‘Life is a work of art’. The GOLDs

28 June 2013 (dress rehearsal), National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

In my June dance diary I mentioned a show at the National Gallery of Australia called Life is a work of art performed by the GOLDs, a group of performers over the age of 55. I have now received some images from that show and what follows is not a review as such, as GOLD is not a professional company, but rather some observations on some parts of the show. Life is a work of art was co-directed by Liz Lea and Jane Ingall and was a processional performance leading the audience through the National Gallery of Australia, pausing in particular galleries where specially commissioned dances were performed.

The section that worked best for me was staged in the Kimberley Gallery where art by Rover Thomas and other indigenous artists from the Kimberley region is on display. The section, called ‘Black/GOLD’, was choreographed by Tammi Gissell, a descendant of the Muruwari nation of northwestern New South Wales. It was performed to music composed and played by Francis Gilfedder.

Gissell wrote in her program notes:
What a wonderful opportunity for Aussie Elders from all walks of life and cultural heritage to dance together in celebration of the rhythms and memories of this land. Australia now sensed freshly with knowing eyes and ears and footsteps. Black/GOLD is concerned with claiming ownership over one’s self, for this must occur to accept your role within a mob—the second yet equally important concern of the piece.

It struck me as I watched it that what made it especially powerful was perhaps the fact that in indigenous communities everyone dances. It seemed quite appropriate for these older, non-indigenous people to be dancing in front of indigenous art. And Francis Gilfedder, who sang and played the didgeridoo, was magnificent. Reading Gissell’s program note just increased my respect for her and the work. In the case of ‘Black/GOLD’ she chose a concept that is deeply entrenched within her heritage, made it relevant to the occasion, made it inclusive of her cast, and gave it a simplicity that belied the complexity of the concept. A real gem.

I was also impressed with ’A gentle spirit’ as a wonderful example of a site specific piece. As we progressed down a ramp to the sculpture gallery on a lower floor, we passed by Carol Mackay. She had a solo piece, which she performed at the corner of the ramp under Maria Cadoza’s Starfish. While our view of it was gone in a flash as we walked by, it was perfectly sited. Music for it was composed and played live by cellist David Pereira, but as I was at the dress rehearsal, at which he was not present, I’m not sure if he was a visual part of the piece, although from the images I received it appears not.

Finally, I enjoyed two pieces in the galleries of contemporary, international art: ‘Caught between Kapoor’, an improvisation by Luke Mulders in Gallery 3, and ‘Pop Art’, a piece choreographed by Liz Lea against a backdrop of works by Andy Warhol and others from the period of the 1960s.

Some parts of Life is a work of art, as I mentioned in my June dance diary, worked better than others for me. Here I have simply extracted a few sections that I especially enjoyed, which is not to say that the rest of the show was not enjoyable as well. It is a wonderful community dance concept and, despite the worries that staff at the National Gallery of Australia must have had as people (carrying stools) processed past and performers danced among such precious items, I hope the Gallery will consider doing it again.

All images courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia.

Michelle Potter, 30 July 2013

‘The fabric of dance’. National Gallery of Victoria

Talk given at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, in conjunction with the exhibition Ballet and Fashion, 20 April 2013.

Opening slide 'The fabric of dance'

Modified text and PowerPoint slides at this link.

Video clips used in the live talk and referred to in the text:

Michelle Potter, 3 May 2013

Dance diary. April 2013

  • ArtSound FM, Canberra: new dance segment

Beginning in May I will be hosting a ten minute monthly dance segment on ArtSound FM, Canberra’s community radio station focusing on the arts. The segment will be part of Dress Circle a program hosted by local arts identity Bill Stephens. Dress Circle is broadcast on Sundays at 5 pm and repeated on Tuesdays at 11 pm and my segment will focus on dance in Canberra and surrounding regions. Michelle Potter … on dancing, as the segment will be called, will be a feature of Dress Circle on the first Sunday of each month.

In the first program, which will go to air on 5 May, I will be talking about the Australian Ballet’s visit to Canberra with their triple bill program Symmetries, which opens on 23 May. Leading up to the program I have been talking Garry Stewart about his new work, Monument, and have been discovering some unusual and amusing stories about George Balanchine’s ballet The Four Temperaments. Monument and The Four Temperaments will be accompanied by the pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain in this Canberra-only program.

I will also be sharing some information about Liz Lea’s new work, InFlight, which will premiere at the National Library of Australia on 31 May. InFlight is danced by four female performers who are inspired to become aviatrixes when they see their heros, Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm, taking to the air in 1928 and breaking the trans-pacific flight record.

Alison Plevery and Liz Lea, 'InFlight'. Photos: Lorna sim  Alison Plevey and Liz Lea in costume for InFlight. Photos: © Lorna Sim, 2012

There will be other snippets of news as well, and I hope to have time to look back on some of the dance events I have enjoyed in the previous month.

There was some lovely news earlier this month from Australian Dance Theatre—Elizabeth Dalman has been named patron of ADT for the company’s 50th anniversary year, 2015. Dalman, along with Leslie White (1936‒2009), founded ADT in 1965. White moved on to other things in 1967 and Dalman continued to direct the company until 1975. After a varied career overseas, both before and after the ten years she spent at ADT, Dalman returned to Australia in 1986 and in 1990 founded the Mirramu Creative Arts Centre at Lake George, near Canberra. She continues to direct the Centre and its associated Mirramu Dance Company. Fifty years of ADT will also mark fifteen of Mirramu.*

Elizabeth Dalman in 'From Sapling to Silver', 2011 Elizabeth Dalman in Sapling to Silver, Mirramu Dance Company. Photo: © Barbie Robinson, 2011

I didn’t post my Canberra Times review of Sapling to Silver when it was performed in Canberra in 2011, so here is a link to the review.

  • ‘The fabric of dance’: National Gallery of Victoria

In April I had the pleasure of presenting an illustrated talk, The fabric of dance, at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, in conjunction with the Gallery’s exhibition Ballet and Fashion.  In this talk I looked at how the tutu had developed over three centuries or so, and in particular at how its development had been influenced by changes in fashion and by new materials and fabrics that had become available. But, in putting the talk together, I found I was quite unexpectedly wanting to suggest a link between one of the costumes on show in the exhibition and Louis XIV in his famous role as Apollo in Les Ballets de la nuit of 1653, which I did. I am hoping to post the text of the talk, and the accompanying PowerPoint slides, on this site in due course.

One of the images I showed during the talk was of Paris Opera Ballet dancer Carlotta Zambelli, which I was only able to show as a black and white scan from an article first published in the Australian dance journal Brolga in 2005. My postcard of Zambelli was in colour but it disappeared as a result of being lent when that issue of Brolga was being prepared for publication. I despaired of ever seeing it again but it was returned to me a week or so after the Melbourne talk. So for anyone who was at the talk, below on the right is the image in colour, alongside another (also returned to me at the same time in the same circumstances) of Zambelli with an unknown partner in La ronde des saisons in 1906.

Zambelli double

  • The Rite of Spring: Stephen Malinowski’s animated graphical score

I found what I think is an excellent review of Stephen Malinowski’s animated graphical score of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I mentioned this score in a previous post without making much comment myself although what the animated score did instantaneously for me was bring me to a realisation of why I disliked Raimund Hoghe’s Sacre so much. Hoghe completely ignored the fact that the music has so much colour, drive and rhythm. The colour, drive and rhythm of the music is perfectly obvious when listening to the music of course, but seeing the animated score absolutely drives it home and opens up a new view of the intensity of the music. Here is the link to the review.

Michelle Potter, 30 April 2013

 

* Dalman has always been a strong voice in the dance world and she argued against a name change to Meryl Tankard Australian Dance Theatre when Meryl Tankard became director of ADT in 1993. A brief account of that interlude appears in my recent publication Meryl Tankard: an original voice (2012). In a letter to Dance Australia Dalman argued that the company should not carry Tankard’s name as it was important to ‘maintain continuity and … respect for the historical background of the company’.

Tankard bannerHOW TO ORDER

‘It brought back so many memories’— Jill Sykes
This book is also available in the National Library of Australia’s bookshop until the end of May, and to library clients through James Bennett Library Services

John Baldessari installation

’13 Rooms’. Kaldor Public Art Project

13 Rooms, 11–21 April 2013, Pier 2/3 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay

The city of Sydney has just finished playing host to an ambitious project of installation art, or more correctly perhaps of performance art in which human bodies behaved as sculpture, sometimes moving sculpture, sometimes talking sculpture, existing for a moment in time before going home, or in some cases being replaced by another shift of bodies. The event took place in the mysteriously cavernous space of Pier 2/3 with individual installations/performances showing in purpose-built, small white rooms designed by Harry Seidler & Associates.

'13 Rooms', the space

There was a dance element to one installation, Revolving Door by American artists Allora & Calzadilla. This piece of performance art was choreographed by Rafael Bonachela and performed by dancers of Sydney Dance Company augmented by students from Brent Street, a Sydney performing arts academy. The human ‘door’ of what was a circular space inside one room was a line of bodies representing the internal structure of a revolving door. This human chain of bodies came to a standstill occasionally, as indeed revolving doors do when no-one is using them, then took up the movement again sometimes with linked arms, sometimes with raised arms. Occasionally they would clap hands, lift arms, sit down or engage in some other simple activity.

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There was of course no music for the dancers to keep time with so to keep the rhythm and to maintain a straight line they had to rely on body time, a concept with which Bonachela is, I’m sure, familiar given his interest in the work of Merce Cunningham. The need to maintain a completely blank look appeared to be another requirement and there were one or two unsettling moments for me, and perhaps for other viewers, when it became apparent that one dancer was focusing on me in order to maintain his blank expression. Does one look away or stare back, I wondered?

Revolving Door also had its amusing moments. Some viewers ventured into the circular space, which had an exit door on two sides, and got caught up in the movement, escaping just in time as the human door pursued its relentless pathway.

And just as body time, where dancers have to sense how and when the bodies of their colleagues move, is a characteristic of Cunningham’s work, so was performance art a component of the early aesthetic of Merce Cunningham and John Cage and their designers, in particular Robert Rauschenberg. Together Cunningham, Cage and Rauschenberg and a collection of dancers and other artists and musicians presented at Black Mountain College in North Carolina in 1952 what is generally regarded as the first ‘happening’ in the United States, Theatre Piece No. 1. Rauschenberg went on to create many acts of performance art, usually with dancers involved, while Cunningham’s Events reflect an ongoing interest in one-off activities.

The whole event was interesting from the point of view of what is generally regarded as the impermanence of performance art. These installations were largely works that had been installed elsewhere around the world including in Manchester in 2011 and Essen in 2012. As John McDonald remarked in his review of the show for The Sydney Morning Herald on 13‒14 April: ‘It is a relatively novel idea that performances may be reconstructed by different performers years after their first appearance…Many of the most famous pieces were staged in obscure locations to small audiences. We know them only in the form of grainy, decayed videos or poor-quality stills’.

Another installation I especially enjoyed was Damien Hirst’s work, first made in 1992, in which a set of twins sits in front of two of Hirst’s spot paintings, which although they look alike are quite different from each other. The situation gained an added interest when a set of twins from amongst the onlookers asked to be photographed in the installation.

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And on the day I visited, the performer in John Baldessari’s Thirteen Colourful Inside Jobs was engaged in repainting her room from aqua to flamingo pink.

13 Rooms was an undertaking of Kaldor Public Art Projects.

Michelle Potter, 22 April 2013

Featured image: Moment from John Baldessari’s Thirteen Colourful Inside Jobs, 13 Rooms, Kaldor Public Art project. Photo: Michelle Potter

‘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

Tankard bannerHOW TO ORDER

‘It brought back so many memories’—Jill Sykes
This book is available to library clients through James Bennett Library Services

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

Tankard bannerHOW TO ORDER

‘It brought back so many memories’—Jill Sykes
This book is available to library clients through James Bennett Library Services

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

Fantasy 1917 acquatint and drypoint NGA

‘Fancy free. Dancing figures and the art of Sydney Long’. National Gallery of Australia

Below is a link to the text of a the talk I delivered at the National Gallery of Australia on 6 September 2012 in conjunction with the exhibition Sydney Long: spirit of the land. It has been altered slightly to remove some of the more colloquial elements associated with the spoken word. A link to the PowerPoint slides used to illustrate the talk is also below as are the two YouTube clips I used and that are referred to in the text.

‘Fancy free: dancing images and the art of Sydney Long’ (Update 2 April 2017: The link to ‘Skirt dancing’ from the Victoria & Albert Museum, as mentioned in the bibliography,is no longer available)

Link to PowerPoint images

Danse serpentine: Loïe Fuller

Isadora Duncan dancers

Michelle Potter, 12 September 2012

Featured image: Fantasy 1917 acquatint and drypoint, National Gallery of Australia (as used with permission in Fancy free. Dancing figures and the art of Sydney Long)

Season’s Greetings, 2011

high-road-to-taosTo all those who have visited this site over the past year, and especially to those who have contributed what I have referred to elsewhere as ‘refreshingly honest’ comments, I wish a very happy holiday season.

A Christmas production of Nutcracker was always a much anticipated part of my childhood and recollections of Elaine Haxton’s designs for the old Borovansky production (reused in the early Australian Ballet production) surfaced a few years ago during a December drive through, of all places, the Kit Carson National Forest in New Mexico. I hope you enjoy the juxtaposition of images, despite the obvious differences in lighting and location!
snowflakes-nutcracker-2

‘Snowflakes’ in the Borovansky Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker, ca. 1957. Photo: Walter Stringer. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia

I also recently came across an interview with Elaine Haxton recorded by fellow artist James Gleeson in 1978 and held by the National Gallery of Australia. Her discussion of the work of the designer in the 1950s is worth reading I think.

I look forward to your visits and comments in 2012.

Michelle Potter, 18 December 2011

Dance portraits by E. O. Hoppé

The name E. O. Hoppé is familiar to anyone who has put in any time researching the history of the Ballets Russes under Serge Diaghilev. Hoppé, who was born in Germany but who spent much of his professional life in England, secured the exclusive right to photograph the Diaghilev dancers when they first came to London in 1911. Some of these photographs are well known in Australia and are currently on display in the National Gallery of Australia’s exhibition, Ballets Russes: the art of costume—the well-known image of Tamara Karsavina and Adolph Bolm in Firebird, for example. But a current exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London, Hoppé portraits: society, studio & street, has on show some exceptional dance portraits that are not quite as well known.

E. O. Hoppé, Olga Spessivtseva as Aurora in 'The Sleeping Princess', 1921. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London
E. O. Hoppé, Olga Spessivtseva as Aurora in 'The Sleeping Princess', 1921. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London

Given my recent research into the 1934-1935 tour by the Dandré-Levitoff Russian Ballet and Olga Spessivtseva‘s role in it, I was especially interested in a portrait of Spessivtseva as Aurora in The Sleeping Princess. It was taken by Hoppé in 1921, the year of the premiere of Diaghilev’s ill-fated production of that ballet. Spessivtseva does not face the camera full on and her subdued eyes are turned to the front with a gaze that asks us to consider her as someone quite fragile. Her pale lips seem almost cold and the overall effect is haunting. Is it because we know that Spessivtseva would suffer some kind of mental illness that we read the portrait in this way? Or did Hoppé capture the essence of this enigmatic woman?

E. O. Hoppé, Portrait of Margot Fonteyn, 1935. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London
E. O. Hoppé, Portrait of Margot Fonteyn, 1935. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London

By contrast, a magnificent portrait of a young Margot Fonteyn taken in 1935 (she would have been 16) shows her looking straight at us. With lustrous eyes and full, red lips she is sensuous and confident, even slightly haughty,  and definitely ready to take on the world. Again Hoppé appears to have had a remarkable eye for capturing the essence of his sitter.

There are a number of other fascinating dance portraits in this exhibition including a great shot of Martha Graham with Ted Shawn in a tango-style pose taken in 1922 just as Graham was completing her study at the Denishawn school before joining the Greenwich Village Follies. And of course many of the Russian Ballet shots are on show. All are reproduced in the exhibition book, along with many non-dance portraits and a collection of remarkable documentary studies of day-to-day life in Britain between the wars.

Michelle Potter, 4 April 2011

Hoppé portraits: society, studio & street runs until 30 May 2011 at the National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, London.

Exhibition book: Hoppé portraits: society, studio & street (London: National Portrait Gallery, 2011) ISBN 978 85514 4217