Laurel Martyn as Remorse in Fantasy on Grieg's Piano Concerto, in A Minor, Borovansky Ballet, 1945

Laurel Martyn (1916–2013)*

Laurel Martyn, one of Australia’s most eminent dancers, choreographers and dance educators, has died in Melbourne on 16 October, three years short of her 100th birthday. Born in Toowoomba, Queensland, as Laurel Gill, Martyn received her early dance training with Kathleen Hamilton in Toowoomba and Marjorie Hollinshed in Brisbane and in 1933 left Australia for further training. In England she studied with Phyllis Bedells and in 1934 won a choreographic scholarship from the Association of Operatic Dancing (later the Royal Academy of Dancing) with her first composition Exile. She passed all her Royal Academy exams to Solo Seal and in 1935 won the Adeline Genée gold medal, the second Australian to do so in the then short life of the competition, which began in 1931. In 1935 Martyn also arranged the dances for a production of The Waltz King and in the same year received second prize in a choreographic competition, the Pavlova Casket, for her ballet Sigrid.

Laurel Martyn in 'Exile', London 1935

Laurel Martyn in Exile, London 1935. National Library of Australia

Martyn joined the Vic-Wells Ballet (later Sadler’s Wells Ballet) in 1936. She was the first Australian woman to be accepted into the company and by 1938 was a soloist. While in England she changed her name from Gill to Martyn, also a family name. She danced in many of Frederick Ashton’s early ballets including Horoscope, Nocturne and Le Baiser de la fée and also spent time in Paris studying with the Russian émigré ballerinas Lubov Egorova and Mathilde Kchessinska.

Martyn returned to Australia in 1938 following the death of her father and took up a position in Melbourne with well-known teacher Jennie Brenan. While teaching for Brenan she was offered the dancing lead in Hiawatha, a pageant produced by T. E. Fairbairn and choreographed by Brenan, which opened in Melbourne’s Exhibition Building on 21 October 1939. The ballet cast of 80 was led by Martyn, Serge Bousloff and Lawrence Rentoul. While performing in Hiawatha Martyn was noticed by Edouard Borovansky who persuaded her to join his fledgling Borovansky Ballet, which she did in 1940. Martyn was one of Borovansky’s principal artists in the early days of the Borovansky Ballet, along with Edna Busse and fellow Queenslander Dorothy Stevenson. Martyn danced and created leading roles with Borovansky until 1945, including the Spirit of the River in Borovansky’s meditation on his Czech homeland, Vltava. While with Borovansky she also restaged Sigrid and reworked what is probably her best known work, En Saga, which premiered for the Borovansky Ballet in 1941.

Martyn left the Borovansky Ballet after her marriage to Lloyd Lawton in 1945. But in 1946, at the request of the Melbourne Ballet Club, Martyn took on the directorship of Ballet Guild, as the Melbourne Ballet Club had renamed itself. She was its director for an extended period. Ballet Guild became Victorian Ballet Company in 1963 and Ballet Victoria in 1967. Martyn was at the helm until 1973. She also established a school associated with Ballet Guild and students from the school augmented professional dancers in Ballet Guild productions. Martyn created many original works for Ballet Guild and Ballet Victoria productions and collaborated with Australian composers, including Dorian Le Gallienne, Margaret Sutherland, John Tallis, Esther Rofe, and Verdon Williams, and Australian designers, including Alan McCulloch, Len Annois, and John Sumner. Some of her works also had specifically Australian themes, notably The Sentimental Bloke (1952) and Mathinna (1954). Other significant works that Martyn made in this period included L’Amour enchantée (1950), a full-length Sylvia (1962), Voyageur (1956) and Eve of St Agnes (1966).

Laurel Martyn in 'En Saga', 1947. Photo: Ronald Esler
Laurel Martyn in 'Swan Lake', Borovansky Ballet, 1944. Photo: Ronald Esler

 

(left) Laurel Martyn as the Aggrieved Woman in En Saga, Ballet Guild, 1947; (right) Laurel Martyn in Swan Lake, Act II, Borovansky Ballet, 1944. Photos: Ronald Esler. National Library of Australia

Martyn developed a specific method for teaching dance to children, the principles of which she published in Let them Dance (1985). She also was instrumental in forming the Young Dancers’ Theatre, for which she choreographed several works in the 1980s, and the Classical Dance Teachers Australia Inc, which provided in-service training for dance teachers. She was on the steering committee for the Australian Institute of Classical Dance in the early years of its development. Martyn guested with the Australian Ballet as Mar in The Sentimental Bloke in 1985, as the mother of James in La Sylphide also in 1985, as Berthe, Giselle’s mother, in Giselle in 1986 and as Miss Maud in The Competition (Le Concours) in 1989. In 1991 she reproduced Michel Fokine’s Le Carnaval for the flagship company. In 1997 she was the recipient of the award for lifetime achievement at the inaugural Australian Dance Awards.

Martyn was interviewed for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program in 1989 and the interview is available online at this link. See also ‘Inspiring Mentors: Valrene Tweedie and Laurel Martyn’ published in July 2002 in National Library of Australia News. In addition, a special issue of Brolga: an Australian journal about dance—Issue 4 (June 1996)—was published in honour of Martyn’s 80th birthday. It contains the following articles:

  • Laurel Martyn OBE: a voyager ahead of her time by Janet Karin
  • In her own words: excerpts from an oral history interview with Laurel Martyn
  • The choreography of Laurel Martyn, 1935–1991
  • The smile of Terpsichore: notes on Laurel Martyn as choreographer by Robin Grove
  • Dancing the Bloke by Geoffrey Ingram
  • Laurel Martyn and her composers, 1946–1956 by Joel Crotty

Also published in Brolga, in its first issue of December 1994, and under the title ‘Silent stories’, is Robin Grove’s incisive discussion of Martyn’s Sylvia.

Laurel Martin Lawton: born Toowoomba, 23 July 1916; died Melbourne, 16 October 2013.

Michelle Potter, 19 October 2013

*This brief biography draws on original research I carried out, first for the National Film and Sound Archive’s Keep Dancing! project between 1997 and 2001 and then as part of the early stages of the National Library of Australia’s Australia Dancing project beginning in 2002.

Featured image: Laurel Martyn as Remorse in Fantasy on Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, Borovansky Ballet, 1945. National Library of Australia

Laurel Martyn as Remorse in Fantasy on Grieg's Piano Concerto, in A Minor, Borovansky Ballet, 1945

 

Anna Volkova Barnes (1917–2013)

Here at last is a link to my obituary for Anna Volkova published in The Canberra Times on 18 September 2013.

See also my ‘Vale Ania’ story at this link.

Anna Volkova in costume for Les Sylphides, Sydney 1939

Anna Volkova in costume for her signature role in Les Sylphides. Dedication to Xenia and Edouard Borovansky, 1939. Photo: The Sun, Sydney, National Library of Australia.

Here too is an extract from an interview I recorded with Volkova in 2005 for the National Library of Australia’s Oral History and Folklore Collection in which she talks briefly about arriving in Australia for the first time. The full interview is not presently available online, but here is the catalogue record. I used this extract previously, with Volkova’s permission, in a talk I delivered at the National Gallery of Australia in 2011 called ‘We’re going to Australia: the Ballets Russes Down Under’.

For all posts relating to Volkova see the tag Anna Volkova.

Michelle Potter, 19 September 2013

Anna Volkova Barnes. Vale

I was saddened to hear that Anna Volkova Barnes, the last remaining dancer living in Australia from the Ballets Russes companies who visited between 1936 and 1940, has died aged 96. She danced her way out of this life on 18 August. An obituary is in process [now available], but in the meantime below are two non-dancing images that I especially like from Volkova’s dancing years in Australia and later in South America.

Anna Volkova and colleagues in Australia,1938

Anna Volkova (second from left) with colleagues Serge Ismailoff, Oleg Tupine and Tamara Tchinarova, with Paul Petroff standing in the background, Australia (Melbourne?), 1938. National Library of Australia

Dancers in performance for F.A.E
Left to right: Lydia Kuprina, Leda Youky, Tamara Grigorieva, Anna Volkova, Tatiana Leskova, 1945. Photo: Kurt Paul Klagsbrunn. Private collection

The photo immediately above was taken in Rio de Janeiro not long before Volkova agreed to move to Australia to marry Australian rower Jim Barnes. She came to Australia in 1945 and they married in 1946. The photo above was a promotional shot for a performance these dancers gave for a student organisation in Rio.

In addition here is a link to some footage (probably also classed as non-dancing to a certain extent) taken by Dr Ewan Murray-Will at Bungan Beach. It is a mini-performance, known amongst the dancers as the Bungan Ballet, featuring Volkova, Ludmilla Lvova, Anton Vlassoff and Paul Petroff. Volkova is the dark-haired lady clambering over the rocks in the early seconds of the footage in a story about a damsel in distress who is rescued from the sea.

The Bungan Ballet

I last saw Anna Volkova earlier this year when I went to visit her at her home in Belrose where she helped me identify some of the images in the Upshaw album, about which I have written elsewhere. She was as charming and generous as ever. A truly wonderful lady. Vale.

Michelle Potter, 21 August 2013

Robin Grove, 2009

Robin Grove (1941-2012)

This is a belated, personal tribute to Robin Grove who died on Christmas Day 2012. Robin had a long and distinguished career as an academic but was also an acclaimed writer about and reviewer of dance. Ballet and music had been part of his life from an early age and as a young man he took classes with Laurel Martyn’s Ballet Guild.

Robin Grove in the Ballet Guild studios (1), Melbourne ca. 1967. Photo: Vivien Jones
Robin Grove in the Ballet Guild studios (2), Melbourne ca. 1967. Photo: Vivien Jones

Robin Grove in the Ballet Guild studios, Melbourne ca. 1967. Photos: Vivien Jones. Courtesy Elisabeth Grove

During the 1960s he choreographed several ballets for the Guild, whose company at that stage was named the Victorian Ballet Company (later Ballet Victoria). Perhaps the best known of Robin Grove’s works for the Guild was Apollon Musagète, to the score by Igor Stravinsky. A filmed (but silent) rehearsal of this work is in the collection of the National Film and Sound Archive, as I was thrilled to discover while working in the Archive in the late 1990s.

The current dance literature is a little confusing with regard to performance dates for Apollon Musagète but it appears that it was given its first company performance in a short season at the Palais Theatre, St Kilda, on 4–5 September 1964. It shared the program with Carnaval, Bottom’s Dream (Maxwell Collis), the pas de deux from Nutcracker and Once upon  a Whim (Martyn). Its décor was by Warwick Hatton* and the program has the additional design credit line ‘after Lionel Feininger’. A note in the 1964 program states that the work was added to the company’s repertoire ‘after its successful reception in the programme Repertoire Nights held in the Victorian Ballet Guild’s studio theatre’, although I have not yet been able to establish the date of that earlier showing. The 1964 program records that Apollo was danced by Maxwell Collis, Calliope by Barbara Warren-Smith, Poly[hymnia] by Dianne Parrington, and Terpsichore by Jillian Luke. Other Muses were danced by Pamela Baker, Elaine Kemp, Margaret Crowder, Victoria Gibaljo, Mary Long and Denise Saunders.

Anne Sims and Jilllian Ray in the Victorian Ballet Company production of 'Apollon Musagète', 1967. Photo: Walter Stringer

Scene from Robin Grove's 'Apollon Musagete', ca. 1964. Photo: Walter Stringer

Two scenes from Apollon Musagète (left, courtesy National Library of Australia; right, courtesy Elisabeth Grove) Photos: Walter Stringer

The work was reprised at least once at the Guild studio theatre by the Victorian Ballet Company in September 1967. It was part of a program of four ballets with the other three comprising The Little Mermaid (Rex Reid) The Comedians (Jack Manuel) and Dear Dorothy Dix (Michael Charnley). The program was reviewed in The Herald (Melbourne) on 1 September 1967 by H. A. Standish.

I can’t remember when I first met Robin—it may have been at a Green Mill dance conference in Melbourne around 1992, but he worked with me to establish Brolga: an Australian journal about dance, which appeared for the first time in December 1994. I valued his support and his input as Brolga developed as an idea and then blossomed as an enterprise. He was a member of the advisory panel from that first issue onwards and later, when I went to work in New York in 2006, he became co-editor (with Alan Brissenden) until December 2008.

He contributed Silent Stories, a wonderful analysis of Laurel Martyn’s 1963 work Sylvia, to the first issue of Brolga, and he continued to contribute on a number of occasions after that. It was he who suggested that we devote an entire issue to the work of Laurel Martyn, and the issue—a kind of Festschrift—appeared in June 1996 in celebration of Martyn’s 80th birthday. In addition to Robin’s article, The smile of Terpsichore: notes on Laurel Martyn as choreographer, that issue included articles by Janet Karin, Geoffrey Ingram, JoAnne Page and Joel Crotty. It also contained extracts from an oral history interview with Martyn and a list of her choreography from 1935 to 1991. In my opinion the Laurel Martyn issue remains one of the best we produced.

Robin brought to Brolga an amazingly wide-ranging attitude to what we could publish in a dance journal. His background in music and literature was invaluable and I trusted his opinion unreservedly when he read articles that I thought needed a second opinion with regard to publication. Of his own articles, what I loved was the way he was able to place his material into a wide cultural context. But I guess what I loved most was that he believed that ballet was an art form worthy of consideration at the highest level.

I regret that our lives did not cross after my return from New York. An obituary, published in The Age in April 2013, is at this link.

Michelle Potter, 18 August 2013

Featured image: Robin Grove, Melbourne 2009. Courtesy Elisabeth Grove

Robin Grove, 2009

NOTES

* I have not been able to find information about Warwick Hatton’s design work and would be pleased to hear from readers who may know of his background. The costumes, as far as I can ascertain from the Stringer images, recall some features of the designs for David Lichine’s Protée, which was seen in Australia during the Ballets Russes tours and which was designed by Giorgio de Chirico.

** Of the two Stringer photos above the image on the left is from the collection of the National Library of Australia and is dated 1967. The dancers’ names on the Library’s catalogue record do not coincide with those on the 1964 program. The Stringer image on the right was kindly supplied by Elisabeth Grove.

 

Valerie Grieg (1922–2013)

‘Good dancers love dancing’ (Valerie Grieg, 2011)

Valerie Grieg, who has died in Melbourne on 27 March in her 91st year, was an inspired teacher of ballet whose deep understanding of the classical technique and how it can best be taught are contained in her publication Inside ballet technique: separating anatomical fact from fiction in the ballet class. Inside ballet technique was first published in 1994 by the Princeton Book Company and remains an essential guide to body mechanics and the anatomical laws behind classical ballet.

Valerie Grieg, 1951Valerie Grieg modelling Prestige Ltd fabric, taken during the filming of ‘Fabrics in Motion’, Melbourne, Victoria, 1951. Courtesy Powerhouse Museum, Sydney. Reproduced with permission

As a child in Melbourne Grieg studied ballet before going on to work with Elisabet Wiener, proponent of the Central European modern dance style. But ballet, with its strong technical underpinning, was where her interests and commitment lay and in the 1940s she joined Laurel Martyn’s Ballet Guild. It was an extraordinarily creative time at the newly-formed Guild and Grieg’s colleagues at the time represented a roll call of Melbourne-based artists of the day. They included Martin Rubinstein, Strelsa Heckelman, Corrie Lodders, Max Collis, Graham Smith and Eve King. With Ballet Guild, Grieg performed in many of Martyn’s original compositions, including Sigrid in which she danced the title role, as well as in classics of the repertoire such as Serge Bousloff’s staging of Le Carnaval in which she appeared as Chiarina.

Teaching soon became an important aspect of Grieg’s career. In 1950 the Guild established a branch in Hamilton, Victoria, and Grieg became its director. A newspaper report in 1952 claimed Grieg had flown over 40,000 miles to give classes since taking on this role. Later she taught for the Guild on the Mornington Peninsula.

Grieg left the Guild, and Australia, in the early 1950s to work and study in the United Kingdom. In London she came under the influence of esteemed teacher Audrey de Vos whose approach to a number of technical issues Grieg absorbed into her own developing career as an educator.

After returning to Australia briefly Grieg left in the early 1960s to pursue her dance interests in the United States. She studied in New York at the Juilliard School where she especially admired the warmth and strength of Martha Hill, and then moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where she worked with Ohio Ballet. She was also the founding coordinator of the Dance Department at the University of Akron, Ohio. Eventually, Grieg returned to Manhattan where she coached, choreographed and taught master classes. She came back to Australia on frequent occasions to teach and coach. Later she returned permanently to her country of birth living first in Canberra and then in Melbourne.

Grieg’s students continue to teach and perform in the United States, Australia and elsewhere and many continue to develop and expand upon her influential approach to teaching. Her friend and colleague, Janet Karin, recalls Grieg’s influence:

‘In the 1950s, Valerie was a ballet teacher well ahead of her time. Her experience in modern dance, her anatomical knowledge and her enquiring, analytical mind enabled her to see the fundamental truths behind traditional teaching. As my mentor in my early teaching years, she was always generously encouraging. Her interest in discussing esoteric technical points inspired me then, and was still inspiring me as she reached the age of 90. Valerie helped lay the foundations of my teaching career.’

Grieg’s legacy lives on. She is survived by her nephews, Christopher Zegelin in the United States and Peter Zegelin in Australia.

Valerie Grieg: born Melbourne, 4 September 1922; died Melbourne, 27 March 2013.

Michelle Potter, 28 March 2013

Strelsa Heckelman Lording (1925−2012)

Portrait of Strelsa HeckelmanStrelsa Heckelman, 1950. J. C. Williamson collection. National Library of Australia 

Strelsa Heckelman Lording, who danced under her maiden name Strelsa Heckelman in several early Australian ballet companies in the 1940s and 1950s, has died in Melbourne aged 87.

Described by friend and dancing colleague Athol Willoughby as ‘a sparkling dancer with a strong technique’, Heckelman began dancing early in her life in her home town of Brisbane. By the time she was thirteen she had passed all her Royal Academy of Dance examinations and shortly afterwards she was invited to take part in classes with Colonel de Basil’s Original Ballet Russe during the company’s 1940 Brisbane season. De Basil then invited her to follow the company to Sydney, which she did.

But, despite impressing de Basil, she did not join the Ballets Russes. Instead she continued her training as a full-time student with Hélène Kirsova in Sydney at Kirsova’s studios at Circular Quay and, when Kirsova started a ballet company herself in 1941, Heckelman joined it. She danced with the Kirsova Ballet until the company folded in 1944. With Kirsova she was part of the unique collaborative activities that Kirsova initiated when she commissioned composers, including Henry Krips, and designers such as Loudon Sainthill to work with her company.

Heckelman then joined Edouard Borovansky’s Borovansky Ballet performing in the company’s regular repertoire as well as in musical shows that Borovansky choreographed for the J. C. Williamson organisation. Later she danced with Laurel Martyn’s Melbourne-based company Ballet Guild, and in the early 1950s danced again in J. C. Williamson musicals, including Song of Norway and Oklahoma. Leading performers in musicals in the fifties were almost always brought in from overseas and Heckelman danced to considerble acclaim in both Song of Norway and Oklahoma with star American jazz dancer Matt Mattox.

Her final professional performances before retiring in 1953 to have her children were with the National Theatre Ballet in Melbourne. With the National her repertoire included the full-length Swan Lake, the Giselle peasant pas de deux, which she danced with Ray Trickett, and the Head Girl in Kira Bousloff’s staging of Graduation Ball. She also alternated with Valrene Tweedie as Columbine in Tweedie’s 1953 production of Carnaval for the National. 

Strelsa Heckleman in the peasant pas de deux from 'Giselle'. National Theatre Ballet, 1952. Strelsa Heckelman in the peasant pas de deux from Giselle. National Theatre Ballet, 1952. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

Athol Willoughby recalls a somewhat incredible feat that took place during a rehearsal for the National’s Swan Lake. He says: ‘Our rehearsals for the 1952 season were conducted in a large church hall in the suburb of Hawthorn. At a rehearsal for “Swan Lake” Act 3, Strelsa was dancing in a cardigan because she had a cold. She began the 32 fouettes of the coda when her nose began to run. Without missing a beat she took a handkerchief from a pocket in the cardigan, blew her nose, put the hanky back in the pocket concluding the series of fouettes without moving from the spot. That seemed to me to be quite an achievement!’

In between jobs with a ballet companies, Heckelman worked in a photographer’s studio and later in the perfume department of the Melbourne department store, Georges. Following her stage career she established her own ballet school and also taught for other teachers in the Melbourne area. She remained active in the dance world in her later years and in 2002 became patron of the Tasmanian Ballet Company.

Heckelman once recalled that she never tired of dancing. She thought of every night as an opening night and always relished the overture starting, the curtain going up and seeing the lights in the theatre. That was the magic of the theatre for her.

Strelsa Heckelman married Jack Carruthers in 1951. After the death of Carruthers, Heckelman married Tom Lording in 1984. He died the following year. Heckelman is survived by a son, Ian, and a daughter, Lynn, from her first marriage.

Strelsa Heckelman Lording: born Brisbane, 20 July 1925; died Melbourne, 28 December 2012

Michelle Potter, 7 January 2013

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Dance diary. October 2012

  • Dancing bronzes

During October I was utterly transfixed by an exhibition called Bronze on show at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. I was sceptical when I read so many reviews all with glowing descriptions that seemed to border on hyperbole. But the exhbition was absolutely mind-blowing in its scope, in the intelligence of its presentation and in the power of the objects on display.

The centrepiece of the show is the ‘Dancing Satyr’, a slightly larger than life figure around 2,300 years old, which was dragged out of the sea by fishermen in 1998. It is the first object one encounters on entering the exhibition space and, although it is missing both arms and one leg, the sense of movement emanating from the figure is brilliant. No matter from which angle one looks at the figure it is dancing, wildly. Bathed in a soft, moody light this beautiful figure is the sole object in a quite large space. The impact is almost overpowering.

Dancing SatyrDancing Satyr, Greek, Hellenistic period, Third–second centuries BCE; Bronze, with white alabaster for eyes, H. 200 cm; Museo del Satiro, Church of Sant’Egidio, Mazara del Vallo; Photo Sicily, Regione Siciliana—Assessorato Regionale dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana—Dipartimento dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana—Servizio Museo interdisciplinare Regionale “A. Pepoli” Trapani / © 2012. Photo Scala, Florence

The show contains other dancing items including a serene dancing Shiva.

Of course many of the bronzes have nothing to do at all with dance but they are astonishing as well and include some unexpected (to me) items from Africa. The show covers an exceptionally wide period of time from the ancient world to the present. On the non-dancing front I loved a spider, hovering high on a wall, by Louise Bourgeois and a couple of beer cans in bronze from Jasper Johns.

Bronze is at the Royal Acaemy of Arts, London, 15 September 2012 to 9 December 2012. It’s a great show.

  • Bolshoi Ballet in Brisbane

The Queensland Performing Arts Centre today announced its latest dance coup. Australian dance-goers will have the opportunity to see two programs by the Bolshoi Ballet in Brisbane in a season lasting from 30 May-9 June 2013. The Bolshoi is bringing two full-length works. The season opens with Le Corsaire based on the production created by Marius Petipa in the nineteenth century but in a revival by Alexei Ratmansky and Yuri Burlaka. The second program is another revival, this time of a 1935 work from the Soviet era, The bright stream, again with input from Alexei Ratmansky, who has given the work a fresh breath of life with new choreography.

Both works promise to be curiosities—The bright stream, for example, is set during a harvest festival on a collective farm in the Russian steppes where a Moscow dance troupe arrives to entertain the workers. The season is, however, an opportunity to consider Ratmansky’s work once more, especially in a year when his new Cinderella will be a feature of the Australian Ballet’s 2013 season.

'The bright stream', Bolshoi BalletDancers of the Bolshoi Ballet in The bright stream

More about the season at this link.

  • Yvonne Mounsey/Irina Zarova (1919–2012)

Late in September one of the few remaining dancers who performed in Australia with the Ballets Russes died in Los Angeles. Yvonne Mounsey, born Yvonne Leibbrandt in 1919 in Pretoria, South Africa, danced in Australia during the 1939‒1940 Original Ballet Russe tour under the name Irina Zarova. A quick scan of programs from that tour indicates that she danced in at least Pavane (see below), Scheherazade, Thamar, Le Coq d’or, Petrouchka, Francesca da Rimini, Coppélia and Etude. Mounsey then travelled with the de Basil company on to South America where she was involved in the infamous dancers’ strike.

'Pavane', Original Ballet Russe, 1940Tamara Grigorieva and Irina Zarova in Serge Lifar’s Pavane, Original Ballet Russe, 1940. Photo: National Library of Australia

Mounsey’s major career was in the United States with New York City Ballet and she had a long career as a teacher in Los Angeles. Here is a link to Alastair Macaulay’s obituary in The New York Times, the only one I have seen so far that mentions the Australian part of her life.

Michelle Potter, 31 October 2012

Dance diary. July 2012

  • Moya Beaver (1918‒2012)

I was saddened to learn that Moya Beaver, whose dance links go back to Louise Lightfoot and Mischa Burlakov and the First Australian Ballet in the 1930s, had died on 13 June 2012. Beaver performed in many of the Lightfoot/Burlakov productions and was partnered often by Gordon Hamilton. She later travelled to Europe where she studied in Paris with Lubov Egorova. Beaver then performed with Egorova’s Les Ballets de la jeunesse, touring with them to Denmark. On her return to Australia she danced in the J. C. Williamson musical Funny side up before settling into family life and a long career as a teacher in Sydney.

Moya Beaver and Gordon Hamilton in 'Le Carnaval'. Photo Nikolai Ross, 1937

Moya Beaver and Gordon Hamilton in Le Carnaval, First Australian Ballet 1937. Photo Nikolai Ross. Courtesy National Library of Australia

Listen to Moya Beaver’s oral history interview, recorded for the National Library in 1994.

  • International Auto/Biography Association (IABA)

In July I presented a paper, ‘The desire to conceal: two case studies’, at the 2012 IABA conference, Framing Lives.  In this paper I looked at the problems encountered in writing a biography when a subject expresses, either directly or indirectly, a desire to conceal certain aspects of his/her life and career.

  • Kathryn Bennetts

I also had the great pleasure in July of recording an oral history interview with Australian expatriate Kathryn Bennetts who recently resigned from a seven year term as artistic director of the Royal Ballet of Flanders in Antwerp. Bennetts was in Sydney briefly before returning to Europe to continue work as a much sought after teacher and as a stager of ballets, especially those of William Forsythe, for companies across the world.

  • The Oracle and Meryl Tankard

Also during July The Canberra Times published my article on Meryl Tankard’s 2009 work The Oracle, which I was inspired to write after hearing that negotiations were underway for The Oracle to tour in the United States

  • Ethan Stiefel

News came through this month too of Ethan Stiefel’s final performance on 7 July as a dancer with American Ballet Theatre. Here is a selection of online news:

Interview in TimeOut about his retirement

Article in The New York Times about his retirement

The New York Times review of the final show

I loved Roslyn Sulcas’ comments in the review: ‘His performance was daring, explosive. Pirouettes, jumps and whole phrases started at what seemed to be full power and then amazingly turned up a notch. Risk was palpable, and yet classical form was never distorted’.

After reading the reports I looked back to a letter I had written to a friend following Stiefel’s performance as Solor in La Bayadère with ABT in 2007 (with Diana Vishneva as Nikiya). I wrote: ‘Those double cabrioles in his Act I solo! So exciting to see, partly of course because he has such amazing legs in terms of strength and in terms of the long lean look they have. Then I was watching his manège of grands jetés in the same solo and was absolutely taken by the way he stretched out the front leg. You could see its trajectory carving or pushing a line in the space ahead of him.’

What a performance that was and, to my absolute surprise as I am not normally a fan of La Bayadère, I found myself sitting on the edge of my seat for the entire performance.

Steifel and his partner Gillian Murphy are now back in Wellington with the Royal New Zealand Ballet where a new production of Giselle by Stiefel, in collaboration with Johan Kobborg, is something to anticipate later this year.

Michelle Potter, 31 July 2012

Dance diary. March 2012

  • Kristian Fredrikson in New Zealand

In March I spent a week in Wellington, New Zealand, looking into the work made by Kristian Fredrikson for the Royal New Zealand Ballet and Wellington City Opera. I have nothing but praise for the staff of the Royal New Zealand Ballet, the Film Archive of New Zealand, the Dowse Art Museum and the National Library of New Zealand (despite the fact that the Library is currently closed to the public due to renovations) for their generous help with my research activities.

I was especially interested to see a recording of Swan Lake (that ballet again) from 1985—a production by Harry Haythorne who was at the time the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s artistic director. It linked up nicely with some designs for this production I had recently been examining in the National Library’s Fredrikson collection and it is always a bonus to see designs transformed into costumes and worn by dancers. Not only that, Haythorne’s production was quite different from anything I had seen before concentrating as it did on the character of Siegfried more than Odette, making something quite different out of von Rothbart and making a strong distinction between reality and fantasy. It was then a further bonus to see some of the costumes themselves, with their quite astonishing layering of fabric to achieve a textured look, at the Dowse.

It was also a pleasure to speak to former Australian Ballet principal, Greg Horsman, currently ballet master with the Royal New Zealand. His recollections of working with Fredrikson complemented those I recorded last year with Miranda Coney. Coney and Horsman are pictured below in the pas de deux from Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker, in its first staging of 1992.

Greg Horsman and Miranda Coney, 'Nutcracker' 1992Greg Horsman and Miranda Coney in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker, the Australian Ballet 1992. Photo Don McMurdo. Courtesy National Library of Australia

  • Bruce Morrow (1928–2012)

I was saddened to hear of the death in March of Bruce Morrow, whose career included performances with the National Theatre Ballet and the Borovansky Ballet. He danced in some ground-breaking Australian productions, including Rex Reid’s Corroboree and the Borovanksy Ballet’s full length Sleeping Princess. Following his career as a performer he was for many years a highly regarded teacher at the Australian Ballet School and elsewhere. He is seen below as one of the Three Ivans in the 1951 Borovansky production of The Sleeping Princess. I interviewed Bruce in 2000 for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program. Here is the link to the catalogue record.

The Three Ivans, Borovansky Ballet 1951(top to bottom) Bruce Morrow, Ron Paul and Tom Merrifield as the Three Ivans in The Sleeping Princess, Borovansky Ballet, 1951. Photographer unknown. Courtesy National Library of Australia

  • Stanton Welch’s Tapestry

I have been a fan of Houston Ballet since visiting Houston last year where, as in Wellington, I was treated more than generously by everyone with whom I came into contact. There’s a lovely clip available on YouTube from Welch’s newest work Tapestry.

  • The Ballets russes tribute programs continue

I read with interest Ismene Brown’s review of a recent English National Ballet season.

  • Site news

With Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet playing a season in Brisbane during March interest has been revived in the posts and comments on this site relating to that production. In addition, Brisbane for the first time was one of the top five cities in terms of numbers of visitors accessing the site. It came in third behind Melbourne and Sydney and was followed by Canberra and London. The top post for March was the review of the Australian Ballet’s Infinity program.

Michelle Potter, 30 March 2012

Paul De Masson (1953‒2012)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle Potter, 14 February 2012

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