An Australasian affair …

There was one empty seat in the front row at the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s inaugural Harry Haythorne choreographic awards last weekend…odd since a good view in a studio setting is always at a premium and the house was otherwise full to overflowing. Perhaps Harry was playing ‘the angel at the table’—occupying that seat to keep a keen eye on proceedings, pleased to see that his encouragement of emerging choreographers is being remembered, and that today’s young dancers who never met him can nevertheless tell what kind of initiative he brought to his term as artistic director here, 1981–1992. Let’s cheat Death awhile.

Harry Haythorne

A small group of Harry’s colleagues and friends had met to plan these awards, the idea and koha for which grew from the spirited party held in his memory back in January, in tandem with the festive gathering in Melbourne. It’s interesting to ponder on the New Zealand and Australian inter-twinings in our company over decades. Harry for starters, himself Australian through and through, yet we think of him as a New Zealander emeritus. Australian Mark Keyworth as company manager, navigated with him.

Promising young choreographer Loughlan Prior won both the panel’s and the people’s award, with the striking imagery of his work, Eve, set to song and spoken poetry. Loughlan was born in Melbourne though did later training in New Zealand.

'Eve' by Louhglan Prior

William Fitzgerald and Laura Saxon Jones in Eve by Loughlan Prior, 2015. Photo: © Evan Li

On present membership, over one third of the RNZB dancers are from Australia, and/or trained there, so more threads are in the weave. Cast a thought back to the middle decades of the 20th century, when the Borovansky Ballet’s regular tours were so welcome here. It was their 1952 tour that brought dancer Poul Gnatt, who looked around, hunched that New Zealand might like a ballet company, returned to found one the following year—and the rest is history.

Peggy van Praagh was involved in staging several productions for New Zealand Ballet in early years here, not least Tudor’s Judgment of Paris. She and Russell Kerr arranged for dancer exchanges between Australian and New Zealand companies, and also masterminded two landmark fortnight-long residential courses of dance appreciation at University of Armidale in NSW. Both schemes should have continued ever since. I still treasure my notebooks from things we saw and heard there in 1967 and 1969—from van Praagh, Algeranoff, Beth Dean, Marilyn Jones, Garth Welch, Karl Welander, Keith Bain, Eric Westbrook—films of Martha Graham and of Jose Limon—good things that last, seeding an awareness of dance for a lifetime.

Many here have wished that we might have seen more of Graeme Murphy’s choreography in New Zealand over the years. There was his searingly memorable Orpheus, commissioned by Harry for the Stravinsky Celebration season in 1982. Sydney Dance Company brought the greatly admired Some Rooms to the first Arts Festival here, and Shining followed soon after that. Then Matz Skoog in 1997 brought Murphy’s quietly powerful The Protecting Veil, a work that suited our company particularly well…but we could have done and seen so much more of his remarkable oeuvre. Harry brought Jonathan Taylor’s impressive Hamlet, and ‘Tis Goodly Sport—suiting our company so well. Kristian Fredrikson, local boy made good, began his training here in Wellington, and continued to design and dress so many memorable productions on both sides of the Tasman, adding to the ties that bind. RNZB have also toured a number of seasons in Australia over the years.

But with the brand new ballet from Liam Scarlett, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, pioneering as a co-production with Queensland Ballet, there’s an inspired possibility of further exchanges within the choreographic repertoire, with rich benefits for those two companies and their audiences on both sides of the Tasman. Directors Li Cunxin in Queensland and Francesco Ventriglia in Wellington will no doubt be already thinking ahead. They could be onto a winner here. I’m just going to see one more performance of this scintillating faerie ballet shortly, and will then write about it. It’s quite on the cards that many who were so enchanted by the premiere season here will want to travel to Queensland next year to catch it on the rebound. Nothing wrong with falling in love again. I’m sure Harry would agree.

 Jennifer Shennan, 15 September 2015

Featured image: Harry Haythorne as Father Winter in Cinderella. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1991. Photographer not known

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in 'Passchendaele', 2015. Photo: Evan Li

‘Salute’. A program of four works by Royal New Zealand Ballet

22–24 May 2015, St. James Theatre, Wellington (and following national tour)
Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

  • Dear Horizon—choreography, Andrew Simmons; music Gareth Farr
  • Soldiers’ Mass—choreography Jiri Kylian; music B. Martinu
  • Salute—choreography Johan Kobborg; music H.C. Lumbye
  • Passchendaele—choreography Neil Ieremia; music Dwayne Bloomfield

with

  • New Zealand Army Band
  • Rolf Gjeltsen, cello
  • Graham Hickman, conductor

This program is strong, the season short, dance and music groundbreaking, the impact immense. Salute is the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s tribute to the country’s experiences at war, but it has much to offer the conscientious objector as well. There are two major premieres, one searing classic from the 20th century, and a bagatelle of most welcome levity.

The utter futility, red carnage and grey grief of war is unambiguously referenced, yet there is also a dance of first love in peacetime, as poignant as anything all evening. I don’t often tell Australian cousins to cross the Tasman to come to the ballet, but I think I am suggesting just that for Salute—and hey, half the roll call of dancers is Australian.

Andrew Simmons has had a number of commissions to choreograph for this company (outstandingly, Of Days. q.v.) and Dear Horizon is a welcome addition to the list. He responds with empathy to Gareth Farr’s remarkable music, which opens with a high tremolo from the brave solo cello, so quiet, so carrying, before the brass enters the fray. The ballet is dreamlike, dark shadowed, hazy, enigmatic. Time runs both forward and back. War means death, or damaged lives. Dancer Mayu Tanigaito is extraordinary, and designer Tracey Grant Lord’s evocative set of letters and red poppies is suspended on high above this poetic opener.

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in 'Dear Horizon'. Photo: Ellie Richards, 2015

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Dear Horizon, 2015. Photo: © Ellie Richards

Next is Soldiers’ Mass, for twelve men, Jiri Kylian’s masterwork made in 1980. This marks a return season from 1998–1999 when Royal New Zealand Ballet first performed the work. Performers from that season have left the company now, but were remarkably evoked again here … Paul Mathews ‘playing’ Ou Lu, Shaun James Kelly ‘playing’ Shannon Dawson. Loughlan Prior and Joseph Skelton are transformed, but a phenomenal performance is given by one woman dancer called in to replace an injured male. Back then it was Pieter Symonds, ‘Joan of Arc comes to town’ I called it—well, Joan of Arc returned to town when Laura Jones, tall, young and spunky, replaced an injured male this weekend, but gave the performances of her life, as good as any man.

Dancers of Royak New Zealand Ballet in 'Soldiers' Mass'. Photo: Evan Li

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Soldiers’ Mass, 2015. Photo: © Evan Li

Kylian has put a couple of telling movement quotes early in his piece to the ‘great’ (anti) war ballet of all time, Kurt Jooss’ The Green Table, and it’s too sad that politicians and armaments manufacturers don’t know these ballets as well as dancers do. The most remarkable truth about Kylian’s choreographic marathon is that, by the time of the Kyrie in the Martinu Mass, the dancers have actually metamorphosed into real soldiers. The effect is devastating, and makes it one of the finest works this company has ever brought into their repertoire.

An interval is welcome but an ice-cream seems ridiculous, it’s cold here, though I don’t refuse when Jon Trimmer shouts me champagne. Soon we are back in the theatre, and it’s Salute, with Lumbye waltzes and galops from old-world Denmark, and a 19th century romp at the cadets prom, young girls all coy, the lads up for a lark, and a stitch of a sergeant-major. It’s a long way from a battlefield and one resists its charms for a while, till remembering, hang on, I’m still sipping champagne, and everyone around me is wearing sparkly earrings and a bit of dress-up, we are at the ballet after all, so Salute is no sillier than we are. Just because it’s full of biedermeier charm doesn’t mean the dancing’s easy. Lucy Green dances with Damir Emric and her serious first love tugs your heart.

web Dancers Damir Emric and Lucy Green in RNZB's Salute credit Evan Li

Damir Emric and Lucy Green in Salute. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Evan Li

Neil Ieremia has made a colossus of a choreography in Passchendaele. It may be short by number of minutes but it brings that miserable battle home to us like nothing else. Of course all battles are miserable but I’ve always been especially choked by Passchendaele since hearing in a millenium documentary in 2000, where one soldier’s tale was of spending all day every day in a trench of mud up to his neck, close enough to see ‘the enemy’ yet unable to advance. Come nightfall, if you could get back through the mud you could expect some food rations but the only way to cross the sea of mud was to step on your fallen comrades, though only so long as they were lying face down, so their bony spines could offer you footfall. That might be the most disgusting thing I have ever heard in all history—that you went to war so as to die so your spine could be a footprint for your mate to go and get an army biscuit. The disappointment we all share is that war seems genetic in the human condition, and that ‘the Great War to end all wars’ has proved anything but. Historians seem to be still puzzling as to why it even happened at all. One of my great uncles lies buried ‘near the Somme’. Another returned but had been so badly gassed that he coughed and choked for the next 53 years back home. Which would be worse?

Well, Ieremia has put all of this anger into his thundering dance. Abigail Boyle and Jacob Chown are on fire. All the dancers punch out the fight, and phrases from haka were never more tellingly choreographed on a stage. The composition is a tour de force by Dwayne Bloomfield, his own name echoed in the red and black back projections, the work of Geoff Tune. Out of sight but well within earshot are more dancers, not onstage but underneath it, playing snare drums to add to the orchestra pit swelling full of brass. The dancing women have to walk away and leave their men lying there motionless. There’s a knock on the door from the telegram boy, then a tune from a lone whistler in the dark. Curtain.

Jennifer Shennan, 25 May 2015

Featured image: Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Passchendaele, 2015. Photo: © Evan Li

web Passchendaele - RNZB dancers credit Evan Li

 

Jon Trimmer as the wealthy Pantalone and Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi in 'A Servant of Two Masters'

Harry Haythorne. A tribute from Jennifer Shennan

In September 2013 Anne Rowse and I flew to Melbourne for the Arts Festival…mainly in pursuit of Fabulous Beast, with Keegan-Dolan’s astonishing double-bill of Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. We relished equally the chance to catch up with dear Harry, knowing he would say yes to the suggestion of a performance, an exhibition, a forum, with coffee dates, dinners and suppers tucked in everywhere. We knew he would have seen half the Festival already, and would offer us incisive and helpful opinions on what was what. Good times coming.

Tor and Jan Gnatt, bless them, met us at the airport. We were all so excited to connect so soon after the launch of Royal New Zealand Ballet at Sixty that the Gnatt boys forgot where in the airport they had parked their car. We had lots of conversation catch-up while they hunted every floor of the car park for the elusive vehicle. (Their father, Poul, would have remembered the rego plates of the vehicles he had parked next to, and been mortified by this scenario.)

We found an el cheapo hotel, and fell into welcoming Melbourne as though we had always lived there.

Harry had already seen Fabulous Beast, and had a number of reservations about it. He nonetheless joined us for the forum, and had the grace to acknowledge afterwards that the incisively brilliant mind and wit of Keegan-Dolan helped him to retrospectively re-evaluate the choreography.

Harry instructed us which exhibitions to visit, and suggested a local dance group’s performance, preceded by a meal with his friend Robin Haig (they had worked together in 1940s in London…a typical Harry trait…ever loyal to his many friends and colleagues). The meal was great fun but the performance, which entailed the slow lighting of many candles, then their being equally slowly extinguished, then equally slowly re-lit, we found suffocatingly pretentious. (In all his years in New Zealand Harry always attended everything, and was supportive in principle of all dance endeavour, but was occasionally heard to mutter upon leaving ‘Well, the best thing about it is that they’re doing it.’ After leaving this particular evening he muttered, ‘Well, the worst thing about it is that they’re doing it).’

But as we rode the tram back into Melbourne central, an extraordinary event took place. A young Aboriginal woman, striking in appearance, but in a state of very great distress, was remonstrating up and down the tram carriage with all the world about many things. Not drunk, but totally out of control, in a wrath of emotion and heartbreak, pain, confusion and grief that was moving, even terrifying, to witness. No one knew how to help. Harry quietly started speaking a commentary to us, tracing various chapters of Australia’s colonial history, engaging us to listen, and to thus avoid making eye contact with the woman pacing the tram, as any such eye contact can become a trigger to further volatility. There was such an informed sympathy, empathy even, in Harry’s words…no judgment, no reproof. His calm, informed, sad summarising of history, at the same time offering us a degree of protection from a potentially explosive situation, was much as I imagine Thomas Keneally might have behaved.

Bi-cultural issues and opportunities within dance were part of Harry’s long-term thinking. During his time at Royal New Zealand Ballet (‘the happiest years of my life’ he was often heard to say), he commissioned Tell Me A Tale from Gray Veredon, with design by Kristian Fredrikson, to music by New Zealand composer Matthew Fisher. In that talisman piece, with leading roles created by Jon Trimmer and Kerry-Anne Gilberd, was an encounter between Maori and Pakeha, a haka within the ballet given extraordinarily powerful expression by Warren Douglas. No more telling moment has occurred in the company’s entire repertoire history, and it is a great loss that the work has not been retained.

Warren was also spectacular as the hilarious Cook in the Veredon/Fredrikson Servant of Two Masters, with Jon Trimmer as Pantalone and Harry as Dr Lombardi, tottering about wearing a twelve foot long striped scarf that threatened to trip him and everybody else on stage all evening. A fine film of this ballet is held in the New Zealand Film Archive, and is well worth the three hours it lasts. (We subsequently lost Warren to AIDS and many hearts were broken).

Harry took his title of Artistic Director Emeritus very seriously. He wrote to Ethan Stiefel upon his appointment, wishing him well, highlighting the related arts in New Zealand as a context for choices of ballet repertoire, and encouraging an awareness of Maori issues. Despite clearly failing health, Harry was still taking an interest in the news of the appointment of Francesco Ventriglia in late 2014. He asked us to send reports on any indications or statements of artistic vision as they appeared. This company was Harry’s baby, and he loved it as parents love their children.

Harry’s own term as artistic director, from 1981 to 1993 with business manager Mark Keyworth, was a resilient team effort and there has probably never been a stronger partnership between artistic and business directors in the company’s history. What those two achieved on the miniscule resources of the day was breathtaking. Harry also maintained a very close relationship with the New Zealand School of Dance under the direction of Anne Rowse. They shared so much knowledge and awareness of repertoire in the wider dance world that the students were fortunate beneficiaries of that rapport, also the strongest partnership in the history of both institutions.

The chapter Harry wrote for the book, Royal New Zealand Ballet at Sixty, recounts many highlights of his term. It was an inspired early move to celebrate in 1983 the company’s 30th anniversary with a Gala season, inviting each previous director to select a choreography. We had No Exit from Ashley Killar (this was Harry’s choice, and a pearler) and Bournonville from Poul Gnatt. Perhaps the abiding achievement of this project was Harry’s diplomacy in welcoming Poul back to his adopted country after various chapters of less than happy history since his departure in 1963.

In 1986, Harry’s production of Swan Lake, again in tandem with Fredrikson, was a theatrical tour de force. He always remained very sad it was not retained in the company’s repertoire. Harry was a youngster in vaudeville performance. His formal schooling had turned into supervised backstage correspondence while on tour, but his bright brain and fabulous memory ensured a lifelong passion for learning across many disciplines. Harry’s close rapport with Graeme Murphy saw him in several cameo roles … as Court Photographer in that astonishing Swan Lake, a charming friend of Clara in the inspired Nutcracker, only upstaged by his tap dancing on roller skates in Tivoli (and was certainly worth my trip across the Tasman to check it out).

In an adult education course I will teach in Wellington early in 2015, one of the sessions will be dedicated to a survey of Harry Haythorne’s term as artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet …’the happiest years of my life’. Well, you said it Harry.

Jennifer Shennan, Wellington, December 2014

Featured image: Jon Trimmer (left) as the wealthy Pantalone and Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi in A Servant of Two Masters, 1989. Photo: Martin Stewart, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. PACOLL-8050-36-04

Harry Haythorne

Harry Haythorne (1926–2014)

Harry Haythorne, child performer extraordinaire, well-travelled dancer, ballet master, artistic director, teacher and mentor, has died in Melbourne aged 88.

Haythorne was the child of an English father and an Australian mother of Irish descent who met at a dance hall in Adelaide: both parents loved ballroom dancing. But they were barred from many dance halls in Adelaide because they dared to introduce what Haythorne jokingly referred to in an interview as ‘filthy foreign dances’ such as the foxtrot and the quickstep. His father had brought these dance styles with him when he migrated to Australia. They were unknown at the time in Adelaide.

Haythorne began his own dance training with Jean Bedford who taught ‘operatic dancing’ and shortly afterwards began tap classes with Herbert Noye. His initial ambitions were to go into vaudeville. Even with the arrival of the Ballets Russes in Australia in the 1930s, which was an exciting time for him, he still did not have ambitions to take up ballet seriously.

When Haythorne was about 14 he began his professional performing career with Harold Raymond’s Varieties, a Tivoli-style vaudeville group established initially as a concert party to entertain troops as World War II began. With Harold Raymond he took part in comedy sketches, played his piano accordion, sang and danced. His star act, which would feature again much later in his life, was his tap dancing routine on roller-skates.

Eventually, in the late 1940s, he took ballet classes from Joanna Priest and performed in her South Australian Ballet before leaving for England. It was seeing Ballet Rambert during its Australasian tour 1947–1949 that inspired him to change direction and look to ballet as a career. In London he took classes with Anna Northcote and Stanislas Idzikowski before auditioning successfully for Metropolitan Ballet, later joining Mona Ingelsby’s International Ballet. But his career in England and Europe was an eclectic one and he also worked on the Max Bygraves Show, danced on early British television shows, performed in the Cole Porter musical Can Can and toured to South Africa with a production of The Pyjama Game.

Haythorne listed the three greatest influences on his early career as Léonide Massine, for whom he acted as personal assistant and ballet master for Massine’s company, Les ballets européens; Walter Gore, for whom he was ballet master for Gore’s London Ballet; and Peter Darrell who hired him as manager of Western Theatre Ballet and then as his assistant artistic director of Scottish Ballet in Glasgow.

Always an Australian at heart, Haythorne began to miss his homeland and made various moves to return. He eventually came back as artistic director of Queensland Ballet, a position he took up in 1975. With Queensland Ballet he mounted works by Australian choreographers including Graeme Murphy, Garth Welch and Don Asker and had Hans Brenaa stage La sylphide and other Bournonville ballets. But it was a short directorship. Haythorne was unhappy at how his contract was terminated in 1978 and always maintained that no reason was given other than ‘boards don’t have to give reasons’. But he remained in Queensland for the next few years and worked to established the tertiary dance course at Kelvin Grove College of Advanced Education (now Queensland University of Technology).

But after deciding that he did not want to head a school but direct a company he accepted the position of artistic director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 1981. Haythorne’s directorship of the Royal New Zealand Ballet was a fruitful one and lasted until 1992. During his tenure the company staged works by New Zealand and Australian choreographers as well as ballets by major international artists. Haythorne oversaw the company’s 30th anniversary in 1983; toured the company to China, the United States, Australia and Europe; and staged his own, full-length Swan Lake. For the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s 60th anniversary in 2013, encapsulating his attitude to his appointment in 1981, and also his approach to directorship in general, he wrote:

I knew I had to learn much more about New Zealand and its history, familiarise myself not only with its dance world but also with its literature, music and visual arts, while still keeping a finger on the international pulse.*

Harry Haythorne as Father Winter

Harry Haythorne as Father Winter in Cinderella, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1991.  Photographer unknown

On his return to Australia in 1993 Haythorne was always in demand. He taught dance history at the Victorian College of the Arts and repertoire at the National Theatre Ballet School. He returned to the stage on several occasions with productions by the Australian Ballet, taking cameo roles in Stanton Welch’s Cinderella, Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker and Swan Lake, Ronald Hynd’s Merry Widow, and the joint Australian Ballet/Sydney Dance company production of Murphy’s Tivoli.

Many will remember clearly his role in Tivoli where he was cast as an old vaudeville trouper and, at the age of 75, reprised his tap dancing/roller-skating/skipping routine from the 1940s. For his performances in this role he received a 2001 Australian Dance Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Dancer. I also especially enjoyed his performance as the Marquis in Act I of Murphy’s Swan Lake. His role required him to assemble guests at the wedding into various groups and to photograph them using an old camera on a tripod. Much of this action took place upstage outside of the main activities. But Haythorne made the role his own and his interactions with the guests, including the children who were part of the crowd, were always fascinating and he never paused to stand and watch what was happening downstage.

But perhaps my fondest memory is of sitting in his Melbourne flat after recording an interview with Robin Haig, who was staying with him at the time. Harry got out a bottle of wine and some huge goblets that looked like they could have been a prop from Swan Lake.  After a glass or two and much talk and laughter I realised that my plane home to Canberra had already departed. Consternation! Several hurried phone calls later a taxi arrived. I was hustled into the taxi, we sped down the freeway and I made the next plane.

Harry Haythorne: born Adelaide, 7 October 1926; died Melbourne, 24 November 2014

* Harry Haythorne quoted in Jennifer Shennan and Anne Rowse, The Royal New Zealand Ballet at Sixty (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2013), p. 86

Michelle Potter, 25 November 2014

Featured image: Harry Haythorne, c. 2000. Photographer unknown

UPDATE: See Jennifer Shennan’s tribute to Harry Haythorne at this link.

‘The Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60’. Jennifer Shennan & Anne Rowse

This handsomely produced book celebrates sixty years of performances by the Royal New Zealand Ballet. I say handsomely produced because its square-ish format is aesthetically pleasing and easy to hold in one’s hand, its illustrations are well reproduced and there are plenty of them both in black and white and colour, its paper is smooth and glossy and lovely to touch, and the layout of text and image leaves plenty of white space on the page so nothing looks jammed up.

Edited by Jennifer Shennan and Anne Rowse and published by Victoria University Press, The Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60 brings together a collection of articles, letters, reminiscences and poems covering the company’s fortunes from 1953 when it was set up by Danish dancer Poul Gnatt to its present manifestation under the direction of American artist Ethan Stiefel.
RNZB book cover web

The first section consists of contributions from each of the company’s artistic directors, where they are still living. Poul Gnatt and Bryan Ashbridge, who are no longer alive, are represented with writing from Jennifer Shennan and Dorothea Ashbridge respectively. Then follows a collection of reminiscences and thoughts from a whole variety of people who work or have worked with the company—dancers, choreographers, board members, wardrobe staff and others closely connected with the company’s activities.

With this kind of arrangement of material, where there are at least fifty different contributors, some writing is bound to stand out and some is bound to be less interesting, less well written. The unevenness in the quality of the writing is perhaps the book’s shortcoming. But this is tempered by some vibrant writing and some fascinating stories that bring to life both the highs and lows of the company’s chequered history.

What struck me as I was reading the section on artistic directors was how much is revealed of a person’s approach to life and work through his or her writing. Harry Haythorne’s essay, for example, reveals the depth of thought that went into, and that continues to inform his work. Haythorne directed the company from 1981−1992. From this perspective I also enjoyed the essay by Garry Harris, artistic director from 2001−2010. It reminded me of the times I interviewed him and the friendliness of the man that I encountered on those occasions. I also enjoyed Shennan’s essay about founding director Poul Gnatt, filled as it is with information about Gnatt’s early life in Denmark.

From the reminiscences, I loved reading about Eric Languet, dancer with the company from 1988−1998 and for a few years resident choreographer, in his essay ‘I would like to come home one day’. Although he has some Australian connections, his and my paths have never crossed. He writes with admirable honesty about his time in New Zealand and one of my favourite images in the book is from Alice, which he choreographed in 1997. And reading Douglas Wright’s account of performing the leading role in Petrouchka is, quite simply, a rare privilege. It is unusual to hear in some depth from artists about their approach to a role and their thoughts as they prepare for and then perform it. Wright’s essay is followed by a poem, ‘Herd’ written by Wright and beginning with the delicious line ‘a herd of cows does not need a choreographer’. Readers may be surprised at how the poem ends too!

One typo in the book makes me wince somewhat. In Una Kai’s essay (Kai was director from 1973−1975), which is interesting for a whole variety of reasons, Lew Christensen’s name is wrongly spelt. Typos are the bane of all our lives but it is not the best when personal names don’t get the attention they deserve.

Unlike other recent publications in a similar vein, and despite any shortcomings I might find in it, The Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60 makes a useful contribution to the history of the Royal New Zealand Ballet. Its editors, contributors and publisher deserve to be congratulated for avoiding making it into some kind of media driven, ultimately barren publication.

Jennifer Shennan and Anne Rowse (eds), The Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60,  (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2013) Hardback, 350 pp., illustrated
ISBN 978086473891
RRP NZD 60.00

Michelle Potter, 29 August 2013

Some thoughts on ‘Giselle’ and the Paris Opera Ballet

Interesting news from Paris is that Benjamin Millepied will take up the position of Director of Dance at the Paris Opera Ballet following the retirement of Brigitte Lefèvre in 2014. Millepied, dancer and choreographer whose performing career has included a significant stretch of time with New York City Ballet where he rose from corps dancer to principal, is perhaps best known to a wider public for his work with Natalie Portman on the movie Black Swan. Millepied’s stage choreography was most recently seen in the southern hemisphere in 2012 in the Royal New Zealand Ballet season of NYC. RNZB staged Millepied’s 2005 work 28 variations on a theme by Paganini.  

Meanwhile, the Paris Opera Ballet, a company with a long and illustrious heritage, opens its Sydney season of Giselle at the Capitol Theatre tomorrow. It has been a while since a full production of Giselle has been danced in Australia, and this is a perfect opportunity to see it performed by the company whose forebears danced it at its world premiere.

Gisellefirst took to the stage in Paris in 1841 at the theatre of the Paris Opera. The ballet was developed by a first-rate team of European creatives. Its libretto was written by poet and critic Théophile Gautier and dramatist Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and was based on a story by the German writer Heinrich Heine. Its music was composed by Adolphe Adam and its choreography created by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot. On opening night the role of Giselle was danced by Italian ballerina Carlotta Grisi and her performance that night established her as a major star.

Since that opening performance Gisellehas hardly been out of the ballet repertoire making it one of the most enduring of all the classics. It has undergone various changes over time, as happens with all works in the performing arts, but essentially it remains the story of a young peasant girl, Giselle, who falls for Albrecht, a nobleman in disguise. She has her heart broken and dies when it becomes clear that Albrecht is engaged to a noblewoman, Bathilde. Giselle returns in spirit form—as a Wili, that is a spirit of a betrothed girl who has died before her wedding night. Led by their queen, Myrthe, the Wilis are intent on pursuing to their death all men who enter the forest at night. It falls to Giselle to save a grieving Albrecht from this fate.

But like all works of art that have endured over centuries, Giselletakes place in a complex world. We encounter many differences of life-style—peasants appear alongside noblemen; and different realms of nature—a fertile countryside where a bountiful grape harvest is celebrated in Act I contrasts with a forest graveyard and the chill of night in Act II. In the Paris Opera Ballet production flower symbolism also plays a significant role. White flowers appear in both acts. They are daisies and field flowers in Act I. Giselle’s peasant admirer, the gamekeeper Hilarion, leaves a bouquet of white daisies outside Giselle’s cottage rather than the dead rabbit or bird he leaves in productions by many other companies. A single daisy also hints that all is not well when Giselle and Albrecht engage in the ‘he loves me, he loves me not’ game with daisy petals.

In Act II Hilarion returns with daisies for Giselle’s grave but the flowers of Act II include lilies, white roses and flowering myrtle, powerful symbols of love, immortality, purity, and in the case of myrtle used for centuries in bridal bouquets. The Queen of the Wilis, Myrthe, carries a branch of flowering myrtle as her sceptre; Albrecht enters with an armful of lilies for Giselle’s grave; Giselle pleads with Myrthe to spare Albrecht and a handful of white roses tumble from her arms and fall at Myrthe’s feet. The forces of nature are powerful throughout.

Gisellealso presents us with a number of conundrums. Where or who is Giselle’s father for example? We only meet her mother, Berthe, who in Act I superstitiously tells the story of the Wilis and provides a foretaste of what will occur in Act II. Could the father be the Duke of Courland, who in Act I arrives with his hunting party and is served with refreshments by Berthe? In the Paris Opera Ballet production (at least on its current video manifestation) he takes a particular interest in Giselle, cupping her chin in his hands and looking into her eyes. He seems quite familiar with Berthe as well. And why did Giselle die? Was it of a broken heart? Was it from all the dancing in which we see her engage in Act I, just as Berthe prophesied? Or did she inherit a weak constitution? And how does she die? Does she stab herself with Albrecht’s sword, which Hilarion uses to expose Albrecht’s real identity? And what of Albrecht? Does he really love Giselle? Or is he living a lie and wreaking havoc on the life of a young peasant girl as he plays at being a peasant himself? Marie-Antoinette and her fake rustic village at Versailles come to mind.

The dancing itself in this Paris Opera Ballet production is almost flawless in a technical sense. In addition, the dancers, male and female, have an elegance and a perfection in the way they carry themselves that not only reflects their impeccable training but somehow also seems to reflect their royal heritage. The Paris Opera Ballet can trace its lineage back to 1661, when the French monarch Louis XIV, the Sun King, established the Académie royale de danse. Louis XIV was an enthusiastic and accomplished dancer himself. His familiar name, the Sun King, is reputed to date from his appearance as Apollo, god of the sun, in one of the sequences in Les Ballets de la nuit in 1653. He was just 14 at the time and was dressed in a costume replete with golden rays that fanned out around him as we imagine the rays of the sun radiate from a golden orb. Legend also has it that he had such slim and elegant ankles that he loved to pose with his heel pushed forward to show the royal ankles in all their glory. Ballet technique, the story goes, has been characterised by a ‘turn out’ of the feet and legs ever since.

There is so much to ponder on as the story of Giselle unfolds. I am filled with anticipation!

Giselle, Paris Opera Ballet, Capitol Theatre, Sydney, January 29–February 9

© Michelle Potter, 28 January 2013

Postscript (29 January 2013): Shame about the misspelling of Laurent Hilaire’s name in The Sydney Morning Herald‘s article (p. 7) this morning. Not a good advertisement  for Australian media on the morning of the Paris Opera Ballet’s opening. And, although the same article also notes that Millepied has no official ties with the Paris company, Millepied has made a work for the company, his Amoveo (2006). Excerpts from this work and others by Millepied made recently are on his website.

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Dance diary. July 2012

  • Moya Beaver (1918‒2012)

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

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

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

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

  • International Auto/Biography Association (IABA)

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

  • Kathryn Bennetts

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

  • The Oracle and Meryl Tankard

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

  • Ethan Stiefel

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

Interview in TimeOut about his retirement

Article in The New York Times about his retirement

The New York Times review of the final show

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

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

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

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

Michelle Potter, 31 July 2012

Dance diary. March 2012

  • Kristian Fredrikson in New Zealand

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

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

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

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

  • Bruce Morrow (1928–2012)

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

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

  • Stanton Welch’s Tapestry

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

  • The Ballets russes tribute programs continue

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

  • Site news

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

Michelle Potter, 30 March 2012

‘NYC’. Royal New Zealand Ballet

22 March 2012, St James Theate, Wellington

The first program by new artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet, Ethan Stiefel, opened in Wellington on 22 March. After a regional tour that began in Auckland in February the program, NYC: three short works from the Big Apple, had clearly worked itself into a very smooth operation by the time it reached Wellington. We saw a diverse, exuberant and beautifully danced show.

The program opened with 28 variations on a theme by Paganini, a work by Benjamin Millepied made originally in 2005. Danced to a piano score by Brahms, the choreography is as varied as the music. Under a single chandelier, and against a black background, five elegantly dressed couples whirl and swirl across the stage. Sometimes they dance in canon, often they execute fabulous lifts and move with unexpected changes of direction. They engage in a luscious performance of the classical vocabulary and occasionally there are subtle undercurrents that suggest relationships between them. I especially enjoyed the dancing of Bronte Kelly whose pleasure in being in this very dancerly work was patently clear. 28 variations on a theme by Paganini

Antonia Hewitt and Brendan Bradshaw in 28 Variations on a theme by Paganini, 2012. Photo Evan Li. Courtesy the Royal New Zealand Ballet

There were, however, a few moments when for me the choreography was jarring. At one point Gillian Murphy entered walking on pointe, stiff-legged and looking a little like a dancer-doll who had suddenly stepped off a music box. Not even Murphy’s strong onstage presence and expressive face could save this section from looking out of place.

Taking the middle spot on the program was Larry Keigwin’s Final dress, created especially for the Royal New Zealand Ballet and danced to a fast-paced score for violin, cello, clarinet and electric piano by Adam Crystal. On a stage stripped right back to basics, this work is full-on dancing from beginning to end. Mixing contemporary movement with more classical steps, the dancers explore the adrenalin rush associated with getting a show onstage. They run, throw themselves at each other and exude constant energy. I didn’t read into it what the program note told me it was about, ‘the boundaries between the public and the private, and the territories we guard’, but Final dress deservedly got a loud and enthusiastic reception as it came to an end.Scene from 'Final dress'

Dancers of the Royal New Zealand Ballet in Final dress, 2012. Photo Evan Li. Courtesy the Royal New Zealand Ballet

Closing the evening was a performance of the vintage Balanchine work Who cares? set to a Hershey Kay arrangement of songs by George Gershwin. This is sassy Balanchine in his Hollywood/Broadway mode and to a certain extent it is a little outdated in terms of the dance style and era it references: it is four decades old, compared with later works in a similar vein such as Twyla Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs (made a mere two decades ago). But that aside, the dancers of the Royal New Zealand Ballet did themselves proud. Gillian Murphy and Paul Mathews danced an as smooth as silk pas de deux and the two other soloists, Abigail Boyle and Lucy Green, shone like Hollywood stars. I also admired the lovely-limbed dancer, Maree White, who took the middle spot in the line-up of the five chorus ladies.

A small grumble about the printed program: why didn’t it contain costume design credits? There wasn’t much to worry about with sets as there weren’t really any to fuss about, other than the New York skyline (minus the Chrysler Building) for Who cares? But the costume designers did deserve a billing, even if some costumes were apparently hired from New York-based ballet companies. Someone must have designed them. And why were there no captions for photos in the program? For those who are not regulars at Royal New Zealand Ballet performances it would have been nice if the dancers in some lovely photographs had been identified. But NYC was a wonderful start for Stiefel’s directorship and the prospect of more is definitely something to anticipate.

Michelle Potter, 23 March 2012

Dance diary. September 2011

  • Publication news

In September The Canberra Times published my preview of the Australian Ballet’s 2012 season, a review of the recent book The Ballets Russes in Australia and Beyond under the title ‘Dancing round a few home truths’, and my review of Graeme Murphy’s new take on Romeo and Juliet. Romeo and Juliet has certainly sparked some discussion and the amount of traffic that the extended review has generated over this website has been quite astonishing. It has more than quadrupled the previous record of visits to any one post. The suggestion that this Romeo and Juliet is just not a profound work has been made, not only in published comments but also in other communications to me. But whatever we think, it appears to be selling remarkably well and it will be interesting to see what Sydney audiences make of it when it opens there in December.

Editing and design began in September on an article of mine to be published in the December issue of The National Library Magazine. This article looks at the ballet designs of Arthur Boyd for Robert Helpmann’s Elektra, and those of Sidney Nolan for Kenneth MacMillan’s Rite of Spring. Both ballets were given their premieres by the Royal Ballet in London in the early 1960s. We’ve never seen the MacMillan Rite of Spring here in Australia, but Elektra was staged by the Australian Ballet in 1966 when there were some interesting changes to Boyd’s designs, which in fact had already undergone changes before they even made it to the Covent Garden stage.

joseph-janusaitis

Joseph Janusaitis in make-up for Elektra, the Australian Ballet, 1966. Photo by Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia, permission pending

  • Nijinsky’s costume for Le Dieu bleu

While the Romeo and Juliet post has attracted instant interest, the post from late last year on Nijinsky’s costume for the Blue God quietly continues to generate visits. I was recently contacted by author Denise Heywood, whose book Cambodian dance: celebration of the gods was published in 2008 in Bangkok by River Books. The book is an interesting examination of the history of Cambodian dance and reproduces some remarkable photographs from across many decades. Denise suggests in her recent communication with me that it is not just the costume has links to the Khmer culture, as I suggested in the post, but the choreography for the ballet Le Dieu bleu must surely also have been influenced by Khmer dance, especially the ‘slow, statuesque movements’.

  • The Royal New Zealand Ballet

The Royal New Zealand Ballet has just announced its 2012 season, its first full year under the directorship of Ethan Stiefel. Stiefel will begin the year in February with a very American program entitled NYC, ‘New Young Classic’ (although the other meaning of that acronym is in there too). NYC will feature works by Larry Keigwin, Benjamin Millepied and George Balanchine. Keigwin has a big following in New York and he will create a new work on the dancers of RNZB. Millepied is now probably best known for his contribution to The Black Swan, but he has been making dances for several years for a range of high profile companies including New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and the Paris Opera Ballet. RNZB will dance Millepied’s 28 Variations on a Theme by Paganini (2005).  The program will also include Who Cares?, Balanchine’s popular and beautifully polished work set to songs by George Gershwin.

Later in the year RNZB will restage its production of Christopher Hampson’s Cinderella and in November Gillian Murphy will take the lead role in a new staging of Giselle to be co-produced by Stiefel and that exceptional interpreter of the role of Albrecht, Johann Kobborg.

tonia-looker-2012-giselle-h-photo-ross-brown1

Tonia Looker in a study for Giselle 2012. Photo: © Ross Brown. Courtesy Royal New Zealand Ballet

  • Memory lane

Canberra is currently in the middle of Floriade, its annual celebration of spring (although the weather is decidedly cold). I have never forgotten a remarkable Floriade, the only one I have ever attended I have to admit, back in 1990. The Meryl Tankard Company was then Canberra’s resident dance company and Tankard staged Court of Flora outdoors against the backdrop of Commonwealth Gardens.

Inspired by the engravings in J. J. Grandville’s book, Les Fleurs animées first published in 1847, Court of Flora was given eleven performances in October 1990. Its spectacular costumes, designed by Sydney-based couturier Anthony Phillips, drew sighs of delight from audiences. So too did the ability of Tankard’s dancers to pose decoratively behind bushes and around trees while at the same time investing the flowers that they represented with clearly discernible human qualities, as indeed Grandville had done with his illustrations. In particular, an impish Paige Gordon as Thistle and an elegant Carmela Care as Rose still remain in the mind’s eye.

  • The Little Mermaid

I continue to be confounded by Rex Reid’s Little Mermaid, the version he made for Laurel Martyn’s Victorian Ballet Company in 1967. All sources seem to indicate that it opened as part of a mixed bill on 1 September 1967, but reviews seem to have appeared in Melbourne papers on the same day, 1 September. There is probably a simple explanation—perhaps there was a preview before 1 September to which reviewers were invited? But if anyone was there and can assure me that it did open on 1 September, despite reviews appearing on the same day, I would be thrilled to hear.

  • Site news

Traffic across the site during September increased by over 20% compared with August, due largely to the exceptional interest in Romeo and Juliet. The review attracted a large number of visits, more than any other post in the two year history of the site. Not surprisingly visits from Melbourne topped the list. Other Australian cities generating significant numbers of visits during September were, in order, Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane and Adelaide.

Some small updates will be made to the site in the next few weeks. On the home page I am having a link to the full tag cloud inserted under the list of top 20 tags. This will facilitate searching from the home page.

I am also having two new sub-pages added to the Resource page. One will be for National Library of Australia articles and will allow me to separate articles written for National Library of Australia News/The National Library Magazine from other online publications. The second will be for articles written for theatre programs.

Michelle Potter, 1 October 2011