Karina González and Connor Walsh in Houston Ballet's 'Romeo and Juliet', 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

‘Romeo and Juliet’. Houston Ballet

30 June 2016, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

My review of Stanton Welch’s spectacular Romeo and Juliet for Houston Ballet is now available on DanceTabs at this link. In relation to the DanceTabs review, below is an image of Karina Gonzalez as Juliet and Jessica Collado as Lady Capulet showing the ‘exclamation mark’ arabesque I mention in the review.

Karina González and Jessica Collado, Houston Ballet's Romeo and Juliet, Melbourne 2016. Photo Jeff Busby

Karina González and Jessica Collado, Houston Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet, Melbourne 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

While in the review I didn’t go into much detail about the children who appeared in the work (courtesy of the Australian Ballet School), I am am curious to know the name of the fair-haired boy who led the Blind Man’s Buff game, and who appeared whenever children were required. He had such charisma for someone so young.

Michelle Potter, 3 July 2016

‘The Peasant Prince’. Monkey Baa Theatre Company

4 June 2016, Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre

In 2003 the story of Li Cunxin’s remarkable journey from a village in Shandong province in rural China to the world stage was published as Mao’s last dancer. The story was subsequently made into a film and then written as a children’s book, The Peasant Prince. Now it has become a theatre work for children presented, astonishingly, by a cast of just four from Monkey Baa Theatre Company.

The show begins with John Gomes Goodway, who plays Li, standing on stage waiting for the curtain to go up on his performance as the Nutcracker Prince in a Houston Ballet production of Nutcracker (and of course Li, now artistic director of Queensland Ballet, made his debut outside of China with Houston Ballet). It then flashes back to his childhood, his selection by an official sent by Madame Mao to join a dance academy in Beijing, his training, his homesickness, his determination to keep moving forward, his eventual invitation to visit Houston Ballet for a residency, and finally his decision to remain in the West. It returns in the closing scene to the opening and the moment when Li, watched by his parents, takes the stage in Nutcracker.

From a dance perspective, the choreography by Danielle Micich (called ‘Movement Director’ on the printed program), is beautifully conceived for a young audience. My almost-six-year old companion could recognise some of the ballet movements she is taught in her beginners’ class, for example. But it is also developed enough for an older audience to enjoy, especially for the way in which an exercise barre is used to indicate the passing of time, and for the expertise of the cast who move from one character to another with apparent ease.

I’m not sure how much of the political context (necessary for the unfolding of the story of course)—that is the constant praise of Chairman Mao and his policies along with the critical comments about America—was understood by younger children. And the scene where officials from the Chinese Embassy in the US tried to make sure that Li did not stay in the West was rough and a little scary for some. Some explanation beforehand by parents/grandparents is probably necessary if their charges have not read the book.

But in essence The Peasant Prince was an engaging show, beautifully staged with minimum fuss.

Michelle Potter, 15 June 2016

Featured image: John Gomes Goodway (centre) as Li Cunxin, with Jenevieve Chang as the school teacher and Edric Hong as a Chairman Mao official. Photo: © Heidrun Lohr

Dance diary. May 2016

  • von Rothbart

Since seeing Stephen Baynes’ production of Swan Lake, first in 2012 and more recently in its revival of 2016, I have been thinking frequently about the nature of the character of von Rothbart, ‘an evil geni’, according to the cast lists of the earliest Russian productions. After reading on the Australian Ballet’s website that, in the Baynes Swan Lake, Rothbart is a ‘dangerously seductive dandy’ my interest quickened.

Brett Simon and artists of the Australian Ballet in Swan Lake. Photo Jeff Busby

Brett Simon as von Rothbart with artists of the Australian Ballet in Swan Lake Act III. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Hugh Colman has dressed Baynes’ Rothbart in a red wig when he appears in the palace ballroom in Act III. I was startled the first time I saw it to tell the truth, so carrot-coloured was it. It is not new knowledge, of course, that Rothbart means ‘red beard’ in German and many designers have referred to that meaning. Kristian Fredrikson’s headdress for Rothbart in Stanton Welch’s Swan Lake for Houston Ballet, for example, has straggling red ‘hair’ emerging from it and a pair of glassy red eyes on the sides (as seen in the featured image above). I was interested too to discover that, in Cyril Beaumont’s in-depth analysis of the ballet in his book The ballet called Swan Lake, there is a very detailed account of how Rothbart was meant to look in the Petipa-Ivanov version of the story—even down to the angle of the eyebrows and the shape of the beard.

But perhaps most interesting of all about Beaumont’s analysis is that he suggests that a character like Rothbart (one who is able to take on a variety of forms as he does in most traditional productions of Swan Lake) is often encountered in medieval romances and other early forms of literature—he gives an example of Archimago in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, who also has the power to assume diverse forms. In the story as adapted by Petipa for the production of Swan Lake on which most traditional productions centre, the swans are the victims of a character who has bewitched them, and who assumes the form of an owl to watch over them. The owl at times takes on a human form and in Act II appears in various places around the lake as an evil sorcerer. He listens to the conversation between Odette and Siegfried before disappearing. It then makes sense that he assumes another form in Act III, when he brings Odile to the palace, since he knows of Siegfried’s plan to marry Odette, which would outsmart him and remove his power.

I have no issues whatsoever in rethinking the story or the characters—Rothbart can even be a ‘dangerously seductive dandy’. But can he just turn up in Act III without there having some kind of manifestation of what he represents in the previous act? It makes a mockery of the story if some kind of force, call it evil, sorcery, seductive dandyism, or a combination of features, has not had an impact previously.

In the Baynes production, I kept wanting the projections that appear in the sky in Act II to be some manifestation of Rothbart. But I am reliably assured by a well-known dance writer/critic who spoke to an equally well-known member of the ballet staff at the Australian Ballet that those projections are swans and only swans. So for the moment I’ll just keep thinking that the Baynes Swan Lake is dramatically unsatisfying because I can find nothing that strongly prefigures Rothbart’s appearance in Act III.

  • Benois de la danse

Recipients of the 2016 Benois de la danse awards were announced in mid-May. It was a pleasure to read that Hannah O’Neill was the joint recipient of the award for Best Female Dancer for her performance in the title role in Paris Opera Ballet’s production of Paquita. She shared the award with Alicia Amartriain of Stuttgart Ballet.

But I was also delighted to see that John Neumeier had received a Lifetime Achievement Award. I still get shivers down my spine thinking of his exceptional Romeo and Juliet, which I saw recently in Copenhagen. And we have the pleasure of seeing his Nijinsky later this year in Australia.

I am also a fan of the choreography of Yuri Possokhov, who received the award for Best Choreographer (also shared). I haven’t seen the work for which he was awarded, the Bolshoi Ballet’s Hero of our time, but I have great memories of his version of Rite of Spring made for San Francisco Ballet.

The full list of awardees is at this link from Pointe Magazine. There is also the official site of the awards which gives a much longer account of the event, and includes a list of the nominees from whom the winners were selected.

  • Robert Helpmann

While searching for audio excerpts to use in my recent 2016 Dance Week talk, I came across some interesting snippets in an oral history interview I recorded with Bill Akers in 2002. Akers, who held several positions with the Borovansky Ballet and the Australian Ballet, worked closely with Helpmann on many occasions and, in particular, lit Helpmann’s Australian-produced ballets. I found his comments on the relationship between The Display and Yugen especially insightful. Although it is well-known that The Display was, in part, based on an incident that occurred early in Helpmann’s life, before he went to London in the 1930s, that Yugen was in some ways the antithesis of The Display is perhaps not so well-known. In the first audio excerpt, Akers talks about the early incident that clearly stayed in Helpmann’s mind throughout his life. In the second Akers reminds us of that incident, and then mentions how Yugen relates to it.

Akers on Display

Akers on Yugen

The full interview with Akers is available online via the National Library’s oral history site.

  • Press for April

My article ‘Robert Helpmann: Behind the Scenes with the Australian Ballet, 1963-1965’ has been published in Dance Research, 34: 1 (Summer 2016), pp. 47-62. It fleshes out some of the ideas I have considered on this website relating to Helpmann’s two early ballets for the Australian Ballet, The Display and Yugen. The cover image on this issue of Dance Research is by Walter Stringer from the collection of the National Library of Australia. It shows Gail Ferguson as a Woman of the Village, in Yugen, mostly likely taken during a 1970s revival.

Dance Research 34:1 2016 Cover

Dance Research is published by Edinburgh University Press. Further details at this link.

 

Michelle Potter, 31 May 2016

Featured image: Detail of Kristian Fredrikson’s headdress for von Rothbart in Houston Ballet’s Swan Lake. Photo: © Michelle Potter, 2011

Artist of the Australian Ballet in costume for 'Coppelia'. Photo: Justin Ridler

The Australian Ballet in 2016

Benedicte Bemet (left), Cristiano Martino (centre), and Jade Wood (right), 2015. Photos: © Justin Ridler

Mixed in with old faithfuls like Swan Lake and Coppélia, the Australian Ballet’s program for 2016 contains one or two works that we can anticipate with a bit of excitement. One of them is John Neumeier’s Nijinsky, which will be seen in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney, although we will have to wait until the last few months of the year.

Nijinsky was created in 2000 for Neumeier’s Hamburg Ballet and was seen recently in Australia when Hamburg Ballet performed it in Brisbane in 2012. On that occasion it received a standing ovation on its opening night—and I mean a real standing ovation where the theatre rose as one. No stragglers, no people leaving to catch the subway before the rush, no one standing up because they couldn’t see what was happening because the person in the row in front was blocking their view. A proper standing ovation. Neumeier calls Nijinsky ‘a biography of the soul, of feelings, emotions, and of states of mind’. It needs wonderful dancing, and fabulous acting. My fingers are crossed. Here is what I wrote about it from Brisbane.

Another program that fills me with anticipation is a triple bill called Vitesse presenting works by Christopher Wheeldon (DGV: Danse à grande vitesse), Jiri Kylian (Forgotten Land) and William Forsythe (In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated). It is scheduled for the early part of the year and will be seen in Melbourne and Sydney.

Forgotten Land and In the Middle are not new to the Australian Ballet repertoire having been introduced during Maina Gielgud’s artistic directorship. I remember watching people leave the auditorium after the opening sounds of Thom Willems score for In the Middle (it was 20 years ago), but it showed off certain dancers of that era absolutely brilliantly. But the Wheeldon is new to Australia. It is a work for 26 dancers with four pairs of dancers at the heart of the work. It shows in particular Wheeldon’s skill at creating pas de deux. In the Royal Ballet program notes from its showing in 2011, Roslyn Sulcas writes of Wheeldon that ‘[He]—like his ballets—is both traditional and innovative, able to inhabit an older world while moving firmly forward towards the new.’ Here is what I wrote after seeing it, on a very different mixed bill program, in London in 2011.

Then I await Stanton Welch’s Romeo and Juliet, exclusive to Melbourne in June and July, with anticipation mixed with trepidation. I was not a fan of his Bayadère, although I have loved some of his shorter works. But the word is that his R & J is ‘quite good’. Fingers crossed again.

Dancers of Houston Ballet in Stanton Welch's 'Romeo and Juliet'. Photo Amitava Sarkar

Dancers of Houston Ballet in Stanton Welch’s Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Amitava Sarkar

As for the rest of the year, Brisbane will get Ratmansky’s Cinderella in February; Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake returns with seasons in Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne; a program called Symphony in C will run concurrently in Sydney with the Vitesse program, although it is not exactly clear as yet of what the Symphony in C program will consist; and Coppélia will be in Sydney and Melbourne towards the end of the year. I think this is the Peggy van Praagh/George Ogilvie production from 1979, but the media release is a little confusing. ‘Having first revisited Coppélia in 1979, the great choreographer re-invigorated it thirty years later with this joyful and sumptuous production.’ Who is that great choreographer? Not PVP who was not really the choreographer and who died anyway in 1990.

And for my Canberra readers, we won’t be seeing the Australian Ballet in 2016 in the national capital where we too pay taxes.

Michelle Potter, 23 September 2015 

Featured image: Dancer of the Australian Ballet in costume for Coppélia, 2015 (detail). Photo: © Justin Ridler

Artist of the Australian Ballet in costume for 'Coppelia'. Photo: Justin Ridler

  • Full details of the 2016 season are on the Australian Ballet’s website.

‘Sounds of the soul’. Lang Lang Dance Project with Houston Ballet

31 October 2013, Théâtre des Champs Élysées, Paris

It was, apparently, the wish of Chinese concert pianist, Lang Lang, to stage a dance project in which a group of sixteen dancers from Houston Ballet would perform with him in Paris. Lang Lang was credited with the ‘artistic conception’ of the show in which he played a selection of works by Chopin, with all the individualism for which he is renowned, while the dancers performed the choreography of Stanton Welch. At its best it was an evening to enjoy, although there were moments when Welch’s choreography was so complicated, especially in some of the partnering, that the show looked overwrought.

The best moments came when there was a real connection between Lang Lang and the dancers. When that connection was missing, as it occasionally was, the whole concept became a little meaningless. The first section after interval was a real highlight. With Lang Lang playing Chopin’s Waltz no. 19 in A minor and dancer Joseph Walsh performing solo, it was notable for the constant connection between pianist and dancer through gesture and eye contact. Walsh’s solo was also beautifully executed and showed off his lovely line and smooth technique. It was a brief, but clean and classically inspired performance.

The opening section of the show, danced by Derek Dunn as soloist accompanied by the full complement of Houston dancers performing to Ballade no. 1 in G minor opus 23, was another highlight, largely due to an exceptional performance by Dunn. He reminded me of what I imagine Nijinsky might have looked like. Dunn soared across the stage with broad, expansive movements, executed multiple turns with extraordinary ease and showed lovely fluidity in the upper body. I found him quite thrilling with a charisma that matched that of Lang Lang. As a result, a powerful and emotive connection was set up between dancer and pianist.

Other sections that worked for me included that performed to the well-known Waltz no. 1 in E flat major, Opus 18 (Grand valse brilliante) in which Oliver Halkowich and Jim Nowakowski deftly handled the humorous elements Welch introduced into what has never seemed to me to be a humorous piece of music; the closing duet between Karina Gonzalez and Ian Casady, which brought the evening to a beautifully calm end; and a duet for Lauren Strongin and Connor Walsh in which the lovely lightness of the choreography, especially the succession of lifts when Strongin scarcely touched the floor before becoming airborne again, perfectly matched the music (Andante spianato, Opus 22).

One section that didn’t work so well for me was a duet for Jessica Collado and Ian Casady in which Welch’s use of palms facing outwards and feet turned up smacked too much of Nacho Duato. The ‘Duato effect’ was mixed with more classical movements and the whole was, choreographically speaking, a somewhat messy combination.

I have always felt that Welch is at his best when choreographing non-narrative works and, despite some twisted and contorted moments of partnering, there was much to enjoy in Sounds of the Soul. Some effective lighting by Lisa J. Pinkham, including some lovely slow blackouts, added to a pleasant evening.

Michelle Potter, 4 November 2013

Natasha Kusen and Andrew Killian in 'Petite Mort'. Photo Paul Scala. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

The Australian Ballet in 2014

The Australian Ballet recently announced its season for 2014. The inclusion of Stanton Welch’s production of La Bayadère, made for Houston Ballet in 2010, seems to have caused the biggest stir in the press with reports that live snakes and a snake wrangler will make an appearance. Reptiles and their handlers aside, it is certainly a step in an interesting direction to have a new work from Welch (new to Australia anyway) on the program given that he has continued to hold the post of a resident choreographer while also being artistic director of Houston Ballet since 2003.

Although I was not overly impressed with Welch’s recent Rite of Spring, I look forward to seeing this full-length Bayadère and hope that he has tightened up the story a little. ‘La Bayadère is a recurring problem’, as American Dance Magazine noted not so long ago.

But for me the most interesting program on the 2014 list is a mixed bill entitled ‘Chroma’. It includes Wayne McGregor’s Chroma, an exciting work made on the Royal Ballet in 2006. I loved its minimalism and its collaborative aesthetic when I saw it a couple of years ago. The ‘Chroma’ program also includes two short pieces by Jiri Kylian, Petite Mort and Sechs Tänze.

The Australian Ballet showed these two Kylian pieces in 2005 and who can forget those wonderfully fluid duets from Petite Mort, not to mention the fencing foils that the men manipulate in the opening sequences, or those roll-along, black ballgowns! It’s hard to forget Sechs Tänze too, a curiously playful work in which the dancers wear costumes designed by Kylian that he calls ‘Mozartian underwear’. This program also includes a new work by Stephen Baynes.

A second mixed bill entitled ‘Imperial Suite’ consists of George Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial and Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc. The season also includes Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon, which we have seen so many times in Australia, and Peter Wright’s The Nutcracker.

I am looking forward to an exciting season in 2014 although I’d rather something other than Manon as a third evening length work.

Michelle Potter, 6 September 2013

Here is a is a link to a Houston Ballet preview of Welch’s Bayadère. Watch out for a variation from the Kingdom of the Shades scene danced by Nozomi Iijima. It comes towards the end of the four minute preview.

Featured image: Natasha Kusen and Andrew Killian in Petite Mort. Photo: Paul Scala. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

 

‘The Rite of Spring’. Houston Ballet

15 March, Brown Theater, Wortham Center, Houston, TX

Houston Ballet’s most recent program had the slightly confusing title of The Rite of  Spring when in fact it was a triple bill in which Stanton Welch’s reimagining of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was simply the final offering on the program. Nevertheless, it was probably the most anticipated of the three works on show although I’m not sure the extensive media build-up was entirely justified.

Welch dispensed with the narrative of human sacrifice that marked the original, infamous 1913 production of Rite of Spring. His production began in something of a primeval manner with a horde of Neanderthal-looking men whose fearsome arrival onstage caused a band of women to flee the stage, thus establishing a primitive, tribal background to the work. But from there the piece seemed to disintegrate into a mixture of cultural references culminating midway through in some kind of wedding or association between a man and a woman, who for the occasion was bound in white garments by her female friends. Just what happened to the couple later on was not clear to me other than that they danced with the rest of the tribe in a passionate frenzy of movement. The work seemed to peter out at the end.

Nor was it clear just exactly who theses tribes were. Costumes and make-up, which included heavy body markings, recalled Aztec ornamentation, a least to me, although there were times when the grass skirts of Polynesia and Melanesia seemed to surface. Heavy, black eye make-up sometimes made the dancers look like they were wearing sunglasses and at other times made their eyes look quite red as though they had been caught in a camera flash. I thought overall the costume/make-up design was considerably overwrought.

This stood in sharp contrast to two magnificent backcloths created from two paintings by Australian indigenous artist Rosella Namok. Namok’s works, ‘Stinging Rain’ and ‘Marks on the Sand, After King Tide’, were beautifully enlarged by Houston Ballet’s backstage team. They had a strong but simple message and it is curious that Welch, according to all press material and published interviews, chose her work because he thought it had a universal quality to it. Well that’s just what Welch’s production didn’t have. It lacked a simple, strong message and a clear sense of focus and, with its myriad of references to other cultures, couldn’t be called universal.

Choreographically Welch worked very closely with the music and there was scarcely a note that didn’t have a corresponding step. Everything looked very busy and as a result the Stravinsky score sounded quite different. To me it seemed to have lost its integrity.

Creating a new Rite of Spring will always bring out a very personal side of any choreographer it seems. The Welch production was not to my liking I’m afraid and I’m beginning to suspect that the versions that work best for me maintain the links to the original narrative or else diverge entirely from it. Welch was unable to establish a new, satisfying pathway or a link to the old one.

The evening opened with Mark Morris’ Pacific danced to Lou Harrison’s Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano. It seemed a little like a religious celebration possibly because of the constant use of uplifted  arms and the placing of the hands in front of the body, palms facing each other, as if holding an devotional item between the hands, or as if in a kind of open praying gesture. Morris’ choreography followed the impetus of the music but the constant bending to the floor as if in homage to something (the music?) also emphasised a kind of religiosity.

Edwaard Liang’s Murmuration, especially created on Houston Ballet and receiving its world premiere in this program, began with a single female dancer moving slowly down a diagonal, But just as one began to ponder the serenity with which she accomplished this walk, the stage was filled with dancers. They formed groups broke apart, met and left the stage in a flurry of movement that lasted for the entire first movement of Ezio Bosso’s Violin Concerto No. 1, Esoconcerto. As explained in a program note the title of the work refers to the intricate patterns formed by starlings during flight and the constantly changing choreographic groupings alluded to these patterns.

The second movement consisted of a series of duets which showed Liang’s emphasis on how bodies can work together as they intertwine and contort, and in so doing how they often appear as one. The men hold our attention in the third movement and for a while the women group themselves at the back and watch the men display their athleticism.

Murmuration is beautifully designed. The simple, grey costumes, designed by Liang and Houston Ballet’s wardrobe manager Laura Lynch, move beautifully with the dancers. The pale grey leotards with attached chiffon panels for the women, and the wide legged trousers softy gathered at the waist for the men enhance and never detract from the choreography. The background, which relies on Lisa J. Pinkham’s lighting for its strongest effect, changes from a simple grey-lit cloth in the first movement to what looks like a cascade of fireflies in the second. And as the third movement progresses the fireflies turn to small white shapes (of paper I guess) falling softly to the ground.

Murmuration deserved the ecstatic reaction it received from the audience at the performance I attended although there were times when I thought there was a little too much repetition in the choreography.

Michelle Potter, 18 March 2013

Dance diary. November 2011

  • SAR Fellowship: National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA)

In 2012 I will be taking up a SAR Fellowship, SAR being the acronym for Scholars and Artists in Residence, for two months at the National Film and Sound Archive. This Fellowship will enable me to investigate a lesser known aspect of the career of designer Kristian Fredrikson, namely his commissions for film and television. In addition to designing costumes for one or two televised ballets in the late 1960s, in the 1980s Fredrikson worked on at least three feature films, Undercover, Sky Pirates, and Short Changed, and three mini-series for television, The Shiralee, The Dirtwater Dynasty and Vietnam. I’m looking forward to delving into this aspect of Fredrikson’s multi-faceted career.

The SAR program aims to promote the NFSA as a centre for scholarly activity, to encourage and facilitate research relating to the NFSA collections and programs and to bring new ideas and expertise to the NFSA.

  • Houston Ballet

In addition to my meeting with Stanton Welch while in Houston recently, which was the subject of a recent post, I spent half a day with Laura Lynch, Houston Ballet’s wardrobe manager. Laura spoke to me at length about Kristian Fredrikson’s designs for ‘Pecos’, part of a Houston Ballet evening length program called Tales of Texas, and Fredrikson’s last work, a new version of Swan Lake. Both works had choreography by Stanton Welch and his Swan Lake, which premiered after Fredrikson’s death, was dedicated to Fredrikson. We also visited the HB warehouse, a little out of town, to have a look at the costumes themselves.

Rack of costumes for Houston Ballet's 'Swan Lake'

Rack of costumes for the Houston Ballet production of Swan Lake.

  • Miranda Coney Barker

Most readers of this site will remember Miranda Coney, a much-loved principal of the Australian Ballet during the 1990s. Miranda is now living in New York with her husband, conductor Charles Barker, and their two young sons. I caught up with her while in New York and was more than delighted to know that she has been giving class to young dancers in the current Broadway production of Billy Elliot—‘quite a challenge’ she says!

  • Canberra Critics’ Circle Awards: Dance 2011

In November the Canberra Critics’ Circle met to discuss nominations for its annual awards, which were presented on 29 November. Two dance awards were made. Liz Lea received an award for her creative use of archival material from Canberra collecting institutions in her solo production of 120 Birds. Lea showed 120 Birds as a work for a small company at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2010 but reworked it as a solo show for presentation in February 2011 as an event associated with the National Gallery of Australia’s Ballets Russes exhibition. She drew on material from the National Film and Sound Archive, the National Library of Australia and the National Gallery of Australia bringing it all together to pay homage to those intrepid artists who toured to and from Australia when communications were not the instant experience we know today.

Photos from Lea’s Gallery performance are at this link.

Elizabeth Cameron Dalman received an award for her poignant and moving show Sapling to Silver, which was the story of a vibrant life—her own life in dance. I recall in particular from that show a duet between Dalman and Albert David in which two cultural heritages were juxtaposed, as were two lives lived in different generations. The citation for Dalman’s award also mentioned the seamless way in which the various sections of the work were put together to deliver a beautifully produced whole.

  • ‘The fire and the rose’

The link to my tribute to Valrene Tweedie, an article originally published in Brolga. An Australian journal about dance in December 2008 and posted on this site in July 2009, is not currently available as it was previously via the Ausdance website. The National Library of Australia’s web archiving service, Pandora, came to the rescue however and the tribute is now available at this link.

Michelle Potter, 30 November 2011

Stanton Welch. ‘An Aussie in Houston’

A recent visit to the United States saw me in Houston, Texas, where I was able to have a look at Houston Ballet’s new premises and enjoyed being shown around by Stanton Welch. And there is more than one Aussie at Houston Ballet these days.  Below is the text of a story published on 26 November 2011 in The Canberra Times under the heading ‘An Aussie in Houston’.

stanton-welch-in-rehearsal
Stanton Welch in rehearsal. Photo: © Bruce Bennetts. Courtesy of Houston Ballet

—Stanton Welch is in a buoyant mood as he shows me around Houston Ballet’s stunning new home in downtown Houston, Texas. Melbourne-born Welch has been artistic director of Houston Ballet, the fourth largest ballet company in the United States, for eight years. The company moved into its six-storey headquarters in February of this year and the new studios—nine of them—are huge with high ceilings and lots of windows letting in the beautiful Texan light. In some, children are taking a ballet class. In others, company members are rehearsing for the forthcoming production of the Christmas classic The Nutcracker and for the annual gala, Jubilee of Dance. The building hums with activity.

Welch, a young-looking 42 year old, is the elder son of Marilyn Jones and Garth Welch, former principal dancers with both the Borovansky and the Australian Ballets. Both also worked with Sydney Dance Company and both are teachers of renown. Their second son, Damien, retired quite recently from his position as a principal dancer with the Australian Ballet. Together the four of them are familiarly called the “Royal Family of Australian Ballet” such is their collective status in the Australian dance world. Damien is also currently in Houston to stage his brother’s production of Cinderella for Houston Ballet next year. And indeed the month of November is something of a family time. Jones is also visiting. “Mum comes over a couple of times a year. I usually try to get her to do a bit of teaching while she’s here,” Welch says with a grin.

Welch was a late starter in the ballet world: he took his first lessons only when 16. But there was no looking back after that. He choreographed his first piece, Hades, during the first year of his dance training in 1986 and it won several eisteddfod prizes. By 1989 he had joined the Australian Ballet and in 1990 received his first choreographic commission, which resulted in A Time to Dance for the Dancers Company of the Australian Ballet. He went on to make his first major piece, Of Blessed Memory, for the main company in 1991. By 1995 he was a resident choreographer with the Australian Ballet and remains so, from a distance, to this day. The extent of his choreographic output by now is remarkable and includes works for major companies around the world. He was appointed artistic director of Houston Ballet in 2003 and for the moment he seems firmly entrenched in Houston, largest city in the state of Texas.

“What I love about working here”, he says “is that the dancers are so energised. There is absolutely no complacency. We are so lucky with audiences too. They are very adventurous and brave when it comes to new work, which is great for a choreographer. Our subscriptions continued to grow even during the recession.”

But as I look into the studios from the viewing windows I am struck by the fact that there are Australians in a number of the studios. Ballet master Steven Woodgate is busy rehearsing a large number of dancers for a group scene in Nutcracker. A Churchill Fellowship awardee for 2000, Woodgate retired from the Australian Ballet, where he was senior artist for several years, and took up the position of ballet master at Houston in 2004, the year after Welch’s arrival.

In another studio Luke Ingham, who grew up on a farm in Mount Gambier, South Australia, is rehearsing for his first princely role, that of the Prince in Nutcracker. Ingham has been with the company since July 2011 and has just toured to New York with Houston Ballet where he also took the opportunity to catch up with four of his former Australian Ballet colleagues. They were in New York to dance and promote the Australian Ballet’s New York visit in 2012.

Ingham will be dancing in Houston’s Nutcracker with his partner in life Danielle Rowe, a former Australian Ballet principal who joined Houston Ballet early in 2011. He is looking forward to the occasion. “It’s great to work with someone you love,” he says. “I love being out there on stage with Dani.”

In her relatively short time in Houston to date Rowe has already made a name for herself. A dazzling dancer and winner of a 2010 Helpmann Award as best female dancer in a dance or physical theatre production, Rowe has so far danced leading roles in Houston productions of two major classics, Sleeping Beauty and Giselle. In Giselle, a production staged by yet another Australian artist, dancer and coach Ai-Gul Gaisina, critics spoke glowingly of Rowe’s performance as “gossamer-spirited.” and noted that she moved like “a tissue in a breeze.”

There have been Australians in the Houston company for a while. Mary McKendry, who was brought up and learnt to dance in Rockhampton, Queensland, was a principal dancer with Houston Ballet in the 1980s when a young man from Mao’s China defected while on an exchange visit to Houston Ballet. His name was Li Cunxin and McKendry eventually married him. They moved to Australia where Li would go on to have a stellar career with the Australian Ballet, write his best selling autobiography Mao’s Last Dancer and eventually become a stockbroker in Melbourne. Li often returns to Houston and did so earlier this month to be honoured for his achievements by the Houston-based organisation Dance of Asian America.

What is it that draws Australian dancers to Houston Ballet? Welch believes that it is the varied repertoire that the company offers. His dancers get the opportunity to perform in works that he creates himself, works by acclaimed American and European choreographers and both old and new takes on the classics. Danielle Rowe suggests the same. Along with a positive work ethic, it was what she was looking forward to most of all when she left the Australian Ballet for a new career in Houston. Ingham couldn’t resist the thought though that, with his farming background, there might be the added attraction of the Texan cowboy culture! But whatever it is, the vibes are good at Houston Ballet. Welch strides through his new domain laughing and joking and generously accommodating my every request.—
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Danielle Rowe and Simon Ball in Ben Stevenson’s Sleeping Beauty, 2011. Photo: © Ron McKinney. Courtesy of Houston Ballet

And in addition to those Australians mentioned above, former Australian Ballet dancer Andrew Murphy is an instructor at Houston Ballet’s academy. Murphy is married to Sabrina Lenzi, ballet mistress of Houston Ballet II, a company similar in outlook and mission to the Australian Ballet’s Dancers Company.

Michelle Potter, 26 November 2011

Featured image: Stanton Welch in rehearsal (detail). Photo: © Bruce Bennetts. Courtesy of Houston Ballet

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.
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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