Dance diary. May 2016

  • von Rothbart

Since seeing Stephen Baynes’ production of Swan Lake, first in 2012 and more recently in its revival of 2016, I have been thinking frequently about the nature of the character of von Rothbart, ‘an evil geni’, according to the cast lists of the earliest Russian productions. After reading on the Australian Ballet’s website that, in the Baynes Swan Lake, Rothbart is a ‘dangerously seductive dandy’ my interest quickened.

Brett Simon and artists of the Australian Ballet in Swan Lake. Photo Jeff Busby

Brett Simon as von Rothbart with artists of the Australian Ballet in Swan Lake Act III. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Hugh Colman has dressed Baynes’ Rothbart in a red wig when he appears in the palace ballroom in Act III. I was startled the first time I saw it to tell the truth, so carrot-coloured was it. It is not new knowledge, of course, that Rothbart means ‘red beard’ in German and many designers have referred to that meaning. Kristian Fredrikson’s headdress for Rothbart in Stanton Welch’s Swan Lake for Houston Ballet, for example, has straggling red ‘hair’ emerging from it and a pair of glassy red eyes on the sides (as seen in the featured image above). I was interested too to discover that, in Cyril Beaumont’s in-depth analysis of the ballet in his book The ballet called Swan Lake, there is a very detailed account of how Rothbart was meant to look in the Petipa-Ivanov version of the story—even down to the angle of the eyebrows and the shape of the beard.

But perhaps most interesting of all about Beaumont’s analysis is that he suggests that a character like Rothbart (one who is able to take on a variety of forms as he does in most traditional productions of Swan Lake) is often encountered in medieval romances and other early forms of literature—he gives an example of Archimago in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, who also has the power to assume diverse forms. In the story as adapted by Petipa for the production of Swan Lake on which most traditional productions centre, the swans are the victims of a character who has bewitched them, and who assumes the form of an owl to watch over them. The owl at times takes on a human form and in Act II appears in various places around the lake as an evil sorcerer. He listens to the conversation between Odette and Siegfried before disappearing. It then makes sense that he assumes another form in Act III, when he brings Odile to the palace, since he knows of Siegfried’s plan to marry Odette, which would outsmart him and remove his power.

I have no issues whatsoever in rethinking the story or the characters—Rothbart can even be a ‘dangerously seductive dandy’. But can he just turn up in Act III without there having some kind of manifestation of what he represents in the previous act? It makes a mockery of the story if some kind of force, call it evil, sorcery, seductive dandyism, or a combination of features, has not had an impact previously.

In the Baynes production, I kept wanting the projections that appear in the sky in Act II to be some manifestation of Rothbart. But I am reliably assured by a well-known dance writer/critic who spoke to an equally well-known member of the ballet staff at the Australian Ballet that those projections are swans and only swans. So for the moment I’ll just keep thinking that the Baynes Swan Lake is dramatically unsatisfying because I can find nothing that strongly prefigures Rothbart’s appearance in Act III.

  • Benois de la danse

Recipients of the 2016 Benois de la danse awards were announced in mid-May. It was a pleasure to read that Hannah O’Neill was the joint recipient of the award for Best Female Dancer for her performance in the title role in Paris Opera Ballet’s production of Paquita. She shared the award with Alicia Amartriain of Stuttgart Ballet.

But I was also delighted to see that John Neumeier had received a Lifetime Achievement Award. I still get shivers down my spine thinking of his exceptional Romeo and Juliet, which I saw recently in Copenhagen. And we have the pleasure of seeing his Nijinsky later this year in Australia.

I am also a fan of the choreography of Yuri Possokhov, who received the award for Best Choreographer (also shared). I haven’t seen the work for which he was awarded, the Bolshoi Ballet’s Hero of our time, but I have great memories of his version of Rite of Spring made for San Francisco Ballet.

The full list of awardees is at this link from Pointe Magazine. There is also the official site of the awards which gives a much longer account of the event, and includes a list of the nominees from whom the winners were selected.

  • Robert Helpmann

While searching for audio excerpts to use in my recent 2016 Dance Week talk, I came across some interesting snippets in an oral history interview I recorded with Bill Akers in 2002. Akers, who held several positions with the Borovansky Ballet and the Australian Ballet, worked closely with Helpmann on many occasions and, in particular, lit Helpmann’s Australian-produced ballets. I found his comments on the relationship between The Display and Yugen especially insightful. Although it is well-known that The Display was, in part, based on an incident that occurred early in Helpmann’s life, before he went to London in the 1930s, that Yugen was in some ways the antithesis of The Display is perhaps not so well-known. In the first audio excerpt, Akers talks about the early incident that clearly stayed in Helpmann’s mind throughout his life. In the second Akers reminds us of that incident, and then mentions how Yugen relates to it.

Akers on Display

Akers on Yugen

The full interview with Akers is available online via the National Library’s oral history site.

  • Press for April

My article ‘Robert Helpmann: Behind the Scenes with the Australian Ballet, 1963-1965’ has been published in Dance Research, 34: 1 (Summer 2016), pp. 47-62. It fleshes out some of the ideas I have considered on this website relating to Helpmann’s two early ballets for the Australian Ballet, The Display and Yugen. The cover image on this issue of Dance Research is by Walter Stringer from the collection of the National Library of Australia. It shows Gail Ferguson as a Woman of the Village, in Yugen, mostly likely taken during a 1970s revival.

Dance Research 34:1 2016 Cover

Dance Research is published by Edinburgh University Press. Further details at this link.

 

Michelle Potter, 31 May 2016

Featured image: Detail of Kristian Fredrikson’s headdress for von Rothbart in Houston Ballet’s Swan Lake. Photo: © Michelle Potter, 2011

‘Adagio & Scherzo’, ‘Rite of Spring’, ‘Moving Rooms’. Polish National Ballet

21 June 2015, Joyce Theater, New York

The Polish National Ballet holds a certain fascination for many Australian dance-goers, given the Polish company’s previous connections with Léon Woizikowsky and Raisse Kuznetsova, both of whom toured to Australia at various times. Kuznetsova, of course, also established the Polish-Australian Ballet, which was operational from 1939 into the 1950s. The company’s present director, Krzysztof Pastor, also has Australian connections having worked with the Australian and West Australian Ballets. So it was with some interest that I bought myself  ticket for the company’s final New York performance.

Dancers of the Polish National Ballet in 'Moving Rooms'

Dancers of the Polish National Ballet in Moving Rooms Photo: © Ewa Krasucka

Pastor’s current company is composed of strong dancers, if those who came to New York are a guide, and, in addition, the company has been well rehearsed so that their unison work is a pleasure to watch. Choreographically, however, the works performed were rather uneven. Of the three I found Pastor’s own Moving Rooms, the final offering on the program, the most satisfying. It began with a male solo of staccato-style movement where arms and legs stretched and bent with incredible speed so that, aided by the lighting design, the dancer’s movements often seemed to look blurred. The solo was very powerfully performed by Kristóf Szabó. The duets, solos and unison sections that made up the rest of the work were dynamic and mostly interesting to watch. I’m not sure, however, that ‘a pure play of moods and emotions’, which Pastor spoke of in his program notes, was evident during the work. But it was good, strong dancing.

The middle work was entitled Rite of Spring and it did indeed use the Stravinsky score. But with that any similarities to what we know of other Rites of Spring ended. This Rite of Spring was the work of choreographer Emanuel Gat, again someone whose work is known to some Australians. Made for five dancers, three women and two men, it seemed inspired by salsa dancing, and even the jitterbug. One woman was always without a partner and the changing partnerships sped along before our eyes. But its constant repetitions, and a lot of walking around a very dark stage area, were hypnotic to the point of being soporific. I found myself thinking of other things and drifting off. That is until, towards the end, I was shaken from my weariness by Aleksandra Liashenko, one of the company’s principals, who moved towards a rectangle of red light in the centre of the darkened stage and became possessed, arms moving wildly, body shaking. I wanted more but, as Liashenko moved away, another dancer (Marta Fiedler I think) slowly began to wind her long hair into a bun and secured it at the back as she moved into the centre and lay down in the red light. Then the work was over and I wondered what had been the point.

The program opened with another of Pastor’s compositions, Adagio & Scherzo, to music by Franz Schubert. Again Pastor commented in his program notes that he was focusing on emotions, but again it was hard not to think of those emotions being highly artificial. The adagio section constantly looked rather grim and the scherzo was filled with forced smiles. But again the dancing was strong and the set design by Malgorzata Szablowska quite beautiful with the back cloth becoming a changing canvas of Rothko-esque projections.

I wondered why this company of such strong technicians in the end did not look as satisfying as it might have. Perhaps it comes down to the choreography. Pastor seems to have created hard-edged movements and, even though those movements flowed nicely, they had little lyricism. There needs to be some variation I suspect.

Michelle Potter, 23 June 2015

Scene from iTMOi, © Jean-Louis Fernandez 2013

‘iTMOi’ [in the mind of Igor]. Akram Khan Company

30 August, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

I went to the theatre to see this show with a somewhat petulant review from a well-known English critic in my mind. ‘Impertinent’ he wrote (amongst other things), referring in this case to the use of Igor Stravinsky’s first name in the expanded title. Well I found iTMOi, despite its odd title, a fascinating show. Did I understand what was going on? Not completely. But then that was part of the show’s appeal. It generated a conversation with my companion, which went on for some time. Was it an example of that dreaded concept, postmodern? Did it relate to French literary theory? And so on.

The work, choreographed by Akram Khan and danced by his company, is in celebration of Igor Stravinsky and the centenary of his ground breaking composition, The Rite of Spring. Khan sets out, somewhat ambitiously, to investigate Stravinsky’s transformative approach to musical composition. But iTMOi also had, at least in my mind, more than one reference to the Nijinsky ballet created to the Stravinsky score. One dancer, small and vulnerable, is ‘chosen’ to bear the torment of the other dancers when a woman in a crinoline with a top that exposes her breasts throws white dust in her hair.

The work opens with the sonorous sound of a bell ringing over and over and a preacher of sorts shouting, or perhaps ranting is a better word, about the biblical story of Abraham, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac, and the intervention by which Abraham’s god provides a ram in a bush as a replacement sacrificial body. ‘And the angel of the Lord came down’, the preacher shouts. (It took me a while to work out, I have to admit, that the dancer dressed as a horned beast who dragged himself across the stage at various intervals was probably the ram in the bush). From there we were bombarded with a score that went from sounding at times like a gramophone needle stuck in the groove of a vinyl record to being a variation on the religious prayer, kyrie eleison, not to mention the inclusion of what seemed like the ‘beep’ of a truck reversing. The score is the work of three composers, Nitin Sawhney, Jocelyn Pook and Ben Frost.

The dancing by Khan’s company was stupendous. Sometimes they looked like whirling dervishes. Sometimes they were totally idiosyncratic, as was the case with a male dancer wearing a hooped skirt who turned variations on a cart-wheel and balanced on his hands while transforming his feet into an expressive instrument. But the dancers were always powerful movers as they stamped, twisted, turned and threw themselves around the stage. The show was visually mesmerising as well with its strong lighting design and frequent use of shadow play.

Michel Foucault once wrote: ‘One day, perhaps, we will no longer know what madness was…All that we experience today as limits, or strangeness, or the intolerable, will have joined the serenity of the positive’. And was that Foucault’s pendulum (the other Foucault that is) swinging back and forth as the work closed? Dance doesn’t usually offer the opportunity to wonder and ponder to the extent that was offered by iTMOi. I’m glad that all dance is not like iTMOi, but it was an exceptional experience to have seen it.

Michelle Potter, 5 September 2013

Featured image: Scene from iTMOi. Photo: © Jean-Louis Fernandez 2013

Dance diary. April 2013

  • ArtSound FM, Canberra: new dance segment

Beginning in May I will be hosting a ten minute monthly dance segment on ArtSound FM, Canberra’s community radio station focusing on the arts. The segment will be part of Dress Circle a program hosted by local arts identity Bill Stephens. Dress Circle is broadcast on Sundays at 5 pm and repeated on Tuesdays at 11 pm and my segment will focus on dance in Canberra and surrounding regions. Michelle Potter … on dancing, as the segment will be called, will be a feature of Dress Circle on the first Sunday of each month.

In the first program, which will go to air on 5 May, I will be talking about the Australian Ballet’s visit to Canberra with their triple bill program Symmetries, which opens on 23 May. Leading up to the program I have been talking Garry Stewart about his new work, Monument, and have been discovering some unusual and amusing stories about George Balanchine’s ballet The Four Temperaments. Monument and The Four Temperaments will be accompanied by the pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain in this Canberra-only program.

I will also be sharing some information about Liz Lea’s new work, InFlight, which will premiere at the National Library of Australia on 31 May. InFlight is danced by four female performers who are inspired to become aviatrixes when they see their heros, Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm, taking to the air in 1928 and breaking the trans-pacific flight record.

Alison Plevery and Liz Lea, 'InFlight'. Photos: Lorna sim  Alison Plevey and Liz Lea in costume for InFlight. Photos: © Lorna Sim, 2012

There will be other snippets of news as well, and I hope to have time to look back on some of the dance events I have enjoyed in the previous month.

There was some lovely news earlier this month from Australian Dance Theatre—Elizabeth Dalman has been named patron of ADT for the company’s 50th anniversary year, 2015. Dalman, along with Leslie White (1936‒2009), founded ADT in 1965. White moved on to other things in 1967 and Dalman continued to direct the company until 1975. After a varied career overseas, both before and after the ten years she spent at ADT, Dalman returned to Australia in 1986 and in 1990 founded the Mirramu Creative Arts Centre at Lake George, near Canberra. She continues to direct the Centre and its associated Mirramu Dance Company. Fifty years of ADT will also mark fifteen of Mirramu.*

Elizabeth Dalman in 'From Sapling to Silver', 2011 Elizabeth Dalman in Sapling to Silver, Mirramu Dance Company. Photo: © Barbie Robinson, 2011

I didn’t post my Canberra Times review of Sapling to Silver when it was performed in Canberra in 2011, so here is a link to the review.

  • ‘The fabric of dance’: National Gallery of Victoria

In April I had the pleasure of presenting an illustrated talk, The fabric of dance, at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, in conjunction with the Gallery’s exhibition Ballet and Fashion.  In this talk I looked at how the tutu had developed over three centuries or so, and in particular at how its development had been influenced by changes in fashion and by new materials and fabrics that had become available. But, in putting the talk together, I found I was quite unexpectedly wanting to suggest a link between one of the costumes on show in the exhibition and Louis XIV in his famous role as Apollo in Les Ballets de la nuit of 1653, which I did. I am hoping to post the text of the talk, and the accompanying PowerPoint slides, on this site in due course.

One of the images I showed during the talk was of Paris Opera Ballet dancer Carlotta Zambelli, which I was only able to show as a black and white scan from an article first published in the Australian dance journal Brolga in 2005. My postcard of Zambelli was in colour but it disappeared as a result of being lent when that issue of Brolga was being prepared for publication. I despaired of ever seeing it again but it was returned to me a week or so after the Melbourne talk. So for anyone who was at the talk, below on the right is the image in colour, alongside another (also returned to me at the same time in the same circumstances) of Zambelli with an unknown partner in La ronde des saisons in 1906.

Zambelli double

  • The Rite of Spring: Stephen Malinowski’s animated graphical score

I found what I think is an excellent review of Stephen Malinowski’s animated graphical score of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I mentioned this score in a previous post without making much comment myself although what the animated score did instantaneously for me was bring me to a realisation of why I disliked Raimund Hoghe’s Sacre so much. Hoghe completely ignored the fact that the music has so much colour, drive and rhythm. The colour, drive and rhythm of the music is perfectly obvious when listening to the music of course, but seeing the animated score absolutely drives it home and opens up a new view of the intensity of the music. Here is the link to the review.

Michelle Potter, 30 April 2013

 

* Dalman has always been a strong voice in the dance world and she argued against a name change to Meryl Tankard Australian Dance Theatre when Meryl Tankard became director of ADT in 1993. A brief account of that interlude appears in my recent publication Meryl Tankard: an original voice (2012). In a letter to Dance Australia Dalman argued that the company should not carry Tankard’s name as it was important to ‘maintain continuity and … respect for the historical background of the company’.

Tankard bannerHOW TO ORDER

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

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

‘The Rite of Spring’. Houston Ballet

15 March, Brown Theater, Wortham Center, Houston, TX

Houston Ballet’s most recent program had the slightly confusing title of The Rite of  Spring when in fact it was a triple bill in which Stanton Welch’s reimagining of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was simply the final offering on the program. Nevertheless, it was probably the most anticipated of the three works on show although I’m not sure the extensive media build-up was entirely justified.

Welch dispensed with the narrative of human sacrifice that marked the original, infamous 1913 production of Rite of Spring. His production began in something of a primeval manner with a horde of Neanderthal-looking men whose fearsome arrival onstage caused a band of women to flee the stage, thus establishing a primitive, tribal background to the work. But from there the piece seemed to disintegrate into a mixture of cultural references culminating midway through in some kind of wedding or association between a man and a woman, who for the occasion was bound in white garments by her female friends. Just what happened to the couple later on was not clear to me other than that they danced with the rest of the tribe in a passionate frenzy of movement. The work seemed to peter out at the end.

Nor was it clear just exactly who theses tribes were. Costumes and make-up, which included heavy body markings, recalled Aztec ornamentation, a least to me, although there were times when the grass skirts of Polynesia and Melanesia seemed to surface. Heavy, black eye make-up sometimes made the dancers look like they were wearing sunglasses and at other times made their eyes look quite red as though they had been caught in a camera flash. I thought overall the costume/make-up design was considerably overwrought.

This stood in sharp contrast to two magnificent backcloths created from two paintings by Australian indigenous artist Rosella Namok. Namok’s works, ‘Stinging Rain’ and ‘Marks on the Sand, After King Tide’, were beautifully enlarged by Houston Ballet’s backstage team. They had a strong but simple message and it is curious that Welch, according to all press material and published interviews, chose her work because he thought it had a universal quality to it. Well that’s just what Welch’s production didn’t have. It lacked a simple, strong message and a clear sense of focus and, with its myriad of references to other cultures, couldn’t be called universal.

Choreographically Welch worked very closely with the music and there was scarcely a note that didn’t have a corresponding step. Everything looked very busy and as a result the Stravinsky score sounded quite different. To me it seemed to have lost its integrity.

Creating a new Rite of Spring will always bring out a very personal side of any choreographer it seems. The Welch production was not to my liking I’m afraid and I’m beginning to suspect that the versions that work best for me maintain the links to the original narrative or else diverge entirely from it. Welch was unable to establish a new, satisfying pathway or a link to the old one.

The evening opened with Mark Morris’ Pacific danced to Lou Harrison’s Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano. It seemed a little like a religious celebration possibly because of the constant use of uplifted  arms and the placing of the hands in front of the body, palms facing each other, as if holding an devotional item between the hands, or as if in a kind of open praying gesture. Morris’ choreography followed the impetus of the music but the constant bending to the floor as if in homage to something (the music?) also emphasised a kind of religiosity.

Edwaard Liang’s Murmuration, especially created on Houston Ballet and receiving its world premiere in this program, began with a single female dancer moving slowly down a diagonal, But just as one began to ponder the serenity with which she accomplished this walk, the stage was filled with dancers. They formed groups broke apart, met and left the stage in a flurry of movement that lasted for the entire first movement of Ezio Bosso’s Violin Concerto No. 1, Esoconcerto. As explained in a program note the title of the work refers to the intricate patterns formed by starlings during flight and the constantly changing choreographic groupings alluded to these patterns.

The second movement consisted of a series of duets which showed Liang’s emphasis on how bodies can work together as they intertwine and contort, and in so doing how they often appear as one. The men hold our attention in the third movement and for a while the women group themselves at the back and watch the men display their athleticism.

Murmuration is beautifully designed. The simple, grey costumes, designed by Liang and Houston Ballet’s wardrobe manager Laura Lynch, move beautifully with the dancers. The pale grey leotards with attached chiffon panels for the women, and the wide legged trousers softy gathered at the waist for the men enhance and never detract from the choreography. The background, which relies on Lisa J. Pinkham’s lighting for its strongest effect, changes from a simple grey-lit cloth in the first movement to what looks like a cascade of fireflies in the second. And as the third movement progresses the fireflies turn to small white shapes (of paper I guess) falling softly to the ground.

Murmuration deserved the ecstatic reaction it received from the audience at the performance I attended although there were times when I thought there was a little too much repetition in the choreography.

Michelle Potter, 18 March 2013

‘Guide to Strange Places’, ‘Beaux’, ‘The Rite of Spring’. San Francisco Ballet

10 March 2013, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

In a year that has already seen various dance productions set to Stravinsky’s 100 year old Rite of Spring, and will see more as the year progresses, Yuri Possokhov’s new version for San Francisco Ballet will surely have to count as one of the most dramatic. Full of suspense and tension, the work looks to the subject matter of the original staging, that is the pagan ritual of human sacrifice, for its narrative line.

There was a distinctly Russian feel to the work. Costumes by Benjamin Pierce, with their largely red-toned on white designs (with a touch of spring green), recalled the Roerich originals, and the set, also by Pierce, consisted of a sloping platform upstage, OP side, with a mini-forest of poles representing silver birch trees. Again recalling the original, Possokhov’s choreography, which had the women on pointe, emphasised the down beat in the music and often used parallel or turned-in movements. There the similarities ended, however, as Possokhov made the story his own by emphasising the evil he saw as underlying the story of human sacrifice. His two elders, conjoined as a double personification of evil via a costume of stretch fabric and skeletal additions, drove the piece relentlessly to its inevitable and terrifying conclusion in which the birch trees played a major role as they were dragged down onto the body of the Chosen One.

'The Rite of Spring', San Francisco BalletArtists of San Francisco Ballet in Yuri Possokhov’s The Rite of Spring. Photo: © Erik Tomasson, 2013. Courtesy San Francisco Ballet

What made this work especially mesmerising was the dancing of Possokhov’s tribe of people. They seemed sometimes sexually driven, sometimes just plain obsessed, sometimes filled with fanaticism. They slithered down the ramp. They seemed to side with the elders once the Chosen One had been selected, waving a hand in the air as if agreeing. They danced with the drive that characterises the music and occasionally played along with it by drumming sticks on the ground. It was absolutely absorbing from beginning to end and brilliantly performed.

The middle work was Beaux by Mark Morris, a subtitle for which might be ‘Boys Playing’ or even ‘Beautiful Boys Playing’. Choreographically there were moments that briefly reminded me of Cunningham, especially when the dancers’ upper body was held still and erect with arms stretched straight right through to the palms while the legs executed various movements. But mostly the movement was softly balletic with men partnering men in ways that are usually reserved for men partnering women. Some charming images remain—a line of men resembling cut-out dolls, a wave from one man to the rest of the cast and three men carrying another aloft and running with him across the stage.

Beaux. San Francisco BalletArtists of San Francisco Ballet in Mark Morris’ Beaux. Photo: © Erik Tomasson, 2013. Courtesy San Francisco Ballet

Set and costumes were by New York-based fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. An oversized painting was hung upstage against a plain cloth. Its myriad of organic shapes in orange, lemon and shades of pink overlapped each other and the cloth was lit variously with similar colours. The nine gentlemen in the cast wore high-necked, sleeveless all-overs in similar colours to those of the painting and with similar shapes printed on them. It was a pleasant work but that’s all.

The program opened with Ashley Page’s Guide to Strange Places, which was premiered by San Francisco Ballet in 2012 and which is danced to music of the same name by John Adams. It seemed to be mostly about legs—especially women’s legs—and how and where they can extend, and how they can be manipulated by a partner. San Francisco Ballet’s dancers are beautifully athletic and so they accommodated the hyper-extensions very nicely. But to me it was uninspiring choreography. The fact that it was meant to refer to an old French book called (in English translation) A Black Guide to Mysterious Provence explained its strangeness to a certain extent. But even thinking along these lines couldn’t save it. It had so little to touch the soul.

My soul was touched by Possokhov’s Rite of Spring and I regret that I only had the opportunity to see one performance.

Michelle Potter, 14 March 2013

‘Sacre—The Rite of Spring’. Raimund Hoghe

5 January 2013, Carriageworks, Eveleigh (Sydney), Sydney Festival 2013

The year 2013 is the centenary of the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which Vaslav Nijinsky choreographed for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and which received a riotous reception on its opening night. The story of that night has passed into legend and, as Raimund Hoghe’s Sacre began, a voice-over recounted that tale. We were not told whose words they were but I have assumed they were those of Stravinsky recalling the evening.

But Hoghe’s production is about as far removed from what we have come to know as Sacre as you could imagine, and since 1913 countless choreographers have tried their hand at making their own version. First, the music for Hoghe’s production was a two piano score, played live. While this was pleasurable to listen to, it was an odd experience because orchestral colour is a large part of what makes those other danced versions of Sacre that audiences have seen over the years so powerful, so full of tension, so theatrical, so dramatic—the Joffrey reconstruction, the Pina Bausch version, Maurice Béjart’s production as danced by Tokyo Ballet, Stephen Page’s Rites and Meryl Tankard’s Oracle are the ones I have seen onstage.

Secondly, the work was choreographically extremely limited. Danced by Hoghe, who is small, middle-aged and has a deformed spine, and the much younger, athletic Lorenzo De Brabandere, it consisted of the two dancers balancing against each other, running (De Brabandere sometimes full pelt, Hoghe usually with jerky, stilted movements reflecting his disability), facing each other and looking hard into each other’s eyes, and performing similarly uncomplicated, often repeated movements. No drama or tension there either.

Raimund Hoghe 'Sacre'Raimund Hoghe and Lorenzo De Brabandere in Hoghe’s Sacre—The Rite of Spring. ©Rosa Frank

Perhaps the clue to this work comes in the final moment when the voice-over returns (and this time we were told the words are those of Stravinsky). Stravinsky recalls that when writing the work he was not constrained by any theory and he further recalls that a neighbour remembered that while he, Stravinsky, was writing a young boy used to stand outside, listening. The boy kept saying ‘That’s wrong’. Stravinsky’s answer was ‘Wrong for him’.

It is Hoghe’s right to produce a Sacre that has nothing of what we have come to expect. No-one expected Nijinsky’s choreography either. But what I found most interesting as I sat watching this show was Hoghe’s body in performance. It was intriguing to see how his disability affected his centre of balance, or how he compensated physically for the lack of a centred spine as he performed the moves he did. But this is not why I go to the theatre. I longed for a moment of drama, a bit of tension, even some choreography, no matter how simple, that reflected something of the rhythms of the music, which were of course still obvious in the two piano score. There was one moment that jolted me out of a soporific state and that was when, after leaning over a dish of water, De  Brabandere suddenly splashed water into Hoghe’s face. But one splash wasn’t enough to compensate.

Michelle Potter, 6 January 2013

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‘Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes’. Victoria and Albert Museum

The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, has an enviable collection of theatrical costumes from the Diaghilev era, many of which (or is it all of which?) are displayed in the museum’s current, celebratory exhibition Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes. There are some real gems to be seen. I was especially attracted by a costume worn by Tamara Karsavina as Zobeide in Schéhérazade. Not the more familiar Zobeide costume of harem pants and bodice but a soft, deep purple dress with painted gold designs scattered over the skirt and a top decorated with golden braid. Designed by Bakst, it was apparently worn only briefly before the more familiar costume became popular.

Also quite fascinating was a costume worn by a child performer in Le Dieu bleu, a golden costume of pants and top with a tall headdress reminiscent in shape of those worn by Thai and Cambodian dancers (although far less complex in decoration). While we are used to seeing the costume worn by the Blue God himself, costumes for the ancillary characters, in this case a ‘Little God’, are less common.

Some of the costumes are displayed with quite dizzying effect. For example, some ten or twelve costumes from the famous (or infamous) Nijinsky/Stravinsky/Roerich Rite of Spring are arranged on a tiered framework and are grouped into men’s and women’s costumes. The display gives a very clear view of the range of patterns and colours used by Roerich in designing the work. It is truly an embarrassment of riches.

I also loved the two appearances of Lydia Sokolova on film. One snippet is a two minute silent film made in 1922 called Dancing grace: novel studies of Lydia Sokolova the famous dancer. By today’s technical standards Sokolova’s turn out is pretty much non existent and she rarely points her feet, but as she executes a cabriole followed by an assemblé her sense of movement throughout the whole body is breathtakingly expansive. In another piece of footage Sokolova is wonderfully eccentric as she exclaims over one of the costumes she once wore, which was going under the hammer at the Sotheby’s auction of 1968. Clearly an outstanding dancer and a great lady.

The moment of greatest impact for me, however, came as I turned a corner into a new room to be confronted by the magnificent backcloth by Natalia Goncharova for the final scene of The Firebird. The huge and imposing cloth representing a Russian walled city, inspired we are told by frescoes by Andrea Mantegna, is familiar from many images in books. But to see it in real life is a remarkable experience. It is hung diagonally across the space of a quite small gallery. Above a brick wall that stretches horizontally across the bottom one eighth or so of the cloth, Russian buildings are piled vertically on top of each other, stretching upwards to a patch of deep blue sky. It’s a brilliant piece of work by Goncharova, impressively constructed with its horizontal lower and upper sections anchoring the towering verticality of the block of buildings. In terms of colour it is equally impressive with the golden onion domes of the Russian towers set off against patches of rich, red on the building walls.

Stravinsky’s Firebird music fills the space and the other walls show shadowy images of the Firebird, in this case Begoña Cao of the English National Ballet, dancing against a changing background of fire, original programs, images of Karsavina as the first Firebird, the musical score and a range of other images. Subsidiary material relating to The Firebird is shown on the walls of the previous gallery and includes a squared up design for the cloth and various versions of the design. All together it makes for a wonderful gallery-going experience.

The morning I was there the place was packed with people, all of whom had their favourite items as I did I am sure. And therein lies the rub. Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes is a hugely ambitious show, perhaps overly ambitious. I couldn’t see the point of some items on display. Was there really any need to display a perfume bottle that once held the Guerlain perfume thought to be the favourite scent of Diaghilev? And there was the usual selection of devotional items —Diaghilev’s top hat and opera glasses and an assortment of pointe shoes worn by various Ballets Russes stars. But what was the argument at the heart of the show? In the end it became nothing more than a huge cabinet of curiosities, which is perhaps fitting given its location in a museum named after two giants of the Victorian age, when such cabinets were all the rage.

Michelle Potter, 21 October 2010

‘The Oracle’. Meryl Tankard

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

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

Paul White in 'The Oracle'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle Potter, 21 September 2009

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