The three 'Ghost Figures' from 'Ghost Dances'. Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo: © David Kelly

‘RAW’. A triple bill from Queensland Ballet

17 March 2017, Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

One of the most refreshing aspects of Queensland Ballet’s current vision is contained in its repertoire. If Li Cunxin can’t always give us a live musical accompaniment, as was the case with the RAW program, he will always present us, especially in a triple bill, with a program that is provocative or filled with choreography that demands attention in some way.

RAW began with Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land, a work made in 2014 to commemorate the centenary of World War I. It was created on English National Ballet and my review of ENB’s production is at this link. The work was very nicely staged on Queensland Ballet by Yohei Sasaki, ENB’s repetiteur. It is a beautifully conceived, designed, lit, and choreographed work, and all the best qualities I recall from my previous experience had transferred well to Queensland Ballet.

This time, with the benefit of having seen the work already, I particularly noticed the group sections from both men and women. I was especially admiring of the swirling, breathtaking lifts, often with airborne elements, during a pas de six between three of the women and their partners; the subsequent pas de deux each of the pairs then executed; and the subtle and moving way the women parted from their men at the end of each pas de deux.

Victor Estevez and Mia Heathcote in 'No Man's Land'. Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo: © David Kelly

Victor Estevez and Mia Heathcote in a pas de deux from No Man’s Land. Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo: © David Kelly

There was also more emotion than I remembered from the previous occasion in the way the women sat, at times, on the raised area of the set as the men engaged in war activities on the lower space. It was the remarkable Mia Heathcote who drew my attention to this quietly dramatic aspect of the work. There she sat, scrunched over, feeling the pain throughout her body, and making me feel the pain as well.

If No Man’s Land opened the program with a flourish, Christopher Bruce’s Ghost Dances closed it with equal strength. It probably has extra resonance for those of a certain age who recall the once ubiquitous sound of the haunting music of the Andes, and Chile in particular, played by Inti-Illimani. Ghost Dances, made by Bruce originally in 1981, is set to this music. But this is not to detract from the work’s inherent political message concerning the effects of political coups on the population of the country involved, specifically in this case the 1973 coup d’état in which Augusto Pinochet came to power in Chile.

Sophie Zoricic and Liam Geck in Ghost Dances. Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo: © David Kelly

Bruce’s choreography is somewhat eccentric, although it fits the music beautifully. And, to their credit, the dancers of Queensland Ballet managed with aplomb the tilts and bends of the body and sometimes the head and neck, the upturned feet, and the ever-flowing movement. The three ghost figures wove their way, insidiously, into the popular dancing. Their presence was powerful and meaningful and the exit of the ‘common folk’ at the end, leaving the ghost figures alone on stage, was stark but expected.

In between these two moving and powerful works was Greg Horsman’s Glass Concerto, which Horsman has been working on in stages over a number of years. There were some outstanding technical fireworks, especially in the third movement with very fast chaîné turns from all involved, and some spectacular jumps as well. But the opening movement reminded me rather too much of Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room as the dancers disappeared into upstage fog, and I longed for more fluidity in the choreography.

Yanela Pinera in 'Glass Concerto. Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo: David Kelly

Yanela Piñera in Glass Concerto. Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo: © David Kelly

Michelle Potter, 18 March 2017

Featured image: The three ‘Ghost Figures’ from Ghost Dances, Queensland Ballet. Photo: © David Kelly

The Golds in a scene from 'Great Sport!'

Dance picks 2016

Recently, arts writers and critics for The Canberra Times were asked to choose their top five shows for 2016 for publication immediately before and after Christmas. We wrote and filed our stories in mid-December and, for various reasons I chose only four productions.

But mid-December was before the names of successful applicants for artsACT project funding were made public. The announcement made it very clear that a massive cutback had been made to project funding (more than 60% less money was made available for arts projects than in the previous round). Just one dance project was funded: James Batchelor received $30,000 to develop ‘a large-scale new dance performance’ at the Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre. Had I written the story a little later I would have changed one part of my article. Rather than saying, as I did, But locally made dance has been particularly strong this year and may that continue as well, and be recognised by local and national funding bodies, I would have written ‘But locally made dance has been particularly strong this year, and it is a sad indictment of the current ACT government that it has not chosen to recognise the vibrancy of dance being produced in Canberra by locally-based artists, artists who have worked tirelessly to show that Canberra is a place where dance can flourish throughout the year.’

Perhaps I would also have changed my final sentence as well, but that would have assumed that locally-based artists might have given up. But dancers don’t give up. They find ways to keep moving right along.

Here is my Canberra Times story as published this morning, although slightly altered to include what was cut and, for variety, with a slightly different selection of images. The story is also available online at this link.

Much of the dance that audiences have seen in Canberra in 2016 has been refreshingly ‘underground’ in that it has been a little non-conformist in terms of where it has been performed and who has performed it. Our national cultural institutions have, for example, been active in hosting small dance performances, sometimes, as with the National Portrait Gallery, as an adjunct to their various exhibitions or acquisitions. We have, of course, seen Bangarra Dance Theatre and Sydney Dance Company, who, to our ongoing pleasure and gratitude, continue to visit Canberra and bring with them their outstanding, more mainstream work. Let’s hope that such visits continue as they have done over the past several decades. But locally made dance has been particularly strong this year and may that continue as well, and be recognised by local and national funding bodies.

Without a doubt the dance highlight for me was Great Sport! a site-specific production that took place in various parts of the National Museum of Australia, including outdoors in the Garden of Australian Dreams. The brainchild of Liz Lea, the production was a celebration of movement and sporting history. It continued the focus Lea has had since arriving in Canberra in 2009 on working in unusual spaces and, in particular, on using the Canberra environment and its cultural institutions as a venue, and as a backdrop to her work.

Scene from 'Great Sport!'

Scene from Liz Lea’s ‘Annette’ in Great Sport!

The show had its first performance on World Health Day and, given that the program featured Canberra’s mature age group, the GOLDS, as well as two Dance for Parkinson’s groups, Great Sport! was also a program that focused on healthy living through movement.  Great Sport! showcased the work of several professional choreographers, some from Canberra, others from interstate, all commissioned by Lea to make different sections of the work. One of the most interesting aspects of Great Sport! was, in fact, the way in which the choreographers, all very different in their approaches and choreographic style, were able to maintain and make visible those inherent stylistic differences, while working with community groups in which movement skills were, understandably, quite varied.

What we saw was innately theatrical: outrageous at times, more thoughtful and serious at others and bouquets are due to Lea for her persistent focus on Canberra as a place where dance happens. Great Sport! was an exceptional piece of collaboration and a spectacularly good event.

Then, in a major development for dance in Canberra, Alison Plevey launched a new contemporary company, Australian Dance Party. Plevey has been active as an independent artist for some time now but has often spoken of the need for a professional dance company in Canberra. In 2016 she made this vision a reality and her new contemporary dance company has already given two performances to date: Strings Attached, the opening production staged in collaboration with several musicians from the Canberra Symphony Orchestra in a pop-up theatre space in the Nishi building, and Nervous, a work staged in a burnt-out telescope dome at Mt Stromlo. Again, Plevey is committed to making dance in Canberra and has been persistent in her drive and determination to make this happen.

Dancer Alison Plevey and harpist in Strings Attached, Australian Dance Party, 2016. Photo: Lorna Sim

Alison Plevey in Strings Attached. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Beyond locally created dance, and of the more mainstream live ventures to come to Canberra, Queensland Ballet’s Nutcracker was a pre-Christmas treat. This Nutcracker was danced to perfection by Queensland Ballet now directed by the highly-motivated Li Cunxin, who has moved the company from a not-so-interesting regional organisation to one that has everything to offer the most demanding dance-goer. Queensland Ballet’s Nutcracker was a heart-warming performance of a much-loved ballet and it was thrilling to see Queensland Ballet as a major force in the world of Australian ballet. May the company return many times to Canberra.

Beyond the live stage, Canberra dance audiences had the opportunity to see Spear, a film from Bangarra Dance Theatre’s artistic director, Stephen Page. Following showings at film festivals in Australia and elsewhere, Spear had a season at the National Film and Sound Archive early in 2016. It was a challenging and confronting film that used dance and movement as a medium to explore the conflicting worlds of urban Aboriginal people: it touched on several serious issues including suicide, alcoholism, substance abuse and racism. Cinematically it was breathtaking, especially in its use of landscape and cityscape as a background to the movement. It was tough, fearless, uncompromising and yet quietly beautiful.

Aaron Pedersen as Suicide Man in 'Spear'. Photo: © Giovanni de Santolo

Aaron Pedersen as Suicide Man in Spear. Photo: © Giovanni de Santolo

Art attracts art. Dance attracts dance. The dance scene in Canberra is looking more exciting than it has for many years.

Michelle Potter, 27 December 2016

Featured image: The GOLDS in a scene from Gerard van Dyck’s ‘First and Last’ from Great Sport! Photo: Michelle Potter

The Golds in a scene from 'Great Sport!'

Yanela Pinera and Alexander Idaszak as the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Prince in 'The Nutcracker', Queensland Ballet, 2016. Photo: © David James McCarthy

‘The Nutcracker’. Queensland Ballet

23 November 2016, Canberra Theatre

Below is an expanded version of my Canberra Times review of Queensland Ballet’s Nutcracker.

Across the world The Nutcracker is the quintessential Christmas experience. Children grow up knowing the story of Clara, and the Nutcracker Prince who takes her on a journey through a snowy forest to the Kingdom of Sweets. Those children (and their parents) look forward throughout the year to its annual return. It used to be a wonderful Christmas experience enjoyed each year by Australian dance audiences too, but that was long ago. Now we have occasional productions but none of the annual excitement. Recently, however, under the energetic and committed direction of artistic director, Li Cunxin, Queensland Ballet has begun to bring back the annual tradition of a Nutcracker Christmas. This year Canberra has been included as part of Queensland Ballet’s season. How lucky we are.

Every Nutcracker has its own character and every production has slight differences in how the story unfolds. Queensland Ballet’s production is by American-based choreographer Ben Stevenson, who currently directs Texas Ballet Theater in Fort Worth. It was Stevenson who, while directing Houston Ballet from 1976–2003, gave Li the chance to dance in the West when, while visiting Beijing, he offered Li a scholarship to appear in Houston. Since then Li has gone on from a major career as a dancer, including as a principal with the Australian Ballet, to his present position with Queensland Ballet.

Stevenson’s Nutcracker has a warm and homely atmosphere to its opening scenes. Children cross the stage in excitement and anticipation. Some drag their parents behind them. Some ride a sled. Some older people slip on the icy surface. They enter a house, complete with sparkling Christmas tree, where young and old mingle, laugh, eat and drink, dance, play (and have the odd argument), and exchange presents. Clara, youthfully and prettily danced by Mia Heathcote, is given a nutcracker doll by a mysterious visitor, Dr Drosselmeyer (Shane Wuerthner), and the story revolves around this toy. There is a strong comic element to the party scene, and there are more elderly characters than is often the case. Thomas Boyd’s set has a charmingly unpretentious and hospitable quality to it. It all makes for a genial gathering.

Mia Heathcote as Clara in 'The Nutcracker', Queensland Ballet, 2016. Photo: © David James McCarthy

Mia Heathcote as Clara in The Nutcracker, Queensland Ballet, 2016. Photo: © David James McCarthy

When the party is over and the guests have departed Clara is woken from her sleep by giant mice who attack her. A fight ensues and Clara kills the King Rat (Rian Thompson) with her shoe before her nutcracker toy is transformed into the Prince (Alexander Idaszak) and the journey to the Kingdom of Sweets begins. When she arrives, Clara is entertained by the inhabitants of the Kingdom, from the pastry cooks to the Sugar Plum Fairy (Yanela Piñera). Finally we find Clara and her toy nutcracker back at home. And we wonder if we, and Clara, have been dreaming?

Queensland Ballet tells the story clearly and smartly and the company dances this Nutcracker to perfection. The corps de ballet shone at every moment whether as snowflakes, life-sized toy soldiers, flowers, or other characters. The snowflakes were dazzling and the Snow Queen (Laura Hidalgo) danced an exceptional pas de deux with the Prince. Hidalgo had such a lyrical quality to her movement, and a beautifully fluid upper body. Every single movement was impressively defined, so much so that she looked as though she was dancing in slow motion. She was attentively partnered by Idaszak, who danced strongly but somehow gently and softly as well. But the flowers in the second act Waltz of the Flowers just amazed me with a series of pretty much perfect double pirouettes, moving across the stage in twos and performing in canon. They were led beautifully by Teri Crilly and Camilo Ramos. And everyone looked as though they loved dancing—no ‘pasted on’ smiles here. Wonderful to see.

Of the other divertissements in the Kingdom of Sweets it was quite special to see Mother Ginger (Liam Geck). This variation rarely appears in other productions but is a delightful sequence in which several children appear from beneath the huge, hooped skirt of a very tall, motherly (if somewhat outrageous) figure. The Mirlitons remained as a pas de trois but danced, instead of the usual three ladies, by two ladies and a man (Tara Schaufuss, Neneka Yoshida and Zhi Fang). The Chinese Dance (D’Arcy Brazier and Zuquan Kou) had an unusual martial arts twist; Spanish was a pas de six with the dancers dressed (by Desmond Heeley) in stunning red and black outfits; and the Russian was a solo for Vito Bernasconi. The audience favourite, however, was the Arabian Dance with Lina Kim and Joel Woellner. Their sinuous pas de deux was highlighted by a fabulous lift with Kim upside down in splits being tilted backwards while in the air.

And the choreographic highlight, the pas de deux and variations of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Prince, was worth waiting for. I have admired Yanela Piñera in other recent Queensland Ballet productions and, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, she again showed her clean, strong technique. This time I especially admired her lovely little twists of the neck and a beautifully executed double turn in attitude that was done as a supported finger turn. She was partnered by Idaszak as the Prince, who once again was a most attentive partner.

There were so many charming, memorable moments, but in the end this evening stood out as a heart-warming performance of a much-loved ballet by a company that in recent years has gone from strength to strength. Despite funding issues, mentioned by Li Cunxin in his post-performance speech, Queensland Ballet stands tall and proud as a company that cares about the art form and its future. May they return many times to Canberra. We are ready and waiting.

Disclaimer: I had two family members in the children’s cast of Queensland Ballet’s Nutcracker.

Michelle Potter, 25 November 2016

Featured image: Yanela Piñera and Alexander Idaszak as the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Prince in The Nutcracker, Queensland Ballet, 2016. Photo: © David James McCarthy

Yanela Pinera and Alexander Idaszak as the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Prince in 'The Nutcracker', Queensland Ballet, 2016. Photo: © David James McCarthy

On a personal note: I was (rightly) required by The Canberra Times to include a disclaimer to my review as I had two grandsons performing in the children’s cast. But I have to say that I am thrilled that these two young boys will grow up knowing the excitement of The Nutcracker as a Christmas ballet, and knowing the full ballet rather than a version downsized for children!

The online Canberra Times review is at this link.

‘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

An Australasian affair …

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

Harry Haythorne

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

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

'Eve' by Louhglan Prior

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

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

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

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

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

 Jennifer Shennan, 15 September 2015

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

Bangarra Dance Theatre in a scene from 'Patyegarang'. Photo: Jess Bialek

Dance diary. July 2014

  • Boundless: Quantum Leap

Last night (30 July) I went to the Canberra Playhouse to see, and review, the latest offering from Quantum Leap, Canberra’s youth dance ensemble. To my astonishment I received a phone call tonight (31 July) about my review, which had already appeared in The Age online before it had appeared either in print or electronic format in The Canberra Times. Here is the link. And because The Age version is text only, below is an image from the show.

Casper Ilschner from Quantum Leap & David Turbayne from GOLD in a scene from 'Samsara'. Photo: Lorna Sim

Casper Ilschner from Quantum Leap and David Turbayne from GOLD in a scene from Samsara. Photo: © Lorna Sim

  • Leap of Faith: Australian Story

I watched the recent Australian Story program, Leap of Faith, which followed the story of Li Cunxin’s acquisition of the Kenneth MacMillan production of Romeo and Juliet for Queensland Ballet. I would be interested to hear comments from others as I found the program more of a promo than an Australian story.

Here is the link to the online version and its transcript. I’m not sure for how long the ABC has the footage available online, although the the transcript of the show will remain for a little longer after the footage has been removed.

  • Dance and architecture

I have often been curious about the links that are often made between dance and architecture. They have always seemed to me to be very tenuous links. My most recent interview for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program, however, was with an architect, Enrico Taglietti, who made me think a little harder about those potential links.

Taglietti was born in Milan but came to Australia in the 1950s, initially at the invitation of Sir Charles Lloyd Jones to work on an exhibition of Italian design, ‘Italy at David Jones’. He and his wife came to Canberra after the exhibition had closed and fell in love with the city (such as it was in the 1950s). Taglietti has lived in Canberra ever since.

What fascinated me more than anything during our conversation was that he kept insisting that the exterior of a building was not architecture but urban design. Architecture, he maintained, consisted of the voids and volumes enclosed by a structure. Suddenly it struck me that perhaps there is a link between dance and architecture. Dance has much to do with filling voids and volume with movement, although only the best dancers (or those trained by Merce Cunningham) know how to use the space around the body to achieve maximum benefit.

  • Press for June

‘More decorative than communicative. Review of ‘Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Patyegarang. The Canberra Times, 21 July 2014, ARTS p. 6. Online.

Michelle Potter, 31 July 2014

Featured image: Bangarra Dance Theatre in a scene from Patyegarang, 2014. Photo: © Jess Bialek

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.—
danielle-rowe-in-sleeping-beauty-1

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