‘Paganini’: an exhibition and reconstruction

I was delighted to hear that Sharon Swim Wing, who has devoted a considerable amount of time over the past decades to researching the 1939 Fokine/Rachmaninoff/Soudeikine ballet Paganini, has been able to mount a small exhibition relating to the ballet, its creation and its collaborators at the Napa Valley Museum as part of the Festival del Sole held in the Napa Valley, California. The exhibition runs throughout July.

Wing first became interested in the story behind Paganini while living in Moscow where she began intensive research into the life of composer, conductor and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff. Over the subsequent years she pursued that interest around the world and her research included meeting up with a number of former dancers who had performed in Paganini. They included Irina Baronova, Tatiana Riabouchinska, and Tatiana Leskova, all of whom created roles in the work for its premiere in London in 1939. From Riabouchinska, Wing acquired the Soudeikine-designed, soft pink dress worn by the Florentine Beauty, the role created in London by Riabouchinska and then danced by her throughout Australia with the Original Ballet Russe.
Balletomane's art book cover

Cover of Balletomanes’ art book: pictorial parade of Russian ballet 1940 (Sydney: London Book Co., 1940) edited by T. Essington Breen with hand-coloured photos by Nanette Kuehn. Cover photo: Tatiana Riabouchinska and Paul Petroff in Paganini. National Library of Australia.

The exhibition in California includes the Florentine Beauty costume, reproductions of the Soudeikine designs, some photographic material and items relating to the Rachmaninoff score, Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, including the piano reduction of the score used when the de Basil company was touring in South America. This item was kindly donated by Tatiana Leskova. In addition Wing has included portraits of the dancers in Paganini painted by Boris Chaliapin in 1941, which highlight the close friendship between Rachmaninoff and Boris Chaliapin’s father, the singer Feodor Chaliapin.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Wing’s achievements relating to Paganini, however, is that she has been able to have a small excerpt from the ballet presented as part of the Dance Gala that accompanies the Festival. The excerpt was performed on 19 July by Ballet San Jose. The performance was accompanied by the Russian National Orchestra under the baton of George Daugherty. There are plans for the ballet to be reconstructed in full at a later date.

See also my post dating back to September 2009 in which I set out some details of the production of Paganini and its Australian connections.

Michelle Potter, 20 July 2013

UPDATE 21 July 2013: I came across these two photographs of scenes from Paganini as performed by de Basil’s company in South America. Both come from the album of photographs assembled by James Upshaw. The first one is on a page headed ‘Cordoba’ so is most likely from 1942. The other is on a unmarked page and cannot at this stage be dated with any certainty.

Scene from 'Paganini', Cordoba, South America, 1942

Scene from 'Paganini', South America 1940s

UPDATE: 24 July 2013: Both photos were taken in Argentina in 1942 at the Teatro Politeama in Buenos Aires. They both show Tatiana Leskova as the Florentine Beauty, with Dimitri Rostoff as Paganini in the top image and Oleg Tupine as the Florentine Youth in the bottom image. Leskova took over the role of the Florentine Beauty in 1942. With thanks to Tatiana Leskova for this information.

Colonel de Basil. Some surprising news

Most of what we know about Colonel Vassily de Basil (Vassily Grigorievitch Voskresensky) concerns his activities as director of variously named companies that toured the world in the 1930s and 1940s. He came to Australia with one of those companies, which is best known as the Original Ballet Russe, on a tour that began in December 1939 and which lasted until September 1940 when the company sailed for the United States.

Little has been written about de Basil’s life prior to his arrival in Paris in 1919. Kathrine Sorley Walker in her invaluable publication De Basil’s Ballets Russes, from which so much further research has developed, provides us with some background. She devotes a chapter to the Colonel and includes a brief account of his exploits as a Cossack officer during World War I.

It was to my astonishment then that I recently had the good fortune to be contacted by Mr Valery Voskresensky, the Colonel’s grandson. Mr Voskresensky, who is seen in the photo below with Tatiana Leskova when they met up recently in Paris, is presently preparing an exhibition on de Basil to be installed in the A.A.Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum in Moscow later this year.

Tatiana Leskova and Valery Voskresensky, Paris 2013
Tatiana Leskova and Valery Voskresensky, Paris 2012

The existence of a grandson (born 1939) was more than a surprise to me but there is definitely a likeness, which Leskova also remarked upon.

Left: Valrene Tweedie and Colonel de Basil, Sydney 1940. Right:  Colonel de Basil, Chicago 1930s. Photo: Maurice Seymour. From the collection of the National Library of Australia

I look forward to posting further news in due course.

Michelle Potter, 17 May 2013

‘Tatiana Leskova: a ballerina at large’. Suzana Braga

Suzana Braga’s biography of Tatiana Leskova was first published in Brazilian Portuguese as Uma bailarina solta no mundo in 2005. It went into a second edition and in late 2012 was translated into English by Donald Scrimgeour with the title Tatiana Leskova: a ballerina at large. A translation augured well for Leskova’s English-speaking admirers, and for those who were more than aware of her background as a Ballets Russes dancer in the 1940s. It is, however, an unsatisfying book from many points of view.

Leskova cover and portrait Book cover and portrait of Tatiana Leskova in Brazil, 1942

Perhaps the most annoying aspect of the book from my point of view is that Braga doesn’t seem to have decided on a method of telling the story. She knows the Leskova story well having being connected with her subject as a student and then as a professional dancer, and much of the book is quite intimate in approach. But at times Braga stands back and is a distant narrator with expressions like ‘So let us move on …’, or she refers to Leskova in a kind of anonymous way as ‘the young dancer’ or ‘the ballerina’. And she never really decides whether to call the subject of her biography Tatiana, Tatiana Leskova or Leskova and changes constantly between these three names and her selection of anonymous expressions. Other names get an annoying initial rather than a full first name—A. Calder, for example, who from the context I assume is the American artist/sculptor Alexander Calder. Why not pay him the courtesy of a proper identification? And too many infelicitous English phrases keep popping up at the hands of the translator: ‘[he] landed up falling in love with her’; ‘She had made her international bed and could perfectly well have lied down in it’. It all becomes a little irritating.

Looking beyond these irritations, the book probably needs to be read as a piece of oral history in written form. It is based on an extensive interview program and covers Leskova’s life from its earliest stages to the present. There are many quotes from Leskova herself and many reveal her feisty spirit:

I am a perfectionist, always thinking I can do better. I am demanding and have therefore been much criticised and even feared but I don’t do things out of malice but rather because I want, even demand, that they be better.

And on Leskova’s feisty spirit, I met her in the 1990s in New York when she kindly lent me a videorecording of her staging of Les Presages for the Dutch National Ballet. She asked me, when I had finished with it, to pass it on to the Dance Division of the New York Public Library, which I did. But several months later I received a strongly worded message from her questioning why I hadn’t passed the recording on as she had asked. Well it transpired that the recording had been sitting on someone’s desk in the Library and Leskova had not been acknowledged (nor had I). It all sorted itself out and everyone was apologetic but in retrospect her message was a clear example of her strong-willed approach to life and dance.

Many familiar names crop up through the book including those of dancers who performed with the Ballets Russes in Australia and then found themselves in South America in the 1940s—Anna Volkova and Igor Schwezoff in particular have important roles in the story. The discussion is, however, more often than not personal rather than relating to professional careers. Marcia Haydée also makes a guest appearance in a chapter entitled ‘With Marcia Haydée, a Certain Unease’ in which some difficulties that grew from a remark made by Leskova are discussed. And there are interesting thoughts about Nureyev, Massine and a host of other personalities from Leskova’s life.

I found the chapter on Leskova’s restaging of Les Presages and Choreartium, entitled ‘Doors Open’, the most interesting section of the book. It contains selected reviews of various of Leskova’s restagings and I particularly enjoyed Jack Anderson’s comment: ‘Choreartium is a vast mural in motion that makes much recent choreography look puny’. Food for thought I think. The chapter is, however, somewhat uncritical. Everything was a huge success! I didn’t see Leskova’s Presages mounted for the Australian Ballet in 2008, but Leskova told me that she was unhappy in Australia, for a number of reasons. So I would welcome comments on that staging from those who saw it.

Leskova is a larger than life personality and this book reveals the woman behind that personality. I wish, however, that the book had a stronger authorial voice.

Suzana Braga, Tatiana Leskova: a ballerina at large, trans. Donald E Scrimgeour (London: Quartet Books Ltd, 2012)
Paperback, 312 pp. ISBN 978 0 7043 7276 4
RRP £18.00. Available through online sites.

Michelle Potter, 16 February 2013

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Dance diary. January 2013

  • The Upshaw album

A recent meeting with Anna Volkova clarified one of the issues that went through my mind as I looked through the album assembled by James Upshaw, which was the subject of a recent post. I was interested in several photos that showed some of the dancers wearing sweatshirts with a logo for an organisation with the acronym F.A.E on them. F.A.E., it turns out, stands for an organisation in Rio de Janeiro called, in English, Student Assistance Foundation, and in Portuguese, Fundação de Assistêcia ao Estudante. Volkova explained that some of the dancers, including Volkova herelf, gave a performance for this Foundation while in Rio. She identified the dancers in the photos for me, with the exception of a Brazilian dancer who had only recently joined them and whose name she no longer recalled. At this stage I’m not entirely sure when the  performance took place.

Dancers in performance for F.A.ELeft to right: Lydia Kuprina, Leda Youky, Tamara Grigorieva, Anna Volkova, Tatiana Leskova, 1945. Photo: Kurt Paul Klagsbrunn

Update (1 February 2013): Tatiana Leskova has been kind enough to pass on some extra information about the photograph above and the concert in which the dancers performed. The Brazilian dancer was Leda Youky and the concert took place in Rio’s Teatro Municipal in, she believes, 1945. The dancers performed choreography by Vaslav Velchek—Anna Volkova danced  to music by Mussorgsky (‘The Bumblebee’), Tamara Grigorieva and Tatiana Leskova to music by Rachmaninoff (Grigorieva to his ‘Prelude No. 2’, Leskova to his ‘Prelude No. 5’). Nini Theilade also performed, dancing her own choreography.

Grateful  thanks to the irrepressible Mme Leskova.

  • Vija Vetra

I was a little surprised, but of course pleased, to receive a message through this website’s contact box from Latvia. The message concerned Vija Vetra, a dancer born in Riga, Latvia, who had studied in Vienna with Rosalie Chladek, had come to Australia in 1948, had joined the company of Gertrud Bodenwieser shortly afterwards and had toured with the company to New Zealand and around Australia.  With Bodenwieser she performed in most of the repertoire from 1948 until the mid-1950s including as the Bride in The Wedding Procession (choreography Bodenwieser, costumes Evelyn Ippen, music Grieg), in which she is seen in the image below. She also danced one of the Aboriginal mothers in Beth Dean’s Corroboree during the Royal Gala season of 1954.

The Wedding Procession, 1950. Photo: BettinaLeft to right: Mardi Watchorn, Vija Vetra and Coralie Hinkley in The Wedding Procession, 1950. Photo: Bettina, Auckland. Courtesy National Library of Australia, Papers of Gertrud Bodenwieser, MS 9263/67/204

Vetra moved to New York around 1964 and is still living there giving classes, lecture-demonstrations and workshops. She returns to her native Latvia frequently and is seen in the image below with a young student, Rasa Ozola, after a concert ‘Dejas sirdspuksti’ (Dance heartbeat) in Riga in June 2012.

Vija Vetra and Rasa Ozola, 2012. Photo Anita SmeltereVija Vetra with Rasa Ozola, Riga, 2012. Photo: Anita Smeltere

The 2010 publication Australia dances: creating Australian dance 1945–1965 by Alan Brissenden and Keith Glennon contains a brief summary of Vetra’s career in Australia (see page 224). An interview with Vetra recorded in New York in 2011 is at this link.

  • More Bodenwieser news

In January I was pleased to renew my contact with Barbara Cuckson, initially as a result of a request from the Dance Notation Bureau in New York relating to Gertrud Bodenwieser’s early work Demon Machine. Cuckson’s mother, Marie Cuckson, was responsible, with Bodenwieser dancer Emmy Taussig, for maintaining a collection of archival material relating to Bodenwieser’s life and career, which is now now housed in the National Library of Australia. Barbara Cuckson’s father, Eric Cuckson, filmed several of Bodenwieser’s works and this footage is now housed in the National Film and Sound Archive. Barbara Cuckson continues to promote the work of Bodenwieser in many ways.

The conversation turned to Errand into the Maze, which Bodenwieser made in Australia in 1954. German dancer/choreographer Jochen Roller is currently leading a project to investigate the ways in which Bodenwieser structured her ideas and themes, for which reconstructing Errand into the Maze is part. Cuckson provided me with the image below of a rehearsal conducted as part of the reconstruction process.

'Errand into the maze' rehearsal, 2012Barbara Cuckson and dancers in a rehearsal for Errand into the Maze, 2012. Photo: Jan Poddebsky

Michelle Potter, 31 January 2013

Featured image: Lydia Kuprina, Leda Youky, Tamara Grigorieva, Anna Volkova, Tatiana Leskova, 1945. Photo: Kurt Paul Klagsbrunn

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Ballets Russes. The National Library’s finding aid

I was interested, but also filled with despair, to see that the National Library has updated another of its important online dance resources—the finding aid to the Ballets Russes programs for the three Australian tours by Colonel de Basil’s companies. I was interested because the original finding aid needed an update. Since the text was prepared some 10 years or so ago by Australian Collections’ librarian Richard Stone, new information has been unearthed, especially in relation to the dancers who toured with the company. This new material clearly needed to be added. I was also filled with despair, however, because it seems that once again an update to an existing dance resource now offers less than what was offered in the original version.

The original finding aid contained Stone’s text and digitised images of the entire National Library collection of programs and cast sheets for all three tours, along with some interesting advertising flyers for the tours. This digitisation project was carried out in 2005 with funding from the Australian Research Council as part of the Ballets Russes project. Some gaps existed where the Library did not hold programs or cast sheets, but the gaps were small as the Library’s holdings of de Basil company programs are extensive. Now in this update just a tiny portion of that material is being made accessible to the public as an online resource. I am at a loss to know why and wonder whether the Library intends to go back and attach the rest of the digitised material to the new finding aid? The full digitised material was an amazing resource making it possible to discover with ease who danced what and when, anywhere and at any time.

The updated finding aid also includes additional material that may cause confusion. An attempt is made to document the performances after the Original Ballet Russe left Australia in 1940 using a small collection of material from the Papers of Valrene Tweedie, also part of the National Library’s dance resources. While it is only to be expected that this documentation is, at this stage, far from complete, the problem is that many of Tweedie’s programs are not for performances by the Original Ballet Russe. The later part of the tour listings in the finding aid are for the company led by Sergei Denham, usually known as the One and Only Ballet Russe, which Tweedie joined in 1946, and for Cuban companies with which Tweedie was involved. The listing from 1940 onwards is really a reflection of the career of Valrene Tweedie rather than of the history of the Original Ballet Russe. This is not made clear in the updated finding aid. And incidentally, Valrene Tweedie was not the only Australian-born dancer to appear with the Original Ballet Russe in the United States and Cuba, as the text states. Melbourne-born Lydia Kuprina (Couprina) (Phillida Cooper) danced with the Original Ballet Russe in Australia in 1940 and also in the United States and Cuba at least until 1942.

It is unfortunate that the National Library’s dance material continues to be updated in a way that compromises that material. Let’s hope that at least the entire collection of digitised programs will eventually find its way into the updated finding aid.

Michelle Potter, 21 January 2013

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Ballets Russes: ‘We’re going to Australia’

Talk given at the National Gallery of Australia in conjunction with the exhibition Ballets Russes: the art of costume, 12 March 2011

'We're going to Australia'-cover imageModified text and PowerPoint slides at this link

Some audio clips as used in the live talk and referred to in the text:

The full audio interviews with Baronova and Bousloff are available online from the National Library of Australia:

Michelle Potter, 1 January 2013

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Tatiana Leskova and Anna Volkova

I am delighted to have renewed just recently my connections with two of the dancers who performed in Australia with the Ballets Russes companies of Colonel de Basil—Tatiana Leskova and Anna Volkova. Both feature in the photograph album that was the subject of a recent post, James Upshaw and Lydia Kuprina in South America, sometimes together, sometimes alone or with others. They were and still are great friends.

Tatiana Leskova and Anna Volkova, South America ca. 1942Tatiana Leskova and Anna Volkova in South America, ca. 1942. Volkova in Cotillon. Private collection.

Both remembered Upshaw and Kuprina quite clearly and Leskova was able to tell me that Upshaw died in France, although exactly when is still unclear.

Leskova celebrated her 90th birthday in December—’I turned 17 on the boat coming to Australia’, she recalls—and is still very active in the dance world. Her biography, written by Suzana Braga and published in Brazilian Portuguese (Tatiana Leskova: uma bailarina solta no mundo) in Rio de Janeiro in 2005, has recently been translated into English. In addition, the irrepressible Leskova has just published a book of photographs. I hope to write about these publications at a later date.

Leskova books covers

Michelle Potter, 22 December 2012

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James Upshaw and Lydia Kuprina in South America

Recently I had the good fortune to be contacted about a photograph album believed to have belonged to James Upshaw, probably best known in Australia for his work as television producer for the ABC. The album was indeed assembled by Upshaw and the photographs largely cover a period from 1942 until 1946. During this period Upshaw and his then wife, Phillida Cooper, or Lydia Kuprina as she was known at the time, danced their way around Central and South America, first as members of Colonel de Basil’s Original Ballet Russe and then as an independent dance duo.

James Upshaw ca. 1943James Upshaw, ca. 1942

Cooper had been a pupil of Melbourne teachers Eunice Weston and Jennie Brenan and had left Australia in 1939 to study ballet in Paris with Lubov Egorova. She returned with the de Basil company for its third tour of Australia, 1939‒1940, and then left with them in 1940 for the United States. With de Basil she danced under the name of Lydia Couprina. Her birth name may have been Helen Phillida Cooper, although on some archival records she appears as Phillida Helen.

Upshaw was born in 1921 in Paris to an American father and a French mother and spent his childhood and youth in France and America. I have not yet been able to ascertain where he trained as a dancer but he appears to have joined de Basil in New York at the end of 1941 apparently, as did others, to escape military service. A letter dated May 1943 from Valrene Tweedie (whom Upshaw married at a later stage in Australia) to her friend Marnie Martin in Sydney explains:

 Phyllida married Jimmy Upshaw, one of the boys escaping the draft.

They married in Buenos Aires in 1942. It was probably in 1944 or 1945 that Upshaw and Cooper took on independent work dancing in nightclubs and casinos and later venturing into film. They later toured in Europe and danced on television in London before returning to Australia in the early 1950s.

Upshaw and Kuprina, Rio 1946Lydia Kuprina and James Upshaw performing in Rio de Janeiro, 1946

The album recalls other albums assembled by dancers while on tour and contains leisure shots as well as rehearsal and performance shots. It is especially interesting to see the repertoire that was being performed, and to see that it was sometimes being performed outdoors.

Faune outdoorsA performance of L’Après-midi d’un faune, Viña de Mar, Chile 1942

But what makes this album particularly significant is that it documents the activities of the Original Ballet Russe following the infamous strike of 1941, which resulted in a period of several months when the de Basil dancers were stranded and practically penniless. Looking at the album without the knowledge of the difficulties that the strike engendered, and which continued to plague the company for the rest of its existence, it would be easy to imagine that all was fun and games. The album nevertheless gives a wonderful insight into company life and will I’m sure yield more knowledge of this period of de Basil’s company.

at-the-beach-2On the beach in Rio, 1942

Michelle Potter, 5 December 2012

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Dance diary. October 2012

  • Dancing bronzes

During October I was utterly transfixed by an exhibition called Bronze on show at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. I was sceptical when I read so many reviews all with glowing descriptions that seemed to border on hyperbole. But the exhbition was absolutely mind-blowing in its scope, in the intelligence of its presentation and in the power of the objects on display.

The centrepiece of the show is the ‘Dancing Satyr’, a slightly larger than life figure around 2,300 years old, which was dragged out of the sea by fishermen in 1998. It is the first object one encounters on entering the exhibition space and, although it is missing both arms and one leg, the sense of movement emanating from the figure is brilliant. No matter from which angle one looks at the figure it is dancing, wildly. Bathed in a soft, moody light this beautiful figure is the sole object in a quite large space. The impact is almost overpowering.

Dancing SatyrDancing Satyr, Greek, Hellenistic period, Third–second centuries BCE; Bronze, with white alabaster for eyes, H. 200 cm; Museo del Satiro, Church of Sant’Egidio, Mazara del Vallo; Photo Sicily, Regione Siciliana—Assessorato Regionale dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana—Dipartimento dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana—Servizio Museo interdisciplinare Regionale “A. Pepoli” Trapani / © 2012. Photo Scala, Florence

The show contains other dancing items including a serene dancing Shiva.

Of course many of the bronzes have nothing to do at all with dance but they are astonishing as well and include some unexpected (to me) items from Africa. The show covers an exceptionally wide period of time from the ancient world to the present. On the non-dancing front I loved a spider, hovering high on a wall, by Louise Bourgeois and a couple of beer cans in bronze from Jasper Johns.

Bronze is at the Royal Acaemy of Arts, London, 15 September 2012 to 9 December 2012. It’s a great show.

  • Bolshoi Ballet in Brisbane

The Queensland Performing Arts Centre today announced its latest dance coup. Australian dance-goers will have the opportunity to see two programs by the Bolshoi Ballet in Brisbane in a season lasting from 30 May-9 June 2013. The Bolshoi is bringing two full-length works. The season opens with Le Corsaire based on the production created by Marius Petipa in the nineteenth century but in a revival by Alexei Ratmansky and Yuri Burlaka. The second program is another revival, this time of a 1935 work from the Soviet era, The bright stream, again with input from Alexei Ratmansky, who has given the work a fresh breath of life with new choreography.

Both works promise to be curiosities—The bright stream, for example, is set during a harvest festival on a collective farm in the Russian steppes where a Moscow dance troupe arrives to entertain the workers. The season is, however, an opportunity to consider Ratmansky’s work once more, especially in a year when his new Cinderella will be a feature of the Australian Ballet’s 2013 season.

'The bright stream', Bolshoi BalletDancers of the Bolshoi Ballet in The bright stream

More about the season at this link.

  • Yvonne Mounsey/Irina Zarova (1919–2012)

Late in September one of the few remaining dancers who performed in Australia with the Ballets Russes died in Los Angeles. Yvonne Mounsey, born Yvonne Leibbrandt in 1919 in Pretoria, South Africa, danced in Australia during the 1939‒1940 Original Ballet Russe tour under the name Irina Zarova. A quick scan of programs from that tour indicates that she danced in at least Pavane (see below), Scheherazade, Thamar, Le Coq d’or, Petrouchka, Francesca da Rimini, Coppélia and Etude. Mounsey then travelled with the de Basil company on to South America where she was involved in the infamous dancers’ strike.

'Pavane', Original Ballet Russe, 1940Tamara Grigorieva and Irina Zarova in Serge Lifar’s Pavane, Original Ballet Russe, 1940. Photo: National Library of Australia

Mounsey’s major career was in the United States with New York City Ballet and she had a long career as a teacher in Los Angeles. Here is a link to Alastair Macaulay’s obituary in The New York Times, the only one I have seen so far that mentions the Australian part of her life.

Michelle Potter, 31 October 2012

Dance diary. May 2012

  • Heath Ledger Project

In May, on a very grey Parisian morning, I continued my interviewing for the Heath Ledger Young Artists Oral History Project with an interview with Hannah O’Neill. O’Neill is currently dancing on a seasonal contract with the Paris Opera Ballet, having dreamt of dancing with this company since she was a young child.

Hannah O'Neill, Paris, May 2012Hannah O’Neill at the Pont neuf, Paris, May 2012

O’Neill graduated from the Australian Ballet School in 2011 and in that year she also auditioned for the Paris Opera Ballet. She was placed fourth in a field of over 100 and as a result of the audition received a seasonal contract. Confident and articulate and looking every inch the dancer, she is taking Paris in her stride. She has recently had her contract extended until the end of July when she will have to audition again for a place in the company. In the meantime she is looking forward to a forthcoming season of La Fille mal gardée.

  • Meryl Tankard at the Cannes Film Festival

Over the past few years Meryl Tankard has been focusing her considerable talents on film making. She graduated from the directing course at the Australian Film Television and Radio School in 2010. It is a testament to her success in this endeavour that a short film she made called Moth was shown in May at the Cannes Film Festival. A glance at the program for the non-competitive Australian and New Zealand section of the Festival, Antipodes, puts her in exceptional company.

Tankard’s website has the following to say about Moth:

Moth is the story of three young women’s determination to be free, and is inspired by the stories from many reform schools in Australia in the 60s and 70s, and the brutal methods used to discipline the girls.

  • Pablo Picasso’s curtain for Parade

It was a surprise to discover hanging in the still quite new Pompidou Centre in the north-eastern French city of Metz the curtain from the 1917 Ballets Russes production of Parade. Conceived for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes by Jean Cocteau and first performed in Paris in May 1917, Parade had choreography by Léonide Massine, music by Erik Satie and costumes and settings by Pablo Picasso. The curtain is hanging in an exhibition entitled 1917, which has drawn together an array of visually disparate items, including some associated with war as well as with art in many of its manifestations. 1917 sets out to question the links between destruction, reconstruction and creation in a decisive year of World War I.

'Parade' curtain

Curtain for Parade (detail). Photo: Michelle Potter

The exhibition carries some additional items relating to Parade, including a program and some interesting photographs of the 1917 cast. But it was, of course, the curtain that attracted my attention. Although it is of monumental proportions, it is quite an intimate, even gentle piece of art. Its colours are soft and blend easily with each other and the picture is built on exceptionally complex, allegorical imagery. In gives no clue to the strident characteristics of the performance and the antics of the dancers in Parade whose role is to attract an audience into the circus tent, which we see before us on the curtain.

I was in the fortunate position of being able to see a performance of Parade in 2005 when it was staged by the Ballet of Bordeaux at the Diaghilev Festival held in Groningen, the Netherlands. The article I wrote for The Canberra Times about the Festival was also published online by the magazine of the ballet.co site. Here is what I wrote about Parade:

Leonide Massine’s Parade was one of the most anticipated works of the festival and it did not disappoint as a significant collaborative work of the period. With designs by Pablo Picasso, libretto by Cocteau and music by Erik Satie, which incorporated the assorted sounds of a siren and a typewriter and several pistol shots, Parade was created in response to the well-documented demand from Diaghilev to Cocteau—’Astonish me!’ It was also inspired by the Cubist movement in the visual arts and brought Cubism off the canvas and into the theatre. Set outside a travelling theatre with the slight narrative centring on the attempts of the characters to entice an audience into the show, the work premiered in 1917 in Paris and was recreated by the Joffrey Ballet in the 1970s. In Groningen it was performed by the Ballet de Bordeaux and, while it will perhaps always remain slightly eccentric, its apparently simplistic and unadorned choreography is a perfect foil for its idiosyncratic designs and music.

Here is the link to the full article. [Sadly, not currently available. PDF coming soon MP 26/06/2016]

  • Canberra dance

I was not in Canberra in May when Liz Lea presented her latest staging of 120 Birds. It also had a brief showing in Sydney at Riverside, Parramatta, after the Canberra season. Lea has a site that gathers together reviews of 120 Birds, including those for the 2012 Canberra/Sydney staging. In addition, here is a link to a preview piece I wrote for the one-woman version of 120 Birds, made for the National Gallery of Australia early in 2011 in conjunction with its exhibition Ballets russes: the art of costume.

  • New York Public Library

Over the past two months I have been following with considerable interest the upheavals at the New York Public Library, which have been reported upon in The New York Times and other outlets. The most comprehensive background account of the situation is ‘Lions in winter’ by journalist Charles Petersen and appears in n+1 as part one and part two.

Many have wondered why I left New York in 2008 after eighteen months as curator of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, given that it appeared to be the job of a lifetime for me. Well the issues that led to my resignation are complex (and it was not to get married as one report suggested!), but the majority can be grouped under questions of professionalism and accountability (or lack thereof in my opinion) in certain areas of the Library. In addition, I was dismayed by attitudes to curatorial autonomy, which in most cases did not fit with mine. It should, therefore, be fairly obvious where my opinions lie with regard to the present discussions.

Whether the Dance Division, and other research divisions at Lincoln Center, will be affected in the short or long term by the new plans reported upon by Petersen and others is not clear. However, I believe that the Dance Division is now but shadow of its former self and has been heading this way for some time.

Michelle Potter, 30 May 2012