Dance diary: April 2012

  • Heath Ledger Project

In April I conducted two more interviews for the National Film and Sound Archive’s Heath Ledger Young Artists Oral History Project. This time, with cameraman John Parker, I recorded interviews with two emerging circus artists currently in their final year of training at the National Institute of Circus Arts (NICA) in Melbourne.

Josie Wardrope is specialising in hand stands and swinging trapeze—she loves the feeling of flying—and in the group activity of risley. The term ‘risley’ sent me to a dictionary as I was researching for the interview and I discovered it is ‘a circus act in which an acrobat lying on his back juggles barrels or fellow acrobats with his feet’. It is named after a 19th century circus performer, Richard Risley Carlisle. Post-interview, watching Josie in a one-on-one trapeze session with her coach, her words about loving the feeling of flying were made visible. Exhilarating!
Josie Wardrope in CODA. Photo David Wyatt

Josie Wardrope on swinging trapeze in a performance of CODA, 2011. Photo David Wyatt. Courtesy NICA

Simon Reynolds gave up his childhood dream of an Olympic gold medal in gymnastics after seeing a performance by Cirque du Soleil. Now he aspires to a contract with this company at the end of his training. At NICA he specialises in contortion hand stands, tumbling tight wire and the group act, teeterboard. I have to say he is somewhat outstanding on trampoline as well. Watching him execute a series of mid-air twists and turns as he moved the length of a very long trampoline in a NICA rehearsal space was breathtaking.Simon Reynolds in CODA. Photo David Wyatt

Simon Reynolds executes a hand stand in a performance of CODA, 2011. Photo David Wyatt. Courtesy NICA

A typical day for these two young people is long and arduous but neither can think of anything they’d rather be doing. Both are full of praise for those who coach them, who bring to NICA the skills that they have honed in circus companies from around the world, including China, Russia and Argentina. Both are utterly determined to make a career in circus. Both are also in rehearsal for their 2012 mid-year show Lucy and the lost boy and agree that it is the performance side of their training that spurs them on to perfect their technical skills.

  • Jacob’s Pillow

My reflections on a visit to Jacob’s Pillow in 2007 elicited a response from Norton Owen, director of preservation at the Pillow. He mentioned, amongst other things, a DVD called Never stand still. It chronicles life at the Pillow and includes material relating to Gideon Obarzanek. The words of the title, ‘Never stand still’, are in fact those of Obarzanek, which he used in an interview for the DVD and which were then taken up and used as the title. Here is a promotional clip for the DVD.

  • Gailene Stock

In April I had the huge pleasure of recording an interview with Gailene Stock, currently director of the Royal Ballet School, London. I was inspired to suggest that an interview with Stock be made for the National Library of Australia’s Oral History and Folklore Collection after visiting her in London last year to talk to her about her recollections of working with designer Kristian Fredrikson. There was such a positive work ethic at the Royal Ballet School that I felt there had to be the hand of a strong and committed person behind it all. And there is—a director who cares deeply about what she is doing. And of course Stock had an impressive career in Australia as a performer, teacher and director before taking up her current position in London. Here is the link to the National Library’s catalogue record, although a summary of the interview is not yet available.

Gailene Stock

Gailene Stock. Courtesy the Royal Ballet School

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Jacob’s Pillow

In 2007, during time spent working in the United States, I had the pleasure of being invited to the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival to sit on a panel with Gideon Obarzanek, whose company Chunky Move was showing his very popular I want to dance better at parties at the Pillow that year. You can just see us (left to right: the presenter, Obarzanek and myself)) in the background over the heads of the audience, a good sized one and one that was definitely interested in the state of dance on the other side of the world.
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The session was part of the Pillow’s ‘Pillow Talk’ series held regularly during the Festival on the deck space of the beautiful red barn known as Blake’s Barn. The 18th century barn, seen in the image below, was a gift to the Pillow from the American dancer and choreographer Marge Champion and named in memory of her son Blake. It was moved from its former location in Stockbridge, Massachusetts in the 1990s. jacobs-pillow-2007-blakes-barn-website
Blake’s Barn is just one of the lovely buildings on the Pillow site in the stunning countryside of the Berkshire Hills in Massachusetts. The Doris Duke Studio Theatre and part of the outdoor area are pictured below.
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jacobs-pillow-2007-2-website
I have been reminded of the occasion of the Pillow Talk, and of the Pillow itself, several times recently while watching (from afar) the program for 2012 take shape. This year Australia is represented by the Brisbane-based circus arts ensemble, Circa, and by Stanton Welch. A brand new work from Welch will be presented by the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago.

The Pillow has extensive dance archives, also housed in Blake’s Barn, and the section of its website called ‘Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive’ is a model for making archival film clips accessible to all. Many hours can be spent watching these little snippets of dance. Here are links to two, vastly different in style and indicative of the broad approach of the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival: the irrepressible Twyla Tharp in a community-style undertaking in 2001; and Cynthia Gregory, with her beautifully expressive port de bras—such a sweep through space—in a re-creation in 1982 of a work by Ruth St Denis. The still images at the end of each clip are often outstanding shots too.

Michelle Potter, 20 April 2012

Do you know ‘Swan Lake’?

Last week I interviewed designer Hugh Colman for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program. Colman is currently working on designs for the Australian Ballet’s new production of Swan Lake, due to open in Melbourne in September and, while Swan Lake did enter into the conversation, Colman was appropriately discreet on the recording about those aspects of the production, including his designs, which are not yet public property. But the discussion that did develop set my mind racing.

In 2004 I was invited to write a program note for the second season of Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. The brief was that it was not to be so much about the Murphy production but about the popular appeal of the ballet. I loved writing this piece. I called it ‘Do you know Swan Lake?’ after the question, with its suggestion of what to do if the answer was yes, that was occasionally bandied around in schoolyards several decades ago, and that my father also loved to use to tease his daughter.

If I were writing the program piece now I would probably use other examples of how Swan Lake has permeated the popular imagination. There is a recent episode of that English detective series for television Midsomer Murders, for example, which is loosely based on Swan Lake. It features a (fictitious) former Russian ballerina preparing ballet students for a concert in a local church hall. And what are the students rehearsing? Why ‘Dance of the Little Swans’ of course. And the story reaches its high point when the former ballerina is rescued in the nick of time from following in the footsteps of Odette and being drowned in Swansdown Lake by the ‘perp’, as culprits are called in these kinds of shows. Not exactly great drama, but nevertheless it works on the assumption that the general audience for television knows Swan Lake. Then of course there’s The Black Swan, the movie, not great drama either in my opinion, but it has spawned a large amount of web comment from so many, from dancers to psychiatrists and of course the general public.

The question of popular appeal has been brought to the fore once again, in Melbourne only at this stage, with Gideon Obarzanek’s latest work There’s definitely a prince involved reviewed elsewhere (with comments) on this site. Not everyone enjoyed the deconstructivist approach that Obarzanek took, but there’s no denying that There’s definitely a prince involved deals with that mysterious attraction that Swan Lake has over the public.

What is it about this ballet that continues to fascinate? And I continue to search in my mind for the production that most clearly captures the essence of the work for me. Perhaps that is yet to come, and perhaps that is what continues to fascinate.

Miranda Coney in 'Swan Lake'

Miranda Coney in Swan Lake, the Australian Ballet, 1991. Photo: Don McMurdo. Courtesy National Library of Australia

Michelle Potter, 10 March 2012

Here is the link to my 2004 program article. I have not been able to find contact details for the photographer, Michael Cook, whose photograph appears with the article. I would be pleased to hear from anyone with information that might assist.

‘Infinity’. The Australian Ballet

This is an expanded version of a review written for The Canberra Times.

24 February 2012, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

Infinity, the Australian Ballet’s first program in its 50th anniversary year, is a diverse and sometimes challenging evening of dance. But most of all it is thrilling experience to see the Australian Ballet putting itself out on a limb with three brand new works from three Australian choreographers: Graeme Murphy, Gideon Obarzanek and Stephen Page. All three works are danced to new scores by Australian composers and all three have new Australian designs. Definitely something to celebrate.

The show opens with the new work from Murphy, The narrative of nothing.  To tell the truth, while there is a perfectly good explanation from Murphy for why this title was chosen—there’s no obvious narrative but the work may still be telling the audience something, I’d much rather dispense with titles that sound smart (with all due respects to Murphy). Untitled works just as well for me!

Murphy’s choreography often had a primeval feel as bodies twisted and curled around others. There were powerful performances from Lana Jones and Adam Bull, and I especially admired the sequence where Jones was partnered by several men who alternated between holding her aloft and letting her fall from side to side. Vintage Murphy really but Jones’ ability to hold her body in a perfect curve as she fell was breathtaking.

Lana Jones and Amy Harris The narrative of nothing PhotoJeff Busby

Lana Jones (right) and Amy Harris, The narrative of nothing, 2012. Photo Jeff Busby. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

The supporting dancers deserve praise for their technical strength as they attacked the demanding choreography. Murphy has moved a step beyond his usual (always interesting) vocabulary and made a work that, in somewhat of a contradiction, asks the dancers to move with a kind of aggressive lyricism.

I didn’t read the program notes prior to watching this work so wasn’t aware in advance that the commissioned score, Fire Music by Brett Dean, was in response to the Victorian ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires of 2009. With the knowledge of what was behind Dean’s score, fire in some respects becomes the non-narrative. But the works stands without this knowledge and in fact I was pleased that I didn’t know in advance. The score sounded quite elemental—the thunder sheets certainly helped there—and, with some instruments positioned outside the pit, the sound was enveloping.

Jennifer Irwin’s body hugging costumes were decorated individually with black patterns, often swirling organically, and with what looked like silver studs or tiny mirrors. Depending on the lighting (by Damien Cooper) they changed from looking a little punk, to glowing in the dark, to looking slinky, and much more. Cooper’s design was uncompromising—a solo by Adam Bull performed pretty much on the spot in a strong downlight was another highlight. The design also included an onstage use of lighting rigs not normally on view to the audience, another technique that has often featured in works by Murphy. With the inclusion of a minimalist black space as a setting The narrative of nothing became an example of the very best of contemporary collaborative enterprises. It also looks back to some of Murphy’s strongest abstract works made for Sydney Dance Company—Piano sonata comes straight to mind.

Obarzanek’s piece also had a strange, or at least not very catchy title, There’s definitely a prince involved.  It referred to his process of generating ideas and vocabulary for the work by asking a range of people about what they thought constitutes a ballet, and his subsequent deconstruction of the ballet Swan Lake. The work can be read on a number of levels. On the most simplistic it tells the story of Swan Lake, using the dancers as narrators, and focuses on the illogicality of the story. It relies on the dancers’ deadpan delivery of the text to raise laughter from the audience, and the various dancers who take on the role of narrator throughout the piece are more than adept. Unfortunately, even though they used a microphone, their voices were often inaudible above the crashing sounds of the orchestra playing Stefan Gregory’s fragmentation of Tchaikovsky’s familiar Swan Lake music.

On another level the work rips apart the traditional choreography of Swan Lake, and amusingly so, especially in the section based on the dance of the four little swans. It helps but is not essential if the audience is familiar with the traditional steps.

On yet another level the work can be seen as a comment on art asking the question of whether Swan Lake is indeed a work of art. Obarzanek has an acutely inquiring mind and his ability to force us to reconsider what we as a ballet audience might take for granted is powerful and actually quite respectful.

There’s definitely a prince involved uses dancers of the Australian Ballet augmented by dancers from Obarzanek’s company, Chunky Move. Australian Ballet principal Madeleine Eastoe showed her versatility as a performer and slotted beautifully into the varying demands associated with the role of a deconstructed Odette, the female lead. The few moments of classical movement—a fabulous grand jeté across the stage, and her ‘dying swan’ poses—did however make me yearn to see her dance a ‘real’ Swan Lake. Deconstruction is fine, entertaining and thought provoking, but the classic version transcends it all and it is that strength really that allows Obarzanek’s deconstruction to work so well.

Madeleine Eastoe as Odette and Artists of the Australian Ballet, There's definitely a prince involved, 2012 Photo Jeff Busby Courtesy the Australian Ballet

Madeleine Eastoe as Odette with artists of the Australian Ballet and Chunky Move, There’s definitely a prince involved, 2012. Photo Jeff Busby. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

The program closes with Page’s Warumuk—in the dark light with Bangarra Dance Theatre joining forces with the Australian Ballet. With its new score from David Page it presents an exploration of the myths associated with the night sky.

The Bangarra dancers performed with their usual, beautifully rehearsed ensemble work with particularly striking performances from Elma Kris and Waangenga Blanco representing Full Moon. Vivienne Wong, stunningly dressed by Jennifer Irwin in a lacy black outfit cut with a long ‘tail’ at the back, stood out as the Evening Star. For me Wong was the sole Australian Ballet dancer who was able to transcend her balletic training and blend into the Bangarra way of moving. This was a real feat as Bangarra has now consolidated its own very distinctive style and company dancers are performing with added assurance and expertise.

The one disappointment for me was Jacob Nash’s set design. To me it looked a little too much like a previous Bangarra commission, his set designs for ‘About’, part of the Belong program of 2011.

This program is the Australian Ballet in an extreme mood. I have nothing but praise for the courage of the company in taking on, and succeeding in a program that far surpasses anything they have done in recent years. It makes the company look at last as though it is a company with a desire to move ballet into the future.

Michelle Potter, 27 February 2012

Postscript: The Canberra Times review appeared on 17 March.