(l-r) Julia Cotton, Patrick-Harding-Irmer, Elle Cahill and Ance Frankenhaueser in 'Quartet for David', 2016.

‘Dances for David’. National Portrait Gallery

15 October 2016. National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

The National Portrait Gallery is currently showing a number of images from its performing arts collection—mainly images of dancers but also musicians and designers. Along with Jenny Sages’ wonderful image of Irina Baronova ‘passing on the torch’ to an unknown (seen from the back only) young dancer, there are images of Steven Heathcote, Graeme Murphy, Meryl Tankard, Russell Page, Stephen Page, Marilyn Rowe (not the Gallery’s best acquisition I have to say), Kenneth Rowell, Sidney Nolan, Peter Sculthorpe, and others. They are there to support a new acquisition, a photographic portrait of artistic director of the Australian Ballet, David McAllister, by Peter Brew-Bevan.

National Portrait Gallery performing arts images

National Portrait Gallery, Canberra. A selection of performing arts images on display, October 2016

Portrait of David McAllister by David Brew-Bevan, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

Portrait of David McAllister by Peter Brew-Bevan, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

And as has been happening with a certain frequency recently, the National Portrait Gallery commissioned four dancers, Elle Cahill, Julia Cotton, Anca Frankenhaeuser, and Patrick Harding-Irmer, to present a short program of dances to celebrate the acquisition. There were four dances in all: Solo from steppingstone by Patrick Harding-Irmer, Duet for David by Julia Cotton and Elle Cahill, Ebba by Anca Frankenhaeuser, and Quartet for David by all four dancers. All dances had a certain technical simplicity to them, which is not to deny their appropriateness for the occasion.

Two of the pieces, those featuring Harding-Irmer, seemed to refer specifically to McAllister. The duet from Cotton and Cahill seemed to be more of a dedication to the art that McAllister has promoted throughout his career, while the connection that Frankenhaeuser’s quite beautiful but mysterious solo with a hanging garment had to McAllister wasn’t all that clear to me.

Harding-Irmer’s Solo was a work of poses. Some were quite a simple ballet positions—first position of the feet, fifth positions of the arms. for example. We all start our careers learning the basics. As the piece progressed the poses became more introspective but always searchingly so. And Harding-Irmer, impeccably dressed in suit and tie (although he did remove the coat at one stage), suggested that a dancer’s life moves more and more into a complexity of thought.

Patrick Harding-Irmer in Solo from steppingstones, National Portrait Gallery, 2016
Anca Frankenhaueser in Ebba, National Portrait Gallery, 2016

(left) Patrick Harding-Irmer in Solo from stepping stones; (right) Anca Frankenhaeuser in Ebba. Photos: Michelle Potter

Duet for David was the most balletic of the dances and in many respects it reminded me of the Jenny Sages portrait of Baronova ‘passing on the baton’. Cahill’s youth in relation to Cotton (and Harding-Irmer and Frankenhaeuser) was clear and, as Cahill and Cotton danced together, they seemed to change places in the performing space. There was a lovely entrance by Cahill followed by a quiet arrival from Cotton, who then seemed to take the dominant position. But as they circled each other, dancing simple but fluid and attractive steps in differing spatial patterns, Cahill came to the fore, as if representing the future of classical dance.

Julia Cotton and Elle Cahill in Duet for David, National Portrait Gallery, 2016

Julia Cotton and Elle Cahill in Duet for David, National Portrait Gallery, 2016. Photo: Michelle Potter

But if Duet for David was the most balletic in a technical sense, the closing piece, Quartet for David, was filled poses (again) that recalled the manner of McAllister in the classroom or rehearsal process, along with references to ballets with which McAllister might be identified. From Swan Lake, for example, we had a reference to the linked arms of the Four Little Swans and from The Sleeping Beauty there was a nod to the Rose Adagio. And the final moment saw Harding-Irmer taking the very pose McAllister takes in the Brew-Bevan portrait.

Finale, Dances for David, National Portrait Gallery, 2016

Finale from Quartet for David, National Portrait Gallery, 2016. Back row (l-r) Julia Cotton, Patrick Harding-Irmer and Anca Frankenhaeuser; in front Elle Cahill. Photo: Michelle Potter

What was especially attractive about this show was the element of time that it encompassed—time past, time present, and time future all seemed to have a place. But I wish I knew more about Frankenhaeuser’s Ebba. For the first time in my experience with these Portrait Gallery shows there was a mini printed program, which listed the names of the works and the creatives behind them—a welcome initiative. I am dead against judging a work according to the artist’s intention, but I would have liked a bit more information. A search online didn’t help all that much.

Dance in Canberra is flourishing as a result of this kind of show. And it is refreshingly ‘underground’ in the sense that it doesn’t rely on the fads and puffery of popular mainstream organisations. Good, honest dance with something to say.

Michelle Potter, 17 October 2016

Featured image: (l-r) Julia Cotton, Patrick Harding-Irmer, Elle Cahill and Anca Frankenhaeuser in Quartet for David, 2016.

(l-r) Julia Cotton, Patrick-Harding-Irmer, Elle Cahill and Anca Frankenhaueser in 'Quartet for David', 2016.

Dance diary. September 2016

  • Degas. A new vision

In September I had the pleasure of visiting the National Gallery of Victoria’s recent exhibition of works by Edgar Degas, entitled Degas. A new vision. I enjoyed discovering his non-dance paintings and drawings, in particular those that gave an insight into his family and social life. But I especially enjoyed some of his lesser known (to me anyway) dance works, including the two below: Little girl practising at the barre (1878–1880), although it is a shame about the turn-out being forced onto that little body, and Russian dancer (1985).

Degas. Petit rat
image
  • Australian Dance Awards 2016

The 2016 Australian Dance Awards were held in Perth in September and list of awardees is on the Australian Dance Awards website.

Elma Kris in 'Sheoak'. Banggara Dance Theatre, 2015. Photo: © Edward Mulvihill

Elma Kris, winner of ‘Outstanding Performance by a Female Dancer’ at the 2016 Australian Dance Awards seen here in Sheoak from the Bangarra Dance Theatre program lore, 2015. Photo: © Edward Mulvihill

  • National Portrait Gallery: coming soon

The National Portrait Gallery in Canberra continues to offer short dance events as part of its public programs with Dances for David scheduled for October and a work by James Batchelor coming in early November.

Dances for David—four dances reflecting moments in the career of David McAllister, artistic director of the Australian Ballet—will be performed by Anca Frankenhaeuser, Patrick Harding-Irmer, Julia Cotton and Elle Cahill.  Each work is inspired by a photographic image of McAllister. Dances for David takes place on 15-16 October and 29-30 October.

In November James Batchelor will present Smooth Translation, a commission from the Portrait Gallery, which is being advertised as ‘an ode to Barbara Hepworth’. Batchelor’s works are often about process of some kind and Smooth Translation purports to be concerned with the process of sculpting a landscape. Intriguing? But then all Batchelor’s works are. Smooth Translation is on 5–6 November.

Check the National Portrait Gallery website for more details.

  • The Australian Ballet in 2017

The Australian Ballet, the national ballet company, once again will not be visiting Canberra, the national capital, in 2017!

  • Press for September 2016

‘Blood ties.’ A look at the career of Bangarra dance Luke Currie-Richardson as Bangarra heads to New York and Paris. The Canberra TimesPanorama, 17 September 2016, pp. 8–9. Online version.

‘Circa attains right balance.’ Review of Carnival of the Animals. The Canberra Times, 19 September 2016, ARTS p. 34. Online version.

Michelle Potter, 30 September 2016

Featured image: Theatre box (La loge) detail, 1880

Degas box

‘The diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky’. Paul Cox’s ‘cinematic poem’.

The death earlier in June of film maker Paul Cox sent me in search of a DVD copy of his film The diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky. The backstory is that Cox heard actor Paul Schofield on British radio reading from Nijinsky’s diaries (cahiers), which were first released in 1936 after having been rearranged and edited dramatically by Nijinsky’s wife, Romola.From that moment Cox was smitten and wanted to make a film based on the diaries. The making was a drawn-out experience (it took three years),2 but the film was eventually completed in 2001 and released in 2002. Cox has referred to it as a ‘cinematic poem’: it is certainly far from a documentary in the commonly understood meaning of the term.

Nijinsky began writing down his thoughts as a kind of diary on the morning of his last public performance, which he gave at the Suvretta Hotel in St Moritz on 19 January 1919. He wrote his last entry on 4 March that same year, the day he was to go to Zurich to see the psychiatrist, Eugen Bleuler, who would decide that he was suffering from incurable schizophrenia and who would advise, among other things, that he be admitted to a sanatorium. There are three exercise books of writing and drawing, with the first two books containing sections of Nijinsky’s own form of dance notation. The fourth notebook contains several letters to family, friends and others. The three diary books are held by the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. The fourth book of letters is held in Paris by the Department of Music, Bibliothèque nationale.

I found Cox’s film (which I must admit I had never seen before) absolutely mesmerising. It is in many respects a collage of images that flash past us, some of which return hauntingly throughout the film. Sometimes they are photographs of Nijinsky in his well-known roles for the Ballets Russes, such as the image at the top if this post, which shows Nijinsky as Petrushka. Sometimes they are images from nature, with flowing water and birds, in particular a crane, appearing frequently. Cox also plays with light and shade and there are many fleeting, emotive moments where shadows flicker over walls, water, and natural features of the landscape. The images reflect Nijinsky’s words as they are written in the diaries and are spoken as a voice over by Derek Jacobi.

The film begins with a funeral procession, Nijinsky’s funeral. As the coffin and the mourning party move down a pathway we see ‘ghosts’ of Nijinsky hovering in the background and sometimes merging with the funeral procession. They are characters Nijinsky played in the ballets that made him the famous male dancer that he was—the Spirit of the Rose from Le spectre de la rose, the Golden Slave from Scheherazade, the Faune from L’Après-midi d’un faune, and so on. These characters appear, disappear and reappear throughout the film, slipping between the other images, always reminding us of Nijinsky’s remarkable dancing career.

The dancing components, like the characters who hover around the funeral procession, are interspersed seemingly randomly between the flow of non-dancing imagery. David McAllister and Vicki Attard appear as the two characters in Le Spectre de la rose, while dancers from Leigh Warren and Dancers take on most of the other dancing roles. I admired Aidan Kane Munn’s ‘War Dance’, which he choreographed as a tormented, quivering solo and danced blank-faced. This was the item Nijinsky chose to dance at Suvretta House: ‘Now I will dance you the war … the war which you did not prevent.’ It is described by Joan Acocella (following Romola Nijinsky’s description) as ‘a violent solo, presumably improvised’ and analysed by Ramsay Burt in relation to Nijinsky’s thoughts on war and peace.I also especially admired Csaba Buday’s performance as the Faune in a version of L’Après-midi d’un faune choreographed by Alida Chase and set outdoors in a clearing surrounded by trees and bushes. There was an animal-like awareness to Munn’s reactions as the Nymphs passed by, and his closing scene with the veil was gentle yet blatantly sexual.

There is a kind of narrative component to anchor the imagery and dancing. We meet Romola and her parents and the various doctors who examined Nijinsky, for example. But we never hear them speak, although their body language and facial expressions give us clues as to how the story and their thoughts about Nijinsky are unfolding. Their presence forces us to face the reality that is behind the film.

DVD cover

The diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky is a truly beautiful, painterly film. Like John Neumeier’s Nijinsky, which Hamburg Ballet performed in Australia in 2012, it is absolutely compelling and arouses so many thoughts about the nature of Nijinsky—the man and the dancer. But, in contrast to the Neumeier work, the Cox film is almost serene in its overall mood, despite some confronting and bloody images relating to Nijinsky’s vegetarianism, and the challenging words and ideas spoken forcefully by Jacobi. That I find the mood serene is is not to suggest, however, that Cox has not presented the drama and the confusion of thought that permeated Nijinsky’s life. It is just felt in a different manner. The film and the dance work complement each other in a very unusual way and, having at last seen the film, I look forward immensely to seeing the Neumeier work again when it is performed by the Australian Ballet later this year.

Michelle Potter, 25 June 2016

Featured image: Vaslav Nijinsky as Petrushka. Photographer and source unknown

1. Joan Acocella, in her introduction to the unexpurgated edition of the diaries, published in English in 1999 as The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, explains in detail how Romola altered the diaries in that first publishing endeavour of 1936. In particular Acocella notes that around 40% of the contents of the diaries was omitted. Acocella’s introduction is, as is all her writing, lucid and informed: Joan Acocella (ed.), The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1999).

2. Philip Tyndall describes the development of the film saying that Cox ‘did much of the cinematography himself in addition to the writing, directing, co-producing and editing.’ Philip Tyndall, ‘The diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky. The culmination of a career.’ In Sense of Cinema. Issue 20, May 2002. Accessed 25 June 2016.

3. Ramsay Burt, ‘Alone in the world. Reflections on solos from 1919 by Vaslav Nijinsky and Mary Wigman’. In On Stage Alone. Soloists and the modern dance canon, eds Claudia Gitelman and Barbara Palfy (Gainesville FL: University of Florida Press, 2012).

Stephen Baynes’ ‘Swan Lake’. The Australian Ballet (2016)

9 April 2016 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake premiered in 2012 as a ‘traditional’ Australian Ballet production to stand alongside Graeme Murphy’s rather more radical version. After almost four years it is certainly an interesting experience to see the Baynes production again, but looking back at what I wrote in 2012 I find myself wanting to say much the same.

On the positive side, Hugh Colman’s costumes are still a highlight. They are so elegantly designed, especially those in Act I, where the women’s dresses not only look so stylish but move beautifully during the danced sequences. They also set the story so well in the nineteenth century, the era of Tchaikovsky. Then I was still thrilled to see such lovely, swirling choreography in so many places. I was especially taken this time with the patterns given to the swans, both when moving and when standing motionless.  I was also lucky to see a lovely performance from Miwako Kubota as Odette/Odile. She danced both roles with style and technical assurance and gave each role a distinctive characterisation.

Baynes and Colman have approached the story as a kind of psycho-drama and, in bringing out this aspect of the production, Andrew Killian as Siegfried gave a strong performance. He gave the role a brooding quality in Act I that at first made him appear not to be participating—and of course we are used to seeing Siegfried enjoying himself at his birthday celebrations before heading off to shoot swans with his mates. But slowly Killian brought us to the realisation that Siegfried was deeply unhappy with his life and at the end of Act I, as he stood before the gates that led to the lake, I couldn’t help feeling that he was thinking of drowning himself in it (which is eventually what happens).

On the not so positive side, I think this Swan Lake still badly needs the services of a dramaturg to bring out the narrative (or Baynes’ version of the story) more clearly. The psycho-drama seems to fall apart somewhat after Act I when the ballet reverts to the original storyline without enough emphasis on anything that might be called evil. Rothbart, who personifies evil in traditional productions, still remains an enigma in the Baynes version. Is he the personification of the blackness that consumes Siegfried? He seems just to hover in the background, except in Act III when he rudely sits beside the Queen, who on this occasion, surprisingly, took very little notice of him. And then Rothbart plays the violin for the the dance of the Russian Princess (beautifully performed by Rina Nemoto), which makes him a kind of Paganini figure, the Devil’s minion.  It is very difficult to reconcile exactly what role he is meant to be playing and, as a result, the production becomes unsatisfying.

Despite some very nice choreographic moments, and some strong dancing, I have to come to the conclusion that I prefer other productions of Swan Lake. I don’t want to go back to a Borovansky-style 1950s production (although it was really quite a good, straightforward one), and all credit to David McAllister for wanting to add a traditional Swan Lake to the Australian Ballet repertoire. But for preference I’d go to the Murphy production any day. It has a coherence that I think is lacking in the Baynes production.

Michelle Potter, 11 April 2016

Featured image: Artists of the Australian Ballet in Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake (2012 production). Photo: © Jeff Busby

Daniel Gaudiello as the Prince in 'The Sleeping Beauty'. The Australian Ballet, 2015

‘The Sleeping Beauty’. A second look

5 December 2015 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

My second viewing of David McAllister’s Sleeping Beauty simply confirmed my opinion that this production is the most over-designed ballet I have ever seen since I saw my first professional ballet performance many years ago. Sold-out houses mean nothing artistically as far as I am concerned. At least this time, however, I knew what to expect and so made a concerted effort to block out the design and look at the dancing, as much as was possible.

This matinee performance belonged to Miwako Kubota and Daniel Gaudiello as Aurora and Prince Desiré respectively. As the sixteen year old Aurora, Kubota performed charmingly and was technically close to faultless. But it was in the wedding scene that she took my breath away. She was radiant. She brought so much light and shade to her dancing and, amazingly, the light and shade came mostly through her technical execution. She leant into movements, she used her head and shoulders beautifully, every movement had an expressive power. I especially loved that part in one of her variations in the pas de deux where her delicate wrist movements, enhanced by such a beautiful smile, such a fluid body, and such perfect feet, told the story of how she had grown from a child to a woman, reflecting back to her father’s similar mime sequence at her sixteenth birthday.

As her prince, Gaudiello once again showed what a wonderful dancer and partner he is. I love watching him take care of his ballerina and, as usual, his technical execution of the choreography was outstanding. I was especially taken by those moments in his variation in the coda of the grand pas de deux where his light and beautifully elevated cabrioles to the front (also beautifully beaten) were followed by a sweep of one leg, the foot passing through first position, into an attitude at the back. That foot caressed the floor making those small movements that join larger ones so clear.

The only other male dancer who has made me so aware of the beautiful tiny details that make up larger and more obvious movements is Ethan Stiefel, whom I was once lucky enough to see as Solor in Makarova’s Bayadère.

For the first time in a long time I felt that this grand pas de deux, with Kubota and Gaudiello performing as they did, was actually grand. Hurrah!

Sympathy to the gentleman in the Garland Dance in Act I who had a major wig malfunction, but bouquets to the other gentleman who, wig intact, managed to remove the fallen part from the floor. The dance went on, the gentleman left the stage and returned with wig fixed. But sadly that Garland Dance has, in this production, lost all its honourable simplicity and choreographic design as a result of those garlands that looked quite burdensome with far too many lolly-pink and ghastly-green flowers (matching the ladies’ dresses that are similarly coloured and burdened).

As I had previously, I enjoyed the newly-imagined role of Carabosse, which was carefully thought through by former Royal Ballet dancer Gillian Revie. Benedicte Bemet, fresh from the triumph of receiving the award of the 2015 Telstra Ballet Dance of the Year, was partnered by Christopher Rodgers-Wilson in the Bluebird pas de deux. Both danced nicely but did not have the attack of Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo. They need a little more time to reach greater heights in roles such as the Bluebird pas de deux. I’m sure those greater heights are on their way.

Michelle Potter, 7 December 2015

Featured image: Daniel Gaudiello as the Prince in The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Daniel Gaudiello as the Prince in 'The Sleeping Beauty'. The Australian Ballet, 2015

My earlier review of the Australian Ballet’s new production of The Sleeping Beauty is at this link.

Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo in 'The Sleeping Beauty'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo Jeff Busby

‘The Sleeping Beauty’. The Australian Ballet

15 September 2015, State Theatre, Arts Centre, Melbourne

On a day when Australia got a new Prime Minister, dance-goers also got a new production of The Sleeping Beauty from David McAllister and the Australian Ballet, with McAllister being credited with ‘Production and additional choreography’. I don’t know how our new PM will fare but, as for Beauty, there was good and not so good.

The good things first. The narrative flows clearly and smoothly. Bringing in Lucas Jervies as dramaturg clearly paid dividends, especially as this Beauty is a little different from what many of us have become used to watching. Act II, for example, is somewhat changed from other productions, of which more later. And Carabosse is ‘the ancient fairy of Wisdom’ according to program notes, so she doesn’t display as much evil intent as we have seen in previous productions, although of course she is furious at being left off the invitation list to Aurora’s christening party.

Which brings me to the second good thing. Lynette Wills as Carabosse is outstanding, just as she was as the Godmother in Cinderella.

Lynette Wills as Carabosse in 'The Sleeping Beauty'. The Australian Ballet 2015. Photo Jeff Busby

Lynette Wills as Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Wills is powerful yet restrained. Nothing is overplayed and yet we sense her presence and her impact on the unfolding story. And all this despite having a very strangely dressed entourage of rats who wear giant puppet-like heads and sport collars and black bow ties.

After that there isn’t much else that I found exhilarating. Benedicte Bemet as the Fairy of Musicality gave a distinctive interpretation to this role and brought a gorgeously lively quality to her exceptional technical capacity. Kevin Jackson as Prince Desiré made every effort to appear human. His two solos in Act II were mostly well performed, and there were moments when, as he looked at the spirit of Aurora, which the Lilac Fairy has conjured up in this Act, he sent shivers down my spine, such was his look of longing.

As for the Bluebird and Princess Florine, Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo could scarcely be faulted technically. Guo’s beats and turns are astonishing, as I have said many times before. But how I missed the fluttering hands that are so often part of the choreography for Princess Florine. She is meant to be listening to the Bluebird who is teaching her how to fly, and the listening bit was all there. But in other versions, beautiful fluttering movements of the hands show her attempts to fly, to put into practice what she is hearing. This fluttering has been part of the Australian heritage of Beauty for decades. Let’s be proud of our heritage. Why leave it out now even if it is (maybe) an addition from the era of Soviet realism?

Which brings up the question of the other fairy tale characters who usually appear at the wedding of Aurora and her Prince. It was a lovely touch to include various fairy tale characters, properly disguised but recognisable, in Act II, which in McAllister’s production is a kind of picnic rather than a straight out hunting party, with the Prince joining in the excursion carrying his book of fairy tales. But what happened to the variations of Puss in Boots and the White Cat and Red Riding Hood and the Wolf in Act III? If these characters appear, somewhat in disguise, in Act II why do they have such a tiny role in Act III (and yet turn up in the final mazurka as if they had danced major parts)? It doesn’t make sense to me to leave out their pas de deux and variations. Where was the dramaturg at this point? Apart from anything else they are also part of our Sleeping Beauty heritage and I missed them.

Lana Jones as Aurora missed the youthfulness that I think gives the early part of Act I so much of its charm. She looked beautifully elegant and performed everything with aplomb, but she wasn’t a sixteen year old princess. The grand pas de deux, despite being soundly performed, lacked the excitement that this part of Act III should bring.

Kevin Jackson and Lana Jones in David McAllister's 'The Sleeping Beauty'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: Jeff Busby

Kevin Jackson and Lana Jones in David McAllister’s The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Other choreographic features, especially in Act II, seemed to me to be a little too close to parts of Swan Lake and Nutcracker. The woodland nymphs, who inhabit the overgrown forest in Act II, often split into small groups, link hands à la Four Little Swans, and perform various piqué-style movements. And there is a scene, also in Act II, where Carabosse’s rats fight with the Prince in an attempt to extract from him the key that will open the glass-domed casket in which Aurora has slept for 100 years. Shades of a certain part of Nutcracker?

Gabriela Tylesova’s designs for costumes and set are extraordinarily lavish and, for me, they are the most curious mixture of Baroque extravagance and Rococo excess, with a Louis XIV party thrown in at the end, which occasionally looked like Carnevale in Venice, complete with a Tiepolo-style ceiling as an added attraction. And why did those three massive chandeliers start on the floor and majestically rise to the ceiling at the beginning of Act III? The audience greeted this strange chandelier behaviour with applause, although I’m not sure why. And what was the most disappointing feature of all this excess across the prologue and three acts? The dancing became secondary to the visual appearance.

Tylesova’s choice of colours for her costumes was also unattractive to my eyes. It shouted excess once again. As for those large wings worn by the fairies, they just got in the way of the dancers’ line, which is such an important part of the ballet technique we associate with Petipa and classicism.

In a feature published in the September 2015 issue of Vogue Australia, McAllister is quoted as saying: ‘With big classics like Sleeping Beauty, I really believe it’s around the staging, the look of it.’ Well, yes, he is right that the staging is important in a narrative ballet. But when the staging is such that it overwhelms the dancing it simply doesn’t work.

The audience was wildly enthusiastic as the curtain went down amid much gold, including shimmering gold leaf floating in the air, and a huge gold sun that descended over the Tiepolo ceiling. I went home dejected that such a beautiful ballet could be turned into an event like some kind of football grand final. The dancing was lost in a world of visual excess and technical invention.

Artists of the Australian Ballet in David McAllister's 'The Sleeping Beauty', 2015. Photo: Jeff Busby

Artists of the Australian Ballet in David McAllister’s The Sleeping Beauty, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Michelle Potter, 17 September 2015

Featured image: Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo in The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

‘Dame Maggie Scott. A life in dance’

I am pleased to note that my biography of Dame Margaret Scott, Dame Maggie Scott: a life in dance, is now available from Australian book shops and from the publisher, Text Publishing, Melbourne. It is also available as an e-book from the usual suppliers. Further details and a link to e-distributors are available on the Text page. Read the back story as published in The Canberra Times at this link.

Dame Maggie Scott coverMany thanks to all those who have supported me in this venture.

Michelle Potter, 22 October 2014

THE LAUNCH: Australian Ballet studios, 10 November 2014

David McAllister launches 'Dame Maggie Scott: a life in dance'
Maggie Scott and Graeme Murphy at the launch of 'Dame Maggie Scott: a life in dance'

Above: (l–r) David McAllister, Maggie Scott and Graeme Murphy speaking at the launch of Dame Maggie Scott: a life in dance. Below: Book signing at the launch

Book signing 'Dame Maggie Scott: a life in dance'

  • Read another account of the launch (and opinions on other matters) on Shane Wombat’s post of 12 November 2014. The lady in the wheelchair in Mr (or is it Ms?) Wombat’s book signing photograph is Lucy Henty, Maggie’s much admired secretary and bursar in the early days of the Australian Ballet School.

MEDIA:

    • Listen to an interview with Maggie Scott recorded by Jon Faine on his Conversation Hour for Radio 774 ABC Melbourne at this link. Maggie’s voice begins at 23:22 mins. This is a particularly interesting interview for its engagement not just between Maggie and Jon Faine, but also between Maggie and Faine’s co-host, oncologist Dr Ranjana Srivastava, and his other guest on the program, former President of the Waterside Workers’ Federation of Australia, Jim Beggs.
    • Listen to an interview with Maggie Scott recorded by Philip Adams for ABC Radio National’s Late Night Live at this link.
    • For those who read French, listen to an interview with Penny Hueston, Senior Editor, Text Publishing, for SBS Radio at this link.
    • Read the mention of the launch of the book by David McAllister at this link.
    • The Australian Women’s Weekly, December issue, suggests the book would make an ideal Christmas present.AWW publicity
  • Listen to an interview with Maggie Scott, accompanied by a selection of music, on the program Music Makers with Mairi Nicolson on ABC Classic FM. Please note that this interview is available online for one month only. It was broadcast on 13 December 2014. Here is the link.
  • Read an interview with Dame Maggie Scott by Amanda Dunn published in The Age in Spectrum and The Canberra Times in Panorama on 20 December 2014. Online at this link.

REVIEWS and COMMENTS

  • ‘Impeccably researched … a fascinating biography of a major luminary.’ Sydney Arts Guide, 29 November 2014.
  • ‘A fascinating, multi-faceted read, not the least for [a] great insight into Australia during the 1940s.’ The Examiner (Launceston), 13 December 2014.
  • ‘…a fitting tribute to an outstanding woman of influence.’ The culture concept, 19 December 2014.
  • ‘…[among] the best memoirs of 2014 … gorgeous archival photography.’ The New Daily, 23 December 2014.
  • ‘There are peaks and troughs to the Life, with Michelle Potter truly excelling in the political lobbying involved in the setting up of the Australian Ballet…’ Limelight, February 2015.
  • ‘… a most welcome and important record of a remarkable woman … a substantial book, and a valuable addition to our dance history.’ Dance Australia, February/March 2015.
Edna Busse and Martin Rubinstein in 'Sigrid'

Dance diary. August 2014

  • Edna Busse

In August I had the pleasure of recording an oral history interview with Edna Busse, Borovanksy ballerina of the 1940s and early 1950s. The National Library had been working towards adding Edna’s memories of her life and career to its collection of dance interviews for many years, so it was a thrill that Edna, now aged 96, agreed to the invitation to participate in the program. Edna is seen below in two images from the Borovansky days, on the left with Martin Rubinstein in the Blue Bird pas de deux in a photo by Philip Ward, and right as Swanilda in Coppélia in 1946, photographer unknown.

Edna Busse and Martin Rubinstein in the Blue Bird pas de deux, Borovanksy Ballet 1940s. Photo: Phil Ward
Edna Busse as Swanilda in 'Coppelia', Borovanksy Ballet, 1946.
  • Oral history

Other oral history interviews I recorded during August were not specifically focused on dance, but were interesting arts interviews nevertheless. They were with John Hindmarsh, founder of Hindmarsh Constructions and a major arts philanthropist in Canberra; and with artist John Olsen. The Olsen interview focused on his mural Salute to Five Bells, commissioned for the Sydney Opera House in the early 1970s. (The Olsen interview is too new to have a catalogue record).

  • The Johnston Collection

I was delighted to hear that the Johnston Collection, the remarkable Melbourne-based collection of decorative arts located at Fairhall House, recently received an award from the Victorian branch of Museums Australia. The award was for the Johnston Collection’s recent exhibition David McAllister rearranges Mr Johnston’s collection. The image below shows Desmond Heeley’s costumes from the Australian Ballet production of The Merry Widow, as displayed in the sitting room during the Fairhall House exhibition.

Costumes from 'The Merry Widow' on display in Fairhall House

The text for my talk for the Johnston Collection as part of this award winning exhibition is at this link.

  • Press for August 2014

‘Odd mix misses the mark.’ Review of Boundless, Quantum Leap, The Canberra Times, 1 August 2014, ARTS p. 6. Online.
‘S for spectacularly physical.’ Review of S, Circa, The Canberra Times, 8 August 2014, ARTS p. 7. Online.
‘A swirl of colour.’ Review of Devdas the musical. The Canberra Times, 19 August 2014, ARTS p. 6. Online.

Michelle Potter, 31 August 2014

Featured image: Edna Busse and Martin Rubinstein in Laurel Martyn’s Sigrid, Borovansky Ballet, ca. 1945. Photographer not known. National Library of Australia.

Edna Busse and Martin Rubinstein in 'Sigrid'

Alexei Ratmansky’s ‘Cinderella’. A second look

7 December 2013 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Taking a second look at Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella was something of a swings and roundabouts experience. The gains were special, the losses of course a little disappointing.

Seeing Leanne Stojmenov as Cinderella and Daniel Gaudiello as the Prince after they had performed those roles over and over in Melbourne and again in the first few Sydney shows indicated how well they had grown into their parts. Their pas de deux in particular were seamless, expressive and beautifully executed with hardly a slip anywhere. Gaudiello once again showed what an exceptional artist he is as he fell head over heels for his Cinderella, and what a good technician he is as well.

Daniel Gaudiello in Cinderella. The Australian Ballet, 2013. Photo: Jeff Busby

Daniel Gaudiello as the Prince in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella. The Australian Ballet 2013. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Stojmenov’s dancing showed how much she had absorbed the choreography into her very being. The beautiful way in which she conveyed the subtlety and nuances of Ratmansky’s vocabulary was an absolute delight. In particular she had captured the beauty and fluidty of Ratmansky’s arm movements with their distinctive swing and sway through space, and I also especially enjoyed her solo in the last act where she recalled the time she had with her Prince at the ball in the previous act.

I was also interested to hear David McAllister, in his public program conversation with David Hallberg after the show, that Ratmansky used the word ‘say’ rather than ‘do’ when setting his choreography on the dancers—‘you go over there and say such and such’. His emphasis on expression rather than simply execution is a sure reason why all the cast, but Stojmenov in particular, carry the storyline of Cinderella so well.

Another gain was seeing Eloise Fryer—there was an unexpected cast change announced just before the curtain went up—as the Dumpy Stepsister. She has a terrific sense of comedy and carried off the awkward and often hilarious choreography with great style. It was a huge romp and Ingrid Gow as the Skinny Stepsister really had to work hard to keep up with her.

The biggest loss was having to fit the show onto the stage of the Opera Theatre. I try not to make too many comments in this vein as it does nothing in the end. But in the case of Cinderella it resulted in a real loss I thought. The theatrical trick of a proscenium arch within a proscenium arch that was so clear in Melbourne was scarcely apparent in Sydney and the crammed-up feeling of the domestic scenes was unfortunate. And, while memory plays tricks I know, it seemed to me that Gaudiello’s choreography had been cut in the scenes where he travels the world searching for the owner of the slipper. Maybe I just missed some of those grands jetes in a circle and the spectacular finish where he jumped into the arms of his cortege of male friends. I’d be more than happy to be corrected!

I also missed Lynette Wills as the Fairy Godmother. While Jasmin Durham did a perfectly good job in the role, Wills brought a wide experience to her performance giving the role a strength of characterisation and sense of mystery that was missing in Sydney. I had also been looking forward to seeing once more those characters from the solar system who transport Cinderella to the ball but, while being closer had its advantages, the costumes are quite remarkable, being closer also made the sequence look a little too jumbled—too many characters that were too hard to identify individually.

But more than anything I thought the magical transformations that made the Melbourne opening so spectacular were lessened in Sydney. I was further back in the auditorium in Melbourne so maybe that had an effect but I suspect it was something else.

Nevertheless, Cinderella remains in my mind a very classy, strongly European-looking, beautifully-lit production that I look forward to seeing again and again.

Michelle Potter, 8 December 2013

My original post, and a heathy variety of comments from others, is at this link. See also my comments on David Hallberg’s performance as the Prince published by DanceTabs.

 

Vicki Attard. A new role

It was a real pleasure catching up, if only by email, with Vicki Attard, former and much admired principal of the Australian Ballet during the 1990s. Vicki was in Canberra over the past weekend to give master classes at the Canberra Dance Development Centre.
vicki-attard-at-work1
Below is the text of a Canberra Times article I wrote, which was published on 9 November. It was accompanied by a great image, shot by Canberra-based photographer Ross Gould, of Vicki in what became a signature role, that of Cio Cio San in Stanton Welch’s Madame Butterfly, which can be accessed on the National Library’s website.

Vicki Attard was one of Australia’s favourite ballerinas during the 1990s. As a principal artist with the Australia Ballet throughout that decade she danced leading roles in all the best known classics as well as creating roles in contemporary works. She travelled widely with the company and counts amongst the highlights of her performing career dancing the leading role of Kitri in Don Quixote on the opening night of an Australian Ballet season in Washington DC and the title role in Manon in Tokyo, also on opening night.

Fans of the film maker Paul Cox may remember her in Cox’s film The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky. Attard was the girl returning from a ball who dances with the spirit of a rose in the short work entitled Le Spectre de la rose. Spectre was first performed in 1911 with Vaslav Nijinsky dancing the Rose. Attard, who was partnered by David McAllister in the film, cannot speak highly enough of Cox.’Paul Cox was so easy to work with’, she says. ‘He has an incredible respect for artists and he is a remarkable one himself.’

Attard also spent a year performing with Sydney Dance Company in 1989. Memorably she danced the role of Chloe in Graeme Muphy’s Daphnis and Chloe. She seemed especially suited to Murphy’s choreography and later, on rejoining the Australian Ballet, danced the leading role of Clara the Ballerina in Nutcracker, again partnered by McAllister, with whom she enjoyed an exceptional artistic partnership throughout her career.

But Attard may well be best known for her performances as Cio Cio San in Stanton Welch’s production of Madame Butterfly, a role she created with the Australian Ballet in 1995. The delicacy of her performance left a lasting impression on those who saw her in this role. Attard has since staged Butterfly around the world for Welch, including in Canada for the National Ballet of Canada, in Atlanta for Atlanta Ballet, in Boston for Boston Ballet and in even in Houston for Houston Ballet where Welch is currently artistic director. Most recently she assisted Welch in reviving the work for the Australian Ballet in 2010.

After she retired from performing Attard gained a graduate diploma in dance instruction and has been teaching in a freelance capacity since then. She now heads up a special program at Academy Ballet in Sydney for students aiming for a professional career.

‘It is s small group of just eight students’, she says. ‘It’s very personal and I love working in this way. The young dancers respond beautifully to this way of working.’

Attard will be in Canberra on November 13 to conduct master classes for the Canberra Dance Development Centre. It is the final session in the school’s master class series, a program master-minded by the school’s principal, Jackie Hallahan. Attard knows that it is not so easy for east coast students in centres outside Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to have access to the kinds of experiences available in larger centres.

‘I love the idea of sharing the knowledge that took me so many years to accumulate—the hard way’, she says. ‘I very much enjoy teaching in centres where students don’t have access to all that students in bigger cities might have. I grew up in a small town called Mackay in North Queensland, so I remember what it was like.’

Attard will bring her exceptional professional experience to Canberra for this workshop series. Not only does she have sound dance knowledge and her own incomparable artistry to share, she has recently launched a program called My Pointe. She realised that it was not always possible for dance teachers to spend as much time as was needed on the specialised teaching of pointe work for girls and so began to develop a series of tutorial exercises for this very purpose. After 10 years of fine tuning My Pointe was released on DVD with an introductory section by Attard and demonstrations of the exercises by two students.

Attard has two young sons, George aged eight and Nick almost six, who keep her busy.

‘I used to think that a dance life was hard,’ she says, ‘but motherhood, plus working almost full time, rivals it.’ But despite the claims of motherhood, Attard has carved a new niche for herself in the Australian dance world and she is more than delighted to be sharing her knowledge with the Canberra community.

Michelle Potter, 14 November 2011