Mats Ek + Ana Laguna. Baryshnikov Arts Centre Digital Program

This digital stream from New York’s Baryshnikov Arts Centre gives such a beautiful look at two dancers, Mats Ek now in his seventies, and Ana Laguna a little younger in her sixties. Both have had stellar dance careers and have worked across the world and in varied areas of dance, including artistic direction. In this inspiring program, however, we meet them in their summer home in northern Sweden, where they spent many months, including wintery months, in isolation to escape the pandemic. They each perform a solo, with both solos choreographed by Ek, and they speak throughout the film with dance writer and critic Jann Parry.

Ek’s solo is called Whilst, or Medans in Swedish, and is danced to music, La gondole lugubre II, by Franz Liszt. It is a solo in the sense that Ek is the sole dancer, but it might also be called a duet for Ek and a chair. Ek enters and sits on a chair, which we have seen in the performing space from the opening moment. His movements are quite simple to begin with and express a certain amount of boredom or frustration associated with being isolated. He looks at his wrist where a watch would usually be, he runs his hands along his limbs, he crosses and uncrosses his legs. Then the chair becomes part of the movement until it is eventually pushed aside and we watch a freer style of movement, fluid and covering a little more space, and always strongly and precisely performed. He makes a brief escape through a door into another room, but returns and ends standing by a window looking out, perhaps wistfully, perhaps hopefully.

Laguna’s solo is called My Letter, or Mitt Brev in Swedish, and is performed to sections of a Cello Suite by J. S Bach. It revolves around the receipt of a letter and we see a variety of emotions from Laguna, shown brilliantly on her body through Ek’s choreography There is anxiety, there is excitement, there is surprise and perhaps confusion, and finally there is huge pleasure as Laguna finishes the solo standing at window with light pouring into the room as she reads the letter. I loved her fast movements of arms and feet, so full of excitement, and the beautifully fluid bends of the upper body as the arms lifted skywards.

But there is surprise for us the audience too. The letter is at first a blank piece of paper and Laguna handles the letter in various ways, including stuffing it into her mouth. There is even a moment when we wonder if Laguna is about to slit her throat with the letter opener she has used earlier in the piece. But she doesn’t and when she puts the letter opener back in a drawer words have mysteriously appeared on the previously blank sheet of paper.

What follows is a discussion led by Parry with contributions from Laguna and picked up towards the end by Ek. I am not always a fan of hearing what choreographers say their work is about. It so often resonates of that (now old fashioned) concept of intentional fallacy. But the Parry/Laguna/Ek conversation was illuminating. Ek as choreographer didn’t try to tell us what My Letter was about, and why the writing appeared at the end, other than to say simply ‘The letter is written by her dance.’ So it makes sense that we see the writing only when the dance is completed. And given the growing number of groups of older dancers we now have the pleasure of seeing quite often, the discussion of dancing with an ageing body was also illuminating with talk about ‘accepting the limits of an ageing body’ and ‘choosing what is possible’. What an amazing pair of artists they are.

Mats Ek + Ana Laguna is available to watch online until 14 October 2021 via the Baryshnikov Arts Centre website. It is so well worth watching

(Please note: Image above is not a link)


Michelle Potter, 8 October 2021

Featured image: Ana Laguna performing in My letter. Photo: Baryshnikov Arts Centre.

Whispers down the lane. Chloe Moir

Whispers down the lane is part of Dance.Focus, a film commission project from DanceHub SA in partnership with Ausdance ACT and supported by Ausdance SA and Torbreck Vintners. The project has an aim of challenging, resonating and engaging with screen dance. Not a bad idea given that dance on screen has been so prominent in our minds, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, for well over a year now.

Four choreographers were commissioned to create for the project, two from South Australia and two from the ACT. A finished product from the two ACT choreographers has been delayed as a result of the lockdown situation in Canberra, but the South Australian films, Whispers down the lane from Chloe Moir and (T)here from Cinzia Schincariol are available to watch on the Ausdance ACT website at this link.

While I enjoyed in particular the beautiful landscapes in which (T)here was filmed, it was Whispers down the lane that was, to my mind, the outstanding contribution from a dance point of view. Made on six dancers, it took as a starting point the childhood game of passing on a whisper with the aim of the message remaining unchanged as it passed from one person to the next.

The message or ‘whisper’ in this case is a dance solo lasting about 90 seconds performed by Moir, a dance graduate from the University of South Australia. Although quite short at 90 seconds, Moir’s whisper is relatively complex. It has, for example, changing levels, including some fast turning movements on the floor, and some detailed finger work.

After Moir has delivered her whisper, each dancer enters the performing space (one by one) and re-enacts that whisper. Towards the end we see a film compilation of the six versions of the whisper, and that compilation also includes Moir dancing the original solo. At various stages, each of the six dancers comments on the project, at first how they think it will evolve, and later how they managed the situation.

What was the conclusion? Written on the screen towards the end were the words:

Each repetition inspired new thought, feeling and understanding of the phrase … teaching us that our perspectives and experiences make us different from one another, leaving us to tell a different story.

But it was more than that. What attracted me was the insight it gave to that essential feature of dance—it is made on the human body. While individuality is there always, as the closing words say, does that also mean we can never really replicate what a choreographer sets, especially when restaging a work, and especially if the work is from the past? Whispers down the lane is a beautiful and inspiring film (production Lewis Grant Kennedy) with so many layers to it. An excellent outcome from Dance.Focus.

All photos: Screenshots from the film Whispers Down The Lane by Chloe Moir, a DANCE.FOCUS 2021 commission. Courtesy of Ausdance ACT

Michelle Potter, 5 October 2021

Featured image: Chloe Moir and film title.

Elaine Vallance (1932–2021)

Elaine Vallance, who has died aged 89 in Melbourne, was a much admired member of the Bodenwieser Ballet from 1949 to 1954 before moving to Melbourne in 1955. In Melbourne she opened a dance school, keeping up connections with Dory Stern, Bodenwieser’s music director, and also teaching at schools in Melbourne, including Ivanhoe and Camberwell Girls’ Grammars. She continued to teach for the rest of her life, stopping only shortly before her death.

Vallance began dancing as an eight year old with Gertrud Bodenwieser at her Sydney school and by 1948 had been chosen as a demonstrator for classes. On joining the Bodenwieser Ballet in 1949 she performed with the group in Sydney and toured with them to South Africa and New Zealand in 1950, then across Australia in 1951 as part of the Arts Council’s Jubilee Tour to celebrate the establishment of Federation.

Bodenwieser Ballet on tour in New Zealand, 1950. Papers of Gertrud Bodenwieser (MS 9263), National Library of Australia

When a small group of dancers accompanied Bodenwieser to India in the second half of 1952, Vallance, along with Emmy Taussig, took charge of the Bodenwieser School in Sydney. Then, on Bodenwieser’s return and throughout 1953, Vallance danced with the Bodenwieser Ballet on an extensive tour of regional towns in New South Wales and in a variety of concerts in and around Sydney. The following year, 1954, Vallance performed and toured as one of the Spirits of the Whirlwinds, along with others from the Bodenwieser company, in Beth Dean’s Corroboree, staged in celebration of the visit to Australia by Queen Elizabeth II.

Elaine Vallance (centre front) with, (clockwise from top left), Nina Baron, Moira Claux and Biruta Apens in a study for Gertrud Bodenwieser’s The Blue Danube, Victorian tour 1950. Photographer unknown. Photo courtesy of Barbara Cuckson

During her time with the Bodenwieser Ballet, Vallance appeared in most of Bodenwieser’s major works and many smaller works as well. Her solo, The Moth, from Life of the Insects, became a popular inclusion in Bodenwieser programs and Vallance, in a costume of draped grey chiffon, received constant praise from critics with words such as ‘a vision of beauty and grace’.

Elaine Vallance as ‘The Moth’, c. 1949. Photo courtesy of Barbara Cuckson

Like so many of her Bodenwieser colleagues, Vallance continued to be aware of the impact Gertrud Bodenwieser had on her life and career. Writing to Barbara Cuckson, director of the Rozelle School of Visual Arts, she recalled:

I was intrigued and fascinated by the comprehensive way in which she explored movement. When Bodenwieser had a new movement idea she always explored it to the full.
A movement could be done in different directions, forwards, sideways, backwards; it could be performed on different levels, standing, kneeling, sitting, lying. There were different intensities to try out, flowing, swinging, impulsive, or it could be done with strength, possibly using straight lines or sharp angles. There was the possibility of the movement being performed in opposition or parallel to the rest of the body, and of course carried into space with steps, jumps or turns.
Then came the option of combining any two or three of these aspects, or combining the new movement with another previously explored, and the exploring the various relationships of these two movements.

Vallance often returned to Sydney where she taught master classes and oversaw reconstructions of Bodenwieser works at the Rozelle School of Visual Arts. Her last visit was in 2017 when she worked on a reconstruction of Sunset.

Elaine Vallance is survived by her daughters, Julia and Sue, and their respective families.

Elaine Vallance (Featherstone): born Sydney, 20 January1932; died Melbourne, 3 October 2021

Michelle Potter, 3 October 2021

Featured image (detail): Elaine Vallance in her solo as the Moth from Gertrud Bodenwieser’s Life of the Insects. Photo: Sun Newspapers. Full image below.

NOTE: The death of Elaine Vallance means that there is now only one dancer from those early Bodenwieser days who is still living. It is Eileen Kramer who is approaching her 107th birthday in November.

Dance diary. September 2021

  • San Francisco Dance Film Festival

In September I had the pleasure of acting as moderator for an online discussion of Firestarter. The story of Bangarra. Firestarter will be shown at the San Francisco Dance Film Festival in October. Details at this link. Guests for the session were Frances Rings, associate artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre, and the co-directors of the film, Wayne Blair and Nel Minchin.

Scene from Firestarter. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The Festival program includes some interesting dance material in addition to Firestarter. The full program will be available via Marquee TV, which has just updated its streaming program to Australia (but unfortunately not to New Zealand, due to circumstances beyond the control of SFDFF). Follow this link to see the full San Francisco Dance Film Festival program.

  • Natalia. Force of Nature

I have had the good fortune to see Natalia Osipova on stage on a number of occasions. Pure Dance, a program of six short works shown in Sydney in 2019, and Woolf Works, which I saw in both London and Brisbane, especially stand out. So I was curious to see the DVD, Natalia. Force of Nature, subtitled ‘Portrait of a dance superstar.’ It was released a couple of years ago now, and contains some interesting rehearsal footage and examines Osipova’s interest in, and performance of contemporary dance as well as traditional classical ballet.

Natalia Osipova and David Hallberg in The Leaves are Fading. Pure Dance, Sydney, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

But what was most fascinating to me was the footage we saw of Osipova as a student in Russia. From those early shots of Osipova in class, aged about nine, and through some very early performances as a student, it was very clear that she has what to me is the almost perfect body for classical ballet. The limbs are beautifully long and so well proportioned in relation to the rest of the body; both turnout and flexibility are completely natural; and the spine is so straight, especially through the neck and into the skull. These physical features are so very clear in scenes of a young Osipova in class and I can’t remember ever seeing a body so perfectly attuned to the physical qualities that are intrinsic to the classical mode. When I reviewed her performance in the Tudor pas de deux from The Leaves are Fading (the opening presentation from Pure Dance), I wrote, ‘From Osipova we saw incredibly liquid arm movements, beautiful use of the upper body, and an ability to make every movement look so easy.’ That ease is in large part a result of a body so perfectly suited to classical ballet.

Of course when watching her in performance one is overwhelmed by so many other aspects of her dancing—her emotional input, her dramatic abilities, the way she connects with her partner to bring fluidity to the performance and strength to interpretation, for example. She really is a superstar. But how thrilling it was to see that close to perfect body in class.

  • Mary’s last dance

It was lovely to see that Mary’s Last Dance: The untold story of the wife of Mao’s Last Dancer by Mary Li (Penguin Random House, 2020) has been awarded The Courier-Mail People’s Choice Queensland Book of the Year Award for 2021. The award is given to a Queensland-based author from books entered in the fiction and non-fiction categories and is determined by public vote. Only rarely do books about the arts, dance in particular, make book award lists, let alone turn out as winners. So, congratulations to Mary Li and to the Queensland public for their votes!

  • Betty Pounder
Portrait of Betty Pounder, 1940s (?). National Library of Australia, J. C. Williamson Collection. Photographer not identified
Portrait of Betty Pounder, 1940s (?). National Library of Australia, J. C. Williamson Collection.

Betty Pounder, dancer and choreographer for musical theatre, the Australian Ballet and other outlets, was born just over 100 years ago in August 1921. Designer Kevin Coxhead is planning a book celebrating Pounder’s life (she died in 1990) and career, and the first part of the book has just appeared in the most recent newsletter of Theatre Heritage Australia. The opening image of the chorus line-up from No No Nanette is quite special! Pounder looks outstanding even just standing there. Read the first part at this link. There is at present no indication of when the full book will appear.

Michelle Potter, 30 September 2021

Queensland Ballet in 2022

Queensland Ballet has today announced that artistic director Li Cunxin has renewed his contract for a further three years from 2022. This is excellent news as Li’s directorship has been one of the great success stories of dance in Australia. Queensland Ballet is now an exceptional company with an exciting repertoire and, in addition, the company has expanded its reach beyond Brisbane, and has now also developed a first class training academy at Kelvin Grove State College.

Watching Li take a rehearsal gives a clear picture of his commitment to his role and his unquenchable thirst to achieve only the best. He has a strong team of teaching and administrative staff behind him, a resident choreographer in Natalie Weir, with Jack Lister as associate choreographer, and an outstanding musical director in Nigel Gaynor. It’s a company with everything to offer.

This announcement came at the same time as Queensland Ballet announced its 2022 season. Two programs, The Sleeping Beauty and a double bill of Rooster and B-Sides, will be performed on the Gold Coast where Queensland Ballet has set up a new home. In Brisbane four programs will be performed at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC)—Giselle in April (following a regional tour in March); a triple bill entitled Li’s Choice in June; Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon in September/October; and The Nutcracker in December. The company will also perform at the Thomas Dixon Centre with Peter and the Wolf slated for June/July; Bespoke, the annual program of new choreography, for July; and Queensland Ballet Academy Gala for August. Full details of the season are set out in this link. Information about three performances of Manon featuring Li and Mary Li can also be found there!

Artists of Queensland Ballet in Natalie Weir's 'We who are left', 2016. Photo: David Kelly
Artists of Queensland Ballet in Natalie Weir’s We who are left, 2016. Photo: © David Kelly

If I had to choose just one program to see in 2022 it would be Li’s Choice. Natalie’s Weir’s work We who are left is a moving, beautifully structured and choreographed work first seen in 2016, which I have wanted to see again for a while. It will share the program with Greg Horsman’s Glass Concerto and Kenneth MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations. A decidedly mixed triple bill. Read my review of We who are left at this link.

Yanela Pinera in 'Glass Concerto. Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo: David Kelly
Yanela Piñera in Greg Horsman’s Glass Concerto. Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo: © David Kelly

Let’s hope that in 2022 the Queensland Government will allow those of us who live outside that state (and who have been double-vaccinated and are happy to wear masks and engage in social distancing etc, etc) to enter Queensland to see a show or two.

Michelle Potter, 28 September 2021

Featured image: Portrait of Li Cunxin