Gayatri Lakshmanan and Vivek Kinra, Mudra Dance Academy, Wellington

A little corner of India in Wellington

Ever since Vivek Kinra began teaching Bharata Natyam classical dance in Wellington in 1990, there has been a little corner here, an enclave of India, brought close. His commitment to highest standards and consistent discipline is familiar from all dance training, but the way Kinra has single-handedly built up his academy for the daughters of Indian families here to study to the same level and standard that would be available to them back in India, is remarkable.

Over the years, there have been 27 public seasons of original choreography performed by Mudra Dance Company, there have been 40 arengetram or solo graduation recitals each of several hours duration, and the number of pupils attending classes over the years would be close to 2250. At least as impressive as these numbers is the fact that Kinra can probably tell you the names of them all without having to look up any records. The incisive mind and indefatigable memory of an Indian dancer is a source of wonder, and it is heartening to know that Kinra’s work here has been recognised when he was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM) in the 2010 Queen’s Birthday honors for his ‘huge contribution to the New Zealand dance scene’. In February 2015 he received the Absolutely Positively Wellingtonian Award for his ‘outstanding contribution to Wellington through his work with Indian classical dance’.

Krishnaveni Lakshmanan was one of Kinra’s main teachers at the renowned Kalakshetra School in Chennai where he trained full-time from 1982 to 1987. Her daughter, Gayatri, and Vivek have been close colleagues since their student days, and she has visited New Zealand four times as a guest teacher at Mudra Dance Academy, and to act as artistic associate in the preparation of choreography and related arts for Mudra productions. Gayatri has performed in three productions in New Zealand with Kinra.

I watched Gayatri teach a number of classes at the junior and senior levels, and also spoke with her at length. (I am fortunate to be currently pursuing a PhD in Anthropology at VUW, profiling three dance communities in Wellington—free-lance ballet artists, the dancers at Mudra, and the Tokelau community dance group at Te Umiuminga in Naenae).

Gayatri instructed the pupils, ‘The little boy Krishna has long black curly hair—you show that by this gesture—not just wavy hair, but truly curly locks—lit from behind by a silver moon, a new moon, giving him a natural halo—quite different from a full bright moon that would be impossible to look at. He is an adorable little boy playing about. Of course you are going to fall in love with him, and it’s sure that we will too. You have to show us these things in the way you dance…’ I remark later that portraying the soft light of a crescent moon as opposed to a full moon is a sophisticated concept for young students to master. She replies, ‘Well, if dancing was so easy we would all be somewhere else.’ True.

Gayatri Lakshmanan teaching a junior class,. Mudra Dance Academy, Wellington 2018

Gayatri Lakshmanan teaching a junior class. Mudra Dance Academy, Wellington 2018

‘Actually I don’t separate myself as a dancer from the dance itself. I’m lucky—I believe in Krishna so I can easily dance about him. But for my young students (Gayatri runs her own school in Chennai, where she has 75 pupils)—and these young ones here, many of them do not go to the temple, they possibly they do not believe in Krishna. So I have to encourage them to look inside themselves, to think about what similar qualities they do believe in, to portray those instead.

I will tell you something. When I was 15 years old, I was with my Father—and he had an accident. It was just terrible. I stayed with him, but he died from that accident. After that, I hated the Gods, I did not want anything to do with them. I gave up dancing—left it altogether—for three and a half years, I did other studies. After that long time, I came back to dancing, and started preparing for a special performance where I was to portray a devotee of Krishna. I had to search for him, to make some sense of what I believed in, what those beliefs represented and how they related to my dancing. By degrees I found him. Now his spirit is in me, always close by.

My mother taught me “Do not look at the audience while performing, do not try to connect with them. You will distract yourself, and them as well. Concentrate on creating the character, the little child. You will disappear and the audience will see the child in your place”.’

To her students, ‘Now listen—Siva from many temples can be depicted in dancing in a number of different ways—this mudra, that pose, that movement—but if it is Siva as Nataraj from Chidambaram you are dancing about, there is only one way to show him. You must first depict the architecture of the temple, the circular points, your arms are there, your wrists are here, your fingers are thus. This is uniquely Siva as Nataraj, in Chidambaram.’

The temple at Chidambaram, a Hindu pilgrim centre in southern Tamil Nadu has all the original poses of classical dance depicted in sculpture. I was lucky to visit there in 1985, en route to Kerala for Kathakali studies, and can summon the impressions from that visit as though it was yesterday.

Kinra’s students are primary school pupils, or at college, or university … some work as school teachers, engineers, accountants, hospital theatre nurses. All are female, most are Indian, a few are pakeha. None of it is easy for anyone though they must strive to make it seem so. ‘My Mother says dancing is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration’, Gayatri reminds them. There is an electric atmosphere of concentration from every pupil in the studio.

I slip away after the class in awe of the 8 year old pupil I have just seen who is most exquisitely immersed in perfecting this demanding dancing. She hasn’t a clue how strikingly talented she is. She’s too busy portraying little Krishna stealing the butter without being caught. We will see more of this child, both of them.

Jennifer Shennan, June 2018, Wellington

Featured image: Gayatri Lakshmanan (right) and Vivek Kinra, Mudra Dance Academy, Wellington

Gayatari Lakshmanan and Vivek Kinra, Mudra Dance Academy, Wellington

 

Artists of Finnish National Ballet in 'Giselle', 1998. Photo: © Kari Hakli

Globalisation or culturalism. Is ballet at the crossroads?

In December 2002 I wrote an article, at the request of Bruce Marriott, for ballet.co magazine (now no longer available) to coincide, if I remember correctly, with a conference of artistic directors held in the United Kingdom somewhere (perhaps London?) I think the commission came because David McAllister, then quite new in the role of artistic director of the Australian Ballet, was attending. As with many of my other articles and reviews for ballet.co, I thought it had disappeared from my computer files and I had not made a print out. But just recently it appeared when I was searching with the term ‘Nutcracker’ for another thought-to-be lost file. So I am posting it here and welcome comments from a 2018 perspective.

As artistic directors of some of the world’s best-known ballet companies meet to discuss the issue of globalisation, I am reminded of a now well-known debate that emerged in Australia in the 1960s and the 1970s. It concerned the nature of the country’s cultural development. Two camps sprang up: one centred on the idea of the tyranny of distance, the other on the notion that from the deserts the prophets come. Those who spoke for the tyranny of distance believed that Australia was a cultural desert isolated from the great centres of civilisation, especially from the so-called mother country of Great Britain. Those on the other side believed that Australians did not need to rely on their colonists for what they required to nourish their souls—in the midst of their isolation they could have their own uniquely beautiful culture that could define them, equally uniquely, as Australian. This group took as a catch cry some lines from a poem written by renowned Australian poet A. D. Hope in 1960:

Hoping, if still from the deserts the prophets come
Such savage and scarlet as no green hills dare
Springs in that waste.

The debate is historically interesting, and the discussion generated two of the best-known period books on Australian culture and identity: Geoffrey Blainey’s The Tyranny of Distance and Geoffrey Serle’s From the Deserts the Prophets Come (later, in an attempt to popularise, or globalise perhaps, the Serle book was renamed The Creative Spirit in Australia).

Advances in technology of various kinds have, of course, made the idea of the tyranny of distance pretty much an obsolete concept. Globalisation, however, is clearly with us: it is  part of the fabric of our contemporary existence. It has permeated every aspect of the way we live and operate in the twenty-first century. And while many of the inhabitants of the northern hemisphere may still think of Australia as out of scope, few Australians (thankfully) now believe that distance hampers their ability to interact with the rest of the world. So where does this leave the individualism that we rightly prize so highly? What do we do with the savage and scarlet that has so flamboyantly grown? Or even with the green hills if we are on the other side of the world? Do we sit back and allow globalisation to turn what is unique about our individual dance cultures into something bland and universal? Or do we embrace culturalism, accepting that, while communications may have changed the way we operate in the world, our individual cultures cannot develop in a similar way? Do we sit in our theatres from London to Sydney, from New York to Melbourne, all seeing the same works: a Giselle respectfully produced, Manon, a couple of items from Balanchine, The Merry Widow and so on.  Or do we each go for something culturally specific (a Murphy Nutcracker, an Ashton work from the early repertoire), and for individualistic reworkings of the tried and true (a Guillem Giselle, a Murphy Swan Lake)? Is one way the only way? The right way? The wrong way?

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy's 'Swan Lake'. Photo Jeff Busby

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Neither bowing to globalisation nor strictly adhering to culturalism is the answer. Culturalism smacks of attitudes of superiority and cultural elitism—my culture is better than yours. It closes the mind to innovation and change. It indulges in smugness and name calling (the vile expression ‘Eurotrash’, beloved by one particular British critic, springs immediately to mind). It is a stultifying attitude. On the other hand, globalisation removes what we value about ourselves as individuals in unique cultures, what our specific histories have created and asked us to cherish. But defiantly, ballet is perfectly able to accommodate itself within a global society without losing anything. Ballet isn’t dying. It isn’t even at the crossroads as it encounters globalisation. Ballet is like a sponge. It can soak up change: it has been doing so for centuries. It can absorb new vocabulary. It can keep renewing itself from what it absorbs. It has to be able to operate in this way because it is a living, breathing art form. Even the most superficial glance at photographs of acclaimed dancers in the same role taken over several decades, in Giselle for example, makes it very clear that while we may want Giselle to stay the same—the past is very comforting—it can’t and hasn’t and won’t. In fifty years time dancers won’t want to dance Giselle like Alina Cojocaru (hard as that idea may be to comprehend at the moment).

In the twenty-first century the ballet-going public is entitled to green hills sprinkled liberally with some savage and scarlet (and I mean this more widely, more figuratively, than simply British works sprinkled with Australian ones). Dancers are, for their growth as artists, entitled to experience the work of choreographers outside their immediate, culturally-specific environment. Choreographers are entitled to wonder (and experience) how their works might look when danced by dancers trained outside the choreographer’s home country: the great ones do (and have) and are open and generous about the experience, as any dancer from the Australian Ballet who has worked with Jiří Kylián on any work from the Australian Ballet’s Kylián repertoire will tell you. Critics need to open-minded enough to embrace change and innovation while caring about the past. And artistic directors need to understand it all! The artistic director of a truly great company needs courage, intelligence and drive. Courage not to be swayed from his or her vision. Intelligence to have a vision that looks both forward and in a lateral direction and, going hand-in-hand, intelligence to understand that looking in this manner and direction is not a denial of the past. Drive to put the vision into practice.

Globalisation is a much-maligned concept. It doesn’t have to exclude anything really. But to react to globalisation uncritically, and to allow it to dictate to us is the problem. To do this is to lack courage, intelligence and drive. That we can see new works and restagings of old ones from London to Sydney, New York to Melbourne is a gift of globalisation. If we wish to deny that gift by insisting on culturalism it is a measure of an inability to exist in a global culture, in today’s culture, and a pitifully conservative attitude. But one thing is certain, whatever the response of individual people ballet will keep moving forward. It will never fall victim to a narrow culturalism. Only people will do that. Let’s hope that the new breed of artistic directors understands.

Michelle Potter, December 2002, reposted 14 June 2018

Featured image: Artists of Finnish National Ballet in Sylvie Guillem’s Giselle, 1998. Photo: © Kari Hakli

Artists of Finnish National Ballet in 'Giselle', 1998. Photo: © Kari Hakli

‘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

Dancers of the Australian Ballet as cut-out dolls in Meryl Tankard's 'Wild Swans'. Photo: © Régis Lansac

Meryl Tankard’s ‘Wild Swans’

Just recently a colleague in France suggested I might enjoy a BBC radio program she had just heard in a series called Sound of Dance. The particular program, ‘The Contemporary Ballet Composer’, was hosted by Katie Derham and concerned music specially commissioned for dance. It included, as it happened, excerpts from two works we are shortly to see in Australia—’In the garden’ by Max Richter from the score for Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works, and ‘Mad Hatter’s tea party’ and ‘Cheshire cat’ by Joby Talbot from the score for Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.* The program also contained excerpts from an interview with composer Sally Beamish, currently working on a score for David Nixon’s The Little Mermaid for Northern Ballet, on how she approached composing for dance.

But ‘The Contemporary Ballet Composer’ finished with a brief excerpt from Elena Kats-Chernin’s Wild Swans (which is largely why my colleague suggested I listen—the rare mention of an Australian on the BBC!). What I found somewhat alarming though was that, while choreographers’ names were mentioned for every other piece of music played, Meryl Tankard didn’t get a mention as choreographer of Wild Swans, a ballet based on the Hans Christian Andersen story of the same name. It sent me back to sections from my biography of Tankard, and to the various articles and reviews I had written in 2003–2004 about Wild Swans**:

  • ‘Wild and woolly. Meryl Tankard knits a new ballet’ The Australian Ballet News, Issue 31, 2003, pp. 6–8
  • ‘Dance a wild and wonderful tribute.’ The Canberra Times: Panorama, 10 May 2003, pp. 4–5
  • ‘Wild Swans and the art of collaboration.’ Brolga, June 2003, pp. 26–31
  • ‘Wild Swans and peevish reviewers.’ Australian Art Review, November 2003–February 2004, pp. 41–42
  • Meryl Tankard. An original voice (Canberra: Dance writing and research, 2012)

As I wrote in the Tankard biography, Elena Kats-Chernin’s music for Wild Swans was

… a luscious and evocative ninety minute score for small orchestra and soprano voice, which has had an ongoing life. A concert suite from Wild Swans is commercially available on compact disc and extracts from it, especially ‘Eliza’s Aria’, receive regular airplay. ‘Eliza’s Aria’ was also used in the United Kingdom in a series of six television and cinema advertisements in 2007 for the financial institution Lloyds TSB thus bringing the musical composition to a much wider (and enthusiastic) audience.

The ballet itself, with its extraordinary and beautifully fluid projections by Régis Lansac and arresting costumes by Angus Strathie, its references to Hans Christian Andersen’s fascination with paper cut-outs, and some spectacular choreographic segments, was a joint commission from the Australian Ballet and the Sydney Opera House in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Opera House. It premiered in Sydney in April 2003.

Felicia Palanca as Eliza in Meryl Tankard's 'Wild Swans'. The Australian Ballet, 2003. Photo © Regis Lansac

Felicia Palanca as Eliza in Meryl Tankard’s Wild Swans. The Australian Ballet, 2003. Photo: © Régis Lansac. National Library of Australia

Sadly, Wild Swans, the ballet, has never been revived and, not only that, it seems Tankard’s name is often disregarded when the music is played, even though she was the choreographer whose work allowed the score to be created. That this happens, and it happens to other choreographers in addition to Tankard, highlights the problems faced by contemporary choreographers in gaining long-term acceptance and understanding of their work and their processes.

Wild Swans was filmed by ABC Television in 2003 and a documentary, ‘Wild Swans’: behind the scenes, was also made in the same year. Unfortunately, neither is readily available commercially. But looking at the documentary again, and rereading what I wrote about the work and the process, it is clear that Wild Swans was an exceptional collaboration. In terms of the score, Tankard and Kats-Chernin worked closely together over an extended period. Kats-Chernin came to early rehearsals with some preliminary musical sketches but admits that she used very little of this material. Giving further insight into the collaborative process relating to Wild Swans, in which on this occasion, given that there was a narrative structure to the piece, Tankard worked in a relatively logical order, Kats-Chernin has written:

We met regularly around my piano, about twice a week and went through everything scene by scene. Meryl would work out the structure and describe the images in her head, and I would improvise all kinds of different versions, and at some point Meryl would say—“yes, that’s it”—and then I would write everything down. In a couple of days she would visit again and we would check the past material as well as try and work on the next scenes. It was good to work in the “running order”, as this way we kept the rhythm of the whole piece in “real time”. We were also lucky that the Australian Ballet arranged for a draft recording of the whole ballet with the Orchestra of Victoria. That way Meryl had a chance to hear all the orchestral colours that I had imagined and which were sometimes very hard to describe in words. Meryl and the dancers then rehearsed with the recording and in the last week of that phase I joined in and we found ourselves working out the final order of which pieces worked and where.(Boosey & Hawkes website)

Meryl Tankard, Elena Kats-Chernin at the piano, and dancers of the Australian Ballet discuss the creation of 'Wild Swans', 2003. Photo: © Regis Lansac

Meryl Tankard, Elena Kats-Chernin at the piano, and dancers of the Australian Ballet discuss the creation of Wild Swans, 2003. Photo: © Régis Lansac. National Library of Australia

Occasionally during the process, Kats-Chernin’s contributions were edited out. She has spoken in a quite matter of fact tone about this process:

I’m not precious about discarding material. Composition of this kind is a very practical activity. The audience isn’t coming to hear a concert but to see action and be stimulated by the music. The music is to remind people of the drama and it can’t always be the centre of attention. (‘Wild and Woolly’, p. 7)

The dancers, too, sometimes had their contributions discarded and, reflecting on the dancers’ reaction to the process of creating Wild Swans, Tim Harbour, who played one of Eliza’s eleven brothers, has said:

The work had a very slow evolution. It was quite exhausting really. There was a constant review and editing process. Every day things changed. Sometimes there was a lot of frustration, even indignation amongst the dancers because we’d spend so much time creating steps, the mood, and the emotion and then Meryl would edit it out.

[But], I would have regretted not being part of it. The more you put in in the early stages, the more you get out in the end. And in the end I think the dancers felt an incredible sense of pride in what we as a team achieved. There has never been anything like it in the Australian Ballet. Until now people had to leave the Australian Ballet to get his kind of creative experience. (Meryl Tankard. An original voice, p. 110)

Looking back at my Wild Swans material, and without being at all critical that the score still (deservedly) enjoys popularity, it continues to bother me that the ballet has never been revived. As a work of extraordinary, and absolutely hands-on collaboration it deserves to be seen again.

Michelle Potter, 23 June 2017

The program is available until c. 16 July 2017 at this link. Podcasts of this series, apparently, are available only in the UK.
** None of these items is available online.

Featured image: Dancers of the Australian Ballet as cut-out dolls in Meryl Tankard’s Wild Swans, 2003. Photo: © Régis Lansac. National Library of Australia

Dancers of the Australian Ballet as cut-out dolls in Meryl Tankard's 'Wild Swans'. Photo: © Régis Lansac

Chrissa Keramidas as Clara the Elder in 'Nutcracker. The story of Clara.' The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Jeff Busby

More thoughts on Nutcracker. The Story of Clara

I have to admit to disliking intensely the dumbing down of Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. The story of Clara with the ridiculous description of it as ‘The Gum-Nutcracker.’ The work might have strong Australian resonances, but it is much more than a story about early developments in Australian ballet. The so-called ‘affectionate dubbing’ of it with reference to the fruit of the eucalyptus tree makes the work sound pathetic. Below are a few published comments that suggest that we should grow up and resist the temptation to trivialise.

Speaking of the slight nature of, and problematic issues surrounding the more traditional productions of Nutcracker (going right back to 1892), Professor Rodney Stenning Edgecombe writes:

When foundations are sandy, it’s better to re-lay them in concrete. And that is indeed what the brilliant Graeme Murphy has done in his version of the ballet, which, having subtitled The Story of Clara, he conceives it, as Bournonville did his ballets, as ‘frames around the biographical and travel pictures which constitute [an] actual theatre life’.

He then proceeds to analyse the ballet, its story, its choreography, its music, and its place within the history of ballet (not necessarily Australian ballet), in the most erudite terms, making reference to, and using quotations from some of the great names of world scholarship—August Bournonville, T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, Marcel Proust, William Shakespeare, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Patrick White, and others. Speaking about the Snowflakes scene, for example, he writes:

The snowflakes’ wild pirouettes with upflung arms … show how inventively Murphy can work within restrictive confines of the danse d’école. Indeed one can’t help thinking that the writing for this ensemble is deliberately transitional, Petipa Duncanised as it were. And because ‘Petipa Duncanised’ is all but a synonym for ‘Fokine’—at least the Fokine of Les Sylphides—this episode illustrates the transformation that the very art of ballet witnessed during Clara’s childhood.

What thrills me is that Edgecombe treats the work as an artistic creation of the highest order, one that deserves to be interpreted within the widest cultural context, not as some Snugglepot and Cuddlepie story (with apologies to May Gibbs). In his final paragraph, after discussing some issues he has with Marius Petipa’s work, and a similar issue he sees relating to the way Murphy has used a section of the music, Edgecombe says:

And what one allows to Petipa, one must allow to Murphy, a choreographer, in my opinion, of entirely comparable genius.1

Dame Margaret Scott, Vicki Attard and David McAllister in Graeme Murphy's 'Nutcracker'. The Australian Ballet 1994. Photographer not identified

Dame Margaret Scott, Vicki Attard and David McAllister in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. The Australian Ballet 1994. Photographer not identified

I am aware that not everyone will relate to the way Edgecombe writes and analyses but, like Edgecombe, Dame Margaret Scott, who danced Clara the Elder in 1992, 1994 and 2000, also speaks of the slight nature of traditional productions and recognises the extent to which Murphy’s ballet recontextualises the traditional work into something with more narrative and choreographic depth. In an interview in 2000, in which she replies to a question about why some found the Murphy production hard to accept, Dame Margaret says:

In the crits in the 1892 production, there was one critic who said, ‘It’s a pity that [such] fine music is expended on nonsense unworthy of attention.’ And in the 1992 production here, one of the crits said: ‘One of the great achievements of this production is that Tchaikovsky’s music sounds as if it was written to a brief from Murphy.’

And then it goes on about the ballet itself. In 1892 the crit said, ‘Ballet is sliding downhill having lost its footing and moving away towards some kind of fragile and sugary Nutcracker.’ And then in Australia, ‘With Nutcracker the Australian Ballet came of age.’ I juxtaposed those two because it is relevant to the production.

I think if it had been called from the beginning, The Story of Clara, they would have accepted it. But it’s difficult to change the traditionalists. They still want the tutu ballet. And I mean, people don’t realise that the history of Nutcracker itself is a very chequered one. It only came into this popularity when the pantomimes died and it took the place of pantomimes because of its Christmas story. It became the cash cow, the Christmas entertainment. So to say it is popular because of a great love [is wrong] because a lot of people find it very dissatisfying.2

It is common knowledge that Murphy was at first hesitant to accept the commission from Maina Gielgud to create a new Nutcracker. In an interview in 1996 he says:

Maina Gielgud had asked me years ago to think about doing a Nutcracker and I’d rejected the idea on the basis that the story was silly, the piece was clichéd, and I’d never really seen one I liked.

But, thankfully, he eventually did accept the commission. He explains:

The clinch for me was the music, which I adore. So Kristian [Fredrikson] came over and we played the tape and I think somewhere in the course of that listening I was going ‘I can’t do a Nutcracker set in a postcard snowland, white Christmases and all that stuff. It doesn’t really mean anything. Maybe if you could do a Nutcracker set in arid Melbourne suburbia …’ And that was really the beginning of it.3

What we have with Murphy’s visionary production should be regarded, especially by those who write media notes, as a ballet of international reach. Save gumnuts for other less sophisticated things. But if some see a need to dumb down the work with a crazy name (in order to attract more people and bring in more money?) then perhaps they should rename the Australian Ballet the Ocker Ballet?

Michelle Potter, 17 June 2017

References

  1. All quotes from Professor Edgecombe are from Rodney Stenning Edgecombe, ‘Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker.’ Brolga, 17 (December 2002), pp. 23–32.
  2. Lee Christofis, ‘Coming of age. Retrieving history with Dame Margaret Scott and Valrene Tweedie OAM.’ Brolga, 13 (December 2000), pp. 44–58.
  3. All quotes from Murphy are from ‘Graeme Murphy. Humanity revealed’ in Michelle Potter, A passion for dance (Canberra: National Library of Australia, 1997), pp. 61–77.

See also the text of a program article I wrote for the Australian Ballet’s 2009 season of Nutcracker. The story of Clara. As a concluding remark I wrote, ‘This is a Nutcracker to be loved and cherished. Its Australian connections are heart warming and a source of pride and pleasure. But the dramatic text is universal.‘ Here is the link.

Featured image: Chrissa Keramidas as Clara the Elder in Nutcracker. The story of Clara. The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Chrissa Keramidas as Clara the Elder in 'Nutcracker. The story of Clara.' The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Margot Fonteyn with Kelvin Coe and John Meehan in 'The Merry Widow', 1977. Photo Walter Stringer

Walter Stringer’s dance photography

In February 2000 I wrote an article for National Library of Australia News on the dance photography of Walter Stringer, who before he died donated his very extensive collection of images to the National Library of Australia in Canberra. In the light of the recent discussion about the dancer portrayed in photos of Swan Lake in my recent post about the 1958 Royal Ballet tour to Australia and New Zealand, I thought it might be worth making the Stringer article more readily available, and adding a little about some of the Royal Ballet images included in the Stringer collection.

Follow this link to the National Library of Australia News article. Please note there is an error in the caption for the Swan Lake image used in the article. It is not, of course, Anne Woolliams and corps de ballet in the image but corps de ballet in the Anne Woolliams production! This was an editorial mishap.

Unfortunately the Royal Ballet material is not fully digitised so most of it can only be viewed on site at the National Library. This non-digitised component includes an album of 43 photos relating to the 1958 tour. The album came with a list created by the photographer. What follows is a slightly expanded version of the list, although no changes have been made to Stringer’s identification of dancers or ballets.

Accession No. Captions
994/1 Les Patineurs, 1958, Susan Alexander and unidentified
994/2 Swan Lake, Act I, 1958, Elizabeth ?, Michael Boulton, Audrey Farris
994/3 Swan Lake, Act II, 1958, Lynn Seymour (Odette)
994/4 Swan Lake, Act II, 1958, Lynn Seymour (Odette)
994/5 Swan Lake, Act II, 1958, Lynn Seymour (Odette), David Blair (Siegfried)
994/6 Swan Lake, Act II, 1958, Lynn Seymour (Odette), David Blair (Siegfried)
994/7 Swan Lake, Act II, 1958, Lynn Seymour (Odette), David Blair (Siegfried)
994/8 Swan Lake, Act III, 1958, Lynn Seymour (Odile)
994/9 Swan Lake, Act III, 1958, Lynn Seymour (Odile), David Blair (Siegfried)
994/10 Swan Lake, Act III, 1958, Lynn Seymour (Odile), David Blair (Siegfried)
994/11 Les Sylphides, 1958, Valerie Taylor
994/12 Les Sylphides, 1958, Anne Heaton
994/13 Les Sylphides, 1958, Valerie Taylor
994/14 Les Sylphides, 1958, Anne Heaton
994/15 Les Sylphides, 1958, Anne Heaton
994/16 Coppélia, 1958, Robert Helpmann (Dr Coppélius), Rowena Jackson (Swanilda)
994/17 Coppélia, 1958, Robert Helpmann (Dr Coppélius), Rowena Jackson (Swanilda)
994/18 Coppélia, 1958, Valerie Taylor (Prayer)
994/19 Coppélia, 1958, Rowena Jackson (Swanilda), Philip Chatfield (?) (Franz)
994/20 Coppélia, 1958, Dance of the Hours
994/21 Coppélia, 1958 Rowena Jackson (Swanilda)
994/22 Coppélia, 1958 Rowena Jackson (Swanilda)
994/23 Hamlet, 1958, Robert Helpmann (Hamlet)
994/24 Hamlet, 1958, Robert Helpmann (Hamlet)
994/25 Hamlet, 1958, Robert Helpmann (Hamlet)
994/26 Hamlet, 1958
994/27 Hamlet, 1958, Robert Helpmann (Hamlet)
994/28 Pineapple Poll, 1958, Patricia Cox (Poll)
994/29 Pineapple Poll, 1958
994/30 Pineapple Poll, 1958, Patricia Cox (Poll)
994/31 Coppélia, 1958, Alan Alder
994/32 Coppélia, 1958
994/33 Coppélia, 1958, Philip Chatfield (Franz)
994/34 Coppélia, 1958, Susan Alexander (Swanilda)
994/35 Coppélia, 1958, Susan Alexander (Swanilda)
994/36 Coppélia, 1958, Susan Alexander (Swanilda)
994/37 Coppélia, 1958, Rowena Jackson (Swanilda)
994/38 Coppélia, 1958, Rowena Jackson (Swanilda), Philip Chatfield (Franz)
994/39 Coppélia, 1958, Robert Helpmann (Dr Coppélius), Rowena Jackson (Swanilda)
994/40 Coppélia, 1958, Rowena Jackson (Swanilda), Philip Chatfield (Franz)
994/41 Coppélia, 1958, Rowena Jackson (Swanilda), Philip Chatfield (Franz)
994/42 Unknown, Rowena Jackson, 1958
994/43 The Rake’s Progress, 1958, Anne Heaton


Michelle Potter, 15 January 2017

Featured image: Margot Fonteyn with Kelvin Coe and John Meehan in The Merry Widow. The Australian Ballet, 1977. As featured in my article ‘Walter Stringer’s dance photography’. National Library of Australia

Margot Fonteyn with Kelvin Coe and John Meehan in 'The Merry Widow', 1977. Photo Walter Stringer

The Royal Ballet. Tour of Australia and New Zealand 1958–1959

With the Royal Ballet preparing for a tour to Brisbane later in 2017, I have been delving into various research materials available in Canberra and Sydney to put together some thoughts about the first tour by the Royal Ballet to Australia and New Zealand, which began in 1958.

The Royal Ballet made its first tour to Australasia in 1958−1959 performing in Australia in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane and in New Zealand in Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland. The promoters were J. C. Williamson Theatres Ltd, who claimed in their introductory notes to programs for the tour that the visit represented ‘the crowning achievement in The Firm’s distinguished contribution to the presentation of Dance in this country.’ Records of the Williamson organisation indicate that there was some initial discussion about the dates and cities to be visited (and in what order), but the eventual schedule was:

11 September−8 November 1958:
10 November 1958−3 January 1959:
7 January−31 January 1959:
3 February−25 February 1959:
4 March−7 March 1959:
9 March−21 March 1959:
23 March−4 April 1959:
6 April−18 April 1959:
Sydney, Empire Theatre
Melbourne, Her Majesty’s Theatre
Adelaide, Theatre Royal
Brisbane, Her Majesty’s Theatre
Dunedin, His Majesty’s
Christchurch, Theatre Royal
Wellington, Grand Opera House
Auckland, His Majesty’s Theatre

 
The company was essentially the touring arm of the Royal Ballet, augmented at various stages by dancers from the main company, including Rowena Jackson, Svetlana Beriosova and Anya Linden; Philip Chatfield, Bryan Ashbridge and David Blair; and Robert Helpmann, who danced some featured roles, including in The Rake’s Progress, Hamlet, Façade and Coppélia. Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes joined the company in New Zealand.

Bryan Ashbridge, Royal Ballet postcard, 1958
Svetlana Beriosova, Royal Ballet postcard, 1958

Royal Ballet postcards, 1958–1959 Australasian tour: Bryan Ashbridge & Svetlana Beriosova

The company was led initially by Ninette de Valois. She arrived in Sydney on 22 August, ahead of the main contingent of dancers, who arrived on 1 September after what Lynn Seymour describes in her autobiography, Lynn, as a trip that took ‘three flying days, with desperate relief stops in Frankfurt, Rome, Cairo, Karachi, Calcutta, Bangkok and Singapore.’1 De Valois was accommodated in style at the Hotel Australia in Sydney—’should be booked into a nice room at the Australia with bath’ ordered the Williamson organisation.

In addition to de Valois, other administrative and artistic personnel included John Field, listed on the Australian programs as assistant director; and musical director John Lanchbery, who arrived on 30 August on board the P & O liner Stratheden, and who conducted local orchestras in each city. Ballet staff included Henry Legerton as ballet master, and Lorna Mossford as ballet mistress.

While much could be written about the tour, which, with some important exceptions, is most often given just one or two lines in books written and published in Britain, three aspects of the tour stood out as I was looking into the material available here: Lynn Seymour’s debut as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake; the writing of the Sydney-based critic and poet, Roland Robinson; and some black and white film footage shot in Melbourne in 1958.

Lynn Seymour in Swan Lake

Although Seymour says in her autobiography (and the story is repeated in Meredith Daneman’s biography of Margot Fonteyn), that her debut performance as Odette/Odile coincided with her 19th birthday, this can’t be so. Seymour gave her first performance in the full-length Swan Lake in Melbourne on 12 November 1958, but her birth-date is 9 March 1939. The debut was at a Wednesday matinee performance and Seymour was partnered by David Blair for this and for her second performance on 15 November, after which Seymour danced with Donald MacLeary.

De Valois, whose idea it was to have Seymour dance the full-length Swan Lake in Australia, left for home before the debut performance, leaving John Field in charge. Seymour’s biographer, Richard Austin, notes that Field took most of the rehearsals and that Seymour had some coaching from Rowena Jackson. As recorded in her autobiography, Seymour was also given encouragement at times by Helpmann and then in New Zealand by Fonteyn. In Lynn, Seymour also discusses some of the difficulties she faced in the first few performances, including managing the 32 fouettés in Act III, and Austin elaborates on the story. But by the time the company reached New Zealand reviews of Seymour and MacLeary were definitely positive. The reviewer for The Press (Christchurch), for example, was moved to write: ‘Lynn Seymour’s technique is remarkable for its gracefulness; and her poise enabled her to secure some wonderfully statuesque effects. In Donald MacLeary she had a wonderfully accomplished partner, whose every movement revealed his sense of style.’

The images below were taken in Melbourne in 1958. That Seymour is partnered by Blair in this collection of photos indicates that they must have been taken during Seymour’s first or second performance. They must surely be the earliest photos of Seymour in the full-length Swan Lake?

lynn-seymour-and-david-blair-swan-lake-act-ii-1
Lynn Seymour as Odile. The Royal Ballet, Melbourne 1958. Photo: Walter Stringer

 (left) Lynn Seymour and David Blair in Swan Lake Act II (detail);
(right) Lynn Seymour in Swan Lake Act III (detail).
The Royal Ballet, Melbourne 1958. Photos: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia (PIC Albums: 994)

Roland Robinson’s dance reviews

Roland Robinson (1912–1992) wrote dance reviews for The Sydney Morning Herald for ten years during the 1940s and 1950s, always signing his reviews with just his initials, R.R. He was a poet of distinction and also wrote extensively about Aboriginal myths and legends. In the 1940s he took ballet classes in Sydney with Hélène Kirsova, whom he called his ‘teacher and heroine’, and appeared in a number of productions by the Kirsova Ballet over a three year period. His reviews thus combine a deep knowledge and strong understanding of dance (and not just its technical features but its essential qualities as an art form) with an elegant use of language. His language embodied ‘the lyrical traditions of his native Ireland’ (he was born in County Clare), as one author wrote in an obituary for Robinson.

  • He was not impressed by Les Sylphides, and he would have known this ballet well from the Kirsova Ballet: ‘The presentation of “Les Sylphides” by the Royal Ballet … contained all the components of this ballet save the basic understanding and expression of this marriage of music, dancing, painting an poetry.’
  • He greatly admired Svetlana Beriosova and said of her first performance in Sydney in Swan Lake: ‘Never have I seen anything so beautiful as Svetlana Beriosova, as Odette-Odile, in Le Lac des Cygnes by the Royal Ballet at the Empire Theatre on Saturday night … Australia is honoured by such a ballerina. For the first time we saw the tragic beauty of the full story … Such was the unrivalled classical quality of this ballerina’s performance that one must, in all due homage, say of Beriosova “Thy soul was like a star and dwelt apart”.’
  • He was at two minds about Helpmann in The Rake’s Progress: ‘Robert Helpmann is a master of mime and detailed gesture from the broad theatrical flourish to a stage dominating minute flick of the finger. He is not physically up to form in “The Rake,” but his inborn insight into the mental processes of character, and his faultless make-up compel one to sit up and take notice.’
  • He maintains that, at a reception, he had a discussion with de Valois about technique and expression and, in reviewing the opening performance of Swan Lake in Sydney, he expressed what must have been the essence of that discussion: ‘It is an indication of the native character of the English Royal Ballet that it should begin its first season in Australia with the prescribed, traditional form of the classical ballet “Swan Lake”. Each nation has its own particular character and temperament. If the characters of the Russian and French ballets are of nobility, elegance, and command, coupled with a daring virility and imagination, the American one of athletic daring and revolutionary character, then the character of the English ballet impresses as cold, conservative and unimaginative. The nature of this character was painfully evident throughout the Royal Ballet’s presentation of “Swan Lake” at the Empire Theatre last night. It must be stressed, however, that the dancers of this company have attained a mastery of technique which may not always be found in either the Russian or American schools. Artistically, of course, technique is only justified as a means to the expression of the imagination. The main criticism of the Royal Ballet is that it is disappointingly lacking in this essential imaginative creativeness.’

Robinson wrote what he thought, and there is much more to read from him in back copies of The Sydney Morning Herald. His writing on dance is as fascinating today as it must have been irritating to many in 1958.

Film footage of the Royal Ballet tour

Lasting around 25 minutes, a somewhat grainy, black and white film recording the visit by the Royal Ballet to Melbourne was shot in December 1958. It opens with a segment showing Anya Linden and David Blair sauntering through the gardens in Spring Street, not far from Her Majesty’s Theatre where the company was performing. There they weigh themselves (amid some mirth) on a large, coin-operated public weighing machine. They are then approached by a white-haired gentleman who shows them a book (Arnold Haskell’s In his true centre), which they examine. Then follow extracts from the company repertoire as performed in Melbourne, including excerpts from Swan Lake, Giselle, Veneziana, Pineapple Poll, Don Quixote (pas de deux), A Blue Rose, Façade, Les Patineurs and Coppélia. These dancing segments include a tantalising glimpse of Helpmann tottering across the stage in heeled shoes as Dr Coppélius, a wonderful hornpipe from Blair as Captain Belaye in Pineapple Poll, and an all too brief look at Seymour as Aurora in Coppélia, performing with beautiful fluidity in the arms, neck and upper body.

It is unclear who shot the film, but I wonder if it is perhaps Dr Joseph Ringland Anderson, Melbourne ophthalmologist whose films of the Ballets Russes visits to Australia, 1936−1940, are such a valuable addition to our knowledge of those companies? The Royal Ballet film has a number of backstage scenes, especially moments captured just before curtain up, which are similar to moments that appear frequently on the Ringland Anderson Ballets Russes films. And, as also occurred with the Ballet Russes films, much of the action is filmed from the wings. I wonder too if the white-haired gentleman in the Spring Street gardens with the copy of In his true centre is perhaps Dr Ringland Anderson, who would have been 64 at the time? Time may tell.

Michelle Potter, 4 January 2017

Featured image: Ninette de Valois, autograph and program image, Sydney 1958

de-valois-autograph-6

NOTE

  1. There is a discrepancy with the arrival date in some published sources. I have used the one given in the J.C. Williamson material held in the National Library (MS 5783), which states that 58 company members departed London on ’29 August from London Airport North on flight EM 552 arriving on 1 September by air.’ The date is supported in an article in The Sydney Morning Herald for 2 September 1958: ‘Fifty-eight members of the Royal Ballet arrived in Sydney by Qantas from London last night [1 September] to begin an eight month’s tour of Australia and New Zealand.’

The Royal Ballet will play Brisbane (as the only Australian venue) from 28 June to 9 July 2017 as part of Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s International Series. The repertoire consists of Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works and Christopher Wheeldon’s A Winter’s Tale. Details at qpac.

Update: the signed photograph of Seymour referred to in the discussion below has been posted at this link.

Ruth Osborne, 2016. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Ruth Osborne. Artistic director QL2 Dance

Ruth Osborne has been setting up and facilitating dance projects for the young people of Canberra since 1999. It was then that she was invited to come to Canberra from Perth to set up the Quantum Leap Youth Program for the Australian Choreographic Centre at Gorman House. Osborne had had an extraordinarily diverse dance career in Perth, involving teaching, directing and choreography across a range of institutions, including the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts and her own dance school, the Contemporary Dance Centre. In addition, in Perth Osborne was a founding board member and artistic director of STEPS Youth Dance Company for ten years.

As we sit in the beautifully green and cool courtyard of Gorman House, Osborne talks of her experience in Perth. ‘When I started working with young people in Perth, I could see the benefits of bringing them together from different places, not just from one dance school,’ she says. ‘It was about opening up minds; attracting boys into dance, and youth programs were a great way of doing that; and looking at who were our artists, and how young people might benefit from their input. The move to Canberra was an exciting prospect as it gave me the opportunity to work full-time with young people.’

Not surprisingly then, Quantum Leap quickly flourished as Canberra’s youth dance ensemble and Osborne’s vision for its development attracted financial support from the beginning. Ongoing funding, in particular from artsACT, meant that when the Choreographic Centre folded, after losing its funding in 2006, Osborne’s youth dance projects were able to continue. Over the next few years Quantum Leap, that initial undertaking, became just one strand in a larger endeavour. The Chaos initiative for younger dancers from eight onwards; Hot to Trot, a program giving young choreographers the chance to show their work; and special programs for boys became realities, as did other ventures as Quantum Leapers went on to tertiary dance study and then returned to give back to the organisation that had nurtured their early dance activities. Those programs for tertiary students included the On Course program, now ten years old, where emerging choreographers are mentored and are given opportunities to try out their ideas. A new organisational name, QL2 Dance, came into being to encompass the ever-growing range of youth activities Osborne was able to develop and offer to young people.

Chaos Project 2016. QL2 Dance. © Photo Lorna Sim

Chaos Project 2016. QL2 Dance. © Photo Lorna Sim

Over the almost two decades that Osborne has been mentoring young people in Canberra, she has received a number of awards for her work, including two Canberra Critics’ Circle Awards and an Australian Dance Award in 2012 for Services to Dance, an award that indicates the extent to which her career, both in Perth and Canberra, has been recognised by her peers.

Now Osborne has received exceptional acknowledgement, and significant financial support as well, to advance her commitment to supporting and mentoring young people through dance. In 2017 she will take up a Churchill Fellowship that will take her to the United Kingdom for around two months to explore a range of youth dance organisations from many points of view. What kinds of support do UK-based youth initiatives receive? What is their inherent nature, that is do they have an ongoing role, or do they work simply from project to project? What career trajectories have emerged as dancers from youth programs move into professional areas?

Osborne’s focus will largely be on the major British youth dance organisations, including the National Youth Dance Company of Scotland established by YDance (Scottish Youth Dance).  Osborne first saw this company, led by Anna Kenrick, in Glasgow in 2014 at the Commonwealth Youth Dance Festival. Connections were established between Osborne and Kenrick and the National Youth Dance Company of Scotland was able to secure funding to come to Canberra in April 2016. The outcome was a series of joint working sessions and, in line with Osborne’s wish to support the development not only of QL2 but of other youth companies in Australia, youth groups from various parts of Australia joined Canberra’s Quantum Leap dancers and their Scottish colleagues in an intensive physical and intellectual inquiry into the choreographic process.  The ten days of activity culminated in in a major public performance, Ten Thousand Miles, in which the Scottish group and the Quantum Leapers joined forces to take part in a co-production. It consisted of three new contemporary dance works and had a single, well-received showing at the Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre.

Dancers of QL2 and the National Youth Dance Company of Scotland, Canberra 2016. Photo © Lorna Sim

Dancers of QL2 and the National Youth Dance Company of Scotland, Canberra 2016. Photo © Lorna Sim

Osborne is enthusiastic about reconnecting with YDance and its team of dancers and other personnel. ‘I was especially interested in the breadth of what YDance was doing and I would like to build the possibility of more exchanges, not just for dancers but also for emerging choreographers as well,’ she says. “The Churchill Fellowship will give me the opportunity to talk face to face with YDance and other such organisations and bring about closer ties with them.’

But why youth dance? What is it that attracts Osborne as she prepares to take up her Churchill Fellowship? Apart from what motivated her while in Perth, Osborne feels strongly about broadening the way young people experience dance.

‘Youth dance practice for me,’ Osborne says, ‘is about building the young artist and developing individuality. It is about discussion, research, writing, collaboration, cultural and gender differences and professional learning. What I hope to do is give young people more than training. I want to give them a broad outlook, I want to develop their own creativity and the ability to collaborate. I want them to be able to look at their activities from an intellectual point of view as well as from a physical one.’

In addition to exploring a range of ideas associated with youth dance companies, as part of her Churchill experience Osborne hopes to examine the nature and potential of an unusual English scheme for young people aged from 10 to 18 who show exceptional promise and a passion for dance. The Centres for Advanced Training, or CATs as they are known, were set up in 2004 and are a British government initiative. They offer students, who must audition, training in various dance styles and other related activities out of regular academic school hours. The scheme is a network of centres allowing young people to work together on national dance projects across the country, from London to Newcastle, Swindon to Ipswich. It is a model that has potential to be followed in Australia.

Osborne readily admits, of course, that not everyone who comes through a QL2 program is going to be a dancer. But she sees youth dance programs as preparation for life. Her Churchill Fellowship—and she acknowledges her gratitude that the Fellowship Committee chose to recognise youth dance—will be an opportunity not only to look at the development of emerging artists but also to focus on ways to expand her belief in ‘dance for life.’

‘Dance schools give young people a solid training. But I think there is also a space for youth programs that develop young people by bringing in outside mentors who can influence them, who can help them develop through the process of discussion, research, writing, collaboration, and professional theatrical learning. And to be able to stand up and talk about your work, to be part of a forum, to challenge yourself—these are skills for life.’

The young people of Canberra and surrounding areas will have much to look forward to when Osborne returns.

Michelle Potter, 21 December 2012.

This is a slightly expanded version of an article first published in The Canberra Times—Panorama, 17 December 2012, p. 14, as ‘In step with youth’. Online version at this link.

Featured image: Ruth Osborne, 2016. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Ruth Osborne, 2017. Photo: © Lorna Sim

 

 

Valentina Blinova and Leon Woizikowsky in 'Le beau Danube', 1936 (detail)

Valentina Blinova. An unexpected find

Some charming writing about Valentina Blinova, during her engagement with the Monte Carlo Russian Ballet for the company’s Australasian tour of 1936–1937, unexpectedly came to light while I was researching a totally different topic. I came across two typewritten pages, which may have been misfiled by J. C. Williamson Theatres Ltd. as I found them alongside material relating to the promotion by JCW of a Russian ballet tour of a much later date.* It is not clear who wrote the two short articles (Blinova and the JCW publicity team perhaps?), nor whether they were ever published. I have reproduced them below.

A day in the life of a dancing star

A typical day in the life of Valentina Blinova, one of the principal dancers of Colonel de Basil’s Monte Carlo Russian Ballet.

Up at 8.30 in the morning. A cold shower, gymnastics and physical exercises for twenty minutes. A cup of coffee with some toast for “breakfast.” Then a brisk walk to the theatre. Practice. Then rehearsal till quarter to one. Lunch comprising steak or other meat, salad, a sweet, no alcoholic drink, no smoking. Back to the theatre for rehearsal at 2.30 or 3 o’clock until 5.30 or 6. Home for a rest. A cup of tea. Then if she is dancing in the first ballet back at the theatre at 7 o’clock (no dinner). After the performance supper comprising meat, salad and perhaps a glass of Australian wine, which the principals of the Russian Ballet are very fond of. Then to bed.

This is Blinova’s daily routine, the only variation being Sunday which is spent in the open air—in the hills or the bush or on the beach.

And now you know why the members of the Russian Ballet have those slim figures.

How Christmas is spent
Valentina Blinova

Valentina Blinova was born in St Petersburg where she spent her girlhood—at Christmas time her thoughts go back to those days—a gorgeous Christmas tree loaded with candles, nuts, fruits, many sparkling things and presents for all. Christmas Day is regarded as a solemn occasion, not a time for feasting until the evening star is seen in the sky. The children wait longingly for the evening repast—a feast of good things, Then after the presents have been distributed they sit round the fire and seek to pierce the future when other Christmas days shall come. This fortune telling is carried out in a very quaint way. A large piece of wax is melted and thrown into a dish of water and, according to the shadows that are thrown or the shapes the wax takes, so each one interprets their future. But, as Blinova says, it has to be interpreted with a great deal of imagination!

Last Christmas was spent by Blinova in Hamburg, Germany, where she was a member of Leon Woizikowsky’s Company. Christmas was here spent similarly to Russia though the Germans have their own way of celebrating it, which, says Blinova, they do in a very serious way. “We had a Christmas tree,” said Blinova, “but there was the usual performance and when it was over we went to our rooms, where we had supper, and sat around the fire and talked of childhood days in Russia.”

“That was our last Christmas Day. As regards the next:—there will, of course, be no performance. We shall have a party amongst ourselves and, of course, we shall spend most of the day in the beautiful surf on the Sydney beaches.”

valentina-blinova-portrait
valentina-blinova-in-swan-lake

(left) Portrait of Valentina Blinova, Papers of Moya Beaver, National Library of Australia. (right) Valentina Blinova as Odette in Swan Lake, Bettine Brown Collection, National Library of AustraliaPhoto: Ivon Studios

Not a great deal of information is available about Blinova’s career, although Kathrine Sorley Walker tells us that she was not trained at the Imperial School in St Petersburg but was ‘the product of a course founded after the Revolution in an attempt to reform teaching methods.’ After her training she went to Germany with Vera Trefilova and Pierre Vladimirov, danced in Monte Carlo, established a partnership with Valentin Froman and came to Australia with de Basil’s company in 1936.

(The story of an apparently spectacular break up with Froman is recounted by Elisabeth Souvorova at this link in one of her letters from Australia.

Michelle Potter, 6 December 2016

Featured image: Valentina Blinova and Leon Woizikowsky in Le beau Danube, 1936, Bettine Brown Collection, National Library of Australia. Photo: Leicagraph Pty. Ltd., Melbourne. Inscribed: ‘Leon Woizikowsky 18.6.37, Maitre de Ballet’.

Valentina Blinova and Leon Woizikowsky in 'Le beau Danube',1936

* Source: Records of J. C. Williamson, National Library of Australia, MS 5783, Box 353

Happy returns

On Dancing’s reviews of John Neumeier’s extraordinary choreography, Nijinsky—both the recent Australian Ballet production, which I have not seen, and the link to that of 2012 for the Hamburg Ballet in Brisbane,* are welcome reminders of the Hamburg company’s stellar achievements.

Telling reference is made to the circular shapes incorporated into the set design, echoing paintings by Nijinsky—and lucky we are that one of his paintings is held in a private collection in Wellington, a tiny telescoping of ballet history.

Dimity Azoury. Alexandre Riabko, Francois-Eloi Lavignac and Leanne Stojmenov in 'Nijinsky'. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: Jeff Busby

Dimity Azoury. Alexandre Riabko, Francois-Eloi Lavignac and Leanne Stojmenov in Nijinsky. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

I keep indelible memories of two trips to Hamburg, 2005 and 2015, where I saw in total ten of Neumeier’s full-length works. What astonishing programming in two short weeks, demonstrating the enduring worth of keeping repertoire extant, instead of allowing Rip Van Winkle to steal away with choreographed treasure never more to be seen in a lifetime, as happens in too many places.

Hamburg Ballet’s detailed website is further evidence of this artistic confidence, paying much respect to the casts listed at its premiere and in subsequent seasons, to the audiences’ interest in such things, and in the company’s future programming, which gives us the wherewithal to make fruitful travel plans.

Jiri Bubenicek created the lead role in the 2000 premiere cast of Nijinsky in Hamburg, and his twin brother Otto Bubenicek danced the Golden Slave and the Faun in that same season. After many years with Hamburg Ballet, the brothers, now collaborating and working on an international circuit, Jiri in choreography and Otto in design, will this month prepare a work on New Zealand School of Dance students for their graduation show in November. I look forward to viewing and reviewing it.

Australia’s Daniel Gaudiello proved a most gracious and convincing Albrecht in Royal New Zealand Ballet’s recent Giselle—and soon our Joseph Skelton crosses the Tasman in the other direction to guest as Albrecht in the Australian Ballet’s production.

RNZB will soon offer a studio season of new work by dancers aspiring to choreograph. Again this will be named for memory of dear Harry Haythorne.

Thus the ballet world continues to turn with little more than demi-plié degrees of separation between practitioners and their ephemeral heritage.  Words on dance websites help hold the gossamer together between seasons.

Jennifer Shennan, Wellington 12 October 2016

————————

*which I did get lucky to see, in their wonderful double billing with A Midsummer Night’s Dream—which in turn makes interesting contrast now with Liam Scarlett’s choreography in the co-production between Royal New Zealand Ballet and Queensland Ballet.  RNZB are performing it this week in Hong Kong at the Shakespeare festival there—then home for a brief Wellington season).

Featured image: Photo: Leanne Stojmenov, Alexandre Riabko, Ako Kondo and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson in Nijinsky, the Australian Ballet 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Leanne Stojmenov, Alexandre Riabko, Ako Kondo and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson in 'Nijinsky', the Australian Ballet 2016. Photo Jeff Busby