Joy Womack: The White Swan

A film by Dina Burlis and Sergey Gavrilov. Release date (digital format): 19 July 2021 by 101 Films (London).
(Available on various digital platforms soon. See this link)

Canberra dance audiences may well remember Joy Womack, who performed briefly in Canberra in 2018 for Bravissimo Productions. That one-off program featured dancers from across the globe—Womack was one of them. She was enticed to Canberra by the directors of the National Capital Ballet School and for Bravissimo Productions she danced Vasily Vainonen’s Moskovsky Waltz, partnered by Italian artist Francesco Daniele Costa. It was a simply stunning performance.

At the time of her Canberra appearance, Womack was a principal dancer with Universal Ballet in Korea, but prior to her Korean career she studied and performed in Russia, initially with the Bolshoi Ballet and then with Kremlin Ballet Theatre. Her Russian career is featured in a new documentary: Joy Womack: The White Swan.

Womack was born in California and brought up in California and Texas and the film begins with family snapshots of the Womack family. But it quickly progresses to Moscow where Womack was accepted as a student at the ballet school attached to the Bolshoi Ballet and then, after graduation, into the Bolshoi Ballet. Womack’s overwhelming desire to dance with the Bolshoi is explored and in many respects the film is a psychological portrait of a determined dancer. Womack talks openly about her thoughts, her dreams, and the mental challenges she constantly faced.

But perhaps the most confronting aspect of the film is the way it explores the many difficulties Womack faced as she negotiated living in Russia. Many of those difficulties are strongly dance-related and concern, for example, the shape of the body that the Russian teachers and directors believed was necessary for progress through the school and company; the apparent hierarchical system within ballet companies; and the management of a dancer’s injuries. There were many moments when I was shocked to tell the truth, perhaps none more than when I watched as Womack stood in a canteen and asked for ‘a salmon sandwich without the bread’ and proceeded to eat from a plate on which was spread just a few slices of smoked salmon.

Other issues were more overtly political and included attitudes to women, and the perception of an American way of life as made manifest in day to day living and in attitudes to performance. Particularly compelling remarks were made by Nikita, the Russian dancer Womack married in Moscow and by his mother, an incredibly glamorous, impeccably dressed and adorned lady. But especially powerful was Womack’s resignation from the Bolshoi Ballet and the reasons for it. (No spoiler given on this matter!).

After leaving the Bolshoi, Womack worked for several years with Kremlin Ballet Theatre and, while the Bolshoi experience was her ‘dream of a lifetime’ experience, her time with Kremlin seems to have been much more rewarding. She was strongly supported by her teacher/coach/mentor, Janna, and admired by the company’s director.

Joy Womack with coach Janna. Kremlin Ballet Theatre. Still from Joy Womack. The White Swan

It was in the Kremlin company that Womack was given what she had longed for at the Bolshoi—principal roles in the classics, Nutcracker, Giselle and Swan Lake. Womack regarded the leading role in Swan Lake as the ultimate experience for a ballet dancer and, when she eventually got to perform it, her rendition of the White Swan in Act II moved the director of the company to congratulate her, saying she was the best White Swan he had seen. Towards the end of the film we see brief footage of Womack dancing in these principal roles, including (too briefly) as the White Swan.

Joy Womack as the White Swan, Swan Lake Act II. Kremlin Ballet Theatre. Still from Joy Womack. The White Swan

Joy Womack: The White Swan is a film that is both confronting and challenging but also deeply moving at times. There are some beautiful shots of Moscow scattered throughout and I loved the backstage scenes especially those featuring those lovely Russian ladies working in the costume department.

Ladies of the wardrobe. Still from Joy Womack. The White Swan

The film ends with the Kremlin period. But after that Womack went on to take up a contract with Universal Ballet in Seoul. She then danced briefly with Boston Ballet. She divorced her first husband and is at the time of writing engaged to an American man. I also read that she is seeking joint Russian/American citizenship and currently works with Astrakhan Opera and Ballet Theatre in southwestern Russia. I will long remember her Canberra performance so it was a real pleasure to watch this documentary!

Michelle Potter, 17 July 2021

Featured image: Joy Womack in Moscow. Still from Joy Womack. The White Swan.

Balanchine and Robbins. The Royal Ballet Live, 2021


A recent streamed production by the Royal Ballet paid homage to George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, two American choreographers whose work over the course of the twentieth century was undeniably momentous. The stream began with George Balanchine’s Apollo, Balanchine’s first collaboration with Igor Stravinsky, which had its premiere in 1928.

This production of Apollo opened with the birth of the god Apollo, a section of the work not often presented, although it has been part of the structure of the work from its beginnings. Apollo’s mother, Leto, danced on this occasion by Annette Buvoli, is seen in labour and when we get our first glimpse of Apollo he is standing centre stage wrapped tightly in swaddling clothes. Two hand maidens begin to unwind the swaddling cloth until Apollo takes over and swirls out of the cloth. He is given a lute and the handmaidens help him pluck the strings, which at this stage of his life are unfamiliar to him. It has been a while since I saw this ‘birth and growth’ section and it is fascinating to see these stages in the life of Apollo condensed into a minute or so.

From these opening moments the ballet takes the form that is more familiar. Encounters begin between Apollo and the three muses, Polyhymnia (Mime), Calliope (Poetry) and Terpsichore (Music and Dance) who dance for and with Apollo until he eventually ascends Mt Olympus, called home by his father Zeus.

Fumi Kaneko (Polyhymnia), Claire Calvert (Calliope), Melissa Hamilton (Terpsichore) and Matthew Ball in Apollo. The Royal Ballet, 2021. Photo: © Rachel Hollings

This Royal Ballet performance, however, was perhaps not the best Apollo I have seen. Somehow it lacked excitement especially from Matthew Ball as Apollo. I have always thought of Apollo as a somewhat flamboyant and influential character and Ball seemed to me to be rather too retiring (perhaps nervous?), despite his excellent technical accomplishments. For me, the most engaging performance came from Fumi Kaneko as Polyhymnia. She entered fully and easily into the dramatic nature of the character, and her role in the unfolding story was easy to follow.

But Balanchine’s choreography for Apollo is always a joy to watch with its beautiful groupings and poses and its use of rounded and enfolding arms that prefigure the fluidity of Balanchine’s later choreography for his corps de ballet in various of his works. Other sections, including those movements from the Muses where they turn on pointe but with bent knees, always make me think of how challenging Apollo must have been for audiences (and dancers?) in 1928.

The absolute highlight for me on this program, however, was the second item, Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky pas de deux, danced by Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov. It was ballet at its finest in terms of crowd appeal and Nuñez and Muntagirov have the strength of technique to make those show-stopping movements look easy. It was also totally transfixing to watch the joy they exhibited as they moved, and the way they engaged with each other throughout (even in the curtain calls). They were just brilliant.

The program ended with Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a gathering. I watched the Royal Ballet’s production of this work in October 2020 and reviewed it then so won’t review again other than to mention the beautiful performance by Fumi Kaneko as the Green Girl. Kaneko, who was promoted to Royal Ballet principal last month, danced with such joy and such apparent ease that it was impossible not to be moved and thrilled, as I have been every time I have seen her dance.

Michelle Potter, 03 July 2021

Featured image (shown below in full): Vadim Muntagirov and Marianela Nuñez in Tchaikovsky pas de deux. The Royal Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Rachel Hollings

Dance diary. June 2021

  • Queensland Ballet’s Joel Woellner promoted to principal

It was a thrill to hear that Queensland Ballet’s Joel Woellner has been promoted to principal artist. I have long admired Woellner’s dancing and especially remember his performance as the Widow Simone in Queensland Ballet’s production of Marc Ribaud’s La Fille mal gardée. After watching that show in 2017, I wrote:

Joel Woellner as the Widow was totally outrageous. He was the slapstick hero(ine) and milked the audience at every opportunity. And of course the audience loved it and responded with laughter and cheers.

I look forward to seeing him in other leading roles at some stage soon (perhaps princely roles as I didn’t see him as the Prince in the recent Sleeping Beauty). In the meantime, in the image below he is on the left as Paris in Romeo and Juliet in 2019.

Steven Heathcote (centre) as Lord Capulet with Joel Woellner (left) as Paris and Vito Bernasconi (right) as Tybalt in 'Romeo and Juliet'. Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly
Steven Heathcote (centre) as Lord Capulet with Joel Woellner (left) as Paris and Vito Bernasconi (right) as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet. Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly

  • Adroit. Clever or skilful in using the hands. Houston Ballet

Stanton Welch continues to make work that keeps in mind that we are still in the middle of a pandemic. That work includes short films and, in an interview with Houstonia Magazine earlier this month, Welch remarked:

Film is a unique experience. It’s also extraordinarily disjointed. Usually, you run something for an hour, half an hour. This you run something for 12 seconds, 35 seconds. And then you shut down the entire shoot, you move, and relight. And you add Covid problems to all of that.

I especially admired a recent short film shot in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston called Adroit. Clever or skilful in using the hands. The dancers were indeed adroit and their Mozartian costumes were quite beautiful. But what was particularly pleasing was the way Welch used the space of the Gallery. His dancers did not just dance in the space but through it and it was constantly surprising to be confronted by new art as the dancers moved through doorways and around corners. Adroit made me want to visit Houston.

Adroit also reminded me of Life is a work of art, Liz Lea’s production for Canberra’s GOLD company and performed in the National Gallery of Australia. It was never filmed (as far as I know) but some scenes used the space of the Gallery as beautifully as did Welch and his team in Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts. In particular with Life is a work of art, I recall a section called ‘A gentle spirit’, which was somewhat different from Adroit in that we, the audience, moved through the space rather than watch the dancer do so. But the emotional attractiveness was similar.

  • Patrick McIntyre, the National Film and Sound Archive’s new chief executive officer.

The National Film and Sound Archive has announced the appointment of a new chief executive officer, Patrick McIntyre. Although McIntyre is moving on from Sydney Theatre Company, where he was executive director for 11 years, I remember him in particular for his role with the Australian Ballet where he was associate executive director (perhaps associate general manager in those days?) for several years. That was a time when I had quite strong connections with the Australian Ballet (thank you Maina Gielgud and Ian McRae) and so also spoke to McIntyre at various times.

Patrick McIntyre. Photo: Sydney Theatre Company and Nic Walker

Given his connections with dance in Australia (he also worked for a while with Sydney Dance Company), perhaps we can hope that he will take a particular interest in the exceptional dance material that is housed in the NFSA? That material includes footage from productions by the Bodenwieser Ballet; Ballet Rambert; the Australian Ballet; Sydney Dance Company (under Graeme Murphy); Australian Dance Theatre (especially under Jonathan Taylor and Leigh Warren); Danceworks (under Nanette Hassall); Queensland Ballet (especially works from the time of directors Charles Lisner and Harry Haythorne); extraordinary Ballet Russes material filmed by Dr Joseph Ringland Anderson and Dr Ewan Murray-Will; dance documentaries including examples of the work of outstanding film directors Don Featherstone and Michelle Mahrer, and even three documentaries that I had a hand in putting together in association with Sally Jackson; filmed interviews with choreographers, dancers and directors; filmed news items; and much more. There is unlimited scope for a research project to produce an exhaustive list of the Archive’s dance material for potential use by future researchers.

In the meantime the appointment of McIntyre, whose experience with cultural organisations is wide, seems an excellent one.

Michelle Potter, 30 June 2021

Featured image: Portrait of Joel Woellner, Queensland Ballet 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

Glory Tuohy-Daniell, Rika Hamaguchi and Lillian Banks in SandSong. Bangarra_Dance Theatre 2021. Photo © Daniel Boud

SandSong. Bangarra Dance Theatre

11 June 2021, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

SandSong. Stories from the Great Sandy Desert begins with some black and white footage that is instantly confrontational. Moving sharply from one event to another, and accompanied by an exceptionally loud sound score, it shows some of the atrocities endured by the Indigenous inhabitants of the Kimberley region over an extended period of time. In fact, the work as a whole focuses on the Kimberley area of Western Australia. Program notes tell us that SandSong is ‘a journey into ancient story systems framed against the backdrop of ever-changing government policy and of the survival of people determined to hold strong to their Culture.’

The opening footage sets the scene for what unfolds over the course of the performance and a timeline in the printed program expands on what the footage illustrates.

But SandSong had quite a different feel from most of the recent Bangarra productions I have seen. There were strong anthropological references in the early sections. In Act I, the Cold Dry Season, gender divisions in traditional society were made clear in a range of ways. We saw women’s business and activities in the form of specific dances, such as a bush onion dance showing the gathering and preparation of this food. We also watched preparations for a totem ceremony in which the men only were involved. As such the choreography was gender specific with the women performing quite simplistic movements at times, as opposed to the men for whom the choreography had more variety, more energy. Often the choreography for the men seemed to border on anger or to look inflammatory, while that for the women seem reserved and calm.

This gender division continued in Act 2, the Hot Dry Season, but changed somewhat as the story continued through the four sections. Particularly dramatic was Act 3 when the community entered a phase of working outside their traditional culture. The opening section, ‘Auction’ was especially powerful. Were the Kimberley people really being auctioned off for jobs on cattle stations and the like? A feeling of devastation crossed the footlights. Act 4 saw a kind of resolution, however, as healing and resilience began to emerge and by the end, as Rika Hamaguchi made her way around the stage, the anger and humiliation subsided as the dancers expressed their ties to kin and community.

Rika Hamaguchi in the final scene from SandSong. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2021. Photo © Daniel Boud

Of the dancers, Beau Dean Riley Smith stood out throughout the show, as he has done for the past several years. While he did not play a specific character as he did, for example, in Macq and Bennelong, his ‘maleness’ in the early sections was brilliant. It was clear in every movement and every part of his body, including neck and head as well as limbs. I also admired the work of Baden Hitchcock with his fluid and very expressive movement, and of Rika Hamaguchi who had a beautiful serenity at times. But Bangarra is full of new faces. We have much to anticipate I think.

Baden Hitchcock in SandSong. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2021. Photo © Daniel Boud

Once again Jennifer Irwin’s costumes were simply outstanding, especially in the feathery detail that seemed an essential part of many items, but also in the contemporary feel that her costumes developed towards the end.

Bangarra Dance Theatre in SandSong. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2021. Photo © Daniel Boud

Jacob Nash’s backcloth was quite simple and shimmered under the lighting of Nick Schlieper. Steve Francis concocted the score from a range of sources including voice and words along with recordings from previous Bangarra shows.

I came away from SandSong with mixed reactions. It is perhaps a show that needs more than a single viewing for the complexities, not so much of the story, but of the choreographic expression of those stories to become clearer.

Michelle Potter, 14 June 2021

Featured image: Glory Tuohy-Daniell, Rika Hamaguchi and Lillian Banks in SandSong. Bangarra Dance Theatre 2021. Photo © Daniel Boud

Glory Tuohy-Daniell, Rika Hamaguchi and Lillian Banks in SandSong. Bangarra_Dance Theatre 2021. Photo © Daniel Boud

Daniel Riley. Australian Dance Theatre’s incoming artistic director

The dance world is agog with the news that Daniel Riley is to take over the directorship of Australia’s longest standing contemporary dance company, Australian Dance Theatre, when Garry Stewart retires from the role at the end of 2021. Riley traces his bloodline to the Wiradjuri clan of Western New South Wales, particularly around Wellington and Dubbo. As such he is the first Indigenous director of Australian Dance Theatre (ADT).

But, as Riley told a Dubbo-based journalist in 2014, he did not grow up ‘on country’ but in Canberra. He went to Telopea Park High School and Canberra College and he began dance classes with Jacqui Hallahan at the then Canberra Dance Development Centre.

A fact barely mentioned in the stories that have so far surrounded Riley’s appointment is that he is in fact an alumnus of QL2 Dance, Canberra’s youth dance organisation—a place were the nurturing of future dance artists is of prime importance. One of QL2’s current patrons is the artistic director of Sydney Dance Company, Rafael Bonachela, and he recognised QL2’s impact on dance in Australia when, following his acceptance of the role of patron, he said:

I have worked with many artists that have passed through [QL2’s] doors and commend them all on their professionalism, technique and creativity. The training and performance platform that QL2 offer[s] to youth dancers and emerging artists in Australia is of the highest standard.

Riley joined QL2 in 1999. It happened as the result of a suggestion from Elizabeth Dalman, artistic director of ADT from 1965-1975, and her colleague Vivienne Rogis, both of whom had worked on a project with Riley’s father in the 1990s. In 1999 QL2 had just started up and Riley performed in the very early productions, Rough Cuts and On the Shoulders of Giants. He then danced in every QL2 project from 1999 to 2003 before taking up a degree course at QUT in 2004. While undertaking his degree he returned whenever possible to Canberra and worked as a choreographer for various QL2 projects, which he has continued to do throughout his professional career to date.

Daniel Riley rehearsing QL2 dancers for the Hit the Floor Together program, 2013.

His commissioned work Where we gather, made in 2013 for the QL2 program Hit the Floor Together, explored the idea of young people from Indigenous and non-Indigenous backgrounds working together. In performance it showed Riley’s exceptional use of organic and rhythmic movement patterns, and his remarkable feel for shape, line, and the space of the stage. It was remounted in 2018 as part of QL2’s 20th anniversary, Two Zero.

Most recently Riley was back at QL2 in January 2021 on a residency where he continued work on an independent project still in the planning stage.

Daniel Riley during a QL2 residency, Gorman Arts Centre, Canberra, 2021. Photo: © Lorna Sim

But of course his work as a professional dancer and choreographer with Bangarra Dance Theatre, which he joined 2007 after graduating from QUT, as well as his his work with Leigh Warren and Dancers, Sydney Dance Company, Chunky Move, and companies overseas, including Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Fabulous Beast (now Teac Damsa), have opened up new horizons.

I have strong memories of the first work he choreographed for Bangarra in 2010. Called Riley, it was a celebration of the photography of a cousin, Michael Riley. What was especially impressive was the way in which Riley’s choreography looked quite abstract and yet also managed to link back to the photographs, which were projected during the work. Then, I cannot forget the strength of his performance as Governor Macquarie in Jasmin Sheppard’s Macq, and also his role as Governor Philip in Stephen Page’s Bennelong, both productions for Bangarra.

Beau Dean Riley Smith and Daniel Riley in a scene from 'Macq'. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2016
Daniel Riley (on the table) as Governor Macquarie with Beau Dean Riley Smith in Macq. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2016. Photo: © Greg Barrett

I also was interested in Reign, a work he made for Sydney Dance Company’s New Breed season in 2015.

The four New Breed 2015 choreographers . Photo: Peter Greig
Daniel Riley (front right) with Fiona Jopp, Kristina Chan, and Bernhard Knauer in a media image for Sydney Dance Company’s New Breed, 2015. Photo: © Peter Greig

Reign examined the idea of women in power and the forces that often end their reign. Choreographically it seemed to have strong Indigenous overtones. It began with Janessa Dufty covering her limbs with sand from a pile in a downstage corner of the performing space. It recalled an early section of Bangarra’s production of Ochres when a dancer uses yellow ochre in a similar fashion. Much of the movement, which was organic in look and usually quite grounded, also seemed Bangarra-inspired. And yet the theme seemed quite Western to me and I struggled to reconcile the movement with the theme. Later I began to wonder whether it mattered what vocabulary was used for what theme and was impressed and moved by the strength and very clear structure of the work.

So what will Riley bring to Australian Dance Theatre? Looking at the way he has worked over the years with QL2, he will bring I am sure the same integrity and respect for his colleagues that has brought him back over and over again to the organisation that developed his skills, gave him an understanding of a collaborative manner of working, and that realised that a future in dance lay before him. Thinking of the way he dances, always inhabiting a role with strength and understanding, I suspect he will be an excellent coach for the dancers in the company. And considering, on the one hand, the themes he has chosen for his choreographed works, which so often examine the diverse social and cultural roles of the people around him, and, on the other hand, the way his choreographed works have all been so clearly and strongly structured, I feel he will bring a huge strength of purpose to ADT.

But no one could put it better than Elizabeth Dalman, founding artistic director of ADT. She has said:

He is a wonderful performer, a talented choreographer and already has a great vision for the company. ADT has a long tradition as a revolutionary company pushing boundaries and presenting innovative and exciting works. Daniel plans to champion diversity and develop the company’s cross- and inter-cultural potentials. From the very beginning we set out to be a company exploring our Australian identity, our Australian artistic expression and cultural diversity, so I feel this is a strong continuation of the original aims of the company.

Michelle Potter, 10 June 2021

Featured image: Promotional image for Australian Dance Theatre’s appointment of Daniel Riley as artistic director.

The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet (2021)

4 June 2021. Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

I last saw Greg Horsman’s production of The Sleeping Beauty for Queensland Ballet (originally made for Royal New Zealand Ballet) back in 2015. Then I made a flying, unanticipated trip to Brisbane because I needed to see a different version from the one created by David McAllister for the Australian Ballet. I disliked the McAllister production, which was not about Aurora to my eyes, and in which everything was overpowered by the design elements. I came away from that initial Brisbane experience much more satisfied that Aurora had a role in the ballet, and that the collaborative elements worked with each other to create a whole without one element dominating all.

Having all that out of my system, this time I was able to concentrate on other aspects of the production. Horsman has reimagined certain parts of the storyline and, while this is now a relatively commonplace procedure, it has to be done really well and with a sound reason for changing things. The main issue for me was making Carabosse too much like the other fairies. She wore the same style tutu as the others (except it was black and had transparent sleeves). But sometimes she danced together with the other fairies and somehow, despite representing the spirit of evil, she seemed to recede into the background as a major player in the narrative. The role was performed quite nicely, technically speaking, by Georgia Swan but I wanted a Carabosse who stood apart, strongly, from the others. It just didn’t happen.

Carabosse (centre) and the Fairies in The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet, 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

The leading roles of Aurora and the Prince were danced by Neneka Yoshida and Victor Estévez. Yoshida danced pretty much faultlessly but didn’t seem to be as involved in her role as I have seen from her on previous occasions. On the other hand, Estévez was not only a strong performer in a technical sense (his entrance at the beginning of the second act—the Prince’s hunting party—was spectacular and drew applause), but he had the carriage and demeanour of a prince at every moment.

Neneka Yoshida and Victor Estévez in The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

Lucy Green and Kohei Iwamato were the Bluebirds for this performance. While Green and Iwamoto performed beautifully in terms of technique—and all those beats, including the series of brisés volés, need strong techniques—I was disappointed (and I often am). The story behind the Bluebird section is that he is teaching her how to fly and that she is listening to him. This backstory rarely comes across and it didn’t on this opening night. It was a shame about Iwamato’s costume, too. It had a very high neckline that practically removed his neck from sight.

Lucy Green and Kohei Iwamato as the Bluebirds in The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

The highlight of the evening for me was the Prince’s hunting party scene. Estévez I have mentioned. His friends, danced by David Power and Joel Woellner, and Gallifron the Prince’s tutor, a role taken by Vito Bernasconi, brought light and shade, some amusement, and good dancing and acting to the scene.

Choreographically Horsman has kept much of what we think of as the original movements, especially in the various pas de deux and solos. But where he has made choreographic changes there is little excitement. Much is predictable. Lots of arabesques. Lots of retiré relevé type movements.

So, all in all I found the production and the performance somewhat disappointing. In fact I began to wonder about remakes of well-known classics. While there will always be changes of one sort or another to any ballet, it takes an exceptional choreographer to do a remake. Those who succeed usually bring a completely new work to the stage. Liam Scarlett did it with his Midsummer Night’s Dream. Graeme Murphy has done it on several occasions. I thought Horsman did it (almost) with his Bayadère, despite the fact that there were certain issues associated in some minds with current thoughts re political correctness.

But this Sleeping Beauty was not a remake, just the same story with a few elements added, a few removed, and some changes to the way the story unfolded. It made me long for someone to do something completely new, or to revive an old fashioned production! Seeing it in 2015 was just a relief after the McAllister production. In 2021 perhaps my reservations were a result of having watched the Royal Ballet’s recent streaming of its hugely engaging presentation of the Ninette de Valois Beauty of 1946?

Michelle Potter, 7 June 2021

Featured image: Serena Green, Laura Tosar, Chiara Gonzalez and Mia Heathcote as the Fairies in The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet, 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

Lucette Aldous, AC (1938-2021)

One of Australia’s best known and most admired ballerinas, Lucette Aldous, has died in Perth at the age of 82.

New Zealand-born, Lucette Aldous trained in Brisbane with Phyllis Danaher and then in Sydney at the Scully-Borovansky School where her main teacher was Kathleen Danetree. She was awarded the Frances Scully Scholarship to continue her training overseas and entered the Royal Ballet School in London in 1955.

In 1957 she began her professional career with Ballet Rambert where she danced not only the classics like Giselle and Coppélia and but also early works by Antony Tudor, Frederick Ashton, Walter Gore, John Cranko and Kenneth MacMillan. Her time with Rambert also included a 1957 tour to China.

Following her time with Rambert she danced with London Festival Ballet and then with the Royal Ballet (second company). It was while working with the Royal Ballet that she first performed with Rudolf Nureyev, partnering him in Nutcracker during a European tour.

Her partnership with Nureyev blossomed after she returned to Australia in 1970. She joined the Australian Ballet that year and danced the role of Kitri to Nureyev’s Basilio in Don Quixote, jointly directed by Nureyev and Robert Helpmann. The role of Kitri particularly suited Aldous’ vivacious and effervescent personality. She also performed with extraordinary technical accomplishment both on stage and in the film version, which premiered in 1973, when she truly gave Nureyev a ‘run for his money’ —no easy feat. Over her career she did, however, dance the role with others.

Lucette Aldous and Robert Helpmann in rehearsal for the film, 'Don Quixote', the Australian Ballet 1972. Photo: Don Edwards
Lucette Aldous and Robert Helpmann in rehearsal for the film production of Don Quixote. The Australian Ballet 1972. Photo: Don Edwards. National Library of Australia

Aldous danced a wide variety of roles while with the Australian Ballet and another milestone in her career occurred in 1975 when Ronald Hynd created the role of Valencienne on her in his production of The Merry Widow. During the 1970s Aldous continued to guest with companies in England, America and Europe and had a featured role with Fernando Bujones in the film The Turning Point.

Kelvin Coe and Lucette Aldous in Frederick Ashton’s The Two Pigeons. The Australian Ballet, 1975. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

After retiring from full-time performing in the mid 1970s Aldous taught at the Australian Ballet School and then in 1982 joined the faculty of the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), Edith Cowan University, Perth. She and husband Alan Alder, whom Aldous had married in 1972, also spent a number of months in St Petersburg studying the teaching methods and philosophy behind the Vaganova system of training as espoused by the Kirov ballet school. Aldous has also been an advocate of Boris Kniaseff’s floor barre as a system of training.

After retiring from full-time work at WAAPA, Aldous continued to live in Perth and to coach, adjudicate and teach.

In 1999 Aldous received an honorary doctorate from Edith Cowan University while at the Australian Dance Awards she received the award for Services to Dance in 2001 and Lifetime Achievement in 2009. In the Australia Day Honours List of 2018 she was made a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC).

Lucette Aldous is survived by her daughter, Floeur Alder.

Lucette Aldous: born Auckland, New Zealand, 26 September 1938; died Perth, Australia, 5 June 2021

Michelle Potter, 6 June 2021

Some resources:
Lucette Aldous was interviewed for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program in 1999. The interview is available online and is full of information about her background as well as containing many fascinating anecdotes about those she worked with during her extensive career. Listen at this link.

Aldous has also featured in a 2001 film by Michelle Mahrer, The Three Ballerinas. She appears along with Marilyn Rowe and Marilyn Jones in the trailer below.

She also appears in Sue Healey’s On View Series. Read a little about it at this link.

Lucette Aldous in a sitll from Sue Healey's short film 'Lucette Aldous'.
Lucette Aldous in stills from Sue Healey’s short film Lucette Aldous

Featured image: Portrait of Lucette Aldous as Kitri in Don Quixote. The Australian Ballet, 1970. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

Dance diary. May 2021

As I write this month’s dance diary, Australia is in the middle of National Reconciliation Week and today is a public holiday in the ACT. National Reconciliation Week is a reflective time to explore shared histories, cultures, and achievements, and to examine ways in which reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians might be achieved. It seems appropriate then to begin this month’s dance diary with news from two Indigenous dance companies, Bangarra Dance Theatre and Marrugeku.

  • Bangarra’s new program for children

Bangarra Dance Theatre has announced a new initiative, a work for children called Waru—journey of the small turtle. Conceived and created by Stephen Page and Hunter Page-Lochard, along with former Bangarra dancers and choreographers Sani Townson and Elma Kris, it tells the story of Migi the turtle who navigates her way back to the island where she was born. Waru is for children aged between three and seven years old and will have its official premiere performance later in 2021. A preview season is due to take place in Bangarra’s newly renovated home at Walsh Bay, from 7-10 July. More about the official premiere as it comes to hand.

  • A new work from Marrugeku

In another initiative, the Broome-based company Marrugeku, which is also company in residence at Sydney’s Carriageworks, will present Jurrungu Ngan-ga (Straight Talk) at Carriageworks between 4 and 7 August 2021. This work, based on a concept by Dalisa Pigram and Rachael Swain with input from Patrick Dodson, reflects on life inside Australian immigration and detention centres. More information from Carriageworks.

Emmanuel James Brown in Jurrungu Ngan-ga. Marrugeku, 2021. Photo: © Abby Murray

  • Another award for David McAllister

Like so many recently scheduled arts events, the annual Helpmann Awards were cancelled this year. Nevertheless, early in May 2021 the organising committee awarded two Industry Achievement Awards for 2020. These awards recognise an individual who has made an exceptional contribution to the Australian live performance industry and one went to recently retired artistic director of the Australian Ballet, David McAllister. It added to his Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award, which he received in April.

David McAllister, 2019. Photo: © Georges Antoni

  • Carla Fracci (1936-2021)

Famed Italian ballerina Carla Fracci has died in Milan aged 84. Fracci’s illustrious career included guest performances in Australia in 1976 when she danced Giselle to Kelvin Coe’s Albrecht. An obituary is at this link.

  • Kristian Fredrikson. Designer

After a year since publication, reviews of the Kristian Fredrikson book have pretty much come to an end. I can’t resist sharing, however, the images below.

On the left is the book taking ‘pride of place’ in the new, yet to be completed home office of a distinguished professor of art and design. On the right is the display at the Dowse Art Museum, Lower Hutt, New Zealand.

  • Press for May 2021

‘New narratives from old texts: contemporary ballet in Australia’ in The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Ballet. Edited by Jill Nunes Jensen and Kathrina Farrugia-Kriel (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021) pp. 179-194.

My copy of the Oxford Handbook finally arrived and it is certainly a handsome publication. Apart from the impressive scope of the articles, it is well edited and shows exceptional respect for those involved in its production. All the photographers are acknowledged by name in the ‘Acknowledgments’ section, for example. That kind of acknowledgment doesn’t happen very often

A list of the chapters in this 982 page tome is at the very end of Dance diary. January 2021.

Michelle Potter, 31 May 2021

Featured image: Design image for Waru—journey of the small turtle.
Design: © Jacob Nash, 2021

New York City Ballet 2021 Spring Gala. On film

New York City Ballet’s most recent offering in its series ‘From our home to yours’ was a film directed by Sofia Coppola based on a concept by Coppola and Justin Peck. It consisted of excerpts from two works by George Balanchine, Duo Concertant and Liebeslieder Walzer; an excerpt from Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering; a new work, Solo, choreographed by Peck; and the finale from Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15. What stood out for me in this beautifully danced production, however, was the structure of the film.

The first four excerpts were filmed in black and white, which at first seemed somewhat strange. Why dispense with colour when presenting an art form where costuming, and the colours used throughout, often matter? Only the final section, the Balanchine Divertimento, was filmed in colour.

Then there were the locations to consider. The first excerpt, that from Dances at a Gathering, was performed by Gonzalo Garcia and took place in a studio space. The second, a duet from Duo Concertant performed by Ashley Bouder and Russell Janzen, was set in a backstage area in the David H. Koch Theater, home of New York City Ballet. The third, a pas de deux from Liebeslieder Walzer danced by Maria Kowroski and Ask la Cour, was danced in a public space, the theatre’s Grand Promenade where audiences often gather and socialise prior to performances. The fourth, the world premiere of Peck’s Solo performed by Antony Huxley, took place onstage. Finally, colour arrived and a performance of the finale from Divertimento No. 15 took place onstage with dancers in costume. It was performed as a full production (or part thereof since it was the finale only).

In effect, the film’s structure took us from studio to stage, via the various locations in which a performance is developed and takes place. It was a slow and considered progression and represented the solitude, the lack of social interaction, and the problems of various kinds affecting dancers as they slowly worked, throughout the many months of the coronavirus pandemic, towards an eventual return to full performance.

The development was heightened by the black and white footage for the earlier sequences, with the lack of a certain vibrancy that colour brings, which finally gave way to the colour that we know is a feature of a full production. Moreover, the selection of works also was a progression. The solo from Dances at a Gathering is the opening section of that ballet when it is performed in full, while the work that ended the film was the final section of the full Divertimento No. 15.

In many respects, too, there was a degree of introspection or reflection in the earlier works, which stood in opposition to the joyous movement that characterised Divertimento No. 15. Moving from beginning to end in so many ways, it was a beautifully realised and brilliant concept from Coppola and Peck.

Of course there was some spectacular dancing. I admired in particular the performance by Gonzalo Garcia in the Robbins work. His ability to show the classicism as well as references to character steps, which are a highlight of Robbins’ choreography in this case, was exciting to watch. And Maria Kowroski has always been a dancer I have loved to watch and the engagement between her and la Cour was tender, filled with emotion and very moving.

But what a film!

Michelle Potter, 28 May 2021

Featured image: A coloured image of Maria Kowrowski and Ask la Cour in Liebeslieder Waltzen.

REBEL. Then. Now. When? Quantum Leap Ensemble

20 May 2021. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre

The latest offering from the Quantum Leap Ensemble, an intrinsic part of the structure of Canberra’s QL2 Dance, has the title REBEL (short version). For a while I thought of this as a noun—who has not been a rebel at some stage in one’s life? But, as the work unfolded, it was clear that the title was more properly seen as a verb—it is the action that is at the heart of the work, although of course those who carry out the action are nevertheless the rebels.

As the full title suggests, REBEL was in three parts. It began with Then, a look back at the rebellious period of the 1960s and its moving into the 70s. Hippydom was before our eyes in the outrageous fashion, the hugely expressive dance moves, and the pleasure of being oneself.

This section, choreographed by Ruth Osborne and Steve Gow, had the audience clapping and cheering the dancers along, and no doubt dancing along themselves—in spirit.

But there was more to the Hippy era than this freedom to love, dance, and dress as one pleased. Vietnam was a focus of demonstrations, the feminist movement was strong, and it was a period of rebellion in many areas. This aspect was made clear by background footage, often archival and drawn from the era, assembled and projected by Wild Bear Digital.

What followed was mostly angry and confrontational. The second section, Now, was subtitled ‘Problem child’ and was choreographed by Jack Ziesing. It began with a spoken tirade from one of the performers, Toby McKnight, speaking with full-on anger at what was seen as the unacceptable social conditions of the present time.

Ziesing’s choreography worked to explain those conditions. It began with highly organised and geometrically structured movement and groupings but slowly broke into more dramatic scenes that sometimes looked like street dancing and other times as an effort to break free from conventions, or to be included as part of a wider community.

Mark Dyson’s lighting added particular strength to this section, which at times was lit red and, as a result, added a sense of anger to the action. The commissioned score from Adam Ventoura also added to the theme of anger. It was relentless, loud and percussive and brilliantly suited to the action, and vice versa.

As this section concluded, the angry young man reappeared and finished off his tirade of anger. Now slowly morphed into When?, choreographed by Jodie Farrugia. The dancers continued their anger but I missed the point of the women balancing books on their head. It reminded me of the June Dally Watkins 1950s manner of teaching young people good posture and deportment. Was it meant to suggest perhaps that books and greater knowledge hold the key to overcoming problematic issues?

But the continuing anger towards perceived unacceptable conditions was very clear towards the end as protest placards were held up and the performers crowded the stage and glared accusingly out at the audience. Somehow, however, this demanding ending left me cold. Is the future really so hopeless? And the brief return to the joy of life after the curtain calls did little to appease.

For me the opening section was the most successful of the three. It was clearly structured, true to the period, and engaging as well thought provoking. But what struck me about this show in particular (although it probably is a feature of every QL2 show), was the commitment, intensity and strength of contemporary technique these young dancers show as they perform. I loved too the strong production values (again an ongoing feature of QL2 productions).

But surely the world is not all gloom and doom?

Michelle Potter, 22 May 2021

All photos © Lorna Sim. And what a fabulous collaboration there is between Sim and QL2!

Featured image: Final scene from ‘When?’ in REBEL. Photo: © Lorna Sim