Ruth Galene (1929–2016)

Ruth Galene. Born Berlin, 10 January 1929; died Sydney, 17 May 2016

Ruth Galene, who has died in Sydney aged 87, had an extraordinarily diverse career in dance. Born Ruth Helfgott in Berlin of Polish-Jewish parents, she came to Australia in 1938. The family settled in Sydney and Ruth’s first formal dance experience was with Viennese émigré, Gertrud Bodenwieser. After a successful audition, when she wore, as she recalled, a white silk dress that floated as she moved, Ruth began modern dance training under two of Bodenwieser’s leading dancers, Evelyn Ippen and Bettina Vernon. Shortly afterwards, Ruth began taking ballet classes in Sydney with Estelle Anderson and a little later with Lorraine Norton and then Leon Kellaway.

Ruth performed briefly with the Borovansky Ballet, where she counted star dancer Kathleen Gorham as one of her closest friends. She then joined the English company, Ballet Rambert, during its Australasian tour of 1947–1949, as indeed did Gorham. With Rambert, Ruth danced under the name Ruth Boker. Boker was a family name and Ruth chose it in preference to Marie Rambert’s suggestion of ‘Sylvia Sydney’. Her most successful role with Rambert was the principal one of the Italian Ballerina in Antony Tudor’s Gala Performance, which she performed in the company’s final season in Perth in 1949.

image

Australian corps de ballet dancers with Ballet Rambert, 1947. Ruth is sixth from the left at the barre. Source: Ballet Rambert: the tour of Australia and New Zealand. Program book edited by Harry Tatlock Miller, p. 51. Photo: Alec Murray

While performing with Borovansky and Rambert, Ruth continued working towards the Royal Academy of Dancing examinations and passed Advanced with Honours in 1948 and then successfully completed the Solo Seal exam.

When Ballet Rambert left Australia for London in 1949, Ruth and Gorham travelled with the company and, on her arrival, Ruth continued her ballet training with esteemed teachers, including Vera Volkova in London and Olga Preobrajenska and Victor Gsovsky in Paris. Speaking of Volkova’s classes Ruth recalled:

‘The classes had become a showcase for visiting directors of dance companies who were looking for new talent. One week after my arrival in London, Roland Petit, director of Les Ballets de Paris, walked into the studio to watch. Petit chose two dancers for his company: Kathleen Gorham and me.’

In Europe, as well as dancing with Roland Petit’s company, Ruth performed with Le Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas. It was choreographer and ballet master of the de Cuevas company, John Taras, who suggested she change her name (again). She consulted with renowned dance writer Cyril Beaumont and chose Galene after the Russian ballerina Galina Ulanova. With de Cuevas she had the opportunity to dance the works of some of the twentieth-century’s most exciting choreographers, including Léonide Massine, Bronislava Nijinska, Jean Babilée, George Skibine and George Balanchine.

Eventually, Ruth decided she needed to return to Australia to contribute to the development of dance in Australia. She joined the Melbourne-based National Theatre Ballet where she danced a varied repertoire, which included Beth Dean’s 1950 production of Corroboree in which Ruth danced the role of the Thippa Thippa Bird. It was while dancing Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, in Giselle for the National, however, that she met her husband, Peter Frank. Ruth recalled the event:

‘I met my husband to be, Peter Frank, through an incident that was sheer coincidence. On crossing Collins Street in Melbourne, Peter encountered a mutual friend (we were later to realise). The question posed to Peter by his friend was “are you coming to the ballet tonight?” He decided to do so. The role in which Peter saw me for the first time was the Queen of the Wilis in Giselle: an unrelenting, stern character. Not exactly an inviting introduction to his future wife.’

Back in Sydney Ruth began teaching, having bought a school in Northbridge. She also began to branch out into choreography in a major way. She created The Tell-tale Heart, with a commissioned score by Nigel Butterley, for the inaugural performance of the Sydney-based choreographic ensemble, Ballet Australia, in 1961 and went on to make several more works for this company. They included Adagio Albinoni in 1967, which she always regarded as a breakthrough work in which she was able to combine classical and contemporary vocabulary. Adagio Albinoni was subsequently taken into the repertoire of the English company, Ballet Caravan.

In 1969 Ruth began formulating her system of dance training, Dance Dynamics, which she worked on for some thirty years until 2000 when she felt it had developed into a comprehensive system. She described it as having a movement vocabulary that was ‘integrated with key elements pertaining to the Australian natural environment’. During this time she established the New Dance Theatre, renamed in 1989 as Red Opal Dance Theatre. With this company she aimed to create works that demonstrated a distinctive, Australian identity. She created over 100 works for her company, often using original scores by Australian composers. Red Opal Dance Theatre and its predecessor performed across various Sydney venues and in regional areas in New South Wales from 1967 up until 2005.

Ruth Galene is survived by a son and daughter-in-law, Robert and Christina Frank, and three grandchildren.

Michelle Potter, 20 May 2016

Featured image: Ruth Galene and Ross Hutchison in The First Sunrise (detail). The New Dance Theatre, 1970. Source: Ruth Galene, Dance Dynamics, p. 61

Sources:

  • Ruth Galene, Oral history interview recorded by Michelle Potter, 1999. National Library of Australia, Oral History and Folklore Collection, Keep Dancing Collection, TRC 3490
  • Ruth Galene, Dance Dynamics. Australian contemporary Dance Training System (Sydney, n.d [1998?])
  • Papers of Ruth Galene, National Library of Australia, MS Acc.10.140
  • Carmel Bendon Davis, The Spirit of the Dance: The Story of Ruth Galene, revised edition 1998
  • Records of Ballet Australia, 1956-1976. National Library of Australia, Keep Dancing Collection, MS 9171
  • Ballet Rambert: the tour of Australia and New Zealand, 1947–1948. Program book edited by Harry Tatlock Miller, photographed by Alec Murray, designed and decorated by Loudon Sainthill (Sydney: Craftsman Bookshop, [1947]

‘The Listeners’. A ballet by Joanna Priest

Towards the end of research for my forthcoming publication, Dame Maggie Scott: a life in dance, an item relating to Joanna Priest’s ballet The Listeners emerged, quite unexpectedly. I had briefly looked into The Listeners as it was one of the ballets performed during the opening season by the National Theatre Ballet in Melbourne in September 1949. This was the occasion when Dame Margaret Scott made her return to the stage, following a lengthy stay in St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney, during the 1947—1949 Australasian tour by Ballet Rambert.

The appearance of this previously unknown item (unknown to me anyway) prompted me to look at The Listeners in a little more depth. My main source for further investigation was a Laban score for the work, part of the small collection of notated scores acquired by the National Library of Australia from Meg Abbie Denton in around 2004. Further information came from Meg’s publication Joanna Priest: her place in Adelaide’s dance history (Adelaide: Joanna Priest, 1993), and Alan Brissenden’s and Keith Glennon’s Australia dances: creating Australian dance 1945–1965 (Adelaide: Wakefield Press,  2010).

The Listeners was first staged for the South Australian Ballet Club in Adelaide on 30 November 1948 at the Tivoli Theatre (later Her Majesty’s). It was inspired by a poem written by Walter de la Mare, and Priest used the poem’s title as the name of her ballet. It was performed to Erno Dohnanyi’s String Quartet No 2 in D flat major, Opus 15, played by the Elder String Quartet, and had designs by Kenneth Rowell, his second commission from Priest.

'The Listeners', South Australian Ballet Company, 1948. Photo: Colin Ballantyne

Harry Haythorne as the Traveller, with Margaret Monson (left) as the Woman who Loved Him and Lynette Tuck as the Woman He Loved in The Listeners, South Australian Ballet Club, 1948. Photo: Colin Ballantyne

In the poem, the only human is a traveller who knocks on the door of a deserted house, deserted except for ‘a host of phantom listeners’ who do not respond to him. For her work, Priest added two women in the traveller’s life—one who loved him, the other whom he loved—as well as the child who was born from the liaison between the traveller and the woman who loved him. They were joined by the force of circumstance represented by four female dancers. Program notes explain:

The traveller arrives at an abandoned house which holds intimate memories…and here among “a host of phantom listeners” the conflict of his relationship with two women is re-enacted in his imagination. Dogged by the relentless interference of circumstance he tries in vain to weave into an enduring pattern his longing for the woman he loves, and his loyalty to the woman who has borne him a child. The harmony of the pattern is perpetually broken by inexorable forces, and, as in life, his struggles against them prove unavailing.

In the original production Harry Haythorne danced the Traveller, Margaret Monson the Woman who Loved  Him, and Lynette Tuck the Woman He Loved.

The ballet entered the repertoire of the National Theatre Ballet in 1949 with Rex Reid as the Traveller, Joyce Graeme as the Woman who Loved Him, Margaret Scott as the Woman He Loved and Jennifer Stielow as the Child. Six extra dancers were added, three men and three women, representing phantom listeners. Kenneth Rowell designed new sets and costumes for this production.

Alan Brissenden’s report of the National’s production has a number of errors, in particular some confusion as to which roles were danced by whom, but of the overall production he says:

The complex choreography followed the melodic structure of the music…and was firmly knit with the development of the story.

What is the unexpected item? It will appear in the plates section of Dame Maggie Scott: a life in dance.

Michelle Potter, 14 August 2014

Featured image: Joyce Graeme as the Woman who Loved Him and Jennifer Stielow as the Child in The Listeners, National Theatre Ballet, 1949. Photo: Harry Jay

Dance diary. May 2014

  • Sydney Dance Company. The Heritage Collection

A few months ago I mentioned very briefly a project being developed by film maker Philippe Charluet in conjunction with Sydney Dance Company to preserve the choreography of Graeme Murphy, which he made as artistic director of the company over more than 30 years. Well, the project is now official and has been announced as part of Sydney Dance Company’s 45th anniversary celebrations. Sydney Dance Company says:

‘Sydney Dance Company is excited to announce that work has commenced on the editing and digitising of film and video recordings of some of the major works created by long-standing Artistic Director, Graeme Murphy AO and his Creative Associate, Janet Vernon AM.

The Heritage Collection will include re-mastered films of many full length evening works created by Murphy on the Sydney Dance Company ensemble during his 31 year tenure from 1976 to 2007, in addition to a new documentary resource of Murphy in conversation, interweaving a myriad of interviews filmed over a period of thee decades, with new footage in which he reflects on his body of work’.

What a treasure this will be for us and those who follow us in the future.

Image: Artists of Sydney Dance Company in a promotional shot for Graeme Murphy’s Salomé. Photo © Lois Greenfield

Sydney Dance Company's Salome, choreography by Graeme Murphy. Photo by Lois Greenfield

A teaser for this project is at this link.

  • Pamela Vincent and the Rambert tour to Australasia

Here is another image from the Pamela Vincent album of photographs from the Ballet Rambert’s tour to Australia and New Zealand 1947–1949. Pamela Vincent was courted in Australia by Douglas Whittaker, principal flute player in the orchestra that accompanied the Rambert company. They married in England.

Ballet Rambert in Australia. Horseriding excursion, 1948

  • British Library and Serge Diaghilev

I was interested to find this link to a comment on Serge Diaghilev’s interest, which grew in intensity towards the end of his life, in rare books.

  • Press for May

‘Fresh flavour but a little flat’. Review of Don Quixote, Imperial Russian Ballet. The Canberra Times, 7 May 2014, ARTS p. 8. Online version

Michelle Potter, 31 May 2014

Ballet Rambert in Australia 1948

Dance diary. April 2014

  •   Ballet Rambert Australasian tour

I was delighted to find, during my recent research in the Rambert Archives in London, an album, currently on loan to the Archives for copying, assembled by dancer Pamela Whittaker (Vincent) during the Ballet Rambert’s tour to Australia and New Zealand, 1947–1949. What struck me instantly was the fact that this company enjoyed a similarly social time in Australia and New Zealand as did the Ballets Russes companies that preceded Rambert. I hope to pursue this a little further in a later post but in the meantime the featured image (above) is a photo from Pamela Whittaker’s album. Below is another image from that album.

Ballet Rambert in Australia. Horseriding excursion, 1948

Ballet Rambert on an outing in Australia, 1948. From the personal album of Pamela Whittaker (Vincent)

  • Kristian Fredrikson Scholarship 2014

The Kristian Fredrikson Scholarship for 2014 has been awarded to West Australian designer Alicia Clements. For more about Alicia’s work see her website, but below is a costume for the character of Nishi from The White Divers of Broome staged by the Black Swan Theatre Company in Perth in 2012.

Costume by Alicia Clements for Nishi in 'The White Divers of Broome'. Photo © Cameron Etchells.

Costume by Alicia Clements for Nishi in The White Divers of Broome. Photo © Cameron Etchells.

  • Australian Dance Awards 2014

The long list of nominations for the 2014 Australian Dance Awards was released during April. From a Canberra perspective it is good to see a number of nominations with strong Canberra connections, although I wonder whether any or many of them will make the short lists given the fact that so few people outside Canberra will have seen the productions in the flesh. That concern aside, however, I was especially pleased to see Garry Stewart’s Monument on the list for two awards, an individual award to Stewart for outstanding achievement in choreography and an award to the Australian Ballet for outstanding performance by a company. It was also gratifying to see Life is a Work of Art created by Liz Lea and others for GOLD, the group of mature age performers associated with Canberra Dance Theatre, nominated in the community dance category.

'Richard House, Rudy Hawkes & Cameron Hunter in 'Monument', 2013. The Australian Ballet. Photo © Branco Gaica

Richard House, Rudy Hawkes and Cameron Hunter in Monument, 2013. The Australian Ballet. Photo © Branco Gaica

But I noticed that Janet Karin, former director of the National Capital Ballet School, currently kinetic educator at the Australian Ballet School, and also now president of  the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science, is again on the list for services to dance education. Fingers crossed for this one as her contribution to the Australian dance scene has been remarkable over many years and in many areas and she deserves recognition from her peers.

  • Island: James Batchelor

I am looking forward to the opening of James Batchelor’s new work, Island, which premieres tonight at the Courtyard Theatre, Canberra Theatre Centre. Batchelor was impressive when I interviewed him earlier his month (see online link below) but seeing in production what one has written about in advance is always challenging. But Canberra needs more dance of the sophisticated variety. So fingers crossed!

James Batchelor in 'Ersatz', Bangkok 2013. Photo © NDEPsixteen

James Batchelor in Ersatz, Bangkok 2013. Photo © NDEPsixteen

  • Press for April

‘Outstanding skills shown in diversity’. Review of Sydney Dance Company’s Interplay. The Canberra Times, 12 April 2014, ARTS 19. Online 

‘Dedicated Batchelor’. Preview story for James Batchelor’s Island. The Canberra Times, 26 April 2014. Online version.

Michelle Potter, 30 April 2014

Featured image: Ballet Rambert enjoying the Australian bush, 1948. From the personal album of Pamela Whittaker (Vincent)

 

 

Dance diary. March 2014

  • Prince of the Pagodas

As a much younger person I remember being fascinated by Svetlana Beriosova. I guess she was the dancer I admired most when I was a ballet student, although I’m not sure why as I had never seen her dance. But she looked so coolly elegant from photographs, and I particularly remember images of her in what sounded from 1950s Sydney, thousands of miles away from London, like a very exotic ballet, Prince of the Pagodas. Beriosova did come to Australia with the Royal Ballet, which visited Sydney in 1958. I was there, autograph book in hand, as these stars from afar came out of the stage door of the old Empire Theatre at Railway Square. That season I finally saw Beriosova dance—as Swanilda in Coppélia.

Svetlana Beriosova in 'The Prince of the Pagodas'
Svetlana Beriosova signature

Prince of the Pagodas, however, remained a mystery. The first production, choreographed by John Cranko in 1957 to a commissioned score by Benjamin Britten, was short-lived. Kenneth MacMillan produced another version in 1989, which was recently restaged by the Royal Ballet. I didn’t have an opportunity to see either the Cranko or the MacMillan version, but I did catch a third version created by David Bintley in 2011. Bintley made his production for the National Ballet of Japan and it has just finished a season in London danced by Bintley’s Birmingham Royal Ballet. Sadly for my childhood dreams, it was one of the most disappointing shows (and it was a show in the more popular meaning of that word) I have seen recently.

Bintley rewrote the narrative and set it in Japan but the story remains as crazy as ever, requiring a suspension of belief beyond belief. There are various reviews available online, along with accounts of the storyline and discussions of the history of the work, but I won’t post the links—they are easy to find. Suffice it to say that in 2014 I find it a little offensive to have characters called ‘Balinese Ladies’ who engage in choreography that vaguely references but basically, in my opinion, denigrates Balinese dancing; or rows of ladies dressed in long, pink gowns twirling pink parasols as if they are performing something called The Cherry Blossom Show. And I am mentioning just two of the more irritating (to me) elements of the production.

Britten’s score might continue to deserve a place in the concert repertoire, especially as an example of the ubiquitous influence of the Balinese gamelan on Western composers of Britten’s generation, largely under the influence of the eminent Canadian ethnomusicologist, Colin McPhee. But as a ballet, Prince of the Pagodas should probably just disappear into the mists of time. I doubt if any amount of tinkering can save it.

Beriosova’s image as a great dancer, however, remains intact for me.

  • More on Simple Symphony

Just a few days ago I had the huge pleasure of encountering first hand the unpublished dance writing of Lionel Bradley, whom I now like to think of as a blogger before the internet, and the word ‘blog’, was invented. Bradley was a librarian at the London Library in the 1940s and a great lover of ballet and dance of all kinds (and of other forms of performance). His handwritten dance texts, Ballet Bulletins 1941–1947 and Ballevaria Miscellanea 1937–1947, which he liked to circulate as he comleted each entry to a small group of friends, are housed in the Department of Theatre and Performance of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Although I was not there specifically to research Simple Symphony, as I had previously posted some thoughts about it it was a bonus to find that in his Bulletins Bradley had spent some time discussing early performances of this ballet by Walter Gore, which was a staple item in the repertoire brought to Australia on the Ballet Rambert tour of 1947–1949. Bradley was enthralled by the ballet. It was ‘a gorgeous success’ he wrote when he saw it for the first time in Torquay in December 1944 during one of Ballet Rambert’s regional tours.

His discussion of the backcloth and costumes by Ronald Wilson is especially interesting as I have never seen colour photographs or colour footage of the work, or even a photograph showing the backcloth. ‘The backcloth for Simple Symphony‘, Bradley wrote, ‘depicts a seashore, somewhat after the manner of Christopher Wood. There are two piles of greenish stones, one tall and narrow, one somewhat shorter, and a suggestion of fish nets. There are two wings [flats] on either side, the one nearer the backcloth being light and blue with some nautical decoration, while the front ones are dark brown and reddish brown. Near the front is a low border showing 2 angels & fish nets’.

Bradley goes on to describe the costumes and to discuss the structure of each of the four sections that make up the work. What wonderful resources Bradley’s writings turned out to be.

My previous post on Simple Symphony is a this link.

  • Jane Pritchard

I was delighted too to learn that Jane Pritchard, curator of dance at the V & A, had received an MBE in the Queen’s New Year Honours list. This is belated news, with which I have only just caught up, but congratulations to Jane. How rare it is for someone working in an archival area to be recognised in such a way.

Michelle Potter, 31 March 2014

Dance diary. December 2013

  • The Johnston Collection, Melbourne

I was surprised to be contacted earlier this month by the curator of the Johnston Collection, Melbourne. David McAllister, artistic director of the Australian Ballet, will be a guest curator there in the first part of 2014 and will be adding some Australian Ballet costumes to the rooms of Fairhall, the house in which the collection of antiques amassed by dealer William Robert Johnston is displayed. I will be presenting a lecture at Fairhall in June—From bedroom to kitchen and beyond: women of the ballet. More later.

  • Fantasy Modern: Andrew Montana

Over the holiday break I enjoyed reading Andrew Montana’s biography of Loudon Sainthill, Fantasy modern: Loudon Sainthill’s theatre of art and life, published in November 2013 by NewSouth Books. There are a few irritating typos and errors (Alicia Markova wasn’t married to Colonel de Basil—at least not as far as I know!) and some odd references in the notes. But, as ever, Montana has researched his topic very thoroughly and, while it is essentially a book written by an art historian, it gives a fascinating glimpse of the cultural background in which Sainthill and his partner Harry Tatlock Miller operated. That background of course includes Sainthill’s commissions for Nina Verchinina during the Ballets Russes Australian tours, as well as his work as a designer for Hélène Kirsova, and his activities during the Ballet Rambert Australasian tour of 1947–1949. In addition it was Harry Tatlock Miller who was responsible (in conjunction with the British Council) for bringing the exhibition Art for Theatre and Ballet to Australia. There is some interesting information too about the 1940s documentary Spotlight on Australian Ballet. So Fantasy Modern is interesting reading for dance fans as well as historians of theatre design.
Fantasy Modern cover

  • Bodenwieser news

I was pleased to hear recently from Barbara Cuckson that Sydney-born Bodenwieser dancer, Eileen Kramer, had returned to her city of birth. Not only that, she has reached the grand old age of 99. She is seen below on her 99th birthday wearing a Bodenwieser costume, which she designed all those years ago. Eileen recorded an oral history interview for the National Library in 2003. It is available for online listening at this link.

Eileen Kramer

  •  Site news

In December I am always interested to know what tags have been accessed most frequently over the preceding year. Here is the list of the 10 most popular tags for 2013:

Hannah O’Neill; Ty King-Wall; The Australian Ballet; Ballets Russes; Paris Opera Ballet; Olga Spessivtseva; Dandré-Levitoff Russian Ballet; Leanne Stojmenov; Athol Willoughby; Meryl Tankard.

Visitors to the site may also be interested in what is probably the last comment for 2013. I am attaching a link to comments on a book review I wrote in January 2012. The comment queried whether the author of At the Sign of the Harlequin’s Bat, Isabelle Stoughton, is still alive. As you can read, she is.

  • Past and future grace

And finally I couldn’t help but notice a sentence in a roundup of events for 2013 by Fairfax journalist Neil McMahon. Writing of Australian political happenings over the past year he said: ‘The policy pirouettes on both sides were en pointe, but graceless’. I’m not holding my breath for a graceful political scene in 2014. The dance scene might be better odds!
Happy New Year banner

Michelle Potter, 31 December 2013

‘Simple Symphony’: Walter Gore

Earlier this year Rafael Bonachela choreographed a work to Benjamin Britten’s Simple Symphony for his Sydney Dance Company. As a result, a few questions and comments arose on various websites about the use of this music for dance. Then, more recently, the Dancing Times carried letters about Walter Gore’s ballet Simple Symphony (danced to the Britten score) with some questions about the date of that production. In the course of research for another project, I had occasion to look at some archival material relating to the Ballet Rambert tour of Australia and New Zealand in the National Library of Australia, including the scrapbooks of Australian dancer Charles Boyd. From those sources I can add the following:

Gore’s ballet was created in 1944 and Mary Clarke in her Decca Book of Ballet states that its first performance was in Bristol on 29 November 1944. It was initially performed on Arts Council tours for the troops in England. The ballet was notated in Laban notation by Australian Cecil Bates in 1992 who notes that the work was taught to him by Gore when Bates joined the Rambert company during its Australia tour of 1947–1949. A copy of the notated score is part of the National Library’s music collection. Bates also notes that the version he learnt was unaltered from the 1944 original. Bates restaged it for his South Australian Ballet company in 1963.

Other notes on the Laban score state that the work was created by Gore during World War II during periods of leave from duty in France with the armed forces, and that it was created largely on Sally Gilmour and Margaret Scott. The work was performed throughout the Rambert Australasian tour. Its first Australian performance was at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne, on 24 October 1947 with Gore and Sally Gilmour in the principal roles. A note in Rambert Australian programs says it was ‘a thank-offering created by Walter Gore, Rambert’s premiere danseur, a few months after he was twice torpedoed on D-Day’.

It was also filmed during the Australian leg of the Australasian tour at Sandgate, a beachside suburb north of Brisbane, by Alan Denby for the ‘Public Instruction Department’. It was anticipated that the film would be distributed to schools in Queensland, although I am not sure whether this ever happened. Charles Boyd’s scrapbooks indicate that the photo below, taken on location during the filming, appeared in Brisbane’s Courier Mail in September 1948.
Filming Walter Gore's 'Simple Symphony', Sandgate, Queensland,1948
A copy of this film is in the collection of the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra.

Michelle Potter, 15 November 2013

‘Les illuminations’. Sydney Dance Company

3o August 2013, Studio Theatre, Sydney Opera House

With his latest program, Les Illuminations, Sydney Dance Company’s Rafael Bonachela has given audiences a new look at his spectacular dancers. This is an intimate program, made so by its venue, the Studio at the Sydney Opera House, and by its setting within that venue. The program, which consists of two short pieces both to music by Benjamin Britten, Simple Symphony and Les Illuminations, is danced on a T-shaped catwalk with the audience seated in the round. On the cross bar of the ‘T’ sits a string ensemble of musicians from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. They are joined in the second part by singer Katie Noonan, who sings the soprano role in Les Illuminations. The dancers perform entirely on the long line of the T.

What struck me instantly as Simple Symphony began was that Bonachela was taking advantage of the restricted performance space and was using more high lifts than usual. ‘Boisterous Bourrée’, the opening duet danced by Janessa Dufty and Andrew Crawford, began with a kind of ‘presage’ lift and continued with some gorgeous partnering, including more lifts. These two dancers set up a lovely partnership not only by dancing so well but also through their emotional connection with each other. Touch, glances, head movements, all played a part in making this duet a wonderful opener. The third part, ‘Sentimental Sarabande’ also stood out for its strong and emotionally engaging dancing by Fiona Jopp and Bernhard Knauer. With Toni Maticevski’s close fitting, light coloured costumes, decorated with pale turquoise trimmings, and the often playful moments in the choreography, Simple Symphony reminded me of a pastoral romp.

 

'Les Illuminations'. Jessica Thompson and Charmene Yap. Photo: Ellis Parrinder, 2013
'Les Illuminations'. Thomas Bradley and Cass Mortimer Eipper. Photo: Ellis Parrinder, 2013

Studies for Les Illuminations. Left: Jessica Thompson and Charmene Yap; right: Thomas Bradley and Cass Mortimer. Photos: © Ellis Parrinder, 2013. Courtesy Sydney Dance Company

There was nothing pastoral about the second section of the program, Les Illuminations. This was a darker side of life and featured just four dancers once more—Juliette Barton, Charmene Yap, Thomas Bradley and Cass Mortimer Eipper. The title Les Illuminations relates to a poem written by the Frenchman Arthur Rimbaud and the choreography seemed to me to have many elements that characterise Symbolism, a movement in the arts that was ‘in the air’ at the time when Rimbaud and his lover Paul Verlaine were writing. Ideas were suggested as dancers prowled around their long, narrow space casting telling glances at each other. Nothing seemed obvious. Maticevski’s costumes, this time sleeveless bodysuits in black with the addition of a black feathered headdress worn by Barton and a black face mask worn by Bradley, suggested a kind of decadence to me, again part of the Symbolist mood.

This second part of the program was certainly striking and as ever beautifully danced but I’m just not sure that the ideas that Rimbaud was writing about can be well portrayed through the medium of dance. It did, however, set up an effective contrast with Simple Symphony.

Michelle Potter, 1 September 2013.

NOTE: A dance work to Simple Symphony was first seen in Australia in October 1947 during a tour by Ballet Rambert. That version was choreographed by Walter Gore. Gore’s Simple Symphony was filmed in Brisbane (outdoors, or at least partly outdoors, if I remember correctly from watching the film some years ago) in 1948. Here is the National Film and Sound Archive’s catalogue record. Although of course Bonachela’s Simple Symphony is quite, quite different, it makes a nice tie-in with the Gore production, given Bonachela’s connections with Rambert Dance.

 

Bill ‘Angel’ Akers

While preparing for my recent Spotlight talk at the Arts Centre Melbourne I had occasion to listen to an oral history interview I recorded for the National Library in 2002 with Bill Akers. One of the many positions Akers held across the course of his very full life was director of productions with the Australian Ballet. He was also an inspired lighting designer, worked in various roles with the Borovansky Ballet and, prior to that, worked in theatre and film and on radio as an actor.

Ultimately, I used an audio clip from the interview in the talk and an audience member commented at the end on how nice it was to hear Bill’s voice again. Well that’s one of the benefits of recording oral history. But apart from anything else he had a beautiful voice. It was deep, generous and cultivated. In his interview he had something to say about that voice, which relates to his first radio appearances:

I became a club leader and gymnasium instructor in the YMCA and one Friday night, having lost the National Table Tennis Championship, I was standing rather dejectedly in the boys’ division and the telephone rang. A man called Bill Arthur, who subsequently became a parliamentarian and went on to join the House of Reprehensibles [sic]—he ran a show called ‘Over to you’, said ‘Look Bill, an actor hasn’t turned up for an interview, would you do it?’

Well, with characteristic reluctance I rushed out of the YMCA, ran down Pitt Street at the rate of knots, rushed round into Market Street and was up in Studio 149 before you could breathe. I hadn’t the faintest idea what I was doing. They shoved a script into my hand and said: ‘Say anything after the letter A’. So I did the interview and I was ‘A’. I didn’t know who ‘A’ was but they would go out and interview a boy who was perhaps an apprentice plumber or an apprentice clerk or something or other and they would get the details of his job and what the prospects were and things like that. And an actor would come in and play that boy on the radio.

Well the following Tuesday they rang me up and said would I do it for a year, so I got a contract. At the end of the year, of course I wanted to go into the theatre and I wrote to Keith Wood who was the director of that program and told him this. And he rang me up and very kindly said to me: ‘Look, Bill, you’re very talented but if you’re going to become an actor, the first thing you have to do is do something about that terrible voice’. Well I did have a voice that was very high at the time and very nasal. So high that only dogs could hear it. It was very nasal and Australian and so on. So he sent me to Bryson Taylor who was a voice production teacher who listened to me for five minutes and said: ‘Have a cup of tea’. And he talked to me for a while and at the end he said: ‘Look, I’m sure you’re very talented but I don’t think anybody could ever do anything with that voice’. I’ve never drunk tea since.

Not long after this Akers became a student at the Rathbone Academy of Dramatic Art in Sydney and went on to appear on radio in episodes of the Lux Radio Theatre and the Caltex Theatre. He also worked with the John Alden Company playing Shakesperian roles, and with the J. C. Williamson organisation in a variety of productions.

'For better, for worse'. Photo Hal Williamson

Michael Duffield, Bill Akers and Joan Duan in a scene from For better, for worse, 1953. Photo Hal Williamson. Courtesy National Library of Australia

At the request of Harald Bowden of the J. C. Williamson organisation, Akers joined the Borovansky Ballet as assistant stage manager in the 1950s. His interview contains recollections of arriving at the theatre for the first time as ASM, his impressions of Borovansky and his thoughts on the Borovansky Ballet.

I walked through the stage door of Her Majesty’s Theatre at about 11:30 in the morning to be confronted by these fifty raging egos jumping up and down and whirling around in the air. They were rehearsing a ballet called Symphonie fantastique and Mr Borovansky was standing on a chair shouting imprecations at these people. He had a pair of baggy old corduroy slacks on … He had a Chesty Bond’s singlet, rather loosely flapping and ballet slippers and a beret on the back of his head, which fell off as he got down onto the stage.

To me, despite the fact that I think I’ve met lots and lots of very great people in my life—I’ve been very privileged for that—he is the greatest person I think I’ve ever known. I think he contributed more to Australian theatre, particularly to dance, than anybody else. He created a ballet audience. He made ballet in Australia … he was just a fantastic man [with] particular drive and charisma. When you worked with Mr Borovansky you were alive twenty-four hours a day. He was the most stimulating person imaginable.

The Borovansky Ballet was a great big, magnificent, glamorous rough diamond with wonderful ballerinas. Boro virtually created ballet in this country, which is supposed to be a sports minded country, a situation that led at one stage to us having the greatest per capita ballet audience in the world. And that went on for twenty years … In Boro’s day, of course, triple bills were tremendously popular but he knew how to plan them. He was a genius at planning triple bills. He would introduce a new work like Paul Grinwis’ ballet Eternal Lovers. He would sandwich it in between the second act of Swan Lake and Le Beau Danube, which he knew the public adored. His triple bills were wonderful.

Throughout the interview Akers tells many other anecdotes about people he met and people he admired. He has the following to say about Joyce Graeme when she toured in Australia with Ballet Rambert, 1947‒1949:

I’ve seen some magnificent Queens of the Wilis [in Giselle] but there will never be another Queen of the Wilis like Joyce Graeme. She was an icicle. It was just a magical performance. She wasn’t nearly as good a dancer technically as many of the others I’ve seen but the icy chill she brought to the stage … and of course she was very tall and very thin and she was an electric presence on stage.
Joyce Graeme, Ballet Rambert, 1947 or 1948

Joyce  Graeme in costume for Myrthe, Queen of the Wilis, in Giselle.  Ballet Rambert, 1947 or 1948. Geoffrey Ingram archive of Australian ballet. Photographer unknown. Courtesy National Library of Australia

And he recalls the arrival of John Cranko to stage Pineapple Poll for the Borovansky Ballet in 1954:

[Cranko] first came to Australia for Mr Borovansky to stage Pineapple Poll. Wonderful fellow he was. Great sense of humour. And he’d seen Symphonie fantastique the night before. We were all waiting on stage, breathless, for this great, new, young choreographer to arrive. And at five to ten I used to set off the alarm and class used to start promptly at ten … Well Mr Cranko wasn’t there and everybody was standing on stage thinking: ‘He would never dare to be late’. Then the two doors at the back of the theatre flew open and he came screaming across the stage doing grands jetés, which is what started the final movement of Symphonie fantastique. And he got to the centre of the stage and he said ‘Well there you are, I have proved to you that I can dance. Now let’s see if you can’.

And why was Akers called Angel? As he tells the story, during one of his engagements in a musical comedy show a well-known female actor (whom he declined to name) suggested he looked like the devil with his Van Dyke beard. As a result members of  the company started calling him Lucifer, who according to the bible disguised himself as the Angel of Light. ‘Angel Akers’ was the long term result.

Bill Akers died in 2010. The extracts above are a minute part of an interview that documents many aspects of a long and varied career in the theatre. And like all oral history, it’s the voice that encapsulates the man—no longer ‘high and nasal’ but beautifully modulated and able to express in the most amusing way the most serious of endeavours.

Michelle Potter, 2 May 2012.

Here is the link to the National Library catalogue for the Akers interiew. The National Library cataloguers have yet to add Akers’ year of death to the reord. [This has been rectified—MP, 11 May 2012]

‘Mim. A personal memoir of Marie Rambert’. Brigitte Kelly

‘Mim’. A personal memoir of Marie Rambert: Brigitte Kelly (Alton: Dance Books, 2009). Available in Australia from Footprint Books or any good bookseller.

Marie Rambert, or Mim as she was familiarly known, brought her company, Ballet Rambert, to Australia in 1947. The company stayed until early 1949 and appeared in Adelaide, Brisbane, Broken Hill, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney with a short tour to New Zealand in May 1948. Astonishingly, they gave over 500 performances during those fifteen or so months.

Australian newspapers of the time refer to Rambert as a dynamic and somewhat unusual woman and it is clear that she enjoyed playing to the press. One clipping in a scrapbook held in the National Library of Australia shows her in a balletic pose supported by the entrepreneur Benjamin Fuller. He, somewhat portly, looks a little embarrassed. She is in her element! So it is not surprising to read in Brigitte Kelly’s absorbing memoir, Mim, sentences such as ‘She was a loose canon likely to explode in any direction’.

marie-rambert

Marie Rambert in Australia, 1948. Photo: The Courier Mail (Brisbane). Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Australia.

Kelly writes in an easy style. It is anecdotal but full of information and it offers opinions but is not opinionated. Perhaps what comes through most strikingly is the way Rambert’s personality, and that of her husband Ashley Dukes, affected the growth of Ballet Rambert. Kelly writes: ‘The strength and weakness of Mim and Ashley lay in the fact that they wanted complete autonomy over their enterprises, an understandable wish since they could then keep control over the artistic standards they set themselves’. There were serious and ongoing consequences especially of a financial nature according to Kelly.

A jolt to the Australian story is that the company left for Australia hoping to pay off large debts with profits made on tour. They returned from Australia bankrupt. Kelly writes: ‘[T]he manager, Dan O’Connor, had disappeared taking all the money and somewhere along the line lost the costumes and scenery’.

But the book also opens up the story of Rambert in an affectionate way offering many insights that only a dancer who was personally close to the company and its directors can offer. Rambert’s career with Diaghilev is touched upon as well as her ongoing connections with Diaghilev dancers. Her life in France before moving to England makes intriguing reading. And of course the trials and tribulations of the early company from the perspective of someone who performed in those early works of Frederick Ashton, Antony Tudor, Andree Howard, Walter Gore and others of equal note is engrossing.

Mim is a beautifully personal book. A memoir. And well worth the read.

Michelle Potter, 10 December 2009

For more about Ballet Rambert in Australia see my article published in National Library of Australia News, December 2002.

Postscript:

The author of Mim, Brigitte Kelly, came to Australia with the Covent Garden Russian Ballet on its 1938-1939 tour dancing under the name Maria Sanina. She speaks about the photo below, taken by Melbourne-based photographer Spencer Shier, in part three of her memoir ‘Dancing for joy: a memoir’ published in Dance Chronicle, 22, Nos 1, 2 & 3 (1999) saying that it represents her decision to model herself on film star Hedi Lamar. She writes ‘There was a photo call for the souvenir program. I dressed myself in the nun’s costume from the second movement of Choreartium, and when I look at the photograph the “look-alike” effect is really quite good’. (p. 362).

brigitte-kelly

Maria Sanina (Brigitte Kelly) in costume for Choreartium, Covent Garden Russian Ballet, Australian tour, 1938 or 1939. Photo: Spencer Shier. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Australia. http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-vn3416401