Backstage, Her Majesty's Theatre Melbourne, New York City Ballet tour, 1958. Photo Walter Stringer

The Four Temperaments. Some reflections

The Australian Ballet’s 2021 season will include performances of George Balanchine’s work, The Four Temperaments, a ballet that had its world premiere in 1946. Then it was performed by Ballet Society, the forerunner to New York City Ballet, in the auditorium of the Central High School of Needle Trades in Manhattan (now the High School of Fashion Industries). For an explanation of the title of the ballet see this link from the George Balanchine Trust website.

Researching the ballet, ahead of its (hopefully live) performances in 2021, has uncovered some fascinating stories, articles and recollections by those who have danced in it over the years, and about the company that first performed it, Ballet Society. According to Bernard Taper in Balanchine. A Biography, Ballet Society was ‘a most peculiar venture’ that was organised by Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein to encourage the production of new works. It was to be an organisation that ‘would cater only to an elite subscription audience’. The press was not invited to the first production, which consisted of The Four Temperaments and Maurice Ravel’s The Spellbound Child (L’enfant et les sortilèges) as staged by Balanchine with an English translation of a text from Colette. The press, however, managed to get to see the show by ‘buying their own subscriptions’ or ‘sneaking into the auditorium on performance nights’. So began a ballet that was ground breaking then and is still remarkable today. It is more often than not described as ‘A dance ballet without plot’ (Balanchine’s subtitle), but according to Taper ‘[it] seemed to demonstrate that ballet could do anything that modern dance could do—and more.’

It was not (and is not) an easy ballet to dance. In the beginning there were the costumes to contend with. The original costumes were designed by Swiss-American artist Kurt Seligmann and were somewhat extravagant and not easy to wear. In Barbara Newman’s Striking a balance, Tanaquil LeClercq, who danced in the corps de ballet in the original production, recalls:

I had a large nylon wig that came down to about my rear end. It had a large pompadour, and it had a large white horn in the middle like a unicorn’s, which made it difficult to do all the things [Balanchine] had made. That was number one. Very irritating. You come to dress rehearsal, and if you swing your arm close to your head, suddenly there’s a horn. The other thing was that [Kurt] Seligmann had made wings, red wings, fingers enclosed, and there was no place to get out. If you got into your costume and then got something in your eye or wanted to unzip yourself to get out, you couldn’t. Once you tied your toeshoe ribbons, that was it. It gave you a  feeling of claustrophobia I can’t describe. All enclosed. Not even gloves with fingers—no fingers at all. It was hideous.

The Seligmann costumes were eventually abandoned and were replaced from 1951 by simple practice clothes, black leotards for the women, and black tights and a white T-shirt for the men, which are still worn today.

Then there was the choreography. Merrill Ashley, in her memoir Dancing for Balanchine, speaks of some of the choreography she found difficult. She danced the leading role in the Sanguinic section when the work was revived for New York City Ballet after slipping out of the repertoire for some years. She writes:

There was one movement about which [Balanchine] was particularly concerned. He wanted me to step backward on pointe and then, without traveling at all, put my heel down flat on the floor and let my body fall back—without losing control. Actually the step was meant to make me look as if I had fallen off pointe suddenly, and was therefore falling back. It was very difficult, especially lowering the foot without moving the heel at all. I wasn’t able to do it right, but when Balanchine told me that no one else had ever done it correctly either, I felt a little better. Although I come closer to it now,  I still move my foot as I lower my heel.

Quite recently the NYCB website published an article by NYCB’s Manager, Editorial and Social Media, Madelyn Sutton. It is well worth a read and it also contains two video snippets. Read and watch at this link.

In Australia, The Four Temperaments premiered in 1985 when the Australian Ballet was under the directorship of Maina Gielgud. The ballet was staged by Victoria Simon and appeared on a program with Balanchine’s Serenade and the first performance of Robert Ray’s The Sentimental Bloke. (It is perhaps of interest to note that in 2021 The Four Temperaments will be part of a similarly constructed program, which will also include Serenade and the first performance of a newly commissioned work from New York-based choreographer Pam Tanowitz). Later, in 2003, Australian audiences saw it on an Australian Ballet program called American Masters, which also included Glen Tetley’s Voluntaries and Jerome Robbins’ In the Night. Again it was staged by Victoria Simon. It was brought to Australia by New York City Ballet in 1997 when that company toured to the Melbourne Festival, and was last performed here by the Australian Ballet in 2013 as part of its Vanguard season. Then it was staged by Eve Lawson. I am curious to know who will stage it in 2021.

Michelle Potter, 13 January 2021

Featured image: Backstage at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, during the 1958 tour to Australia by New York City Ballet, 1958. Photo: Walter Stringer, National Library of Australia.

(The Four Temperaments was not performed during this 1958 tour. I just like the image and my use of it reflects difficulties associated with permission to use images of The Four Temperaments. The article by Madelyn Sutton mentioned above contains some very nice images.)

Backstage, Her Majesty's Theatre Melbourne, New York City Ballet tour, 1958. Photo Walter Stringer

Bibliography

  • Ashley, Merrill. Dancing for Balanchine (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1984)
  • Balanchine, Georg, and Francis Mason. Balanchine’s Festival of Ballet (New York: W. H Allen & Co, 1984)
  • Newman, Barbara. Striking a balance. Dancers talk about dancing. Revised edition (New York: Limelight Editions, 1982)
  • Taper, Bernard. Balanchine. A Biography (New York: Times Books, 1984)

Dance diary. December 2020

The best of everything to those who have followed this website over the past year. Thank you for your loyalty. And here’s hoping that 2021 will be one that is filled with dance, even live dance perhaps? Stay safe and healthy.

  • Highlights of 2020 (on and off stage)

I was very fortunate to see the opening night performance of Graeme Murphy’s The Happy Prince. It had a short run in Brisbane in February but showings elsewhere were cancelled due to the pandemic. I really would like to see it again as there was a lot there that needed a second look. I hope we will see it again, given that the leadership of the Australian Ballet has changed.

Adam Bull as the Prince in The Happy Prince. The Australian Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeff Busby

By mid year we were still not back in the theatre but Alison Plevey and her Australian Dance Party created Lake March in which, over several weekends in August, eight dancers, accompanied by two musicians, made their way around Canberra’s three lakes. They paused briefly on occasions to engage with each other and with the rather surprised audience of joggers, bike riders and so on who were also using the lakeside for exercise. Lake March won Plevey a Canberra Critics’ Circle award in December. The citation read:

For courageously working within the restrictive conditions generated by COVID-19 to bring an innovative and entertaining production of dance and live music, presented in several outdoor venues, to an audience of dance goers and the wider Canberra community. Alison Plevey for Lake March.

Australian Dance Party in a moment from Lake March. Lake Burley Griffin, Canberra, 2020. Photo: © Lorna Sim

In October we were able to venture into the theatre for a QL2 Dance program featuring a work called Sympathetic Monsters by Jack Ziesing. It was an absorbing work in terms of its choreographic structure and in its thematic content.

Of course I watched many streamed performances over the course of 2020. It was more than interesting to see close-up images of faces and expressions and also details of costume. Nothing can replace a live performance but I derived much pleasure from streamed performances, especially from companies I wouldn’t normally see. Borrowed Light from Finland’s Tero Saarinen Company in collaboration with Boston Camerata was perhaps the most outstanding example. I was transfixed by this performance and have Jacob’s Pillow to thank for streaming it as part of the Pillow’s Virtual Festival 2020.

Dancers from the Tero Saarinen Company in Borrowed Light. Photo: © Christopher Duggan
  • Sunil Kothari (1933–2020). Indian dance critic

I was saddened to hear of the death of Indian dance writer Sunil Kothari from complications of COVID-19. He visited Australia on a number of occasions and I recall a talk he gave in Canberra for the Canberra Critics’ Circle, several years ago now. He was a passionate advocate for dance and was a mentor to Padma Menon, who performed extensively in Canberra during the 1990s.

  • Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. More reviews and comments

Kristian Fredrikson. Designer featured as the ‘Publishing Spotlight’ in the Summer 2020–2021 edition of the newsletter of the Friends of the National Library of Australia. The review was written by Friends Committee Member and well known Canberra-based arts and craft specialist, Meredith Hinchliffe. Follow this link to read the review.

  • Site news

At this time of year it is always interesting to look back at which posts were most popular over the course of the year. Leading post was the obituary for Athol Willoughy (and 2020 is not the first year that an obituary has taken first place). Following on were Thoughts on Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring (still popular after all these years); Romeo and Juliet. The Australian Ballet; Terrain. Bangarra Dance Theatre; and Moon Water. Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan.

Most visits came from Australia followed by the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and France.

Michelle Potter, 31 December 2020

Featured image: Gum blossoms, Canberra, 2007 (detail). Photo: © Nick Potter

A New Era. The Australian Ballet in 2021

Ever since the announcement that David Hallberg was to become the new artistic director of the Australian Ballet, there has been speculation about what he might bring to the company. With his extraordinary background across the world, including extended periods as a dancer with American Ballet Theatre in New York and Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, as well as guest seasons with major companies around the world, including an extended position as principal guest artist with the Royal Ballet, it has seemed obvious that he would have much to offer. His contacts, and his wide personal experience, would ensure that he would be able to bring a diverse repertoire of works to the Australian Ballet. The announcement of the Australian Ballet’s season for 2021 shows exactly that.

David Hallberg, 2020. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The season is made up of a gala opening program in Melbourne, two mixed bill programs and three full-length works. Sound familiar? Looking more closely, however, the individual content of each season might be seen as somewhat unexpected. The opening season for Sydney dance goers is New York Dialects. It consists of two works by George Balanchine, Serenade and The Four Temperaments, which show somewhat different aspects of Balanchine’s output; and a newly commissioned work from Pam Tanowitz. Who could not look forward to Balanchine? But I am curious to see what Tanowitz produces as the one work of hers that I have seen (Solo for Russell for a New York City Ballet streaming program) left me cold I have to say.

The other mixed bill has two vastly different works both based on the balletic vocabulary—Petipa’s third act from Raymonda and William Forsythe’s Artifact Suite. I had the pleasure once of seeing the full-length Artifact but have never seen the Suite that Forsythe created from the full-length version. I look forward to the Suite and I am sure it will contain all the startling aspects (blackouts, lowering of the front curtain in mid-performance, and so on) that characterise the full production. An interesting choice from Hallberg.

As for the full-length works, we will get to see (I hope, anyway) Anna Karenina with choreography by Yuri Possokhov, whose choreography I admire immensely; John Cranko’s familiar Romeo and Juliet; and Alexei Ratmansky’s revival of the long-lost Harlequinade, originally created by Petipa in 1900.

Robyn Hendricks in a study for Anna Karenina. Photo: © Justin Ridler

What has impressed me so far is the way Hallberg speaks about the repertoire for the 2021 season. His words are straightforward and clear but they don’t dumb things down at all. His discussion of the Counterpointe program, for example, he says

The juxtaposition of Raymonda and Artifact Suite shows the evolution of classical ballet. Raymonda adheres to tradition and pageantry; Forsythe took this history and ‘imitated’ it, creating a work that overwhelms both dancers and audience with gestural references given new meaning. These seminal works both counteract and perfectly complement each other.

It has also been interesting rereading his autobiography A body of work. Dancing to the edge and back (New York: Atria Paperback, 2017). Now he is the new artistic director, the sections in his book where he talks about seeking to understand more about the nature of ballet take on a new meaning. During the reread I especially admired his enquiring mind, and his interest in an analytical approach to certain aspects of his career.

Hallberg has good connections already with the Australian Ballet as a result of guesting with the company on various occasions, and from the extended time he spent in Melbourne being treated for injury by the company’s rehabilitation team. He is an exceptional dancer (oh those beats!) and I clearly recall the first time I saw him in 2010 in Kings of the Dance. ‘Hallberg danced with classical perfection,’ I wrote. But despite all the positive signs, he has to prove that he can direct a company successfully. A new era? Fingers crossed.

Michelle Potter, 31 December 2020

Featured Image: Brett Chynoweth in a study for Harlequinade. Photo: © Pierre Toussaint

Stanley Glover in Loughlan Prior's 'Scribble'. Ballet X Beyond, 2020. Photo: © Daniel Madoff

BalletX Beyond. Four new dance films

In a move to keep working during the COVID-19 pandemic, BalletX, a contemporary company based in Philadelphia, PA, recently presented a virtual season of four dance films from four choreographers—Rena Butler, Loughlan Prior, Caili Quan and Penny Saunders. Each choreographer took quite a different approach to the commission and watching such a diverse program was certainly an interesting experience.

Loughlan Prior is well-known to Australian and New Zealand dance audiences. Australian-born and educated in Melbourne at the Victorian College of the Arts, he is currently resident choreographer with Royal New Zealand Ballet. He has made work for a range of companies in addition to RNZB, including Queensland Ballet, and his schedule for 2021 includes new works for RNZB, Singapore Dance Theatre, Ballet Collective Aotearoa and Chamber Music New Zealand.

Scribble was his work for BalletX Beyond, as the newly established virtual program is called. It was made on three dancers and filmed in black and white. For me it was the most interesting film of the four, particularly because of its choreographic approach, which blended the vocabulary of ballet (the female dancer, Andrea Yorita, danced on pointe) and contemporary movement. The two male dancers performed strongly with Zachary Kapeluck partnering Yorita throughout, and with Stanley Glover showing his fabulous, long-limbed flexibility and highly expressive hands and fingers.

Stanley Glover in Loughlan Prior’s Scribble. Ballet X Beyond, 2020. Screenshot by Daniel Madoff

The ‘scribble’ of the title was created by Glynn Urquhart and consisted of white lines of animation that sometimes seemed to be generated by the dancers’ movements, at other times by the music, and at others simply out of nowhere. Occasionally the animation morphed into figures of the dancers, or vice versa. Danced to a score by Melbourne-based composer Gareth Wiecko and filmed by Daniel Madoff, Scribble was quite mesmerising.

Scribble was the only one of the four films that was not recorded at a site specific venue. The others were filmed across a range of venues in Greater Philadelphia including Natural Lands’ Stoneleigh and Idlewild, el Centro de Oro, Sea Isle City, St Malachi Church, Belmont Stables, and the Navy Yard.

Of the three other works, I found Caili Quan’s Love Letter particularly moving. Quan’s home country is Guam and the music, which was a mixed bag of items, reflected the islands, especially the islands of the Pacific (although a Harry Belafonte song was included). It was something of a meditation on whom and/or what the choreographer loved, and perhaps missed, at particular stages in her life.

The film began on a beach with a beautiful solo from Francesca Forcella who seemed to be searching her mind for remembered moments. The conclusion began with Richard Villaverde dancing on a rooftop overlooking a cityscape. He was eventually joined by Forcella and we could speculate on what their relationship was as they moved towards and away from each other. But in between this beginning and end, the film moved from venue to venue and the whole was structured so we were taken suddenly from place to place, person to person, just as the mind jumps from thought to thought. It was totally engrossing.

Richard Villaverde and Francesca Forcella in Caili Quan’s ‘Love Letter’. BalletX, 2020. Screenshot by Elliot deBruyn

Ricochet, choreographed by Penny Saunders on the subject of the American cowboy, left me a little cold, largely because the choreography was not all that inspiring. There are only so many times when poses that mimic the position taken when riding a horse can generate interest. Similarly with lines of dancers walking through grassland. But the setting, especially the beautiful rural landscape, was a joy to look at, as was the filming so that the whole work looked as though it was showing on an old-fashioned television screen.

The Under Way (working title) is by Rena Butler and it too was choreographically uninspiring. It relied for impact more on camera angles, mime, colour changes and other cinematic techniques. I also found it hard to understand exactly what Butler was trying to say. There were references to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Somewhere over the Rainbow from the film version of The Wizard of Oz, statues of prominent people (now considered racist?), racism itself, and other issues. One thing that made sense was the comment of the dancer who closed the work when he spoke about the things he could do. His skin was white and he finished with the sentence ‘I can breathe.’ But it was not clear to me how the rest related to that pertinent, contemporary comment. The Under Way needs a lot of work I think.

This is the first time I have had the pleasure of seeing anything by BalletX. It is a strong company and every one of the dancers has something special to offer. Stanley Glover is spectacular and I especially admired the work of Andrea Yorita for the expressiveness that she offered in every role, and for the way her movement fills the space around her body.

Andrea Yorita in a study for Scribble. BalletX Beyond, 2020. Photo: Tara Keating

Access to the works of BalletX Beyond is via a subscription-based streaming platform, which is located at https://www.balletx.org/.

Michelle Potter, 17 December 2020

Featured image: Stanley Glover in Loughlan Prior’s Scribble. BalletX Beyond, 2020. Screenshot by Daniel Madoff

David McAllister and Liz Toohey in the Bluebird pas de deux from 'The Sleeping Beauty'. The Australian Ballet, 1984. Photo: Walter Stringer

Celebrate David McAllister

The recently released online tribute to retiring director of the Australian Ballet, David McAllister, has much to enjoy. Titled Celebrate David McAllister, it is hosted by Virginia Trioli with concept and curatorship from Fiona Tonkin. Tonkin, towards the end of the stream, explains the origin of the initiative.

We never gave up David. We had mainstage galas set for you, we had a one-off ‘gala-ette’, and now we have this online streaming tribute. We could not let COVID-19 stop us offering you a collective, heartfelt thank you

In three parts, it covers first up McAllister’s performing career with some wonderful footage—those fabulous turns in La Fille mal gardée—; the second looks at what Trioli refers to as ‘some of the milestones David has achieved’ during his term as artistic director; and in the final section artists from around the world—dancers, choreographers, directors, crew and others—pass on memories and good wishes for the future.

I especially enjoyed the final section. Some messages were a little tearful, others somewhat hesitant, but all were heartfelt. I loved Liz Toohey leaning forward towards the camera and saying ‘best partner in the world’. Then there was Lisa Pavane stringing together adjectives that began with D, then A, then V, then I and then D again. And just fancy Richard Evans, Executive Director 2002-2007, being taught Giselle in his kitchen (by David of course). ‘I can’t look at Giselle the same way again,’ Evans admits ‘It was a famous night.’

Below is a link to the full feature.

As a sideline to the above, a short video made by the National Portrait Gallery to celebrate the Peter Brew-Bevan photograph that is in the NPG collection, is also a good watch, even though it has no focus on the retirement.

And on a personal note, David launched two of my books A collector’s book of Australian dance (2002) and Dame Maggie Scott. A life in dance (2012). He is a terrific speaker! Now there’s a potential future.

Michelle Potter, 15 December 2020

Featured image: David McAllister and Liz Toohey in the Bluebird pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet, 1984. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

David McAllister and Liz Toohey as Princess Florisse and the Bluebird in 'The Sleeping Beauty'. The Australian Ballet, 1984. Photo: Walter Stringer