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.

Dance diary. January 2012

  • Paul De Masson

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

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

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

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

  • Heath Ledger Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle Potter, 30 January 2012

Rachel Cameron Parker (1924-2011)

Rachel Cameron Parker, dancer and dance teacher who has died in London just a few weeks short of her 87th birthday, worked all her life to maintain the classical basis of ballet.

rachel-cameron1Rachel Cameron adjusting her ballet shoe, 1940s. Geoffrey Ingram Archive of Australian Ballet. With permission of the National Library of Australia. Photo by S. Alston Pearl [?]

On a trip to Australia in 1976 Cameron told oral historian Hazel de Berg:

‘I want the pure classical basis of the ballet to continue. I want it to continue in England, the whole of Europe, America, and Australia, so that we can extend and continue to build on this basis. I feel that out of 200 pupils maybe only one will grasp the real significance of this basic work. But out of 200 or 300, one person is enough for it to be handed down to future generations. I don’t want it to be lost.’

Cameron was born in Brisbane but spent her early childhood in Townsville in northern Queensland before moving to Sydney aged about 5 or 6. In Sydney she began dancing lessons with Muriel Sievers who had studied in London with Phyllis Bedells and who taught the syllabus of the Royal Academy of Dancing, as it was then called. It was with Sievers that Cameron first began teaching as Sievers quickly had her helping teach the youngest classes on Saturday morning. Sievers also insisted that Cameron take piano lessons and also lent her Tamara Karsavina’s book Theatre Street.

In the early 1940s Cameron danced with the Borovansky Australian Ballet Company, which later became the professional Borovansky Ballet and then with the Kirsova Ballet in Sydney, a company led by former star of the Monte Carlo Russian Ballet, Hélène Kirsova. There were also opportunities for Cameron to develop her teaching skills in Kirsova’s school, which was firmly grounded in what Kirsova referred to as the ‘Russian method’.

Cameron was given major roles in a number of Kirsova’s works including Revolution of the Umbrellas, Faust, A Dream…and a Fairy Tale, Harlequin, and Hansel and Gretel. She has recalled that her happiest days as a dancer were with Kirsova:

‘She was a woman who tried to mould her company in the Diaghilev tradition where music, the scenery, the dancers became part of one whole, and there it was I think that the true beginnings of Australian ballet lie’.

Moving to England with her husband Keith Parker, Cameron danced in Song of Norway and in a company directed by Molly Lake. She also studied in Paris with former stars of the Russian Imperial Ballet, Lubov Egorova and Olga Preobrajenska, and with many notable English teachers including Anna Northcote.

By her own admission one of the most exciting periods of her life came when she was asked to demonstrate for two great teachers and former ballerinas—Lydia Sokolova and Tamara Karsavina. With Karsavina she also developed a teaching syllabus for the Royal Academy of Dance.

‘Sokolova was absolutely marvellous,’ Cameron once recalled. ‘She was not content with near being good enough, it had to be exact or else’.

Of Karasavina, she has recalled: ‘I found for the first time that what I had always dreamed of was true, and that’s why, now, I am such a stickler for perfection of technique’.

Cameron was guest teacher for many companies around the world including the Australian Ballet. In December 2010 she was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award for a lifetime of services to dance. Rachel Cameron is survived by her brother Alister and nieces Alison, Fiona and Christine.

Rachel Cameron Parker: born 27 March 1924, died 6 March 2011

Michelle Potter, 13 April 2011

Postscript: One of the images of Cameron that has fascinated me, as much for its 1940s glamour as anything else, is that of her with her colleagues from the Kirsova Ballet, Peggy Sager and Strelsa Heckelman, posing outdoors at Taylor’s Bay close to Kirsova’s home on the northern shores of Sydney Harbour.

sager-heckelman-cameron

Clockwise from top: Peggy Sager, Strelsa Heckelman, Rachel Cameron, Taylor’s Bay, Sydney, 1943. With permission of the National Library of Australia.

Added 28 April 2011: Maina Gielgud studied with Rachel Cameron at various points in her life and they remained close friends until the end of Rachel’s life. Maina  shared this recollection:

Memories of Rachel from when she gave me private lessons when I was nine years old:   Passionate, outspoken, knowledgeable. I believe she was an excellent dancer with lots of personality and mammoth technique.

I always remember her coming to see me in Newcastle (UK) performing Swan Lake with Festival Ballet. I thought I was dancing quite well (for once!)—she said nothing, but wrote me a long letter which quite disillusioned me, but certainly made me rethink what I was up to and how I went about my work and my dancing…

She knew I knew that she only bothered because she thought I was worth it…


Merce Cunningham (1919-2009)

Merce Cunningham’s death on 26 July 2009 in Manhattan brings to a close an astonishing life in dance. Cunningham once said ‘I didn’t become a dancer, I have always been dancing’. His remarkable career is a testament to a man who has not only always been dancing, but who has always been pushing the boundaries of dancing, including the boundaries of how it is perceived, fashioned and presented.

In 2007 I was in the exceptionally fortunate position of being co-curator of an exhibition, ‘INVENTION: Merce Cunningham and collaborators’, for the New York Public Library for the  Performing Arts. I was able to work with David Vaughan, revered archivist of the Cunningham company, to liaise with others in the company over selection of items, media activities and the creation of a new work to be performed as part of the exhibition. I also participated with Cunningham, Vaughan and the third curator, Barbara Cohen-Stratyner, in the media call, presenting to the audience on the key concepts behind the exhibition.

The following images are from INVENTION. They indicate in just a small way the extent of Cunningham’s engagement with artists from across a wide creative spectrum as he went about his daily activity of dancing.

Michelle Potter, 29 July 2009
Nothing there

Photos: Neville Potter, 2007

Valrene Tweedie (1925–2008). ‘The fire and the rose’

‘The fire and the rose’ is a tribute to and obituary for Valrene Tweedie, Australian dancer, teacher and choreographer who died in August 2008. Tweedie danced with Colonel de Basil’s and Sergei Denham’s Ballets Russes companies and with an embryonic National Ballet of Cuba. She choreographed for stage and television in Australia, pioneered dance education programs and founded Ballet Australia in the 1960s to encourage Australian choreography.

‘The fire and the rose’  first appeared in Brolga. An Australian journal about dance in December 2008.

Michelle Potter, 7 July 2009