest at an event hosted by ‘UsefulBox’ on 14 October at the Boronia tea rooms in the Sydney suburb of Mosman. Irwin will talk about her creative process and what inspired her as an artist. Further information at this link.

  • Andrée Grau (1954–2017)

The death has occurred, unexpectedly in France, of Andrée Grau, well-known dance anthropologist, and long-standing staff member of the University of Roehampton. Grau’s achievements, which include work in Australia, appear on the Roehampton website at this link.

  • Press for September 2017

‘Great flair shown in austere setting.’ Review of Circa’s Landscape with monsters. The Canberra Times, 8 September 2017, p. 31. Online version.

Seppe Van Looveren and Timothy Fyffe in 'Landscape With Monsters', 2017. Photo: © Vishal PandeySeppe Van Looveren and Timothy Fyffe in Landscape With Monsters, 2017. Photo: © Vishal Pandey

‘Untangling the truth.’ Preview of Gudirr, Gudirr, Dalisa Pigram and Marrugeku. The Canberra Times, 16 September 2017, Panorama p. 16. Online version.

Dalisa Pigram in 'Gudirr, Gudirr'. Photo Simon SchluterDalisa Pigram in Gudirr, Gudirr. Photo: © Simon Schluter

Michelle Potter, 30 September 2017

Featured image: Amy Harris and Adam Bull in The Merry Widow. The Australian Ballet 2018 season. Photo: © Justin Ridler.

Amy Harris and Adam Bull in 'The Merry Widow'. The Australian Ballet 2018 season. Photo: © Justin Ridle

Xenia Borovansky & Tamara Tchinarova Finch

My recent tribute to Tamara Tchinarova Finch brought to light a letter Tchinarova wrote to Xenia Borovansky in 1980 in which she discussed, amongst other things, her thoughts on Xenia Borovansky’s contribution to the growth of ballet in Australia. With permission from the various stakeholders, I am publishing the letter in this post.

Tamara Tchinarova in costume for the Mazurka in Coppelia with Xenia Borovansky before curtain up, Borovansky Ballet, ca. 1946. Photo Jean StewartXenia Borovansky and Tamara Tchinarova on stage before a performance of Coppélia by the Borovansky Ballet, ca. 1946. National Library of Australia, Papers of Tamara Tchinarova Finch, MS 9733. Photo: Jean Stewart

It is an interesting letter from many points of view and was written just before the tribute to Borovansky, which I am assuming means the program that Marilyn Jones devised during her brief term as artistic director of the Australian Ballet in 1980. It was a triple bill and consisted of Pineapple Poll, Schéhérazade and Graduation Ball, with Les Sylphides being substituted in place of Graduation Ball in Adelaide and Perth.*

Gary Norman and Sheree da Costa in Scheherazade. The Australian Ballet 1980. Photo Walter Stringer
Gary Norman and Sheree da Costa in Schéhérazade. The Australian Ballet, 1980. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

It also mentions the lecture tour by Tchinarova and Irina Baronova, which apparently had been discussed (but initially dismissed) long before it actually occurred in 1994.

*Details of the program are on AusStage at this link.

Michelle Potter, 29 September 2017

Portrait of Tamara Tchinarova, 1941. Photo Fred Breen

Tamara Tchinarova Finch (1919–2017)

I was saddened to learn of the death of Tamara Tchinarova Finch on 31 August 2017 in Spain at the age of 98. Her story is told in her autobiography Dancing into the unknown and this post is simply a short, belated tribute to her, which includes details of a rather amazing occurrence with which I was fortunate enough to be involved.

Tchinarova’s Australian connections include performances with the Ballets Russes companies during their Australasian tours in the 1930s; with the Kirsova Ballet in the early 1940s; and with the Borovansky Ballet in the mid-1940s. She was also briefly engaged to Australian press photographer, Fred Breen, who took the photographic portrait of her that I have used as the featured image for this post. Breen joined the Air Force during World War II but was killed in 1942. In 1943 Tchinarova married actor Peter Finch in Sydney and a few years later moved to London with him, but they divorced in 1959. She continued, however, to use his name for the rest of her life, although in most cases in this post I have opted to use Tchinarova only.

In later life, Tchinarova came to Australia in 1994 as a guest of the Australian Ballet. Along with her colleague from the Ballets Russes, Irina Baronova, Tchinarova gave a series of lectures in various places and, during the Canberra leg of that visit, I was able to record a short oral history with her for the National Library. Here is a two minute excerpt from that interview in which Tchinarova talks about Hélène Kirsova. The complete interview and transcript is available online at this link.*

I met Tchinarova again, and her daughter Anita, in New Orleans at a Ballets Russes conference/reunion in 2000 but in 2004 a remarkable event occurred. I was dance curator at the National Library at the time and in that capacity I received an enquiry from Moscow via the now defunct website, Australia Dancing. The enquiry culminated in the discovery that Tchinarova had a half-brother and a second family in Moscow. The story is told in the November 2004 issue of National Library of Australia News, available via this link. Tchinarova met her half-brother in Spain in 2006 and in her autobiography she talks about that meeting. Below is a brief extract from her discussion of the meeting:

I am now 87. On a sunny day here in Spain last week, my half brother Alexander and I met for the first time. He is 77 and came from Moscow with his daughter Ludmila, to meet the sister he had for 60 years been searching for … This stranger, Alexander, had all the qualities I love in a man—intelligent, articulate, interested in everything … How wonderful that we were able to meet towards the end of our lives. One has to wonder about Fate.**

Tamara Tchinarova Finch was a beautiful, intelligent, caring woman. It was such a privilege to have had a hand in that meeting. Vale Tamara.

Tamara Tchinarova Finch: Born Bessarabia, Romania, 18 July 1919. Died Marbella, Spain, 31 August 2017.

Michelle Potter, 26 September 2017

*The transcript was never corrected. It contains a number of spelling errors.

**Tamara Tchinarova Finch, Dancing into the unknown. My life in the Ballets Russes and beyond (Alton, Hampshire: Dance Books, 2007) pp. 207–208.

Featured image: Portrait of Tamara Tchinarova, Sydney 1942. Photo: Fred Breen. National Library of Australia, Papers of Tamara Finch, MS 9733.