‘Le palais de cristal’ & ‘Daphnis et Chloé’. Paris Opera Ballet

Watching dance on the big screen has many pleasures. Perhaps the biggest joy these days is being able to see, so soon after a premiere, works presented by major companies from the other side of the world. The recent screening in Australia of a filmed performance from the Paris Opera Ballet is a case in point. Filmed just days after the opening at the Opéra Bastille, this program brought together Le palais de cristal from George Balanchine and Daphnis et Chloé, a new work from Benjamin Millepied, shortly to take over at POB from Brigitte Lefèvre.

Le palais de cristal opened the program. Made by Balanchine in 1947 especially for POB, it is better known around the world in a revised form as Symphony in C. One of the aspects of the filming that I especially liked was that the recording was often made from a position high up in the theatre. As a result the precise and very formal patterns Balanchine created for Le palais de cristal were easily appreciated. But we were also given many occasions to see the dancers as if we were  sitting in the best seats in the house. The closer shots provided a good view of the costumes, newly designed by Christian Lacroix. Some have seen them as overly decorative. I thought they suited the work and I was especially fascinated by the tutus for the corps de ballet. They seemed to have a hoop-like addition to the skirt that gave them a kind of puff-ball look.

But of course the highlight was the dancing. It is always amazing to see the precision of the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet. Never a foot wrong! One dancer from amongst the soloists stood out. Not knowing the dancers as much as I would like I don’t know her name but she was, I think, of Japanese extraction. What appealed to me was the way she stepped forward into the space in front of her, generously, and the way her movements seemed to have an ongoing existence. A lift of the arm didn’t finish at the finger tips but looked as though it continued through space. Beautiful.

Paris Opera Ballet, 'Le palais de cristal'. Photo: Agathe Pouponey

Amandine Albisson, Matthieu Ganio and dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet in Le palais de cristal, 1st movement. Photo: © Agathe Poupeney

Daphnis et Chloé had a certain fascination, given that I remain an admirer of Graeme Murphy and his works made for Sydney Dance Company made over a thirty year period between the mid 1970s and the early 2000s. Murphy’s Daphnis and Chloe, made in 1980 and designed by Kristian Fredrikson, could not have been further apart from that of Millepied. But I have no wish to make a comparison, just a comment on what a different take it was, visually, choreographically and in terms of portrayal of the narrative.

I found Millepied’s work hard to follow. The choreography certainly flowed and there were some lovely moments of mass movement from the corps. But the storyline wasn’t really conveyed strongly. It was something of a cross between a story ballet and an abstraction, but in the end neither. The standout dancer was François Alu as Bryaxis. Millepied gave him a solo full of spectacular jumps and turns and he rose to the occasion.

Daniel Buren’s large, brightly coloured shapes that descended from the flies and then withdrew back upwards were beautiful in themselves but they didn’t help with understanding the story. In the interview Buren gave to Mme Lefèvre prior to the start of the performance he talked about voids and the idea of occupying space. He is a conceptual artist but the concept he was aiming for with his design to my mind didn’t help the ballet. And why, at the conclusion of the ballet, were the dancers’ costumes transformed into colour from the white they were throughout the rest of the work? At the same time, Buren’s shapes were removed only to reappear a little later for a curtain call. The whole thing escaped me. I wondered whether, for this work, I would have been more satisfied had I been in the theatre watching live.

Despite my problems with Daphnis et Chloé, it is always a huge pleasure watching Paris Opera Ballet performances. The practice of filming live and then transmitting around the world is a great initiative. May it continue.

Michelle Potter, 30 July 2014

Matthew Bourne’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’: the film

Matthew Bourne’s film of his re-imagined Sleeping Beauty, a work that premiered as a live show late in 2012, was recorded over a week during performances at the Bristol Hippodrome. It was filmed in HD, not 3D. Personally, I remain a sceptic of dance in 3D and Bourne’s film confirms for me that in this day and age a well thought through and edited film of a live performance can have all the visual impact and passion for dance that one might wish to see. As I have not seen the live show at this stage my comments on the film are also comments on Bourne’s version of what is generally regarded as an iconic work in the ballet repertoire. My preview story, published in The Canberra Times on 7 September 2013, is at this link. It gives something of the background to the work, which I won’t go over in this post.

The baby Aurora in Matthew Bourne's 'Sleeping Beauty'. Courtesy Sharmill Films

Count Lilac with the baby Aurora in Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Simon Annand. Courtesy Sharmill Films

What struck me instantly about the work itself was that Bourne is an amazing storyteller and has a great way with theatrical tricks. Nothing surprising there though. We have seen it before from Bourne. Nevertheless, I need to say it again. Moving the storyline from 1890 and the babyhood of Aurora, to 1911 and her coming of age and on to the present and her marriage—and the surprise of what comes right at the end, Bourne has indeed as he says ‘created a different look and set of manners, including theatrical manners, for each era’. I loved the dancing in the Edwardian scenes (Aurora’s coming of age) with great use made of Tchaikovsky’s well known waltz. But my favourite ‘set of manners’ came as the 100 years of sleep passed by and Aurora’s palace home became legendary and a spot for tourists to gather and take photos of themselves and the site with their mobile devices.

Perhaps the most difficult ‘era’ to reconcile (for those who have been brought up with Aurora’s Wedding as a staple in their dance-going experiences) is the present day nightclub scene when Aurora is sacrificed on the altar of Caradoc, son of Carabosse and the rival love interest. Aurora’s Wedding was never like this! But her rescue and the subsequent events washed away any feeling of being ill at ease.

I couldn’t help feeling at times that Bourne was making allusions to other ballets as the work proceeded. Those tennis players who appeared in the Edwardian scene were surely a reference to Nijinsky’s Jeux and as Aurora lay on the ground falling into her deep sleep with her mother leaning over her, grief-stricken, we seemed to be seeing an allusion to the end of Giselle Act I. And was that bespectacled man in the white suit and hat lurking in the background as the Edwardian scene came to an end a reference to Aschenbach in the Visconti film Death in Venice? I saw those allusions whether or not they were intended and I guess this is what made this Sleeping Beauty so rich and engrossing for me. There was never a moment when one tended to drift away. Too much happening, too much to think about.

Looking at the work as a film, I admired in particular the way close-ups were judiciously shot to advance our understanding of the characters. I am thinking in particular of the close-up shots of Caradoc. Dressed magnificently in red and black by Lez Brotherston, whose designs for the work are extraordinary, we got the picture pretty quickly—a scheming, brooding man. Takes after his mother no doubt!

Caradoc and the sleeping Aurora in Matthew Bourne's 'Sleeping Beauty.

Caradoc and the sleeping Aurora in Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Simon Annand. Courtesy Sharmill Films

Filmed live as it was, it was charming to have an audience reaction—both laughter and applause—that wasn’t canned. And the intertitles that told the story as the work moved along from scene to scene were set inside a border of roses that themselves told a story—a black rose, a white rose, a red rose. All had a special meaning within the work. The production sped along. I was immersed in it all and relished the performances, especially from Hannah Vassallo as Aurora. Even the credits were gorgeous with action shots of the main characters as their names flashed up.

This is one to see a few more times and, although Bourne says that it is good to know the traditional version as then it becomes more apparent how he has treated the storyline and developed the characters, I suspect this is a film that can also be enjoyed by those who aren’t so aware of the traditional version.

Michelle Potter, 8 September 2013

‘Never stand still’. Jacob’s Pillow

I finally got round to getting myself a copy of the DVD Never stand still: dancing at Jacob’s Pillow. And I’m so glad I did. What is particularly satisfying about this DVD documentary is that there is no promotion of a particular company or a person and no media hype. It’s simply about dance in its many and varied forms. ‘Dancing is direct and honest,’ says Mark Morris, one of the several illustrious interviewees appearing on Never stand still. And that’s what we get: direct, honest and simply beautiful dance.
'Never stand still'. DVD coverA few sections particularly stood out for me, although others will have their own favourites I am sure. I especially enjoyed segments featuring Mark Morris and his dancers, perhaps because those works of his I have seen recently have not impressed me to any great extent—Beaux danced by San Francisco Ballet and Pacific from Houston Ballet, both of which I saw earlier this year, left me feeling underwhelmed. Never stand still has some lovely footage from Morris’ Italian Concerto and Love Song Waltzes and a brief look at a work called Falling Down Stairs, which Morris made in conjunction with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, whom we also see on the DVD. The excerpts from these works show quite clearly what Morris is best known for, his astonishing musicality. And Morris is a forthright and articulate speaker in his interview segments.

I was also especially taken with Shantala Shivalingappa, a solo Kuchipudi dancer born in Madras and raised in Paris. What an amazingly expressive body she has and how she uses it to her advantage. Every movement fills the space and she seems to linger a little at the high point of each movement before seamlessly continuing to the next.

Shantala Shivalingappa 1
Shantala Shivalingappa 2

 

Segements featuring Suzanne Farrell speaking about her transition from Balanchine ballerina to company director make interesting viewing as do excerpts from Balanchine ballets she has set on her own company. Natalia Magnicaballi, a principal with Suzanne Farrell Ballet, is startlingly good in the lead in Tzigane.

Gideon Obarzanek makes an appearance and there are excerpts from his work I want to dance better at parties performed by Chunky Move. I also loved the all too brief footage from Bournonville’s Napoli courtesy of the Royal Danish Ballet, along with a brief discussion of the Danes making their first appearance in the United States at the Pillow at the invitation of Ted Shawn. Then there’s Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham, Judith Jamison, tap, vaudeville…so much more.

Interspersed throughout the contemporary footage is rare archival material showing some of the early performances at Jacob’s Pillow along with an underlying narrative about Shawn and the founding of the this renowned festival, an annual event held at Becket, Massachusetts, in the beautiful surroundings of the Berkshire Hills. If you’ve been there it will bring back wonderful memories not just of the variety of dancing on offer, but of that glorious outdoor stage, those barns and the spectacular surrounding countryside. If you have not had the good fortune to be there Never stand still will make you want to pack your bags for 2014.

Never stand still is so worth watching and is available online at the usual places for quite a small amount of money, even with our dollar falling against the greenback. Here is a link to  the official trailer.

Michelle Potter, 26 August 2013

 

‘Virtuosi’. Sue Healey

Sue Healey has been making dance films since 1997. However, her latest production, Virtuosi, is different in a very major way. At around 80 minutes in length, Virtuosi is a documentary, whereas until now Healey has focused on making short films. Virtuosi is eight stories in one, dance portraits of eight New Zealanders, ‘artists from the edge of the world’, who have made careers beyond their homeland: Mark Baldwin, Craig Bary, Lisa Densem, Raewyn Hill, Sarah-Jayne Howard, Ross McCormack, Jeremy Nelson and Claire O’Neil. And of course both Healey and the composer of the film’s music, Mike Nock, fall into the same category. They too are New Zealanders whose careers have taken them well beyond their homeland.

Sue Healey filming Sarah Jayne Howard for 'Virtuosi'Film maker Sue Healey with performer Sarah-Jayne Howard. Courtesy Sue Healey

Healey says when the opportunity arose she was ready to take on the challenge of a full-length film. She says she always enjoyed making short films, using what she refers to as ‘the distillation approach, honing the idea to its essence’, but that it was time for her to investigate ‘a different duration and its inherent qualities and demands’. Not that it was all smooth sailing, apparently. Healey says that finding a structure for the documentary was a huge challenge and that she was more than fortunate to work with an expert editor in Lindi Harrison and with Judd Overton as director of photography. Of Overton, Healey says: ‘Judd’s shooting style is extremely improvisatory—he is willing to solve problems in the here and now, rather than having pre-conceived notions of shot and frame. This is an extremely exciting way of making film and art’. This approach fitted nicely with Healey’s own strategies.

‘As a filmmaker’, she says, ‘I am still very much influenced by the choreographic approach, preferring to allow the structure to find itself organically through the process. Now, this goes against the usual film canon and can land you in very hot water when you realise you don’t have the necessary shots and logic to fully render an idea. However, I was extremely confident that I had more than enough material to create a range of outcomes’.

Specifically, Healey set a range of tasks for her eight subjects asking them, for example, to create movement sequences in iconic locations in their ‘new’ homes. Each of the artists created an outdoor ‘public’ dance (stills and production shots from some of these dances are in the mosaic below). Each also created a ‘still life’ solo in an interior location. And each created an intimate, close-up hand dance.

Raewyn Hill being filmed for 'Virtuosi'. Photo: Jacqui Ferry
Sarah-Jayne Howard being filmed for 'Virtuosi'
Craig Bary being filmed for 'Virtuosi'
Jeremy Nelson in 'Virtuosi', filmed in New York

Scenes from the filming of  Virtuosi.
Top row: Raewyn Hill; Sarah-Jayne Howard. Bottom row: Craig Bary with film crew; Jeremy Nelson
Images courtesy Sue Healey

Virtuosi has already been shown at festivals from New York to Tasmania (and of course in New Zealand where it premiered in 2012). Healey has recently heard that is in competition in the Golden Prague International Television Festival, and also that it will get a theatrical release throughout New Zealand. In addition, Virtuosi exists as a 3 channel installation for gallery spaces.

Canberra audiences have the opportunity to see Virtuosi as part of Scinema: Dance science and dance memories, a week-long program of dance films at the National Film and Sound Archive. Virtuosi screens on Thursday 15 August at 7 pm in the ARC cinema at the National Film and Sound Archive and is preceded by one of Healey’s short films called Once in a blue moon.

Virtuosi is short listed at the 2013 Australian Dance Awards in the category Outstanding Achievement in Dance on Film or New Media. Recipients of awards will be announced in Canberra on 5 August 2013.

More on the Arc screening …   More on the 2013 Australian Dance Awards short list …  [ Update: these links are no longer available]

Watch the Virtuosi trailer below:

Michelle Potter, 19 July 2013

 

George Balanchine’s ‘Nutcracker’. New York City Ballet on film

New York does December in its own inimitable way and one annual and memorable event is a season of George Balanchine’s Nutcracker performed at Lincoln Center by New York City Ballet. This year, however, you didn’t have to be in New York to see the production. It was filmed live on 13 December and relayed in a high definition cinema broadcast across the United States. Just before Christmas it was screened in movie houses in Britain, Austria, Spain, Portugal and Australia.

While we all know that there’s nothing like being there, I loved the way this Nutcracker was so carefully filmed, especially Act I. I even liked the way the camera selected close-ups and never felt I was missing out on the action by having a close-up cut into the full stage view. I mostly liked the views shot from a side box too, especially in the Snowflakes scene where a high view accentuated the enclosed space of the snow-covered forest without taking anything away from the dancing. From a filmic point of view, Act II was probably less successful. But I suspect that this had something to do with Rouben Ter-Arutunian’s somewhat overwrought set of sweets and candies. Its visual complexities detract from the dancing at the best of times and, when seen on screen, the limitations of the two dimensionality of the medium are accentuated. However, I never once wished it had been shot in 3D!

One aspect of Balanchine’s version that I find especially enjoyable is the way in which children are incorporated into the production and the way the adult performers never treat them as anything but an integral part of the narrative. In Act I the children dance with the adults as well as with each other and have roles as soldiers, while in Act II they have their own roles as angels and as the children of Mother Ginger. In Act II they dance in the opening section and in the coda with all the panache of their adult counterparts. The coda in particular is quite fast but they are in there, totally unfazed and dancing beautifully.

The roles of Fritz and Marie, or Clara as we more commonly know her counterpart in Australia, are also children’s roles, rather than roles for smaller company members as often happens. The children from the School of American Ballet, who fill all the children’s roles, are professionals-in-training and it is hard to fault the way they conduct themselves on stage. In the role of Fritz, Maximilian Brooking Lendegger was captivatingly naughty and almost stole the show from the rather more placid and appropriately well-mannered Colby Clark as the princely child hero and nephew of Herr Drosselmeier. Marie was danced by a very composed Fiona Brennan. I was also mesmerised by a dark- haired child aged about eight, the youngest (or at least smallest in height) of the Polichinelles who emerge from Mother Ginger’s skirt in Act II. She grabbed my attention immediately with her innate understanding of how to use the space around her to achieve maximum effect from her movements.

Of the adult performers Megan Fairchild danced the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy and was partnered by Joaquin De Luz: lovely techniques both of them but on this occasion not much of the radiance that should accompany these roles. They are after all the roles of a prima ballerina and a premier danseur. The standout performers among the adults were Teresa Reichlen as a glamorously slinky Coffee, Tiler Peck as the leading Marzipan (in a tutu that I found clumsy and unattractive though) and Ashley Bouder as Dewdrop, the leading dancer in the Waltz of the Flowers. Bouder’s technical skills were electrifying. In Act I Adam Hendrickson gave a strong performance as Herr Drosselmeier. He captured every bit of the fantasy and mystery of this character.

The film was introduced by Kelly Ripa, who hosts a popular television series in the United States, and she also hosted several backstage interviews during the intermission. They included some interviews with excited child performers and a discussion of some of the technical tricks asociated with the production – the Christmas tree that grows during the transformation scene, for example. They were all interesting, even fascinating at times, but I could easily have done without some of Ripa’s comments. They were no doubt meant to appeal but often dumbed down what was happening.

Years ago now the American dance writer Edwin Denby remarked of Balanchine’s take on Nutcracker: ‘It’s Balanchine’s Oklahoma!’ This particular production, with sets by Ter-Arutunian and costumes by Karinska, dates back to 1964 and it is indeed a very American production, right down to its flying, reindeer-drawn sleigh that carries Marie and her Prince across the stage in the closing scene. At Christmas its glitz, even when it’s a little over the top and even when Ripa behaves a little too ingenuously, is irresistible.

Michelle Potter, 27 December 2011

A clip on YouTube is brief and promotional (but professionally shot) and gives an overview of what the production is like.

Spring Dance 2011 (1). ‘Pina: a celebration’

Pina Bausch died quite suddenly in 2009. It was a shock to most in the dance world and was the occasion for an outpouring of recollections and writing of various kinds. Sydney’s Spring Dance program, now in its third year, made its contribution with almost its entire program devoted in some way or another to the legacy of Bausch. A major highlight was Pina: a celebration, two days of talks and films hosted by journalist and broadcaster Caroline Baum.

In terms of format, Pina: a celebration comprised three sessions, ‘Keys to your soul’, ‘Pina’s children’ and ‘Muscle memory’. Each was held in the Playhouse at the Sydney Opera House and began with a conversation between Baum and her invited guests. On each occasion the conversation was followed by a film screening.

Although a major focus of the event was, to my mind anyway, on setting Bausch and her work within an Australian context, Bausch was absolutely central to the occasion and eclipsed most other aspects of the event. One of the unexpected highlights was a small snippet of footage shot in 1982 by Scott Hicks for a documentary on the 1982 Adelaide Festival at which Bausch and her company appeared. How warm and friendly Bausch seemed. And how cunningly she avoided the issue of how to describe her works by telling instead an amusing story about Alfred Hitchcock.

We saw Bausch again almost forty years later in  \’Dancing Dreams\’, a documentary made in 2010 by Anne Linsel and Rainer Hoffmann on the creation of a new version of Kontakthof, a work Bausch first made in 1978 and which was seen in Australia in Adelaide in 1982.  In this new production Bausch used teenagers over the age of fourteen as her entire cast. As Bausch watched rehearsals for this show we would occasionally see a smile break out on her now lined but always expressive face. There was again a sense of warmth and tenderness from the woman who was once accused of being a ‘theatre terrorist’ and making works that were the ‘raw pulp of abuse’.

The other two films were Pina Bausch made, again by Anne Linsel, in 2006, and Life in Movement made in 2010 by Bryan Mason and Sophie Hyde on the work of Tanja Liedtke. While both offered much insight, and Life in Movement in particular is an important addition to our knowledge of Liedtke’s creativity, both were at times a little subjective making them seem a tad too long. Not so with Dancing Dreams where the spoken words were forthright and honest, where the cast was able to be self critical and the young people able to analyse the role they were playing in the creative process, not to mention the effect that process was having on them. It was very refreshing,

In the conversations with Baum, three of the five guests were Australians whose work had been influenced in one way or another by Bausch: Michael Whaites, Kate Champion and Shaun Parker. What instantly stood out was the sense of objectivity they were able to bring out in their comments and answers to Baum’s questions. After the reverential tone of Bausch’s dancers in the Linsel film Pina Bausch, it was invigorating to hear something a little more down to earth. Whaites in particular, the only one of the three who had worked in close proximity to Bausch, spoke of the need to maintain just a little distance in dealing with life in Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal. And on another Australian note, Dancing Dreams afforded us the pleasure of watching Jo Ann Endicott, an Australian dancer who has been with Bausch since 1973, in her role as co-rehearsal director (along with Bénédicte Billiet) for the new production of Kontakthof.

Alain Platel and Lutz Förster were Baum’s other guests. Both were in Sydney for performances of Platel’s Out of context: for Pina, which I wrote about last year and in which Förster was a performer.*

An unexpected (for me) addition to the program was a brief public conversation with photographer William Yang, whose images of two Bausch works, Kontakthof and 1980, taken at the 1982 Adelaide Festival were on view in the foyer. Yang, who admitted he was not really a great dance-goer, likened Bausch to Chekhov. ‘She understands the human condition’, he said.

Michelle Potter, 10 September 2011

*Platel was a guest on ‘Mornings with Margaret’ on 31 August 2011. His interview is available as a podcast.

 

‘Pina’. A film by Wim Wenders

Pina, shot in 3-D and directed by the acclaimed German artist Wim Wenders, has been touted by many as showing the way forward in terms of filming dance, giving back to dance the physicality that it apparently loses in regular filming. But I’m not sure that many of the reviewers who have hailed it as a breakthrough have actually sat in a theatre and watched a performance by Pina Bausch’s company, or any other dance company for that matter.

For me the most interesting review to date has been by Australian playwright and commentator Louis Nowra. Writing in the August edition of The Monthly, Nowra astutely says, amongst other things, that the scenes shot out of doors are ‘[drained] of their claustrophobic power’, and that ‘the uterine universe that Bausch created onstage is dissipated’. His concluding statement is: ‘For all its 3-D marvels, the film finally doesn’t do her work justice’. And it doesn’t.

Pina is not really a documentary. Nor is it really a dance film. It sits uneasily between the two. It shows sequences from four major Bausch works, Rite of Spring, Café Mueller, Kontakthof and Vollmond, in most cases danced by the current company. It contains some archival footage, although not as much as one might have hoped to see. It contains solos performed outdoors in locations around Wuppertal, the German city where the company, led by Pina Bausch and now since Bausch’s death in 2009 by Dominique Mercy and Robert Stürm, has resided for almost four decades. It shows Bausch’s current dancers talking about their experiences with the company and their thoughts about what it was like working with Bausch.

Company dancers now, as they have been across the history of the company, are great movers. No doubting that. They are also articulate about their experiences and their emotional involvement in the act of working with Bausch. But what horrors are perpetrated by the 3-D technology! The scenic space in which the dancers perform is often far too deep and distorts the dancers. They often look far too small and far too thin. They don’t inhabit the space as living human beings but as kinds of puppet figures. We also, especially in footage of Rite of Spring, get some hideous close-up images (3-D close-up) of faces—images that we never see in performance, and that we are really never meant to see. Distance in the theatre has a place.

Also having a place in the theatre and often missing in Pina is the intimate contact between performers that develops in the enclosed space of a theatre stage. In the deep 3-D recesses, dancers seem to be separated or disengaged from each other, from the props and indeed from the performing space itself, not to mention from the viewer—and I don’t consider having a face thrust straight into mine courtesy of 3-D an engagement with the viewer. How much more engaging is the archival footage (not filmed in 3-D) of Bausch herself performing in Café Mueller where we see her interacting with the space around her body, her personal space, as all great dancers are able to do, rather than seeing her placed within a technological extension of space.

Going back to Louis Nowra, he is absolutely right that the very inward looking, almost narcissistic approach that seems necessary for the creation of a work by Pina Bausch is lost when the works (or parts of them) are placed out of doors. In fact for me the most interesting part of the footage shot out of doors was seeing the Schwebebahn, Wuppertal’s suspended monorail system that, as far as I am aware, is a somewhat over-engineered rail system that has never been replicated elsewhere.

Worse than that, as far as I am concerned, is that the works lose their inherent, dancerly theatricality when shot in 3-D.

Michelle Potter, 20 August 2011

‘Dancing across borders’. A film by Anne Bass

For two months in early 2007 I worked with Anne Bass on the initial stages of what would eventually become Dancing across borders, a documentary film on the career to date of Sokvannara Sar, a dancer who grew up in Cambodia and who is now dancing with Pacific Northwest Ballet. The film has been hugely successful since its release in 2009 and the website that documents its production, and that also gives contextual material about other initiatives including the Khmer Dance Project, is well worth a look.Dancing across borders posterMichelle Potter, 8 April 2010

Sydney friends of the Ballets Russes. Dr Ewan Murray-Will

Dr Ewan Murray-Will (1899-1970) was by profession a dermatologist with a practice in Macquarie Street, Sydney. He studied medicine at Sydney University graduating in 1923 and followed that initial study with further work in Vienna and London. He was honorary dermatologist to a number of Sydney hospitals including Sydney Hospital, St Vincent’s Hospital and the Coast Hospital (later Prince Henry Hospital). Murray-Will also served in World War II in the Middle East and later in North Queensland and was awarded an MBE at the conclusion of the War. He was also a passionate supporter of the arts and a friend and patron of the Ballets Russes dancers who visited Australia between 1936 and 1940.
murray-will-and-girls

Dr Ewan Murray Will (centre) with Nina Youchkevitch (front), Irina Bondireva (left) and Vanda Grossen (right), 1936 or 1937. Photographer unknown. National Library of Australia

His home movies documenting performances by, and weekend activities of the dancers of the visiting Ballets Russes companies have been known in Australian dance circles since the late 1990s when they were donated to the National Film and Sound Archive. Some of this remarkable footage was used in The Ballets Russes in Australia: an avalanche of dancing, produced in 1999 by the National Film and Sound Archive and the National Library of Australia. Some was also screened in a compilation of archival footage that accompanied the National Gallery of Australia’s 1999 exhibition of Ballets Russes costumes, From Russia with love.

Perhaps the most engaging of the footage is that shot on Bungan Beach, a beach north of Sydney that even today remains relatively isolated. It is hidden from the main road and accessible only by a walking track. It was at Bungan Beach that Murray-Will regularly rented out a beach house and also regularly invited a number of the dancers to visit on weekends. Much of the beach footage is filmed in slow motion and often shows the dancers demonstrating particular steps or lifts: Paul Petroff seemed to delight in performing grands jetés en tournant the length of the beach and Tamara Toumanova and Petroff enjoyed demonstrating the now well-known ‘presages lift’ from the slow movement of Massine’s Les presages. Other material shows the Ballets Russes dancers performing excerpts from their repertoire. A beautiful clip shows Nina Golovina in a scarlet swimming costume with her long dark hair falling over her shoulders dancing with Anton Vlassoff in an excerpt from the Bluebird pas de deux from Aurora’s Wedding. Some of Murray-Will’s footage, including the ‘Bungan Ballet’ a watery spoof created by four of the dancers, is available online from the National Film and Sound Archive’s australianscreen site:
http://aso.gov.au/titles/home-movies/ballets-russes-de-monte-carlo/

But Ewan Murray-Will also bought art and moved in those Sydney circles where contemporary art was promoted and where both developments in the visual arts and the activities of the Ballets Russes were seen as part of the same attitude to contemporary creative endeavour. Murray-Will was, for example, a friend of publisher and patron of the arts Sydney Ure Smith, as Ure Smith’s collection of letters in the Mitchell Library in Sydney indicates. He was also close to Ballets Russes dancer Hélène Kirsova, whose second husband was Peter Bellew, first secretary of the Sydney branch of the Contemporary Art Society and in part responsible for securing Sidney Nolan’s commission to design Icare for Australian performances by the Original Ballet Russe in 1940. Kirsova autographed to Murray-Will a photograph of her and Igor Youskevitch in Le Carnaval with the words: ‘To Doctor Murray-Will, With my appreciation of your interest in the arts I am devoted to, Helene Kirsova, 1937’.

kirsova-and-youskevitch

Hélène Kirsova and Igor Youskevitch in Le Carnaval, 1937. Photographer unknown. National Library of Australia

Ewan Murray-Will’s contribution to our knowledge of the Ballets Russes aesthetic as it was understood in Australia also includes that he collected, and then bequeathed to major institutions, paintings and drawings with a connection to the Ballets Russes. At least two designs by Alexandre Benois for Petrouchka were bequeathed by Murray-Will to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. They are a costume design for ‘Un jeune artisan ivrogne’ (A drunken young workman), a character that perhaps never appeared on stage in productions of Petrouchka, and a set design for ‘La chambre du nègre’ (The Negro’s bedroom), which is a variation on the better-known set for that scene in the ballet.

But perhaps more pertinent in the context of the influence the Ballets Russes had on Australian artists are those items bequeathed to the National Gallery of Australia by Murray-Will that are currently on display in the exhibition Rupert Bunny: artist in Paris at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. They include three oils on canvas painted in Paris between 1913 and 1920: Peleus and Thetis, The prophetic nymphs and Poseidon and Amphitrite. Any Ballets Russes influence on Bunny, best described perhaps as an expatriate Australian, came of course from Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes rather than from the touring companies that Australians saw in the years following Diaghilev’s death in 1929. The colours of Bunny’s palette in all three paintings recall the juxtapositions for which Léon Bakst became famous with his costume and set designs for Diaghilev. And the swirl of Amphitrite’s hair in Poseidon and Amphitrite, which was owned at one stage by Edouard Borovansky, recalls the decorative elements of flowing scarves and other items that feature in Bakst’s costume designs.

The most interesting of the three paintings, however, is Peleus and Thetis and, while Bunny’s colour juxtapositions may be a result of the influence of late nineteenth/early twentieth-century European artists, including Paul Gaugin, rather than, or as well as Baskt, there are nevertheless clear references to the Ballets Russes in this painting. Bunny painted Peleus with her feet and knees turned to the side as if on a frieze. Her body, however, is facing the front although her head is in profile. Such a pose clearly recalls the choreography for the nymphs in Afternoon of a Faun (1912), Vaslav Njinsky’s groundbreaking work for Diaghilev. Moreover, the angular position of Peleus’ arms, especially the way her left elbow is bent into a triangular shape as she resists Thetis’ advances, is similar to the arm positions of Nijinsky and the leading nymph in Faun as the two engage with each other before the nymph drops her scarf and flees. Even the hairstyle of Peleus recalls the wigs worn by the nymphs in the ballet, which closely fitted the head like a skull cap but had long strands of curls emerging at the back from the nape of the neck.

Ewan Murray-Will is reported to have been a reserved man. He left, however, a legacy to the arts world whose significance is probably yet to be fully explored. That legacy is largely a result of his exploits as an amateur filmmaker. But his activities as a collector of paintings and drawings, especially as they elucidate further the activities and aesthetic of the Ballets Russes in Australia and on Australians, are also of significance.

Postscript: Rupert Bunny: artist in Paris is at the Art Gallery of New South Wales until 21 February 2010 and then travels to Melbourne and Adelaide.

© Michelle Potter, 27 November 2009

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Australia Dancing. ‘Dr Ewan Murray-Will’ : http://www.australiadancing.org/subjects/2401.html
  • Benois, Alexandre-Nikolayevich. ‘Jeune artisan ivrogne’, costume study for Petrouchka, 1936, watercolour, gouache and pen and ink over pencil sketch, 32.2 x 24.8 cm sheet (irreg), Art Gallery of New South Wales, Bequest of Dr Ewan Murray-Will 1971, 11.1971
  • Benois, Alexandre-Nikolayevich. ‘The Negro’s Bedroom’, set design for Petrouchka, 1931, drawing, gouache and pen and ink over pencil sketch, 25.3 x 36.2 cm image/sheet, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Bequest of Dr Ewan Murray-Will 1971, 12.1971
  • Edwards, Deboarah. Rupert Bunny: artist in Paris (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2009).
  • Potter, Michelle. ‘Mutual fascination: the Ballets Russes in Australia 1936-1940’. Brolga 11 (December 1999), pp. 7-15.
  • Turnbull, Clive. The Art of Rupert Bunny (Sydney: Ure Smith, [1949?])