Anne Hendricks Bass (1941–2020)

Anne Hendricks Bass, who has died in New York at the age of 78, was one of the most generous donors to the Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. I met her very soon after I arrived in New York in 2006 to begin my tenure as Curator of the Dance Division. I have so many fond memories of the occasions I worked with her on one or other of her projects. I loved that she was so passionate about dance, ballet in particular, and the visual arts, and that she worked tirelessly to support and promote the things that mattered to her. She was an absolute perfectionist, which I also loved. I count myself fortunate that I met her in so many different situations. Here are some of my favourite memories.

Anne had an apartment on 5th Avenue and I recall clearly going there on one occasion on official Dance Division business. Stepping out of the elevator I was ushered in without noticing what I was walking past. On the way out I almost tripped over what I didn’t notice initially. It was a Degas sculpture, the one I use as the main image on the home page of this website, Little dancer aged fourteen (1878-1881). I was staggered to be so close to it and very relieved I hadn’t tripped over it!

Anne also invited me to work with her on weekends with some material she had gathered for a film she wanted to make about a young Cambodian, Sokvannara Sar, whose familiar name is Sy. Anne brought Sy to New York to be trained as a ballet dancer after seeing him dance in Cambodia on a visit there in 2000. Those working weekends were spent on her property in South Kent, Connecticut, in truly beautiful surroundings. There were several buildings on the estate and my husband and I were accommodated in the cottage in the image below, seen through the surrounding wintery landscape. The film that we worked on in Connecticut, Dancing across Borders, was made after I had left New York but I will forever remember the beautiful countryside of Anne’s Connecticut estate, those mornings and afternoons examining material, and the dinners with Anne and her partner, artist Julian Lethbridge, in the ‘big house’ each night.

Rock Cobble Farm, Connecticut, 2007
Cottage on Rock Cobble Farm, Connecticut, February 2007. Photo: © Neville Potter

During my tenure as Curator in the Dance Division Anne also initiated and funded a number of significant projects. The two that stand out for me are Speaking of Dancing and the Khmer Dance Project. Both were basically oral history projects. With Speaking of Dancing I had the honour of interviewing Lupe Serrano, which was an audio only interview, and I recall sitting in on another interview, a filmed one this time, with designer Holly Hynes. Other interviews were recorded after I left and interviewees included Carolyn Brown, Wendy Whelan, Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel.

The Khmer Dance Project began just before I left and was designed to record, on film, interviews with three generations of artists, including dancers, musicians and singers, who kept dance alive during and after the regime of the Khmer Rouge.

Setting up for an interview with Em Theay (seated), Phnom Penh, March 2008. Photo: © Michelle Potter

The only photo I have of Anne in my personal collection is below. Taken by an unidentified photographer, it shows Anne on the right of the image standing next to Sy on his first visit to New York from Cambodia.

There are countless expensive-to-use images of Anne on the web, but I knew her as she appears in the image above. Anne was an exceptional human being whose humility and generous nature shone whether she was at a glamorous social gathering or standing in a New York street.

The flowers below were a gift from her to me for nothing more than the fact that I was happy to talk to her about my background, especially the work I had done at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra, which led to the invitation to work with her on weekends. Who else would send flowers following what I regarded as just a friendly, informal chat? That was Anne.

Anne Hendricks Bass. Born Indianapolis, Indiana, 19 October 1941; died New York City, New York, 1 April 2020

‘Only in the darkness can you see the stars’

Michelle Potter, 5 April 2020

Featured image: Anne Bass with Sokvannara Sar, 2010. Detail from a promotional image for the film Dancing Across Borders. © Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. Courtesy Dancing across borders, a film by Anne Bass

Dance diary. March 2020

  • Award for Michelle Ryan

It was a thrill to hear that Michelle Ryan, currently director of Restless Dance Theatre in Adelaide, has received the Australia Council’s 2020 Award for Dance. The award, whose previous recipients have included Vicki van Hout, Phillip Adams, Stephen Page, Lucy Guerin and Garry Stewart, is to acknowledge an artist ‘who has made an outstanding and sustained contribution to Australian dance’.

Ryan will be especially well known to Canberra and Adelaide audiences for her performances with Meryl Tankard Company in Canberra and with Meryl Tankard Australian Dance Theatre in Adelaide.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Ryan for the National Library of Australia’s Oral History and Folklore Collection. That interview, recorded in Adelaide in 2014, is now available as an online audio file at this link. It also has a summary and a transcript (uncorrected).

  • Art, not Apart, 2020

One of the last public dance performances in Canberra before such things were no longer permitted (for the moment we hope) was a joint production between Australian Dance Party and QL2 Dance. It was an outdoor event held on the grassy slope in front of the National Film and Sound Archive.

QL2 Dance and Australian Dance Party in 'Art, not Apart', Canberra 2020. Photo: Neville Potter
Scenes from Art, not Apart. QL2 Dance and Australian Dance Party, Canberra 2020

Called YGen to IGen it explored through cross-generational performance ‘the fears, hopes and imaginings of possible futures’. It was a beautiful Canberra afternoon but in retrospect the topic was more apposite than anyone might have imagined.

  • National Photographic Prize

After a portrait of Elizabeth Dalman won the inaugural Darling Portrait Prize, another dancer featured in the 2020 National Photographic Portrait Prize announced shortly after the Darling award. The portrait of Eileen Kramer by Hugh Stewart was Highly Commended. Read more about Eileen Kramer at this link.

  • David Hallberg

One of the events I had booked to see in London in mid-March, which, like the Scarlett Swan Lake, I didn’t manage to get to (and it was cancelled anyway) was Insights: In Conversation with David Hallberg. But here is the image I was given to use in my discussion of the event.

I am curious about Hallberg’s forthcoming new role as artistic director of the Australian Ballet of course. Here is what he said in a recent article in Dance Magazine:

The dancing is already at a very high standard, the repertoire is solid and the audience base is dedicated. But I want to add certain things to the repertoire that haven’t yet been seen in Australia. I’ve seen such a variety of work in New York—and not just at Lincoln Center—and in Russia and Europe. I have a really broad palette. It’s just a matter of tailoring it to the interests of the dancers and the tastes of audiences in Australia.

I also want to bring the company around the world. I have these amazing contacts I’ve made throughout my career that I want The Australian Ballet to benefit from.

And I want to dive into the company’s responsibility to the greater Australian community. A lot of that has to do with education and really getting into isolated communities in Australia, communities that don’t necessarily make it to the Opera House in Sydney or the State Theatre in Melbourne. I think every cultural organization in this era needs to question what their responsibility is to the greater community, and not just put on a beautiful ballets in a beautiful opera house.

Of course, living in Canberra as I do and knowing the lack of interest the Australian Ballet has in visiting Canberra, I wonder whether the national capital is an ‘isolated community’. Fingers crossed! Here is a link to the Dance Magazine article and a link to writing about Hallberg on this site.

Michelle Potter, 31 March 2020

Featured image: Michelle Ryan in Rasa, Meryl Tankard Australian Dance Theatre, Adelaide 1996. Photo: © Régis Lansac

La Meri in costume for Goyesca dance

La Meri

My attention was first drawn to La Meri, an American dancer who specialised in ethnic dance from around the world, by my teacher Valrene Tweedie. When La Meri visited Australia and New Zealand in 1936, Tweedie had been inspired by her performances and mentioned them in an oral history interview I recorded for the National Library in 1988. Later, when I was acquiring the Papers of Moya Beaver also for the National Library’s dance collection, I came across the image that is featured on this post. So, clearly another Australian dancer from the 1930s was inspired by La Meri —inspired enough to seek out and keep a photograph of her.

Jacob’s Pillow has just released a podcast using material from its archive in which we can listen to La Meri talking briefly about her career and her vision for ethnic dance. She also mentions the origins of her name and its relationship to her birth name of Russell Meriwether Hughes. Here is a link to the podcast, which includes briefly the voice of Ted Shawn, also drawn from the Pillow’s archive.

Now I am looking forward to reading Nancy Lee Chalfa Ruyter’s book, La Meri and her life in dance, published in October 2019.

Michelle Potter 23 March 2020

Featured image: La Meri in Goyesca dance. Papers of Moya Beaver, National Library of Australia. MS 9803. (Detail only for the header image; full image below).

Swan Lake. Artists of the Royal Ballet. © ROH, 2018. Photo: Bill Cooper

Swan Lake. The Royal Ballet (on film)

Friday 20 March 2020 (the day I began writing this) was the date I was to be sitting in the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, watching Liam Scarlett’s production of Swan Lake. Instead, with the world closing down as a result of COVID-19, I am sitting at home in Canberra having just watched a DVD of a 2018 performance of that production. Luckily I bought the DVD last time I was in London. I hadn’t had the chance to watch it until now. Here, then, are my thoughts.

Liam Scarlett’s production of Swan Lake is heart-stopping. I don’t think I can honestly say that of any other Swan Lakes I have watched over many decades of dance going. The main dancers—Marianela Nuñez as Odette/Odile, Vadim Muntagirov as Siegfried and Bennet Gartside as von Rothbart—not only dance with technical brilliance but project the underlying emotions of love, longing, loss, power and deception. Emotion pours out of every movement, every glance, every gesture. Powerfully.

Scarlett has made some choreographic changes, although they are not major. The production notes acknowledge Petipa, Ivanov, and Ashton as well as Scarlett. But some small non-choreographic changes that Scarlett has introduced make the storyline so much clearer. Many parts of the narrative we know just because we have read something, somewhere. But Scarlett explains things. He has an intellect and he transfers that intellect into the production, and hence to us. We are involved to a greater extent.

In Act I it is Prince Siegfried’s birthday and there is celebratory dancing. His mother the Queen (Elizabeth McGorian), acting a little sternly, suggests it is time for him to marry. But Siegfried decides to go out into the forest to shoot the swans he sees flying overhead. We know it all. We’ve seen it before. But are we ever really shown with clarity that it is Siegfried’s birthday? Or are we simply told that in the synopsis? In the Scarlett production, Siegfried’s friend Benno (Alexander Campbell) gives Siegfried a present, a golden goblet. And so begins the celebratory dancing, everyone with a goblet in hand for several moments. The Queen, when she arrives, also has a present for her son. It is a cross-bow, a family heirloom, and we know that Siegfried will use it in the next act.

It was also a change to see the introduction of an invitation, a paper prop clearly marked ‘Invitation’, to an event that would be held in the palace at which Siegfried would choose a marriage partner. It was shown to Siegfried by the Queen and his reaction paved the way for his anxiety, and ultimately to his going into the forest with his cross-bow.

But who was that mysterious rather supercilious man dressed in black who acted as some kind of adviser to the Queen? He seemed to be getting in the way a little and forbidding various things. Did he have the right? Well there was bit of dramatic irony introduced at this point. When, as Act I comes to a close, Siegfried goes against the wishes of the man in black and refuses to go inside, setting off instead with his cross-bow, the man in black drags himself upstage where he collapses as if shot. Is he von Rothbart in disguise? Has he been defeated in an attempt to keep Siegfried out of the forest where he might meet Odette? Or is this more a juxtaposition of innocence versus deviousness, good versus evil, with the Queen in the middle? Does it perhaps foretell von Rothbart’s end? It is simply exciting to ponder.

As the work transitions to Act II, the lakeside scenes (designs by John Macfarlane) are full of foreboding. A rocky outcrop and a bright moon dominate, although the lighting is quite dark. But then it is night time.

Marianela Nuñez as Odette in Liam Scarlett’s Swan Lake. The Royal Ballet, 2018. © ROH. Photo: Bill Cooper

Throughout Act II there is the usual structure, perhaps with a little more mime than is apparent in many other productions. But what is transcendent is that Muntagirov shows us how he feels, anxious at times but full of longing for Odette. Nuñez shows her own anxiety, and perhaps fear. Should she engage with this man who appears to love her? Her technique, that beautiful line and her ability to unfold each movement slowly, is also a highlight.

We also meet von Rothbart as von Rothbart rather than the man in black of Act I. Macfarlane has given him a long feathery coat, reflecting the owl-like character of many productions, and has added a touch of red to part of his body costume: he is ‘red beard’ after all. Gartside gives a powerful performance with dominance as a major characteristic.

The work is set in Victorian times, clearly shown by the costume worn by the Queen in each of the acts in which she appears. But when Act III opens we see a kind of Baroque splendour. The sweeping staircase, extravagant floor lamps and the throne on which the Queen sits to watch proceedings all are reminiscent of European Baroque buildings.

Again Act III proceeds as one might expect, although the national dances have a real freshness to them and are beautifully (and I suspect expensively) costumed.

Vadim Muntagirov as Prince Siegfried in Act III of Liam Scarlett’s Swan Lake. The Royal Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Alice Pennefather/ROH

But once again Muntagirov stands out for the way in which he carries the story forward. From the longing and anxiety of Act II he is now thrilled at having found his lost love, or so he believes.

The coda from the Act III pas de deux is simply stunning. Marianela Nuñez’s fouettés, starting with a triple and sprinkled throughout with doubles and another triple, are remarkable, as are Muntagirov’s double tours finishing in arabesque. And there he is smiling all the while. Watch below.

In Act IV the lakeside scenic elements are clearer although the moon has disappeared somewhat. I guess dawn is approaching? The final pas de deux is heart-wrenching and I won’t introduce a spoiler and give away the deeply moving ending. Buy the DVD. It is worth every dollar and terrific watching, especially when everything live is currently cancelled.

As far as the DVD goes, it is interesting, too, to see Scarlett taking a curtain call with the company in this 2018 presentation. Everyone onstage looks and acts as though they have huge admiration for his work and for him. There is also an ‘extra’ on the DVD showing Scarlett and Macfarlane discussing their vision for the production. It is heart-breaking that Scarlett’s career, so remarkable to date, may be cut short by events currently being examined.

Here is a link to posts on this website about the works from Scarlett that Jennifer Shennan and I have seen and written about.

And as a final comment, of course I wish I had been able to see the work live. But …

Michelle Potter, 21 March 2020

Featured image: Artists of the Royal Ballet in Liam Sarlett’s Swan Lake. © ROH, 2018. Photo: Bill Cooper

Swan Lake. Artists of the Royal Ballet. © ROH, 2018. Photo: Bill Cooper
Mayu Takata as Titania with the Mechanicals in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. Baltic Opera Ballet 2020. Photo K. Mystkowski

News from Gray Veredon

Just recently I was sent some images from a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream choreographed by Gray Veredon and performed in Gdansk, Poland, by the Ballet of the Baltic Opera Danzig. I recall with pleasure a visit in 2018 to La Mirande en Ardèche in the French Alps where Veredon lives. There he and I had several conversations about the work he had done with Royal New Zealand Ballet and Wellington City Opera for which Kristian Fredrikson had created sets and costumes. Later, I had had the opportunity to watch, on film, Veredon’s 1989 production of A Servant of Two Masters for Royal New Zealand Ballet and had been interested in the strength and unusual aspects of his choreographic approach, and in the way in which he integrated sets and costumes into the movement.

One of the remarks he made during our conversations in France was that he regarded the visual contributions to a work—sets in particular—as an integral player in the production. He said:

Scenery for me is not just there to be looked at for the next half an hour. It has to move and underline acting areas, character and musicality.

What was also striking for me about Veredon’s productions was the manner in which he transformed narratives from the ‘given’ to something decidedly thought-provoking and arresting. He said of his production of The Firebird, made for the New Zealand Ballet in 1982 (before the company had received its royal charter):

Basically, my version of Firebird was about the spirit of freedom breaking away from boundaries … the Firebird brought hope. That feeling grew and grew until it was strong enough to make freedom a possibility.

Unfortunately I didn’t have an opportunity to see his Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was actually created, Veredon tells me, some years ago and danced by a pick-up company called Ballet de France. I found a review by a Los Angeles critic, which you can read at this link. It gives you an idea of what I have mentioned above re Veredon’s choreography and approach to storyline. Veredon also tells me that the Ballet de France experience introduced him to Eric Languet, whom Veredon then invited to New Zealand where, amongst other things, he danced Truffaldino in A Servant of Two Masters.

Here are two images from the Gdansk production. Costumes were by Zuzanna  Markiewicz, sets by Katarrzyna Zawistowska.

Maria Kielan as Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ballet of the Baltic Opera Danzig, 2020. Photo: © K. Mystkowski
Moon and Lion from the Mechanicals performing their play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ballet of the Baltic Opera Danzig, 2020. Photo: © K. Mystkowski

More about Gray Veredon and his work in New Zealand appears in my forthcoming book on Kristian Fredrikson.

Michelle Potter, 18 March 2020

Featured image: Mayu Takata as Titania with the Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ballet of the Baltic Opera Danzig, 2020. Photo: © K. Mystkowski

Mayu Takata as Titania with the Mechanicals in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. Baltic Opera Ballet 2020. Photo K. Mystkowski