Firestarter. The story of Bangarra

Firestarter, documenting the origins and rise of Bangarra Dance Theatre, is filled with emotion—from joy to sadness and everything in between. But leaving the emotions to one side for the moment, I was utterly transfixed by two political moments that were part of the unfolding story. The first was footage of former Prime Minister Paul Keating giving his famous ‘Redfern Speech’ in 1992. In that speech Keating gave his assessment of Aboriginal history as it unfolded following the arrival in Australia of the British in the 18th century. ‘We committed the murders,’ he said. ‘We took the lands.’ ‘We brought the diseases.’ ‘We took the children.’ The second was by another former Prime Minister, John Howard, explaining in 1998 why, in his opinion, there was no need to issue an apology to the Indigenous population of Australia for wrongs committed to those people. Such disparate points of view. How sad is that and how can that be?

As mind-blowing as it was seeing those two political moments unfold, however, Firestarter was certainly more than politics. It traced the story of three brothers, Stephen, David and Russell Page from their childhood in Brisbane to their training at what became the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association, NAISDA; their roles in the establishment and ongoing development of Bangarra; and the frightening end to the lives of David and Russell. Along the way we met others involved in the complex story—Carole Johnson, founder of NAISDA and Bangarra; Frances Rings, currently associate artistic director of Bangarra; cultural consultants Djakapurra Munyarryun and Elma Kris; several current and past dancers of Bangarra; Wesley Enoch, artistic director across a range of theatrical organisations; Hetti Perkins, daughter of Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins; Hunter Page Lochard, son of Stephen Page; Rhimi Page, son of Russell Page; and others. All had unique stories and points of view.

There was of course some great dancing from Bangarra performances over the 30+ years of its existence, and there was some gorgeous footage of a young David (as Little Davey Page) singing on early television shows such as Countdown and the Paul Hogan Show, along with scenes from his theatre shows. Then there was compelling footage from the Indigenous component of the opening ceremony for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. But perhaps most moving of all were scenes from Bennelong, Bangarra’s ground breaking work from 2017, which was described in the film as Stephen Page’s most successful work to date, and which he made as he worked at recovering from the death of his brother David in 2016.

Beau Dean Riley Smith in Bennelong.' Bnagarra Dance Theatre, 2017. Photo: Daniel Boud
Beau Dean Riley Smith in Bennelong. Bangarra Dance. Theatre, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Also associated with the death of David Page was footage from the presentation to Stephen of the prestigious J. C. Williamson Award at the Helpmann Awards event in 2016. The acceptance speech Stephen made (supported by his son Hunter standing beside him) so soon after the death of David was gut wrenching to watch and hear.

But on a more joyous note, perhaps my favourite part of the whole film was watching Stephen, the proud grandfather, holding his baby granddaughter, daughter of Hunter and his wife. Life continues. Life triumphs. Bangarra, such an exceptional company, moves forward.

This beautiful and challenging film was directed by Wayne Blair and Nel Minchin and produced by Ivan O’Mahoney.

Michelle Potter, 2 March 2021

Dancers of the Ballet du grand Théâtre de Genève in Francesco Ventriglia's Transit Umbra, 2010. Photo: © Vincent Lepresle

Dance diary. February 2021

  • Sydney Choreographic Centre

To establish a new choreographic venture, the Sydney Choreographic Centre, Francesco Ventriglia, formerly artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet, has returned to the southern hemisphere after leaving New Zealand ‘to pursue opportunities overseas’. The Centre, co-founded by Neil Christopher as its general manager, is located in the Sydney suburb of Alexandria and will open in March with an intensive program for emerging choreographers and the opportunity to take class with the resident dancers of the Centre: Ariella Casu, Victor Zarallo, Holly Doyle, Brittany-jayde Duwner and Alex Borg.

The Centre’s first production, Grimm, with choreography by Ventriglia, will open in April at the Lennox Theatre, Riverside Theatres Parramatta. ‘Expect the unexpected in this very modern version of old stories,’ we are told.

For more on the Centre and its programs, and on the new ballet Grimm, visit the Centre’s website.

In 2014 I had the pleasure of interviewing Ventriglia in Wellington for Dance Tabs. Follow this link to retrieve the DanceTabs article.

  • Oral history news

After an hiatus of very close to 12 months, I was finally able to get back to recording oral history interviews. Given the problems associated with dance in the media, oral history is one very significant way in which careers of those in the dance world can be documented for posterity. Early in February I interviewed Ruth Osborne, artistic director of Canberra’s youth dance organisation, QL2. The interview focused largely on Ruth’s connections with the choreography of Gertrud Bodenwieser and those who carried on her legacy in Australia, in particular Margaret Chapple and Keith Bain. The interview is yet to be fully processed but when that process is completed it will be available online through the National Library’s catalogue.

Ruth Osborne, 2016. Photo: © Lorna Sim
Ruth Osborne, 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

A little later in the month I recorded Part 1 of what is potentially a two part interview with fashion designer Linda Jackson. Her colleague, the remarkable Jenny Kee, is lined up for April.

  • Tanya Pearson, OAM (1937-2021)

The much admired Sydney-based teacher Tanya Pearson died in February. See an obituary for her in Dance Australia at this link, and watch a lovely 30 minute tribute, filmed in 2012.

  • Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. More reviews and comments

Another review, this time from Lee Christofis, appeared in the March issue of Limelight Magazine. It is a rather special review as Christofis knows something of the backstory behind the National Library’s Papers of Kristian Fredrikson, as his opening paragraph reveals. The online version is locked to non-subscribers but see this link for a taster. The full review is also available in the print edition for March.

Michelle Potter, 28 February 2021

Featured image: Dancers of the Ballet du grand Théâtre de Genève in Francesco Ventriglia’s Transit Umbra, 2010. Photo: © Vincent Lepresle

Emily Seymour, Jacopo Grabar, and Rhys Kosakowski in 'Impermanence'. Sydney Dance Company and the Australian String Quartet, 2021. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Impermanence. Sydney Dance Company

17 February 2021. Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay

A year ago Sydney Dance Company was just days away from its first program for 2020, which was to include a new work, Impermanence, by Rafael Bonachela as part of a mixed bill program. But the pandemic struck and the program was cancelled. Impermanence was being created to a score co-commissioned by Sydney Dance Company and the Australian String Quartet from Bryce Dessner, an American composer based in Paris. The work was initially inspired by the fire that almost destroyed Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in 2019, and by the Australian bush fires that began in late 2019. After the program was cancelled Bonachela and Dessner decided to continue their collaboration and develop the work into a full length one. This is the show that opened on 17 February 2021.

Dancers of Sydney Dance company with the Australian String Quartet in 'Impermanence', 2021. Photo: © Pedro Greig
Dancers of Sydney Dance Company with the Australian String Quartet in Impermanence, 2021. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Publicity tells us that the work is about transience and fragility, but Dessner’s powerful, driving score, played onstage by the Australian String Quartet seated in an upstage corner, felt to me more like determination to overcome. Similarly, for the most part Bonachela’s choreography was fast-paced, dramatic and powerful and with Damien Cooper’s moody lighting design, with constantly changing colour effects strongly apparent, I found it hard to see the impermanence of it all.

But this is not to say that the work was not engaging. It was. I love watching Bonachela’s amazing ability to show us the unexpected in movement. I love those moments when he has the whole company onstage when we can see unison. Sometimes he has the entire company dancing as one, at other times two groups show us two separate, but still compelling instances of choreographic unison. And having live music played onstage is always something to look forward to, and something on which Bonachela seems to thrive.

As ever, all the dancers performed with their usual and incredible technical skills. But two stood out for me. I couldn’t stop looking at Emily Seymour whose strong balletic background was so clear. Her turns were spectacular and were, although in contemporary mode, perfectly placed and finished. Her truly beautiful rounded arms and smooth line through the body were just breathtaking. Then Jesse Scales looked as though they were so thrilled to be back on stage. Even when standing at the side of stage waiting for their next move their body glowed with pleasure. And Scales used every part of their body to give shape and meaning to the choreography.

Jesse Scales (above), Luke Hayward and Liam Green in Impermanence. Sydney Dance Company, 2021. Photo: © Pedro Greig

The Roslyn Packer Theatre had its COVID plan in place for Impermanence. We checked in with our phones and QR code, there was no mingling in the foyer, we were distanced (slightly) from other audience members, and we were masked-up for the entire show. But what a thrill it was to be back in a live environment watching the kind of spectacular performance we have come to expect from Sydney Dance Company. Jesse Scales said it all with their exceptionally detailed movement and their obvious pleasure in performing for an audience again.

Michelle Potter, 22 February 2021

Featured image: Emily Seymour, Jacopo Grabar, and Rhys Kosakowski in Impermanence. Sydney Dance Company and the Australian String Quartet, 2021. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Emily Seymour, Jacopo Grabar, and Rhys Kosakowski in 'Impermanence'. Sydney Dance Company and the Australian String Quartet, 2021. Photo: © Pedro Greig

NOTE: The personal pronouns used in this review are those given for use by Sydney Dance Company.

Gala d’ouverture. Paris Opera Ballet. Digital Season 2021

Paris Opera Ballet’s 2021 opening gala began with Le grand défilé, a defining item for the Paris company in which simply attired dancers from across the ranks of the ballet company, along with students from the Paris Opera Ballet School, proudly present the company and school to an audience. I have discussed the origins of the grand défilé in an earlier post (see this link). But on this occasion all the dancers wore masks; the beautiful Palais Garnier was completely empty of an audience; and the dancers made their reverences without applause of any kind. It was a shock to begin with, but ultimately it was such an incredible statement on how events have shaped our lives over the past year. I am sure the footage of this unusual and remarkable défilé will speak forcefully to future generations.

The défilé was followed by Victor Gsovsky’s Grand Pas classique danced by étoiles Valentine Colasante and Hugo Marchand, both wearing elegant, sparkling, deep blue costumes designed by La Maison Chanel. This grand pas followed the Petipa structure of pas de deux, variations and coda, which we know so well. But it was especially interesting to see it because Gsovsky’s choreography was uniquely his own with beautiful balances in a range of positions for Colasante and magnificent combinations of beats for Marchand. There was also a strong emotional connection between Colasante and Marchand, even when they took their applause-less curtain calls.

Following the Grand Pas classique there was an inspired performance of Jerome Robbins’ In the Night, with its three pas de deux exploring three different kinds of male/female relationships. In the first, danced by Ludmila Pagliero and Mathieu Ganio, we saw a couple in the early stages of a relationship. So much of their young love was expressed with Robbins’ choreography for the arms. They touched, reached, enveloped, moved in unison, always lyrical. But there were of course some gorgeous lifts and individual moments of expressive dancing.

The second section of In the Night, with Léonore Baulac and Germain Louvel, showed a couple secure in their love for each other, confident in how they acted together, proud even of their relationship. Baulac was especially impressive with her poised upper body and beautifully placed arms. Anthony Dowell’s brown/gold costumes added a special glow to this section.

Alice Renavand and Stéphane Bullion danced the third section, in which the movement was less lyrical and more strident. Here was a couple about to break up, although did they end up separating? More than once they parted, then returned to be together onstage. Arguments and reconciliations? Their relationship was tempestuous and that feature was shown well in the choreography and in the performance of it.

We met them all again in the finale when they acknowledged each other, sometimes performed the same steps, but eventually left separately. But for me the mystery of the third couple remained. Great work from Renavand and Bullion to maintain the mystery of this relationship.

Hannah O’Neill in William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. Paris Opera Ballet, 2021. Photo: © Julien Benhamou/OnP

Completing the program was William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude danced by three étoiles, Amandine Albison, Ludmila Pagliero, and Marque, and two premiers danseurs, Hannah O’Neill and Pablo Legasa. It was just plain exciting to see this work again with its fast-paced choreography that focuses on bringing every part of the body into play, and with its fascinating, ever-changing groupings of just five dancers. And what a thrill it was to see O’Neill so at home in the company and dancing so incredibly well.

I loved the selection of short works that followed Le grand Défilé. It showed such a beautiful range of balletic choreography, from the classicism of Gsovky’s work, to the lyricism and emotional underpinnings of Robbins’ approach, and on to the contemporary exploration of classicism by Forsythe. Congratulations to POB’s director, Aurélie Dupont, for her foresight and of course congratulations to the stunning POB dancers who presented the program so magnificently and to the orchestra, especially the solo pianists for In the Night, for their musical support.

Michelle Potter, 11 February 2021

Featured image: Valentine Colasante and Hugo Marchand in Victor Gsovsky’s Grand Pas classique. Paris Opera Ballet, 2021. Photo: © Julien Benhamou/OnP

Dance diary. January 2021

  • Garry Stewart to leave Australian Dance Theatre

I have to admit to being slightly taken aback when I heard that Garry Stewart would relinquish his directorship of Australian Dance Theatre at the end of 2021. He leaves behind an incredible legacy I think. My first recollection of his choreography goes back to the time in the 1990s when he was running a company called Thwack! I recall in particular a production called Plastic Space, which was shown at the 1999 Melbourne Festival. It examined our preoccupation with aliens and I wrote in The Canberra Times, ‘[Stewart’s] dance-making is risky, physically daring and draws on a variety of sources….’ I also wrote program notes for that Melbourne Festival and remarked on three preoccupations I saw in his work. They were physical virtuosity, thematic abstraction and technology as a choreographic tool. Most of Stewart’s work that I have seen with ADT has continued to embody those concepts.

Although since the 1990s I have seen fewer Stewart works than I would have liked, the three that have engaged me most of all have been G (2008), Monument (2013), which I regret was never seen outside Canberra, and The Beginning of Nature (2018), which won the 2018 Australian Dance Award for Outstanding Performance by a Company.

At this stage I don’t know where life will lead Garry Stewart after 2021 but I wish him every success. His contribution to dance in Australia has been exceptional.

  • Marguerite and Armand. The Royal Ballet Digital Season

The last time I saw Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand, made in 1963 for Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, was in 2018. Then I had the good fortune to see Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli leading a strong Royal Ballet cast. It was in fact the standout performance on a triple bill. I also remember seeing a remarkable performance by Sylvia Guillem as Marguerite when the Royal visited Australia in 2002, although I was not so impressed with her partners. (I saw two performances with different dancers taking the male role on each of those occasions).

Zenaida Yanowsky and Roberto Bolle in Marguerite and Armand. The Royal Ballet, 2017. From the Royal Ballet website

The streamed performance offered by the Royal Ballet recently featured Zenaida Yanowsky and Roberto Bolle. It was filmed in 2017 and was Yanowsky’s farewell performance with the Royal Ballet. She is a strong technician and a wonderful actor and her performance was exceptional in both those areas. Yet, I was somewhat disappointed. Bolle was perhaps not her ideal partner. Yanowsky is quite tall and seemed at times to overpower Bolle. But in addition I found her take on the role a little cold. She was extraordinarily elegant but I missed a certain emotional, perhaps even guileless quality that I saw in Ferri and Guillem.

  • La Fille mal gardée. The Royal Ballet

The Royal Ballet is once more streaming a performance of Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée, this time featuring Steven McRae and Natalia Osipova in the leading roles. But, as I was investigating the streaming conditions and watching the trailer, I came across a twelve minute mini-documentary about the ballet, focusing especially on its English qualities. It is a really entertaining and informative twelves minutes and includes footage of the beautifully groomed white pony, called Peregrine, who has a role in the ballet. We see him entering the Royal Opera House via the stage door and climbing the stairs to the stage area. Isn’t there a adage that says never share the stage with children or animals? Well Peregrine steals the show in this documentary! But there are many other moments of informative and lively discussion about the ballet and the documentary is worth watching. Link below.

  • The Australian Ballet on the International Stage. Lisa Tomasetti’s new book

Lisa Tomasetti is a photographer whose work I have admired for some time. She has a great eye for catching an unusual perspective on whatever she photographs. Late in 2020 she issued a book of photographs of the Australian Ballet on various of its international tours, including visits to London, New York (and elsewhere in the United States), Beijing, Tokyo and Paris. This book of exceptional images is available from Tomasetti’s website at this link.

  • Coming in April: The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Ballet

The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Ballet has been a long-time in production but it will be released in April. The book is extensive in scope with a wide list of contributors including scholars, critics and choreographers from across the world. Here is a link to information about the publication. The list of contents, extracted from the link, is at the end of this post.

  • Sir Robert Cohan (1925-2021)

I was sorry to hear that Sir Robert Cohan had died recently. He made a huge impact on contemporary dance and its development in the United Kingdom, and his influence on many Australian dancers and choreographers, including Sydney-based artists Patrick Harding-Irmer and Anca Frankenhaeuser, was exceptional. An obituary in The Guardian, written by Jane Pritchard, is at this link.

  • Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. More reviews and comments

The Canberra Times recently published a review of Kristian Fredrikson. Designer in its Saturday supplement, Panorama. The review was written by Emeritus Professor of Art History at the Australian National University, Sasha Grishin. Here is the review as it appeared in the print run of the paper on 16 January 2021.

The review is also available online at this link and is perhaps easier to read there.

Michelle Potter, 31 January 2021

Featured Image: Garry Stewart. Photo: © Meaghan Coles (www.nowandthenphotography.com.au)

Photos by www.facebook.com/meaghancoles.nowandthenphotography

CONTENTS FOR THE OXFORD HANDBOOK OF CONTEMPORARY BALLET

Acknowledgments
About the Contributors
Introduction
On Contemporaneity in Ballet: Exchanges, Connections, and Directions in Form
Kathrina Farrugia-Kriel and Jill Nunes Jensen
Part I: Pioneers, or Game Changers
Chapter 1: William Forsythe: Stuttgart, Frankfurt, and the Forsythescape
Ann Nugent
Chapter 2: Hans van Manen: Between Austerity and Expression Anna Seidl
Chapter 3: Twyla Tharp’s Classical Impulse
Kyle Bukhari
Chapter 4: Ballet at the Margins: Karole Armitage and Bronislava Nijinska
Molly Faulkner and Julia Gleich
Chapter 5: Maguy Marin’s Social and Aesthetic Critique
Mara Mandradjieff
Chapter 6: Fusion and Renewal in the Works of Jiří Kylián
Katja Vaghi
Chapter 7: Wayne McGregor: Thwarting Expectation at The Royal Ballet
Jo Butterworth and Wayne McGregor
Part II: Reimaginings
Chapter 8: Feminist Practices in Ballet: Katy Pyle and Ballez
Gretchen Alterowitz
Chapter 9: Contemporary Repetitions: Rhetorical Potential and The Nutcracker
Michelle LaVigne
Chapter 10: Mauro Bigonzetti: Reimagining Les Noces (1923)
Kathrina Farrugia-Kriel
Chapter 11: New Narratives from Old Texts: Contemporary Ballet in Australia
Michelle Potter
Chapter 12: Cathy Marston: Writing Ballets for Literary Dance(r)s
Deborah Kate Norris
Chapter 13: Jean-Christophe Maillot: Ballet, Untamed
Laura Cappelle
Chapter 14: Ballet Gone Wrong: Michael Clark’s Classical Deviations
Arabella Stanger
Part III: It’s Time
Chapter 15: Dance Theatre of Harlem: Radical Black Female Bodies in Ballet
Tanya Wideman-Davis
Chapter 16: Huff! Puff! And Blow the House Down: Contemporary Ballet in South Africa
Gerard M. Samuel
Chapter 17: The Cuban Diaspora: Stories of Defection, Brain Drain and Brain Gain
Lester Tomé
Chapter 18: Balancing Reconciliation at The Royal Winnipeg Ballet
Bridget Cauthery and Shawn Newman
Chapter 19: Ballet Austin: So You Think You Can Choreograph
Caroline Sutton Clark
Chapter 20: Gender Progress and Interpretation in Ballet Duets
Jennifer Fisher
Chapter 21: John Cranko’s Stuttgart Ballet: A Legacy
E. Hollister Mathis-Masury
Chapter 22: “Ballet” Is a Dirty Word: Where Is Ballet in São Paulo?
Henrique Rochelle
Part IV: Composition
Chapter 23: William Forsythe: Creating Ballet Anew
Susan Leigh Foster
Chapter 24: Amy Seiwert: Okay, Go! Improvising the Future of Ballet
Ann Murphy
Chapter 25: Costume
Caroline O’Brien
Chapter 26: Shapeshifters and Colombe’s Folds: Collective Affinities of Issey Miyake and William Forsythe
Tamara Tomić-Vajagić
Chapter 27: On Physicality and Narrative: Crystal Pite’s Flight Pattern (2017)
Lucía Piquero Álvarez
Chapter 28: Living in Counterpoint
Norah Zuniga Shaw
Chapter 29: Alexei Ratmansky’s Abstract-Narrative Ballet
Anne Searcy
Chapter 30: Talking Shop: Interviews with Justin Peck, Benjamin Millepied, and Troy Schumacher
Roslyn Sulcas
Part V: Exchanges Inform
Chapter 31: Royal Ballet Flanders under Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
Lise Uytterhoeven
Chapter 32: Akram Khan and English National Ballet
Graham Watts
Chapter 33: The Race of Contemporary Ballet: Interpellations of Africanist Aesthetics
Thomas F. DeFrantz
Chapter 34: Copy Rites
Rachana Vajjhala
Chapter 35: Transmitting Passione: Emio Greco and the Ballet National de Marseille
Sarah Pini and John Sutton
Chapter 36: Narratives of Progress and Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal
Melissa Templeton
Chapter 37: Mark Morris: Clarity, a Dash of Magic, and No Phony Baloney
Gia Kourlas
Part VI: The More Things Change . . .
Chapter 38: Ratmansky: From Petipa to Now
Apollinaire Scherr
Chapter 39: James Kudelka: Love, Sex, and Death
Amy Bowring and Tanya Evidente
Chapter 40: Liam Scarlett: “Classicist’s Eye . . . Innovator’s Urge”
Susan Cooper
Chapter 41: Performing the Past in the Present: Uncovering the Foundations of Chinese Contemporary Ballet
Rowan McLelland
Chapter 42: Between Two Worlds: Christopher Wheeldon and The Royal Ballet
Zoë Anderson
Chapter 43: Christopher Wheeldon: An Englishman in New York
Rachel Straus
Chapter 44: The Disappearance of Poetry and the Very, Very Good Idea
Freya Vass
Chapter 45: Justin Peck: Everywhere We Go (2014), a Ballet Epic for Our Time
Mindy Aloff
Part VII: In Process
Chapter 46: Weaving Apollo: Women’s Authorship and Neoclassical Ballet
Emily Coates
Chapter 47: What Is a Rehearsal in Ballet?
Janice Ross
Chapter 48: Gods, Angels, and Björk: David Dawson, Arthur Pita, and Contemporary Ballet
Jennie Scholick
Chapter 49: Alonzo King LINES Ballet: Voicing Dance
Jill Nunes Jensen
Chapter 50: Inside Enemy
Thomas McManus
Chapter 51: On “Contemporaneity” in Ballet and Contemporary Dance: Jeux in 1913 and 2016
Hanna Järvinen
Chapter 52: Reclaiming the Studio: Observing the Choreographic Processes of Cathy Marston and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa
Carrie Gaiser Casey
Chapter 53: Contemporary Partnerships
Russell Janzen
Index