Terri Charlesworth. Photo Darren Clark

Terri Charlesworth. Lifetime Achievement Award

The Australian Dance Awards has just announced that the winner of the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award for 2016 is Perth dance identity, Terri Charlesworth. The award will be presented at a ceremony in Perth on 18 September when recipients of awards in other categories will also be announced. The citation for Charlesworth is on the Ausdance National news page.

But while the citation covers the main aspects of Charlesworth’s long and much-admired career in dance, her qualities as a teacher are beautifully summed up by former Australian Ballet principal, Lisa Bolte. Charlesworth was a teacher at the Australian Ballet School between 1982 and 1986 and Bolte was one of her pupils during that period. In my biography of Dame Margaret Scott, Bolte recalls:

I always felt that Terri came at dancing from both a very technical and holistic approach to life and dance. She also worked on visualisation with everything, from finding, strengthening and relaxing certain muscles, to visualising rings on your fingers to attain a certain classical port de bras or to lengthen the arms. I worked closely with her for my graduation performance as the Sugar Plum Fairy in Robert Ray’s Nutcracker in 1985. We worked on technique, including port de brasépaulement, and very importantly on the musical phrasing. And Terri inspired me to attain the style by bringing books with pictures of lithographs I could study to attain the style. It was a complete inspiration.—Dame Maggie Scott. A life in dance (Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2014), pp. 235–236.

With many congratulations to Terri Charlesworth!

Michelle Potter, 25 August 2016

Featured image: Terri Charlesworth. Photo: © Darren Clark

Terri Charlesworth. Photo Darren Clark

‘Lest we forget’. English National Ballet

5 April 2014 (matinee), Barbican Theatre, London

Tamara Rojo’s recent mixed bill program, Lest we forget for English National Ballet, was created to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Having spent the ten days preceding my viewing of Lest we forget researching Ballet Rambert’s wartime experiences as a touring company during World War II, I was very curious to see what this program had to offer. Unfortunately I had to leave without seeing the full program (I didn’t want to miss my plane back to Australia!). However I was particularly pleased that I didn’t miss No Man’s Land, a commissioned ballet from Liam Scarlett, whose work I have never seen before, and whose Serpent will be seen in Sydney in May as part of the program being brought to Australia by BalletBoyz.

Scene-from-Liam-Scarlett's 'No Mans' Land'.Photo © Dave Morgan

Scene from Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land. English National Ballet. Photo © Dave Morgan

Scarlett was moved to create a work that showed how men and women were involved in the war effort and how they related to each other and amongst themselves. A multilevel set (design Jon Bausor) had the women on a raised platform at the back of the stage where they carried out their work in factories making ammunition, explosives and other items. The men occupied the front of stage, the trenches of war, and a ramp linked the two areas. Evocatively lit by Paul Keogan, the work took place in what seemed like the shadow of the past. Although there was a simple storyline of men leaving the women behind as they went off to fight, with only six of the seven returning at the end, the lighting made it seem as though we were watching not a story but a series of hazy vignettes from the past.

I found the choreography, created on seven couples, sometimes complex and acrobatic with the highlight the concluding pas de deux between Tamara Rojo and Esteban Berlanga as her ghostly partner, the man who did not return. Rojo’s body language before the pas de deux even began told it all—the sorrow, the loss, the longing. The three pas de deux that took place in the battlefield area were also powerful. I especially admired that between Ksenia Ovsyanick and Laurent Liotardo with its anguished, flying bodies.

But some of the most hypnotic material was really very simple. The touch of a hand on the face as the men left for the battlefield; the women wrapping their arms over the shoulders of the men, simulating the straps of a burdensome backpack; the toss of dust in the air by the women as they worked at their factory benches, for example. Strong imagery works wonders especially when it contrasts with more complex movements as the men face their battles. Music was an arranged and orchestrated selection of material from Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et réligieuses.

Second Breath from Russell Maliphant relied on the visual power of strong and ever-changing groupings of the cast of 20. The work was danced to a background score by Andy Cowton drawn from material in the Imperial War Museum. It was basically an audio compilation of voices reciting the numbers of the dead. Quite chilling material to juxtapose against those beautiful, spiralling groups of bodies. The other work that I was able to see on the program was something of an oddity, unrelated it seemed to me to the theme of war—a restaging of George Williamson’s reinvention of Firebird. Unfortunately I had to miss Akram Khan’s Dust,

A persistent thought occupied my mind as I thought about the program. I kept wondering if the Australian Ballet had considered bringing back Stephen Baynes’ 1914, with its original score by Graeme Koehne and those outstanding designs by Anna French? Although it seems not to have been a favourite with many, I really liked it and what a cast it had with Steven Heathcote and Lisa Bolte in the leading roles. I would love to see it again, perhaps with revisions that Baynes might like to make? It might have been more fitting for the 2014 Australian Ballet season than, say, Manon (of which more later).

Michelle Potter, 15 April 2014

‘Swan Lake’. The Australian Ballet

18 September 2012, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

Stephen Baynes wanted his new Swan Lake for the Australian Ballet to reflect, as he put it in his notes, the ‘deeply Romantic aesthetic’ of Tchaikovsky’s score. A singularly musical choreographer, Baynes has succeeded in creating some absorbing, and often romantic in the wider sense of that word, choreographic moments. They come in particular in Act I with Baynes’ overall treatment of this act; in his newly conceived opening section of Act II when Siegfried first encounters Odette; and in an inserted pas de deux for Odette and Siegfried in Act IV.

In Act I Baynes’ choreography is beautifully paced. It fills out every note of the music, brings a real freshness to the dances and makes this opening act full of human interest. Ty King-Wall, Lana Jones and Dana Stephensen as Benno, the Countess and the Duchess respectively danced a thrilling pas de trois (or was it a pas de cinq since two other men joined King-Wall at one stage?). The meeting between Siegfried and Odette was a meeting between two human beings rather than a prince and a frightened swan protecting her brood and the choreography sank and rose in sighing movements. The inserted pas de deux too was Baynes at his best and is just what the last act needs, a final intimate encounter between Odette and Siegfried.

There was a new energy in the corps de ballet too. Perhaps it is a new production that has generated a precision in the work of the corps that I haven’t seen recently? Perhaps it is that the company has a new ballet mistress and repetiteur in Eve Lawson? Whatever the reason, it is a treat to see the dancers moving together so well.

(l-r) Reiko Hombo, Jessica Fyfe, Eloise Fryer and Jade Wood in 'Swan Lake', 2012. Photo: Jeff Busby(l–r) Reiko Hombo, Jessica Fyfe, Eloise Fryer and Jade Wood in Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake. The Australian Ballet, 2012. Photo: Jeff Busby

Most of Act II, however, is classical (in the Ivanov manner) as Baynes has kept a lot of the choreography from older productions so as to keep this famous white act recognisably traditional. Amber Scott as Odette seems on the surface to be perfectly suited to the role. Her body is proportioned in true classical ballerina style and her technique is clean and centred. But Act II seemed to me to exude a particular coldness. I’m not sure whether the lack of passion was a result of Baynes and Ivanov (or ‘after’ Ivanov) being mixed together, or whether Scott and her Siegfried, Adam Bull, just weren’t reacting to each other in an emotional sense. There was just one moment in the pas de deux when Scott moved from supported arabesque to attitude and her foot seemed to caress Bull’s back as the leg bent into attitude and wrapped around Bull. But it was gone in a flash and it was the only time I thought there was an emotional connection between them. There were, however, lovely performances from the four little swans and from the leading swans, danced by Juliet Burnett and Amy Harris.

Act III had a little more emotional power and Bull finally seemed to overcome his depression, which admittedly was what we were intended to see as his mood, as he declared his love for Odile. Rothbart, played by Brett Simon sporting carrot-coloured hair, was a surprise arriving as he did with a retinue of Spanish dancers, and a Russian dancer and four Cossacks. His personality was further established as he sat on the throne next to the Queen (Lisa Bolte), engaging her in conversation. But again the recognisable pas de deux and variations from what we know as the traditional version seemed to me to intrude.

There is much else to say about this new production—the development of the role of Benno and others in Act I; the importance of Siegfried; the designs; the projections of a swan/menacing figure (Rothbart?); the funeral with which the work begins and much more, which I hope to consider in future posts. I wondered whether the work would have benefitted from having a dramaturge work with Baynes and designer Hugh Colman as there were times when I wondered who was who and what was happening—Rothbart’s lifting of a limp Siegfried from the lake as, in the final moments, Rothbart sailed by standing resplendent in a mechanical swan was a surprise as there was no previous indication that I saw that Siegfried had thrown himself in the lake. But it needs more than one viewing to be able to give an informed account and in depth critical analysis. At the moment I feel that leaving some traditional choreography was a mistake and that this Swan Lake would have worked better for me had it all been Baynes.

Michelle Potter, 20 September 2012

UPDATE: Swan Lake: a second look is at this link.

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Dance diary. August 2012

  • America’s irreplaceable dance treasures

This month my essays in the series America’s irreplaceable dance treasures: the first 100 went online on the website of the Dance Heritage Coalition. I was commissioned to write on Merce Cunningham and Rudolf Nureyev. The Irreplaceable treasures site is something to be treasured in itself. It is a continuing source of regret to me that in Australia we no longer have something similar. See my previous post on the demise of Australia Dancing: the Australia Dancing site was admired and used not just in Australia but around the world.

  • Tammi Gissell

I continue to be impressed with dancer Tammi Gissell who earlier in August was the solo performer in Liz Lea’s work in progress ‘Seeking Biloela’. A follow up conversation with Gissell revealed her strong and much treasured connections to her indigenous heritage. It was also interesting to hear her thoughts about working with scientists at CSIRO. She said: ‘What is also exciting for me in working with Liz is the opportunity to work with the scientists at CSIRO and to see the absolute relationship between traditional knowledge and scientific knowledge and how they support each other. For example, the scientists confirm that the Black Cockatoo rides ahead of the rain currents, heralding fertility for the land and people’.

Tammi Gissell 2012. Dance diary August. Photo Lorna SimTammi Gissell in rehearsal for ‘Seeking Biloela’, 2012. Photo: Lorna Sim

Gissell has recently been commissioned to create two new works for the Perth-based Ochre Contemporary Dance Company for a forthcoming season. She will choreograph one herself and make the other in collaboration with Jacob Lehrer. She is also currently in discussions with Queensland Theatre Company to develop a new work in 2013.

  • Claudia Gitelman

I was sorry to hear, just a day or so after posting my review of On stage alone, edited by Claudia Gitelman and Barbara Palfy, that Claudia Gitelman had died. Gitelman was associate professor emerita at Rutgers University, the State University of New Jersey, and was well-known for her uncompromising scholarship. Her published writing includes a study of Hanya Holm. She also co-edited and contributed to a critical analysis of the work of Alwin Nikolais with whose company she performed. Here is a link to a brief obituary.

  • Time in motion

The exhibition venue at the State Theatre in Melbourne is currently showing an exhibition celebrating the Australian Ballet’s 50th anniversary. Called Time in motion: 50 years of the Australian Ballet and curated by Margot Anderson, the Arts Centre Melbourne’s curator of dance and opera, the exhibition shows a diverse range of material including footage (some of which is archival), photographs, designs and memorabilia. It covers, if randomly, the company’s history from its first performance of Swan Lake in 1962 up to the triple bill, Infinity, staged in 2012.

Natasha Kusen 2004 Photo Justin SmithNatasha Kusen of the Australian Ballet in Serenade, 2004. Choreography G Balanchine ©The George Balanchine Trust. Photo: Justin Smith

I was especially taken by the works on paper from set and costumes designers working for the Australian Ballet across the decades. They ranged from highly detailed works, such as that by Kristian Fredrikson for Franz in the 1979 production of Coppélia, to others that were simply pencilled shapes, such as the designs by Moritz Junge for Wayne McGregor’s 2009 production, Dyad 1929. I especially liked the designs by Akira Isogawa for Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet (2011). They looked like they had been drawn in fine black pen on cloth rather than paper and were careful works of art with fabric swatches attached to become part of the art work rather pinned or stapled on in a less than careful manner. But probably my favourite was Michael Pearce’s design for the character played by Simone Goldsmith in Stephen Baynes’ At the edge of Night (1997). I loved how it was presented as a collage of sources with costume drawings complemented by historical images and a fabric swatch carefully placed to enhance the total effect.

My one gripe is that there were some issues with the display of archival footage. Some of the footage made the dancers look decidedly short and dumpy. While one can make excuses (perhaps) for the 1960s footage, there is no excuse for having Lisa Bolte and Robert Curran look short and dumpy in footage of Baynes’ beautiful pas de deux from Edge of night. I know they don’t look like that and suspect that something as simple as a change of monitor might have made a difference.

Time in motion finishes in Melbourne on 23 September 2012 and then goes to Sydney where it will be hung at the State Library of New South Wales, 12 November 2012–10 February 2013.

Michelle Potter, 31 August 2012

‘Coppélia’. The Australian Ballet (2010)

A Sydney tabloid recently described the Australian Ballet’s current production of é as ‘One for all the Betty Ballerinas’ and noted that it emphasised ‘sugary narrative and formal technique’. The review was spot on—unfortunately, I have to say. Coppélia can actually be quite a moving experience. It certainly should be more than it was at the performance I attended.

Most disastrous from a dramatic point of view was Act II. It seemed to me that Swanilda (Gina Brescianini), Franz (Ty King-Wall) and Dr Coppélius (Matthew Donnelly) were doing nothing more than going through the motions—and at what seemed like breakneck speed. Was the music too fast? Or was there just no understanding whatsoever of dramatic emphasis or the value of an occasional moment of stillness? Or both?

When the curtain went down on Dr Coppélius embracing a rag doll, there was no feeling that here was an old man whose dreams had been shattered—it needs a little pathos at this point. Swanilda looked back but briefly at the havoc she and her friends had caused. She may have placed her hand on her heart or made some other fleeting gesture (it was all over so quickly and without any sense of the dramatic that it is hard to remember). Franz just disappeared out the window after failing to get involved at any point in the unfolding events.

Act III was little better. By that stage Brescianini had tired badly and was not able to sustain her technique at the level required to dance the lead in a full length role. King-Wall had similar difficulties and his feet in particular started to look decidedly unballetic. And did anyone tell the reapers what a reaper does? Or even that they were meant to be reapers? They just smiled determinedly, and did the set steps.

It was a sad occasion for me and I’m afraid I began to long for ‘the good old days’ of the fairly recent past, for the Swanildas of, for example, Lisa Bolte and Miranda Coney, for the Franzs of Steven Heathcote and even David McAllister. Maybe it was a bad day? And it wasn’t the first cast. But the problems it seems to me go beyond those kinds of excuses.

Michelle Potter, 16 May 2010