The Russell Kerr Lecture, February 2020

by Jennifer Shennan

In 2018, in Wellington, an annual series named the Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet & Related Arts was established to honour the celebrated and loved father figure of ballet in New Zealand. [The series’ title was borrowed from the Lincoln Kirstein lecture in Ballet & Related Arts annually offered at New York University. We were particularly inspired by their 2016 presentation by Ian Bostridge on Song & Dance ... it’s online, and well worth listening to].

In 2018 our inaugural lecture was delivered by Dr Michelle Potter, dance historian and writer from Canberra, who gave an insightful profile of the life and work of costume and set-designer Kristian Fredrikson, local Wellington boy made good, with a prolific career both in New Zealand and Australia. (The book resulting from Michelle’s many years of research is to be published by Melbourne Books, in July/August 2020).

Each of our sessions opens with a cameo dance performance which in 2018 was Loughlan Prior’s Lark, a tightly-stitched witty duet, a bespoke choreography for Jon Trimmer (longstanding colleague of Fredrikson) and William Fitzgerald—the older dancer savouring decades of memories and moves, the younger dancer questing to catch them. Piano accompaniment (Glinka, Rachmaninoff, Borodin ) was by Dr Hamish Robb, and Beth Chen, members of staff at Te Koki/New Zealand School of Music, which is the venue  for the event. 

In 2019, Dr Ian Lochhead’s account of the Ballets Russes visits to Australia and New Zealand in 1937 and 1939, opened with the poignant Prelude from Les Sylphides danced by Taylor-Rose Frisby from New Zealand School of Dance—and The Swan by Abigail Boyle, until recently leading artist with Royal New Zealand Ballet. Accompaniment was by Hamish Robb, piano, and Inbal Megiddo, cellist. Ian is planning to publish a longer article to be developed from his script. 

On 9 February 2020, I delivered the third lecture: Douglas Wright—dance-maker, time-keeper, meteor. Tracing metaphors in the work of dancer, choreographer, writer Douglas Wright, 1956–2018.

The opening dance performed was a menuet danced by Anne Rowse and Keith McEwing, to menuets 1 & 2 from the Partita no.1, J. S. Bach, played by Hamish Robb. The lecture began with my story of an encounter with Wright:

Douglas Wright pressed me to show him how the technique and music of baroque dance worked, sensing it as a seeding ground for much of ballet’s vocabulary. His dance intelligence and curiosity were like nothing I’ve ever encountered, so we explored the different accents and interactions that give character to a beguiling menuet, cheerful bourrée, courageous chaconne, flirtatious gavotte, madcap passepied, saucy gigue, majestic courante, tender sarabande.

Douglas liked their effects of distilled emotion, so to remember that, and him, the session opened with a menuet. Typically composed in pairs, the first, major, the second, minor, then back to the major, menuets are in triple-time, stepped in counter-rhythm to the music (2 + 4 against 3 + 3), with further asymmetry between phrase lengths. A subtle pull between movement and music—we want to see resolved, to see how two things can become one.

The handhold central to its ‘narrative’—right, then left, then both—signals a greeting, a conversation, a friendship. We know how to dance a menuet thanks to notation by English dancing master Kellom Tomlinson. The earliest European dance resource in New Zealand is a 300 year old ms. workbook by the same Tomlinson, gifted to the Alexander Turnbull Library through the generosity of the Trimmer family.

Our plan was that Jon Trimmer would dance with Anne Rowse, but once rehearsing, it became clear that Jon’s long-standing ankle injury would prevent him from enjoying the experience. The initial injury from years back didn’t stop him dancing then but he has carried it ever since, a price that dancers often pay. Keith McEwing stepped up to take Anne’s hand on the upbeat, because passing the baton is what dancers do.   

In the following lecture I read a number of excerpts from Douglas’ writings, what he called ‘autobiographical fiction’, Ghost Dance (Penguin 2004) and Terra Incognito (Penguin 2006), and from his two volumes of poems, published by Steele Roberts, Laughing Mirror and Cactusfear. Video illustrations were sourced from the documentary Haunting Douglas, made by Leanne Pooley in 2003. The film is an award-winning profile of the work and life of arguably New Zealand’s leading performer and dance-maker, a legend in his lifetime whose astonishingly prolific output will be remembered for decades to come. Haunting Douglas is available on Vimeo, or for purchase from Spasifik Films, and is highly recommended viewing.

Planning is already under way for the next lecture in the series which will be held on Sunday 10 February 2021, with details of topic and presenter to be confirmed.

Jennifer Shennan, 19 February 2020

Andrew Killian and Dimity Azoury in 'Aurum'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Dance diary. January 2020

Alice Topp’s Aurum

Aurum, choreographed by Alice Topp, a resident choreographer with the Australian Ballet, was first seen in Melbourne in 2018. It was followed by a 2019 season in Sydney, a scene from which is the featured image for this post. Also in 2019 it had a showing in New York at the Joyce Theater. In fact the Joyce was in part responsible for the creation of Aurum. Aurum was enabled with the support of a Rudolf Nureyev Prize for New Dance, awarded by the Joyce. Major funding came from the Rudolf Nureyev Dance Foundation. Aurum went on to win a Helpmann Award in 2019.

Now Topp will stage her work for Royal New Zealand Ballet as part of that company’s Venus Rising program opening in May 2020. She has recently been rehearsing the work in RNZB studios in Wellington.

Madeleine Graham and Allister Madin in rehearsal for Alice Topp's 'Aurum'. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeremy Brick
Madeleine Graham and Allister Madin in rehearsal for Alice Topp’s Aurum. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeremy Brick

I can still feel the excitement of seeing Aurum for the first time in 2018 when it was part of the Australian Ballet’s Verve program. My review from that season is at this link.

Dance Australia critics’ survey

Below are my choices in the annual Dance Australia critics’ survey. See the February/March 2020 issue of Dance Australia for the choices made by other critics across Australia. The survey is always interesting reading.

  • Highlight of the year
    West Side Story’s return to Australian stages looking as fabulous as it did back in the 1960s. A true dance musical in which choreographer Jerome Robbins tells the story brilliantly through dance and gesture.
  • Most significant dance event
    Sydney Dance Company’s 50th anniversary. Those who have led, and are leading the company—Suzanne Musitz, Jaap Flier, Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon, and currently Rafael Bonachela—have given Australian audiences a varied contemporary repertoire with exposure to the work of some remarkable Australian choreographers and composers, as well as the work of some of the best contemporary artists from overseas.
  • Most interesting Australian independent group or artist
    Canberra’s Australian Dance Party, which has started to develop a strong presence and unique style and has given Canberra a much needed local, professional company. The 2019 production From the vault showed the company’s strong collaborative aesthetic with an exceptional live soundscape and lighting to add to the work’s appeal.
  • Most interesting Australian group or artist
    Bangarra Dance Theatre. Over thirty years the company has gone from strength to strength and can only be admired for the way in which Stephen Page and his associates tell Indigenous stories with such pride and passion.
Beau Dean Riley Smith (centre) as Bennelong, Bangarra Dance Theatre 2017. Photo: Vishal Pandey
Beau Dean Riley Smith (centre) as Bennelong in Bennelong, Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2017. Photo: © Vishal Pandey
  • Most outstanding choreography
    Melanie Lane’s thrilling but somewhat eccentric WOOF as restaged by Sydney Dance Company. It was relentless in its exploration of group behaviour and reminded me a little of a modern day Rite of Spring
Scene from Melanie Lane's 'WOOF'. Sydney Dance Company, 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig
Scene from Melanie Lane’s WOOF. Sydney Dance Company, 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig
  • Best new work
    Dangerous Liaisons by Liam Scarlett for Queensland Ballet. Scarlett has an innate ability to compress detail without losing the basic elements of the narrative and to capture mood and character through movement. It was beautifully performed by Queensland Ballet and demonstrated excellence in its collaborative elements.
  • Most outstanding dancer(s)
    Kohei Iwamato from Queensland Ballet especially for his dancing in Dangerous Liaisons as Azolan, valet to the Vicomte de Valmont. His dancing was light, fluid, and technically exact and he made every nuance of Scarlett’s choreography clearly visible

    Tyrel Dulvarie in Bangarra’s revival of Unaipon in which he danced the role of David Unaipon. His presence on stage was imposing throughout and his technical ability shone, especially in the section where he danced as Tolkami (the West Wind).
  • Dancer(s) to watch
    Ryan Stone, dancer with Alison Plevey’s Canberra-based Australian Dance Party (ADP). His performance in ADP’s From the vault was exceptional for its fluidity and use of space and gained him a Dance Award from the Canberra Critics’ Circle.

    Yuumi Yamada of the Australian Ballet whose dancing in Stephen Baynes Constant Variants and as the Daughter in Stanton Welch’s Sylvia showed her as an enticing dancer with much to offer as she develops further.
  • Boos!
    The Australian Government’s apparent disinterest in the arts and in the country’s collecting institutions. The removal of funding for Ausdance National, for example, resulted in the cancellation of the Australian Dance Awards, while the efficiency dividend placed on collecting institutions, which has been in place for years now, means that items that tell of our dance history lie unprocessed and uncatalogued, and hence are unusable by the public for years.
  • Standing ovation
    I’m standing up and cheering for the incredible variety of dance that goes on beyond our major ballet and contemporary companies. Youth dance, community dance, dance for well-being, dance for older people, and more. It is indicative of the power that dance has to develop creativity, health and welfare, and a whole range of social issues.
Scene from Eye to Eye in On course. QL2 Dance, 2019. Photo: © Andrew Sikorski/Art Atelier

New oral history recordings

In January I had the pleasure of recording two new oral history interviews for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program. The first was with Chrissa Keramidas, former dancer with the Australian Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and Sydney Dance Company. Keramidas recently returned as a guest artist in the Australian Ballet’s recent revival of Nutcracker. The story of Clara. The second was with Emeritus Professor Susan Street, AO, dance educator over many years including with Queensland University of Technology and the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts.

News from James Batchelor

James Batchelor’s Redshift, originally commissioned by Chunky Move in 2017, will have another showing in Paris in February as part of the Artdanthé Festival. Redshift is another work emerging from Batchelor’s research following his taking part in an expedition to Heard and McDonald Islands in the sub-Antarctic in 2016. Artdanthé takes place at the Théâtre de Vanves and Batchelor’s works have been shown there on previous occasions.

Study for Redshift. Photo: © Morgan Hickinbotham

Batchelor is also about to start work on a new piece, Cosmic Ballroom, which will premiere in December 2020 at another international festival, December Dance, in Bruges, Belgium. Below are some of Batchelor’s thoughts about this new work.

Set in a 19th Century Ballroom in Belgium, Cosmic Ballroom will playfully reimagine social dances and the aesthetic relationship they have to the space and time they exist within. We will work with movement as a plastic and expressive language that is formed through social encounters: the passing of thoughts, feelings and uncertainties from body to body. It will ponder the public and private and the personal and interpersonal as tonal zones that radiate and contaminate. How might movement be like a virus in this context? How might space-times be playfully spilling across and infecting one another from the baroque ballroom to the post-industrial club space?

Batchelor will collaborate with an team of Australian, Italian and UK artists on this work.

Liam Scarlett

Not such good news

Michelle Potter, 31 January 2020

Featured image: Andrew Killian and Dimity Azoury in Aurum. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Andrew Killian and Dimity Azoury in 'Aurum'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud
Helen Moulder and Sir Jon Trimmer recreating a moment from 'Petrouchka' in 'Meeting Karpovsky', Willow Productions 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

2019–Dance Highlights from New Zealand

by Jennifer Shennan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year to all.

Jennifer Shennan, 13 January 2020

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

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

Dance diary. December 2019

  • The best of …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Happy New year 2020

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

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

Michelle Potter, 31 December 2019

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

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

On Course. QL2 Dance

15 December 2019. QL2 Theatre, Canberra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle Potter, 17 December 2019

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

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

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