An Australasian affair …

There was one empty seat in the front row at the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s inaugural Harry Haythorne choreographic awards last weekend…odd since a good view in a studio setting is always at a premium and the house was otherwise full to overflowing. Perhaps Harry was playing ‘the angel at the table’—occupying that seat to keep a keen eye on proceedings, pleased to see that his encouragement of emerging choreographers is being remembered, and that today’s young dancers who never met him can nevertheless tell what kind of initiative he brought to his term as artistic director here, 1981–1992. Let’s cheat Death awhile.

Harry Haythorne

A small group of Harry’s colleagues and friends had met to plan these awards, the idea and koha for which grew from the spirited party held in his memory back in January, in tandem with the festive gathering in Melbourne. It’s interesting to ponder on the New Zealand and Australian inter-twinings in our company over decades. Harry for starters, himself Australian through and through, yet we think of him as a New Zealander emeritus. Australian Mark Keyworth as company manager, navigated with him.

Promising young choreographer Loughlan Prior won both the panel’s and the people’s award, with the striking imagery of his work, Eve, set to song and spoken poetry. Loughlan was born in Melbourne though did later training in New Zealand.

'Eve' by Louhglan Prior

William Fitzgerald and Laura Saxon Jones in Eve by Loughlan Prior, 2015. Photo: © Evan Li

On present membership, over one third of the RNZB dancers are from Australia, and/or trained there, so more threads are in the weave. Cast a thought back to the middle decades of the 20th century, when the Borovansky Ballet’s regular tours were so welcome here. It was their 1952 tour that brought dancer Poul Gnatt, who looked around, hunched that New Zealand might like a ballet company, returned to found one the following year—and the rest is history.

Peggy van Praagh was involved in staging several productions for New Zealand Ballet in early years here, not least Tudor’s Judgment of Paris. She and Russell Kerr arranged for dancer exchanges between Australian and New Zealand companies, and also masterminded two landmark fortnight-long residential courses of dance appreciation at University of Armidale in NSW. Both schemes should have continued ever since. I still treasure my notebooks from things we saw and heard there in 1967 and 1969—from van Praagh, Algeranoff, Beth Dean, Marilyn Jones, Garth Welch, Karl Welander, Keith Bain, Eric Westbrook—films of Martha Graham and of Jose Limon—good things that last, seeding an awareness of dance for a lifetime.

Many here have wished that we might have seen more of Graeme Murphy’s choreography in New Zealand over the years. There was his searingly memorable Orpheus, commissioned by Harry for the Stravinsky Celebration season in 1982. Sydney Dance Company brought the greatly admired Some Rooms to the first Arts Festival here, and Shining followed soon after that. Then Matz Skoog in 1997 brought Murphy’s quietly powerful The Protecting Veil, a work that suited our company particularly well…but we could have done and seen so much more of his remarkable oeuvre. Harry brought Jonathan Taylor’s impressive Hamlet, and ‘Tis Goodly Sport—suiting our company so well. Kristian Fredrikson, local boy made good, began his training here in Wellington, and continued to design and dress so many memorable productions on both sides of the Tasman, adding to the ties that bind. RNZB have also toured a number of seasons in Australia over the years.

But with the brand new ballet from Liam Scarlett, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, pioneering as a co-production with Queensland Ballet, there’s an inspired possibility of further exchanges within the choreographic repertoire, with rich benefits for those two companies and their audiences on both sides of the Tasman. Directors Li Cunxin in Queensland and Francesco Ventriglia in Wellington will no doubt be already thinking ahead. They could be onto a winner here. I’m just going to see one more performance of this scintillating faerie ballet shortly, and will then write about it. It’s quite on the cards that many who were so enchanted by the premiere season here will want to travel to Queensland next year to catch it on the rebound. Nothing wrong with falling in love again. I’m sure Harry would agree.

 Jennifer Shennan, 15 September 2015

Featured image: Harry Haythorne as Father Winter in Cinderella. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1991. Photographer not known

Dance diary. August 2015

  • New Breed: Sydney Dance Company

Early in August Sydney Dance Company announced the four recipients of commissions to create works for the company’s New Breed initiative. Kristina Chan, Fiona Jopp, Bernhard Knauer and Daniel Riley will present their dances at Carriageworks in a season running from 8 to 13 December. Commissions have also gone to independent designers Matt Marshall and Aleisa Jelbart, and musician/composers Nick Thayer, James Brown, Jürgen Knauer, Toby Merz and Alicia Merz, who will contribute to the creation of the works, which will be performed by artists from Sydney Dance Company.

The four New Breed 2015 choreographers . Photo: Peter Greig

The four ‘New Breed’ choreographers for 2015 (l-r: Fiona Jopp, Kristina Chan, Daniel Riley and Bernhard Knauer). Photo: Peter Greig

Performance details at this link.

  •  Don Quixote: the film

During my recent foray into the career of Lucette Aldous, as a result of Sue Healey’s short film on Aldous, I came across the photograph below.

Lucette Aldous and Robert Helpmann in rehearsal for the film, 'Don Quixote', the Australian Ballet 1972. Photo: Don Edwards

Lucette Aldous and Robert Helpmann in rehearsal for the film, Don Quixote, the Australian Ballet 1972. Photo: Don Edwards. Courtesy National Library of Australia

I had always understood that it was very hot in those Essendon hangars where the Don Quixote production was filmed. From this image it appears that perhaps it was quite cold at times!

  • Harry Haythorne choreographic awards

The Royal New Zealand Ballet and the Ballet Foundation of New Zealand have announced two new choreographic awards to honour Harry Haythorne, artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet from 1981 to 1992. There will be two studio showings of new works choreographed by company dancers who will be in the running for two awards, one to be decided by a panel headed by present artistic director Francesco Ventriglia, and the other a People’s Choice award funded by money raised at the memorial event for Haythorne held in January. Dates for the showings are 12 and 13 September in the Royal New Zealand ballet studios, Wellington.

  • Press for August

‘Moving tribute to those who served.’ Review of Reckless Valour, QL2 Dance, The Canberra Times, 1 August 2015, p. 16. Online version.

‘Dalman and Jones going into dance Hall of Fame.’ Feature on the 2015 Australian Dance awards, The Canberra Times, 27 August 2015, ‘Times 2’, p. 6. Online version.

Michelle Potter, 31 August 2015

Dance diary. February 2015

  • Kristian Fredrikson

Now that my book, Dame Maggie Scott: a life in dancehas been published, I have returned to my research into the life and art of Kristian Fredrikson. My article ‘Undercover designs’ will appear in the forthcoming issue (March 2015) of The National Library of Australia Magazine. The research behind this article reflects part of the work I did on the film Undercover (costume design by Kristian Fredrikson) while the recipient of a Scholars and Artists in Residence Fellowship at the National Film and Sound Archive in 2012. [Update: Here is the link to the article].

  • Blonde Ambition at the National Portrait Gallery
Blonde Ambition 1
Blonde Ambition 2

National institutions in Canberra often use dance in the public programs associated with their exhibitions. The National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery of Australia, in particular, have been active lately. Most recently, Blonde Ambition, the female trio who investigate through dance the ideal of the feminine, appeared at the National Portrait Gallery for two shows on 28 February in conjunction with the exhibition In the Flesh.

Blonde ambition 3Wearing their trademark, light-coloured, contemporary version of the corset, they showed us their choreographed poses, their attitude to physical activity, to eating, and a host of other areas in which women find themselves performing. They move well, this trio of women, and manage to inject a good dose of humour and smart social comment without it being overblown or too exaggerated. They performed to a collage of bird sounds, the clip clop of horses and a variety of songs interspersed with narrative. Bouquets.

  • Harry Haythorne

Recently, while expanding on my obituary for Harry Haythorne for another purpose, I came across an article Haythorne had written in 2001 for a special Australian edition of the journal Choreography and dance: an international journal (volume 6, parts 2 and 3). This issue, which I had forgotten about until now I’m afraid, was edited by Meg Denton and focused on influences and trends in Australian dance. Haythorne’s article ‘How I became a dancer—Aussie style—in the 1930s’, is an exceptional account of Haythorne’s early training and childhood performances in Adelaide, and gives a good idea of terms that are no longer current, ‘fancy dancing’ and the like. Highly recommended.

  • Press for February

‘Understanding the dance unlocks supreme equation.’ Review of Metasystems and Post phase: the summit is blue, The Canberra Times, 14 February 2015, ARTS, p. 20. Online version.

Michelle Potter, 28 February 2015

Featured image: Fabric samples for Kristian Fredrikson’s costumes for the film Undercover, from the article Undercover Designs.

All photos: Michelle Potter

Harry Haythorne. What a Star!

At the end of this month, members of the dance community will come together in both Melbourne and Wellington, to honour Harry Haythorne who died in November 2014. Today Philippe Charluet, film maker extraordinaire, sent me a link to some footage he had edited. It shows Harry rehearsing for and performing in Tivoli, and it includes that wonderful tap dancing routine. We are so lucky to have Philippe caring so much about our dance heritage.

Harry is, of course, quite amazing. Here is the link.

With thanks to Philippe Charluet.

Michelle Potter, 21 January 2015

See also my obituary for Harry and Jennifer Shennan’s tribute to him

Jon Trimmer as the wealthy Pantalone and Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi in 'A Servant of Two Masters'

Harry Haythorne. A tribute from Jennifer Shennan

In September 2013 Anne Rowse and I flew to Melbourne for the Arts Festival…mainly in pursuit of Fabulous Beast, with Keegan-Dolan’s astonishing double-bill of Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. We relished equally the chance to catch up with dear Harry, knowing he would say yes to the suggestion of a performance, an exhibition, a forum, with coffee dates, dinners and suppers tucked in everywhere. We knew he would have seen half the Festival already, and would offer us incisive and helpful opinions on what was what. Good times coming.

Tor and Jan Gnatt, bless them, met us at the airport. We were all so excited to connect so soon after the launch of Royal New Zealand Ballet at Sixty that the Gnatt boys forgot where in the airport they had parked their car. We had lots of conversation catch-up while they hunted every floor of the car park for the elusive vehicle. (Their father, Poul, would have remembered the rego plates of the vehicles he had parked next to, and been mortified by this scenario.)

We found an el cheapo hotel, and fell into welcoming Melbourne as though we had always lived there.

Harry had already seen Fabulous Beast, and had a number of reservations about it. He nonetheless joined us for the forum, and had the grace to acknowledge afterwards that the incisively brilliant mind and wit of Keegan-Dolan helped him to retrospectively re-evaluate the choreography.

Harry instructed us which exhibitions to visit, and suggested a local dance group’s performance, preceded by a meal with his friend Robin Haig (they had worked together in 1940s in London…a typical Harry trait…ever loyal to his many friends and colleagues). The meal was great fun but the performance, which entailed the slow lighting of many candles, then their being equally slowly extinguished, then equally slowly re-lit, we found suffocatingly pretentious. (In all his years in New Zealand Harry always attended everything, and was supportive in principle of all dance endeavour, but was occasionally heard to mutter upon leaving ‘Well, the best thing about it is that they’re doing it.’ After leaving this particular evening he muttered, ‘Well, the worst thing about it is that they’re doing it).’

But as we rode the tram back into Melbourne central, an extraordinary event took place. A young Aboriginal woman, striking in appearance, but in a state of very great distress, was remonstrating up and down the tram carriage with all the world about many things. Not drunk, but totally out of control, in a wrath of emotion and heartbreak, pain, confusion and grief that was moving, even terrifying, to witness. No one knew how to help. Harry quietly started speaking a commentary to us, tracing various chapters of Australia’s colonial history, engaging us to listen, and to thus avoid making eye contact with the woman pacing the tram, as any such eye contact can become a trigger to further volatility. There was such an informed sympathy, empathy even, in Harry’s words…no judgment, no reproof. His calm, informed, sad summarising of history, at the same time offering us a degree of protection from a potentially explosive situation, was much as I imagine Thomas Keneally might have behaved.

Bi-cultural issues and opportunities within dance were part of Harry’s long-term thinking. During his time at Royal New Zealand Ballet (‘the happiest years of my life’ he was often heard to say), he commissioned Tell Me A Tale from Gray Veredon, with design by Kristian Fredrikson, to music by New Zealand composer Matthew Fisher. In that talisman piece, with leading roles created by Jon Trimmer and Kerry-Anne Gilberd, was an encounter between Maori and Pakeha, a haka within the ballet given extraordinarily powerful expression by Warren Douglas. No more telling moment has occurred in the company’s entire repertoire history, and it is a great loss that the work has not been retained.

Warren was also spectacular as the hilarious Cook in the Veredon/Fredrikson Servant of Two Masters, with Jon Trimmer as Pantalone and Harry as Dr Lombardi, tottering about wearing a twelve foot long striped scarf that threatened to trip him and everybody else on stage all evening. A fine film of this ballet is held in the New Zealand Film Archive, and is well worth the three hours it lasts. (We subsequently lost Warren to AIDS and many hearts were broken).

Harry took his title of Artistic Director Emeritus very seriously. He wrote to Ethan Stiefel upon his appointment, wishing him well, highlighting the related arts in New Zealand as a context for choices of ballet repertoire, and encouraging an awareness of Maori issues. Despite clearly failing health, Harry was still taking an interest in the news of the appointment of Francesco Ventriglia in late 2014. He asked us to send reports on any indications or statements of artistic vision as they appeared. This company was Harry’s baby, and he loved it as parents love their children.

Harry’s own term as artistic director, from 1981 to 1993 with business manager Mark Keyworth, was a resilient team effort and there has probably never been a stronger partnership between artistic and business directors in the company’s history. What those two achieved on the miniscule resources of the day was breathtaking. Harry also maintained a very close relationship with the New Zealand School of Dance under the direction of Anne Rowse. They shared so much knowledge and awareness of repertoire in the wider dance world that the students were fortunate beneficiaries of that rapport, also the strongest partnership in the history of both institutions.

The chapter Harry wrote for the book, Royal New Zealand Ballet at Sixty, recounts many highlights of his term. It was an inspired early move to celebrate in 1983 the company’s 30th anniversary with a Gala season, inviting each previous director to select a choreography. We had No Exit from Ashley Killar (this was Harry’s choice, and a pearler) and Bournonville from Poul Gnatt. Perhaps the abiding achievement of this project was Harry’s diplomacy in welcoming Poul back to his adopted country after various chapters of less than happy history since his departure in 1963.

In 1986, Harry’s production of Swan Lake, again in tandem with Fredrikson, was a theatrical tour de force. He always remained very sad it was not retained in the company’s repertoire. Harry was a youngster in vaudeville performance. His formal schooling had turned into supervised backstage correspondence while on tour, but his bright brain and fabulous memory ensured a lifelong passion for learning across many disciplines. Harry’s close rapport with Graeme Murphy saw him in several cameo roles … as Court Photographer in that astonishing Swan Lake, a charming friend of Clara in the inspired Nutcracker, only upstaged by his tap dancing on roller skates in Tivoli (and was certainly worth my trip across the Tasman to check it out).

In an adult education course I will teach in Wellington early in 2015, one of the sessions will be dedicated to a survey of Harry Haythorne’s term as artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet …’the happiest years of my life’. Well, you said it Harry.

Jennifer Shennan, Wellington, December 2014

Featured image: Jon Trimmer (left) as the wealthy Pantalone and Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi in A Servant of Two Masters, 1989. Photo: Martin Stewart, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. PACOLL-8050-36-04

Harry Haythorne

Harry Haythorne (1926–2014)

Harry Haythorne, child performer extraordinaire, well-travelled dancer, ballet master, artistic director, teacher and mentor, has died in Melbourne aged 88.

Haythorne was the child of an English father and an Australian mother of Irish descent who met at a dance hall in Adelaide: both parents loved ballroom dancing. But they were barred from many dance halls in Adelaide because they dared to introduce what Haythorne jokingly referred to in an interview as ‘filthy foreign dances’ such as the foxtrot and the quickstep. His father had brought these dance styles with him when he migrated to Australia. They were unknown at the time in Adelaide.

Haythorne began his own dance training with Jean Bedford who taught ‘operatic dancing’ and shortly afterwards began tap classes with Herbert Noye. His initial ambitions were to go into vaudeville. Even with the arrival of the Ballets Russes in Australia in the 1930s, which was an exciting time for him, he still did not have ambitions to take up ballet seriously.

When Haythorne was about 14 he began his professional performing career with Harold Raymond’s Varieties, a Tivoli-style vaudeville group established initially as a concert party to entertain troops as World War II began. With Harold Raymond he took part in comedy sketches, played his piano accordion, sang and danced. His star act, which would feature again much later in his life, was his tap dancing routine on roller-skates.

Eventually, in the late 1940s, he took ballet classes from Joanna Priest and performed in her South Australian Ballet before leaving for England. It was seeing Ballet Rambert during its Australasian tour 1947–1949 that inspired him to change direction and look to ballet as a career. In London he took classes with Anna Northcote and Stanislas Idzikowski before auditioning successfully for Metropolitan Ballet, later joining Mona Ingelsby’s International Ballet. But his career in England and Europe was an eclectic one and he also worked on the Max Bygraves Show, danced on early British television shows, performed in the Cole Porter musical Can Can and toured to South Africa with a production of The Pyjama Game.

Haythorne listed the three greatest influences on his early career as Léonide Massine, for whom he acted as personal assistant and ballet master for Massine’s company, Les ballets européens; Walter Gore, for whom he was ballet master for Gore’s London Ballet; and Peter Darrell who hired him as manager of Western Theatre Ballet and then as his assistant artistic director of Scottish Ballet in Glasgow.

Always an Australian at heart, Haythorne began to miss his homeland and made various moves to return. He eventually came back as artistic director of Queensland Ballet, a position he took up in 1975. With Queensland Ballet he mounted works by Australian choreographers including Graeme Murphy, Garth Welch and Don Asker and had Hans Brenaa stage La sylphide and other Bournonville ballets. But it was a short directorship. Haythorne was unhappy at how his contract was terminated in 1978 and always maintained that no reason was given other than ‘boards don’t have to give reasons’. But he remained in Queensland for the next few years and worked to established the tertiary dance course at Kelvin Grove College of Advanced Education (now Queensland University of Technology).

But after deciding that he did not want to head a school but direct a company he accepted the position of artistic director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 1981. Haythorne’s directorship of the Royal New Zealand Ballet was a fruitful one and lasted until 1992. During his tenure the company staged works by New Zealand and Australian choreographers as well as ballets by major international artists. Haythorne oversaw the company’s 30th anniversary in 1983; toured the company to China, the United States, Australia and Europe; and staged his own, full-length Swan Lake. For the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s 60th anniversary in 2013, encapsulating his attitude to his appointment in 1981, and also his approach to directorship in general, he wrote:

I knew I had to learn much more about New Zealand and its history, familiarise myself not only with its dance world but also with its literature, music and visual arts, while still keeping a finger on the international pulse.*

Harry Haythorne as Father Winter

Harry Haythorne as Father Winter in Cinderella, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1991.  Photographer unknown

On his return to Australia in 1993 Haythorne was always in demand. He taught dance history at the Victorian College of the Arts and repertoire at the National Theatre Ballet School. He returned to the stage on several occasions with productions by the Australian Ballet, taking cameo roles in Stanton Welch’s Cinderella, Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker and Swan Lake, Ronald Hynd’s Merry Widow, and the joint Australian Ballet/Sydney Dance company production of Murphy’s Tivoli.

Many will remember clearly his role in Tivoli where he was cast as an old vaudeville trouper and, at the age of 75, reprised his tap dancing/roller-skating/skipping routine from the 1940s. For his performances in this role he received a 2001 Australian Dance Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Dancer. I also especially enjoyed his performance as the Marquis in Act I of Murphy’s Swan Lake. His role required him to assemble guests at the wedding into various groups and to photograph them using an old camera on a tripod. Much of this action took place upstage outside of the main activities. But Haythorne made the role his own and his interactions with the guests, including the children who were part of the crowd, were always fascinating and he never paused to stand and watch what was happening downstage.

But perhaps my fondest memory is of sitting in his Melbourne flat after recording an interview with Robin Haig, who was staying with him at the time. Harry got out a bottle of wine and some huge goblets that looked like they could have been a prop from Swan Lake.  After a glass or two and much talk and laughter I realised that my plane home to Canberra had already departed. Consternation! Several hurried phone calls later a taxi arrived. I was hustled into the taxi, we sped down the freeway and I made the next plane.

Harry Haythorne: born Adelaide, 7 October 1926; died Melbourne, 24 November 2014

* Harry Haythorne quoted in Jennifer Shennan and Anne Rowse, The Royal New Zealand Ballet at Sixty (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2013), p. 86

Michelle Potter, 25 November 2014

Featured image: Harry Haythorne, c. 2000. Photographer unknown

UPDATE: See Jennifer Shennan’s tribute to Harry Haythorne at this link.

‘The Listeners’. A ballet by Joanna Priest

Towards the end of research for my forthcoming publication, Dame Maggie Scott: a life in dance, an item relating to Joanna Priest’s ballet The Listeners emerged, quite unexpectedly. I had briefly looked into The Listeners as it was one of the ballets performed during the opening season by the National Theatre Ballet in Melbourne in September 1949. This was the occasion when Dame Margaret Scott made her return to the stage, following a lengthy stay in St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney, during the 1947—1949 Australasian tour by Ballet Rambert.

The appearance of this previously unknown item (unknown to me anyway) prompted me to look at The Listeners in a little more depth. My main source for further investigation was a Laban score for the work, part of the small collection of notated scores acquired by the National Library of Australia from Meg Abbie Denton in around 2004. Further information came from Meg’s publication Joanna Priest: her place in Adelaide’s dance history (Adelaide: Joanna Priest, 1993), and Alan Brissenden’s and Keith Glennon’s Australia dances: creating Australian dance 1945–1965 (Adelaide: Wakefield Press,  2010).

The Listeners was first staged for the South Australian Ballet Club in Adelaide on 30 November 1948 at the Tivoli Theatre (later Her Majesty’s). It was inspired by a poem written by Walter de la Mare, and Priest used the poem’s title as the name of her ballet. It was performed to Erno Dohnanyi’s String Quartet No 2 in D flat major, Opus 15, played by the Elder String Quartet, and had designs by Kenneth Rowell, his second commission from Priest.

'The Listeners', South Australian Ballet Company, 1948. Photo: Colin Ballantyne

Harry Haythorne as the Traveller, with Margaret Monson (left) as the Woman who Loved Him and Lynette Tuck as the Woman He Loved in The Listeners, South Australian Ballet Club, 1948. Photo: Colin Ballantyne

In the poem, the only human is a traveller who knocks on the door of a deserted house, deserted except for ‘a host of phantom listeners’ who do not respond to him. For her work, Priest added two women in the traveller’s life—one who loved him, the other whom he loved—as well as the child who was born from the liaison between the traveller and the woman who loved him. They were joined by the force of circumstance represented by four female dancers. Program notes explain:

The traveller arrives at an abandoned house which holds intimate memories…and here among “a host of phantom listeners” the conflict of his relationship with two women is re-enacted in his imagination. Dogged by the relentless interference of circumstance he tries in vain to weave into an enduring pattern his longing for the woman he loves, and his loyalty to the woman who has borne him a child. The harmony of the pattern is perpetually broken by inexorable forces, and, as in life, his struggles against them prove unavailing.

In the original production Harry Haythorne danced the Traveller, Margaret Monson the Woman who Loved  Him, and Lynette Tuck the Woman He Loved.

The ballet entered the repertoire of the National Theatre Ballet in 1949 with Rex Reid as the Traveller, Joyce Graeme as the Woman who Loved Him, Margaret Scott as the Woman He Loved and Jennifer Stielow as the Child. Six extra dancers were added, three men and three women, representing phantom listeners. Kenneth Rowell designed new sets and costumes for this production.

Alan Brissenden’s report of the National’s production has a number of errors, in particular some confusion as to which roles were danced by whom, but of the overall production he says:

The complex choreography followed the melodic structure of the music…and was firmly knit with the development of the story.

What is the unexpected item? It will appear in the plates section of Dame Maggie Scott: a life in dance.

Michelle Potter, 14 August 2014

Featured image: Joyce Graeme as the Woman who Loved Him and Jennifer Stielow as the Child in The Listeners, National Theatre Ballet, 1949. Photo: Harry Jay

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy's 'Swan Lake', ca. 2003

Graeme Murphy’s ‘Swan Lake’. The Australian Ballet (2013)

22 June 2013 (matinee), State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

The first thing to say about this performance of Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake is that Leanne Stojmenov as Odette was absolutely stunning. It all began with that Act I wedding waltz. Partnered by Andrew Killian as Siegfried, Stojmenov not only danced with delicious fluidity in the upper body, she was also so attuned to the music and was so much the happy young bride. And how often does that beautiful white gown with its long, long train impede parts of the movement? Not this time. The gown was manipulated pretty much perfectly so that, as intended, it was an intrinsic part of the choreography. It was a beautiful and absolutely captivating moment so early into the show and it was followed by some charming encounters between Stojmenov and the guests, especially with the children.

From there Stojmenov delivered some technically sumptuous dancing and swept us through a whole range of emotions until her final disappearance into the depths of the dark waters of the lake. As Odette at the lakeside in Act II her solo, with its remarkable ending—a backwards slide along the floor, was magnificent, as was the pas de deux with Killian, again with its breathtaking ending that moves from Siegfried holding Odette as a limp, bent-over body, which is then stretched out fully but is held parallel to the floor, to a fish dive, and finally to another slide to the floor. And perhaps nothing was more moving in a dramatic sense than Stojmenov’s encounters with Killian in the final moments of Act III. They were danced with all the abandon of a woman in the full knowledge that these moments were to be her last with the man she loves. A series of very fast, perfectly executed turns down the diagonal towards Siegfried, arms flailing up and down, summed it all up.

Leanne Stojmenov in Graeme Murphy's 'Swan Lake'. Photo: Jeff Busby, 2013.

Leanne Stojmenov in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. Photo: © Jeff Busby, 2013

The second thing to say is that Murphy’s choreography in this work is nothing short of remarkable. Perhaps it is seeing this Swan Lake so soon after Stephen Baynes’ more traditional version that highlights what an expressive choreographer Murphy is. Not many choreographers are able to use the classical medium as an expressive, narrative tool, to move the story along through movement.  Murphy does. Take, for example, Siegfried’s solo in Act I as he is torn between his new bride and his old love. He bends into himself, opens his palms wide and places them on his face, and at times moves with little jerky or contorted steps. It all speaks of indecision, inner turmoil, unspoken guilt even.  Or take Odette’s meeting with Siegfried in the asylum. Here Murphy gives us all the twitching movements we might associate with Odette’s state of mind and yet there is something about her arm movements that recall those of a more traditional Odette, which not only links us with other stagings of Swan Lake, but also presages Odette’s lakeside dream, which is soon to come.

There are some magnificent images that surface throughout the work. In Act III, as the guests leave the party following the little tantrum by the Baroness, unevenly played on this occasion by Amy Harris, we see Siegfried and his friends against a backcloth that is a representation of M. C. Escher’s linocut, Rippled Surface. They are frantically looking for Odette who has left the party and a very new vision of Siegfried, Benno and friends on their swan hunt (seen in very old productions!) comes straight to mind. And shortly afterwards, when Siegfried arrives suddenly at the lakeside, alone this time, the beautiful choreographic patterns being made by those black swans are just as suddenly scattered into a flurry of different poses and different arm movements.  We are left with a fleeting image of a flight of birds disturbed from their ordered existence as if a shot had been fired into their formation.

And I can’t forget Harry Haythorne in Act I as the Marquis (the photographer). While he commands centre stage at times, he also spends a lot of time up in the back OP corner with his camera and his little hanky, a wave of which indicates that a shot has been completed. Taking my eye off the central action for a moment I noticed him arranging a group of children in a special pose, and also photographing a kite that one child was flying. Never one to stand still and just watch the action!

And the third thing to say is that all the drama that was missing from the recent Baynes production was there for all to see in this Murphy production. Murphy’s knack of moving seamlessly from one situation to another and back was evident in Act II as we saw the lakeside dream begin with Siegfried and the Baroness meet outside the asylum window, and saw the dream end with a return to that same meeting. But more than anything the drama was gripping as Odette teetered from one emotion to another.

I do have a couple of gripes. It is annoying that so few of the cast were mentioned by name on the cast sheet. I didn’t have the best seat in the house. It was a way back and a little too much on the side so it was quite hard to identify who was dancing in smaller roles. Who danced the two leading Hungarians in Act I, for example? I thought they did a splendid job, especially the female dancer. [It was Dana Stephensen—see comment from Anna below]. And who danced the little swans and the two leading swans? It is extremely frustrating to have some of the minor characters in Act I named, characters who really have very little to do and certainly no dancing to speak of, when dancers who have relatively substantial dancing roles are not named. And I will never understand why the magic of those last moments has to be spoilt as the black cloth disappears from that circular piece of wood that is the lake leaving us to see a bit of cut chipboard. Come on!

Gripes aside, I was immensely moved by this performance. It was one of those rare performances, I think, where so much pours out, so much underlying logic becomes apparent, so much of the detail of the choreography is made clear, and so much is impossible to record! A huge bouquet to Stojmenov for carrying the dramatic line so well and dancing so sublimely. Performances like this are why I keep going back for more.

Michelle Potter, 23 June 2013

Featured image: Artists of the Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake, ca. 2003

IMAGES: I have no images of this current production as yet and in any case, with Stojmenov giving the performance she did I really am not inclined to post an image of another Odette.  The image at the top of this review is one supplied by the Australian Ballet some years ago, probably around 2002 or 2003. No photographer’s name is mentioned but I would be more than happy to correct that if someone can supply the name. Looking closely you might notice some dancers who are now principals!

UPDATE (later, 23 June 2013): The second image on this post is indeed of Stojmenov in Murphy’s Swan Lake kindly supplied by the Australian Ballet and by one of my favourite and most generous photographers, Jeff Busby.

A review of the 2015 staging is a this link.

Dance diary. March 2012

  • Kristian Fredrikson in New Zealand

In March I spent a week in Wellington, New Zealand, looking into the work made by Kristian Fredrikson for the Royal New Zealand Ballet and Wellington City Opera. I have nothing but praise for the staff of the Royal New Zealand Ballet, the Film Archive of New Zealand, the Dowse Art Museum and the National Library of New Zealand (despite the fact that the Library is currently closed to the public due to renovations) for their generous help with my research activities.

I was especially interested to see a recording of Swan Lake (that ballet again) from 1985—a production by Harry Haythorne who was at the time the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s artistic director. It linked up nicely with some designs for this production I had recently been examining in the National Library’s Fredrikson collection and it is always a bonus to see designs transformed into costumes and worn by dancers. Not only that, Haythorne’s production was quite different from anything I had seen before concentrating as it did on the character of Siegfried more than Odette, making something quite different out of von Rothbart and making a strong distinction between reality and fantasy. It was then a further bonus to see some of the costumes themselves, with their quite astonishing layering of fabric to achieve a textured look, at the Dowse.

It was also a pleasure to speak to former Australian Ballet principal, Greg Horsman, currently ballet master with the Royal New Zealand. His recollections of working with Fredrikson complemented those I recorded last year with Miranda Coney. Coney and Horsman are pictured below in the pas de deux from Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker, in its first staging of 1992.

Greg Horsman and Miranda Coney, 'Nutcracker' 1992Greg Horsman and Miranda Coney in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker, the Australian Ballet 1992. Photo Don McMurdo. Courtesy National Library of Australia

  • Bruce Morrow (1928–2012)

I was saddened to hear of the death in March of Bruce Morrow, whose career included performances with the National Theatre Ballet and the Borovansky Ballet. He danced in some ground-breaking Australian productions, including Rex Reid’s Corroboree and the Borovanksy Ballet’s full length Sleeping Princess. Following his career as a performer he was for many years a highly regarded teacher at the Australian Ballet School and elsewhere. He is seen below as one of the Three Ivans in the 1951 Borovansky production of The Sleeping Princess. I interviewed Bruce in 2000 for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program. Here is the link to the catalogue record.

The Three Ivans, Borovansky Ballet 1951(top to bottom) Bruce Morrow, Ron Paul and Tom Merrifield as the Three Ivans in The Sleeping Princess, Borovansky Ballet, 1951. Photographer unknown. Courtesy National Library of Australia

  • Stanton Welch’s Tapestry

I have been a fan of Houston Ballet since visiting Houston last year where, as in Wellington, I was treated more than generously by everyone with whom I came into contact. There’s a lovely clip available on YouTube from Welch’s newest work Tapestry.

  • The Ballets russes tribute programs continue

I read with interest Ismene Brown’s review of a recent English National Ballet season.

  • Site news

With Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet playing a season in Brisbane during March interest has been revived in the posts and comments on this site relating to that production. In addition, Brisbane for the first time was one of the top five cities in terms of numbers of visitors accessing the site. It came in third behind Melbourne and Sydney and was followed by Canberra and London. The top post for March was the review of the Australian Ballet’s Infinity program.

Michelle Potter, 30 March 2012