Eliza Sanders from the 'Enigma' series. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Dance diary. November 2017

  • ACT Arts Awards 2017

The ACT Arts Awards for 2017, an initiative of the Canberra Critics’ Circle, were announced in Canberra on 27 November. The major award, ACT Artist of the Year, sponsored by the weekly newspaper City News, went to dancer, choreographer and director, Liz Lea. This award is the subject of a separate post at this link.

In the wider category, where awards go to ACT-based artists across the various performing arts genres, the visual arts and literature, two dance awards were given.

  • Photographer Lorna Sim was awarded ‘For her outstanding contribution to dance in the ACT through her photography of dance, and her 2017 exhibition of dance photographs Enigma.’ One of her remarkable images from Enigma is the featured image on this post.
  • Katie Senior and Liz Lea shared an award ‘For their moving and elegiac dance work That extra ‘some created in celebration of a remarkable friendship.’ For a review of this work follow this link.

Katie Senior at the ACT Arts Awards 2017

Katie Senior (foreground) at the ACT Arts Awards, 2017

  • David Vaughan (1924–2017)

I was saddened to hear of the death in October in New York of British-born dance archivist, historian and critic David Vaughan. I first met Vaughan in  the early 1990s when I was doing research for my doctoral thesis, which concerned Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns and their collaborations with Merce Cunningham and John Cage. Vaughan was the generous archivist of the Cunningham Foundation. I met up with him several times after that and was proud to be a co-curator with him and Barbara Cohen-Stratyner of the exhibition INVENTION. Merce Cunningham and Collaborators at the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, New York, in 2007.

David Vaughan’s writing has been widely published in a variety of formats, but the two works that stand out in my mind are his spendid work on the ballets of Frederick Ashton, originally published in 1977 and revised in 1999— Frederick Ashton and his ballets. Revised edition (London: Dance Books, 1999)—and his equally impressive Merce Cunningham. Fifty years (New York: Aperture, 1997), and its accompanying app.

Press conference, Libary for the Performing Arts, New York, 2007. Foreground Merce Cunningham, background (l-r) curators Barbara Cohen-Stratyner, David Vaughan, Michelle Potter

Press conference, Library for the Performing Arts, New York, 2007. Foreground Merce Cunningham, background (l-r) curators Barbara Cohen-Stratyner, David Vaughan, Michelle Potter

  • Degas from Scotland in London

Just recently I saw a small, but quite beautiful show called Drawn in colour. Degas from the Burrell at the National Gallery in London. The works by Degas came mostly from the Burrell Collection, Glasgow, although some items, designed to expand the exhibition, came from elsewhere. The items from the Burrell Collection have rarely travelled before, and most were new to me. I especially liked the one I have chosen as illustration, The green ballet skirt, for the gorgeous way Degas has painted the skirt being so carefully treated by the dancer before (I am assuming) she goes on stage.

The Degas paintings, drawings and sculptures on display in this show are part of an extensive collection of art works given to the city of Glasgow by a wealthy Glaswegian shipping merchant, Sir William Burrell. The exhibition runs from 20 September 2017 to 7 May 2018. More at this link.

Edgar Hilaire Germain Degas, The Green Dress, about 1896-1901

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, The Green Ballet Skirt (ca. 1896). Pastel on tracing paper, 45 x 37 cm. The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.242) © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

  • Press for November 2017

‘Moving towards inclusion.’ Preview of the dance component of the Detonate program at Belconnen Arts Centre. Panorama (The Canberra Times), 25 November 2017, pp. 10–11. Online version

Michelle Potter, 30 November 2017

  • Late addition (2 December 2017)

I have just received a link to the latest edition of the remarkable Dance Books catalogue and, rather than wait until my January dance diary, I am including it here as a late addition—a source of Christmas gifts? Follow this link

Featured image: Eliza Sanders from the Enigma series. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Eliza Sanders from the 'Enigma' series. Photo: © Lorna Sim

‘Crises’ (1960). Merce Cunningham

20 June 2015, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Merce Cunningham made Crises in 1960 and it premiered on 19 August of that year at the American Dance Festival at Connecticut College. Made for four women and one man, it was, in Cunningham’s own words, ‘an adventure in togetherness’. He said: ‘I decided to allow for the dancers … contacting each other, not only through holding or being held, but also by outside means. I used elastic bands around a wrist, an arm, a waist or a leg. By one dancer inserting a hand under the band on another they were attached but also at the same instant free.’ It has always seemed to me, however, that Cunningham’s explanations are interesting, as indeed is this one about Crises, but that watching his dances is an entirely different experience. What the dance is ‘about’ is secondary to the nature of the vocabulary and the structure of the choreography.

Crises, which is performed to music by Conlon Nancarrow, was reprised for just three performances at the new Whitney Museum of American Art in New  York as part of Anywhere in time: a Conlon Nancarrow festival. It was reconstructed and staged by former Cunningham dancer Jennifer Goggans and performed in the Whitney’s Susan and John Hess Theater, a beautiful performance space where white translucent blinds create a hazy backcloth of the Hudson River.

Rebecca Hadley and Benny Olk in Merce Cunningham's 'Crises' (1960)

Rebecca Hadley and Benny Olk in Merce Cunningham’s Crises (1960), New York, 2015

All five dancers, freelance professional performers working with the Merce Cunningham Trust Fellowship program, were beautifully in command of those features that make Cunningham’s choreography such an articulate and visually beautiful vocabulary. All five dancers filled the space around them as they moved and every movement was cleanly executed and beautifully in balance, whether via a centred or an off-centred movement. And there was a lovely flow to each movement as it moved smoothly onto the next. Then, every dancer was able to isolate different parts of the body to achieve particular effects. Tessa Montoya, for example, had moments when the upper part of her body shook wildly as her arms rippled up and down. At the same time the lower part of her body was held firmly and perfectly centered.

I especially enjoyed Erin Dowd’s dancing, right from the start when she entered from downstage and about halfway up the diagonal executed a stunning and unexpected grand jeté. Perhaps the highlight of her performance for me though was a duet with Benny Olk. He walked her down the diagonal supporting her from the waist. She faced upstage for the entire time and lent back from the waist as she stepped backwards, her long hair almost sweeping the floor. Her supporting leg was bent at the knee with the supporting foot on demi-pointe, while the working leg executed a high developpé to the front. Amazing control!

Another highlight was a sequence performed by Vanessa Knouse and others that again involved enormous control and core strength. It consisted of a slow rise, a bend of the knees while still on demi-pointe, a lift of one arm overhead and a bend back (with the dancer still on demi-pointe, knees bent) until the lifted arm reached the floor behind the dancer. The move, performed completely unsupported, was repeated many times. It was hypnotic viewing.

The discussion afterwards mostly concerned Nancarrow’s music, given that the performance was part of a festival devoted to him. We were given a brief history of how the music came to be recorded for use in this restaging of Crises, and heard some of Nancarrow’s music on a player piano. It seems that the Cunningham company used Nancarrow’s music before it had ever been recorded commercially and so gave a boost to his career. But some interesting comments were made and queries raised about whether, with Crises, the dance and the music reflected each other. Cunningham himself said: ‘The music … by Conlon Nancarrow was added after the dance was choreographed.’

Robert Rauschenberg designed the work, dressing the dancers in leotards and tights in various shades of red (including yellow as ‘an exaggerated extreme of red’). For this restaging, unitards were used and colours kept as close as possible to those of the originals.

It was an absolute delight to see this early Cunningham work with its inventive and surprising choreography. What luck to have been in the Whitney at just the right time!

Michelle Potter, 22 June 2015

NOTE: All quotes above are from David Vaughan, Merce Cunningham 65 Years, an iPad app from the Merce Cunningham Trust.

The Merce app

David Vaughan’s Merce Cunningham. Fifty Years was published in New York by Aperture in 1997. It was described on the title page as a ‘chronicle and commentary’, which it is, containing as it does a chronological account of Cunningham’s career from its beginnings until 1994. In 2012, Aperture and the Cunningham Dance Foundation released an updated version of the book for iPad. The app contains the material in the original book and continues Vaughan’s chronicle and commentary in the same kind of format. It takes the reader from 1994 until Cunningham’s death in 2009 and on a little further until the end of the Legacy Tour in 2011.

Screenshot from 'Merce Cunningham: 65 years'Screenshot from Merce Cunningham: 65 years (Aperture and Cunningham Dance Foundation, 2012). Designer Didier Garcia, Developer Larson Associates

But of course as an app Merce Cunningham: 65 years is able to offer a range of enticing audio-visual items. They include extracts from a number of Cunningham dances, including some black and white archival material and some extracts from documentaries; excerpts from a series of filmed interviews with Cunningham conducted by David Vaughan; excerpts from a filmed series called Mondays with Merce, in which Cunningham recalls anecdotes and events from the past; and something I really enjoyed, Cunningham reading his seminal essay of 1952, Space, time and dance.

Sadly, but for good reasons no doubt, the moving image excerpts are all too brief. One of the most interesting items, however, is an excerpt, only recently discovered, from Martha Graham’s 1940 work Every soul is a circus featuring Cunningham, Graham and Eric Hawkins. Cunningham, then not much more than twenty, enters and dances a short solo. He jumps and prances, changes direction suddenly, sinks to the floor. He is as light as a feather and moves like quicksilver. It’s a remarkable view of Cunningham the young dancer.

The photographs in this app are breathtaking. I was especially moved by some of the more recent ones, with which I am not so familiar. What they do

'Nearly Ninety', 2009. Photo © Stephanie BergerNearly Ninety, 2009. Brooklyn Academy of Music Opera House, 16 April 2009. From Merce Cunningham: 65 years (Aperture and Cunningham Dance Foundation, 2012). Photo © Stephanie Berger

is show fabulously trained, articulate bodies. Reading Cunningham’s essays reproduced in this app, listening to him in interviews and reading his thoughts throughout, all his beliefs about dancing are there to see on the bodies of his dancers. Similarly, looking at the short extracts of film footage, the same understanding of how the body positions itself and moves in time and space is absolutely apparent. Look, for example, at Cédric Andrieux in an extract from Suite for five or Holley Farmer in Loose time.

There are also some fabulous photographs from the Beacon Events series, taken during residencies at Dia: Beacon, a gallery space in Beacon a small city not far from Manhattan where Cunningham choreographed a series of site-specific events responding to the art on display.

'Beacon Events', 2007−2009. Photo © Stephanie BergerBeacon Events, 2007-2009. Dia Art Foundation, Beacon, NY. From Merce Cunningham: 65 years (Aperture and Cunningham Dance Foundation, 2012). Photo © Stephanie Berger

In addition, this app has a wonderful bibliography (expanded from the original book); a list of works; an extensive gallery of images; a small gallery of Cunningham’s drawings; another small gallery of pages from his journals; and several of Cunningham’s essays of which the 1994 How to cook a macrobiotic meal in a hotel room is an absolute delight. The app is also a remarkable record of how Cunningham never stopped investigating the new, and never stopped collaborating with others who also worked to discover new ways of making art, right up until the end.

I had some minor issues when I first starting using this app with navigation, which sometimes is a right to left swipe and sometimes an upwards movement. But that was soon over and the navigation is quite logical given that the app is quite large. The audio-visual material is embedded in the app so once downloaded no active internet connection is required. Merce Cunningham: 65 years is a remarkable initiative. It is available through the iTunes store, is available for iPad only and is worth every cent of the $15 or so that it costs.

All images reproduced with permission and courtesy of Aperture.

Michelle Potter, 13 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

 

 

 

 
 

 

Alexei Ratmansky. ‘The real thing’

12–13 November 2011, City Center, New York

When I wrote unaffectionately about Alexei Ratmansky’s 2009 work for the Australian Ballet, a new version of the 1933 Massine ballet Scuola di ballo, I received some feedback from friend and colleague David Vaughan. David wrote that he wished I could see work made by Ratmansky for New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. ‘I am sure you would realize’, he wrote ‘that he is the real thing’.

It has been interesting, too, over the two years since I wrote that review to hear comments from dancers and others who worked with Ratmansky on that Australian production. They all found it a huge pleasure and had nothing but praise for Ratmansky. But nothing changes my opinion of his Scuola di ballo, and I had nothing to go on other than what I saw on stage, which is as it should be for any reviewer.

However, I now believe that David was right, at least in the wider scheme of things. I recently had the good fortune to see two performances of Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas during American Ballet Theatre’s recent Fall season at City Center, New York.

Seven Sonatas, also first made in 2009, is danced to keyboard sonatas by Domencio Scarlatti. The work is for three couples who engage with each other in a variety of combinations. They dance with and for each other. At the heart of the work, and centrally in the structure, are three pas de deux. The first and the longest had a note of anguish to it. Maria Riccetto and Blaine Hoven, in the first cast I saw, danced an intense and emotive pas de deux. Was this couple breaking apart? The woman seemed to be wanting to end the relationship as she extended her body away from the man. But it was never clear cut and Ratmansky’s gift to us was to leave us wondering.

The second pas de deux was also the shortest. It was full of unabashed pleasure, in life, dancing and partnership. Of the two casts I saw Xiomara Reyes and Herman Cornejo best managed the spectacular choreography with its sudden changes of direction and its difficult turns. The third was a teasing game in which Julie Kent and Alexandre Hammoudi excelled. I loved Kent’s expressions, both facial and bodily, as she played with Hammoudi’s emotions, leading him on all the time. At one stage he was left alone briefly to dance a solo hoping Kent was watching from the wings. And she no doubt was as she re-entered the game to bring it to a satisfying conclusion with a leap into his arms.

Before and after these pas de deux we were treated to such lyrical movement in which the arms and upper body played a major role. Sometimes the arms and hands seemed very natural—clasped in front or behind the body, although clearly choreographed to be that way. Other times, rather than the palms facing each other in classical mode, the arms were held with the palms facing outwards and the arms opened as if pushing the air away. Sometimes the arm and hand movements were just totally surprising. At one stage Julie Kent executed a set of turns with arms in fifth position. But a closer look revealed that her fists were clenched and her wrists crossed. But diversity and surprise were features across every aspect of the work, especially in the way steps were combined and conceived as part of the work’s structure.

This work also presented every one of the six dancers as individuals. Individuality extended beyond the choreography even to the women’s hairstyles—beautifully braided in some cases but always drawn well off the face showing the elegance of the neck. And mention should be made of Holly Hynes’ costumes. The women wore soft white dresses, reaching well below the knee and with bodices decorated with pinkish brown trimmings, each slightly different. The men were costumed in white tights and short white jackets, again each slightly different in cut and trimming.

Seven Sonatas is a ballet for all. If you want to see a delicious work, which is also somehow very calming, then this is it. You don’t have to work hard to be given a special experience. But if you want more then it’s all there too. It could be watched multiple times and would always keep giving. But perhaps best of all, Ratmansky has made a work that speaks of, and asks questions about life and love through movement. I can think of nothing better or more admirable.

Michelle Potter, 15 November 2011

And to the Australian Ballet: give us the real thing please!

‘Rose Adagio.’ West Australian Ballet 1971

As part of my current research project into the career of Kristian Fredrikson, I came across four designs in the National Library’s Fredrikson collection labelled Sleeping Beauty Act I.  They were for four Princes: English, Indian, Russian and Saracen and so were clearly for the ‘Rose Adagio’. But I was a little puzzled by them as they were not for the Stanton Welch version of Beauty, which Welch choreographed for the Australian Ballet in 2005 and which was designed by Fredrikson. I was not aware of another Sleeping Beauty with Fredrikson designs.

The English Prince had the name DeMasson written on the back and Paul De Masson kindly identified the costume as one he wore while a dancer with West Australian Ballet. He recalled that in the 1970s he had partnered Elaine Fifield in the ‘Rose Adagio’ during a season that contained a number of divertissements.

After a bit more investigation I uncovered a flyer and some programs in the National Library’s Rex Reid collection. Reid directed West Australian Ballet from late 1969 to 1973 and in November 1971 presented a season of two programs, which included a number of divertissements, at the Octagon Theatre, Perth. It was the first program, staged from 8-13 November, that included the ‘Rose Adagio’. The printed program contained the following details:

    • Rose Adagio,

Producer: Bryan Ashbridge
Music: Tchaikovsky
Costumes: Kristian Fredrikson
Choreography: Frederick Ashton
‘A new production by Bryan Ashbridge’

Princess Aurora: Elaine Fifield, Patricia Sadka
Indian Prince: Robert O’Kell
Saracen Prince: Laurence Bishop
Russian Prince: Ron Deschamps
English Prince: Paul DeMasson

I was also curious about the choreographic credit to Ashton, but the Ashton scholar David Vaughan has noted that Ashton created a ‘Rose Adagio’ in 1963 especially for a Royal Performance at the Prince of Wales Theatre. Bryan Ashbridge, who produced the 1971 West Australian Ballet version, retired from the Royal Ballet in 1965 so could well have been part of that Royal Performance or subsequent stagings of this Rose Adagio.

Rex Reid’s second 1971 Octagon program, presented from 15-20 November, included ‘The Dying Swan’ as one of the divertissements. A design for ‘The Dying Swan’, which was danced by Fifield, is also part of the National Library’s Fredrikson collection.

More items to add to the growing ‘List of works designed by Kristian Fredrikson’.

Michelle Potter, 26 October 2011

Update, 31 January 2017. The Fredrikson material also contains a design, from the same production, for Aurora.

Interview with Alastair Macaulay by Alan Helms

For those who may not have read the interview by Alan Helms with dance critic Alastair Macaulay, published recently in the summer issue of the ballet.co magazine, I recommend it. It is quite long but a totally fascinating read.

One of the highlights of my tenure as curator of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division in New York was the launch of the restored film of George Balanchine’s Don Quixote featuring that amazing ballerina Suzanne Farrell as Dulcinea and Balanchine himself as the Don. Macaulay was invited to speak at the launch. I was familiar with Macaulay’s writing but not with his public speaking style. However, shortly before the launch I heard him honour dance scholar David Vaughan at a forum presented by the Dance Critics’ Association. As one might expect, Macaulay gave an incredibly knowledgeable account of Vaughan’s vast contribution to dance. But it was not simply knowledgeable, it was brilliantly entertaining as well. So he seemed the ideal choice for the Don Q launch. Luckily he accepted.

What he gave us at the launch was an overview of Farrell’s career complete with demonstrations of her technical prowess! It too was brilliantly entertaining and my clearest memory is of Macaulay constantly moving away from the lectern so we could see him quite clearly as he demonstrated this or that step. Of course the words were there too and the combination of his erudition and his willingness to engage with the physicality of dance — despite not being a dancer by training himself — was dazzling. So I was more than interested to read his thoughts in the Alan Helms interview on why he likes to demonstrate in this way, and to notice the emphasis he places throughout the interview on the concept of physicality.

Another aspect of the interview that I personally found inspiring was Macaulay’s brief discussion of finding that what he was writing as a young critic was controversial, and of being on one occasion struck of a press list. Having myself been ‘counselled’ against writing on a certain subject for this (my own) website, and having once been the source of a defamation case as a result of a review I wrote for a newspaper (the claim was unsuccessful), it is always helpful to be reminded, even as an ‘old’ critic as I am, that one needs to be resolute in one’s beliefs.

There are so many other moments in this interview that sparkle with Macaulay’s particular brand of perceptive thought. Definitely worth a read and a bouquet to Bruce Marriott of  ballet.co for publishing it. Here is a link to the article

[Update 30 November 2017: Sadly, the link to Alan Helms’ interview is no longer available]

Michelle Potter, 6 September 2010

Merce Cunningham (1919-2009)

Merce Cunningham’s death on 26 July 2009 in Manhattan brings to a close an astonishing life in dance. Cunningham once said ‘I didn’t become a dancer, I have always been dancing’. His remarkable career is a testament to a man who has not only always been dancing, but who has always been pushing the boundaries of dancing, including the boundaries of how it is perceived, fashioned and presented.

In 2007 I was in the exceptionally fortunate position of being co-curator of an exhibition, ‘INVENTION: Merce Cunningham and collaborators’, for the New York Public Library for the  Performing Arts. I was able to work with David Vaughan, revered archivist of the Cunningham company, to liaise with others in the company over selection of items, media activities and the creation of a new work to be performed as part of the exhibition. I also participated with Cunningham, Vaughan and the third curator, Barbara Cohen-Stratyner, in the media call, presenting to the audience on the key concepts behind the exhibition.

The following images are from INVENTION. They indicate in just a small way the extent of Cunningham’s engagement with artists from across a wide creative spectrum as he went about his daily activity of dancing.

Michelle Potter, 29 July 2009

Photos: Neville Potter, 2007