‘Ballet and Fashion’. National Gallery of Victoria

Ballet and fashion, an exhibition curated by Roger Leong as a joint venture between the National Gallery of Victoria and the Australian Ballet, is a mini-feast for the eyes. It is a small exhibition with just twenty-one costumes, several headdresses, a face-mask, and seven designs on paper. But the material gives an enticing glimpse of how designers whose work has been primarily in the field of fashion have collaborated in the production of dance.

The show is complemented by a compilation of footage showing extracts from five works: Romeo and Juliet (Graeme Murphy), 2 Lips and Dancers in Space (Robert Wilson/Makram Hamdam), Divergence (Stanton Welch), Aviary (Phillip Adams) and Tutu Parade (Adrian Burnett). The latter was part of another ‘tutu initiative’ that culminated in Tutu: designing for dance, an exhibition shown at the Ian Potter Centre, National Gallery of Victoria in 2004–2005. The footage is an excellent addition giving the viewer the opportunity to see how (or if) some of the costumes we see in display cases move (or don’t) with the body. It is good quality footage too and shown on a large screen.Akira Isogawa costumesAkira ISOGAWA (designer): leftDress (2005) for Grand, choreographed by Graeme Murphy, Sydney Dance Company, 2005. Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts. Photo: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; right, Kevin Jackson in costume for Romeo (2011), Romeo & Juliet, choreographed by Graeme Murphy, The Australian Ballet, 2011. The Australian Ballet Collection, Melbourne. Photo: Georges Antoni

The exquisite, detailed work of Akira Isogawa is represented in the first room with three costumes from Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet. But the surprise is the inclusion of two dresses from Grand, Murphy’s deeply moving work made in 2005 in memory of his mother. The dresses from Grand are beautiful to look at close-up, which of course we don’t get the opportunity to do when we see them onstage. Delicate, intricately decorated, ruched and layered, gently coloured and made from ivory-coloured fabric, with one of them showing touches of gold decoaration, they highlight the detail and care Isogawa puts into his work.

Another of Isogawa’s techniques that is hardly noticeable from the auditorium but that is a delight to see close-up is his use of delicately patterned fabric. The skirt of Lady Capulet’s dress for Act I scene iii in Romeo and Juliet, for example, has an overlay patterned with a feather design. Romeo’s tights are also patterned. And it interesting to see close-up Isogawa’s use of Japanese techniques of manipulating fabric on the sleeves of Lady Capulet’s shrug and Romeo’s doublet. And I must admit I didn’t notice while watching the work onstage that Romeo carried a built-in pistol on his chest.

I was also taken by two black ‘bird’ costumes: Giles Deacon’s black tutu commissioned in 2010 by Harper’s Bazaar on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of English National Ballet, and a costume from Act I of Aviary a recent work by Phillip Adams. The Deacon tutu, with its traditional shape and with small clumps of ostrich feathers placed delicately on the outer rim of the skirt, has a bodice of skin-coloured fabric on which is stitched a heart-shaped front of lace and beads. While it was initially made as a kind of pièce d’occasion, it was worn in a performance of the Black Swan pas de deux from Swan Lake by dancers of English National Ballet. It is a beautifully elegant version of the traditional tutu and its style stands in contrast to the modern variation on the tutu made by Toni Maticevski for Aviary. The Maticevski garment is less traditional in shape, rather more cabaret-esque with its pannier-like sides of strikingly large ostrich feathers, and with tulle and silk georgette fabric draped at front and back. Its accompanying millinery by Richard Nylon is eye-catching to say the least.

Remarkable to look at are three costumes by Viktor & Rolf for a Netherlands Dance Theatre production, 2 Lips and Dancers in Space, directed by Robert Wilson for the NDT III arm of the company. I especially enjoyed a black and gold costume that consisted of various extravagant additions to a basic, long-sleeved, black unitard-style garment. Gold metal crowns projected from the thigh and hip sections of the unitard, and gold cones (dunce caps?) with gold fabric falling from the peak of the cone sat on the shoulders and projected from the genital region. Gold fabric of various kinds—lamé, silk, satin—were wrapped and draped on various parts of the costume. The theatricality of the whole had the look of the Baroque era or perhaps Carnivale in Venice. Or perhaps Dada-esqe is a better word to describe the items, especially when one watches an extract from the work in the compilation of footage.

© Christian Lacroix. Costume for 'Gaîté parisienne', 1988 Christian LACROIX (designer): Costume for the Lead Can Can Dancer (1988), Gâité Parisienne, choreographed by Léonide Massine, staged by Lorca Massine, American Ballet Theatre, 1988. Costume worn by Robyn Hendricks. American Ballet Theatre Collection, New York. Photo: Jo Duck, makeup courtesy Napoleon Perdis. © Christian Lacroix

While I have singled out just a few of the costumes on display, every one of them has something of interest, either intrinsically, comparatively or in relation to the footage. Some are well-known to dance-goers in Australia: Vanessa Leyonhjelm’s ‘industrial’ tutu for Stanton Welch’s Divergence, Collette Dinnigan’s finely designed tutu with black lace and beading over a peach-coloured silk skirt and Easton Pearson’s African-inspired tutu, the latter two having been seen in the earlier tutu exhibition. Others are not so well-known: Rei Kawakubo’s astonishing costumes with their large protuberances for Merce Cunningham’s Scenario, Christian Lacroix’s colourful, multi-patterned, mixed fabric costumes for a 1980s revival of Gaîté parisienne by American Ballet Theatre, and others by Ralph Rucci and Valentino. And then of course there are the astonishing hooped burqas with flashing blue lights that are part of 2 Lips and Dancers in Space.

The exhibition is  a very nicely curated show and well worth seeing. It is accompanied by a useful booklet, Ballet and fashion, by Roger Leong, which contains the information on the wall captions and extra information, especially about the designers. Some seating in the gallery displaying the footage would be a bonus.

Ballet and fashion: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. 3 November 2012–19 May 2013

Michelle Potter, 17 January 2013

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Dance diary. August 2012

  • America’s irreplaceable dance treasures

This month my essays in the series America’s irreplaceable dance treasures: the first 100 went online on the website of the Dance Heritage Coalition. I was commissioned to write on Merce Cunningham and Rudolf Nureyev. The Irreplaceable treasures site is something to be treasured in itself. It is a continuing source of regret to me that in Australia we no longer have something similar. See my previous post on the demise of Australia Dancing: the Australia Dancing site was admired and used not just in Australia but around the world.

  • Tammi Gissell

I continue to be impressed with dancer Tammi Gissell who earlier in August was the solo performer in Liz Lea’s work in progress ‘Seeking Biloela’. A follow up conversation with Gissell revealed her strong and much treasured connections to her indigenous heritage. It was also interesting to hear her thoughts about working with scientists at CSIRO. She said: ‘What is also exciting for me in working with Liz is the opportunity to work with the scientists at CSIRO and to see the absolute relationship between traditional knowledge and scientific knowledge and how they support each other. For example, the scientists confirm that the Black Cockatoo rides ahead of the rain currents, heralding fertility for the land and people’.

Tammi Gissell 2012. Dance diary August. Photo Lorna SimTammi Gissell in rehearsal for ‘Seeking Biloela’, 2012. Photo: Lorna Sim

Gissell has recently been commissioned to create two new works for the Perth-based Ochre Contemporary Dance Company for a forthcoming season. She will choreograph one herself and make the other in collaboration with Jacob Lehrer. She is also currently in discussions with Queensland Theatre Company to develop a new work in 2013.

  • Claudia Gitelman

I was sorry to hear, just a day or so after posting my review of On stage alone, edited by Claudia Gitelman and Barbara Palfy, that Claudia Gitelman had died. Gitelman was associate professor emerita at Rutgers University, the State University of New Jersey, and was well-known for her uncompromising scholarship. Her published writing includes a study of Hanya Holm. She also co-edited and contributed to a critical analysis of the work of Alwin Nikolais with whose company she performed. Here is a link to a brief obituary.

  • Time in motion

The exhibition venue at the State Theatre in Melbourne is currently showing an exhibition celebrating the Australian Ballet’s 50th anniversary. Called Time in motion: 50 years of the Australian Ballet and curated by Margot Anderson, the Arts Centre Melbourne’s curator of dance and opera, the exhibition shows a diverse range of material including footage (some of which is archival), photographs, designs and memorabilia. It covers, if randomly, the company’s history from its first performance of Swan Lake in 1962 up to the triple bill, Infinity, staged in 2012.

Natasha Kusen 2004 Photo Justin SmithNatasha Kusen of the Australian Ballet in Serenade, 2004. Choreography G Balanchine ©The George Balanchine Trust. Photo: Justin Smith

I was especially taken by the works on paper from set and costumes designers working for the Australian Ballet across the decades. They ranged from highly detailed works, such as that by Kristian Fredrikson for Franz in the 1979 production of Coppélia, to others that were simply pencilled shapes, such as the designs by Moritz Junge for Wayne McGregor’s 2009 production, Dyad 1929. I especially liked the designs by Akira Isogawa for Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet (2011). They looked like they had been drawn in fine black pen on cloth rather than paper and were careful works of art with fabric swatches attached to become part of the art work rather pinned or stapled on in a less than careful manner. But probably my favourite was Michael Pearce’s design for the character played by Simone Goldsmith in Stephen Baynes’ At the edge of Night (1997). I loved how it was presented as a collage of sources with costume drawings complemented by historical images and a fabric swatch carefully placed to enhance the total effect.

My one gripe is that there were some issues with the display of archival footage. Some of the footage made the dancers look decidedly short and dumpy. While one can make excuses (perhaps) for the 1960s footage, there is no excuse for having Lisa Bolte and Robert Curran look short and dumpy in footage of Baynes’ beautiful pas de deux from Edge of night. I know they don’t look like that and suspect that something as simple as a change of monitor might have made a difference.

Time in motion finishes in Melbourne on 23 September 2012 and then goes to Sydney where it will be hung at the State Library of New South Wales, 12 November 2012–10 February 2013.

Michelle Potter, 31 August 2012

‘Romeo and Juliet’. A second look

10 December 2011, Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet for the Australian Ballet continues to generate discussion and mixed reviews, and I recently took a second look at it at a Sydney mid-season matinee performance. It is impossible to ignore the dominance of the scenic elements and the challenges of the constantly changing times and locations, and why should we ignore them anyway as they are an intrinsic part of the collaboration and choreographic plan. So I still like to see this Romeo and Juliet as a postmodern work, despite all the problematic issues that the term ‘postmodern’ generates. Postmodernism, at least in areas of the visual arts, allows a collage of non-sequiturs and apparently frivolous allusions, which gives a pastiche we can either love or hate, but not ignore.

On this viewing, the sometimes overbearing scenic elements, and the episodic nature of the changes of time and location, did not startle to the same extent as they did that first time. On any second or subsequent viewing, whatever the work, one naturally notices different things. During the opening scene, set in what my ever-entertaining companion at these matiness thought looked like a scene from Dungeons and Dragons, it was Murphy’s attention to detail in his handling of the minor characters that attracted my attention. At the side of the main action and above it on the ‘bridge’, groups of bedraggled-looking townsfolk engaged in their own comments on the feuding being carried out centre stage. Murphy has always been a dab hand at this kind of background action—no standing round twiddling thumbs and admiring dresses. His works are choreographed down to the last detail.

The ball scene contains one of the best-known sections of the Prokofiev score, a section I will never be able to call anything other than ‘the cushion dance’. My approach to this scene will forever be coloured by my very first viewing of a ballet with the name Romeo and Juliet when, as a child, I saw a film of the Bolshoi Ballet with Galina Ulanova as Juliet. Well there were no cushions for the male guests to toss onto the floor in Murphy’s version of the magnificent ‘cushion dance’, but there was some startling and bold choreography. I especially admired the dramatic swirl of movement as the male guests held their partners, who leant back precariously as they were turned in a tight circle and who, with knees bent and feet together, jabbed the floor aggressively with their pointe shoes.

Akira Isogawa’s wedding dress for Juliet in the Japanese-inspired scene also caught my eye. Although it is pretty much impossible to learn much about the construction and detail of individual costumes from a seat in the auditorium, this dress seemed to be beautifully made from delicately patterned silk, or synthetic silken-look fabric. But it was the shoulder feature that surprised me. The straps that held the dress together over the shoulders were wide and crossed over just as they joined the bodice rather than in the middle of the of the upper back. It was a simple and almost unnoticeable touch, and perhaps not of major significance in the overall scheme of the ballet, but so elegant.

I was lucky enough to see Juliet Burnett in the leading role on this second viewing. She handled Murphy’s ever-changing and ever-challenging choreography as if she were born to dance his steps. She was bubbling with youth as she ran across the stage on pointe in the opening sequence. She soared through lifts in Murphy’s pas de deux and in those scenes in which the black-garbed holy men transported her across the stage. Her expressive arms gave a joyous quality to those moments where her young love for Romeo needed to be shown. But those arms also conjured up something entirely different, something leaden and full of fear when, for example, she reached out in an attempt to pick up the bottle of poison from her bed. It was this quality of being able to express emotion so well through the body, and not just through facial expression, that made her performance so exhilarating. But perhaps most of all it was a thrill to watch her portray the character of Juliet and to maintain that characterisation across the entire ballet, despite the changes of time and location. A stellar performance from Burnett who was partnered by Rudy Hawkes as Romeo.

Of the other cast members, Josef Brown made a welcome return to the ballet stage as Lord Capulet with Ingrid Gow as his Lady Capulet. Brown played Lord Capulet with a calm yet imposing presence. His handling of Juliet in the scenes with Paris rarely showed anger but rather some kind of fatherly determination. It allowed Murphy’s choreography, which in these scenes contains conflict within it, to shine through.

Michelle Potter, 11 December 2011

Featured image: Artists of the Australian Ballet in Romeo and Juliet, 2011. Photo: © Jeff Busby. Courtesy of the Australian Ballet

Here is the link to the original post and comments on this production of Romeo and Juliet.

UPDATE, 12 December 2011: I have just reread more carefully the original post written after opening night in Melbourne in September. In it I wrote: ‘Manion’s strongest contribution [Gerard Manion was the set designer for this work] was a visually arresting painted front cloth comprising a huge bunch of gold, pink and blood red lilies from which the deepest colours drained to grey as the cloth rose at the beginning of the work’. Well this was not part of the Sydney production! Why not? I have no idea, but it was a sad omission in my opinion.

‘Romeo and Juliet’. The Australian Ballet

This is an expanded version of my review first published in The Canberra Times, 17 September 2011, p. 30 under the title ‘Fluid postmodern take on a classic’.

13 September 2011, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

In an interview published in the September issue of the Qantas inflight magazine, choreographer Graeme Murphy said of his new production of Swan Lake for the Australian Ballet that we should ‘bring a lifeboat’. Well he had a point because this production, which had its world premiere in Melbourne on 13 September, is a very fluid one indeed. It opens in a town setting, which could be Verona at the time Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is set. But over the course of the evening the location and the era change wildly. We see the marriage of Romeo and Juliet in Japan, the killing of Tybalt and Mercutio in India and the mourning of Juliet in a harsh, blood red desert setting. The characters ride bikes in one scene. Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio find themselves in a row boat in another. And more.

Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet is quintessentially postmodern. It has moments of humour and irony. It is filled with allusions to all kinds of cultural objects and issues—devotees of the Hare Krishna movement even make an appearance. Murphy also references himself and his work through some choreographic moments that look back to the vintage days of Sydney Dance Company. The scene in which Juliet receives a potion to induce a death-like sleep, when six black clad figures support Juliet in expansive swooping and flying movements, is just one example of this glance back at previous choreography.

Murphy also incorporates fabric into the choreography and the production overall. And while on this occasion his costume designer, Akira Isogawa, may well have had a strong input into how fabric has been used, Murphy has been playing with lengths of cloth and curtains of fabric throughout his choreographic career. One of the most dramatic uses of fabric in Romeo and Juliet occurs when a bolt of scarlet silk, initially resting amongst other rolls of fabric on the side of the stage in the Indian market place, unwinds and streams across the stage as the Capulets and the Montagues engage in their bloody feud.

This Romeo and Juliet is a collage of ideas playfully deconstructed and the remarkable thing is that it works. Everyone knows the story and Murphy has assumed this familiarity with the plot and has pursued a vision for a work that is like no other that the Australian Ballet has ever presented.

On opening night Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson as Juliet and Romeo led us on this journey of love and death. Eastoe in particular danced with joy, passion, despair, every emotion that the story requires. Her opening dance, with its quick footwork and fluid upper body movement, filled us with pleasure and anticipation.

Daniel Gaudiello continued to impress as Mercutio and moved, as his name in this ballet implies, like quicksilver, darting here and there, unpredictable and always impassioned in defence of his friends. Juliet’s nurse, usually played as a somewhat plump and bumbling if kind-hearted older woman, was intelligently performed by Elizabeth Hill and became (thankfully) a much less pantomimic role. A character introduced by Murphy—Death, the Prince of Darkness—provided a through line for the meandering locations and times. Death picks up bodies, which he places in a wooden cart (rather like the carts that carried the French to the guillotine in 1789—another reference). Or sometimes he just hovers menacingly in the background. It’s not a big dancing role but one that requires a very strong presence. It was very ably performed on opening night by Adam Bull.

In addition to Akira Isogawa, the collaborative team on this production included Murphy’s creative associate, Janet Vernon, set designer Gerard Manion, and Damien Cooper who lit the show. From among literally hundreds of costumes created by Isogawa, I especially liked the beautifully cut, high-collared black coat for Death and the pale olive, very simple costume for Juliet’s nurse. I was amused by the costume for Paris, which seemed to have a kind of gold ‘breast-plate’ of muscles. Paris is rarely portrayed in a sympathetic way and this addition to his costume suggested an inherent vanity. Manion’s strongest contribution was a visually arresting painted front cloth comprising a huge bunch of gold, pink and blood red lilies from which the deepest colours drained to grey as the cloth rose at the beginning of the work.

This Romeo and Juliet may not appeal to everyone, especially those who like their ballet to be more in a modernist vein, that is somewhat coherent in form. Did I miss the John Cranko version of Romeo and Juliet, which has been in the Australian Ballet’s repertoire for decades? Yes, a little, but in the same way as I occasionally yearn to see a traditional Swan Lake, rather than Murphy’s newer production. It’s part of the balletic legacy and we need to be reminded occasionally that we have a heritage.

But Murphy’s approach in 2011 raises many issues that are discussed across other art forms and it is refreshing to see this occurring in ballet, an art form that is so often seen as a little dowdy. Of course such issues include the notion that postmodernism is dead so we have to wonder whether this Romeo and Juliet is already outdated? But whatever one might think, it is a production worth seeing.

Michelle Potter, 19 September 2011

Featured image: Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson in Romeo and Juliet, 2011. Photo: © Jeff Busby. Courtesy of the Australian Ballet

UPDATE, 11 December 2011: Romeo and Juliet. A second look