Dance diary. January 2015

  • Jennifer Shennan

I am thrilled to welcome Jennifer Shennan as a contributor to this website. Based in Wellington, New Zealand, Jennifer is a renowned dance writer whose major publications include A Time to Dance: the Royal New Zealand Ballet at 50 (Wellington: RNZB, 2003) and The Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60 (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2013), which she edited with Anne Rowse. Jennifer teaches dance history and anthropology and has a particular research interest in the Pacific. Her own teachers were Poul Gnatt and Russell Kerr. Now that is a proud heritage!

Jennifer’s first contribution was her tribute to Harry Haythorne and I look forward to publishing more of her writing as 2015 proceeds.

  • ‘Pulse: reflections on the body’

The Canberra Museum and Art Gallery has been running a show since October 2014 called ‘Pulse: reflections on the body’. The exhibition has on display items by a range of artists working across several media. Amongst a collection of works on paper and canvas and some sculpture, two dance items are included—Australian Dance Theatre’s 15 minute video of Garry Stewart’s Proximity, and James Batchelor’s video, Ersatz. Batchelor has also been giving some live performances during the run of the show. As seen in the image below, his performance takes place on the highly polished floor in front of his video installation and, as with all his work that I have seen, it is meticulous in its fine detail and in its interest in the stillness that surrounds movement.

James Batchelor performs in 'Pulse', CMAG 2015

(The hand-blown glass objects in the foreground of the image are from a work by Nell)

Pulse logo

  • Arthur Murch and the Ballets Russes

I was pleased to be contacted during January by the daughter of Australian artist Arthur Murch, who told me that her father had travelled to Australia from Italy on board the Romolo with some of the dancers coming to Australia for the 1939–1940 Ballets Russes tour. I was curious because I had been under the impression that the dancers had come from London on board the Orcades, with another group arriving from the West Coast of the United States on board the Mariposa. The two groups met in Sydney and gave their opening performance at the Theatre Royal on 30 December 1939.

It seems, however, that there were a few Ballets Russes personnel who did indeed travel on the Romolo from Genoa. They included Olga Philipoff, daughter of Alexander Philipoff, de Basil’s executive assistant; Marie (Maria) Philipoff, mother of Olga; and dancer Nicolas Ivangine. The Romolo was the last boat to leave Italy before Italy joined the war and Murch was returning to Australia after spending time in various parts of Europe. The Romolo and its passengers have, it seems, escaped the attention of Australian Ballets Russes scholars so far, as has Murch’s connections with the company. To date I have seen a photograph of a beautiful head sculpture Murch made of Mme Philipoff, and a photo of Olga Philipoff and Ivangine on the deck of the ship. I look forward to reporting further on this discovery at a later date.

  • Dance and criticism

The newest issue of Dance Australia (February/March 2015) includes its annual survey by critics from across Australia, although this year Karen van Ulzen has expanded the space given to the survey so that critics are able to give fuller accounts of their choices. It makes the survey more than simply a list and gives a touch of analysis, an essential element in good dance writing. The new look is a welcome initiative that I hope continues. It is always interesting, too, to see how varied the choices are.

  • Press for January

‘Vibrant, expressive show.’ Review Dancing for the gods, Chitrasena Dance Company, The Canberra Times, 19 January 2015, ARTS p. 6. Online version.

‘In the WRIGHT frame of mind.’ Profile of Sam Young-Wright of Sydney Dance Company, The Canberra Times, ‘Panorama’, 24 January 2015, pp. 10–11. Online version.

‘A classic in its own right.’ Preview of Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake, The Canberra Times. ‘Panorama’, 31 January 2015, p. 18. Online version.

FACES publcity

FACES. A work in progress by James Batchelor

I had the pleasure recently of seeing a work in progress by James Batchelor. Called FACES, Batchelor describes it as:

…a study of humans in transforming spaces and temporary constructions. From the trenches of the First World War to modern urban utopias, the work analyses sites of rapid evolution, a fluid interface of body and space. It is a portrait of anonymous faces; soldiers, refugees, nomads, vagrants, boom dockers, train hoppers and the homeless; bodies temporarily held in the relentless passage of time.

As with other explanatory notes relating to Batchelor’s works, I had to wonder how such a statement would (or could) translate into dance. Perhaps this is part of the fascination of Batchelor’s choreography? He arouses our curiosity, without being so abstruse as to alienate us, before we even arrive at the performing space.

The first section we saw was for three dancers, Batchelor himself, Amber McCartney and Chloe Chignell. The slow, careful, even meticulous moves made by the dancers as they progressed down the length of the studio space, moving along a pathway of silver coloured cloth, was transfixing. (It reminded me a little of a show I saw in New York several years ago by Butoh-style performers Eiko and Koma where they moved down a ramp covered in leaves taking the full performance time to reach the bottom). Then we watched as Batchelor, McCartney and Chignell manipulated the cloth in various ways and eventually tied it up with string, again with meticulous accuracy, into a package that to our surprise became a kind of long, joint backpack with images of the dancers’ faces attached to it.

In the second section Chignell and McCartney were joined by eleven dancers from Canberra’s youth ensemble, Quantum Leap. The standout moments of this section for me were in the highly complex yet seemingly simple structure of the choreography as rows of dancers moved up and down the room crossing past each other in simple lines. It had the repetitive feel that one experiences with a piece of music by Philip Glass, or from the look of a grey, grid painting by Agnes Martin, both Americans working in a minimalist manner. The apparent repetition in the works of Glass and Martin repays careful listening or looking when small variations or gradations indicate that there is greater complexity in the structure of their works than first meets the eye. Bouquets to the dancers for being in control of the mathematical intricacies of this section of choreography.

It is hard to know at this stage how the work will unfold. The first section shown in this preview had clear overtones of wartime, but the second had no such obvious context for me. How will they connect? Or will they? Where will they be performed given the apparent links, including through specific funding bodies, to the centenary of the ANZAC landing in 2015 (indoors or outdoors or both)? How will the connections with Canberra’s Quantum Leap dancers develop?

But full marks to Batchelor for having the courage to show FACES in its current, early stage of development. I look forward to future showings.

Michelle Potter, 22 December 2014

Featured image: Publicity shot for FACES

Dance diary. November 2014

  • Canberra Critics’ Circle Awards: Dance 2014

It was a slow year for local, professional dance in the ACT, especially after the very full dance calendar the city had during its centenary year, 2013. The dance panel of the Canberra Critics’ Circle offered only one dance award for 2014. It went to James Batchelor for his performance installation Island.

James Batchelor

Portrait of James Batchelor, c. 2013

During the Circle’s plenary session, at which nominations in individual categories are put forward to the whole group for discussion, a member of the circle questioned me about whether James should or should not be considered a Canberra artist given his strong links with the Melbourne dance scene. It was a good question and one I had discussed with Batchelor earlier in 2014. His reply was:

I left Canberra to go to university in Melbourne, but I don’t see that that makes me any less of a Canberran. I am in just my second year out from university and, as I establish my practice, I live a transient lifestyle. Recently I have worked all around Australia and in France, Thailand and the United Kingdom. But I am involved in a number of projects in Canberra this year and I definitely intend to employ my practice here in Canberra.

Independent artists working in dance are, as a matter of necessity, almost always peripatetic.

Read more about Batchelor’s work in Canberra at this tag, in my Canberra Times story at this link, and in my review of QL2’s Boundless program at this link.

  • Dimity Azoury: Telstra Ballet Dancer Award, 2014

It was a pleasure to learn that Dimity Azoury, former pupil of Canberra dance teacher Kim Harvey, received the Telstra Ballet Dancer Award for 2014. A profile of Azoury, currently a coryphée with the Australian Ballet, will be coming to this website shortly.

Dimity Azoury in 'Paquita', the Australian Ballet 2014. Photo: Jeff Busby

Dimity Azoury in Paquita, the Australian Ballet 2014. Photo: Jeff Busby

  • Robert Ray’s Nutcracker

Teacher and choreographer Robert Ray tells me he has headed to New York to stage his Nutcracker for students from the Joffrey Ballet School with guest artists from the Joffrey Concert Group. His production of Nutcracker attracted my attention while I was writing Dame Maggie Scott: a life in dance. To quote from the book:

In 1985 Maggie had commissioned Ray to create a new version of the ever popular Christmas classic, The Nutcracker. It was a milestone in the School’s history being the first full-length ballet made especially for the School and was designed especially for students to perform and their end of year graduation. It was also a move to have a cost efficient work for the School, one that could be repeated over the years with roles that would suit students from across all levels of training.

‘It was a wonderful training ballet because the first year students could take roles like the mice and the soldiers, the second year students could dance the individual solo roles and the third years could aspire to the pas de deux and the principal roles’, Maggie suggests. ‘And Robert’s choreography was demanding. The students would compete for roles in it. We performed it for five consecutive years.

So now Joffrey Ballet School has taken advantage of this work and Ray believes it is likely to become a permanent fixture on the Joffrey Christmas calendar.

  • Hot to Trot: Quantum Leap

Quantum Leap in Canberra has just shown its sixteenth production of Hot to Trot, a program in which young dancers try their hand at choreography, and occasionally dance on film. Probably the most intriguing piece on the program of eight short dances and one film (also short) was Inside Out by Aden Hamilton. Hamilton is in Year Five at Telopea Park Primary School and, for someone so young, his duet, which he performed with Caroline de Wan, was astonishingly mature and complete in its structure. Someone to watch.

  • Press for November

‘Bold effort but unwoven threads.’ Review of Kathrada 50/25, Liz Lea. The Canberra Times, 4 November 2014, p. 6.  Online.

‘Local links in national awards.’ Report on the Australian Dance Awards 2014. The Canberra Times, 10 November 2014, pp. 10–11. Online.

Michelle Potter, 30 November 2014

‘Island’. James Batchelor

30 April 2014, Courtyard Theatre, Canberra

James Batchelor’s Island is a fascinating look at what dance can encompass when it becomes an immersive experience. The work is performed by three dancers, Batchelor himself along with Amber McCartney and Rebecca Lee, and it deals largely with perception. I have to admit to feeling slightly frustrated by dance that purports to deal with highly abstract notions. Often it’s only the words on the program that have anything to say on the subject while the dance is just a series of steps. But Island is different.

James Batchelor and Amber McCartney in 'Island', 2014. Photo © Lorna Sim

James Batchelor and Amber McCartney in Island, 2014. Photo © Lorna Sim

The first hint that Island might be an interesting work comes early, as we enter the performing space in fact. Architect Ella Leoncio is the designer. She has decorated the small black box space that is the Courtyard Theatre of the Canberra Theatre Centre with bright white tape stretched in lines and geometric patterns across the floor and up the walls. A bank of mirrors is attached to one wall, six movable glass (or perspex?) screens are arranged in the centre of the space in two groups of three and six circles of small bright lights are on the floor. What we don’t know immediately is that some of the screens are slightly convex/concave, a little like those Coney Island-style mirrors that distort the image of those who look into them.

The work itself is in three parts performed without interval. It begins with a solo for Lee, which is followed by a duet for Batchelor and McCartney. All three dancers join together for the final section. Batchelor’s choreography exists in many small movements, sometimes quite subtle, other times forceful in response to Morgan Hickinbotham’s score, which is confronting and yet listenable in its diversity of sounds. I especially enjoyed the performance of McCartney who had absorbed Batchelor’s movement style and added something of her own—a strength of purpose perhaps? Her dancing was certainly strong and well-defined.

But what makes Island so interesting is that the audience is encouraged to walk around the space and see the dance/installation from different viewpoints. Again this is something that I usually find annoying as it is more often than not a meaningless exercise. On this occasion however, the mirrors and screens, which were moved into different positions at the end of each section, came into their own. There were some totally absorbing perspectives on Batchelor’s choreography. Depending on where one went it looked enlarged, minimised, stretched out, and any other number of shape distortions. Occasionally Leoncio’s striped walls and floor became an integral part of the dance when they too were reflected into the screens. Then as a foil there was the clean, precise look of dance undistorted when one moved to other positions. Not everyone in the audience was on the move, which was a real shame because they missed a lot.

Leoncio continued her black and white theme in her costumes and make-up with the white extending beyond the costumes themselves to hair, face and even fingernails in some cases.

I really enjoyed this show. Batchelor has an enquiring mind and his work is definitely worth looking at and analysing.

Michelle Potter, 3 May 2014

Ballet Rambert in Australia 1948

Dance diary. April 2014

  •   Ballet Rambert Australasian tour

I was delighted to find, during my recent research in the Rambert Archives in London, an album, currently on loan to the Archives for copying, assembled by dancer Pamela Whittaker (Vincent) during the Ballet Rambert’s tour to Australia and New Zealand, 1947–1949. What struck me instantly was the fact that this company enjoyed a similarly social time in Australia and New Zealand as did the Ballets Russes companies that preceded Rambert. I hope to pursue this a little further in a later post but in the meantime the featured image (above) is a photo from Pamela Whittaker’s album. Below is another image from that album.

Ballet Rambert in Australia. Horseriding excursion, 1948

Ballet Rambert on an outing in Australia, 1948. From the personal album of Pamela Whittaker (Vincent)

  • Kristian Fredrikson Scholarship 2014

The Kristian Fredrikson Scholarship for 2014 has been awarded to West Australian designer Alicia Clements. For more about Alicia’s work see her website, but below is a costume for the character of Nishi from The White Divers of Broome staged by the Black Swan Theatre Company in Perth in 2012.

Costume by Alicia Clements for Nishi in 'The White Divers of Broome'. Photo © Cameron Etchells.

Costume by Alicia Clements for Nishi in The White Divers of Broome. Photo © Cameron Etchells.

  • Australian Dance Awards 2014

The long list of nominations for the 2014 Australian Dance Awards was released during April. From a Canberra perspective it is good to see a number of nominations with strong Canberra connections, although I wonder whether any or many of them will make the short lists given the fact that so few people outside Canberra will have seen the productions in the flesh. That concern aside, however, I was especially pleased to see Garry Stewart’s Monument on the list for two awards, an individual award to Stewart for outstanding achievement in choreography and an award to the Australian Ballet for outstanding performance by a company. It was also gratifying to see Life is a Work of Art created by Liz Lea and others for GOLD, the group of mature age performers associated with Canberra Dance Theatre, nominated in the community dance category.

'Richard House, Rudy Hawkes & Cameron Hunter in 'Monument', 2013. The Australian Ballet. Photo © Branco Gaica

Richard House, Rudy Hawkes and Cameron Hunter in Monument, 2013. The Australian Ballet. Photo © Branco Gaica

But I noticed that Janet Karin, former director of the National Capital Ballet School, currently kinetic educator at the Australian Ballet School, and also now president of  the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science, is again on the list for services to dance education. Fingers crossed for this one as her contribution to the Australian dance scene has been remarkable over many years and in many areas and she deserves recognition from her peers.

  • Island: James Batchelor

I am looking forward to the opening of James Batchelor’s new work, Island, which premieres tonight at the Courtyard Theatre, Canberra Theatre Centre. Batchelor was impressive when I interviewed him earlier his month (see online link below) but seeing in production what one has written about in advance is always challenging. But Canberra needs more dance of the sophisticated variety. So fingers crossed!

James Batchelor in 'Ersatz', Bangkok 2013. Photo © NDEPsixteen

James Batchelor in Ersatz, Bangkok 2013. Photo © NDEPsixteen

  • Press for April

‘Outstanding skills shown in diversity’. Review of Sydney Dance Company’s Interplay. The Canberra Times, 12 April 2014, ARTS 19. Online 

‘Dedicated Batchelor’. Preview story for James Batchelor’s Island. The Canberra Times, 26 April 2014. Online version.

Michelle Potter, 30 April 2014

Featured image: Ballet Rambert enjoying the Australian bush, 1948. From the personal album of Pamela Whittaker (Vincent)

Ballet Rambert in Australia 1948

 

 

‘Inwonderland’. James Batchelor

6 April 2013, Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre

James Batchelor’s dance and multimedia installation Inwonderland has already been seen in various manifestations, often as a work in progress, in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra. This particular Canberra showing was, however, my first taste of the work and in fact my first taste of Batchelor’s approach to making art. It is an impressive production showing Batchelor’s strong film making skills—he has been mentored by Sue Healey—and some beautifully detailed costumes and settings. Overall it is a remarkably cohesive show.

Amber McCartney in 'Inwonderland'Amber McCartney in James Batchelor’s Inwonderland. Courtesy James Batchelor

The title, Inwonderland, evokes of course Lewis Carroll’s Alice in wonderland and there are many clear allusions to that story. At the beginning of the work we enter a darkened space with our camp stools (shades of an art gallery installation) and notice that there are several separate areas where the work will unfold. At first we encounter a circle of toy rabbits with a dancer dressed in a long Victorian-style dress moving in the middle of this ring. The rabbit-hole of course! She engages in conversation with one rabbit, she twitches and twists—in fact circles seem to be a choreographer signature here. And as the work continues and we move on with it to other parts of the performing space there are other allusions to Alice in wonderland. The most obvious comes when the work takes place around a long table set up for a grand tea party.

But we can spend a lot of time searching for connections with Alice in wonderland when in fact the work goes beyond that. It’s an expressionistic work where ideas are subjectively presented, where experiences are exaggerated, removed from reality and often distorted. A scene where Amber McCartney, the ‘Alice’ of the piece, sits reading in the glow of a Tiffany-style lamp is a case in point. As she does so film footage of the Inwonderland characters moving through a hedge maze and a tangle of branches appears on a screen that looks as if it is made from unspun wool (in fact it’s wadding). This screen distorts what is in fact beautifully crisp footage (see the excerpt at the link below). The dream-like quality that emerges as the footage is screened in this way is mirrored by McCartney who moves in slow motion, sometimes almost imperceptibly.

The tea party is a great example of Batchelor’s approach as well. It becomes almost a slapstick adventure for the three characters: a schoolmarm, ‘Alice’, and a brightly dressed, crazy character, all of whom wreak havoc at the beautifully set up table. Stretched above the table is another screen on which footage is again distorted, both as a result of the screen’s location high above the table and because the screen is not stretched taut.

Inwonderland falls down slightly in terms of choreography, which I thought needed some pruning particularly in the opening rabbit-hole sequence. And a stronger movement vocabulary is needed I think. I’m not sure if Batchelor works in a particular manner in creating his vocabulary but it looks like he needs a firmer foundation from which to build and develop his movement ideas. I would have liked to know more too about the sound track and the scenic and costume design. The hand-out missed giving these credits.

Inwonderland is, however, a wonderful example of how dance, film, and scenic and costume design can work together, and its presentation as an installation is beautifully thought through and thoroughly refreshing. It is a dreamscape of the mind. I look forward eagerly to seeing more of Batchelor’s work and hope that he doesn’t move entirely into the area of dance film, although he is clearly talented in that area, but keeps a live component in his works as well.

Michelle Potter, 7 April 2013

Here is a link to the footage filmed at Berrima, New South Wales.