Dance diary. July 2021

  • La Bayadère. A problematic ballet?

Houston Ballet has, as a result of concerns and protests from various groups, removed its production of La Bayadère from its current season. The ballet looks back to the nineteenth century when ‘orientalism’ or interest in ‘exotic lands’ beyond Europe was a much-used theme in ballets and other theatrical productions. Recent media reports from Houston have suggested that the ballet contains ‘orientalist stereotypes, dehumanizing cultural portrayal and misrepresentation, offensive and degrading elements, needless cultural appropriation, essentialism, shallow exoticism, caricaturing’ and more.

In Australia, in addition to the middle act, ‘Kingdom of the Shades’, which has often been seen out of its context within the full-length ballet, we have seen three different productions of the full-length Bayadère. Two have been performed by the Australian Ballet—Natalia Makarova’s production staged by Makarova herself during the directorship of Ross Stretton and seen in 1998, and Stanton Welch’s production made originally for Houston Ballet, which is the one recently cancelled, staged on the Australian Ballet in 2014. As well, Greg Horsman produced a new version for Queensland Ballet in 2018.

I have no intention of commenting on the issues raised in Houston, although I am especially interested in ideas about cultural appropriation. But I will say that I thought Greg Horsman’s rethink of the work for Queensland Ballet was a winner from a number of points of view. Horsman has commented to me that he thought his restaging was not, in general, well received. Horsman’s version turned the story on its head somewhat and gave audiences much to ponder, so it is a shame that it hasn’t been shown and discussed more widely. Here is a link to my review of the Horsman production.

Front cloth for Queensland Ballet's 'La Bayadere'. Design Gary Harris
Gary Harris’ front cloth for Greg Horsman’s 2018 production of La Bayadère for Queensland Ballet

  • Philip Chatfield (1927–2021)

Philip Chatfield, who has died aged 93 on the Gold Coast just south of Brisbane, came to Australia in 1958 on the momentous tour by the Royal Ballet. He and his wife, Rowena Jackson, stand out in my memories of that tour, especially for the roles of Swanilda and Franz in Coppélia. Just a few months before they left London on that tour, Chatfield and Jackson married and at the end of the tour settled in New Zealand where Jackson was born. Chatfield became artistic director of the New Zealand Ballet (1975–1978) and they both taught at the National Ballet School, now New Zealand School of Dance. Chatfield and Jackson moved to the Gold Coast in 1993 in order to be closer to family members.

Jennifer Shennan’s obituary for Chatfield is not yet available, but a link will be added in due course.

For more on the Royal Ballet’s Australasian tour of 1958–1959 see this link. There is contentious material contained in that post and in the several comments it received (although not about Chatfield and Jackson).

  • Sydney Choreographic Centre

The recently established Sydney Choreographic Centre, a project headed by artistic director Francesco Ventriglia and managing director Neil Christopher, has moved into its new premises in Alexandria, an inner-city suburb of Sydney. It will be the home of the Sydney Choreographic Ensemble and will offer a range of courses and open classes. A launch has been postponed due to the Sydney lockdown.

For more information about the Centre, and the courses that will commence once covid restrictions have been lifted, see the Centre’s website at this link.

  • And we danced

The third episode of And We Danced, a three part documentary charting the growth of the Australian Ballet, has now been released and all three episodes are currently available (for a limited time) on ABCiview. The second episode remains in my mind the strongest and most interesting, but the third episode does contain some interesting material and again has a focus on social and political matters as they have affected the Australian Ballet. A longer post on the third session follows soon but at this stage I can’t help but mention how moving I found the archival footage of Simone Goldsmith as Odette in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. Goldsmith was the original Odette in this production and her immersion in the role was exceptional.

Simone Goldsmith as Odette in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. The Australian Ballet, 2002. Photo: © Jim McFarlane
  • Late addition

For just the second time in 60 or so years of watching dance (and even performing it), I walked out of a show. I found Joel Bray’s I liked it but …. unwatchable. I left because I really couldn’t accept the way that various dance styles were described. Perhaps it changed later, I don’t know, but basically I am opposed to dance, in whatever format, being put down, often in a way that is ignorant of the true nature of that format.


Michelle Potter, 31 July 2021

Featured image: Ako Kondo in Stanton Welch’s production of La Bayadère. The Australian Ballet, 2014. Photo: © Jeff Busby

And we danced. Act 2, 1980-1999

And we danced, a three part documentary from the ABC produced by WildBear Entertainment, looks at the first six decades of the Australian Ballet. The series makes use of archival footage held by the Australian Ballet, and that footage is complemented by photographs and interviews with former and current company staff and dancers, and with commentary from Ita Buttrose, current chairperson of the ABC.

I was originally going to wait until all three episodes had been screened before making comments. But the second episode, covering the two decades of the eighties and nineties, was so full of memorable moments that I decided I just had to comment on the second episode and mention some of those moments—the ones that especially moved me in some way.

It was always going to be hard to cover in 58 or so minutes everything of significance that occurred over two decades, especially when the two decades covered in the second episode were tumultuous in so many ways. There was the strike of the early 1980s and the various changes of artistic directorship that ensued; the AIDS epidemic; Paul Keating’s Creative Nation and the strong arts funding that developed under Keating; the era of Maina Gielgud and her eventual departure from the company; the arrival of Ross Stretton and his very different management style and artistic aesthetic; and more.

And we danced needed to be selective in what it covered in detail, but what I found especially engaging was the examination of how the company began to move from a pioneering company in its earlier years to one that was a mature arts organisation. While there were many ways in which an Australian identity began to emerge, and various social and cultural contexts were mentioned, particularly poignant were the comments by Stephen Page as he talked about Bangarra Dance Theatre and the Australian Ballet working together on Rites under the directorship of Ross Stretton.

Then, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the incredible range of choreography that those of us who were lucky enough to have been audience members at the time were able to experience. One of the most interesting sections concerned the last program curated by Maina Gielgud before she left the company. Her triple bill of Stanton Welch’s Red Earth, Meryl Tankard’s The Deep End, and Stephen Page’s Alchemy was so strongly Australian and the comments on why (or how) this program happened were well contextualised. And of course it was great to see footage of Stanton Welch’s Divergence, another exceptional work from the Gielgud period.

I also enjoyed the discussion of Spartacus. It has never been one of my favourite ballets, neither in the Laszlo Seregi (Australian Ballet premiere 1978) version nor the more recent one by Lucas Jervies. But looking at the brief footage shown of the Seregi production I was bowled over by Steven Heathcote in the main role. The drama he injected into every movement was just brilliant. And then there was the wonderful story of the poster with the sexy image of Heathcote that was consistently stolen when the production was taken to the US.

Poster image of Steven Heathcote in Spartacus

It was also interesting to see and hear comments from former dancers and directors, especially Marilyn Rowe and Marilyn Jones who played major roles in the 1980s. More of the full project later.

Michelle Potter, 26 July 2021

Featured image: Scene from Stanton Welch’s Divergence. Still from And we danced.

Joy Womack: The White Swan

A film by Dina Burlis and Sergey Gavrilov. Release date (digital format): 19 July 2021 by 101 Films (London).
(Available on various digital platforms soon. Watch this space)

Canberra dance audiences may well remember Joy Womack, who performed briefly in Canberra in 2018 for Bravissimo Productions. That one-off program featured dancers from across the globe—Womack was one of them. She was enticed to Canberra by the directors of the National Capital Ballet School and for Bravissimo Productions she danced Vasily Vainonen’s Moskovsky Waltz, partnered by Italian artist Francesco Daniele Costa. It was a simply stunning performance.

At the time of her Canberra appearance, Womack was a principal dancer with Universal Ballet in Korea, but prior to her Korean career she studied and performed in Russia, initially with the Bolshoi Ballet and then with Kremlin Ballet Theatre. Her Russian career is featured in a new documentary: Joy Womack: The White Swan.

Womack was born in California and brought up in California and Texas and the film begins with family snapshots of the Womack family. But it quickly progresses to Moscow where Womack was accepted as a student at the ballet school attached to the Bolshoi Ballet and then, after graduation, into the Bolshoi Ballet. Womack’s overwhelming desire to dance with the Bolshoi is explored and in many respects the film is a psychological portrait of a determined dancer. Womack talks openly about her thoughts, her dreams, and the mental challenges she constantly faced.

But perhaps the most confronting aspect of the film is the way it explores the many difficulties Womack faced as she negotiated living in Russia. Many of those difficulties are strongly dance-related and concern, for example, the shape of the body that the Russian teachers and directors believed was necessary for progress through the school and company; the apparent hierarchical system within ballet companies; and the management of a dancer’s injuries. There were many moments when I was shocked to tell the truth, perhaps none more than when I watched as Womack stood in a canteen and asked for ‘a salmon sandwich without the bread’ and proceeded to eat from a plate on which was spread just a few slices of smoked salmon.

Other issues were more overtly political and included attitudes to women, and the perception of an American way of life as made manifest in day to day living and in attitudes to performance. Particularly compelling remarks were made by Nikita, the Russian dancer Womack married in Moscow and by his mother, an incredibly glamorous, impeccably dressed and adorned lady. But especially powerful was Womack’s resignation from the Bolshoi Ballet and the reasons for it. (No spoiler given on this matter!).

After leaving the Bolshoi, Womack worked for several years with Kremlin Ballet Theatre and, while the Bolshoi experience was her ‘dream of a lifetime’ experience, her time with Kremlin seems to have been much more rewarding. She was strongly supported by her teacher/coach/mentor, Janna, and admired by the company’s director.

Joy Womack with coach Janna. Kremlin Ballet Theatre. Still from Joy Womack. The White Swan

It was in the Kremlin company that Womack was given what she had longed for at the Bolshoi—principal roles in the classics, Nutcracker, Giselle and Swan Lake. Womack regarded the leading role in Swan Lake as the ultimate experience for a ballet dancer and, when she eventually got to perform it, her rendition of the White Swan in Act II moved the director of the company to congratulate her, saying she was the best White Swan he had seen. Towards the end of the film we see brief footage of Womack dancing in these principal roles, including (too briefly) as the White Swan.

Joy Womack as the White Swan, Swan Lake Act II. Kremlin Ballet Theatre. Still from Joy Womack. The White Swan

Joy Womack: The White Swan is a film that is both confronting and challenging but also deeply moving at times. There are some beautiful shots of Moscow scattered throughout and I loved the backstage scenes especially those featuring those lovely Russian ladies working in the costume department.

Ladies of the wardrobe. Still from Joy Womack. The White Swan

The film ends with the Kremlin period. But after that Womack went on to take up a contract with Universal Ballet in Seoul. She then danced briefly with Boston Ballet. She divorced her first husband and is at the time of writing engaged to an American man. I also read that she is seeking joint Russian/American citizenship and currently works with Astrakhan Opera and Ballet Theatre in southwestern Russia. I will long remember her Canberra performance so it was a real pleasure to watch this documentary!

Michelle Potter, 17 July 2021

Featured image: Joy Womack in Moscow. Still from Joy Womack. The White Swan.

Navarasa. Mudra Dance Company

2 – 4 July 2021, Little Theatre, Lower Hutt
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

For over 30 years Shri Vivek Kinra has been teaching Bharata Natyam in Wellington, at Mudra Dance Academy. There have been hundreds of pupils over the decades, many reaching advanced level and performing the arangetram, two-hour solo recital, that marks their professional debut. Others have arrived more recently in New Zealand and are of Indian, Sri Lankan or Fijian origin. One is of Anglo-Irish descent, proving anyone could be in if prepared to do the work.

Kinra draws on this pool of talent to form Mudra Dance Company, presenting traditional and new works in seasons that have become a shining beacon in the city’s annual dance program. The technique and expression from each performer is always delivered with the assured musicality that is built in to Bharata Natyam from young pupils’ first class (5 year olds have been known to weep at the door of the Academy since pupils are not accepted until the age of six).

Kinra choreographs and directs these seasons but announced his own retirement from performing in 2015. Fortunately for us he continues to perform mimed cameos of each choreography, by way of narrated introduction to the themes and moods to expect. These little jewels are like dances you can hold in your hand, and are alone worth the time and ticket price. His own training was at Kalakshetra, in Chennai, where he still maintains strong connections, and works with colleagues, Gayatri Lakshmanan chief among them, and the musicians who play the compositions recorded on Kinra’s annual visits to India.

Of the eight items on the program, six are choreographed by Kinra. The main one, Navarasa, which translates as Nine Emotions, lends its name to the whole program. 

It is a stunning depiction of the gamut of valour, love, wonder, amusement, disgust, anger, fear, compassion and benevolence as experienced by the Mother Goddess Meenakshi in various encounters with gods, demons, humans and animals both tame and wild. In Tamil sung poetry, it is, as I was expecting, a miniature masterpiece.

(l-r) Emotions of anger, wonder and valour. Mudra Dance Company, 2021. Photo: © Gerry Keating

In its mimed prologue, there was a sudden dying of the light. Kinra continued in the dark but knew it would be better if we could see him. A voice cried out for the gods to send light, which will have shaken awake the lighting technician to do as bid, and all was well. Was this part of the choreography all along? A nod to the Covid year that has darkened so many dance stages around the world? Could have been, should have been. You just have to turn the light back on and carry on as before. Vaccines and danced prayers will see us through.

Another item, this time in Sanskrit, is the Shlokas from Shri Krishna Karnamritam. The intoxicating beauty of this god is depicted through musk paste on his forehead, a jewel on his chest, a pearl at the tip of his nose, bracelets, sandalwood paste and a pearl necklace. But wait, there’s more. A herd of cows, a flock of peacocks, dark clouds and strikes of lightning. The piece ends in a dance about dancing—high sophistication this. The Ras Leela is a renowned depiction of ecstasy, usually performed with sticks that percussively mark the beat and interweaving positions of the dancers. Here subtle handclaps were substituted for sticks and it was poignant to hear a swelling response that had a number of the audience gently joining in that handclapping.  

I first saw a Ras Leela danced by a large group from the Indian community at the first Pacific Arts Festival in Suva in 1972 (when Kinra was a babe in arms). Performed by 100 dancers out of doors, it was staged by the artists based at the Indian Cultural Centre in Fiji, five musicians and dancers resident in a full-time program for two years at a time, funded by ICCR from India. A short while later Professor Jenny McLeod brought those artists to Victoria University for a memorable intensive workshop at the School of Music. Political events in Fiji followed, the Centre was closed, and the next time I visited Suva it was a sorry sight to see the once vibrant place now empty and derelict with doors and windows creaking on their hinges and banging open in the wind. Life goes on but it’s hard to claim that all of history is progress. 

There is a long and interesting history of Indian dance in New Zealand—beginning with Sivaram’s and Louise Lightfoot’s visit in 1950s, Liong Xi in 1960s, Amala Devi in 1970, the Balachandrans, Chandrabhanu, Kanan Deobhakta, two astonishing visits by Kathakali dance theatre, and there are others. Fortunately for audiences who wish to deepen their appreciation of the art, there is a vast literature on the subject. Two leading scholars of the field, Dr Kapila Vatsyayan and Dr Sunhil Kothari, have died recently, but were both aware of Kinra’s work here in New Zealand, in the world map of dance.

There was an exuberant cadence to the performance in the final Thillana, choreographed by the late Rukmini Devi, founder of Kalakshetra. (She too once visited New Zealand, as guest of the Theosophical Society). Mudra’s line-up of radiantly costumed and bejewelled dancers was a joy to the capacity audience. It is not to demote any of their previous memorable seasons to mark Navarasa as their strongest choreography yet.

Jennifer Shennan, 03 July 2021

Featured image: Senior dancers of the Mudra Dance Company, 2021. Photo: © Gerry Keating

Balanchine and Robbins. The Royal Ballet Live, 2021


A recent streamed production by the Royal Ballet paid homage to George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, two American choreographers whose work over the course of the twentieth century was undeniably momentous. The stream began with George Balanchine’s Apollo, Balanchine’s first collaboration with Igor Stravinsky, which had its premiere in 1928.

This production of Apollo opened with the birth of the god Apollo, a section of the work not often presented, although it has been part of the structure of the work from its beginnings. Apollo’s mother, Leto, danced on this occasion by Annette Buvoli, is seen in labour and when we get our first glimpse of Apollo he is standing centre stage wrapped tightly in swaddling clothes. Two hand maidens begin to unwind the swaddling cloth until Apollo takes over and swirls out of the cloth. He is given a lute and the handmaidens help him pluck the strings, which at this stage of his life are unfamiliar to him. It has been a while since I saw this ‘birth and growth’ section and it is fascinating to see these stages in the life of Apollo condensed into a minute or so.

From these opening moments the ballet takes the form that is more familiar. Encounters begin between Apollo and the three muses, Polyhymnia (Mime), Calliope (Poetry) and Terpsichore (Music and Dance) who dance for and with Apollo until he eventually ascends Mt Olympus, called home by his father Zeus.

Fumi Kaneko (Polyhymnia), Claire Calvert (Calliope), Melissa Hamilton (Terpsichore) and Matthew Ball in Apollo. The Royal Ballet, 2021. Photo: © Rachel Hollings

This Royal Ballet performance, however, was perhaps not the best Apollo I have seen. Somehow it lacked excitement especially from Matthew Ball as Apollo. I have always thought of Apollo as a somewhat flamboyant and influential character and Ball seemed to me to be rather too retiring (perhaps nervous?), despite his excellent technical accomplishments. For me, the most engaging performance came from Fumi Kaneko as Polyhymnia. She entered fully and easily into the dramatic nature of the character, and her role in the unfolding story was easy to follow.

But Balanchine’s choreography for Apollo is always a joy to watch with its beautiful groupings and poses and its use of rounded and enfolding arms that prefigure the fluidity of Balanchine’s later choreography for his corps de ballet in various of his works. Other sections, including those movements from the Muses where they turn on pointe but with bent knees, always make me think of how challenging Apollo must have been for audiences (and dancers?) in 1928.

The absolute highlight for me on this program, however, was the second item, Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky pas de deux, danced by Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov. It was ballet at its finest in terms of crowd appeal and Nuñez and Muntagirov have the strength of technique to make those show-stopping movements look easy. It was also totally transfixing to watch the joy they exhibited as they moved, and the way they engaged with each other throughout (even in the curtain calls). They were just brilliant.

The program ended with Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a gathering. I watched the Royal Ballet’s production of this work in October 2020 and reviewed it then so won’t review again other than to mention the beautiful performance by Fumi Kaneko as the Green Girl. Kaneko, who was promoted to Royal Ballet principal last month, danced with such joy and such apparent ease that it was impossible not to be moved and thrilled, as I have been every time I have seen her dance.

Michelle Potter, 03 July 2021

Featured image (shown below in full): Vadim Muntagirov and Marianela Nuñez in Tchaikovsky pas de deux. The Royal Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Rachel Hollings