Happy returns

On Dancing’s reviews of John Neumeier’s extraordinary choreography, Nijinsky—both the recent Australian Ballet production, which I have not seen, and the link to that of 2012 for the Hamburg Ballet in Brisbane,* are welcome reminders of the Hamburg company’s stellar achievements.

Telling reference is made to the circular shapes incorporated into the set design, echoing paintings by Nijinsky—and lucky we are that one of his paintings is held in a private collection in Wellington, a tiny telescoping of ballet history.

Dimity Azoury. Alexandre Riabko, Francois-Eloi Lavignac and Leanne Stojmenov in 'Nijinsky'. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: Jeff Busby

Dimity Azoury. Alexandre Riabko, Francois-Eloi Lavignac and Leanne Stojmenov in Nijinsky. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

I keep indelible memories of two trips to Hamburg, 2005 and 2015, where I saw in total ten of Neumeier’s full-length works. What astonishing programming in two short weeks, demonstrating the enduring worth of keeping repertoire extant, instead of allowing Rip Van Winkle to steal away with choreographed treasure never more to be seen in a lifetime, as happens in too many places.

Hamburg Ballet’s detailed website is further evidence of this artistic confidence, paying much respect to the casts listed at its premiere and in subsequent seasons, to the audiences’ interest in such things, and in the company’s future programming, which gives us the wherewithal to make fruitful travel plans.

Jiri Bubenicek created the lead role in the 2000 premiere cast of Nijinsky in Hamburg, and his twin brother Otto Bubenicek danced the Golden Slave and the Faun in that same season. After many years with Hamburg Ballet, the brothers, now collaborating and working on an international circuit, Jiri in choreography and Otto in design, will this month prepare a work on New Zealand School of Dance students for their graduation show in November. I look forward to viewing and reviewing it.

Australia’s Daniel Gaudiello proved a most gracious and convincing Albrecht in Royal New Zealand Ballet’s recent Giselle—and soon our Joseph Skelton crosses the Tasman in the other direction to guest as Albrecht in the Australian Ballet’s production.

RNZB will soon offer a studio season of new work by dancers aspiring to choreograph. Again this will be named for memory of dear Harry Haythorne.

Thus the ballet world continues to turn with little more than demi-plié degrees of separation between practitioners and their ephemeral heritage.  Words on dance websites help hold the gossamer together between seasons.

Jennifer Shennan, Wellington 12 October 2016

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*which I did get lucky to see, in their wonderful double billing with A Midsummer Night’s Dream—which in turn makes interesting contrast now with Liam Scarlett’s choreography in the co-production between Royal New Zealand Ballet and Queensland Ballet.  RNZB are performing it this week in Hong Kong at the Shakespeare festival there—then home for a brief Wellington season).

Featured image: Photo: Leanne Stojmenov, Alexandre Riabko, Ako Kondo and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson in Nijinsky, the Australian Ballet 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Leanne Stojmenov, Alexandre Riabko, Ako Kondo and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson in 'Nijinsky', the Australian Ballet 2016. Photo Jeff Busby

Alexandre Riabko in Nijinsky, 2016. Photo: Jeff Busby

‘Nijinsky’. The Australian Ballet

7 September 2016, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

Alexandre Riabko, guesting with the Australian Ballet in the lead role on the opening night performance of John Neumeier’s Nijinsky, has been dancing that role since at least 2003 when Hamburg Ballet guested in Paris. He may well have danced it even earlier. At the work’s world premiere in Hamburg in 2000 he took the role of the dancer Nijinsky as Harlequin in Le Carnaval and the Spirit of the Rose in Le Spectre de la rose. Thus the ballet Nijinsky, and the role of Vaslav Nijinsky, have been part of his dancing life for more than fifteen years. And so it was not surprising, but nevertheless thrilling, that his performance throughout the ballet was exceptional. It was exceptional from his first commanding entrance and walk down the steps leading to the space where he was to dance, through to his dramatic finale, performed in the same space, albeit now an arena that contained signs of destruction, as indeed did Nijinsky’s state of mind. Riabko held the work together. It was a tour de force by a dancer who communicated with every inch of his body.

Those with whom Riabko shared the stage—characters representing Nijinsky’s family, especially his wife Romola; characters that Nijinsky danced during his career; dancers from Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, including Tamara Karsavina and Leonide Massine; Diaghilev himself; soldiers and others representing war, against which Nijinsky was so opposed—had mixed success.

Leanne Stojmenov was a standout as Nijinsky’s sister, Bronislava Nijinska, especially in the Rite of Spring scene (of which sadly there seem to be no media images available, but see below for Stojmenov as the Young Woman in Jeux).

Leanne Stojmenov and Alexandre Riabko in 'Nijinsky', the Australian Ballet 2016. Photo Jeff Busby

Leanne Stojmenov and Alexandre Riabko in Nijinsky. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

In the Rite of Spring scene, where Stojmenov played the Chosen Virgin, she danced as if there was no tomorrow, tossing her body into Neumeier’s demanding positions, flinging herself from side to side, hair in disarray. In fact this scene, with Riabko/Nijinsky standing on a chair shouting out instructions to the performers, is one of the most exciting of the evening. (To the Australian Ballet: oh please get access to the Pina Bausch Rite of Spring and put Stojmenov in the lead. She would be stunning).

I also thought that François-Eloi Lavignac was outstanding as Stanislav, Nijinsky’s brother. His small, compact but very flexible body perfectly suited Neumeier’s writhing movements. Stanislav’s death was a compelling scene.

Along with Lavignac and Stojmenov, I was also impressed by Cristano Martino as the dancer Nijinsky as the Faun in L’après-midi d’un faune, and the Golden Slave in Schéhérazade. His Golden Slave was slinky and strongly sexual. His Faun was beautifully controlled and conveyed an innate power.

Cristiano Martino as the Faun on 'Nijinsky'. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: Jeff Busby

Cristiano Martino as the Faun in Nijinsky. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

As ever, however, I longed for so many of the others in the cast to have more artistry in their performance and, for the first time in my various encounters with this ballet, I felt as though Neumeier’s Nijinsky was too long and too slow in parts. I still get the feeling that the dancers of the Australian Ballet focus on steps, and Neumeier’s Nijinsky is not about steps. I was disappointed, for example, with Adam Bull’s portrayal of Diaghilev. Bull is an excellent dancer but I think of Diaghilev as an eccentric character and there was nothing eccentric about Bull’s interpretation. For me he was a ballet dancer pretending to be Diaghilev. Similarly with Amy Harris as Romola. I got no feeling for what kind of person she might have been.

I did enjoy the sets and costumes (concept by Neumeier) more in this viewing than previously, when I guess I was more focused on what was happening and who was who. Neumeier’s use of ‘attributes’ rather than detailed costuming to distinguish characters was aesthetically pleasing and the circles of light that occasionally appeared as part of a particular setting recalled Nijinsky’s fascinating circular drawings, some of which are part of Neumeier’s personal collection of Nijinsky memorabilia.

Alexandre Riabko in 'Nijinsky'. The Australian Ballet 2016. Photo: Jeff Busby

Alexandre Riabko in Nijinsky. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Nijinsky is a thrilling work and I bow to Neumeier’s concept. But I hope that throughout the Australian Ballet season, as it continues in Melbourne, and then goes to Adelaide and Sydney, that stronger characterisations might emerge from more of the dancers.

Michelle Potter, 9 September 2016

Featured image: Alexandre Riabko in Nijinsky. The Australian Ballet 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Alexandre Riabko in Nijinsky, 2016. Photo: Jeff Busby

My review of Nijinsky with Hamburg Ballet in Brisbane in 2012 is at this link.

‘The diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky’. Paul Cox’s ‘cinematic poem’.

The death earlier in June of film maker Paul Cox sent me in search of a DVD copy of his film The diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky. The backstory is that Cox heard actor Paul Schofield on British radio reading from Nijinsky’s diaries (cahiers), which were first released in 1936 after having been rearranged and edited dramatically by Nijinsky’s wife, Romola.From that moment Cox was smitten and wanted to make a film based on the diaries. The making was a drawn-out experience (it took three years),2 but the film was eventually completed in 2001 and released in 2002. Cox has referred to it as a ‘cinematic poem’: it is certainly far from a documentary in the commonly understood meaning of the term.

Nijinsky began writing down his thoughts as a kind of diary on the morning of his last public performance, which he gave at the Suvretta Hotel in St Moritz on 19 January 1919. He wrote his last entry on 4 March that same year, the day he was to go to Zurich to see the psychiatrist, Eugen Bleuler, who would decide that he was suffering from incurable schizophrenia and who would advise, among other things, that he be admitted to a sanatorium. There are three exercise books of writing and drawing, with the first two books containing sections of Nijinsky’s own form of dance notation. The fourth notebook contains several letters to family, friends and others. The three diary books are held by the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. The fourth book of letters is held in Paris by the Department of Music, Bibliothèque nationale.

I found Cox’s film (which I must admit I had never seen before) absolutely mesmerising. It is in many respects a collage of images that flash past us, some of which return hauntingly throughout the film. Sometimes they are photographs of Nijinsky in his well-known roles for the Ballets Russes, such as the image at the top if this post, which shows Nijinsky as Petrushka. Sometimes they are images from nature, with flowing water and birds, in particular a crane, appearing frequently. Cox also plays with light and shade and there are many fleeting, emotive moments where shadows flicker over walls, water, and natural features of the landscape. The images reflect Nijinsky’s words as they are written in the diaries and are spoken as a voice over by Derek Jacobi.

The film begins with a funeral procession, Nijinsky’s funeral. As the coffin and the mourning party move down a pathway we see ‘ghosts’ of Nijinsky hovering in the background and sometimes merging with the funeral procession. They are characters Nijinsky played in the ballets that made him the famous male dancer that he was—the Spirit of the Rose from Le spectre de la rose, the Golden Slave from Scheherazade, the Faune from L’Après-midi d’un faune, and so on. These characters appear, disappear and reappear throughout the film, slipping between the other images, always reminding us of Nijinsky’s remarkable dancing career.

The dancing components, like the characters who hover around the funeral procession, are interspersed seemingly randomly between the flow of non-dancing imagery. David McAllister and Vicki Attard appear as the two characters in Le Spectre de la rose, while dancers from Leigh Warren and Dancers take on most of the other dancing roles. I admired Aidan Kane Munn’s ‘War Dance’, which he choreographed as a tormented, quivering solo and danced blank-faced. This was the item Nijinsky chose to dance at Suvretta House: ‘Now I will dance you the war … the war which you did not prevent.’ It is described by Joan Acocella (following Romola Nijinsky’s description) as ‘a violent solo, presumably improvised’ and analysed by Ramsay Burt in relation to Nijinsky’s thoughts on war and peace.I also especially admired Csaba Buday’s performance as the Faune in a version of L’Après-midi d’un faune choreographed by Alida Chase and set outdoors in a clearing surrounded by trees and bushes. There was an animal-like awareness to Munn’s reactions as the Nymphs passed by, and his closing scene with the veil was gentle yet blatantly sexual.

There is a kind of narrative component to anchor the imagery and dancing. We meet Romola and her parents and the various doctors who examined Nijinsky, for example. But we never hear them speak, although their body language and facial expressions give us clues as to how the story and their thoughts about Nijinsky are unfolding. Their presence forces us to face the reality that is behind the film.

DVD cover

The diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky is a truly beautiful, painterly film. Like John Neumeier’s Nijinsky, which Hamburg Ballet performed in Australia in 2012, it is absolutely compelling and arouses so many thoughts about the nature of Nijinsky—the man and the dancer. But, in contrast to the Neumeier work, the Cox film is almost serene in its overall mood, despite some confronting and bloody images relating to Nijinsky’s vegetarianism, and the challenging words and ideas spoken forcefully by Jacobi. That I find the mood serene is is not to suggest, however, that Cox has not presented the drama and the confusion of thought that permeated Nijinsky’s life. It is just felt in a different manner. The film and the dance work complement each other in a very unusual way and, having at last seen the film, I look forward immensely to seeing the Neumeier work again when it is performed by the Australian Ballet later this year.

Michelle Potter, 25 June 2016

Featured image: Vaslav Nijinsky as Petrushka. Photographer and source unknown

1. Joan Acocella, in her introduction to the unexpurgated edition of the diaries, published in English in 1999 as The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, explains in detail how Romola altered the diaries in that first publishing endeavour of 1936. In particular Acocella notes that around 40% of the contents of the diaries was omitted. Acocella’s introduction is, as is all her writing, lucid and informed: Joan Acocella (ed.), The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1999).

2. Philip Tyndall describes the development of the film saying that Cox ‘did much of the cinematography himself in addition to the writing, directing, co-producing and editing.’ Philip Tyndall, ‘The diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky. The culmination of a career.’ In Sense of Cinema. Issue 20, May 2002. Accessed 25 June 2016.

3. Ramsay Burt, ‘Alone in the world. Reflections on solos from 1919 by Vaslav Nijinsky and Mary Wigman’. In On Stage Alone. Soloists and the modern dance canon, eds Claudia Gitelman and Barbara Palfy (Gainesville FL: University of Florida Press, 2012).

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

‘Romeo and Juliet’. The Royal Danish Ballet

11 March 2016, the Royal Theatre, Copenhagen

What a pleasure it was to be sitting in the auditorium of Copenhagen’s beautiful, old Royal Theatre waiting for the curtain to go up on a production of Romeo and Juliet—John Neumeier’s version too, which I had never seen: such a sense of anticipation not just because for me it was a different production, but also because it was about ten years since I last saw the Royal Danish Ballet. What a sense of occasion too because just as it was time for curtain up Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, a true balletomane, appeared in the Royal Box and the audience rose as one to welcome her.

But to the show …

The Neumeier Romeo and Juliet is said to have been partly inspired by John Cranko’s production, so well known to Australian audiences during the period of Maina Gielgud’s directorship of the Australian Ballet.  And yes, there is a spectre of Cranko somewhere there. But on the other hand, Neumeier’s production is quite distinctive. Choreographically it is absolutely fascinating, especially in the way it contrasts the movements of the elders of the Capulet and Montague families and those of the younger folk across the social strata. Both groups are given what I can only say are beautifully eccentric movements, especially for the arms and upper body. The elders often use a highly formalised vocabulary, while the young people have a freedom that sometimes verges on the wild. Gorgeous. And how beautifully did the dancers of the Royal Danish Ballet respond to this vocabulary!

Ida Praetorius as Juliet was completely entrancing. She showed off a stellar technique—the highlight for me came when she was refusing the attentions of Paris and at one point, in desperation, tossed off an amazing, perfect double turn in arabesque with arms flung upwards and body slightly tilted. But not only did she dance with such perfection, her characterisation of Juliet was brilliant. She played the role as it was written—she was a thirteen year old. She often seemed slightly awkward of limb, she often made her youth clear by seeming not to know how to behave in every situation, and her nervousness and vulnerability were clear, especially when she executed that wonderful stumble on the last few stairs as she entered the ballroom for the Capulet ball. But throughout, her youthful, slightly crazy love for Romeo was always obvious.

Andreas Kaas and Ida Praetorius. The Royal Danish Ballet. Photo: © 2016 Costin Radu

Andreas Kaas and Ida Praetorius in Romeo and Juliet. The Royal Danish Ballet. Photo: © 2016 Costin Radu

As Romeo, Andreas Kaas was as ardent and dramatic in love as one could hope. His enthusiasm and desire for Juliet showed in his every movement. He rushed to her. He could scarcely hold back his longing for her. Kaas and Praetorius, together, made the two characters come alive in a way I have never seen before. It seems like a partnership made in heaven from both a dancerly and dramatic point of view.

Another stand-out performance came from Sebastian Haynes as Mercutio, dashing and charismatic as a character, thrilling as a dancer. His death scene was powerfully moving and made more so by the feisty way Romeo took on Tybalt after the stabbing. I also admired Susanne Grinder as Lady Capulet. She moved with such strength and such elegance, sweeping her way through Neumeier’s formal choreography and wearing her bright orange gown with style and aplomb—a true aristocrat. And I have never taken all that much notice of the entourage that enters the square to try to restore some peace to the conflicts between the Capulets and the Montagues. But in this production Poul-Erik Hesselkilde was a towering presence as the Prince of Verona. Mostly he stood still, centre stage, but he was so in command of the role that his power spread across the stage and out into the auditorium.

There were so many magical moments, too, inserted by Neumeier to make more sense of the story. The potion that the friar gives to Juliet, for example, we know is not a deadly poison but Neumeier introduces a group of street performers who, in a commedia dell’arte manner, mime the effect the liquid will have. Juliet and the friar stand motionless, in a kind of freeze frame, in the act of giving and receiving the vial.

As is usual in Royal Danish Ballet performances, the presence of children in the crowd scenes was always noticeable. I loved the way the adult dancers in the corps de ballet interacted with them, shielding them from fight scenes, making sure they hurried off during the more gruesome moments. And as for the corps, I loved that they looked as though dancing was their life and not just their job.

Costumes and sets were by Jürgen Rose, also responsible for the design of the Cranko production. But his work for Neumeier had a very different feel and was often unusual in the way Neumeier’s choreography was unusual. His striking red wedding dress with white turban for Juliet was quite startling, for example, and the church for the wedding, which was created as plain brown flats slid beautifully and noiselessly into place, had all the simplicity of a Cistercian abbey church. Nothing was overdone but everything contributed beautifully and economically to the unfolding story.

This Romeo and Juliet was such a striking production, so beautifully danced by the entire company and musically thrilling—it just took my breath away. The evening sped by and it was by far the most exciting and captivating performance I have seen for years, anywhere in the world.

Ida Praetorius and Andreas Kaas. The Royal Danish Ballet. Photo: Costin Radu

Ida Praetorius and Andreas Kaas in Romeo and Juliet. The Royal Danish Ballet. Photo: © 2016 Costin Radu

Michelle Potter, 15 March 2016

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.

‘Nijinsky’. Hamburg Ballet

26 August 2012, Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

John Neumeier’s Nijinsky is an unusual work and defies easy categorisation. It is neither an abstract nor a narrative work. It’s more like a series of pictures that unfold throughout the work, building to a huge climax in the second part. Those pictures represent random events in the life of Vaslav Nijinsky and are really a series of flashbacks presented to reflect his diagnosed schizophrenic condition. They begin as he prepares to give his final dance performance—a Red Cross benefit show at the Hotel Suvretta in Saint-Moritz, Switzerland.* Neumeier uses this flashback technique to explore many different facets of Nijinsky’s life. We encounter him as a brother and a son, a dancer, a lover, a choreographer, a husband, and we are given impressions of the emotional states that accompany those roles in his life. Not only are these flashbacks random pictures, they also push us headlong into a maelstrom as they combine together, out of historical and any logical sequence and in a surreal fashion. Neumeier calls it a ‘biography of the soul’.

Artists of Hamburg Ballet in 'Nijinsky'. Photo Holger BadekowAlexandre Riabko, Anna Polikarpova and Otto Bubenicek in Nijinsky, Hamburg Ballet. Photo: © Holger Badekow

There are some thrilling moments of dancing. The trio between Nijinsky’s wife, Romola (Anna Polikarpova), Nijinsky (Alexandre Riabko) and Nijinsky as the seductive Faun (Otto Bubenicek), in which Neumeier explores facets of love and desire and life and art, is one such moment. The trio between Diaghilev, Nijinsky and another young dancer, where we see the destructive power of Diaghilev, is another. But for me the most powerful moments come in the second part of the work, when Nijinsky feels attacked from all sides—his schizophrenia is a reality, the Great War begins, his brother Stanislaw dies, Massine takes his place in Diaghilev’s life and activities and Romola has a liaison with his doctor. The pressure is relentless and we can feel it in so many ways. We see it when Nijinsky stands on a chair shouting out counts, as history tells us he did when his dancers struggled with Stravinsky’s music for Rite of Spring. We see it in the figure of Petrouchka (Lloyd Riggins), pale, wan and squashed emotionally as the drama continues around him. There is a remarkable performance from Aleix Martinez as Stanislaw, the brother, who dies as figures in military dress throw themselves about the stage. And how horrifying are those raucous moments when the dancers, still dressed as figures at war, humiliate Nijinsky as he struggles to cope with his world.

I wonder, however, how easy it was for the audience to understand on occasions who was who and what was happening. It does make a difference to one’s perception of the overall work to know something of Nijinsky’s choreography, and that of his sister Bronislava. There were many times when poses (albeit very well-known poses), from Jeux and Les noces for example, set the work in a particular context. Similarly costumes and props often gave significant clues. Nijinsky is clearly one of those ‘giving’ works that means more each time one sees it; but then not everyone has those opportunities. Neumeier knows his subject well and in fact has a large personal collection of Nijinsky memorabilia and other documentation.** But does he expect the audience to have the same in depth knowledge? Does it matter that not everyone has the same understanding of Nijinsky’s world?

Nijinsky had the audience on its feet at the end of its first performance in Brisbane. It is rare, I believe, for an Australian audience to rise as one and give a standing ovation and I can remember only one other occasion in Australia when I have thought that I was witnessing, and was part of, a ‘real’ standing ovation rather than one that’s a bit like a reverse fall of dominoes—if you want to see the curtain calls you have to stand up because the person in front is blocking your view. Nijinsky is sometimes hard to follow. I was confused at times and it wasn’t my first viewing.*** But the quality of the production, especially its visual strength, some fine performances, and the absolutely compelling manner in which the work surges forward and then concludes by returning to its beginnings in the Hotel Suvretta, generate in the audience an equally compelling desire to stand up and cheer. I did.

Michelle Potter, 28 August 2012

NOTES

*Ramsay Burt has an interesting essay ‘Alone into the world: reflections on solos from 1919 by Vaslav Nijinsky and Mary Wigman’ in the recent publication On stage alone, which I reviewed earlier this month. Burt looks, amongst other things, at the Suvretta performance in the context of Nijinsky’s philosophical opposition to war.

**John Neumeier has an extended essay on his collection and his fascination with Nijinsky in the catalogue that accompanied the major exhibition Nijinsky (1889–1950) at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris in 2000–2001. The catalogue also contains images and information about many of the Nijinsky items owned by Neumeier. See Martine Kahane, Nijinsky 1889–1950 (Paris: Réunion des musées nationaux, 2000).

***Nijinsky had its premiere in Hamburg in 2000. I was  lucky enough to catch it in 2002 when Hamburg Ballet was guesting in Paris. Looking back at that 2002 program it was interesting to see that some roles were, in 2012, still being danced by those who performed them in 2002.

Paul De Masson (1953‒2012)

Some recent correspondence with a colleague in the United States highlighted in my mind the breadth of Paul De Masson’s international career and the fact that we often fail to recognise and acknowledge the role overseas experiences play in the careers of our artists.  As a tribute to Paul’s varied activities in Australia and elsewhere, I have extracted just a few brief snippets from the oral history interview I recorded with him in Melbourne in July last year. The extracts are randomly selected from an interview that contains many other thoughts and ideas on a range of matters.

I have taken some liberties in putting together these short extracts as the spoken word, when transcribed verbatim, does not always lend itself to clear, readable text. Oral history is always better when it is listened to rather than read from a transcript. This is especially so in the case of Paul’s interview as his speech was colourful and peppered with many untranslatable noises to indicate various dance movements, the whipping of the head as one does a pirouette, for example. It also contains a range of different voices depending on which of his colleagues Paul is speaking about.

Paul’s interview (TRC 6328) is held in the Oral History and Folklore Collection of the National Library of Australia.

On Kiril Vassilkovsky, an early teacher in Perth
Kiril’s classes were very fast, lots of batterie ’cause he was very small. He used to do lots of pirouettes in class and lots of beats. And he used to dress for class. He used to wear a vest and trousers and shoes. He had special shoes made, very soft leather shoes. And they were plaited leather and special on the instep so he could point his foot. They had a heel ’cause he was small and he wanted to be taller. And so he demonstrated all these steps in a suit and tie. And he had immaculate nails. I noticed he was always manicured. His classes were very fast. And I’m not joking, Kiril taught me to do ten pirouettes.

On taking class with Roland Petit’s Ballet national de Marseille while on tour in that city with Disney on Parade
So I did class and I remember Roland stood right in front of me. He always did class every morning, at least the barre. And he always wore white. He had a bald, shaved head; I think he shaved it for a production he was doing. And there he was, right in front of me, and looking. I didn’t know it was Roland Petit, I didn’t know it was the director. And I remember everything was white, the shoes, the socks, the leg warmers. And he had a white dressing gown and a white towel. The afterwards they said to me ‘The director would like to see you.’ And so I went into this room and I was in shock. It was the same guy. And he said: ‘Well we are interested in you as a dancer. Do you want to come and join us?’

The follow-up story of Paul’s first few months with this company is particularly interesting.

On making up for the role of Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame for the Australian Ballet
They’d had all these people from the film industry come in but they made all these plastic, silicon things. It didn’t work for the ballet because every time you did a pirouette it all flew off. So I designed my own make-up, which was basically Elastoplast and cotton wool. I put cotton wool and then stuck it down with Elastoplast, then more cotton wool then more Elastoplast. And it took me a long time, putting the cotton wool in the right place and then putting a make-up base on top of all that, filling in the cracks, and then using a brush to draw a face on that. But it was fantastic because it never moved and it was light.

It was this make-up that De Masson tore off in front of Peter Bahen, administrator, when the infamous Australian Ballet strike began.

On dancing in Romeo and Juliet with the Australian Ballet
[Maina Gielgud] put me to do Romeo, Mercutio and Tybalt all in the same season in Sydney. Every second night I was changing, doing one or the other, which I found fantastic. I loved doing Mercutio, which was my premium role. Then when I got to do Romeo I thought that was fabulous, to actually have a chance to do Romeo. Then I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Tybalt. To do all three, and be different in all three, that was the challenge. But the other challenge was reversing all the sword fights. It was like sometimes I didn’t know who I was. I’d turn around and … but I managed.  I got it done.

On his role as ballet master with the Australian Ballet
I used to love coaching, mostly the dramatic side of things. I think I was much better with individual rehearsals—principals and soloists—than I was with big corps de ballet work. Although now, now over all these years having worked in other companies as ballet master, I can handle that quite well now and I actually enjoy it a great deal. But I wasn’t enjoying it at first. I was much more comfortable with just a couple. But the highlight is sitting there and seeing the outcome. Just seeing the progression of the dancers, going from no idea of a role and then, after you’ve given them everything you could possibly give, them, seeing it suddenly click, seeing something happen. Sometimes it doesn’t happen and it’s disappointing. Then you have to find another way of explaining it. But the high points were watching achievements, getting people to act in a certain way.

On working with John Neumeier
It was fantastic working with John. It was exhausting because he is very demanding. And I had to learn a whole new repertoire, most of it John’s but not all. He did bring in other ballets and he did his own version of Giselle. He asked me basically to teach the principals the whole ballet. And then he tweaked it and put things in—like the entrance of Albrecht in Act Two. He made that into a contemporary solo, which really worked well.

Then he asked me to put the mad scene together very quickly for a Sunday chat with the audience. He was always giving you something to do, and involving you in the choreography. He had the Wilis screaming in Act Two because he had the Adam score and it said ‘Wilis enter, screaming hysterically’. He’d taped them first in the studio. And they came in screaming as they were doing the steps. And he did beautiful things like in the pas de deux in Act Two he had the Wilis standing along the side but instead of just being there rigid all the time, every now and again one would just drop her arms and look. And another would just go to her knee and cry. Towards the end of the pas de deux you noticed that everyone was in a different position. And one was quietly sobbing. It was very subtle. It was very nice.

On Singapore Dance Theatre
Soo Khim Goh [artistic director of Singapore Dance Theatre] liked the Western classical style of dancing and also the contemporary Western style but she was also very clever in keeping the Asian blend in there. It’s an Asian company. She got a wonderful choreographer from Indonesia, Boi Sakti, who did a full evening length piece called Reminiscing the moon. The stage filled with water, lights were floating, it was a whole journey watching this work. And she brought two or three different choreographers from Japan and China.

With my friendship with Roslyn Anderson we managed to get Jiri [Kylian] to let us have Stamping Ground for a month, or two months at a time rather than on a two or three year contract. Just because he knew we were a small company. And Ros loved coming to Singapore. But the one that I was really pleased to get was Forgotten Land. And we had Ohad Naharin, a lot of international choreographers.

And Jean-Paul Comelin came and we did his Giselle. We used students from the Central Ballet of China so we could do it because the company was only 21 dancers and we could bring it up to 30. The company always looked really professional. Sakura [his wife and dancer with the company] and I look back on it as being a really pleasant experience. We had a great place to live and just living in Singapore was really nice although it was sometimes a little bit warm and muggy. We were so close to everything. Half an hour to Phuket, well Krabi was our favourite. Or Sakura could go home to Japan, only five hours. Even Europe was only 12 hours away. So very good position.

Paul’s thoughts about Singapore Dance Theatre following Soo Khim Goh’s departure are a little different.

Final words
I don’t bear any grudges against anyone for anything that’s happened in my career. It’s always been a pleasure everywhere.

Michelle Potter, 14 February 2012

Follow this link to an alphabetical list of the oral histories I have recorded over the past two decades. Unless otherwise indicated all have been conducted for the National Library of Australia and are held in the Library’s Oral History and Folklore Collection. Further cataloguing and access details (some are available online) can be found on the National Library’s catalogue.

Dance diary. January 2012

  • Paul De Masson

It was with deep sadness that I noted the death of Paul De Masson in Melbourne on 12 January 2012. In July last year I recorded an extended oral history interview with Paul for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program. It was a real privilege to have him share so many of his thoughts on his dancing life, which crossed continents and crossed paths with so many other renowned artists. Being well aware that his time was limited and thus without fear of any repercussions, Paul was beautifully honest and frank throughout the interview. And his ability to mimic the voices of his colleagues, which he did frequently as we recorded, and his ability to look back and both laugh at himself and be proud of his achievements, make wonderful oral history.
paul-de-masson-as-colas-la-fille-mal-gardee

Paul de Masson as Colas, with artists of the Australian Ballet in La fille mal gardée, ca. 1976. Photo: Walter Stringer. Courtesy National Library of Australia

Paul was for a while on the faculty of Hamburg Ballet and held the work of John Neumeier and the dancing of the company in high regard. He thought it was a shame that Australian audiences had not had the opportunity to see much of Neumeier’s choreography and joked that if he were wealthy he would bring the company on tour to Australia. Well, in something of a twist of fate, Hamburg Ballet will visit Brisbane in 2012 bringing two of Neumeier’s best known productions, Nijinsky and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Paul joined Hamburg Ballet around the time Nijinsky was being created.

I will always admire too the honesty with which Paul commented on posts on this website, especially on the Australian Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet season. He was one of a kind.

  • Heath Ledger Project

In January I recorded an oral history interview with Joseph Chapman for the Heath Ledger Young Artists Oral History Program. Chapman graduated from the Australian Ballet School in 2011 and, following graduation, was offered a contract with the Australian Ballet. He began work with the company in January. Chapman was nominated for the project by one of the foundation partner institutions in the Heath Ledger Project, the Australian Ballet School.

The Heath Ledger Young Artists Oral History Project is administered by the National Film and Sound Archive and is designed to capture the thoughts, hopes and dreams of the next generation of Australian creative artists across a wide spectrum of the arts. It is named for the late Heath Ledger whose death at a relatively young age left us with little record, in an oral history context, of his life as an actor.

I had the pleasure of working with a cameraman on this occasion with interviews for the Heath Ledger Project being filmed rather than being audio only occasions. Chapman’s interview was recorded in one of the studios of the Australian Ballet School and it was a satisfying collaborative experience to make the bare space look inviting and the interview more than simply a ‘talking head’. Much credit goes to the cameraman, Michael Barnett, for a great visual eye and to Chapman for articulate responses to my questions and being what Barnett referred to as ‘a one take wonder’. No need to double back at all!

The Australian Ballet School was asked to nominate two of its 2011 graduating students to participate in the project and, in addition to Chapman, the School nominated Hannah O’Neill currently performing in Paris with the Paris Opera Ballet. Plans are underway for an interview with O’Neill.

Both O’Neill and Chapman performed leading roles with the Dancers Company on its 2011 regional tour of Ai-Gul Gaisina’s Don Quixote. In Hobart during that tour they were photographed together for The Mercury.hannah-oneill-and-joseph-chapman-the-mercury-hobart1

© Hannah O’Neill and Joseph Chapman on tour in Hobart, 2011. Photo: Nikki Davis-Jones. Courtesy The Mercury, Hobart. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.

Michelle Potter, 30 January 2012

Swans and Firebirds

Swans and Firebirds (Schwäne und Feuervögel)

Austrian Theatre Museum, Palais Lobkowitz, Lobkowitz Platz 2, Vienna, 25 June to 27 September 2009

feuervogel-barber

Tamara Karsavina in ‘The Firebird’

Like many other museums, galleries and libraries around the world, the Austrian Theatre Museum in Vienna is staging an exhibition to mark the centenary of the first Paris season of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Although this exhibition carries a sub-title ‘Die Ballets Russes 1909-1929’ it uses the  term ‘russes’ in a wide sense as the exhibition includes material not strictly speaking from the Diaghilev enterprise as we have come to understand it. Jointly curated by Drs Claudia Jeschke and Nicole Haitzinger from the University of Salzburg, it draws for its material on the collections of a number of institutions, largely in Russia, Germany and Austria, and one major private collector, John Neumeier.

The exhibition suffers at the outset from being displayed very awkwardly in two rooms at the far end of the main entrance to the Palais Lobkowitz. The two rooms are on opposite sides of the entrance lobby and  thus are not obviously linked except perhaps in an architectural sense. Combined with pretty much non-existent signage, this physical arrangement makes for a disorienting experience for the exhibition viewer.

One finds oneself moving fairly logically, or snake-like, from the central space at the end of the lobby, which is devoted to material from Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor, into the first room to the right. This first room focuses on the notion of ‘white’ and includes material from Les Sylphides and, mysteriously given the white tag, Diaghilev’s 1920s production of The Sleeping Princess. Other material relates to The Dying Swan and includes an interesting reconstruction of the swan tutu as worn by Pavlova in this celebrated solo. A video screening in this room—a dancer from the Bayerisches Staatsballett dancing the waltz from Les Sylphides—is a problematic inclusion. The amplified sound of the dancer landing after the many jumps in this solo is unpleasant, spoils the sound of the accompanying music and does little to evoke the poetic qualities of Les Sylphides. It does nothing for one’s perception of the dancer’s skills either.

Moving to the second room is not a logical progression from the first and initially the impression is that the exhibition finishes with the white material. Once one discovers the second room, on the left of the main lobby, the two other organising concepts—’unicolour’ (einfarbig) and ‘multicolour’—enter the equation. Designs for Petrouchka and Coq d’or are major items in the multicolour section and lead on to Natalia Goncharova’s beautiful drawings and extensive notes for the unrealised ballet Liturgie. Beyond Liturgie is material relating to Le Sacre du printemps and Les Noces, including a rare and valuable glimpse of the progression of Goncharova’s work for Les Noces from early designs in the Russian Primitivist mode to the final stripped-back designs. But the three colour codings—the organising concepts—are forced. The material to my mind is pushed to fit the concepts rather than emerging from them. Much of the material doesn’t seem to fit well anyway. This includes some quite fascinating notations (in facsimile) from 1910 by Fokine for Firebird from the St Petersburg State Theatrical Library.

But perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this second room is a loop video, which purports (according to the wall label) to show two recordings of George Balanchine’s Apollo each of around 30 mins in length. Sadly, however, all that is playing is about 3 minutes of a Radio Canada recording made in March 1960 with Jacques d’Amboise as Apollo and Diana Adams, Francia Russell and Jillana as the Muses. A great cast. But it got to where Apollo receives his lyre and holds it up to start playing only to return to the opening moments of Apollo’s birth from where it continued again to the receiving of the lyre. And nothing of the second recording.

Looking more positively, there are some wonderful items in the exhibition and many of them belong to John Neumeier. In fact, the strength and individuality of Neumeier’s collection is perhaps the outstanding aspect of this exhibition. In the pre-exhibition space—that is in the space between those two annoyingly unlinked rooms—there is a beautiful bronze sculpture of Adolphe Bolm in Polovtsian Dances. It stands about 25 cm high and is mounted on a small wooden plinth. It captures the passionate movement of Polovtsian Dances beautifully. Also from Neumeier’s collection is a hat by Léon Bakst for Tamara Karsarvina in Firebird—a pert little skull cap in green and tan with a white feather perched on top. Although designed by Bakst, it is in many respects one of those devotional items that so often grace dance exhibitions rather than an art historical piece. With the inclusion in the show of many photos of Karsarvina as well as designs for costumes she wore, this little cap seems to embody the spirit of its original wearer. Also of considerable interest are several photographs taken in Paris in 1910 by Auguste Bert, most again from the Neumeier collection. They include one of Vera Fokina as the Tsarina in Firebird. She stands with her body turned just slightly off-centre. Her head tilts softly to the left, her chest lifts and her hands gently lift her hair from her shoulders. This and other photographs by Bert have a soft, expressive quality and a sense of light movement to them. They are an absolute delight to examine and very revealing of this photographer’s approach to dance as an expression of the age.

There is a catalogue to this exhibition. Unfortunately there are a number of oversights in its production. Perhaps the most frustrating is that the images are not credited adequately – a final frustration in an exhibition that really needed to have been curated and produced more rigorously.

Michelle Potter, 1 July 2009

Image:  Georges Barbier, ‘Tamara Karsarvina in The Firebird‘, pochoir print from the series Homage to the Ballets Russes, after 1914. Collection: Derra de Moroda Dance Archives, Salzburg.