A Bauschian experience in Berlin

Recently Roslyn Sulcas had a feature in The New York Times about the works of Pina Bausch that are being brought to London to coincide with the 2012 Olympic Games. The London program, called World Cities 2012—it opened on 6 June, celebrates the residencies Bausch and her company undertook in the last several years of Bausch’s life. The full program will show ten of the works Bausch made as a result of those residencies.

Sulcas interviewed a number of people for her feature, including the theatre director Peter Sellars. Sellars noted the following characteristic of Bausch’s choreographic process:

What is so extraordinary about Pina’s work is that she doesn’t start from the architectonics of movement; it starts from the autobiography of the dancers.  

The statement immediately reminded me of the Australian video documentary The Black Swan directed by Michelle Mahrer in 1995 about Meryl Tankard’s career, including her career as a dancer with Pina Bausch. The video contains archival footage from Walzer (1982) and shows a scene in which Tankard’s character outlines for the benefit of the audience various survival methods that might be pursued should one find oneself alone in the desert. Tankard’s movements are dynamic and her voice animated. She wears an alluring yellow and black striped dress in keeping with the elegance of the other dancers who, oblivious to Tankard, mingle with each other and eat supper from a long table. The scene has the glamour of a society party, which makes Tankard’s discussion of desert survival appear startlingly out of context.

When Tankard gives her explanation of how to get by in the desert she is drawing on her recollections of early trips she and her family made between Darwin, where she was born, and Melbourne, where the family would later settle for several years. She explains to the audience how the wearing of underpants on the head is a great way to keep flies at bay. On the spot she removes her own underpants and demonstrates how to wear this item of apparel on the head in the most effective manner, all the while maintaining her enthusiastic telling of the story and her exhortations and advice to the audience.

Tankard’s mother, when questioned later by Tankard, explained the rationale behind this action of wearing underpants on the head. She recalled that on one of the trips back to Darwin—and the family made the long trip between Darwin and Melbourne and back several times while living in Darwin—the flies had been so bad at one breakfast stop that she had had the idea of covering the children’s faces with underpants, newly-bought in Melbourne and made from fabric that ‘breathed’ as a result of the tiny holes that were part of the composition of the fabric.

Sellars’ remark clearly fits well in the case of Tankard and Walzer. And Tankard of course would go onto use a similar technique and draw on many memories from her childhood and young adulthood when making her own works in Australia.

But a recent experience suggested to me that there is another powerful element in Bausch’s work that is perhaps stronger than those autobiographical elements, as important as they are. I was standing on a busy street corner near Eberswalder Strasse station in East Berlin. It’s a vibrant area in the city—full of students and other, colourful characters. A woman was crossing towards my corner on the green light and as she approached the kerb it was apparent that she was shouting something. In between exhortations she was taking bites from a huge, round, flat loaf of bread—and I mean huge. It was larger than a standard-sized pizza base and thicker. She wore track pants and a parka and a woollen cap. A line of cyclists in a bike lane, who were stationary waiting for a green light to move forward, studiously avoided taking any notice of the woman, although she was clearly an eccentric character in a regular, busy street scene and was passing right in front of them. They were dressed for bike riding so were not all that dissimilar in dress from the woman who was the central attraction.

The scene could have come straight out of a Bausch work. The woman was as vibrant in her exhortations as any of the best of Bausch’s dancers. The incongruity of her activity involving the bread recalled the apparent non-sequiturs that often feature in a Bausch work and reminded me of, say, the scene in Palermo, Palermo where one of the dancers cooks slices of some kind of sausage on the hot-plate of an iron. The bike riders got on with their business just as those dancers in Walzer did, seemingly oblivious to what was happening in front of them. 

I began to think about how the major feature of Bausch’s works is not so much that she drew on the autobiographical stories of her dancers, but that she manipulated those stories and set them into a context. She was able to seduce the audience not because the stories were autobiographical but because through them she allowed art to imitate life.

© Michelle Potter, 9 June 2012

Postscript, 1 July 2012: Here is a link to a podcast made by The Financial Times in relation to the World Cities 2012 program. It features dance critic Clement Crisp and Alistair Spalding, artistic director of Sadler’s Wells.

Dance diary. May 2012

  • Heath Ledger Project

In May, on a very grey Parisian morning, I continued my interviewing for the Heath Ledger Young Artists Oral History Project with an interview with Hannah O’Neill. O’Neill is currently dancing on a seasonal contract with the Paris Opera Ballet, having dreamt of dancing with this company since she was a young child.

Hannah O'Neill, Paris, May 2012Hannah O’Neill at the Pont neuf, Paris, May 2012

O’Neill graduated from the Australian Ballet School in 2011 and in that year she also auditioned for the Paris Opera Ballet. She was placed fourth in a field of over 100 and as a result of the audition received a seasonal contract. Confident and articulate and looking every inch the dancer, she is taking Paris in her stride. She has recently had her contract extended until the end of July when she will have to audition again for a place in the company. In the meantime she is looking forward to a forthcoming season of La Fille mal gardée.

  • Meryl Tankard at the Cannes Film Festival

Over the past few years Meryl Tankard has been focusing her considerable talents on film making. She graduated from the directing course at the Australian Film Television and Radio School in 2010. It is a testament to her success in this endeavour that a short film she made called Moth was shown in May at the Cannes Film Festival. A glance at the program for the non-competitive Australian and New Zealand section of the Festival, Antipodes, puts her in exceptional company.

Tankard’s website has the following to say about Moth:

Moth is the story of three young women’s determination to be free, and is inspired by the stories from many reform schools in Australia in the 60s and 70s, and the brutal methods used to discipline the girls.

  • Pablo Picasso’s curtain for Parade

It was a surprise to discover hanging in the still quite new Pompidou Centre in the north-eastern French city of Metz the curtain from the 1917 Ballets Russes production of Parade. Conceived for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes by Jean Cocteau and first performed in Paris in May 1917, Parade had choreography by Léonide Massine, music by Erik Satie and costumes and settings by Pablo Picasso. The curtain is hanging in an exhibition entitled 1917, which has drawn together an array of visually disparate items, including some associated with war as well as with art in many of its manifestations. 1917 sets out to question the links between destruction, reconstruction and creation in a decisive year of World War I.

'Parade' curtain

Curtain for Parade (detail). Photo: Michelle Potter

The exhibition carries some additional items relating to Parade, including a program and some interesting photographs of the 1917 cast. But it was, of course, the curtain that attracted my attention. Although it is of monumental proportions, it is quite an intimate, even gentle piece of art. Its colours are soft and blend easily with each other and the picture is built on exceptionally complex, allegorical imagery. In gives no clue to the strident characteristics of the performance and the antics of the dancers in Parade whose role is to attract an audience into the circus tent, which we see before us on the curtain.

I was in the fortunate position of being able to see a performance of Parade in 2005 when it was staged by the Ballet of Bordeaux at the Diaghilev Festival held in Groningen, the Netherlands. The article I wrote for The Canberra Times about the Festival was also published online by the magazine of the ballet.co site. Here is what I wrote about Parade:

Leonide Massine’s Parade was one of the most anticipated works of the festival and it did not disappoint as a significant collaborative work of the period. With designs by Pablo Picasso, libretto by Cocteau and music by Erik Satie, which incorporated the assorted sounds of a siren and a typewriter and several pistol shots, Parade was created in response to the well-documented demand from Diaghilev to Cocteau—’Astonish me!’ It was also inspired by the Cubist movement in the visual arts and brought Cubism off the canvas and into the theatre. Set outside a travelling theatre with the slight narrative centring on the attempts of the characters to entice an audience into the show, the work premiered in 1917 in Paris and was recreated by the Joffrey Ballet in the 1970s. In Groningen it was performed by the Ballet de Bordeaux and, while it will perhaps always remain slightly eccentric, its apparently simplistic and unadorned choreography is a perfect foil for its idiosyncratic designs and music.

Here is the link to the full article. [Sadly, not currently available. PDF coming soon MP 26/06/2016]

  • Canberra dance

I was not in Canberra in May when Liz Lea presented her latest staging of 120 Birds. It also had a brief showing in Sydney at Riverside, Parramatta, after the Canberra season. Lea has a site that gathers together reviews of 120 Birds, including those for the 2012 Canberra/Sydney staging. In addition, here is a link to a preview piece I wrote for the one-woman version of 120 Birds, made for the National Gallery of Australia early in 2011 in conjunction with its exhibition Ballets russes: the art of costume.

  • New York Public Library

Over the past two months I have been following with considerable interest the upheavals at the New York Public Library, which have been reported upon in The New York Times and other outlets. The most comprehensive background account of the situation is ‘Lions in winter’ by journalist Charles Petersen and appears in n+1 as part one and part two.

Many have wondered why I left New York in 2008 after eighteen months as curator of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, given that it appeared to be the job of a lifetime for me. Well the issues that led to my resignation are complex (and it was not to get married as one report suggested!), but the majority can be grouped under questions of professionalism and accountability (or lack thereof in my opinion) in certain areas of the Library. In addition, I was dismayed by attitudes to curatorial autonomy, which in most cases did not fit with mine. It should, therefore, be fairly obvious where my opinions lie with regard to the present discussions.

Whether the Dance Division, and other research divisions at Lincoln Center, will be affected in the short or long term by the new plans reported upon by Petersen and others is not clear. However, I believe that the Dance Division is now but shadow of its former self and has been heading this way for some time.

Michelle Potter, 30 May 2012

Canberra dance. A professional company?

Canberra hasn’t had a professional dance company for some time now and, as Dance Week 2012 approached, an article appeared in The Canberra Times in which Neil Roach, director of Ausdance ACT, suggested that the city should aspire to have an ‘emerging professional dance company … like those already being successfully funded by the Australia Council—Kate Champion, Lucy Guerin, Chunky Moves [sic]’. Well to put it bluntly, there is no reason why we in Canberra should expect to have a funded dance company. It is not a right.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aspire to one of course. Nor that we don’t want one. But Canberra isn’t Sydney or Melbourne. It’s an unusual place and those who have watched several professional companies come and go in Canberra since 1980, when Don Asker’s Human Veins Dance Theatre became Canberra’s first professional dance company, will all have an opinion as to what suits Canberra.

Anyone who knows me well will not be surprised when I say that for me the most vibrant time for dance in Canberra was 1989 to 1992 when the Meryl Tankard Company was the city’s resident dance company. The place was buzzing then—art attracts art—and if we look back to that period there is much upon which we can draw to make a case for what will inspire the Canberra population to embrace a dance company.

I have always been taken by the words of Stefanos Lazaridis, who directed Orphée et Eurydice for Opera Australia in 1993, which Tankard choreographed after she had left Canberra. He said on an Imagine program on SBS Television in ca. 1994:

The word ‘choreography’ did not apply as far as I am concerned. I wanted this dimension [of the opera] to be dealt with by somebody who has the demonic dance talent of Meryl Tankard, who is a woman of total theatre.

Tankard brought to Canberra something more than ‘just dance’. She brought that ‘total theatre’ that Lazaridis was smart enough to recognise and to declare in such a public forum.  In my opinion that’s just what a small city needs. The population of Canberra at the moment is just 360,000. With that number of people, if  a dance company aspires to be ongoing and viable it needs to be able to attract an audience from across the visual, literary and performing arts. A company that doesn’t aspire to attract, or isn’t capable of engaging audiences beyond the confines of the local dance community, will never make an impact.

Court of Flora. Photo Regis Lansac

Tuula Roppola as the Rose in Court of Fora, Sculpture Garden, National Gallery of Australia, 1991. Photo: Régis Lansac. Courtesy Régis Lansac

Tankard was always proud that her 1989 work  Banshee, shown at the National Gallery of Australia in conjunction with an exhibition of Irish gold and silver, largely Celtic jewellery, attracted a small punk audience. And I can never forget Court of Flora first staged in 1990 at Floriade, Canberra’s annual outdoor spring event. It drew large crowds, who delighted in Anthony Phillips’ spectacular costumes and in the ability of Tankard’s dancers to imbue the floral characters they represented with human characteristics. The work was repeated many times in a variety of Canberra venues between 1990 and 1992. Marion Halligan wrote about Tankard’s work. The Embassy of France and the Goethe Institute in Canberra supported the company.

But what was also interesting about those years was that Tankard and her partner in art and life, Régis Lansac, embraced the Canberra community, its institutions, its landscape and its resident artists. They lived in the city. Lansac exhibited his photographs with other local artists. Tankard made a short film in the Federal Highway Park Quarry just out of the city. Lansac incorporated photographs of a local landmark, Mount Ainslie, in projections that accompanied Two Feet. Lansac received a Canberra Critics’ Circle Award for ‘his constant searching for, and discovery of, new frontiers in stage design’. And ultimately Tankard was made ACT Citizen of the Year in 1992 for having ‘brought the arts in Canberra to both national and international attention’ and for ‘enriching [Canberra’s] reputation as one of great diversity and creativity’. It was a heady time for dance in the ACT and one that has not been equalled since in my opinion.

So yes, I too would love there to be a professional dance company in Canberra. But I don’t think it should be an experimental, contemporary company with interests that attract only a minority of dance aficionados. Leave that to larger cities. Canberra needs a dance company that the wider community can feel belongs to Canberra, not just to dance.

Michelle Potter, 28 April 2012.

Dance diary: February 2012

  • Spring Dance

It was good to read that Rafael Bonachela will take on the directorship of Sydney’s Spring Dance program for the next three years.  I am sure Bonachela will bring huge enthusiasm not to mention knowledge and understanding of the contemporary dance scene to the job.

Some of my most unusual and rewarding dance experiences in recent years have been at Spring Dance. Philippe Priasso‘s amazing interlude with an earth mover was one. Meryl Tankard’s Oracle another. Here is a link to the Spring Dance tag.

And on the subject of Tankard I have just received publicity for the restaging by Lyon Opera Ballet of Bolero. I wrote about Bolero in an earlier post and also noted then that the Lyon restaging would be part of a triple bill program that also includes works by Kylian and Forsythe. Do we have to go to Lyon these days to see such a program? Perhaps the company from Lyon is worth considering for Spring Dance? Or another Australian dance festival?

Lyon Opera Ballet poster

  • SAR Fellowship

My Fellowship at the National Film and Sound Archive to investigate the film and television commissions of Kristian Fredrikson officially came to a conclusion at the end of February. I gave my staff presentation, ‘Kristian Fredrikson: on screen’, towards the end of February, appeared on 666 ABC Canberra to talk to presenter of Saturday Breakfast, Greg Bayliss, about the Archive and my research, and I will be presenting in Melbourne in April as part of the Arts Centre’s Spotlight series.

A number of surprises emerged from being located at the Archive. On the one hand I had liberal access to the collection held there, which consists not only of film and video material but all kinds of other documentation and, on the other, I had access to the expertise and network of connections of the Archive’s curators. I discovered a design commission that had not been mentioned in any of the sources I had investigated so far: Fredrikson designed the operatic backgrounds for a children’s television series screened by SBS in 1985 called The Maestro’s Company. And I was also put in touch with the director of The Magic Telescope, an unrealised film for which Fredrikson created some designs that are totally unlike anything else I have seen from him to date. In addition I watched all the better known productions on which he worked including the delicious Undercover, which led to a number of other discoveries regarding the origins of the dance scenes that make up the finale to that movie. Through another Archive connection I discovered more about The Lovers of Verona, featuring Kathy Gorham and Garth Welch and produced by the ABC in 1965.

I was also able to relive through film and video some of the best known early Sydney Dance Company works. I was reminded time and time again as I watched productions like Poppy, King Roger, Daphnis and Chloe, After Venice and others what an amazing and versatile performer Janet Vernon was. I watched too a performance of Old Friends, New Friends (1984), the precursor to Nearly Beloved. It wasn’t designed by Fredrikson but happened to be on the same tape as After Venice. What a joy it was to see Vernon in that work and to watch as she worked her way through a whole range of different emotions.

  • Canberra news: Dimity Azoury and Jasmin Durham

Demographically Canberra is small in comparison to Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and other major Australian cities. So it is a pleasure to hear that two Canberra-trained dancers, Dimity Azoury and Jasmin Durham, have made a mark just recently.

Azoury, a former pupil of Kim Harvey, has been nominated for the Australian Ballet’s 2012 Telstra Awards. The major award is worth $20,000 and having sat on the judging panel on one occasion (the year Lana Jones was the recipient of the $20,000), I know that the year-long assessment process is gruelling, but nevertheless I believe a formative experience for those involved, including the judges. For more on the Telstra Awards, which include a People’s Choice Award worth $5,000, see the Australian Ballet’s website.

Dimity Azoury Photo by James Braund

Dimity Azoury. Photo by James Braund. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

Jasmin Durham, who trained in Canberra with Lisa Clark, has been accepted into the Australian Ballet, and began her professional career in January. I recall watching her several years ago now in a student performance, and a scholarship competition and her talent was absolutely clear. She joins a number of other Canberra-trained dancers in the company including principals Lana Jones and Rachel Rawlins and her corps de ballet companion Dimity Azoury.

Jasmin Durham Photo by James Braund
Jasmin Durham. Photo by James Braund. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

Michelle Potter, 29 February 2012

Dance diary. December 2011

  • Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet

During 2011 I have published many thoughts on a whole variety of dance subjects, but there is no doubt that most interest has been generated by posts and comments associated with the Australian Ballet’s production of Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet. Traffic across this website has risen by 50% since the opening of R & J in September. My two posts on this show were quickly picked up. The original post has been the top post in terms of visitor numbers since October and the ‘second’ look’ post quickly took up the second spot from November onwards.*

The main thrust of the comments on R & J has been, it seems to me, that the story lost its depth as a result of the wildly changing locations and eras in which this production of the ballet is set. In response to one such comment following the Sydney season I wrote: ‘ I keep wondering about our expectations of ballet, and this ballet in particular. Does the story lose its profundity if it covers different territory and does so in a way that is not expected?’ I think most people believe the story did lose rather than gain in this production, but I still wonder and look forward to further comments when the work goes to Brisbane early in 2012.

  • Infinity: the Australian Ballet’s 2012 triple bill

Graeme Murphy is in the throes of creating another work for the Australian Ballet. It will form part of a triple bill entitled Infinity, which will open in Melbourne in February and comprise works by Murphy, Gideon Obarzanek and Stephen Page. While I have no inkling as to what Murphy will give us this time, Bangarra Dance Theatre’s December newsletter gives us a hint of what we might expect from Page’s work, which will use dancers from both his own Bangarra Dance Theatre and the Australian Ballet — definitely something to look forward to.

  • Scholars and Artists in Residence (SAR) Fellowship

In December I began my research into designer Kristian Fredrikson’s film and television commissions at the National Film and Sound Archive under a SAR Fellowship and will resume work there after the holiday break. I was especially pleased finally to be able to see a film called Undercover, made in 1983 and produced by David Elfick with Kristian Fredrikson as costume designer and Anna French as his assistant designer. This film is set in the 1920s and charts the growth of the Berlei undergarment enterprise in Australia. Fredrikson’s designs, especially for the women and for the dance sequences (choreographed by former Australian Ballet dancer Leigh Chambers) towards the end of the film, are beautifully realised within the spirit of the fashions of the 1920s. I suspect Fredrikson reimagined some of his work for Undercover when he began work on Tivoli, which he designed in 2001 for Sydney Dance Company and the Australian Ballet. In any case, despite the reservations I had (before I had seen the film I have to admit) about the subject matter, Undercover is a fascinating film and I hope to arrange a screening of it at a later date.

As a result of a mention I made of the SAR Fellowship in my dance diary post for November I was surprised and delighted to be contacted by one of Fredrikson’s assistants who worked with him on a production of Oedipus Rex, produced in 1965 by Wal Cherry for his Emerald Hill Theatre in Melbourne. It was only recently that I discovered that Fredrikson had designed this show, one of his earliest Australian design commissions, and I hope to include reference to it in a Spotlight Talk I will be giving for the Performing Arts Centre, Melbourne, in April when I will also talk about Fredrikson’s other early designs in New Zealand and Australia.

  • Meryl Tankard

Meryl Tankard and Régis Lansac returned to Sydney in December following the opening of Tankard’s latest work, Cinderella, for Leipzig Ballet in November. As well as passing on news about Cinderella, Tankard also told me of the success that The Oracle had when it was shown in Lyon in November. Tankard made The Oracle in 2009 as a solo work for dancer Paul White and one clipping from a Lyon newspaper that Tankard sent me referred to Paul White as ‘a revelation to the French public’ and ‘a god of the stage’ and suggested that his solo had instantly attracted a cult following. Here is a link to another review (in French or, if you prefer, in English translation) from the Lyon Capitale that lauds, once again, White’s remarkable physicality and virtuosity and Tankard’s and Lansac’s extraordinary work. The Oracle was the recipient of two Australian Dance Awards in 2010.

  • Paul Knobloch

Australian dancer Paul Knobloch was in Canberra over the holiday season visiting family and friends. Knobloch is excited at the new direction his career is about to take. He will take up a contract in February with Alonzo King LINES Ballet based in San Francisco. King recently made a work called Figures of thought for Béjart Ballet Lausanne, where Knobloch has been working for the past few years. King offered Knobloch a contract after working with him in Lausanne. Alonzo King

Alonzo King rehearsing Daria Ivanova and Paul Knobloch in Figures of thought, Lausanne, June 2011. Photo: Valerie Lacaze.

The BBL website has a photo gallery from this work. It contains several images of Knobloch in rehearsal.

      • Luminous: Celebrating 50 years of the Australian Ballet

In December The Canberra Times published my review of the Australian Ballet’s most recent publication, Luminous: Celebrating 50 years of the Australian Ballet. Here is a link to the article.

Michelle Potter, 31 December 2011

*The third most popular post for both November and December was that relating to Stanton Welch and the other Australians working in Houston, Texas.

‘Cinderella’ by two: some thoughts

West Australian Ballet’s Cinderella, newly created this year, had a season in Canberra in November and its popularity was such that an extra show needed to be scheduled. I had certain expectations, having spoken previously to the artistic director of WAB, the choreographer and the designer before writing a preview piece for The Canberra Times. All spoke eloquently about the process of creation and their aspirations for the piece.

But when it came to the performance itself I have to say I was heartily disappointed. While I enjoyed the design by Allan Lees, which set the work in the 1930s, I thought the choreography, by Jayne Smeulders, was scant and quite simplistic. There were many moments when the stage (and I’m talking here about the much-maligned stage of the Canberra Theatre, which is reputed to be too small for the larger kind of ballet production) seemed positively empty of dancing. Not only that, or perhaps because of that, the dancers rarely looked as though they were full-scale professional dancers.

Wherever I have worked in my journalistic dance writing life to date there has always been a policy in place that the person who writes the preview does not write the review of the same piece. My experience with WAB’s Cinderella hammered home the sense behind that policy. But seeing this Cinderella made me wonder about another newly created Cinderella, that by Meryl Tankard for Leipzig Ballet. It opened in Leipzig on 5 November.

Unfortunately I have neither spoken to Tankard about the work nor seen it but the web at least allowed me to catch a glimpse of some images, a bit of footage and snatches of an interview with Tankard about the work. I was interested in Tankard’s answer to a question posed to her by Maeshelle West-Davies from the Leipzig Zeitgeist about why she chose Cinderella and what she thought she could bring to the work. Part of her reply said:

‘Since I am quite used to spending a lot of my time on long trips to and from Australia, I decided to use this experience in Cinderella. The story begins in an airport with Cinderella, and the very ‘glamorous!’ sisters, travelling to an exotic location for a huge party hosted by a wealthy prince. A lot of the scenes will be in ‘hotel rooms’ and the garden scene has been influenced by Sydney’s beautiful botanical gardens. I would like the audience to feel as if they have also been on big trip!’

As thought-provoking too was her reply to a question concerning her process, which seems somewhat different from her process with many of her works made in Australia:

‘I had to be very well organised for Cinderella. I didn’t get much time with the dancers, as they were rehearsing a lot for other productions. I also had to make a lot of decisions about editing the music very early on, so I had to have a clear structure before I began working with the dancers. Since Cinderella is a very well-known story, I had to come up with a new and original way to tell the tale. I approached it as if I were planning a film and storyboarded all the scenes before I arrived in Leipzig.’

A trailer available on YouTube gives a glimpse of the choreography and the design, including the kinds of projections we have come to recognise as signature Tankard/Lansac. Some of the lighting and projections reminded me of sections of Wild Swans, which is not a bad thing in my opinion. I often ponder how Wild Swans the ballet has pretty much slipped from view whereas Elena Kats-Chernin’s delicious score, or parts of it, are heard often. Such is dance I guess.

It seems unlikely that we will see Tankard’s Cinderella in Australia, at least not in the near future. It sounds and looks (at least from a brief glimpse) as though it might be an engrossing take on the fairy-tale. But am I falling into the same trap as I did with WAB’s Cinderella? Such are expectations.

Michelle Potter, 4 December 2011

Dance diary. September 2011

  • Publication news

In September The Canberra Times published my preview of the Australian Ballet’s 2012 season, a review of the recent book The Ballets Russes in Australia and Beyond under the title ‘Dancing round a few home truths’, and my review of Graeme Murphy’s new take on Romeo and Juliet. Romeo and Juliet has certainly sparked some discussion and the amount of traffic that the extended review has generated over this website has been quite astonishing. It has more than quadrupled the previous record of visits to any one post. The suggestion that this Romeo and Juliet is just not a profound work has been made, not only in published comments but also in other communications to me. But whatever we think, it appears to be selling remarkably well and it will be interesting to see what Sydney audiences make of it when it opens there in December.

Editing and design began in September on an article of mine to be published in the December issue of The National Library Magazine. This article looks at the ballet designs of Arthur Boyd for Robert Helpmann’s Elektra, and those of Sidney Nolan for Kenneth MacMillan’s Rite of Spring. Both ballets were given their premieres by the Royal Ballet in London in the early 1960s. We’ve never seen the MacMillan Rite of Spring here in Australia, but Elektra was staged by the Australian Ballet in 1966 when there were some interesting changes to Boyd’s designs, which in fact had already undergone changes before they even made it to the Covent Garden stage.

joseph-janusaitis

Joseph Janusaitis in make-up for Elektra, the Australian Ballet, 1966. Photo by Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia, permission pending

  • Nijinsky’s costume for Le Dieu bleu

While the Romeo and Juliet post has attracted instant interest, the post from late last year on Nijinsky’s costume for the Blue God quietly continues to generate visits. I was recently contacted by author Denise Heywood, whose book Cambodian dance: celebration of the gods was published in 2008 in Bangkok by River Books. The book is an interesting examination of the history of Cambodian dance and reproduces some remarkable photographs from across many decades. Denise suggests in her recent communication with me that it is not just the costume has links to the Khmer culture, as I suggested in the post, but the choreography for the ballet Le Dieu bleu must surely also have been influenced by Khmer dance, especially the ‘slow, statuesque movements’.

  • The Royal New Zealand Ballet

The Royal New Zealand Ballet has just announced its 2012 season, its first full year under the directorship of Ethan Stiefel. Stiefel will begin the year in February with a very American program entitled NYC, ‘New Young Classic’ (although the other meaning of that acronym is in there too). NYC will feature works by Larry Keigwin, Benjamin Millepied and George Balanchine. Keigwin has a big following in New York and he will create a new work on the dancers of RNZB. Millepied is now probably best known for his contribution to The Black Swan, but he has been making dances for several years for a range of high profile companies including New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and the Paris Opera Ballet. RNZB will dance Millepied’s 28 Variations on a Theme by Paganini (2005).  The program will also include Who Cares?, Balanchine’s popular and beautifully polished work set to songs by George Gershwin.

Later in the year RNZB will restage its production of Christopher Hampson’s Cinderella and in November Gillian Murphy will take the lead role in a new staging of Giselle to be co-produced by Stiefel and that exceptional interpreter of the role of Albrecht, Johann Kobborg.

tonia-looker-2012-giselle-h-photo-ross-brown1

Tonia Looker in a study for Giselle 2012. Photo: © Ross Brown. Courtesy Royal New Zealand Ballet

  • Memory lane

Canberra is currently in the middle of Floriade, its annual celebration of spring (although the weather is decidedly cold). I have never forgotten a remarkable Floriade, the only one I have ever attended I have to admit, back in 1990. The Meryl Tankard Company was then Canberra’s resident dance company and Tankard staged Court of Flora outdoors against the backdrop of Commonwealth Gardens.

Inspired by the engravings in J. J. Grandville’s book, Les Fleurs animées first published in 1847, Court of Flora was given eleven performances in October 1990. Its spectacular costumes, designed by Sydney-based couturier Anthony Phillips, drew sighs of delight from audiences. So too did the ability of Tankard’s dancers to pose decoratively behind bushes and around trees while at the same time investing the flowers that they represented with clearly discernible human qualities, as indeed Grandville had done with his illustrations. In particular, an impish Paige Gordon as Thistle and an elegant Carmela Care as Rose still remain in the mind’s eye.

  • The Little Mermaid

I continue to be confounded by Rex Reid’s Little Mermaid, the version he made for Laurel Martyn’s Victorian Ballet Company in 1967. All sources seem to indicate that it opened as part of a mixed bill on 1 September 1967, but reviews seem to have appeared in Melbourne papers on the same day, 1 September. There is probably a simple explanation—perhaps there was a preview before 1 September to which reviewers were invited? But if anyone was there and can assure me that it did open on 1 September, despite reviews appearing on the same day, I would be thrilled to hear.

  • Site news

Traffic across the site during September increased by over 20% compared with August, due largely to the exceptional interest in Romeo and Juliet. The review attracted a large number of visits, more than any other post in the two year history of the site. Not surprisingly visits from Melbourne topped the list. Other Australian cities generating significant numbers of visits during September were, in order, Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane and Adelaide.

Some small updates will be made to the site in the next few weeks. On the home page I am having a link to the full tag cloud inserted under the list of top 20 tags. This will facilitate searching from the home page.

I am also having two new sub-pages added to the Resource page. One will be for National Library of Australia articles and will allow me to separate articles written for National Library of Australia News/The National Library Magazine from other online publications. The second will be for articles written for theatre programs.

Michelle Potter, 1 October 2011

‘Bolero’: Meryl Tankard & Régis Lansac

Bolero, by that remarkable duo Meryl Tankard and  Régis Lansac, will have another European outing in April 2012. It will appear on a triple bill program by the Lyon Opera Ballet along with works by William Forsythe and Jiri Kylian. Is there any other Australian choreographer whose work can, over and over again, stand alongside those who are considered by most to be choreographic giants?

Scene from 'Bolero'. Photo: Régis Lansac
Scene from 'Bolero'. Photo: Régis Lansac

Bolero shows off Tankard’s capacity to create a vision of an ever-changing body in movement. It grows from earlier experiments with shadow play, which can be traced at least back to works made in Canberra—works such as Banshee and Nuti.

Bolero was first staged on commission from the Lyon Opera Ballet in 1998 shortly after Tankard had been dismissed as artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre. Its opening scene recalls a Javanese shadow play. Shadows in profile, delicately costumed in bell-shaped skirts with fretted designs are images of real dancers who are hidden behind a screen. As these dancers move across the stage space, they hold their arms in a way that casts two dimensional shapes onto the screen. They move jerkily through images of shadowy columns and disappear behind what appears to be the narrowest of slits between two architectural columns. They then re-emerge from this slim, vertical strip of light, and pursue their crossing of the space.

However, as the work proceeds—and it is performed entirely as a shadow play—the feeling of artificiality disappears. A feeling that this is a real world emerges, even though the audience is still involved in watching bodies behaving in mysterious ways. At one stage a man and a woman engage in a romantic interlude that changes emotional direction and ends with her being pushed to the ground. As she falls to the ground the floor swallows her up. The shadow of her body simply disappears from view. Further into the piece a Spanish dancer is joined by a headless woman and they dance alongside each other.

Set to the driving rhythms of Ravel’s Bolero, the dance gathers momentum along with the music. As both music and dance move to an inevitable climax, shadowy figures change size and shape and position. Some scurry across the space, some move with relentless slowness. There are multiple manifestations of the one figure. Frenzy and control. It is a technical tour de force for Lansac and a work in which the collaboration between Tankard and Lansac reaches a high point. The work was restaged in 2003 in Sweden by the GöteborgsOperans Balett but has never been seen in full in Australia.

© Michelle Potter, 25 April 2011

News from Meryl Tankard

Meryl Tankard reports that her first short documentary film, MAD, has been selected for showing at the 17th World of Women: WOW  Film Festival.

MAD focuses on madness and schizophrenia, explored by poet and writer Sandy Jeffs, who has lived with schizophrenia and all its moods for 34 years.  It features music by Elena Kats-Chernin and vocals by Mara Kiek both of whom have collaborated with Tankard on numerous previous occasions. Lyrics are by Sandy Jeffs. Jeffs was a featured writer at the 2010 Melbourne Writers Festival. She has published five books of poetry.

Sandy Jeffs in Meryl Tankard's short documentary, MAD
Sandy Jeffs in Meryl Tankard's short documentary, MAD

Tankard says she is thrilled that her first documentary has been chosen to be screened at the Festival. She says:

‘I hope this documentary will give viewers a glimpse inside the schizophrenic mind. I have been inspired by Sandy’s works and by Sandy herself, in particular the way she deals with her inner voices and the way she articulates her feelings about her illness’.

MAD will be screened on 9 March 2011 at the Dendy Opera House Quay cinema.

Michelle Potter, 22 February 2011

‘The Oracle’. Meryl Tankard

19 september 2009, The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, Spring Dance

The Oracle, Meryl Tankard’s work set to Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, is a triumph. A solo work for Paul White, who dances with astonishing physicality and intensity, it is an example of how affecting a work can be when the creative team has a strongly shared vision and works single-mindedly to bring that vision into being. The Oracle was visually and choreographically focused and articulate. It moved from section to section as relentlessly as the music until it reached its dramatic conclusion.

Paul White in 'The Oracle'

Paul White in The Oracle. Photo: Regis Lansac, 2009

Tankard’s choreography, with shared credit to White on the program, moved between small and intricate movements of the hands and fingers and even of the tongue, which required sensitivity of the smallest body part, and movements that demanded that White fling himself through the air, while always maintaining absolute control of the whole body as it hurtled through space. Introverted movements, sometimes executed with the dancer’s back to the audience or with his head shrouded in a chocolate-coloured length of velvety cloth, contrasted with steps of exceptional virtuosity, exuberance and extroversion. Some sections were acrobatic — at one stage White walked on his hands — others had a strong classical feel. This choreography required an extraordinarily versatile performer and White’s performance was quite simply a tour de force.

Tankard assembled The Oracle following the structure of the Stravinsky score but, in her hallmark manner, it was built on multiple layers of meaning and allusion. There were emotive links to Nijinsky, who first gave choreographic expression to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913. They were noticeable in some of the choreographic phrases, which seemed to refer back to Nijinsky’s movement phrases created for his own Rite of Spring. They were also noticeable in those moments when White seemed to be lost in a surreal world, which recalled Nijinsky’s descent into mental illness in the later years of his life. There were allusions to Martha Graham’s well known work, Letter to the World, in which she used her long skirt to give extra shape and form to her choreography. White used that long, chocolate-coloured swathe of velvet not this time to cover his head but as a skirt tied to his waist. He made it swirl through the air as he cart-wheeled and jumped and manipulated it across the floor as he slithered and twisted. The work drew on other sources of inspiration from the work of Norwegian artist Odd Nerdrum to Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman. But The Oracle is absolutely Tankard’s own. One of her great strengths as a choreographer is to make references while maintaining an individual integrity.

Regis Lansac, working again with Tankard as he has done over many years on set and video design, created an opening video sequence to a soundscape of whistling and other mechanical sounds and a recording of Magnificat by the Portuguese composer of the baroque period, João Rodrigues Esteves. This sequence picked up on aspects of the choreography and on images of White and manipulated both to explore a different view of the human body. It seemed also to set up a dance of its own that moved from the figurative to the abstract and back again melding and confusing the two ideas. At times throughout the piece Lansac’s projections and video sequences provided an evocative background. At other times they became essential to the unfolding of the dance, especially in those moments when White encountered his image on the backcloth and needed to contend with what he saw.

The Oracle was lit by Damien Cooper and Matt Cox. Highlights included the Rembrandt-esque lighting of White’s face, arms and legs in the opening moments; the expanding and contracting circle of light around whose circumference White made a slow and tentative progression; and the breathtaking closing moment as White, centre stage, jumped high into the air as a shaft of brilliant light closed down upon him.

Paul White in 'The Oracle' (2)Paul White in The Oracle: Photo Regis Lansac, 2009

The Oracle shows the collaborative work of Tankard and Lansac at its best. It is an awesome piece of dance and theatre and was received with well deserved shouts of bravo and a standing ovation at both performances I attended.

Michelle Potter, 21 September 2009

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