Tamara Tchinarova and friends, Christchurch 1939

Russell Kerr lecture, February 2019

The Russell Kerr lecture for 2019 was delivered in Wellington, New Zealand, on 10 February 2019 by Dr Ian Lochhead. Lochhead is dance critic for The Press, Christchurch, and formerly Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Canterbury. His lecture focused on the tours to New Zealand by the Monte Carlo Russian Ballet in 1937 and the Covent Garden Russian Ballet in 1939.

While the lecture as a whole opened up a number of issues that perhaps have not been fully considered in previous writings about the Australasian Ballets Russes tours, for me the most fascinating moment of all came when Lochhead flashed up the image used as the featured image on this post. It is well known to most Australians interested in the tours of the Ballets Russes and shows (l–r) Serge Ismailoff, Anna Volkova, Oleg Tupine, and Tamara Tchinarova (later Tamara Finch) with bicycles. Paul Petroff stands to the right, hands in pockets. It belongs in the Papers of Tamara Finch (MS 9733) and it has always been considered to have been taken somewhere in Australia. But Lochhead showed convincingly that the image was shot in Christchurch in 1939 during the visit to that major South Island city by the Covent Garden Russian Ballet.

Lochhead introduced us (or certainly me) to Olivia Spencer Bower, an English-born artist who lived a large part of her life in New Zealand. Spencer Bower, it seems, was taken with the dancers of the Covent Garden Russian Ballet and the Spencer Bower collection at the Christchurch Art Gallery includes an album of photographs, which she may have taken herself, of the Covent Garden Russian Ballet during its 1939 visit. One, which unfortunately I don’t yet have permission to publish, shows a row of at least seventeen dancers holding bicycles and lined up in front of a theatre identified by Lochhead (a Christchurch resident) as Christchurch’s Theatre Royal. It has a large poster advertising the Covent Garden Russian Ballet across its entrance and to the side of the line-up is the tobacconist and hairdresser shop seen in the featured image above. Ismailoff, Volkova, Tupine, and Tchinarova are wearing the same clothes in both images. There is no doubt that the featured image above is not from Australia but from Christchurch.

It is always a thrill to discover new information about material in archival holdings. And it is even better when new information allows us to revise previous assumptions. The featured image in this post celebrates Christchurch as a venue for the visiting Ballets Russes companies that had such an influence on the growth of dance in the southern hemisphere.

Ian Lochhead’s lecture was preceded by two danced items: a performance of the Prelude from Les Sylphides danced by Taylor-Rose Frisby, a second year student of the New Zealand School of Dance; and The Dying Swan performed by Abigail Boyle from Royal New Zealand Ballet. Frisby showed beautiful control and I look forward to seeing more of her work. Abigail Boyle has featured on this website on several occasions. Live music, and it was exceptional, came from pianist Hamish Robb and cello player Inbal Megiddo, both from the New Zealand School of Music, Te Koki.

It is with a certain regret that I add that Boyle will shortly retire as a performer. Recent news from Royal New Zealand Ballet indicates that Boyle will dance in RNZB’s forthcoming New Choreographic Series and will then pursue a teaching career.

A note on the first Russell Kerr lecture held in 2018 is at this link

Michelle Potter, 15 February 2019

Featured image: Serge Ismailoff, Anna Volkova, Oleg Tupine, and Tamara Tchinarova, Covent Garden Russian Ballet, Christchurch, 1939. Photographer not identified. Papers of Tamara Finch, National Library of Australia

Tamara Tchinarova and friends, Christchurch 1939

Kristian Fredrikson design for the Indian Prince (detail) in 'Rose Adagio', West Australian Ballet 1971

Dance diary. January 2019

  • Robert O’Kell

Robert O’Kell danced with the Australian Ballet from 1962 to 1966 and then again in 1969. In 1971 he danced the role of the Indian Prince in a Rose Adagio staged by West Australian Ballet, which was the subject of an earlier post on this website. During a period of research at the National Library I chanced upon some designs by Kristian Fredrikson for this Rose Adagio, and a little later some material from Rex Reid, which identified O’Kell as the Indian Prince in this production. I am curious to know if O’Kell is still alive and if so how he can be contacted. If you can help I would love to hear from you via the comments box below.

  • Oral histories

In January I had the pleasure of recording two new oral histories for the National Library of Australia. The first was with Fiona Tonkin. It was part of a the Australia-China Council project, a collaborative venture between the Australia-China Council and the National Library of Australia to document the role of the Council in Australian cultural life. Tonkin had just joined the Australian Ballet when the company went to China in 1980 and she had some lovely anecdotes about that tour. The China experience was a part only of the interview, which was a ‘whole of life’ recording that now joins the National Library’s extensive archive of dance interviews.

My second interview in January was with renowned photographer Heide Smith. In the interview Smith recalled one of her earliest commissions after migrating to Australia in 1971 with her husband and two daughters—she was commissioned by the arts magazine The Entertainer to photograph various performers working in Sydney. It was the time when Margot Fonteyn was guesting with the Australian Ballet and Smith has, amongst her extensive archive, some beautiful images of Fonteyn and Garth Welch in costume for Raymonda, along with close-ups of each of them.

Garth Welch, Sydney 1971. Photo Heide Smith

Photos of Garth Welch and Margot Fonteyn, Sydney 1971. © Heide Smith. Reproduced with permission.

  • A new Anna Karenina

An article in a newspaper from the United States attracted my attention this morning. The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago (currently directed by former Australian Ballet dancer Ashley Wheater) will open a new production of Anna Karenina on 13 February 2019. It will have choreography by Yuri Possokhov, who is at present choreographer-in-residence at San Francisco Ballet. I was hugely impressed by Possokhov’s version of The Rite of Spring, which I saw several years ago, in 2013 to be exact. It is, unfortunately, the only one of his works that I have seen so far. But it seems that the Australian Ballet is splitting the cost of mounting the new Anna Karenina fifty-fifty with Joffrey. The Australian Ballet, or so the Chicago Tribune announced, will premiere the Possokhov Anna Karenina in Melbourne in May 2020. Something to anticipate?

  • Edna Busse

Edna Busse, ballerina with the Borovansky Ballet in its early days, died on 2 January 2019 aged 100. An obituary will follow later. Posts about Busse are at this tag.

  • Press for January 2019

‘Production brought to life for kids.’ Review of Storytime ballet. Coppélia. The Australian Ballet. The Canberra Times, 21 January 2019, p. 16. Online version

‘Another BOLD program for festival’. Preview of BOLD II, Canberra 13–17 March. The Canberra Times, 28 January 2019, p. 16. Online version

Michelle Potter, 31 January 2019

Featured image: Kristian Fredrikson, design for the Indian Prince (detail) in ‘Rose Adagio’, West Australian Ballet 1971

Kristian Fredrikson design for the Indian Prince (detail) in 'Rose Adagio', West Australian Ballet 1971

Dancers from Paige Gordon and Performance Group in 'Shed. A place where men can dance', Canberra 1996. Photo Loui Seselja

Paige Gordon’s Shed…a recollection from the 1990s

Choreographer and teacher Paige Gordon will speak in March 2019 at BOLD II, the Canberra-based festival directed by Liz Lea now in its second manifestation. I was more than interested to hear that Gordon’s talk will have connections back to a work she made in Canberra in 1994, and which was subsequently restaged in 1996. Gordon suggests that her future pathway in dance was affected by the reaction she got, and that she herself felt, from that work—Shed. A place where men can dance. It was part of the National Festival of Australian Theatre and was made for her small but very vibrant project company, Paige Gordon and Performance Group (P G & P G). I was writing extensively for Dance Australia at the time and my review of the 1996 production of Shed appeared in that magazine in the December 1996–January 1997 issue. Here is what I wrote:

A gem about men

Shed begins slightly chaotically. Four male performers dressed in paint-splattered overalls hammer, saw, plane, paint and chisel loudly and with undisguised enthusiasm. Immediately we know that this can’t be anything but real Aussie suburban stuff, four blokes in the shed up the back, making things. With swift, deft strokes, choreographer Paige Gordon sets the scene.

The chaos subsides and the opening activities give way to a perceptive and moving exploration of a male space and its emotional landscape. Set against a wall of painted corrugated iron sheets, a design by Cherylynn Holmes, dance sequences and personal ‘shed stories’ sometimes alternate and sometimes occur simultaneously.

In one section John Hunt, tall and lanky with a winning expression that suggests he could talk his way out of anything, suddenly reveals himself as vulnerable and even romantic as he explains how his father used his hands to make an assortment of things for his children. In the background James Berlyn, Martin O’Callaghan and Jonathan Rees-Osborne roll gently from one side of the performing space to the other, pausing occasionally to become involved in gentle and intricate movements that focus on the hands. The hands clench together, they press onto the floor, they cut through the air. Dance and storytelling comment on each other and, while the choreography is simple, sometimes setting up apparently naive connections, its quiet subtlety speaks volumes.

Other sections are less romantic. One, led by James Berlyn, is full of anger and frustration. Stories about projects gone wrong are followed by a cathartic passage in which the four dancers hurl themselves at the corrugated iron walls, banging, shouting and kicking. But this hot-tempered scene is followed by another in which these men seem gently aware of their innate capacity for tenderness as they slowly run their hands and bodies along the same corrugated iron that had just served as a whipping post for their anger.

Shed, made in 1994, is a work of rare rigour. Tightly structured, it sets the scene, gets on with it and doesn’t get bogged down trying to say the same thing for too long. I guess it’s laconic in a good Australian way. And its unselfconscious and unpretentious simplicity seems very Australian too. The work is also unusually personal. You almost feel like talking to the performers and telling your own similar stories, yet you know the work is, rightly, too self-contained and theatrically coherent for that. But the extent of involvement that the piece allows is remarkable.

Humour and pathos, laughter and sadness, insight and much self-recognition spill though the piece. Shed is a gem, a distinctively Australian gem.

***************************************

James Berlyn from Paige Gordon and Performance Group in 'Shed. A place where men can dance', Canberra 1996. Photo Loui Seselja

James Berlyn from P G & P G in Shed. A place where men can dance, Canberra 1996. Photo; © Loui Seselja, National Library of Australia

I also spoke to Gordon for a Dance Australia article published in the issue of April-May 1995, and for a story in the National Library of Australia Magazine (March 1997). In both instances she spoke of making Shed, stressing that she had been involved in a number of works with an all female cast and that she was interested in working, by contrast, with an all male cast. ‘I wanted a chance to come up with things that were as magical and as gentle and as emotional as was possible with the female-inspired things I had been involved in,’ she said. Shed. A place where men can dance won Gordon a Canberra Critics’ Circle Award in 1994.

What will Gordon say for her BOLD presentation? Registration for BOLD II is via this link.

Michelle Potter, 29 January 2019

Featured image: Dancers from P G & P G in Shed. A place where men can dance, Canberra 1996. Photo: © Loui Seselja, National Library of Australia

Dancers from Paige Gordon and Performabnce Group in 'shed. A place where men can dance', Canberra 1996. Photo Loui Seselja

Images published with permission of the National Library of Australia.

Katrina Rank in costume for 'Birdwatching'. Credit Robert Wagner

BOLD II. 2019

Below is an expanded version of an article published in print and online by The Canberra Times on 28 January 2019.

Canberra’s remarkable performer, mentor and choreographer, Liz Lea, has once again taken on the mammoth task of presenting BOLD, a festival she founded in 2017 in anticipation of it becoming a biennial event. In that inaugural year, Lea boldly did the whole thing without any external funding. At least this year she managed to secure some financial backing so, while life for her at the moment may still hold a myriad of organisational problems, at least there are fewer financial concerns. And as BOLD patron, Dr Elizabeth Cameron Dalman of the Lake George-based Mirramu Creative Arts Centre, says:

Making a career in the arts, particularly in dance, is not an easy pathway. It requires skill and discipline, both a flexible body and a flexible mind, determination and a great deal of audacity. One needs to be ‘bold’.

In its extensive program of talks, film showings, workshops and performances, BOLD II will focus on the legacy and heritage of dance in Australia and elsewhere, but will also have a strong focus on diversity of practice and issues of gender and ethnicity.

Indigenous artists will play a prominent role. A soft launch by the senior group from Tasmania, MADE, will be held at the Dickson Tradies Tramway Bar on the afternoon of March 13. It will be followed that evening by the official launch—a performance by Vicki van Hout whose indigenous heritage is with the Wiradjuri people of New South Wales. Van Hout will perform her recently created solo plenty serious TALK TALK at QL2 Theatre, Gorman Arts Centre. The work examines the consultative process that characterises the creation of indigenous and van Hout has been reported as saying:

Even if I am on stage by myself, as an artist, I am never truly alone as I am bound to bring my family, my peers and mentors to work with me. In this piece, I decided to place the usual behind-the-scenes action of the indigenous arts making process front and centre.

Vicki van Hout in 'plenty serious TALK TALK'. Photo Heidrun Lohr

Vicki van Hout in plenty serious TALK TALK, 2018. Photo: © Heidrun Löhr

Another indigenous performer we can look forward to seeing is violinist Eric Avery, who may be remembered as the musician who played violin for Lea’s earlier work made with Tammi Gissell, Magnificus, magnificus. Avery, who also dances with Marrugeku, a company operating between Broome in Western Australia and Carriageworks in Sydney, will amongst other activities, lead a dance through Parliament House, creating choreography while playing live.

Not all performances will take place in theatre venues. In addition to Avery’s activities at Parliament House, there will be performances at the National Portrait Gallery (as happened in 2017), and several performances will take place at lunchtime on the podium outside the National Library. On March 14 Katrina Rank, who in 2018 was the recipient of an Australian Dance Award for Services to Dance, will perform her solo, Birdwatching. On the following day Canberra’s senior ensemble, the GOLDS, will also be on the podium performing Annette from Lea’s collaborative and award-winning work Great Sport! .

The GOLDs in Liz Lea's 'Annette'. Credit Lorna Sim

The GOLDs in Liz Lea’s Annette, 2016. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Several international performers are also taking part this year, including Javanese dancer Didik Hadiprayitno,whose approach to dance certainly highlights the theme of diversity of practice. He is a cross-dresser who impersonates women in his performances of traditional Javanese and Balinese dance. Lea first encountered his work in 2017 when she was appearing at a festival in Java, which Hadiprayitno was directing. Lea recalls:

It was an outdoor festival with the theme of Gods and Goddesses. It rained and there were umbrellas everywhere, even on top of lights. But it was extraordinary. I wanted to bring so many of the dancers to Australia for BOLD but in the end was only able to bring Hadiprayitno.

Didik Hadiprayitno

Indonesian cross-dresser Didik Hadiprayitno. Photographer not identified

Also coming from Asia, this time from Singapore, is violinist, Kailin Yong, whom many in Canberra will remember from last year’s 40th anniversary performance by Canberra Dance Theatre when he performed with Anca Frankenhaeuser in MIST. For BOLD II Yong will be bringing along his wife and young child, who will feature in a trio that ex-Canberran Stephanie Burridge is creating on the family. Yong is also composing new music for a solo for Frankenhaeuser, and another Canberra-based dancer, Debora di Centa, will also perform with Yong as accompanist.

Former Canberrans will also feature throughout the festival. Sue Healey, who led a dance company, Vis-à-vis Dance Canberra, for several years in the 1990s, and who has since made a career as an award-winning film maker, will show a selection of her most recent short films at the National Film and Sound Archive on March 15. They include selections from En route, a film made as part of a public art installation project for Wynyard railway station in Sydney. En route was shot at various disused stations and railway lines across New South Wales and features several performers with Canberra connections including James Batchelor and Elizabeth Cameron Dalman, Dalman will also feature in others of Healey’s films including in Weerewa, a collaborative venture with the Taiwanese group Danceology.

Still from 'En route'. Courtesy Sue Heale

Still from En route. Courtesy Sue Healey

Paige Gordon, whose company Paige Gordon and Performance Group was also a significant force in Canberra in the 1990s, will speak at the festival. Her talk goes back to a moving work she made in Canberra called Shed. A place where men can dance. The reaction to Shed inspired Gordon’s current path of working with people across the community, and helping them to move and be moved by dance.

A new feature for the 2019 festival, which Lea anticipates will be a permanent feature of future BOLD festivals, is the BOLD lecture in honour of Janis Claxton. Claxton, who died last year, was an Australian who graduated from the Queensland University of Technology, and who went on to make an impact on the contemporary dance world in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe and America. Lea explains:

She was a feisty woman. I first saw her work in the 1990s and was impressed by the way she was promoting gender equality and working in non-traditional spaces. She contacted me just before she died and I was moved that she had done that. She was a bold artist and I wanted to honour her.

This year the BOLD lecture will be delivered by Claire Hicks, director of Critical Path the Sydney-based organisation fostering choreographic research and development. Other keynote speakers for 2019 are Karen Gallagher, Padma Menon and Marilyn Miller.

Perhaps what is most interesting for Canberra audiences is the way BOLD II will reflect the legacy of Canberra dance over several decades. And as we look at the past, we can also see a future. The finale to BOLD II, however, will be less about dance and more about what Canberra has to offer visitors. On Sunday March 17 the BOLD Balloon Breakfast will take place with participants watching the launch of hot air balloons at the Canberra Balloon Spectacular. The breakfast will be followed later that morning by JUICE, a closing performance by the Canberra group Somebody’s Aunt at McKellar Ridge Wines at Murrumbateman. A wine tasting will follow.

A schedule of events (subject to change according to injuries and other matters that inevitably affect dance artists) is available on the BOLD website . It indicates the many artists and speakers from Australia and across the world who have not been specifically mentioned here.  Registrations are now open.

Michelle Potter, 28 March 2019

STORYTIME BALLET COPPELIA The Australian Ballet. Photo Jeff Busby

Storytime Ballet—Coppélia. The Australian Ballet

17 January 2019. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre.

Here is a slightly expanded version of my review of Coppélia in its storytime form. The review has already appeared in The Canberra Times online but is yet to appear in print.*

This Coppélia is the third production in the popular Storytime Ballet series produced for young people by the Australian Ballet. It follows storytime productions of The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. These productions are advertised as being for children aged 3 and up but I was curious to know how ‘up’ things could be. So I took along two grandchildren (both boys) aged nine and eleven.

Coppélia, with its blend of humour, magic, easy to follow mime, and joyous activity, lends itself well to being rethought as an experience for the young. Its story is simple and it contains some fascinating characters. Apart from the main couple, Swanilda and Franz, who eventually resolve their problems, there is the eccentric Dr Coppélius, a toy maker who dabbles in his own brand of magic and, of course, Coppélia, the life-sized doll Dr Coppélius has created and hopes to bring to life. It is this doll we see sitting in the window of Dr Coppélius’ house and who is the cause of issues between Franz and Swanilda.

Dr Coppélius can be a formidable character but, in this production, anything alarming about him is reduced by the fact that he takes on the role of narrator. On stage narration has become a feature of the Australian Ballet’s storytime ballets and it is beautifully done on this occasion by Sean McGrath, whose acting and strong, clear voice were commented on by my young companions. The basics of his role in the full-length ballet were there. He loses his key when being jostled by the village folk thus allowing the village girls to enter his house, he reads from his book of spells to attempt to bring Coppélia to life, and so forth. But his character doesn’t really develop fully, which, although understandable, is a shame.

Sean McGrath and Dayna Booth in the Australian Ballet’s storytime Coppélia. Photo: © Jeff Busby

As far as the dancing goes, and after all it is still a ballet we are watching, the small company of just 12 artists (largely of graduates of the Australian Ballet School) does an excellent job. The main roles of Franz and Swanilda are rotated amongt company members. We saw Benjamin Obst as Franz and Jasmin Forner as Swanilda and both showed outstanding technical abilities. My companions were especially impressed with Obst’s tours en l’air and his grand pirouettes to which he added a showy jump every so often. I was impressed with Forner. Readers of The Canberra Times’ arts pages may remember a story about Forner published last year, which told of her recovery in Canberra Hospital from serious injuries sustained in a car accident. We saw her in Canberra last year as part of the Australian Ballet School’s graduation season, but she has developed more strength since then and danced beautifully. Watching her now, her recovery and return to ballet seem quite miraculous.

The ending of this Coppélia was without a wedding and its pas de deux, and we saw only the Dawn solo and not Prayer. So again there was something missing from the storyline and for me it all fell a bit flat. But nevertheless the ending was presented as celebratory occasion and the young people in the audience left feeling happy.

The full-length Coppélia is a three-act ballet with changes of set for each act. Designer Hugh Colman skilfully designed a single set for the storytime production, which with just a few moveable facades, and some fine lighting by Jon Buswell, could easily transform itself from village square to Dr Coppelius’ workshop and back to the square within the 50 minutes of this production, which had no interval at all.

The Canberra Theatre Centre’s Playhouse is a perfect venue for these storytime productions. It has a delightful intimacy that encourages participation from the very young, who made the most of the opportunity to assist Dr Coppélius with his magic, some using magic wands, others their magic fingers. My nine year old didn’t want to be part of the magic bits, although the eleven year old had no problem joining in and wiggling his fingers. I suspect, however, that for those young people who are slightly older, it was the strength of the dancing, from dancers not much older than they are, that attracted them. But there was definitely something for young people across quite a reasonable age range.

Michelle Potter, 19 January 2019

* UPDATE: Date of publication in print was 21 January 2019.

Featured image: The Australian Ballet’s storytime Coppélia. Phopto: © Jeff Busby

STORYTIME BALLET COPPELIA The Australian Ballet. Photo Jeff Busby

Dance diary. December 2018

All good wishes for 2019 and my grateful thanks to all who have visited this site over the past year, especially those who have taken the time to comment. And of course special thanks to my co-contributor, Jennifer Shennan, who throughout the year opened our eyes to what was happening in the New Zealand dance world.

  • New artistic directors

Both Expressions Dance Company and Chunky Move have announced the appointment of new artistic directors. In Brisbane Amy Hollingsworth is the new director of Expressions Dance Company replacing Natalie Weir. Hollingsworth’s immediate past position was ballet mistress and creative associate with Queensland Ballet

Amy Hollingsworth. 2018. Photo: Transit Dance

Amy Hollingsworth, 2018. Photo: © Transit Dance

In Melbourne Antony Hamilton and Kristy Ayre will jointly lead Chunky Move following the resignation of Anouk van Dijk. They will be joined by Freya Waterson who will be responsible for the company’s national and international touring program.

Antony Hamilton, Kristy Ayre and Freya Waterson. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

I look forward to seeing how the companies develop in 2019.

  • Padma Menon

In Canberra it is interesting news that Padma Menon has decided to take up teaching once more. She says: ‘After almost a decade, I am offering classical Indian dance classes again! The classes will focus on teaching choreography and the technique of Indian dance. However, I always like to highlight the emotional heart of Indian theatre, and how these ancient traditions can be meaningful to us in our lives today. These classes are for adult beginners looking for a contemporary approach to an ancient tradition.’ Contact Moving Archetypes for more information: Moving Archetypes <info@movingarchetypes.com.au>

  • December reading

While relaxing over Christmas I had the luxury of reading a few books, including two dance books. Eileen. Stories from the Phillip Street Courtyard, newly published, is a kind of memoir in which Eileen Kramer, former Bodenwieser dancer, recalls her life in Sydney in the 1930s. To be frank, it is not a well edited publication, but the glimpse it gives of Sydney is interesting and Kramer’s illustrations, done in the style of naïve art, are a delight.

Douglas Wright’s ghost dance is a book that has been sitting, unread, on my bookshelf for a long time. Wright’s death earlier this year was my cue to get on with reading it. In his author’s note he writes: ‘ghost dance is not a conventional autobiography with a linear progression through life, but a faithful record of the journeys I felt compelled to make into my own past and that of a close friend.’ What an eye-opener some of those journeys were! And I must say I learnt a lot about New York, where Wright lived while a dancer with Paul Taylor—things from the 1980s about which I had absolutely no inkling. But what was incredibly striking was his beautiful, often startling use of language. It almost outdid the creativity of his choreography.

The rest of my reading concerned Indonesia … and Dances of Bali by Kartika D. Suardana awaits.

Michelle Potter, 31 December 2019

Kailin Yong and Anca Frankenhaeuser in MIST. Photo: Art Atelier Photography

2018—Australian Dance Year in Retrospect

In Canberra

Below is a slightly expanded version of my year-ender for The Canberra Times published as ‘State of dance impressive and varied’ on 24 December 2018. I should add that The Canberra Times‘ arts writers/reviewers are asked to choose five productions only for their year-ender story.

Looking back at 2018 I find, thankfully, that I don’t have to complain too much about the state of dance in the ACT. In 2018, in addition to work from a variety of local companies and project-based groups, dance audiences in Canberra were treated to visits from the Australian Ballet, the Australian Ballet School, Australian Dance Theatre, Bangarra Dance Theatre, the Farm and Sydney Dance Company. Most performances were in traditional venues, but one or two were site specific (notably Australian Dance Party’s production of Energeia performed at the Mount Majura Solar Farm) and, in addition, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery of Australia offered their venues for dance performances. Beyond performance, it was exceptional news that Rafael Bonachela, artistic director of Sydney Dance Company, had agreed to become a patron of QL2 Dance, Canberra’s youth organisation. In a casual conversation with me he mentioned that he had always been impressed with those ex-QL2 dancers who had gone on to perform with Sydney Dance Company and also that he regretted that he had not had a strong mentor himself during his early training. Both thoughts fed into his decision to take on the role of patron.

I have arranged my top five events chronologically according to the month in which they were performed.

RED. Liz Lea Productions

In March Liz Lea presented RED, a work that won her a Canberra Critics’ Circle Award later in the year. It was a powerful, courageous, autobiographical work that touched on Lea’s struggle throughout her career with endometriosis. But beyond that it was distinguished by outstanding choreography from four creators, all of whom highlighted Lea’s particular strengths as a dancer. In addition to Lea herself, choreographic input came from Vicki van Hout, Virginia Ferris and Martin del Amo. There was also stunning lighting by Karen Norris; a range of film clips that added context throughout; and strong dramaturgy by Brian Lucas, which gave coherence and clarity to the overall concept. It was a highly theatrical show, which also presented a very human, very moving message.

The Beginning of Nature. Australian Dance Theatre

In June Australian Dance Theatre returned to the national capital after an absence of more than a decade. The Beginning of Nature, choreographed by artistic director Garry Stewart, focused on the varied rhythms of nature. It was compelling and engrossing to watch. The dancers seemed to defy gravity at times and their extreme physicality was breathtaking. But the work was also an outstanding example of collaboration between Stewart, his dancers, an indigenous consultant familiar with the almost-extinct Kaurna language of the Adelaide Hills, and composer Brendan Woithe, who created a remarkable score played live onstage by a string quartet.

Cockfight. The Farm

The Farm, featuring performers Gavin Webber and Joshua Thomson, arrived In September with Cockfight. Set in an office situation, and dealing with interpersonal relations within that environment, Cockfight was an exceptional example of physical theatre. Both Webber and Thomson gave riveting performances and the work presented a wide range of ideas and concepts, some filled with psychological drama, others overflowing with humour. It was totally absorbing from beginning to end.

Gavin Webber and Joshua Thomson in Cockfight. Photo:

Gavin Webber and Joshua Thomson in Cockfight. Photo: © Darcy Grant

World Superstars of Ballet Gala. Bravissimo Productions

This Canberra-only event early in October showcased a range of outstanding dancers from across the world in a program of solos and duets, mostly from well-known works from the international ballet repertoire. It belongs in the list of my dance picks for 2018 on the one hand because the artists showed us some spectacular dancing. But it also belongs here because Bravissimo Productions (a newly established Canberra-based production company) had the courage to take on the task of defying convention and certain ingrained ideas about Canberra, including the perceived notion that Canberra equals Parliament and the Public Service and little else, and the constant complaints about performing spaces in the city. Bravissimo brought superstars of the ballet world not to Sydney or Melbourne or Brisbane, but to Canberra. The international stars that came were not the worn-out, about-to-retire dancers we so often see here from Russian ballet companies, but stars of today. I hope Bravissimo Productions can keep it up. Canberra is waiting.

MIST. Anca Frankenhaeuser and Kailin Yong

MIST was the standout performance of the year for me. It was one item in Canberra Dance Theatre’s 40th anniversary production Happiness is…, which took the stage in mid October. As a whole, Happiness is… was somewhat uneven in the quality of its choreography and performance, but MIST, listed as a duet in the form of a pas de deux between a dancer and a musician, was simply sensational. And it really was a pas de deux with violinist Kailin Yong moving around the stage, and even lying down at times as he played and improvised, and with dancer Anca Frankenhaeuser involving herself with his playing in a way that I have never seen anywhere before. With choreography by Stephanie Burridge, an ex-Canberran now living in Singapore, it also carried an underlying theme about relationships between people. It was an exceptional concept from Burridge, beautifully realised by Frankenhaeuser and Yong.

I hope we can keep moving forward in Canberra in 2019 with dance that is inclusive and collaborative, and also theatrically and intellectually satisfying. A varied program of dance in 2018 showed us the possibilities.

Beyond Canberra

I had the good fortune to see quite a lot of dance outside of Canberra including in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane as well as outside of Australia in London and, briefly, in Wellington, New Zealand. Leaving London and Wellington aside since I am focusing on dance seen in Australia, the standout show for me was the La Scala production of Don Quixote, staged in Brisbane as part of Queensland’s outstanding initiative, its International Series. Apart from some seriously beautiful dancing, especially from the corps de ballet who seemed to understand perfectly how to move in unison (even in counterpoint) and how to be aware of fellow dancers, I loved that extreme pantomime was left out. As I wrote in my review it was a treat to see a Don Quixote who actually presented himself as a quixotic person rather than a panto character.

I was also intrigued by Greg Horsman’s new take on La Bayadère for Queensland Ballet. Horsman set his version in India during the British occupation. The story was cleverly reimagined and beautifully redesigned by Gary Harris, yet it managed to retain the essence of the narrative and, in fact, the story was quite gripping as it sped along.

But for me the standout production/performance from outside Canberra was Alice Topp’s Aurum for the Australian Ballet and performed in their Verve season in Melbourne. It was filled with emotion from beginning to end, sometimes overwhelmingly so. In one section it had the audience so involved that all we could do was shout and cheer with excitement. Choreographically it was quite startling, moving as it did from surging, swooping movement to a final peaceful, but stunningly realised resolution. A real show-stopper.

May we have more great dance in 2019!

Michelle Potter, 31 December 2018

Featured image: Kailin Yong and Anca Frankenhaeuser in MIST. Photo: © Art Atelier Photography

Kailin Yong and Anca Frankenhaeuser in MIST. Photo: Art Atelier Photography

Merry Christmas 2018

Selamat Hari Natal from the Island of the Gods where, at Christmas time, cultures meet and everything is possible. And where every day dance is part of life.

 

Michelle Potter, 25 December 2018

Featured image: Balinese Barong (detail) as he appears in the Kris Dance. Other images from a Nusa Dua hotel. All images by Michelle Potter.

Bangarra Dance Theatre in a scene from Corroboree of 2001. Dubboo 2018. Photo Daniel Boud

Dubboo. Life of a songman. Bangarra Dance Theatre and guests

7 December 2018. Carriageworks, Sydney

Dubboo. Life of a songman was a tribute to David Page, master musician and esteemed elder of the extended Page family, who died in 2016. Dubboo was his nickname (or one of them) and the theatrical tribute showed us much about the diversity of his life and the process by which his music came into being. It was an emotional evening of music, dance, reminiscences. projected imagery and film clips. Having said that, sadly I have to admit that unexpected circumstances meant that I was only able to stay for Act I, Dubboo: Songman. I missed Act 2: Dubboo: Showman. Looking at the Act 2 media images, clearly I missed the tribute to the extravagant side of David Page’s life—his life as an actor, as a female impersonator and a ‘drag persona’ as Alana Valentine puts it in her program tribute.

Bangarra Dance Theatre in part 2 of Dubboo

Bangarra Dance Theatre in Act 2 of Dubboo. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Nevertheless, there was so much to admire in Act 1. It was wonderful to see dance excerpts from some of the many works for which Page created the music. It was wonderful, too, to hear his music adapted for string quartet, and to hear spoken and sung excerpts, tributes and stories from people like Archie Roach, Djakapurra Munyarryun, Ursula Yovich and Hunter Page-Lochard, not to mention seeing film clips of Page himself explaining some of the processes he engaged in while composing.

Djakapurra Munyarryun and Ursula Yovich. Duboo, 2018. Photo Daniel Boud

(l-r) Archie Roach (seated), Djakapurra Munyarryun and Ursula Yovich, with string quartet in the background. Dubboo, 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

From a dance perspective, I was moved especially by ‘Lust’ from Brolga of 2001. Its sexy choreography was stunningly danced by Waangenga Blanco and Tara Robertson, who wrapped themselves around each other with an intensity that made two bodies appear as one. A second standout was ‘Brother’ from Skin/Spear of 2000 acted and danced by the remarkable Beau Dean Riley Smith. And then there was the lightness and lyricism of Tara Gower in ‘Feather’ from Bush of 2003. But every danced excerpt was performed with power, grace and dedication.

Tara Gower in 'Feather' from 'Bush' 2003. Dubboo 2018. Photo Jhuny-Boy Borja

Tara Gower in ‘Feather’ from Bush 2003. Dubboo 2018. Photo: © Jhuny-Boy Borja

Bangarra Dance Theatre and its guests in this tribute did David Page proud and I was honoured to be there, even if only for part of it all.

Michelle Potter, 11 December 2018

Featured image: Bangarra Dance Theatre in a scene from Corroboree of 2001. Dubboo 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Bangarra Dance Theatre in a scene from Corroboree of 2001. Dubboo 2018. Photo Daniel Boud

Elma Kris and Daniel Riley in 'Spear'. Photo Tiffany Parker

Dance diary. November 2018

  • The changing face of Bangarra Dance Theatre

Bangarra Dance Theatre has just announced that the company is saying farewell at the end of the year to six of its dancers: Waangenga Blanco, Daniel Riley, Tara Robertson, Kaine Sultan-Babij, Luke Currie-Richardson and Yolanda Lowatta. Each has made an amazing contribution to Bangarra over recent years. Who can forget Daniel Riley’s remarkable performances in the film Spear, and his equally powerful dancing and acting as Governor Macquarie in Jasmine Sheppard’s Macq? Then it’s hard to forget, again in Spear, Kaine Sultan Babij as ‘Androgynous Man’ stalking through long grass and between trees? And there is a myriad of performances from Waangenga Blanco that stand out. As well as his role in Patyegarang, there is the ‘Angel’ duet, danced with Leonard Mickelo, in Riley, and his powerful performance in Frances Rings’ Terrain. So much more …

I wish them all well for wherever their dancing takes them and look forward to seeing them before they leave in Dubboo, opening shortly in Sydney. And of course there is the thrill of seeing new dancers in 2019.

Waangenga Blanco in 'Patyegarang', Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2014. Photo: Greg Barrett

Waangenga Blanco in Patyegarang, Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2014. Photo: © Greg Barrett

  • Robert Helpmann. The many faces of a theatrical dynamo

A new book of essays on Robert Helpmann has recently been published. It contains essays from a range of scholars and performers and is supplemented by a DVD of archival footage, including a documentary on the revival of Miracle in the Gorbals in 2014 by Birmingham Royal Ballet

My chapter, ‘Elektra. Helpmann uninhibited’ considers the origins of Helpmann’s ballet Elektra, Helpmann’s choreographic approach, and the differences, particularly in relation to Arthur Boyd’s designs, between the English production of Elektra in 1963 and that presented by the Australian Ballet at the Adelaide Festival in 1966.

Robert Helpmann book cover

Edited by Richard Cave and Anna Meadmore. Published in the United Kingdom by Dance Books in October 2018.
ISBN 9781852731793

Available from Dance Books Ltd and other retailers.

 

  • Canberra Critics’ Circle Awards, 2018 (Dance)

Canberra Critics’ Circle, now almost 30 years old, held its annual awards in November. This years dance awards went to:

Liz Lea: For the multi-media production RED, which drew together the work of four choreographers, including Lea, in a moving, courageous and dramatically coherent exploration of the medical condition of endometriosis.
My review of RED is at this link.

Alison Plevey and the Australian Dance Party: For Seamless, an innovative, well-considered and theatrically staged comment on the fashion industry, performed with wit and skill at the 2017 Floriade Fringe.
My review of Seamless is at this link.

Seamless, Floriade Fringe 2017. Australian Dance Party. Photo: Lorna Sim

Scene from Seamless, Floriade Fringe 2017. Australian Dance Party. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Emma Nikolic and Karen Brock: For their innovative choreography for the Canberra Philharmonic Society’s production of Strictly Ballroom. Their inventive interpretations of a number of traditional ballroom dance styles allowed the large ensemble of dancers to convince as champion ballroom dance contestants.

Michelle Heine: For her choreography for Free Rain Theatre Company’s production of 42nd Street. Her choreography for the spectacular production numbers successfully captured the authentic Broadway feel of the musical and was exceptionally well danced by the ensemble.

  • James Batchelor

Canberra dance goers will be interested to learn that James Batchelor will be back working in Canberra in 2019. He will be showing his latest work, Hyperspace, at a time and a Canberra venue to be announced. Hyperspace was made in 2018 during residencies in Nottingham, England, and Bassano del Grappa, Italy, and was recently performed in the B.motion festival in Bassano and at La Briqueterie Paris. It will also be part of the Dance Massive 2019 line up in Melbourne.

Batchelor is also looking forward to creating a new full-length work for Quantum Leap. It will premiere as QL2’s major work for the full ensemble at the Playhouse in August.

  • NGA Play. Sally Smart

The National Gallery of Australia has just installed a new children’s play area that highlights aspects of the Gallery’s extensive collection of costumes from the era of the Ballet Russes. It is designed by Melbourne-based artist Sally Smart, one of whose interests is in the juxtaposition of the art of the Ballets Russes with contemporary ideas of assemblage, cut-out items and patchwork-style lengths of fabric.

Dance features in a series of projections of dancer Brooke Stamp improvising in homage to and inspired by the dances of the Ballets Russes era (with a nod to Javanese dance). Stamp performed live (a one-off performance) at the opening of the play area early in November.

Brooke Stamp improvises for 'NGA Play. Sally Smart', 2018

Brooke Stamp improvising at the opening of the National Gallery of Australia’s children’s installation. Photo: Michelle Potter

  • Press for November 2018

’Rudolf Nureyev.’ Program article for La Scala Ballet’s Australian season, 2018. This article contains two very interesting, casual photos of Nureyev (one with Fonteyn), which I have not come across before.

‘Movement and message fail to link.’ Review of Australian Dance party’s Energeia. The Canberra Times, 22 November 2018, p. 20. Online version

 

Michelle Potter, 30 November 2018

Featured image: Elma Kris and Daniel Riley in Spear. Photo: © Tiffany Parker

Elma Kris and Daniel Riley in 'Spear'. Photo Tiffany Parker