Thank you to all those who have accessed this website over 2021. Your loyalty is much appreciated and I look forward to your visits, and comments, in 2022. Happy New Year and here’s hoping there will be more live performances for us to see in 2022.
Dance and disability
Canberra has long had a strong and diverse dance program for those with a disability. Nowhere was this more clear than on 3 December, the International Day of People with a Disability—Australia. An event held at the National Portrait Gallery, led by Liz Lea, presented short works by various Canberra-based groups including ZEST—Dance for Parkinsons, the Deaf Butterflies Group and Lea’s new group, Chameleon Collective. As a particular highlight, a group of dancers from Canberra’s company of senior performers, the GOLDS, along with dancers from QL2 Dance and elsewhere also gave a performance as part of ON DISPLAY GLOBAL, a ‘human sculpture court’ initiative that began in 2015 in New York as part of a now-world-wide event celebrating the occasion.
‘In remembrance of times past’
When writing my post The Best of 2021 I used the phrase ’in remembrance of times past’ (a common translation of Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu). I used the phrase in a specific sense, one relating to changes in the way newspapers report (or don’t) on the arts these days. But shortly after using that phrase in my post, I chanced to come across some images taken in 2010 during a day spent in Auvers-sur-Oise in France. At the time we were there—just for a day to see the town where Vincent van Gogh spent his final days—a community dance group from Brittany was visiting. Here are some photos that date back to that day.
That controversial ballet
Not so long ago I received a message in the contact box for this website about La Bayadère. In my Dance diary. July 2021 I had posted a piece about the ballet and the issues that were arising around the world, in particular in the United States, about the Indian context of that work. Well it seems that similar issues are now arising in Australia. The contact box message came from a member of the Hindu community in Australia and was similar in content to the comments that were circulating elsewhere in the world. In part the message I received said, ‘Hindus are urging “The Australian Ballet” to discard “La Bayadère” performance from its “Summertime Ballet Gala”; scheduled for February 17-19, 2022 in Melbourne; which they feel seriously trivializes Eastern religious and other traditions.’
I am, of course, curious to know if anything will eventuate, but I think it is important to add that it is The Kingdom of the Shades scene that is being presented in Melbourne, not the full-length Bayadère.
Michelle Potter, 31 December 2021
Featured image: Sulphur-crested cockatoos enjoying seeds in a Cootamundra Wattle tree, Canberra 2021
I did not have the opportunity to see live dance outside Australia in 2021 although I came very close to getting to New Zealand to see Loughlan Prior’s Firebird for Royal New Zealand Ballet (everything was booked but had to be cancelled at the last minute)! But I did see a variety of performances from overseas companies in online screenings, including Firebird. Most of what I saw in this way I did review for this website.
Choosing just five productions was not easy but I decided to stay with that limit, perhaps ‘in remembrance of times past’. Five was the limit in the days when The Canberra Times had a stronger arts coverage. And such a limit does demand a certain degree of focus and serious thought about defining principles in specific situations!
Below are my ‘top five’ productions for the year arranged chronologically according to the date of performance.
Third Practice. Tero Saarinen Company. Helsinki, February 2021. Online screening
I was first introduced to the work of the Finnish company led by Tero Saarinen in late 2020 when I was able to watch Borrowed Light, a collaboration by the company with the singers of Boston Camerata. Borrowed Light dated back to 2004 but was filmed in 2012 at Jacob’s Pillow and the film was screened online in 2021 as part of the Pillow’s response to lockdown. It was an exceptional collaboration and made me want to see more from this company, which I had not encountered before. The opportunity came in February 2021 when I was invited to watch and review the company’s online screening of Third Practice, performed to madrigals by Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi, and played and sung by members of Helsinki’s Baroque Orchestra.
Third Practice was another eye-opening production after Borrowed Light. In my review I wrote’, ‘Third Practice is an extraordinary work examining the endless possibilities of cross art form collaboration and the potential of dance to stand at the forefront of new explorations in the arts.’
I was initially intrigued by the title Third Practice. As I discovered when doing some preliminary research, it referred to comments about the nature of Monteverdi’s compositional style and Tero Saarinen’s own approach to choreography. You can read more in my review at this link.
GRIMM. Sydney Choreographic Centre. Sydney, April 2021. Live performance
Starting a new company, and indeed a whole new choreographic venture, is a courageous step to take. GRIMM was the first production from a new Sydney-based venture, the Sydney Choreographic Centre, the brainchild of director Francesco Ventriglia (also the choreographer of GRIMM) and managing director Neil Christopher. GRIMM is courageous too in that it takes a whole new look at characters from the Brothers Grimm (Jacob and Wilhelm), and examines the emotions of those characters as they move from youth to maturity. It is a far cry from the way we usually meet characters like Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood and others, in dance form.
But it was also a truly thrilling production in a collaborative sense. Lighting, projections, costumes were stunning in their contemporaneity. Absolutely stunning. It was a terrific start for this new venture and I look forward to seeing more. Read my review at this link.
The Point, Liz Lea Dance Company, Canberra, May 2021. Live performance
Liz Lea Dance Company won a Canberra Critics’ Circle Award for Lea’s production of The Point. The citation read: ‘For The Point, a courageous exploration of connection and creativity across different dance styles and cultures through innovative choreography highlighted by outstanding use of music and a remarkable lighting design by Karen Norris.’
What intrigued me especially about this production was the mix of dance styles, which did not in my mind compromise any one style. My ballet teacher, many years ago now, was Valrene Tweedie, and I recall her saying ‘Ballet is like a sponge. It can absorb anything and everything.’ Well it is quite easy to substitute ‘dance’ for ‘ballet’ in that remark and Lea’s combining of contemporary, Western style movement with Indian styles, with which Lea is more than familiar, suggests strongly that no dance style is beyond being looked at creatively.
Of course, as the citation indicates, the collaboration across media was brilliant and the mix of ideas, which included homage to Marion Mahony Griffin and her contribution to the design of Canberra, was also brilliant. Read my review at this link.
Sandsong. Stories from the Great Sandy Desert. Bangarra Dance Theatre. Sydney, June 2021. Live performance
For me Sandsong captured what I have always loved about Bangarra—the company’s ability to present Indigenous cultural heritage and the political issues that have intruded on and damaged that heritage. I admire the way the ideas presented generate serious contemplation about the situation without necessarily demanding that we are filled with anger. Bangarra shows us what happened; we can draw our own conclusions. With Sandsong I also was moved by the way those cultural issues reflected gender divisions in traditional society, both choreographically and in a narrative sense.
In addition, what always stands out with Bangarra productions, and Sandsong was no exception, is the visual strength of the company’s shows. Jacob Nash creates exceptional sets, Jennifer Irwin’s costumes capture so much of the context of the work while giving freedom for the dancers to move, and on this occasion the lighting by Nick Schlieper added a stunning shimmer to Nash’s backcloth while Steve Francis’ score captured the multi-faceted nature of the work.
On view. Panoramic Suite. Sue Healey. Sydney, October 2021 . Online screening
Sue Healey has been working with the concept of On View for a number of years and I have strong memories of On View. Live Portraits, as well as a number of filmed portraits she has made of people she has named ‘icons’ of Australian dance. Panoramic Suite, however, takes her ideas to another level and includes material recorded outside of Australia, in particular in Hong Kong and Japan. Healey has combined this new material with that created in Australia and the result is indeed a panorama. This is not just because it traverses continents in its subject matter, but also because of the technical approach that gives the viewer many angles from which to view the footage—close-up shots, aerial views, multiple views of the same sections, and so many other concepts.
On View. Panoramic Suite is an exceptional endeavour and a huge credit to Healey and her team. Read my review at this link.
I guess what I really liked about all five of these productions was that in one way or another the choreographers, and the collaborative team, were pushing the boundaries of what dance is about, what it can do, how we can look at it. And the pushing of boundaries was happening in such a variety of ways. There was intelligence and creativity in approach and that was a real thrill in a year when we all wondered if the performing arts would survive when there were so many problems, especially for live performance. Let’s look ahead, with fingers crossed, to 2022.
The year everywhere saw curtailment of a number of dance events but the resilience in dancers’ responses still gave us plenty of highlights to savour …
Ballet Collective Aotearoa launched its long-awaited premiere season, Subtle Dances, in the Auckland and Dunedin Arts Festivals early in the year. Artistic direction of BCA by Turid Revfeim, to establish a new national independent ballet enterprise, is supported by her troupe’s pioneering and committed spirit that refuses to let funding challenges affect their vision, as further festival bookings eventuate and new sponsorship initiatives are waiting in the wings. BCA achieved an outstanding professional level of dance and music presentation with this triple-bill that premiered choreographies by Sarah Knox, Cameron Macmillan and Loughlan Prior, in collaboration with the New Zealand String Trio, who played onstage throughout. This was chamber performance of the highest order, and impressive that the two arts could bring such coherence to a triple-bill. It was further affirmation to see Abigail Boyle, nationally treasured dancer, performing at her peak. Young company member Kit Reilly is one to watch out for (he has recently received the inaugural Bill Sheat Memorial Award for a dancer prepared to commit to New Zealand identity in their career).
Later in the year Loughlan Prior achieved what is arguably his finest choreography—Transfigured Night, beautifully themed to the Schoenberg score, performed by New Zealand String Quartet in a NZChamber Music national tour, in an impressive staging where musicians and dancers again shared the stage space. The calibre of choreography, fine dancers and fabulous musicians ensured that the totality was greater than the sum of its considerable parts. That doesn’t happen just by cutting the stage into two halves, but grows out of the skill and vision of the choreographer, and willingness of the musicians to take risks (NZSQ have always been up for that). Laura Saxon Jones, another much valued New Zealand dancer, was here in her prime, as Prior, who knows her work well, intuited exactly how to create a searingly memorable role for her. Thanks to inspired set and costume design by William Fitzgerald (who also danced in the work), the unlikely space of the Fowler Centre was transformed into a grail of poignant and poetic beauty. At the end, audience members, primarily music followers, were either on their feet or reduced to tears by this outstanding work, which would hold its strength in any venue worldwide. Perhaps it is music audiences that will enlarge a future following for dance as they find music treated with equal respect as choreography, without distracting interruptions of shouting and whistling that haul balletic virtuosity out of the context of choreography (as though dancers need encouragement to tackle the next entrechat or pirouette).
Lucy Marinkovich brought her remarkable Strasbourg 1518 back to Circa Theatre after its premiere season there was cut short last year. It remains the most powerful experience of dance theatre seen here in a very long time, and its Auckland season also made huge and visceral impact. Lucien Johnson’s sound design plus saxophone drove the performers into the stratosphere. I remember the narrator from the original production, France Hervé, for the remarkable transition within her role that edged its way through the performance. No easy way to turn that alchemy into words.
Bianca Hyslop choreographed and Rowan Pierce designed Pohutu, performed for the Toi Poneke gallery, a highly effective setting for a work of empathy with unfolding references to both geographical landscape and mental inscape.
The New Zealand School of Dance graduation offered a program of interesting contrasts within the classical and contemporary vocabularies, and I felt thrilled to encounter the choreographic instinct and potential of Tabitha Dombrowski’s new work, Reset Run.
Vivek Kinra’s company Mudra presented Navarasa, to his customary highest standard of Bharata Natyam, a consistent contribution to Wellington’s artistic life for decades. One of my favourite things is to observe a dance class, to sight the seeds planted that over time grow into performance. It’s one of the ways to prepare for the privilege of writing about dance in its ephemeral, enduring path. Kinra is one of the most naturally gifted dance teachers across all genres in Wellington, in his command of discipline that is shared with, but not imposed upon, his students. In this Indian dance form there is a wonderful continuity between studio and stage which offers a cleansing and rewarding experience.
I attended a spirited gathering at Parliament, where a book documenting the Irish population resident in New Zealand was launched. Every address was laced with a song, as we are so accustomed to in Maori whaikōrero (oratory) and following waiata (song) but it was especially apparent here that Celtic dance is as readily available as song, poetry, literature, instrumental music—fiddle and pipes—as affirmations in Irish communication. No choreographer to be named here—just dancing from the heart.
The Royal New Zealand Ballet’s restaging of Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream brought us many poignant reminders of the premiere season in 2016 and its stellar cast. Previous artistic director Ethan Stiefel had initially proposed and negotiated with Queensland Ballet for the two companies to share a series of productions, which was a truly exciting prospect. Queensland Ballet did mount A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2016 but after that, unfortunately, the project did not proceed further. But the calibre of choreography and design (Tracy Grant Lord) of Dream remains intact. It was Scarlett’s masterstroke to frame the plot with a prologue of the young child caught between fractious parents yet resolved by the epilogue, hence the genius to telescope a 500 year old theme into contemporary society. That Liam Scarlett died at 35, earlier this year, is something that Shakespeare, in heartbreaking tragedy, would be challenged to account for.
I watched on Sky Arts several sizzling programs of documentary/performance by Flamenco artists, memorably Rocio Molina. The best-made dance films for my eye are those of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, superb record of the company’s prolific repertoire in perpetuity, and their viewings always prompt me to send a message to everyone in my contacts list to watch if at all possible.
Dance reading helped fill some of the quieter stretches of the year—Michel Meylac on Russian Ballet emigrés was exactly what it claimed—whereas I found totally delightful surprise, when reading the fresh and fabulous Zadie Smith—Feel Free—to happen upon her essay Dance Lessons for Writers, in which she brilliantly couples and compares Fred Astaire & Gene Kelly … ‘aristocracy v. proletariat…the floating and the grounded …’; Harold Nicholas & Fayard Nicholas … ‘propriety and joy, choose joy…’; Michael Jackson & Prince; Janet Jackson, Madonna, Beyoncé; David Byrne & David Bowie; Rudolf Nureyev & Mikhail Baryshnikov… ‘the one dancer faced resolutely inwards, the other is an outward-facing —artist…’. It’s heartening to find such perceptive analysis from a writer who is not exclusively describing dance performances, but who can trace and evaluate how these technical and aesthetic qualities resonate with the rest of our experiences.
For the fourth Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet & Related Arts, Anne Rowse brought her own 90 years alongside her decades of friendship with 91 year old Russell Kerr to trace their parallel careers—and what fabulously sustained careers those have been. The event was coupled with a celebration of Michelle Potter’s book, Kristian Fredrikson, Designer, generously supported by the Australian High Commission.
The same event also saw the launch of DNA—Dance Needs Attention, a networking enterprise to invite artistic associates to support each other as individuals in independent dance studies and writing projects. Among early tasks was the opportunity for me to read the manuscript of associate Ashley Killar’s forthcoming biography of John Cranko—a fascinating read and one certainly to watch out for.
2022 will see Patricia Rianne, in the fifth lecture of the RKL series, trace her own life and career—including the ballet, Bliss, that she choreographed after a Katherine Mansfield story, for New Zealand Ballet in 1986. There will be several seminars throughout following months in which we will celebrate Poul Gnatt’s arrival in New Zealand in 1952, when he first taught open classes in Auckland as the Borovansky Ballet toured here, before he founded the New Zealand Ballet the following year.
May we all be safe and sound through 2022… 100 years since James Joyce published Ulysees, TS Eliot published The Waste Land, Virginia Woolf is writing, Katherine Mansfield is writing… and Sergei Diaghilev invited Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Erik Satie and Clive Bell to dine together in Paris at the Majestic hotel. Wonder what was on the menu that night. Choreographic scenario, anyone?
Evelyn Juers, The Dancer. A biography for Philippa Cullen. (Sydney: Giramondo Publishing, 2021)
ISBN: 9781925818727; 592 pp
This book by Evelyn Juers is spectacularly different from any biography I have read before, especially from any dance biography I have yet encountered. It is in essence the story of Philippa Ann Cullen (born Melbourne, Australia 1950; died Kodaikanal, India, 1975), a dancer who performed across the world and whose creative process involved experiments with theremins and movement-sensitive floors. Her work produced movement unlike that of most of her contemporaries, and she was at the forefront of using electronic music as an accompaniment to her work. The book is distinguished by the breadth of its author’s research and her sensitivity to the socio-political background in which Cullen worked. But it is different in two major ways from most biographies with which I am familiar: by the manner in which the author inserts her own voice into the story, and by the author’s writing style.
Before entering into the story of Cullen’s life and career, Juers investigates Cullen’s family history on both her mother’s and father’s side. This is an in depth examination drawing on as many sources as Juers was able to discover. It has its ups and downs as those who have been involved in family history no doubt have discovered. Some material is always elusive, although Juers is able to set up a clear lineage for Cullen.
Once this history has been established, Cullen’s own life takes the stage. Juers gives an insight into Cullen’s education; her dance training in Sydney at the Bodenwieser Dance Studio; her early public performances, including those with the choreographic enterprise Ballet Australia; the beginnings of her own choreography; her developing interest in the theremin and electronic music, and their uses in her creative process; and her studies at Sydney University.
Towards the end of 1972, Cullen, with the aid of a an Australia Council grant, travelled overseas to examine the role and potential of electronics in dance. She visited a host of countries in Europe, including Britain, the Netherlands and Germany as well as Africa and India; and she met and worked with a range of contemporary artists who opened up a variety of new possibilities for her. Cullen returned briefly to Australia in early 1974 and became involved in a series of seminars, workshops, demonstrations and performances before returning to India just a few months later.
But in this book there is a lot more to the Cullen story than her life in dance. Cullen’s emotional life plays a strong role throughout. There are extensive quotes from letters written to and by Cullen. There are extracts from Cullen’s diaries, which she seems to have kept religiously throughout life, and in which she appears to have recorded her dreams. Juers consistently reports on the dreams as the story progresses. Cullen’s personal notes also refer often to her love life and her concerns about pregnancies. She had many lovers and a long affair with composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, whom she met in Australia in 1970.
With regard to the constant appearance of the author’s voice as added commentary, Juers was a friend of Cullen and, in the book’s prologue, she explains how they met and how she continued the friendship after that first meeting. Her comments throughout the book expand and add an extra, personal element to the story. When both she and Cullen were in London at the same time, for example, they used to go on walks together:
That day she was wearing her thick woollen socks with sandals and we talked about wool, a predilection we shared. My mother was a knitter: on round needles she made wide swinging skirts with scalloped hems, she sculpted beanies around ponytails or plaits, topped off with colourful pompoms; when I had whooping cough she knitted me a daffodil yellow cardigan and I got better. Unselfconsciously I’d spent much of my early childhood dressed in wool. In London, as a kind of anchor, I immediately bought myself a second-hand loom and—alongside Herculean university reading lists and writing assignments—spent hours each day weaving. They say wool has memory. Philippa’s grandmother had taught her to darn, and her oldest woollen jumpers made her feel just right.
And there are many similar examples throughout the book. As a result, we meet Cullen not simply as a dancer absorbed in specific areas that were of particular interest to her, but as a forthright, funny, curious person, and ultimately as a human being who lived with an intensity that can only be described as incredibly moving—a life that was both heart-rending in its sorrowful moments but full of joy at other times.
Often, too, the author’s voice questions events or asks that events affecting Cullen’s life be seen within the wider context of the time. This is especially true of the closing section of the book dealing with the medical diagnosis that was offered as an explanation of Cullen’s death. On occasions, Juers also adds comments about her own writing process in relation to the Cullen story. She records at one stage:
I wrote to Jill Purce [one of Stockhausen’s later girlfriends] to ask if she knew Philippa Cullen, explaining that I was writing a book about her, and that I was trying to be as precise as possible about the chronology and circumstances of her association with Stockhausen.
Then follow several paragraphs regarding Purce’s response. Such sections blur the received boundaries of biography/memoir/autobiography.
As for the writing style, it is unique to Juers and at times contains sentences of a single word, or just a few words, or sentences that would in other situations be considered a clause rather than a sentence. Often the style is challenging, but then for many so was Cullen’s approach to dance. ‘I haven’t met anybody who accepts what I do without question,’ Cullen once said.
In her writing Juers also makes references to the ideas and writings of major figures from the literary world, such as James Joyce, Samuel Johnson, the Bronte sisters, and others, which open up further understanding of (or questions about) Cullen’s life and creative approach; and also tell us much about Juers’ own background as an author and reader. More challenges arise for the reader when direct quotes from original source materials are italicised within the text so the published pages regularly skip from Roman fonts to italics and back again, and from ‘I’ to ‘she’ and back again.
I found the book hard going at times, especially in the early family history sections when I wondered, despite my admiration for the depth of Juers’ research, whether the extent of detail that Juers included was absolutely necessary. But I was constantly smitten by various sections as I traversed the story. They included a section on Cullen’s return to Australia from overseas, briefly in the 1970s, when the world that unfolded on the pages of the book was strongly evocative of a dance counter-culture that existed in Sydney (and elsewhere in Australia) at the time. Then there was the dramatic and very moving story of Cullen’s last days in a remote town in India in 1975, when the author’s voice queried the nature of the physical condition that led to Cullen’s death, and when those who had helped her through her last days added their thoughts to the epilogue.
After finishing the book I felt the need to go back and start reading it again when those parts of the book that I initially found not so relevant to the essential story would probably make more sense. In fact I wonder whether I will regret some of this review when I do reread!
My closing thoughts, however, are that The Dancer is extraordinarily dense with information, ideas and challenges but is a remarkable, beautifully researched, forthright book. A bit like the best dance really.
The recent news from Bangarra Dance Theatre that Frances Rings will take on the artistic directorship of Bangarra from 2023, when Stephen Page retires from the role, has been received with positive comments across the dance community. The exceptional commitment that has characterised Page’s term as director has, rightly, also been spoken of in positive terms, but the appointment of Rings is perhaps not unexpected. She has recently taken on the role of associate artistic director, and Page has constantly spoken of her outstanding qualities and her absolute commitment to advancing Indigenous issues through dance.
The career of Rings with Bangarra Dance Theatre has been one that we have all watched with growing pleasure. Rings was invited by Page to audition for Bangarra in 1993 after Page noticed her in a graduation performance by students of NAISDA. As a dancer she has always brought something special to the roles she has taken on.
Rings left the company for a few years and during her time away from Bangarra worked extensively in television, returning as a guest performer on several occasions. Later she returned to Bangarra as a permanent member and made her major choreographic debut in 2002 with Rations, part of the Walkabout program. She was made resident choreographer with the company and in her work has taken a particular interest in the land and the role of women in Indigenous society, although her interest in politics has always been strong. Perhaps my favourite of her choreographed works to date is Terrain, although I have been mesmerised by most of the works she has created or worked on in some way. They include the early Dance Clan 2 with its strong cross-generational, feminist aesthetic, which Rings devised in 1999, and which I reviewed at the time for Dance Australia.
My strongest, and most recent, memory of her in the role of associate artistic director was in a Q & A session for the San Francisco Dance Film Festival as part of the inclusion in the Festival of Bangarra’s recent film Firestarter. As moderator of that session I mentioned that my favourite part of that film was the ending where the company came together full of joy and excitement for the future. Rings had her own favourite moments, which included the appearance of a Wandjina figure in the Indigenous section of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony. Throughout the session Rings constantly and impressively gave strong and honest opinions of the role of Bangarra in the cultural life of Australia.
It is clear that Rings will ensure that the proud heritage that Stephen Page and his family have brought to Bangarra will continue. I look forward to watching the transition from Page to Rings during 2022.