Dance diary. May 2013

  • Symmetries. The Australian Ballet

Symmetries has come to and gone from Canberra. What a wonderful program it was and people are still talking about it. As a friend said, ‘It had the WOW factor’, and those who missed it are sounding regretful. And I was amused to find Monument alluded to in Ian Warden’s column on the lack of poetry in the Centenary of Canberra celebrations. ‘…the sad fact is we have marked this year almost entirely in prose (with the odd ballet about a building thrown in, of course)’, Warden wrote in The Canberra Times. Such is the instant fame of Monument in Canberra.

Here is the link to a review of Symmetries I wrote for Dance Australia online. Other material, about Monument in particular, is at this link.

  • Heath Ledger Project

The National Film and Sound Archive now has an update to its Heath Ledger Young Artists Oral History Project website. On this site you will find details of those young artists who have been interviewed to date, including extracts from the interviews in some cases. My interviews with Joseph Chapman and Josie Wardrope have some lovely footage included. Here is the link.

I am currently negotiating interviews with two recent graduates from NAISDA, which I hope will be added to the archive in the next few months.

  • Press for May 2013

In addition to articles and reviews relating to the Symmetries program, other press articles in May include a preview of Liz Lea’s InFlight for The Canberra Times, and also for The Canberra Times  a profile of choreographer Garry Stewart, which unfortunately was published more as another piece about Monument when in fact it also dealt with G and other aspects of Stewart’s work.

Garry Stewart rehearsing 'Monument' 2013. Photo Lynette Wills
Garry Stewart rehearsing Monument, 2013. Photo Lynette Wills. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

In addition, some of Australia’s best known contemporary dancers took part in the Dublin Dance Festival in May. Here is a link to a preview article in The Irish Times in which Jordan Beth Vincent and I have some comments.

Michelle Potter, 31 May 2013

Gailene Stock (and the ballet documentary ‘First Position’)

I beamed with pleasure watching Gailene Stock, Australian-born director of the Royal Ballet School, presenting a scholarship to the School to Joan Sebastian Zamora in the recently released ballet documentary First Position. Stock radiated pleasure as she made the presentation and, judging by Zamora’s dancing in the documentary, she chose well. A native of Colombia, Zamora has wonderful stage presence, is a fabulous turner, has great feet and beautifully proportioned limbs and is very good-looking and filled with determination to succeed. Watch him in rehearsal here.

But I was saddened to hear, on my return from this afternoon excursion, that Stock is unwell. Here is the official Royal Ballet School announcement:

From Alan Winter, Chief Operating Officer, The Royal Ballet School:
As some of you may know, Gailene Stock, the School’s Director has been unwell recently and she asked me to let you know that she will be commencing treatment shortly for a tumour that has appeared on her brain. Gailene is in a strong and positive mood but recognises that her treatment will be demanding and last for several weeks. Whilst she will continue to lead the School, her level of involvement and ability to attend work will depend on how well she is feeling at any given time. Her husband, Gary Norman (Senior Ballet Teacher – Upper School), also wishes to continue with as normal a working life as possible but he may need to be with Ms Stock at different stages of her treatment.

Both Ms Stock and Mr Norman understand that everyone will want to send their very best wishes and be supportive but politely ask that people refrain from sending e-mails and texts to her for the time being. If you wish to send anything, please address it to the School for the attention of Rachel Hollings or via email to rachelh@royalballetschool.co.uk. Ms Stock has made it clear that the best tonic we can give her is for everyone to remain focused on the students’ training and welfare and ensure we continue to bring the best out of them. I can reassure everyone that this will be the case.

The Assistant Director Jay Jolley, with the assistance of Mark Annear (Head of Outreach and Teacher Training) and Diane van Schoor (The Lower School’s Ballet Principal), will cover the artistic management of the School during any of Gailene’s absences in the summer term. Academic and pastoral matters will remain the responsibility of Dr Charles Runacres and Pippa Hogg-Andrews. I will maintain an overview of all aspects of the School’s operations.

I will keep you updated on Gailene’s anticipated return to better health.

With very best regards
Alan Winter

As for the film, well it is as much about ballet mothers as it is about young dancers and ballet competitions, and most of the original choreography we see is appalling. But it is nicely shot and edited by Bess Kargman and the seven students who are singled out and followed through rehearsals and performances in the Youth America Grand Prix all have interesting backgrounds. But you have to love competitive ballet to love this film. It has many distasteful moments if competitions are not your scene.

Michelle Potter, 12 April 2013

I interviewed Gailene Stock for the National Library’s oral history program in April 2012. The interview is available online.

Dance diary. March 2013

  • Luke Ingham

In mid-March I had the pleasure of meeting up in San Francisco with Luke Ingham, former soloist with the Australian Ballet. Ingham and his wife, Danielle Rowe, left Houston Ballet in 2012 to take up other offers. Rowe went to join Netherlands Dance Theatre in The Hague and Ingham scored a soloist’s contract with San Francisco Ballet. Ingham has already had some great opportunities in San Francisco and my story on his activities is scheduled to appear in the June issue of Dance Australia in the magazine’s series Dancers without borders. Watch out for it.

  • Walter Gore’s The Crucifix

I have always been fascinated by a photograph taken by Walter Stringer of the final scene from Walter Gore’s ballet The Crucifix. Alan Brissenden, in his and Keith Glennon’s book Australia Dances, reproduces the photograph on page 53, and a print is part of the National Library’s Walter Stringer Collection. Brissenden gives a brief account of the storyline and the reception the ballet received when it was staged in Australia by the National Theatre Ballet in 1952.

Paula Hinton in Walter Gore's 'The Crucifix', 1952Paul Hinton in the final scene of Walter Gore’s ballet The Crucifix, National Theatre Ballet, Melbourne 1952. Photo: Walter Stringer, National Library of Australia

I have just recently been making a summary of an oral history interview I recorded with Athol Willoughby in February and his recollections of performing in The Crucifix tell us a little more, especially about the final scene, and provide, furthermore, a wonderful example of the value of oral history. Willoughby played the role of one of the soldiers who accompanies the executioner, played by Walter Gore, to the scaffold. He says of the opening performance:

‘The scene changed to a huge [stake] with a lot of fake wood around it … Wally came in carrying Paula … Her hands were tied … and he lifted her onto the [stake]. Just as the symphony ended he picked up a torch—none of us had seen the end of the ballet, even at the dress rehearsal the end of the ballet hadn’t been choreographed and we didn’t know what was going to happen—he picked up a flaming torch and threw it at the pyre of wood. The minute he threw the torch at her the wood lit up, the symphony finished and Paula screamed … It was so powerful.’

  • The Rite of Spring: an animated graphical score

I  have just received the following note and link from composer Stephen Malinowski:
‘The last few months, I’ve been working on an animated graphical score of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. This week I completed the first part:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=02tkp6eeh40
Enjoy!’

  • Pacific Northwest Ballet

In my review of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s recent program I mentioned that the show I saw was only the second time I had seen the company in performance. Well that is not quite true. I had the good fortune to see the company in 2007 in Seattle when the program consisted of George Balanchine’s La Sonambula, Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia and Nacho Duato’s Rassemblement. Certainly a very interesting program.

Michelle Potter, 31 March 2013

Featured image: Luke Ingham and Sarah van Patten in Christopher Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour. Photo: © Erik Tomasson, 2013. Courtesy San Francisco Ballet

Diary NoteFurther details

‘Living Treasure. Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon’: John Ellison Davies

Living Treasure is a brief memoir: brief but appealing in its thoughtful discussion of the early directorial careers of Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon. Author John Ellison Davies, former critic for the now defunct newspapers Nation Review and The National Times, focuses on the last years of the 1970s and remarks it was a time ‘when most of their adventure lay ahead of them’.

But prior to his discussion of the works of the late 1970s, Davies reproduces the press release issued in mid-2006 when Murphy and Vernon resigned from Sydney Dance Company. He comments: ‘It was a bombshell of pride, anger, and hope for the future’, and for us it is more than salutary to reread that press release almost seven years later. Especially striking is that Murphy and Vernon mention their ‘sadness’ as they watch dance entering what they call ‘a less dynamic phase’.

Davies goes on to give an abbreviated account of the careers of Murphy and Vernon immediately before they took up the reins of the Dance Company of N.S.W, which just a short time later became Sydney Dance Company. He concludes by publishing three of his reviews written between 1978 and 1979. One concerns Poppy, another Rumours and the third the 1979 Signature Season.

Graeme Murphy as Jean Cocteau, 1980. Photos Walter Stringer Graeme Murphy as Jean Cocteau in Poppy, 1980. Sydney Dance Company. Photos: Walter Stringer. Courtesy National Library of Australia

For those of us who were lucky enough (and are old enough) to have seen the earliest Murphy/Vernon productions it is a treat to read such graphic, analytically absorbing accounts of them from Davies’ pen. And the reviews are well chosen, not only because they refer to significant works by Murphy but because they show us Murphy’s ability to work with diverse subject matter—the themes of Poppy and Rumours, for example, are worlds apart. For those who didn’t see these early shows, Davies makes it easy to visualise what they were like.

Janet Vernon as Mme Cocteau, 1980. Photo Walter StringerJanet Vernon as Mme Cocteau in Poppy, 1980. Sydney Dance Company. Photo: Walter Stringer. Courtesy National Library of Australia

The publication is unillustrated (I’m sure for very good reasons associated with the difficulties of self-publishing) so I have reproduced a few images from Poppy, taken from a 1980 production, in this post and have attempted to choose images that illustrate some of Davies’ descriptive passages. His analysis of Murphy’s treatment of Cocteau and his opium addiction is especially interesting.

As an aside, an oral history interview recorded with Murphy by Hazel de Berg in 1981 expands upon the years covered in Living Treasure, and on Rumours and Poppy in particular. An edited version of this interview was published in 1994 in the first issue of the journal Brolga: an Australian journal about dance. This article is not available in the online version of Brolga but it is worth hunting out in libraries that subscribed to the journal in print form. The introduction to the edited interview is at this link.

Living Treasure was published by Amazon in 2012 as an e-book for Kindle. I believe it can also be downloaded onto other devices. It’s well worth it, despite the brevity of the publication. It is food for thought too on the issue brought up in the 2006 press release of dance being less dynamic (and indeed by extension the issue of dance writing in a world where newspapers seem to have less and less substantial comment, especially about the arts, and fewer and fewer informed writers, especially about dance).

 

Michelle Potter, 28 February 2013

Tankard bannerHOW TO ORDER

‘It brought back so many memories’—Jill Sykes
This book is also available through the National Library of Australia’s bookshop and to library clients through James Bennett Library Services

Dance diary. February 2013

  • Hannah O’Neill

Admirers of Hannah O’Neill, and there are many if my web statistics are anything to go by, may be interested to read the following post on Laura Capelle’s website Bella Figura. In addition to what is written on the site, there is a link to an article written by Capelle for the American dance magazine Pointe. The article was published in the February/March issue of Pointe and Capelle has done a great job in getting O’Neill to open up about her experiences, including some of the difficulties she has faced in Paris.

  • Bodenwieser update

A news story on the Bodenwieser project being led by Jochen Roller, which I mentioned in last month’s dance diary, was screened on SBS TV a few days ago. The SBS story is available via this YouTube link.

Below I have reproduced a photo of Marie Cuckson, who with Emmy Taussig assembled the Bodenwieser archival material and kept it in good order until she donated it to the National Library and the National Film and Sound Archive in 1998. The acquisition was part of the Keep Dancing! project, which was the forerunner to Australia Dancing. Marie Cuckson is seen in her home in Sydney in August 1998 with the material packaged and ready to be transported to Canberra.

Marie Cuckson, 1998Marie Cuckson with the Bodenwieser Archives, 1998

  • Oral history collections

As a result of the Athol Willoughby interview conducted recently I retrieved the listing of dance-related oral histories in the National Library and the National Film and Sound Archive that used to be part of Australia Dancing. I have updated that list (an old version is on the PANDORA Archive). Here is the link to the updated version. It is a remarkable list of resources going back to the 1960s with early recordings by pioneer oral historian Hazel de Berg and, in the case of the NFSA, to the 1950s with some radio interviews from that period. It includes, for example, interviews with every artistic director of the Australian Ballet—Peggy van Praagh, Robert Helpmann, Anne Woolliams, Marilyn Jones, Maina Gielgud, Ross Stretton and David McAllister—and with three of the company’s administrators/general managers—Geoffrey Ingram, Noël Pelly and Ian McRae. But it is not limited by any means to ballet and in fact covers most genres of dance and the ancillary arts as well.

That material held by the National Film and Sound Archive is included reflects the origins of the list, which was begun in the early days of the Australia Dancing project when the NFSA was a partner in the project (and in fact the major collecting partner in its initial stages). I have also posted the list on the Resources page of this website and will update it periodically as information about new interviews comes to light. It deserves to be more obvious than it is now—that is hidden in PANDORA in an outdated version—especially as it is not a static resource.

  • Site news

February saw a huge jump in visits from France due largely to the post on the Paris Opera Ballet’s production of Giselle, which was the most accessed post during February by a runaway margin. Critics in France were curious about the reaction of Australian audiences and critics. As a result I have added ‘Danses avec la plume’ (the title refers a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche) from journalist Amélie Bertrand to my list of Resources under ‘Other sites’.

Coming in at fourth spot was a much older post on the Paris Opera Ballet’s production of Jiri Kylian’s Kaguyahime, which was having a return season in Paris in February. Interest in these two posts saw Paris become the fourth most active city after Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.

The second most accessed post in February was an even older one, my review of Meryl Tankard’s Oracle, originally posted in 2009. Tankard is currently touring this work in the United States. At third spot was a post on Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring perhaps reflecting the wide interest in 2013 in the many dance activities associated with the 100th anniversary of the first performance of the Stravinsky/Roerich/Nijinsky Rite of Spring, of which the Tankard tour is one.

Michelle Potter, 28 February 2013

Tankard banner HOW TO ORDER

‘It brought back so many memories’—Jill Sykes
This book is also available through the National Library of Australia’s bookshop and to library clients through James Bennett Library Services

Athol Willoughby. An oral history

Earlier in February I had the pleasure of recording an oral history interview with Athol Willoughby, former dancer with the National Theatre Ballet and other companies, and an esteemed Melbourne-based ballet teacher over several decades.

Tasmanian-born, Willoughby first took up ballet in Hobart with Beattie Jordan but soon moved to Melbourne to further his training at the National Theatre Ballet School under the direction of Lucie Saronova. Saronova played a particularly significant role in the early days of the Cecchetti Society in Australia and Willoughby recalls her fondly and discusses her teaching and her role in Australian dance history throughout the interview.
Saronova story webWilloughby joined the National Theatre Ballet in 1952 and worked with two directors of that company—Walter Gore and Valrene Tweedie. Following a stint in the United Kingdom, where he took classes from a range of well-known teachers including Anna Northcote and Stanislas Idzikowski and performed with Western Theatre Ballet, he came back to Melbourne and devoted himself to teaching. He returned to the professional stage twice with the Australian Ballet—in a revival of Anne Woolliams’ Swan Lake, and as one of Clara’s émigré friends in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker: the story of Clara.

'Swan Lake' Act 1, NTB 1955 or 1956Naeidra Torrens, Noelle Aitken and Athol Willoughby in Swan Lake Act I pas de trois,  final pose. National Theatre Ballet, 1955 or 1956. Photo: Walter Stringer

Willoughby has always maintained strong connections with the Cecchetti Society. He taught Cecchetti technique, is a holder of the Cecchetti Diploma and was one of the most senior examiners for the Cecchetti movement in Australia. He also prepared a number of now highly-respected Cecchetti examiners for their role as examiners, namely Sandra Allen, Lorraine Blackbourn, Anne Butler, Sandra Clack, Carole Oliver and Jennifer Stielow.

The interview is significant from so many points of view. In particular, it contains considerable background to and information about the National Theatre Ballet, a company that has been somewhat neglected, I think, in present day Australian dance scholarship. The interview is also full of delightful anecdotes about life as a dancer and about the personalities with whom Willoughby came into contact in Australia and elsewhere!

The catalogue entry for the interview on the National Library of Australia’s catalogue is at this link. I hope in due course it will be made available as an online resource. It is well worth listening to and highlights how important oral history is in the recording of Australia’s dance history. So much of what interviewees give us through the medium of the oral history interview will never be recorded in any other way.

All photos reproduced are from the personal collection of Athol Willoughby.

Michelle Potter, 25 February 2013

Featured image: Valrene Tweedie and Athol Willoughby in Le Coq d’or. National Theatre Ballet, 1955. Photo: Walter Stringer

Tankard bannerHOW TO ORDER

‘It brought back so many memories’—Jill Sykes
This book is also available through the National Library of Australia’s bookshop and to library clients through James Bennett Library Services

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

Bill ‘Angel’ Akers

While preparing for my recent Spotlight talk at the Arts Centre Melbourne I had occasion to listen to an oral history interview I recorded for the National Library in 2002 with Bill Akers. One of the many positions Akers held across the course of his very full life was director of productions with the Australian Ballet. He was also an inspired lighting designer, worked in various roles with the Borovansky Ballet and, prior to that, worked in theatre and film and on radio as an actor.

Ultimately, I used an audio clip from the interview in the talk and an audience member commented at the end on how nice it was to hear Bill’s voice again. Well that’s one of the benefits of recording oral history. But apart from anything else he had a beautiful voice. It was deep, generous and cultivated. In his interview he had something to say about that voice, which relates to his first radio appearances:

I became a club leader and gymnasium instructor in the YMCA and one Friday night, having lost the National Table Tennis Championship, I was standing rather dejectedly in the boys’ division and the telephone rang. A man called Bill Arthur, who subsequently became a parliamentarian and went on to join the House of Reprehensibles [sic]—he ran a show called ‘Over to you’, said ‘Look Bill, an actor hasn’t turned up for an interview, would you do it?’

Well, with characteristic reluctance I rushed out of the YMCA, ran down Pitt Street at the rate of knots, rushed round into Market Street and was up in Studio 149 before you could breathe. I hadn’t the faintest idea what I was doing. They shoved a script into my hand and said: ‘Say anything after the letter A’. So I did the interview and I was ‘A’. I didn’t know who ‘A’ was but they would go out and interview a boy who was perhaps an apprentice plumber or an apprentice clerk or something or other and they would get the details of his job and what the prospects were and things like that. And an actor would come in and play that boy on the radio.

Well the following Tuesday they rang me up and said would I do it for a year, so I got a contract. At the end of the year, of course I wanted to go into the theatre and I wrote to Keith Wood who was the director of that program and told him this. And he rang me up and very kindly said to me: ‘Look, Bill, you’re very talented but if you’re going to become an actor, the first thing you have to do is do something about that terrible voice’. Well I did have a voice that was very high at the time and very nasal. So high that only dogs could hear it. It was very nasal and Australian and so on. So he sent me to Bryson Taylor who was a voice production teacher who listened to me for five minutes and said: ‘Have a cup of tea’. And he talked to me for a while and at the end he said: ‘Look, I’m sure you’re very talented but I don’t think anybody could ever do anything with that voice’. I’ve never drunk tea since.

Not long after this Akers became a student at the Rathbone Academy of Dramatic Art in Sydney and went on to appear on radio in episodes of the Lux Radio Theatre and the Caltex Theatre. He also worked with the John Alden Company playing Shakesperian roles, and with the J. C. Williamson organisation in a variety of productions.

'For better, for worse'. Photo Hal Williamson

Michael Duffield, Bill Akers and Joan Duan in a scene from For better, for worse, 1953. Photo Hal Williamson. Courtesy National Library of Australia

At the request of Harald Bowden of the J. C. Williamson organisation, Akers joined the Borovansky Ballet as assistant stage manager in the 1950s. His interview contains recollections of arriving at the theatre for the first time as ASM, his impressions of Borovansky and his thoughts on the Borovansky Ballet.

I walked through the stage door of Her Majesty’s Theatre at about 11:30 in the morning to be confronted by these fifty raging egos jumping up and down and whirling around in the air. They were rehearsing a ballet called Symphonie fantastique and Mr Borovansky was standing on a chair shouting imprecations at these people. He had a pair of baggy old corduroy slacks on … He had a Chesty Bond’s singlet, rather loosely flapping and ballet slippers and a beret on the back of his head, which fell off as he got down onto the stage.

To me, despite the fact that I think I’ve met lots and lots of very great people in my life—I’ve been very privileged for that—he is the greatest person I think I’ve ever known. I think he contributed more to Australian theatre, particularly to dance, than anybody else. He created a ballet audience. He made ballet in Australia … he was just a fantastic man [with] particular drive and charisma. When you worked with Mr Borovansky you were alive twenty-four hours a day. He was the most stimulating person imaginable.

The Borovansky Ballet was a great big, magnificent, glamorous rough diamond with wonderful ballerinas. Boro virtually created ballet in this country, which is supposed to be a sports minded country, a situation that led at one stage to us having the greatest per capita ballet audience in the world. And that went on for twenty years … In Boro’s day, of course, triple bills were tremendously popular but he knew how to plan them. He was a genius at planning triple bills. He would introduce a new work like Paul Grinwis’ ballet Eternal Lovers. He would sandwich it in between the second act of Swan Lake and Le Beau Danube, which he knew the public adored. His triple bills were wonderful.

Throughout the interview Akers tells many other anecdotes about people he met and people he admired. He has the following to say about Joyce Graeme when she toured in Australia with Ballet Rambert, 1947‒1949:

I’ve seen some magnificent Queens of the Wilis [in Giselle] but there will never be another Queen of the Wilis like Joyce Graeme. She was an icicle. It was just a magical performance. She wasn’t nearly as good a dancer technically as many of the others I’ve seen but the icy chill she brought to the stage … and of course she was very tall and very thin and she was an electric presence on stage.
Joyce Graeme, Ballet Rambert, 1947 or 1948

Joyce  Graeme in costume for Myrthe, Queen of the Wilis, in Giselle.  Ballet Rambert, 1947 or 1948. Geoffrey Ingram archive of Australian ballet. Photographer unknown. Courtesy National Library of Australia

And he recalls the arrival of John Cranko to stage Pineapple Poll for the Borovansky Ballet in 1954:

[Cranko] first came to Australia for Mr Borovansky to stage Pineapple Poll. Wonderful fellow he was. Great sense of humour. And he’d seen Symphonie fantastique the night before. We were all waiting on stage, breathless, for this great, new, young choreographer to arrive. And at five to ten I used to set off the alarm and class used to start promptly at ten … Well Mr Cranko wasn’t there and everybody was standing on stage thinking: ‘He would never dare to be late’. Then the two doors at the back of the theatre flew open and he came screaming across the stage doing grands jetés, which is what started the final movement of Symphonie fantastique. And he got to the centre of the stage and he said ‘Well there you are, I have proved to you that I can dance. Now let’s see if you can’.

And why was Akers called Angel? As he tells the story, during one of his engagements in a musical comedy show a well-known female actor (whom he declined to name) suggested he looked like the devil with his Van Dyke beard. As a result members of  the company started calling him Lucifer, who according to the bible disguised himself as the Angel of Light. ‘Angel Akers’ was the long term result.

Bill Akers died in 2010. The extracts above are a minute part of an interview that documents many aspects of a long and varied career in the theatre. And like all oral history, it’s the voice that encapsulates the man—no longer ‘high and nasal’ but beautifully modulated and able to express in the most amusing way the most serious of endeavours.

Michelle Potter, 2 May 2012.

Here is the link to the National Library catalogue for the Akers interiew. The National Library cataloguers have yet to add Akers’ year of death to the reord. [This has been rectified—MP, 11 May 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.