Rainbow Serpent. Canberra International Music Festival 2021

9 May 2021, James O. Fairfax Theatre, National Gallery of Australia

Rainbow Serpent was the overarching title given to the penultimate program of the 2021 Canberra International Music Festival. It featured four distinctive works of music and dance. Two focused on the myth of the Rainbow Serpent as understood, on the one hand, by the Murrawarri people whose land straddles the border between New South Wales and Queensland, and, on the other, the people of the Melville and Bathurst Islands north of Darwin.

The most significant of the dance offerings was Mundaguddah, a solo choreographed and danced by Tammi Gissell, a proud Murrawarri woman, to a 1982 score by Brian Howard. Howard’s composition was dedicated to dancer/choreographer/artistic director Barry Moreland and in 1982 was given a performance choreographed by Moreland and danced by prominent ballet dancer Kelvin Coe.* For this 2021 production, the composition was played onstage by Ensemble Offspring, a chamber ensemble of violin, cello, flute, clarinet, trombone and percussion.

Gissell’s appearance as the Rainbow Serpent was sudden and unexpected. She was dressed in white tights and top with a short skirt, which was partially covered by a black coat. From a downstage corner, she slid and writhed onto the narrow stage space of the James O. Fairfax Theatre and, performing in an even narrower space than usual given that the musicians occupied a significant area, her lithe and liquid body twisted and contorted itself to the other side of the stage. Occasionally she would rise up and with shimmering hands draw attention to her upper body.

Tammi Gissell in Rainbow Serpent, 2021. Photo Peter Hislop
Tammi Gissell in Mundaguddah, 2021. Photo: © Peter Hislop

Reaching the other corner, she picked up props representing branches and, wrapping herself in a long piece of cloth lit with various colours, she began what was the most exciting section of the dance. She seemed no longer to be representing the snake but, from a standing position, to be showing us a human reaction to the myth. Removing the black coat (shedding skin?), she stretched her body in all directions and eventually picked up a long stick, which she swirled and wrapped around her before balancing it across her shoulders as the dance concluded.

Removing the black coat/shedding skin in Mundaguddah, 2021. Photo: © Peter Hislop

Gissell has always provided a fascinating view of the subject of her works. Program notes tell us that the word Mundaguddah refers to the spirit of the Rainbow Serpent and Gissell showed us various aspects of that spirit from its serpent-like characteristics to the ways in which that spirit engages the community that honours it.

Tammi Gissell in Mundaguddah, 2021. Photo: © Peter Hislop

The production and performance of Tammi Gissell’s Rainbow Serpent was commissioned and supported by Ausdance ACT and the Canberra International Music Festival.

The other work with a dance component was Ngarukuruwala, a selection of action songs featuring the group Tiwi Strong Women, accompanied by a male performer who played clapsticks and also sang and danced. It was a quite different approach from what we saw from Gissell. Ngarukuruwala was basically a rendition of traditional songs associated with the Rainbow Serpent myth. Accompanied by simple stamping movements and lifted arms, it was also quite different in terms of movement. It was much enjoyed by the audience and by the performers themselves, who seemed delighted to be presenting their heritage in Canberra.

Three Tiwi Strong Women in Ngarukuruwala, 2021. Photo: © Peter Hislop

Publicity for Ngarukuruwala suggested that during this performance we would see screened footage from the National Film and Sound Archive of Tiwi ancestors performing traditional songs and dances. Well this didn’t happen, at least not at the performance I attended. We did see screened, however, some art representing the Rainbow Serpent, in particular a painting by Maggie Timapaetua. Shame about the lack of archival footage, but Ngarukuruwala finished with a healing song in response to the pandemic that has touched us all.

Two other items comprised the full program: Three Songs from Joe Geia and the ANU Jazz Collective (including an interesting version of Advance Australia Fair), and Rain falls and after for two guitars by Christopher Sainsbury, played engagingly by Andrew Blanch and Vladimir Gorbach.

Michelle Potter 10 May 2021

*This seems to be what happened although I was interested to find an article by James Murdoch in Theatre Australia for May 1982 in which he stated that the work was to be performed by Kelvin Coe and dancers of Sydney Dance Company. Moreland was choreographing for Sydney Dance Company at the time and Coe was dancing with the company. But the reference to other dancers may well have been an unrealised intention. That the work was dedicated to Moreland can be found on the Australian Music Centre site.

Featured image: Tammi Gissell in a Mundaguddah, 2021. Photo: © Peter Hislop

Sylvie Guillem and the Sydney Choreographic Centre

News flash: The Sydney Choreographic Centre has just announced that Sylvie Guillem is to take on the role of international patron of the Sydney Choreographic Centre. Artistic director Francesco Ventriglia has said of the appointment:

I could not be more thrilled and honoured that Sylvie has agreed to become SCC’s International Patron. I want the Centre to be a place of inspiration and there is no one in the dance world more recognised or inspiring than Sylvie.

Well for those of us who have seen Guillem dance in various situations this appointment augurs well and I hope her input will be extensive, if from afar. I don’t think I have ever really recovered from Guillem’s production of Giselle for the Finnish National Ballet, which I had the good fortune to see twice way back in 2001. The intelligence behind what was a truly inspired production was remarkable. I hope that in some way Ventriglia and his team will be able to harness some of that passion and inspiration to add to what they already have.

Michelle Potter, 4 May 2021

Featured image: Sylvie Guillem in Sacred Monsters. Photo: ©Tristram Kenton

Postscript: Apologies to anyone who accessed this news item in the first few minutes of posting. The hated autocorrect kept changing Sylvie to Sylvia! I think it is all fixed now.

The Point. Liz Lea Dance Company

29 April 2021, Belconnen Arts Centre, Canberra

My review of The Point was published by Limelight on 30 April. See this link. Below is a small gallery of extra images that show more of the costumes and lighting, as well as the projections of Griffin designs, which I have mentioned briefly in the review.

As I mentioned in my review, I was especially taken by the lighting used to illuminate the action from a different perspective, which you can see in the image immediately above. Without wishing to detract from Karen Norris’ lighting for The Pointe, which was spectacular, with this particular change of perspective I was reminded of a similar use of lighting in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. The Story of Clara. As we watch the final sections of the Murphy production we feel as though we are onstage with Clara as she dances her final performance. Similarly in The Point, with this lighting change we, the audience, became part of the performance.

The Point continues to resonate in the minds (and voices) of those who saw it. There have been calls for it to travel!

Michelle Potter, 3 May 2021

All images © Andrew Sikorski

Portrait of David McAllister by Peter Brew-Bevan, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

Dance diary. April 2021

  • David McAllister awarded Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award

Congratulations to David McAllister, recently retired artistic director of the Australian Ballet. McAllister received the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award at a special event in Sydney, an award administered by the Royal Academy of Dance. McAllister joins a group of extraordinary individuals from the world of ballet who have been recipients of this award. They include Frederick Ashton, Maina Gielgud, Robert Helpmann, Gillian Lynne, Rudolf Nureyev and Marie Rambert. McAllister has had what is perhaps an unprecedented career with the Australian Ballet. Following training at the Australian Ballet School beginning in 1961, he was a performing artist with the company for 18 years followed by a role as artistic director for another 20 years.

For posts about David McAllister on this website see this tag. While it is available, listen to this interview with McAllister by Fran Kelly.

But in particular see (and listen) to this enticing McAllister story from the National Portrait Gallery inspired by the Peter Brew-Bevan portrait used as the featured image above.

  • Tammi Gissell and Mundaguddah

Mundaguddah is a dance/music collaboration between composer Brian Howard and dancer/choreographer Tammi Gissell. It will premiere on 9 May 2021 at the National Gallery of Australia during Australian Dance Week and is a co-presentation by Ausdance ACT and the Canberra International Music Festival. It will have two showings only, at 12pm and 2 pm.

In Mundaguddah (the spirit of the Rainbow Serpent in Murrawarri language), Gissell explores the idea of personal pre-history in a tribute to the Murrawarri spirit who demands we look, listen, and keep moving in the right direction.

Tammi Gissell in a study for Mundaguggah, 2021. Photo: © Anthony Browell
Tammi Gissell in a study for Mundaguddah, 2021. Photo: © Anthony Browell

Tammi Gissell has featured previously on this website, especially for her work with Liz Lea. Follow this link to read earlier posts. To buy a ticket to Mundaguddah, and to read a little more about the legend of the Rainbow Servant, follow this link.

  • The GOLDS. Tenth anniversary

It’s a little hard to believe that the GOLDS, Canberra’s dance group for older people, is ten years old. But the group celebrated its tenth anniversary in April 2021 with performance excerpts from some of its previous shows, along with a new work, Forever Young, from founder of the GOLDs, Liz Lea. Perhaps the most memorable performance excerpt for the evening was that from Martin del Amo’s Grand Finale, which was originally one section from Great Sport!, an award-winning production held at the National Museum of Australia in 2016. Program notes written by del Amo for the Great Sport! show described Grand Finale as, ‘A team of elegantly clad men and women. engaged in a mysterious game. Collectively celebrating diverse individuality. On their own terms…’

The celebratory event also included short speeches by a number of people connected with the GOLDs group, including two of the current directors of the group, Jacqui Simmonds and Jane Ingall; founder Liz Lea; and Ruth Osborne who spoke on the role the GOLDs have played with QL2Dance. For more about the GOLDs and their performances see this tag.

  • Australian Dance Week 2021

In the ACT Australian Dance Week 2021 was launched at Belconnen Arts Centre on 29 April, International Dance Day, by ACT Minister for the Arts, Tara Cheyne. The event celebrated diversity in dance and included a message from Friedemann Vogel at Stuttgart Ballet, along with performances of Indigenous dance as part of the Welcome to Country, as well as short performances of pop n lock, Indian and burlesque dance.

Burlesque dancer Jazida distributes mini cakes at the ACT launch of Dance Week 2021
  • Fabulous flamenco!

Check out the latest playlist from Jacob’s Pillow featuring clips from performances at the Pillow from flamenco dancers. Here is a link. I have never seen flamenco ‘on pointe’ before, but Irene Rodriguez in the 2019 performance clip from Amaranto shows us how it is possible. Amazing work from her.

  • Site news

Updates and fixes were carried out on the website during April. The main fix was to the search box. It had somehow collapsed and was not retrieving search terms as it should. It is now fixed, thankfully. I also had added, thanks to the team at Racket, a new ‘subscribe’ option. It is now on the home page just under the box headed ‘View full tag cloud’.

Visits to the site have increased dramatically over the past few months with page views going from around 3-4,000 to 8-9,000 a month. Perhaps not surprisingly the most visited area during April was the tag Liam Scarlett.

Thanks to all those who follow On dancing.

  • Press for April 2021

From Michelle: Review of The Point by Liz Lea Dance Company. Limelight, 30 April 2021. Online magazine only at this link.

From Jennifer: Obituary for Liam Scarlett. Dominion Post, 30 April 2021, p. 19. Online version,

Michelle Potter, 30 April 2021

Featured Image: The Dance—David McAllister. © 2016 Peter Brew-Bevan. National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

Portrait of David McAllister by Peter Brew-Bevan, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra



Liam Scarlett (1986–2021)

One of the most exceptional choreographers of the 21st century, Liam Scarlett, has died aged just 35. How lucky we were in Australia to have had the opportunity to see three of his works, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Dangerous Liaisons and No Man’s Land, all performed by Queensland Ballet. In addition, Scarlett’s new staging of Swan Lake, made for the Royal Ballet in 2018, is readily available on DVD.

Our New Zealand colleagues saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream before we did in Australia, first in 2015, and Royal New Zealand Ballet is reviving the work later in 2021. RNZB’s response to Scarlett’s death included the photo below with a special caption that read, ‘In loving memory of our friend and colleague Liam Scarlett. His creation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream filled our studios with joy, and our stages with magic.’

Liam Scarlett and Lucy Green on the set for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

There have been many comments from around the world on the subject of his death with calls for explanations to be given by various organisations, but nothing can take the place of the words of those who worked with him and those who saw his productions and were astounded by his remarkable abilities. In addition to the posts on this website at this tag and RNZB’s words above, see for example comments from dancers Jack Lister and Laura Hidalgo on the Limelight tribute, and from Karen van Ulzen, editor of Dance Australia, who wrote in a weekly email newsletter, ‘I adored Liam Scarlett’s choreography. When the Queensland Ballet brought his A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Melbourne a few years ago, it was one of those rare occasions when you know you are completely in the hands and imagination of a master.’

Scarlett’s death is a huge loss and we no longer have him beside us giving us works that demonstrate his astonishing talent. Like most of us I am heartbroken, but I’d rather not cast blame or demand explanations but remember the joy he has given to audience members and dancers alike.

Michelle Potter, 23 April 2021

Featured image: Pool of Siloam, Leura, New South Wales, 2021. Photo: © Neville Potter