Helen Moulder and Sir Jon Trimmer recreating a moment from 'Petrouchka' in 'Meeting Karpovsky', Willow Productions 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

2019–Dance Highlights from New Zealand

by Jennifer Shennan

Happy New Year to all readers of ‘On Dancing’—even though the weeks are passing, the year still feels new … but in saying that, might I add that we have all been following the numerous stories of courage and heartbreak as the summer fires in Australia have been taking such a terrible toll in the loss of life, and wreaking havoc to homes and livelihoods. Kia kaha. Find and take courage.

In reading Michelle’s highlights of her year, it is clear that Liam Scarlett’s Dangerous Liasons for Queensland Ballet was a standout. How disappointing that the earlier path which was set with his ballet A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in co-production between Royal New Zealand Ballet and Queensland Ballet, was not continued with this project. The team of Scarlett, Tracy Grant Lord in design and Nigel Gaynor’s truly wonderful amalgam of Mendelssohn’s score gave our company one of the very best works ever in its repertoire. That notion of collaboration between the companies had so much promise, both in terms of productions but also the possibilities of dancer exchange. All the ways that New Zealand can exchange and strengthen dance ties with Australia make sound common sense from artistic, economic and pedagogic points of view, and could only enhance international awareness of dance identity in our part of the world.

Outstanding memories of 2019 here in Wellington started with the interesting residency of Michael Keegan-Dolan and his ensemble of dancers, working also with local students or free-lance dancers as he began preparations towards the season of Mam, for the International Arts Festival this March. Alex Leonhartsberger in the cast is as compelling a performer as ever, and we welcomed echoes of Loch na h’Eala, the inspired Gaelic take on Swan Lake from this company back in our 2018 festival.

Other 2019 memories would include Andrea Schermoly’s Stand to Reason in an RNZB season; Victoria Columbus’ Fibonacci Series in NZDance Company season; the fresh setting for Orbiculus—NZSchool of Dance choreographic season; Sarah Foster-Sproull’s Orchids at Circa Theatre. Loughlan Prior’s Hansel & Gretel for RNZB showed him in command of all the forces needed for a full-length work and the choreographer/composer collaboration with Claire Cowan worked particularly well. Images of Paul Mathews in his role as The Witch remain impressive.

Kirby Selchow as Gretel, Shaun James Kelly as Hansel and Paul Mathews as the Witch in Hansel & Gretel. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Another performance that lingers in the memory was that by NZSD student Rench Soriano, in Five Variations on a Theme, in their Graduation program. His career, unfortunately not local, will be one to watch. On that same program Raewyn Hill’s choreography Carnival.4, had a very strong presence. It is heartening to see earlier graduates from the School returning to mount works in the mature stages of their careers.

If I must choose my single personal highlight, it would be the last of the year—Meeting Karpovsky—the play by Helen Moulder and Jon Trimmer. Just the two of them in the cast but between them they offer a poignant and profound depth-sounding of what dance can be and mean to an audience. The work continues to hold its power and will not be forgotten by those who were drawn in to its mystery and alchemy.

The upcoming Festival will have a broad dance program, with high expectations for the Keegan-Dolan work, as well as the visiting Lyon Ballet in Trois Grandes Fugues—(three distinct choreographies to the same music, an intriguing idea) and Lucy Marinkovich’s Strasbourg 1518.

Happy New Year to all.

Jennifer Shennan, 13 January 2020

Featured image: Helen Moulder and Sir Jon Trimmer recreating a moment from Petrouchka in Meeting Karpovsky. Willow Productions, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Helen Moulder and Sir Jon Trimmer recreating a moment from 'Petrouchka' in 'Meeting Karpovsky', Willow Productions 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court
Lucy Green as Cecile and Alexander Idaszak as Valmont in 'Dangerous Liaisons'. Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo David Kelly

Dance diary. December 2019

  • The best of …

At this time of the year ‘the best of …’ is a common feature of many print and online sources. My thoughts on the dance highlights of the year will appear in the February/March issue of Dance Australia. But I can’t help commenting here on one or two particular highlights. For me, Liam Scarlett’s Dangerous Liaisons, created for Queensland Ballet, stands at the top of my list of best production for 2019.

What impresses me about Scarlett’s work in general is his ability to compress complex stories into clear narratives that never lose the major thread of the storyline, but are never so complicated that we get lost. This was especially noticeable in Dangerous Liaisons. It was a work in which quite a lot of subplots were evident, and in which there were many characters involved in many clandestine activities. Scarlett managed, however, to leave us in no doubt as to what was happening. He also seems to have a real knack of collaborating with the other creatives who have input into his work. Again, this was evident in Dangerous Liaisons, which had a great arrangement of music, stunning costumes and evocative lighting. Read (or reread) the review at this link.

My Dance Australia contribution also mentioned Yuumi Yamada but I had not seen her perform as Clara in Peter Wright’s Nutcracker until after my Dance Australia deadline had passed. So I need to document here that I thought she was a standout as Clara, as well as in other works throughout 2019.

Yuumi Yamada_and dancers of the Australian Ballet in 'The Nutcracker', 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud
Yuumi Yamada and dancers of the Australian Ballet in The Nutcracker, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud
  • The Kristian Fredrikson project

As a very special end to 2019 (for me anyway), I signed a contract with Melbourne Books who will begin editing of my book on the life and career of Kristian Fredrikson in February with publication scheduled, at this stage, for August. Things Fredrikson have been occupying my life since 2011 and the book has been researched across Australia; in Wellington, New Zealand; in the United States, in New York and Houston; in London; and in La Mirande en Ardèche in the French Alps, where choreographer Gray Veredon lives. Below is one of the many striking images that will appear in the book.

Study for Captain Hook in Russell Kerr's 'Peter Pan', 1999. © 1998 Kristian Fredrikson
Study for Captain Hook in Russell Kerr’s Peter Pan. Royal New Zealand Ballet 1999. © 1998 Kristian Fredrikson. This version of Peter Pan was also staged by West Australian Ballet in 2013. There have been various revivals
  • John O’Brien (1933–2019)

After posting my obituary for Barry Kitcher last month, I was contacted by a reader who brought to my attention another death in the dance world—that of former Rambert dancer and much admired teacher, the Australian-born John O’Brien. Much of O’Brien’s life was spent in England and I never saw him dance, but here is a link to an obituary written for The Stage. Apart from his many performing and teaching accomplishments, O’Brien founded the bookshop, which I knew as Dance Books, in Cecil Court in central London. How many hours did I spend ferreting around in its second hand department! And how sad that it had to close. But now I know that it was founded by O’Brien.

  • Happy New year 2020

All best wishes to all those who read my posts, and especially to those who contribute in one way or another. It also continues to thrill me that we in Australia (and elsewhere) benefit from dance news from New Zealand with some great posts from Jennifer Shennan. So my particular thanks to her for her contributions and the manner in which they expand our understanding of dance and its context.

And here’s to a great year of dance in 2020.

Michelle Potter, 31 December 2019

Featured image: Lucy Green as Cécile and Alexander Idaszak as Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons. Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly

Lucy Green as Cecile and Alexander Idaszak as Valmont in 'Dangerous Liaisons'. Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo David Kelly
Marcel Cole in 'Free as a Bird'. On course, 2019. Photo: © Andrew Sikorski/Art Atelier

On Course. QL2 Dance

15 December 2019. QL2 Theatre, Canberra

On course, a program providing opportunities for emerging choreographers currently studying at tertiary institutions, is now in its thirteenth year. The 2019 program consisted of eight live choreographic productions and two short films. Most of the creators and performers had previously danced with QL2 Dance, Canberra’s youth dance organisation, and on this occasion creators came from the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), Western Australian Academy for the Performing Arts (WAAPA) and the New Zealand School of Dance (NZSD).

The absolute stand out work to my mind was Free as a bird, choreographed and danced as a solo by Marcel Cole, former student of Kim Harvey in Canberra and now a contemporary major at NZSD. Cole walked into the performing space and announced ‘This is not a comment on ballet.’ He then proceeded to dance an excerpt from Solor’s variation in La Bayadère. While somewhat constricted by the small space of the QL2 blackbox theatre, and perhaps by a little lack of attention to some details, we could not help but be swept away by his elevation, those fabulous cabrioles, and a manège of jetés.

But what made Free as a bird an exceptional piece was what came after. Cole is looking towards contemporary dance these days and, after the Bayadère solo, he began to question the direction of his life. He went to an imaginary barre, did a couple of pliés, left the barre, then came back, and left again before suggesting that while studying ballet he had been walking in a straight line—with clear direction—but that now he was moving along a different path. I could have done without the verbal explanation at the end because it was perfectly obvious from the movement, and from Cole’s strong presence, what was happening. The work finished with Cole turning in a small circle with his arms tracing a meandering pattern in the air. The concept behind the work quite clear. No words were necessary.

This brings me to another point. Almost without exception the choreographers chose to use the spoken word in their creations. I’m not sure why this was thought to be necessary. In my experience the most powerful choreography expresses the creator’s ideas through movement, without a verbal explanation. There are some things that dance can’t say well of course, but let’s not dance what we have to say. It was interesting too that the one creator who used quite minimal verbal intervention was Mia Tuco who is currently enrolled at the VCA in a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting! Her work, I was the angel in the poem you wrote, was clearly and strongly constructed and again needed no words.

Another strong work on the program was Caspar Ilshner’s Eye to Eye. Its strength lay in the work’s coherence in which the music (composed by Ilshner himself, another NZSD student); the choreographic structure; and the costumes had all been thought through clearly and all contributed well to the whole. I especially admired the way in which Ilshner manipulated groups of dancers to show us various aspects of human interaction.

Scene from Eye to Eye in On Course, QL2 Dance 2019. Photo: © Andrew Sikorski/Art Atelier

Having taken my stand re words and dance, I have to say I enjoyed Ruby Ballantyne’s My roommate is a very heavy sleeper. The often amusing story was narrated as a voice-over, and the choreography really only played a secondary role as far as I am concerned. But then that’s something different from choreography that has to explain itself in words. Ballantyne is studying at WAAPA.

I also especially enjoyed Jason Pearce’s Kafka, which was the first of the two short films presented at the beginning of the evening. Pearce has just recently graduated from the VCA and his film focused largely on a close up of a particular part of the body in movement. We mostly saw the back of the torso and it was mesmerising for the glimpse it gave us of spinal movement.

On Course is a wonderful initiative. I had particular favourites but I was pleased to see such a range of ways in which choreography can be approached and in which ideas can be presented.

Michelle Potter, 17 December 2019

Featured image: Marcel Cole in Free as a Bird from On Course, 2019. Photo: © Andrew Sikorski/Art Atelier

Marcel Cole in 'Free as a Bird'. On course, 2019. Photo: © Andrew Sikorski/Art Atelier

Please consider supporting my Australian Cultural Fund project to help Melbourne Books publish Kristian Fredrikson. Designer in a high quality format. Donations are tax deductible. See this link to the project, which closes on 31 December 2019.

Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in 'The Nutcracker'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The Nutcracker. The Australian Ballet (2019)

14 December 2019 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

This staging of Sir Peter Wright’s Nutcracker was a beautiful and magical end to the Australian Ballet’s 2019 season. I have written before about Sir Peter’s take on this much-loved Christmas ballet, in both its onstage and film productions, and the features I enjoyed on those other occasions—such as its moments of stage magic, and the inherent logic within the narrative structure—were apparent again. The experience was especially enjoyable on this occasion as I had the good fortune to see an outstanding cast of lead characters.

As Clara, Yuumi Yamada just took my breath away. From her very first entrance her delightful and youthful personality, so perfect for this role, were apparent. She acted and danced her way through the show in spectacular fashion— and there were few moments when she wasn’t onstage. Particular dancing highlights were her pas de deux with Marcus Morelli in the Christmas party scenes and another pas de deux with the Nutcracker-turned-Prince (François-Eloi Lavignac) just before the snow scene began.

Yuumi Yamada as Clara in The Nutcracker. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

It was particularly pleasing too to see Chengwu Guo back on stage after an absence due to injury. The Act II pas de deux between Guo as the Nutcracker Prince and Ako Kondo as the Sugar Plum Fairy demonstrated what we, the audience, had been missing. His elevation; his soft, controlled landings; his multiple pirouettes (including those grands pirouettes à la seconde; and his spectacular entrechats were nothing short of thrillling. And I am always impressed by the way in which, as an intrinsic part of his performance, he treats his partner with such respect. All I can say is welcome back! Kondo performed beautifully too. I admired her absolute control, to the extent that we could see every movement unfold. It was as if she were dancing in slow motion.

The very young boy, Gabriel Bennett, who danced as Fritz also deserves a mention. His presence onstage and his acting made his performance a winning one. In fact all the young student extras, male and female, who danced as friends of Clara held their own throughout the opening party scene.

Andrew Killian as Drosselmeyer made an important contribution to the success of the performance, and the soloists and corps de ballet danced well throughout. I especially enjoyed the dancing of the four men who danced as the Winds in the snow scene, and who returned again (with one replacement) as Consorts to the Rose Fairy in the Waltz of the Flowers section.

Dancers of the Australian Ballet in 'Nutcracker', 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud
Dancers of the Australian Ballet in Nutcracker, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

I am not a huge fan of John McFarlane’s designs for this Nutcracker. They often seem ‘loud’ to me and they simply don’t fit well on the Sydney Opera House stage. Nor does that frustratingly small stage lend itself well to the Christmas party that opens this Nutcracker. Too many people have to crowd onto it, which rather ruins the party. It’s an ongoing saga.

But nothing can really take away from the magical and enchanting performance that we were offered and accepted with loud applause.

Michelle Potter, 16 December 2019

Featured image: Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in The Nutcracker. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in 'The Nutcracker'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Please consider supporting my Australian Cultural Fund project to help Melbourne Books publish Kristian Fredrikson. Designer in a high quality format. Donations are tax deductible. See this link to the project, which closes on 31 December 2019.

Barry Kitcher as the Lyrebird in 'The Display'. The Australian Ballet, 1964. Photo: Walter Stringer

Barry Kitcher (1930–2019)

Barry Kitcher, who has died in Melbourne aged 89, is probably best known for his role as the Male (the Lyrebird) in Robert Helpmann’s 1964 ballet The Display. In an oral history interview recorded for the National Library of Australia in 1994* he recalled what he saw as the highlight of his career—taking a solo curtain call at Covent Garden when the Australian Ballet staged The Display there during its international tour in 1965.

A highlight of my career was taking a curtain call on that incredible stage where the butterfly curtain goes up. There were the two lackeys at Covent Garden, in powdered wigs. They parted the curtain and I took a solo curtain call. Never did I think as a country kid from Victoria that one day I would be taking a curtain call at Covent Garden. Princess Margaret came to the performance and she told me how much she enjoyed the performance. She was fascinated by the mechanism [of the costume] and asked me if I could open the tail, which I did.

Barry Kitcher and Kathleen Gorham in 'The Display'. The Australian Ballet 1964
Kathleen Gorham and Barry Kitcher in The Display. The Australian Ballet 1964. Photo: Australian News and Information Service

But Kitcher had an extensive career in Australia and overseas, which encompassed so much more than his performances in The Display, despite the fame that that one role gave him. His introduction to ballet came when, in 1947, aged 17, he saw a performance in Melbourne by the visiting English company, Ballet Rambert. He was inspired, as a result, to take classes with Melbourne teacher Dorothy Gladstone but eventually moved on to study at the Borovansky Academy. There he took evening classes with Xenia Borovansky while working as a clerk with Victorian Railways during the day.

He spoke of his impressions of Xenia Borovansky, again in his National Library oral history interview.

She was very tall, extremely tall—she towered over Boro—and she wore high heel shoes as well. She was so regal and elegant and when she walked into a room it was like a star. She had rather bulbous eyes. You really stopped and looked at Madame Boro as she came in … she was a very impressive lady. Her carriage and her stature were outstanding.

He joined the Borovansky Ballet for the 1950–1951 season when the company reformed after a period in recess. He took on many roles with the Borovansky company over the years, but recalls in particular dancing in Pineapple Poll when it was staged by its choreographer, John Cranko; taking on the role of the Strongman in Le beau Danube after Borovansky’s death; and dancing as one of the three Ivan’s in The Sleeping Princess.

At the end of his first season with the Borovansky Ballet, the company went into recession once more and Kitcher spent time appearing on the Tivoli circuit. He then left Australia in 1956 to try his luck in England, as did so many of his dancing colleagues at the time.

In London he took classes with legendary teacher Anna Northcote and later with Marie Rambert; danced at the London Palladium as a member of the George Carden Dancers, with whom he appeared in a number of shows including Rocking the Town and a Christmas pantomime The Wonderful Lamp; joined Sadler’s Wells Opera Ballet and appeared in the The Merry Widow; and danced with London City Ballet.

He returned to the Borovansky Ballet in 1959 and then went on to dance with the Australian Ballet from its opening season in 1962 until 1966.

After leaving the Australian Ballet he joined Hoyts Theatres and trained as a theatre manager working in various Melbourne-based cinemas. Eventually he successfully applied for a position as theatre manager with the newly opened Victorian Arts Centre where he worked for several years.

Portrait of Barry Kitcher

But for all his achievements across many areas, Kitcher was probably most proud of being a member of the Borovansky Ballet. He was responsible for many organisational details associated with the various reunions of former Borovansky dancers, which began in 1993, and throughout his oral history interview he spoke constantly of the artists he worked with, including Borovansky himself as well as Xenia. He loved in particular discussing the nature of the company and the closeness he felt there was between those who worked with it.

My favourite quote from his oral history comes from Kitcher’s recollections of time spent touring in New Zealand, which the Borovansky company did frequently. Speaking of the unofficial concerts the company staged amongst themselves, especially one held in Christchurch at the Theatre Royal, he recalled:

To raise money for our big farewell party in New Zealand (we had a wonderful party) we had a big fete onstage during the afternoon at the Theatre Royal in Christchurch. The stagehands and everybody joined in. Boro contributed a fish that he’d caught—he was a great fisherman, loved fishing. That was his relaxation away from the theatre—fishing and painting. All the principal ladies, Kathy [Gorham] and Peggy [Sager], made cakes and things like that. Oh, we had a wonderful time … It was a great company and, as dear Corrie [Lodders] said, ‘It was a company of family’ … We were very, very lucky to be part of that era.

Listen to this quote.

Barry Kitcher was a kind and thoughtful man. He never forgot me as his interviewer for the National Library’s oral history program and helped me on many occasions when I needed to confirm certain details about the companies he worked with. Vale Barry.

Charles Barry Kitcher, born Cohuna, Victoria, 6 September 1930; died Melbourne, Victoria, 10 December 2019

Michelle Potter, 13 December 2019

Barry Kitcher as the Lyrebird in 'The Display'. The Australian Ballet, 1964. Photo: Walter Stringer
Featured image: Barry Kitcher as the Male (Lyrebird) in The Display. The Australian Ballet 1964. Photo: Walter Stringer.

* Interview with Barry Kitcher recorded by Michelle Potter for the Esso Performing Arts and Oral History Project, August 1994. National Library of Australia, TRC 3102

Please consider supporting my Australian Cultural Fund project to help Melbourne Books publish Kristian Fredrikson. Designer in a high quality format. Donations are tax deductible. See this link to the project, which closes on 31 December 2019.