Bryan Lawrence (1936–2017)

Bryan Lawrence, who has died in his 81st year, was born Brian Lawrence Palethorpe in Birmingham, England. He began his dance training at an early age in regional schools in England and then trained, on scholarship, at the Sadler’s Wells Ballet School (later the Royal Ballet School) from the age of thirteen. After moving into the senior school he began performing in walk-on parts with the Sadler’s Wells Opera and Ballet. He never legally changed his name but used ‘Bryan Lawrence’ throughout his professional career.

Lawrence joined Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet in 1954 and was promoted to soloist in 1955. His first professional dancing part, undertaken while still a student at the Sadler’s Wells School, was in the corps de ballet of The Firebird, as staged by Lubov Tchernicheva and Sergei Grigoriev for Sadler’s Wells Ballet in 1954. Lawrence joined the company a little later and toured with them to regional venues in England until 1957.

Following a period of national service with the RAF he joined the Royal Ballet in 1959 and became a soloist in 1961. In 1964 he moved to Australia at the invitation of Peggy van Praagh and joined the Australian Ballet as a principal dancer.

BryanLawrence in 'Le Conservatoire'. The Australian Ballet, 1965. Photo: Ken Byron, Australian News and Information Bureau

Bryan Lawrence in Le Conservatoire. The Australian Ballet, 1965. Photo: Ken Byron, Australian News and Information Bureau

While with the Australian Ballet, Lawrence partnered all the leading dancers in the company, including Elaine Fifield, Marilyn Jones and Kathleen Gorham. He toured with the company on their early overseas engagements, including to the Commonwealth Arts Festival and various cities in Europe, 1965–1966, and on a major tour to Montreal, Canada, for Expo ’67 with subsequent engagements in South America and elsewhere. In an article for The Canberra Times in 1968 he recalled some of the memorable off-stage experiences during the early part of the 1965 tour:

I recall riding a camel across the desert at 4 am to see the Pyramids after a long overnight flight from Perth to Cairo, and doing a class in the temple ruins at Baalbeck at seven o’clock in the morning when the sun became so hot we were unable to continue.

In his career with the Australian Ballet he is especially remembered for his role in The Display, in which he played the role of the Leader. Of his work on that ballet with its choreographer Robert Helpmann he remarked, in an oral history interview for the National Library of Australia in 1986:

It was interesting working with Bobby. I did, I think, most of the choreography for my bits myself. Bobby was inclined to do that. He worked out, obviously, the general thing, the story, but I can remember him saying before lunch one day, ‘Well, you know, think about something to do there.’ And I just worked something out myself and it was accepted.

(left) Bryan Lawrence and Kathleen Gorham in The Display. The Australian Ballet, 1964; (right) Bryan Lawrence and Elaine Fifield in Les Sylphides. The Australian Ballet, 1964. Photos: Walter Stringer. Courtesy National Library of Australia.

Lawrence resigned from the Australian Ballet at the end of 1967 and in 1968, along with fellow Australian Ballet principal, Janet Karin, founded the Bryan Lawrence School of Ballet in Canberra. Together, Lawrence and Karin trained many fine artists, including Ross Stretton, Joanne Michel and Adam Marchant, all of whom rose through the ranks of the Australian Ballet to dance principal roles before going on to expand their careers in other significant directions.

The school’s performance group, the Bryan Lawrence Performing Group, presented its first classical production, excerpts from Coppélia, to Canberra audiences in 1970, and its first full-length ballet, Giselle, in 1974. Lawrence appeared in the school’s productions on occasions and was especially admired for his performances as Captain Belaye in Pineapple Poll, Albrecht in Giselle, and Dr Coppélius in Coppélia. He also occasionally choreographed short works for the school’s annual performances.

Lawrence left Canberra for Sydney in 1986. In Sydney he undertook a variety of jobs including a brief period of work as a teacher at the McDonald College. Lawrence remarried in Sydney and lived towards the end of his life in Victoria Falls in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. He was an accomplished pianist and in his retirement enjoyed composing original, short works for piano.

After he left Canberra, the Bryan Lawrence School of Ballet was renamed the National Capital Ballet School in 1987 and the associated performing company became the National Capital Dancers.

Bryan Lawrence is survived by his first wife, Janet Karin, with whom he had two children, a son Nicholas and a daughter Isobel (deceased). He spent many happy years with his second wife, Lyn Palethorpe.

Brian Lawrence Palethorpe: born 4 September 1936, Birmingham, England; died Katoomba, New South Wales, 8 July 2017.

Michelle Potter, 9 July 2017

Featured image: Bryan Lawrence in Les Sylphides. The Australian Ballet, 1964. Photo: Walter Stringer

 

The Royal Ballet. Tour of Australia and New Zealand 1958–1959

With the Royal Ballet preparing for a tour to Brisbane later in 2017, I have been delving into various research materials available in Canberra and Sydney to put together some thoughts about the first tour by the Royal Ballet to Australia and New Zealand, which began in 1958.

The Royal Ballet made its first tour to Australasia in 1958−1959 performing in Australia in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane and in New Zealand in Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland. The promoters were J. C. Williamson Theatres Ltd, who claimed in their introductory notes to programs for the tour that the visit represented ‘the crowning achievement in The Firm’s distinguished contribution to the presentation of Dance in this country.’ Records of the Williamson organisation indicate that there was some initial discussion about the dates and cities to be visited (and in what order), but the eventual schedule was:

11 September−8 November 1958:
10 November 1958−3 January 1959:
7 January−31 January 1959:
3 February−25 February 1959:
4 March−7 March 1959:
9 March−21 March 1959:
23 March−4 April 1959:
6 April−18 April 1959:
Sydney, Empire Theatre
Melbourne, Her Majesty’s Theatre
Adelaide, Theatre Royal
Brisbane, Her Majesty’s Theatre
Dunedin, His Majesty’s
Christchurch, Theatre Royal
Wellington, Grand Opera House
Auckland, His Majesty’s Theatre

 
The company was essentially the touring arm of the Royal Ballet, augmented at various stages by dancers from the main company, including Rowena Jackson, Svetlana Beriosova and Anya Linden; Philip Chatfield, Bryan Ashbridge and David Blair; and Robert Helpmann, who danced some featured roles, including in The Rake’s Progress, Hamlet, Façade and Coppélia. Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes joined the company in New Zealand.

Bryan Ashbridge, Royal Ballet postcard, 1958
Svetlana Beriosova, Royal Ballet postcard, 1958

Royal Ballet postcards, 1958–1959 Australasian tour: Bryan Ashbridge & Svetlana Beriosova

The company was led initially by Ninette de Valois. She arrived in Sydney on 22 August, ahead of the main contingent of dancers, who arrived on 1 September after what Lynn Seymour describes in her autobiography, Lynn, as a trip that took ‘three flying days, with desperate relief stops in Frankfurt, Rome, Cairo, Karachi, Calcutta, Bangkok and Singapore.’1 De Valois was accommodated in style at the Hotel Australia in Sydney—’should be booked into a nice room at the Australia with bath’ ordered the Williamson organisation.

In addition to de Valois, other administrative and artistic personnel included John Field, listed on the Australian programs as assistant director; and musical director John Lanchbery, who arrived on 30 August on board the P & O liner Stratheden, and who conducted local orchestras in each city. Ballet staff included Henry Legerton as ballet master, and Lorna Mossford as ballet mistress.

While much could be written about the tour, which, with some important exceptions, is most often given just one or two lines in books written and published in Britain, three aspects of the tour stood out as I was looking into the material available here: Lynn Seymour’s debut as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake; the writing of the Sydney-based critic and poet, Roland Robinson; and some black and white film footage shot in Melbourne in 1958.

Lynn Seymour in Swan Lake

Although Seymour says in her autobiography (and the story is repeated in Meredith Daneman’s biography of Margot Fonteyn), that her debut performance as Odette/Odile coincided with her 19th birthday, this can’t be so. Seymour gave her first performance in the full-length Swan Lake in Melbourne on 12 November 1958, but her birth-date is 9 March 1939. The debut was at a Wednesday matinee performance and Seymour was partnered by David Blair for this and for her second performance on 15 November, after which Seymour danced with Donald MacLeary.

De Valois, whose idea it was to have Seymour dance the full-length Swan Lake in Australia, left for home before the debut performance, leaving John Field in charge. Seymour’s biographer, Richard Austin, notes that Field took most of the rehearsals and that Seymour had some coaching from Rowena Jackson. As recorded in her autobiography, Seymour was also given encouragement at times by Helpmann and then in New Zealand by Fonteyn. In Lynn, Seymour also discusses some of the difficulties she faced in the first few performances, including managing the 32 fouettés in Act III, and Austin elaborates on the story. But by the time the company reached New Zealand reviews of Seymour and MacLeary were definitely positive. The reviewer for The Press (Christchurch), for example, was moved to write: ‘Lynn Seymour’s technique is remarkable for its gracefulness; and her poise enabled her to secure some wonderfully statuesque effects. In Donald MacLeary she had a wonderfully accomplished partner, whose every movement revealed his sense of style.’

The images below were taken in Melbourne in 1958. That Seymour is partnered by Blair in this collection of photos indicates that they must have been taken during Seymour’s first or second performance. They must surely be the earliest photos of Seymour in the full-length Swan Lake?

lynn-seymour-and-david-blair-swan-lake-act-ii-1
Lynn Seymour as Odile. The Royal Ballet, Melbourne 1958. Photo: Walter Stringer

 (left) Lynn Seymour and David Blair in Swan Lake Act II (detail);
(right) Lynn Seymour in Swan Lake Act III (detail).
The Royal Ballet, Melbourne 1958. Photos: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia (PIC Albums: 994)

Roland Robinson’s dance reviews

Roland Robinson (1912–1992) wrote dance reviews for The Sydney Morning Herald for ten years during the 1940s and 1950s, always signing his reviews with just his initials, R.R. He was a poet of distinction and also wrote extensively about Aboriginal myths and legends. In the 1940s he took ballet classes in Sydney with Hélène Kirsova, whom he called his ‘teacher and heroine’, and appeared in a number of productions by the Kirsova Ballet over a three year period. His reviews thus combine a deep knowledge and strong understanding of dance (and not just its technical features but its essential qualities as an art form) with an elegant use of language. His language embodied ‘the lyrical traditions of his native Ireland’ (he was born in County Clare), as one author wrote in an obituary for Robinson.

  • He was not impressed by Les Sylphides, and he would have known this ballet well from the Kirsova Ballet: ‘The presentation of “Les Sylphides” by the Royal Ballet … contained all the components of this ballet save the basic understanding and expression of this marriage of music, dancing, painting an poetry.’
  • He greatly admired Svetlana Beriosova and said of her first performance in Sydney in Swan Lake: ‘Never have I seen anything so beautiful as Svetlana Beriosova, as Odette-Odile, in Le Lac des Cygnes by the Royal Ballet at the Empire Theatre on Saturday night … Australia is honoured by such a ballerina. For the first time we saw the tragic beauty of the full story … Such was the unrivalled classical quality of this ballerina’s performance that one must, in all due homage, say of Beriosova “Thy soul was like a star and dwelt apart”.’
  • He was at two minds about Helpmann in The Rake’s Progress: ‘Robert Helpmann is a master of mime and detailed gesture from the broad theatrical flourish to a stage dominating minute flick of the finger. He is not physically up to form in “The Rake,” but his inborn insight into the mental processes of character, and his faultless make-up compel one to sit up and take notice.’
  • He maintains that, at a reception, he had a discussion with de Valois about technique and expression and, in reviewing the opening performance of Swan Lake in Sydney, he expressed what must have been the essence of that discussion: ‘It is an indication of the native character of the English Royal Ballet that it should begin its first season in Australia with the prescribed, traditional form of the classical ballet “Swan Lake”. Each nation has its own particular character and temperament. If the characters of the Russian and French ballets are of nobility, elegance, and command, coupled with a daring virility and imagination, the American one of athletic daring and revolutionary character, then the character of the English ballet impresses as cold, conservative and unimaginative. The nature of this character was painfully evident throughout the Royal Ballet’s presentation of “Swan Lake” at the Empire Theatre last night. It must be stressed, however, that the dancers of this company have attained a mastery of technique which may not always be found in either the Russian or American schools. Artistically, of course, technique is only justified as a means to the expression of the imagination. The main criticism of the Royal Ballet is that it is disappointingly lacking in this essential imaginative creativeness.’

Robinson wrote what he thought, and there is much more to read from him in back copies of The Sydney Morning Herald. His writing on dance is as fascinating today as it must have been irritating to many in 1958.

Film footage of the Royal Ballet tour

Lasting around 25 minutes, a somewhat grainy, black and white film recording the visit by the Royal Ballet to Melbourne was shot in December 1958. It opens with a segment showing Anya Linden and David Blair sauntering through the gardens in Spring Street, not far from Her Majesty’s Theatre where the company was performing. There they weigh themselves (amid some mirth) on a large, coin-operated public weighing machine. They are then approached by a white-haired gentleman who shows them a book (Arnold Haskell’s In his true centre), which they examine. Then follow extracts from the company repertoire as performed in Melbourne, including excerpts from Swan Lake, Giselle, Veneziana, Pineapple Poll, Don Quixote (pas de deux), A Blue Rose, Façade, Les Patineurs and Coppélia. These dancing segments include a tantalising glimpse of Helpmann tottering across the stage in heeled shoes as Dr Coppélius, a wonderful hornpipe from Blair as Captain Belaye in Pineapple Poll, and an all too brief look at Seymour as Aurora in Coppélia, performing with beautiful fluidity in the arms, neck and upper body.

It is unclear who shot the film, but I wonder if it is perhaps Dr Joseph Ringland Anderson, Melbourne ophthalmologist whose films of the Ballets Russes visits to Australia, 1936−1940, are such a valuable addition to our knowledge of those companies? The Royal Ballet film has a number of backstage scenes, especially moments captured just before curtain up, which are similar to moments that appear frequently on the Ringland Anderson Ballets Russes films. And, as also occurred with the Ballet Russes films, much of the action is filmed from the wings. I wonder too if the white-haired gentleman in the Spring Street gardens with the copy of In his true centre is perhaps Dr Ringland Anderson, who would have been 64 at the time? Time may tell.

Michelle Potter, 4 January 2017

Featured image: Ninette de Valois, autograph and program image, Sydney 1958

de-valois-autograph-6

NOTE

  1. There is a discrepancy with the arrival date in some published sources. I have used the one given in the J.C. Williamson material held in the National Library (MS 5783), which states that 58 company members departed London on ’29 August from London Airport North on flight EM 552 arriving on 1 September by air.’ The date is supported in an article in The Sydney Morning Herald for 2 September 1958: ‘Fifty-eight members of the Royal Ballet arrived in Sydney by Qantas from London last night [1 September] to begin an eight month’s tour of Australia and New Zealand.’

The Royal Ballet will play Brisbane (as the only Australian venue) from 28 June to 9 July 2017 as part of Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s International Series. The repertoire consists of Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works and Christopher Wheeldon’s A Winter’s Tale. Details at qpac.

Update: the signed photograph of Seymour referred to in the discussion below has been posted at this link.

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

Dance diary. April 2016

  • 10,000 Miles: Quantum Leap and YDance

17 April 2016, the Q, Performing Arts Centre, Queanbeyan

In April Canberra’s youth dance company, Quantum Leap, and YDance, the National Youth Dance Company of Scotland based in Glasgow, joined forces for a once-only performance of a triple bill, 10,000 Miles. The performance was part of a wider program, ‘meetup’, involving youth dance companies from Melbourne and various parts of New South Wales, as well as Quantum Leap and YDance. For 10,000 Miles the three works on show were Act of Contact by Sara Black showcasing the Canberra dancers; Maelstrom by Anna Kenrick, artistic director of the Scottish company, which was performed by the Scottish dancers; and Landing Patterns, a piece choreographed jointly by Kenrick and Ruth Osborne, artistic director of Quantum Leap, featuring dancers from both companies.

Act of Contact, QL2, 2016 Photo: Lorna Sim

Sara Black’s Act of Contact. Quantum Leap, 2016. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Anna Kenrick's 'Maelstrom'. NYDCS, 2016. Photo: Lorna Sim

Anna Kenrick’s Maelstrom. YDance, 2016. Photo: © Lorna Sim

It was an impressive show and a terrific piece of cultural contact. Apart from the strong dancing from both companies, I admired the lighting of Maelstrom, a very effective design of geometric patterns from Simon Gane.

  • Greg Horsman

In April I had the pleasure of interviewing Greg Horsman, ballet master and director of artistic operations at Queensland Ballet, for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program. The interview is open to all and has been catalogued as TRC 6774. Ongoing Federal Government cutbacks make it unlikely, however, that it will go online for a little while yet. But it can be accessed by contacting the oral history and folklore section of NLA. The NLA also holds a small but excellent collection of photographs of Horsman during his time with the Australian Ballet, taken by Don McMurdo.

  • Robert Helpmann: forthcoming talk

Dance Week 2016 will be in full swing when this post goes live. I will be giving a talk at the National Film and Sound Archive as part of the ACT festivities. Called ‘Helpmann uncovered’ it will look at the research I have been doing over the past year or so on certain little known aspects of Helpmann’s activities. Further details at this link.

Robert Helpmann,1965. Photo: Walter Stringer

Robert Helpmann, 1965. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

  • William Yang

During April I went to see William Yang’s Blood Links, a solo show in which Yang, well-known photographer, delivered a monologue, accompanied by projections showing his extended family, in a moving search to understand his Chinese-Australian identity. While his dance photographs did not appear in this show (understandably), I was reminded of the work he did with Jim Sharman for the Adelaide Festival in 1982 when he photographed Pina Bausch. I recall with pleasure the small exhibition of this work that was displayed as part of Sydney’s now defunct festival, Spring Dance, in 2011. I also found a YouTube link in which Yang discusses his work with Bausch and that beautiful exhibition.

  • Press for April

‘Dance work challenges the senses.’ Review of FACES by James Batchelor and collaborators. The Canberra Times, 9 April 2016, p. ARTS 17. Online version.

‘Prickly attitude.’Preview of Sydney Dance Company’s CounterMove season. The Canberra Times—Panorama, 30 April 2016, pp. 8–9. Online version.

Michelle Potter, 30 April 2016

Featured image: Greg Horsman, Ballet Master and Director of Artistic Operations Queensland Ballet

Dance diary. September 2015

  • Remi Wortmeyer

News from a colleague in Amsterdam is that Remi Wortmeyer, formerly with the Australian Ballet and now a principal dancer with the Dutch National Ballet, is making a mark in that company’s Hans van Manen program. For more news about Wortmeyer’s activities here is a link to his website.

Remi Wortmeyer in 'Joel', 2014. Photo © Jack Devant

Remi Wortmeyer in Joel, 2014. Photo: © Jack Devant

  • New Helpmann book

A new book about Robert Helpmann is currently in preparation in London and will be published in 2016 by Dance Books. With the title The Many Faces of Robert Helpmann, it is edited by Richard Cave and Anna Meadmore. The book is being published as a companion volume to Ninette de Valois: Adventurous Traditionalist (Dance Books, 2012) and will include, in addition to a series of essays on various aspects of Helpmann’s career, a DVD of filmed material. I am working on a chapter on Elektra, Helpmann’s ballet that premiered at Covent Garden in 1963 and that was restaged by the Australian Ballet in 1966.

Elektra, the Australian Ballet 1966. Photo Australian News and Information Bureau

Scene from Elektra, the Australian Ballet 1966. Kathleen Geldard as Elektra. Photo: Australian News and Information Bureau. National Archives of Australia

  • William Forsythe and Dance Australia

I was delighted, on opening the October/November issue of Dance Australia, to see an article I wrote for the issue of February/March 1994 republished (with some new photographs) as part of an ‘Anniversary Collection’ celebrating 35 years of Dance Australia. That article, which was based on an interview I conducted with William Forsythe in Frankfurt while on a holiday in Europe in late 1993, was one of the earliest pieces I wrote for Dance Australia.

The experience of interviewing on that occasion is, however, still etched on my mind. It was funny—I had trouble getting past the very determined doorman at the stage door until I produced a letter and said in my very best school German Ich habe eine Brief (sic—I got the gender wrong); informative—Forsythe has an incredible intellect; and moving—Forsythe is also very personable and was so willing to engage with me, even at midnight when the interview took place. Before the interview, I was lucky enough to see the show that was playing that night, which was Forsythe’s Artefact.

But congratulations to Dance Australia for having survived for 35 years and having produced so many great stories, reviews and other dance-related pieces. May it continue.

  • Press for September

‘GOLDs head overseas.’ Preview of tour to the United Kingdom and Europe by Canberra’s GOLD company. The Canberra Times, 12 September 2015, ARTS p. 22. Online version.

‘Plenty to enjoy in diverse mix.’ Review of Circus Oz in ‘But wait…there’s more.’ The Canberra Times, 25 September 2015, p. ARTS 7. Online version.

Michelle Potter, 30 September 2015

‘Shadows of War’. Birmingham Royal Ballet

18 October 2014 (matinee), Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London

None of the works on Birmingham Royal Ballet’s triple bill program, Shadows of War, focuses on war itself. Rather the focus is on the effects of war on humanity. Of the three works, I have to admit that I was especially interested in Robert Helpmann’s Miracle in the Gorbals, first performed in London in 1944. Archival photos from the National Library of Australia’s various collections relating to Helpmann have always aroused my interest. It was a ballet with a name that I really didn’t understand. Well Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production turned out to be a fascinating restaging of the original, with choreography by Gillian Lynne, ‘after Helpmann’. Lynne appeared in the original production and remained a close friend of Helpmann throughout his life.

Robert Helpmann as the Stranger in 'Miracle in the Gorbals', Sadler's Wells Ballet, 1944

Robert Helpmann as the Stranger in Miracle in the Gorbals, Sadler’s Wells Ballet, 1944. National Library of Australia

There are aspects of this restaging that look dated, which is hardly surprising given that the work is 70 years old. The obvious themes of the evils of prostitution and power of Christianity (or religion), the latter shown via the return to earth of a Christ figure (the Stranger, played originally by Helpmann), seem a somewhat melodramatic way of developing the universal themes of love, betrayal, forgiveness and so forth.

But the strength of the production lies in the strength of the collaborative elements of the original. Edward Burra’s front cloth is a powerful opening image. A huge ship’s prow appears to jut out into the auditorium. It represents the shipyards along the river Clyde in Glasgow where the story is set in slum tenements, the Gorbals. The image is instantly arresting, as is the commissioned score by Arthur Bliss, which reflects so clearly the changing moods and events of the story.

To write down, or explain the narrative is complex but, in fact, the story, in which a mysterious stranger brings a woman back from the dead and reforms a prostitute but is eventually killed by the town’s jealous minister, is instantly understandable as we watch events unfold on stage. And here the collaborative nature of the original comes to the fore again. The libretto was written by Michael Benthall and focuses strongly on developing characters without going into extraneous detail. When Arnold Haskell saw Miracle in 1944 he wrote: ‘With rare skill [Benthall] avoided the pitfalls of novelising his story. Everything that he put down could be made clear in balletic action and was discussed in detail with Helpmann.’ And so it was with the Lynne restaging.

The balletic action is very much in the mode of dance-drama rather than ballet per se. In fact the action was sometimes quite static, often relying on group poses or dramatic stillness. Every dancer gave a powerful performance. Apart from the leading players, Elisha Willis as the Prostitute, César Morales as the Stranger, Iain Mackay as the Minister, and Delia Mathews as the Suicide, standouts for me were Michael O’Hare as the Beggar and three Old Women played by Ruth Brill, Jade Heusen and Marion Tait.

Delia Mathews as the Suicide and Iain Mackay as the Minister, Birmingham Royal Ballet, 2014. Photo: Bill Cooper

Delia Mathews as the Suicide and Iain Mackay as the Minister, Birmingham Royal Ballet, 2014. Photo: Bill Cooper

Kenneth MacMillan’s La fin du jour opened the program. This work, which dates to 1979, is danced to Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major, and examines the lifestyle of a certain class of people in the inter-war years. It left me a little cold, although I enjoyed the second act, the adagio. Here MacMillan’s skill at using stillness as a choreographic tool was clearly evident as we watched the dancing of two women, each partnered by five men in different combinations with none leaving the stage throughout the scene.

The triple bill closed with David Bintley’s Flowers of the forest. It was joyous series of dances in the Scottish mode. Bouquets to the gentleman who executed double tours en l’air ending in a full plié in 5th position. Wonderful.

Michelle Potter, 19 October 2014

‘Arthur Boyd in the theatre’. National Gallery of Australia

Talk given at the National Gallery of Australia in conjunction with the exhibition Arthur Boyd: Agony and Ecstasy, 9 September 2014.

Boyd talk opening image

 

Modified text and PowerPoint slides:
Arthur Boyd in the theatre

Audio clip as used in the live talk and referred to in the text:
Arthur Boyd talks to Hal Missingham, London 1965
(Extract from an oral history interview with Arthur Boyd, National Library of Australia, TRC 1/109)

Michelle Potter, 28 September 2014

Season’s greetings & the ‘best of’ 2012

Season's greetings 2012 bannerThank you to those who have logged on to my website over the past year, especially those who  have kept the site alive with their comments. I wish you the compliments of the season and look forward to hearing from you in 2013.

The best of 2012

Lists of the ‘best of’ will always be very personal and will depend on what any individual has been able to see. However, here are my thoughts in a number of categories with links back to my posts on the productions. I welcome, of course, comments and lists from others, which are sure to be different from mine.

Most outstanding new choreography: Graeme Murphy’s The narrative of nothing (despite its title), full of vintage Murphy moves but full of the new as well.

Most outstanding production: Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Terrain with choreography by Frances Rings and outstanding collaborative input from the creative team of Jennifer Irwin, Jacob Nash, Karen Norris and David Page.

Most outstanding performance by a dancer, or dancers: Lana Jones and Kevin Jackson in Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky pas de deux as part of the Australian Ballet’s 50th anniversary gala.

Most disappointing production: The Australian Ballet’s revival of Robert Helpmann’s Display. I’m not sure that anyone in the production/performance really ‘got it’ and it became simply a reminder that dance doesn’t always translate well from generation to generation, era to era.

Surprise of the year: Finucane and Smith’s Glory Box. While some may question whether this show was dance or not, Moira Finucane’s performance in Miss Finucane’s Collaboration with the National Gallery of Victoria (Get Wet for Art) was a wonderful, tongue-in-cheek comment on the angst-ridden works of Pina Bausch, and as such on Meryl Tankard’s more larrikin approach to serious issues.

Dancer to watch: Tammi Gissell. I was sorry to miss the Perth-based Ochre Contemporary Dance Company’s inaugural production, Diaphanous, in which Gissell featured, but I was impressed by her work with Liz Lea in Canberra as part of Science Week 2012 at CSIRO and look forward to the development of that show later in Canberra in 2013.

Beyond Australia: Wayne McGregor’s FAR, in which the choreography generated so much to think about, to talk over and to ponder upon.

Most frustrating dance occurrence: The demise of Australia Dancing and the futile efforts to explain that moving it to Trove was a positive step.

Michelle Potter, 16 December 2012

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‘It brought back so many memories’—Jill Sykes
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‘Icons’. A second look

17 November 2012 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

A second viewing of Icons, the Australian Ballet’s triple bill tribute to 50 years of choreographic exploration by the company, confirmed much of what I thought from my previous viewing.  In particular I think it was a mistake to revive The Display. Despite well danced performances by Rachel Rawlins as the Female, Brett Simon as the Leader and Ty King-Wall as the Outsider the work overall looks old-hat. The kind of behaviour on show in the ballet was perhaps an accurate view of male/female relations in Australia in 1964 but it doesn’t have the shock value it had 48 years ago—times change. And while Katharine Hepburn might have been turned on by lyrebirds, I’m not sure any of the Australian Ballet dancers are, or even pretended to be. What’s more much of Robert Helpmann’s choreography looks a little like that from a musical (and not such a good one at that), while Sidney Nolan’s set, so evocative in its day, lost much of its appeal on the tiny stage of the Joan Sutherland Theatre, especially from J row in the stalls. Memory is a funny thing of course but I also seem to remember the lighting and general visual ambience being softer, hazier and thus more affecting. But I may be living in my dreams! In any case the revival has been a huge disappointment.

Gemini on the other hand still looks fabulous and its choreography was given great treatment by Leanne Stojmenov, Juliet Burnett, Andrew Wright and Kevin Jackson. While I was attracted by the opening night cast in Melbourne by their cool, technical reading of the work, not to mention their spectacular energy, the cast I saw in Sydney brought a whole new element to it. Not to say that there was not also a strength of technique with this cast—there was—it was beautifully danced by all four. A duet between Stojmenov and Jackson (who seems to get better and better every time I see him) was remarkably powerful with its dramatic lines and enfolding of bodies one with the other; and Burnett has an unusual mixture of fragility and strength that brought a new quality to the work. But there was a hint of the sinister, or at least something disquieting or provocative, and more than a hint of emotion in the performance from this cast. For me this Gemini had a feeling of humanity about it, as well as being a ballet about contemporary technique.

As for Beyond Twelve, well my companion said as we stood up to leave: ‘Graeme Murphy makes ballet for adults!’ With all its slapstick humour, its phallic references, its comments on youthful immaturity, and its poking fun at Australian society it is still an immensely moving ballet. And the trio between the Beyond Twelve, Beyond Eighteen and Beyond Thirty remains one of Murphy’s most heart-warming choreographic accomplishments, as does the beautifully staged ending full of resignation, or is it wistfulness, or is it just time to move forward?

Scene from 'Beyond Twelve'. Photo: Jeff BusbyJack Hersee, Rudy Hawkes and Calvin Hannaford in Beyond Twelve. The Australian Ballet.  Photo: Jeff Busby

Michelle Potter, 20 November 2012

Here is the link to my earlier post.

‘Icons’. The Australian Ballet

30 August 2012, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

The Australian Ballet’s Icons program is a truly exciting triple bill. Every work has particular interest historically and, while one really doesn’t measure up, two of the three are thrilling to watch. The absolute standout in terms of dancing is the middle work on the program, Gemini, Glen Tetley’s work made on the Australian Ballet in 1973. It was danced on opening night by Lana Jones, Amber Scott, Adam Bull and Rudy Hawkes, with Jones in particular performing as if there were no tomorrow.

Lana Jones, Rudy Hawkes, Adam Bull and Amber Scott in 'Gemini', 2012 Photo: Jeff BusbyLana Jones and Rudy Hawkes (rear) and Adam Bull and Amber Scott (foreground) in Gemini. The Australian Ballet, 2012. Photo: Jeff Busby

Against a modernist set of coloured horizontal slats by Nadine Baylis, Gemini unfolds as a series duets and solos embodying powerful, dynamic movement. Of the women, Jones is cool but bold, assertive, a powerhouse of energy. Her manège of grands jetés with arms stretched heavenwards in an open fifth position (à la Isadora in La Marseillaise) was breathtaking. Scott is more elusive, sinuous and deliciously sensuous. Of the men, Bull had that little extra movement in the chest and pelvis—in the torso I guess—that drew the eye towards him whenever the men were onstage. Hawkes’ performance lacked the same zing but was nevertheless a pleasure to watch. When Tetley was in Australia in 2003 to stage Voluntaries he told me that creating Gemini had made him love the energy of Australian dancers. I think he would have been thrilled with the electrifying way in which Jones, Scott, Bull and Hawkes performed.

Closing the evening was Graeme Murphy’s evocative Beyond Twelve, a work first shown in 1980 and a real bottler of an Australian ballet showing all Murphy’s theatricality, humour and unique choreographic hand. Beyond Twelve tells the story of a boy’s transition from football-playing youth to adolescent dancer and finally on to mature artist facing the uncertainties of life beyond dance. Brett Chynoweth, Calvin Hannaford and Andrew Killian took the three main male roles of Beyond Twelve, Beyond Eighteen and Beyond Thirty and their trio in which we see their lives intertwining was a real highlight. Showing the passage of time in a choreographic sense is one of Murphy’s great strengths and this trio is no exception. Brooke Lockett, a coryphée with the company, danced the role of First Love and played it with just the right feeling of delight in the pleasures of youth.

Beyond Twelve is an immensely moving work (as well as being full of wit and humour) and nothing captures that feeling more than when, as the ballet closes, we see the mature dancer joined momentarily by his first love. And just as it looks like they will remain together, a figure in evening dress appears in the background and the girl moves away to join the other man, her Escort. Murphy’s sense of theatricality is brilliant here, partly in his placement of the three characters on the stage, but also in the instant realisation the moment generates that life is full of changes.

Despite its historical interest, the big disappointment of the evening was The Display, Robert Helpmann’s 1964 production based on his and Katharine Hepburn’s sighting of the mating dance of the lyrebird. The Display opened the program and perhaps it was inevitable that a work so entrenched in Australian culture of the 1960s would never translate well into the twenty-first century. But I didn’t think it would be quite so problematic. Nothing to me looked like an Australian picnic in the bush. The girls, so pretty with their Renoir hairstyles and pink dresses, could have been peasants in Giselle—and incidentally, Sidney Nolan, whose designs were ‘refurbished’ for the occasion, wanted the girls’ dresses to be the colour of ‘dog biscuits’, which certainly wasn’t the case with this production. In addition, the boys looked like princes as they pointed their feet, stretched their legs, and stayed so thoroughly within their classical ballet heritage. I’m not sure that, when playing footy, drinking beer and punching people up, men look like that.

Kevin Jackson as the Outsider missed the point, I think, that this character was meant to be so culturally different from the rest of the men. A red shirt and blue trousers aren’t enough to show that he was meant to be an Italian in Australia in the 1960s, a time of significant European migration. Australians had scarcely heard of coffee then let alone of European attitudes to women. The role needs a different physicality as well as costume to get the point across and Jackson didn’t seem to me to be much different from the rest of the men. But then perhaps that was a result of the other men behaving as if they were dancing a nineteenth-century ballet.

The saving grace was Madeleine Eastoe as the Female. She made Helpmann’s choreography look quite respectable despite a series of fouettés that Helpmann suddenly dropped into it all for no apparent reason. And she managed to get across the sense of sexual arousal that needs to be apparent as, at the conclusion of the ballet, the Outsider leaves her after his attempted rape and the Male (the lyrebird) comes forward to cover her with his tail feathers.

It was interesting to see Barry Kitcher, Bryan Lawrence and Garth Welch from the 1964 cast of Display come onstage to take a bow during the curtain calls. They were joined by Julie da Costa who danced the Female in a later 1980s production. There was no note in the program to say that they had been involved in coaching the dancers. The Display certainly needed some good coaching to make it work.

Musically the program was extraordinarily diverse. Malcolm Williamson’s score for The Display remains as beautiful as ever with its quivering, bush sounds, and was perhaps the highlight of that ballet on this occasion; Tetley’s choice of Hans Werne Henze’s Symphony No. 3 for Gemini was inspired with music and choreography so well attuned; and Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, whose movements had been reordered by Murphy to fit the storyline of Beyond Twelve, was played with customary elegance by Stuart Macklin.

Despite The Display having major problems, I thought this was a good triple bill. In my mind it sits within the spirit of the best of triple bills where there is a bit of everything, including the ‘serious’ work in the middle and the ‘feel good’ work to go home with.

Michelle Potter, 1 September 2012

Featured image: Lana Jones in Gemini. The Australian Ballet, 2012. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Postscript: Looking back at a review of Beyond Twelve that I wrote for Dance Australia way back in 1994 (with David McAllister, Steven Woodgate, Greg Horsman and Vicki Attard in the leading roles), I mentioned that Horsman danced the role of Beyond Twenty-Five, rather than calling it Beyond Thirty. I’m not sure when the name change happened, but it is interesting to speculate that times have changed in (almost) twenty years and perhaps thirty is now the new twenty-five? Unless I got it wrong in 1994?

Update: Here are my comments after another look at the program in Sydney.