Puerto Rican ladies in 'West Side Story'. Opera Australia, 2019. Photo © Jeff Busby

West Side Story. Opera Australia (another review)

12 October 2019 (matinee preview), Canberra Theatre

Opera Australia’s production of the Broadway musical West Side Story was reviewed on this website by Jennifer Shennan—see this link—when it opened in Wellington ahead of its Australian performances. But of course I could not miss the show, especially when it has such a strong emotional appeal for me. When West Side Story opened in Sydney way back in the 1960s, one of the members of the Sharks (the Puerto Rican gang) was an African American named Ronne Arnold. Ronne taught classes in jazz at the dance school I attended and he ended up making his home in Australia and also making a major contribution to our dance culture. Although another visiting American modern dancer said to me around the same time ‘You’re very classical, darling’, I loved Ronne’s non-classical classes and continued to do them as often as I could. So West Side Story will always have a special place in my heart.

Looking at it onstage half a century (!!) later what is instantly striking is that it just doesn’t seem dated, although some may consider parts of the song Gee, Officer Krupe, which features towards the end of the show, not terribly ‘politically correct’ in 2019. But that aside, part of its attraction perhaps is that ethnic differences, which are represented by the two rival gangs—the Sharks and the Jets—and the social issues such differences so often raise, are still all around us. But there is so much else that marks West Side Story as one of the truly amazing collaborations in performing arts’ history. The book by Arthur Laurents, the music by Leonard Bernstein, the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and the choreography by Jerome Robbins meld so beautifully with each other and give the whole a truly impressive coherence.

Robbins’ choreography is spectacular in its ability to tell us what is happening. Dance may be a wordless art but with Robbins so often no words are needed. Even the gestures he adds when the performers are singing rather than dancing give us clues to the unfolding of the story.

The standout artist in the cast I saw was undoubtedly Chloé Zuel as Anita, girlfriend of Bernardo leader of the Sharks. She was feisty and flamboyant and she used every moment to project that image of her character. Her dancing was exciting to watch and oh how she used that costume to add drama to every movement! She was nothing short of brilliant. But while Zuel stood out, every cast member gave his or her all. Group numbers were thrilling; individuals shone. Just look at the featured image, for example, to see how individualistic the Shark girls were.

The only somewhat jarring aspect for me was that some of the duets between the heroine Maria (Sophie Salvesani) and the hero Tony (Nigel Huckle) seemed, in the manner of their presentation, rather too operatic. I realise that the production is by Opera Australia but to me West Side Story is a dance musical. The staging that surrounded the duets (strong spotlighting with associated dimming of the background, and removal of all other characters) meant that the overall nature of the work was lost. Of course the duets were beautifully sung, and it may be somewhat of a niggle on my part, but I wanted the idea of a dance musical not to be lost.

While on on the subject of niggles, I was sorry that the complex set of balconies and fire escapes looked so overwhelming on the Canberra Theatre stage (when will the national capital get a new theatre complex?). But despite any niggles, I could see this show over and over. It was wonderful to have it back on stage in Australia.

Michelle Potter, 14 October 2019

Featured image: Shark girls in West Side Story. Opera Australia, 2019. Photo © Jeff Busby

Puerto Rican ladies in 'West Side Story'. Opera Australia, 2019. Photo © Jeff Busby

Shaun Parker. The epic journey continues

When I interviewed Shaun Parker in 2017 for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program, his concluding remark was that it had been such a pleasure to be able to talk about ‘the epic journey of past, present and future.’ It was a wonderful way to finish the interview and it gave me the opportunity to write a story, largely about the past and in particular about the origins of Parker’s iconic work Blue Love, for The Canberra Times. Follow this link to read that story.

But Parker has not stood still since that interview. He is currently in Taipei with dancer Libby Montilla. Montilla will be performing Parker’s 20 minute solo work, ReMOTE, at the Kuandu Arts Festival as part of a triple bill program called Vis a Vis. In addition to ReMOTE, the program will feature works by choreographers from Canada and Taiwan.

‘It is wonderful to be performing our work alongside such incredible international artists’, Parker says. ‘And it really helps develop our connections with audiences and festivals across Asia. While we are in Taipei, Libby and I will also be researching new ideas with a Taiwanese bubble artist for a new show. It is going to be a jam-packed time, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.’

Parker has spent a lot of his time outside of Australia touring the works he has made over the 9 years since he founded Shaun Parker & Company in 2010. The company has toured to 19 countries across four continents and shown its work to a quarter of a million people globally. And to help with the development of this global reach, Parker has just recently secured a generous three-year sponsorship from the New York-based Denise and Michael Kellen Foundation. The Foundation, Parker says, has become the company’s ‘Global Partner’ and the sponsorship will help facilitate many programs that Parker believes are anchored in education, social change, and community engagement through the arts. In particular the sponsorship will help Shaun Parker & Company enter the US market.

But in the meantime Parker is working towards a program to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Shaun Parker & Company in 2020. He is planning to return to the stage himself in a revival of Blue Love. After a break from performing he is relishing getting back into training.

‘As a dancer you will always have a desire to dance for an audience again,’ he says. ‘As a choreographer, it is also really important to keep in touch with your body, but also with the energetic relationship between performer and audience.’

In the revival of Blue Love Parker will be performing with his original co-creator and performer, Jo Stone. ‘Jo is an actress who can dance,’ Parker says. ‘And I am a dancer who can act. Sparks fly when we’re on stage together.’

It is a pleasure too to be able to report that Shaun Parker & Company has been nominated as a finalist in the Premier’s NSW Export Awards. The awards ceremony is in Sydney on 16 October.

Michelle Potter, 2 October 2019

Featured image: Portrait of Shaun Parker

Read my review of Blue Love from its Canberra performance in 2017 at this link.

The golden ties that bind

by Jennifer Shennan

Memories from across 40 years of life and work and people at New Zealand School of Dance were triggered by a recent gathering. 

Christine Gunn has been on the faculty at New Zealand School of Dance as classical ballet tutor for 40 years. A celebratory gathering took place at Te Whaea, the school’s venue, in early September to mark the occasion but no-one is taking that as a signal of her impending retirement. The opening speech of heartfelt thanks by director Garry Trinder acknowledged that Christine prefers not to play the diva but just to get on with the work. He quipped how pleased he was to have found her the perfect fridge magnet which asks ‘Would you like to speak to the person in charge, or to the person who knows what’s going on?’ Perhaps they’ll let her retire after another 40 years?

Christine masterminded the art of  timetabling the curriculum for both the classical and contemporary dance streams—(this is tantamount to completing Sudoku puzzles while simultaneously playing two Chess games). It was not merely the timetabling skills being remembered and celebrated however, but the dedication to teaching consistent, supportive classical technique and repertoire classes that have guided many a ballet student towards their performance careers. Raising her own family of two daughters must have required further skills of time management on many occasions.

Anne Rowse was director of the then National School of Ballet when Christine joined the staff in 1979. With Anne, plus Dawn Sanders as part-time tutor and secretary, that made a staff of three. How ever did they do it, in those asymmetric studios that you had to traverse to gain access to the dressing rooms? Well, you’d never have guessed from the calibre of the repertoire in annual Graduation seasons in the Opera House that training conditions were anything less than perfect. It takes hindsight to recognise pioneering of course, but the list of graduates from New Zealand School of Dance, then and since, includes major figures in world dance. Piano accompanists were always the best in town and, over time, other teaching staff were appointed, new premises found, and resources grew.

Turid Revfeim (who has recently written the 50 year history of the School, and is now a tutor there) was a student in the year Christine arrived, and she reminisced on what was done despite those meagre resources. Turid later joined Royal New Zealand Ballet as did many other graduates, Dawn had also earlier been a dancer with them, and such links ensured a genuinely close rapport between the School and the Company, at that time directed by Harry Haythorne. Students used to turn up in droves at the theatre each night to meet the stalwart Company Managers, Warren Douglas or Brendan Meek, themselves both NZSD graduates, for passes to every performance of the season which those days spanned a fortnight. Standing room if need be, but students seized every chance to glean inspiration of what their training was all about, in the context of the theatre. The resulting artistic harvest was bountiful, but it only grew from old-fashioned common sense and the best kind of opportunism.

Christine’s choice at her gathering was for students to perform an excerpt from Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco which they did with a commendable clarity of line and musical acuity. Luke Cooper, a recent graduate now dancing with RNZB, had organized video messages to Christine from former students living and working afar. All the students then performed a massed Maori tribute, a waiata with the talisman wiri of quivering arms and hands that breathes life into dance. The male students  delivered a mightily galvanised haka taparahi that could have given the All Blacks the shivers.  

The large gathering was a spirited one and no doubt evoked many and varied memories among former teachers and students of their experiences across those 40 years—of things trained, learned, rehearsed, performed, triumphed, loved, hoped, danced and dreamed. I’ll put the (injuries and heartbreaks) into parentheses. Nothing about dance is easy—it’s only meant to look that way, with the grace of divine nonchalance suggesting that you, the audience, could be dancing too.

    *********

Anne Rowse invited me to join the staff in 1982, to tutor in Dance Studies—Renaissance and Baroque repertoire, Dance notation, History & Library studies, World Dance Traditions including Pacific and Asian cultures—all the interesting things no one else wanted to teach. How lucky was I? I also offered public courses of dance interest through the Centre for Continuing Education of Victoria University of Wellington, so there was some creative accounting as Anne agreed to let the School premises be used in exchange for free places for students. Win-Win. I was also entrusted to build up the School’s library from fairly meagre holdings, so it was surely a stroke of luck that Smith’s Bookshop, the town’s very best second-hand bookshop, run by Dick Reynolds, was in an adjacent building, so I could each week sniff out dance and related arts books for bargain prices. One day, to my astonishment I found David Garnett’s Lady into Fox, a short story that had been famously adapted, by Andrée Howard, into a choreography by the same name, and the one ballet I most wished I could have seen. I consider myself quite old, but not quite old enough to have caught it when Ballet Rambert toured here in 1949. You could search the shelves of bookshops worldwide and not find Garnett’s stories, so this was a glint of gold. I recall cancelling that day’s planned class and telling the students all about Lady into Fox instead. 

How poignant it was some years later at a matinee of the School’s graduation, with the front rows of the stalls at the Opera House filled with audience from an old folks’ home (another of Anne’s initiatives), to sight Dick Reynolds propped up in a wheel chair, nodding and faintly clapping along as the students rollicked through The Lancers’ Quadrille, but I believe he was wiping away tears when Chopin’s music for the Prelude from  Les Sylphides began.

Another standout memory was a visit from the iconoclast dance-maker Mary Fulkerson from Dartington, an important centre for the arts in Devon. Mary brought her eight hour long performance saga, titled Don’t Tell the Prime Minister I’m coming. The first instalments were performed across two evenings in the Blue Room at the National Art Gallery, when director Luit Beiringa opened those doors for us, but the third and fourth evenings were across a weekend, posing a problem of access to the NAG. There was no budget. (How ever did we do these things on zero budgets? Well, we just did. You could say they were free because they were priceless, which is of course the opposite of worthless). Anne with typical generosity handed over the school keys for the weekend. That gesture remains as memorable as the dance itself, which ended with Fulkerson tossing each of the eight dresses she had worn through the evenings high up into the air, all the while still dancing, singing, and smiling. But wait, only seven dresses ever came back down to earth. The eighth one caught on a high ceiling beam and dislodged a decade’s worth of dust, glinting in the light as it sent a shaft of golden stars down onto our heads. That was 1983 but I can see that glinting still. And no, we didn’t tell the Prime Minister Mary was coming since Muldoon wouldn’t have known what to do with the information, though nowadays you could tell PM. Jacinda Adern, since she is also Minister for the Arts.

The School moved to new premises in Cable St., the entrance to which sat between adjacent doorways—one to Cash Convertors, the other to Abundant Life Spiritual Centre, daily reminders of the spectrum of possibilities in life as well as art. We tried to ignore the nine months of deafening pile-driving as Te Papa construction across the road got under way, and just got on with our work.

Patricia Rianne, one of New Zealand’s most celebrated expatriate dancers, had returned home and become Head of Classical Studies at the School, a most valued teacher and mentor to the students. Her Summer’s Day, to music by Jenny McLeod, and Bliss, inspired by Katherine Mansfield’s story, were staged by RNZB and the graduates dancing there found joy in performing them.

George Dorris and Jack Anderson, leading New York dance writers, walked in the door one day as I was teaching Baroque dance. I squealed in delight to recognise them, introduced them to Anne, we both scolded them for not warning us they were coming, so they returned a year later and gave a wonderful seminar which we also opened to the public. We surveyed the many titles of the fabled Dance Perspectives, a series of periodicals edited by our mutual colleague, Selma Jeanne Cohen. No other dance journal can hold a candle to this series so I was emboldened to beg our National Library to lend us their complete run from the Stacks. No-one had ever borrowed them because no-one knew they were there. They do now. What a weekend we were treated to. I can’t remember if we thanked Anne, but she will have known that the real rewards survive in the minds and memories of those who attended. The threads that weave, and the ties that bind.

Ann  Hutchinson, leading authority in dance notation, visited and gave a workshop in which she mounted from her score Nijinsky’s l’Apres Midi d’un Faune, to music by Debussy. Nijinsky was the true pioneer of modern choreography, as well as a legendary dancer. Sad that he is remembered more for his schizophrenia than his art, but such is the ephemeral nature of dance. The cast of Faune calls for seven dancers, one male and six females. As luck would have it, just 14 students turned up, two males and 12 females, so Ann set about teaching the work to two casts and the whole piece was completed by the end of the afternoon, which you would have to rate a small miracle. The mercurial Warren Douglas was there that day and danced the Faune, as well as many roles at RNZB in following years. Years later but still young, he died tragically, of complications from Aids. It was so sad and so wrong to have to write his obituary. We must never forget the dancers whose lives that cursed illness snatched away. Warren might well have become a brilliant director of RNZB, and would have changed the world.

The most treasured heritage for me throughout my 20 years teaching at the School  was undoubtedly the repertoire of choreographies by Doris Humphrey and José Limon, pioneers of the best of American modern dance, taught and staged by Louis Solino who had been a member of their company in  New York for years. It was another of Anne’s courageous moves to appoint Louis to the staff, since there might have been resistance to the distinctive technique and repertoire, but he was an unusual and quiet genius and in fact over the years turned up gold in a repertoire we’d have been lucky to catch in any world capital … Air for the G String,  Day on Earth, The Shakers, Two Ecstatic Themes, There is a Time, La Malinche, The Unsung, Dances for Isadora, Choreographic Offering, The Moor’s Pavane in seminar. Later the mighty Bach Chaconne was performed by Louis’ partner, the multi-talented Paul Jenden. Paul has since died and a broken-hearted Louis returned to the States, but make no mistake, anyone who ever danced in, or saw rehearsals and performances of those Limon and Humphrey masterworks will never have forgotten them. Next month’s story might tell the detail of how that came about.

Everyone present at Christine’s celebration will have had memories like these, all the same, all different. The following weekend, large numbers of us gathered at parties in  Paekakariki to help Sir Jon Trimmer celebrate his 80th birthday, and his 60 years of performing with RNZB. Jon’s sister, Coral, came from Melbourne with her harmonica in her pocket and played jazz numbers from the 1920s like a shimmering hummingbird, cavorting and gliding about, giving total lie to her 89 years. We knew this was her instrument but hadn’t heard her play. Now we have. That will have to be the next next month’s story.

Between those two gatherings, our daughter gave birth to her firstborn, a baby girl. I’ll let her grow a while and then maybe I’ll make for next next next month, a story about the dance-like movements of a wee, serious, busy, tiny one as she explores the world around her, learning to latch on and to change sides, to yawn and to hiccup, to sneeze and to gurgle, to make frog’s leg kicks that Jeremy Fisher might envy, and, when her arms are unswaddled, to conduct and wave at symphony orchestras. The baby as dancer—I’m up to review that.

It was Eugene O’Neill who said, ‘‘There is no present or future—only the past, happening over and over again—now.’  I like that, so think I will help myself to his words.

Jennifer Shennan, 30 September 2019

Featured image: Christine Gunn cutting her anniversary cake. New Zealand School of Dance

Kevin Jackson, Robyn Hendricks and Nathan Brook in a study for Anna Karenina. Photo: © Justin Ridler

Dance diary. September 2019

  • The Australian Ballet 2020

The Australian Ballet’s 2020 season, announced earlier this month, looks to be the most interesting the company has offered for years. I was thrilled to see that Yuri Possokhov’s Anna Karenina was on the list. Although I haven’t seen this particular work I was lucky enough to see San Francisco Ballet perform Possokhov’s Rite of Spring back in 2013. It was totally mesmerising and I can’t wait to see Anna Karenina.

Another work I have seen elsewhere, which I am also anticipating with pleasure, is Frederick Ashton’s A Month in the Country, which dates back to 1976. Seeing it just a few years ago I wrote, ‘I found myself swept along by a strong performance from Zenaida Yanowsky as Natalia Petrovna and by Ashton’s ability to define characters through movement. The young, the old, different levels of society, everything was there in the choreography’.

The Australian Ballet’s 2020 season includes A Month in the Country as part of a triple bill, Molto, which also comprises Tim Harbour’s Squander and Glory, one of his best works I think, and a revival of Stephen Baynes’ crowd pleasing Molto Vivace. A Month in the Country needs strong acting (as no doubt Anna Karenina does too), so fingers crossed that the company’s coaching is good.

For other good things on the 2020 program, including Graeme Murphy’s delayed Happy Prince and a new work, Logos, from Alice Topp, see the Australian Ballet’s website.

  • In the wings

Two stories that were meant to be posted in September were held up for various reasons. One is a profile of Shaun Parker who is currently in Taiwan performing at the Kuandu Arts festival in Taipei. The other is Jennifer Shennan’s account of a tribute held recently in Wellington to celebrate 40 years of teaching by Christine Gunn at the New Zealand School of Dance. Jennifer’s story is reflective and personal without ignoring the stellar input from Gunn over 40 years.

The issues that delayed these two posts have been sorted and the stories will appear shortly.

Portrait of Shaun Parker.
  • Press for September 2019

None! I am reminded of Martin Portus’ comment to me in a recent email ‘Ah! The death of the [print] outlet!’


Michelle Potter, 30 September 2019

Featured image: Kevin Jackson, Robyn Hendricks and Nathan Brook in a study for Anna Karenina. Photo: © Justin Ridler

Kevin Jackson, Robyn Hendricks and Nathan Brook in a study for Anna Karenina. Photo: © Justin Ridler
Ryan Stone (centre) with Olivia Fyfe (left) and Alana Stenning in From the Vault, 2019. Photo: Lorna Sim

From the Vault. Australian Dance Party

20 September 2019. A ‘secret vault’, Dairy Road Precinct, Canberra

Dairy Road Precinct, on the edge of Canberra’s industrial suburb of Fyshwick, may be the least likely venue imaginable for a dance performance. A largely uninviting area, it is filled with buildings in hard-edged contemporary architectural style; there is little adequate signposting; and the precinct is difficult to navigate and to find the building one wants, even in daylight let alone at night. It is home to various organisations and start-up companies and seems to be filled with warehouses and vehicle yards. But a large warehouse, once used as a storage bunker by the Australian Mint, was the somewhat surprising venue for From the Vault, the latest production staged by Alison Plevey and her Australian Dance Party.

From the Vault looked at personal values that the Party thought were significant in our current society. The ideals that topped the list during research for the work were Safety, Freedom, Wealth, Individuality, Truth and Connection. Each of these ideas was examined in a distinct section with one particular dancer leading each part. While the values being put forward were not instantly recognisable (I later read the program notes), From the Vault was clearly about people’s emotions, thoughts and personal ideals. It was a work with which we, the audience, could immediately identify and it really didn’t matter if one’s thoughts strayed from what was written in the program (especially if it wasn’t read prior to the performance). I saw the Wealth section, for example, as being about greed and even gambling, and of course related it instantly to the original function of the performance space, especially when coins rained from above and were exchanged and tossed between the dancers. But, with its emphasis on people and their values, however one perceived what those values were, From the Vault was by far the best work I have seen from the Australian Dance Party.

Of course to be the best work I had seen from Plevey and her Party, From the Vault also needed to be expertly staged and well danced, costumed and lit. The five dancers, Stephen Gow, Olivia Fyfe, Eliza Sanders, Alana Stenning and Ryan Stone, all performed with the power and commitment we have come to expect of them.

Stephen Gow (centre) with dancers from the Australian Dance Party in From the Vault, 2019. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Stone was the standout performer. He led the section that represented Individuality (although to me it seemed more like gentle dominance). The section began with a kind of Mozartian flourish as dancers performed a dance built around a very eighteenth-century reverence. But then, accompanied by Alex Voorhoeve on his magical electric cello, and with a sound design from Andy McMillan, Stone began some of the most beautiful (and I should add individualistic) dancing I have seen for a long time. His limbs seemed to have no restrictions at all, such was the fluidity and freedom with which he moved. His speed and elevation were a joy to watch, and I loved the way he covered the space with his larger movements. I was also impressed with the way in which his body, and every part of his body, filled the immediate space around him. Nothing was a mindless gesture and he seemed totally absorbed in his execution of the choreography. He was a dancer possessed.

Mark Dyson’s lighting design added much to the atmosphere with a strong use of colour, down lighting and contrasts of light and darkness. There was mystery there, and the large space available in the ‘secret vault’ allowed dancers to appear and disappear throughout the performance. Costumes by Imogen Keen, with a mix of fabric from denim to patchwork splendour, were distinctive, attractive and quite chic.

Scene from From the Vault. Australian Dance Party, 2019. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Alison Plevey directed From the Vault and did not perform herself, as she usually does. With Karla Conway as dramaturg, focused direction from Plevey, and an exceptional creative input from the whole team, this work had power and coherence and was an immersive experience for the audience. Four and a half stars.

Michelle Potter, 22 September 2019

Featured image: Ryan Stone (centre) with Olivia Fyfe (left) and Alana Stenning in From the Vault. Australian Dance Party, 2019. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Ryan Stone (centre) with Olivia Fyfe (left) and Alana Stenning in From the Vault, 2019. Photo: Lorna Sim