Leap into Chaos. QL2 Dance

15 October 2020, Canberra College Theatre

As a result of the COVID 19 situation, two of the annual initiatives of Canberra’s youth dance organisation, QL2 Dance—the Quantum Leap program for senior performers and the Chaos Project for younger dancers— were combined this year, hence the over-arching name Leap into Chaos. The performance also took place in a different, but well resourced venue, and with a much smaller than usual number of people seated for each performance (with physical distancing in place).

The younger dancers gave us a multi-faceted work called Touch. In seven parts, with choreography by Ruth Osborne, Steve Gow, Alison Plevey, Olivia Fyfe and Ryan Stone, Touch showed a range of different reactions to the coronavirus pandemic. There were masks, worn and then taken off with a shout of pleasure; references to hand washing; social interaction; acts of kindness; finding one’s place in the world; and a closing section filled with the joy of being able to perform live again.

Scene from Touch, QL2 Dance, 2020. Photo: © Lorna Sim

While I wish one or two sections had been a little shorter, as ever I was impressed with the ability of the Chaos dancers to enter and exit the stage so smoothly and to use the space of the stage so effectively. Apart from the development of creativity during the choreographic phase when the dancers have the opportunity to contribute ideas, the value of the Chaos Project has always been the development of an understanding of stagecraft. The young dancers always do themselves proud in this respect.

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The second half of the program was an outstanding work, Sympathetic Monsters, choreographed by QL2 alumnus Jack Ziesing to a soundscape by Adam Ventoura. Ziesing is currently working freelance as a dancer and choreographer and, in creating Sympathetic Monsters, was inspired by a book by Shaun Tan called The Arrival. The impact of Sympathetic Monsters sent me in search of some information about The Arrival, which it turns out is a wordless book, a migrant story told using a series of images only. Tan himself says it concerns in part ‘the “problem” of belonging’, which ‘especially rises to the surface when things go wrong with our usual lives.’

I loved looking at Ziesing’s work without knowing anything about Tan’s book. His choreography alternated between group movement, exceptionally well performed by the dancers, and solos in which dancers pushed their bodies into fantastically twisted shapes. In its structure the work was endlessly fascinating. The dancers mostly entered one by one to perform a solo. After finishing, they moved upstage and stood in a line across the back of the stage space until they engaged in a group section. At the very end, the group, acting as involved onlookers, encircled two performers who moved together in a kind of complex duet. The work was lit by Craig Dear of Sidestage and his pronounced use of shadowy effects added to the drama of the movement and the power and mystery of the work.

Scene from Jack Ziesing’s Sympathetic Monsters, QL2 Dance, 2020. Photo: © Lorna Sim

But reading about The Arrival further opened up the work, if in retrospect. There it all was in movement—the isolation; the belonging or not belonging; the group versus the individual; the sympathy juxtaposed with its opposite. Many thoughts came crowding in and even the title made some sense. I am looking forward to seeing the work again when QL2 Dance offers it as part of a streamed event later in October. Sympathetic Monsters was an exceptional work.

Michelle Potter, 17 October 2020

Featured image: Scene from Jack Ziesing’s Sympathetic Monsters, QL2 Dance, 2020. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Ausdance ACT’s new director. Dr Cathy Adamek

Dr Cathy Adamek thinks it is time for regional re-engagement in dance. Adamek, who has had an extraordinarily diverse career across art forms to date, has just been appointed Director, Ausdance ACT. Her long-term vision is for making connections, including eventually establishing touring initiatives, initially between independent artists working in South Australia and the ACT. This aspect of a much wider vision seems very much like a ‘seize the moment’ one. On the one hand there are Adamek’s strong connections with Adelaide and, on the other, in the current COVID 19 situation the Adelaide-Canberra ‘bubble’ already exists even as borders with some other states and territories remain closed. It is also just the kind of initiative Canberra artists need.

Adamek began her dance life learning ballet in Adelaide with Joanna Priest and Sheila Laing. She was accepted into WAAPA to continue dance studies at tertiary level but an injury forced her to move to acting. Adamek eventually continued her training at NIDA and the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London and, with the addition of a strong musical background since childhood, she has pursued a career across dance, physical theatre, choreography, film, and electronic music, and has acted as a voice-over in various situations. She completed her PhD in 2017 at the University of South Australia. Her thesis, entitled Adelaide Dance Music Culture: Late 1980s–Early 1990s, reflected her interest in connecting with new music as well as her experiences on the dance floor in ‘the second summer of love’. A recent residency at Dance Hub SA saw her working on a piece called Open Bliss, a development from her PhD research and one of several of her personal choreographies. She has tutored at various institutions and most recently has been President of Ausdance SA. With her diverse background she describes herself as a ‘creative producer’.

Portrait of Cathy Adamek. Photo: © Meaghan Coles

Along with her interest in establishing regional re-engagement, Adamek says that her aim in her new position in Canberra is basically to serve the needs of Ausdance. ‘I have had 25 years of working in the arts,’ she says ‘now I want to work to help others in the dance community. I also have a particular interest in turning dance works into film and to extending that interest out to schools where there is a need for different perspectives and training.’ She also has a particular passion for ensuring that dance is developed from a dramaturgical point of view. This interest, she says, grew from her background at NIDA in the 1990s. ‘It was a hybrid era,’ she says, ‘when art forms were brought together. I want to present dance in a theatrical way. It has to be a journey in movement and with logic and theatricality.’

Why Canberra I wonder? I suggest to her that it doesn’t always have a strong profile to many outside the city. ‘It’s a lot like “secret Adelaide”, she counters. ‘Besides, I love travelling, I love going to new places. Canberra sits between those beautiful mountains. It has the Gallery and other collecting institutions. I had no hesitation.’

Like many arts organisations, Ausdance ACT has struggled a little in recent times. Cathy Adamek could well be the one to deliver its rejuvenation.

Michelle Potter, 14 October 2020

Featured image: A moment from Open Bliss, 2019. Photo: © Alex Waite-Mitchell

Dances at a gathering. The Royal Ballet Digital Season 2020

New York-based dance writer, Joan Acocella, whose critical writing I much admire, has spoken of Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a gathering, along with Paul Taylor’s Esplanade and Mark Morris’ Gloria as ‘benchmark works of the sixties/seventies youth cult, with their gangs of fresh-faced young folk skipping and running and falling to the accompaniment of high-art music’ and as being ‘in exaltation of what is plain and openhearted and innocent as opposed to what is fancy and fake.’* The featured image above shows Marianela Nuñez and Alexander Campbell in the Royal Ballet’s production of Dances at a gathering, and it seems to me indicative of the human qualities that Acocella describes. As the work progresses those qualities become more and more obvious.

Dances at a gathering opens and concludes quietly, introspectively perhaps? In the opening sequence, Alexander Campbell enters quietly from the downstage Prompt side and dances a solo in which swinging arm movements and expansive jumps across the stage predominate. He exits on the OP side, but before doing so makes a questioning gesture with one hand. Where is the gathering? At the very end the cast of ten, five women, five men, stand on stage, often in stillness, before they leave arm in arm. The gathering has concluded.

In between there is so much beautifully poetic choreography, sometimes with the flavour of character work, the mazurka in particular. This of course befits the Polish rhythms that permeate much of the selection of piano music by Frederick Chopin (spelled Fryderyk Chopin on Royal Ballet publicity) to which the work is performed. Often the movement seems simple, deceptively so I hasten to add. There are no noticeably ongoing, or clearly defined relationships between the dancers and Robbins is recorded as saying, ‘There are no stories to any of the dances in “DAAG” There are no plots and no roles. The dancers are themselves dancing with each other to that music in that space.’** But there is much scope for us to see personalities. We see it through movement and through facial expressions, and through the recognition the dancers show to their fellow performers throughout. It is indeed a gathering, and the individuality of each dancer is very clear.

If I had to choose a favourite section from the astonishingly good performance by the entire cast, I would go for a section led by Laura Morera. The section begins with a solo by an effervescent Morera. She is playful and sexy, and performs with beautifully timed highlights. The sequence has those overtones of character dancing but is equally strong in classical movement. Morera appears to be playing to an invisible partner. Towards the end of the section two prospective partners appear, but neither shows the interest she hoped to generate within them. With a shrug and a smile she leaves the stage. Transfixing I thought.

The duet between Marianela Nuñez and Federico Bonelli, which led into the finale, was another highlight, full as it was with caring touches, longing glances, and clear admiration for each other. Yasmine Nagdhi also had some wonderful moments of fast and detailed movement. Then from Bonelli there were those fabulous double tours ending in a full plié in first position. What an elegant and exciting performance from the entire cast! They explain why in the video clip below.

Dances at a gathering was made by Jerome Robbins in 1969 for New York City Ballet and entered the repertoire of the Royal Ballet in 1970. The stream we were offered during the Royal’s 2020 digital season was recorded during a performance this year, 2020. It featured ten of the Royal Ballet’s star dancers, Marianela Nuñez, Francesca Hayward, Yasmine Naghdi, Laura Morera, Fumi Kaneko, Alexander Campbell, Federico Bonelli, William Bracewell, Luca Acri and Valentino Zucchetti. The varied selection of Chopin’s piano music was exquisitely played by by Robert Clark.

Dances at a gathering has never been part of the repertoire of the Australian Ballet and, as far as I am aware, has never been shown live in Australia. I paid £3 to have access to this stream, and it was worth every penny and more, especially given that viewing was possible a month (it is available until 25 October)! Perhaps in the future David Hallberg might consider adding it to the Australian Ballet’s repertoire? On the other hand, I can imagine it sitting very nicely on Queensland Ballet.

Michelle Potter, 8 October 2020

Featured image: Marianela Nuñez and Alexander Campbell in a screenshot from Dancers at a gathering. The Royal Ballet, 2020

* Joan Acocella, Mark Morris (New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1993), p. 87.
**Deborah Jowitt. Jerome Robins. His life, his theater, his dance (New York: Simon & Shuster, 2004), p. 387.

Jowitt, in the book mentioned above, gives an excellent account of the development of Dances at a gathering in chapter 16, pp. 381-388.

Dance diary. September 2020

  • Gray Veredon on choreography

I am pleased to be able to post some interesting material sent to me by New Zealand-born choreographer, Gray Veredon. He has just loaded the first of a series of video clips in which he talks about his aims and ideas for his choreographic output. He uses examples from his latest work, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which he mounted recently in Poland. See below.

  • Alan Brissenden (1932–2020)

The dance community is mourning the death of Dr Alan Brissenden, esteemed dance writer and outstanding academic from the University of Adelaide. Alan wrote about dance for a wide variety of magazines and newspapers from the 1950s onwards and was inducted into the Hall of Fame at the Australian Dance Awards in 2013.

As I looked back through my posts for the times I have mentioned Alan on this site, it was almost always for his and Keith Glennon’s book Australia Dances: Creating Australian Dance, 1945–1965. Since it was published in 2010, it has always been my go-to book about Australian dance for the period it covers. No gossip in it; just the story of what happened—honest, critical, carefully researched and authoritative information. Very refreshing. Find my review of the book, written in 2010 for The Canberra Times, at this link.

A moving obituary by Karen van Ulzen for Dance Australia, to which Alan was a long-term contributor, is at this link.

  • Jack Riley

It was interesting to see that Marcus Wills’ painting Requiem (JR) was selected as a finalist for the 2020 Archibald Prize. While Wills states that the painting is not meant to be ‘biographical’, the (JR) of the title stands for dancer Jack Riley. Riley began his performing career as a Quantum Leaper with Canberra’s youth group, QL2 Dance. After tertiary studies he has gone on to work with a range of companies including Chunky Move, Australian Dance Party, and Tasdance.

See the tag Jack Riley for more writing about him and his work on this site.

  • Jake Silvestro

The first live performance in a theatre I have been to since March took place in September at the newly constructed black box theatre space at Belconnen Arts Centre, Canberra. It was a circus-style production called L’entreprise du risque. It featured Frenchman Bernard Bru and Australian Circus Oz performer Jake Silvestro, along with two young performers who trained at Canberra’s Warehouse Circus, Imogen Drury and Clare Pengryffyn.

While the show was somewhat uneven in standard, the standout performer was Jake Silvestro, whose acts on the Cyr wheel showed incredible balance and skill in general.

But whatever the standard, it was a thrill to be back watching live theatre again.

  • Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. More reviews and comments

In Wellington, New Zealand, Kristian Fredrikson. Designer is being sold through Unity Books, which presented the publication as its spotlight feature for its September newsletter. Follow this link. It includes Sir Jon Trimmer’s heartfelt impressions of the book, which I included in the August dance diary.

An extensive review by Dr Ian Lochhead, Christchurch-based art and dance historian, appeared in September on New Zealand’s Theatreview. Apart from his comments on the book itself, Dr Lochhead took the opportunity to comment on the importance of archiving our dance history. Read the full review at this link.

Royal New Zealand Ballet also featured the book in its September e-newsletter. See this link and scroll down to READ.

Back in Australia, Judy Leech’s review appeared in the newsletter of Theatre Heritage Australia. Again this is an extensive review. Read it at this link.

  • Press for September

‘Capital company.’ A story on Canberra’s professional dance company, Australian Dance Party. Dance Australia, September-November 2020, pp. 31-32.

Michelle Potter, 30 September 2020

Featured image: Giovanni Rafael Chavez Madrid as Oberon and Mayu Takata as Titania in Gray Veredon’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ballet of the Baltic Opera Danzig, 2020. Photo: © K. Mystkowski

Basking in reflected glory. Edith Campbell

I first met Edith Campbell in 2018 when I delivered the first Russell Kerr Lecture in Wellington. The day after the lecture Edith sent me a collection of items from productions by Opera-Technique Inc., the operetta company for which Kristian Fredrikson designed his very early shows, and with which Edith appeared as a performer. The material, which included press clippings and a booklet listing Opera-Technique productions between 1954 and 1994, was extremely helpful in my research, clearing up a number of points about those early Fredrikson years.

Edith has now read the Fredrikson book and has written a quite fascinating piece giving a personal account of what it was like performing with Opera-Technique. One section in particular suggests to me that, even in 1962 with his work on A Night in Venice, Fredrikson was involved in researching an accurate background for his designs. I am thrilled to be able to post Edith’s reflections on this site. And as more and more comments come in about the book I can’t help feeling that we need another book!

Read Edith’s story below.

Michelle Potter, 27 September 2020

Kristian Fredrikson, Designer—by Michelle Potter    
Basking in reflected glory!  Reflections on reading this book

by Edith Campbell, Wellington

Who does not get a kick out of being in some way, however small, connected with a special event or with a ‘star’ reported in a publication?  In 1963, having recently arrived in Wellington from my hometown Edinburgh, I joined a Wellington Polytechnic choral singing evening class (housed in the Wellington Technical College) which I discovered was also the amateur group Opera-Technique. Formed by enthusiastic former students of the Wellington Technical College (now Wellington High School), they had already presented a few musical productions in their spacious School Hall; Strauss’ A Night in Venice was their current project. Rehearsals involved working closely with Musical Director Harry Botham (a double-bass player in the National Orchestra and teacher at the Polytechnic) and of course with producer Harry Baker, referred to by Michelle Potter as teacher and mentor of the young Kristian Fredrikson as the costume designer. I do remember occasionally seeing this dark-haired young man about the place—of course we all admired his work—colourful—imaginative—sparkling!

Costume for a Prostitute in A Night in Venice, Opera-Technique Inc. , Wellington 1962. Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

As was common at that time, many of the cast were very ‘handy’ with their sewing machines.  Mrs. Daphne Lawrence—our most excellent wardrobe mistress—a trained tailoress—was a whizz at interpreting the designer’s drawings; she produced practical patterns and cut out the fabrics. There were several real dressmakers in, or attached to, the company who did the more intricate work, but quite a number of the cast received their cutout costumes to sew together. What fun to stitch ribbons of sequins in swirls on the supposedly bare-bosoms of we show girls and insert a mirror into our garters to catch the eye of perspective clients!  (Imaginative touches Kristian!) It was exciting to be so intimately involved in the production in this way in addition to singing and dancing in it—accompanied by a section of the National Orchestra no less!

Being presented in a School Hall the general public did not comprehend that the production not only was performed entirely by adults, but was extremely professional in every area, and so Opera-Technique took the bold step of taking their next production—Offenbach’s La Vie Parisienne—into the city to perform in the Opera House! (took many years to pay off the debt!) Again the stage was filled with Kristian’s scintillating designs. Allan Lees designed the set. At this time overseas companies fairly frequently brought plays and musicals to the country’s main centres. From well-known institutions, in their homeland’s ‘down time’, they found it profitable to ‘tour the colonies’. The thespians resident in NZ were extremely well-versed in their craft, but, as the small population could not support them professionally (i.e. full time), the general populace saw them as amateurs and asked—if one may draw a Biblical analogy—‘can any good thing come out of Nazareth?’ (John 1: 46). The standard of the shows put on by these so-called amateurs was of a high calibre in every respect both on stage and behind the scenes—set and costume design, lighting, stage management, even front-of-house—could often put the overseas companies to shame. It was a long time before the ‘Nazareth’ concept was overcome!

So this was the vibrant theatre scene into which the young Kristian was introduced—one where his excellent talents were recognized and fostered.  An early illustration in the book shows his designs for the Kings in Menotti’s gem Amahl and the Night Visitors. They were seen and appreciated widely for several years as Opera-Technique presented the lovely Christmas story in many churches and halls in the greater Wellington area (had a simple very adaptable set by Allan Lees). Along with many singers and those in related stage crafts, Kristian’s experience with Opera-Technique stood him in good stead when he spread his wings to fly across the Tasman and further.

Be life humdrum or exciting, whatever makes a person tick—whatever motivates them, is always intriguing. Based on meticulous research, Michelle tells Kristian’s story beautifully. Every performer must ‘get under the skin’ of any character he or she plays. A costume that is ‘just right’ is itself a physical manifestation of that skin and Kristian had the knack of creating that skin with his designs. While spiritually getting under the skin, being wrapped in it by donning a costume adds a tremendously reassuring dimension. After a performance the audience will remember the expressiveness of a sonorous voice, the grace of a movement, but the visual appearance is an essential element in recreating the memory. With her liberal use of direct quotes from Kristian’s writings and reported conversations, Michelle gives us insight into his intense passion for attention to detail and his extensive studies to be very aware of the background of the stories he was illustrating, also that of the writers and composers—he worked with the complete picture for his references.

Needless to state, Kristian loved to return to NZ to fill commissions from the RNZ Ballet and the dancers and the audiences loved it too! In Peter Pan, Sir Jon Trimmer was in his element as he strutted about in his exuberant Captain Hook costume, complete with be-feathered hat. In real life Jon is delightfully comedic with more than a touch of mischievousness and his costume caught a whiff of that too!   

It is often reported that a block-buster movie has a cast of thousands. A considerable proportion may actually appear on the screen (or be consigned to the cutting room floor). Though perhaps not strictly part of the ‘cast’, many of the thousands are the indispensable support people. By the time the last chord is played to accompany the rolling credits seldom does one patron remain in the cinema! Admittedly the ‘rolling’ is too fast to read individual names, but one glimpses titles such as ‘Best Boy’ or ‘caterer’. So sadly so much passion and creativity is not immediately acknowledged. Hopefully theatre audiences go home clutching their programs to peruse later the list of all the off-stage people who contributed so much to their pleasure!

Let us be immensely grateful to Michelle for her words and wonderful selection of illustrations to not only recognise Kristian’s accomplishments, but to remind us of the great number of talented and dedicated people who brought his designs to life in the many facets of the productions. The performers on stage receive applause—sometimes on the last night of a season, conductors, designers and stage managers are invited on stage also and a wave is given in the direction of the lighting box. Maybe a representative of all the ‘other people’ could appear. We all do what we do to express and share our love of beauty … but it is nice to occasionally receive at least a sliver of that light of reflected glory!!

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Featured image: Front cover (detail) of the program for the Opera-Technique Inc. production of La vie parisienne, 1963. National Library of New Zealand, Eph-A-OPERA-OT-1963. The full cover image is below.