Sue Healey with Sarah Jayne Howard during the filming of Virtuosi

Capturing the vanishing. A choreographer and film. Sue Healey

There is much that is interesting in Sue Healey’s Platform Paper published by Currency Press on 1 August 2019. What I found very readable was the information about Healey’s early career. There were her early dancing days in New Zealand, her father’s interest in making Super 8 movies, the nuns who taught her at school, her move to Australia, her student days at the Victorian College of the Arts, and her work with Nanette Hassall and DanceWorks. It was good too to read her discussion of the various processes she has gone through to develop her exceptional film making techniques, her thoughts on the various short films she made, and her remarks on her more recent move to making longer works. Some of her films have been reviewed on this website, most recently Eileen, and I have thoroughly enjoyed writing about them.

All this background leads in the Platform Paper to the three provocations Healey presents at the end of the paper. They basically relate to the role of independent dance and independent artists in society and culture. In a slightly abbreviated form the provocations are:

  • Independent dance artists deserve to be funded in a more realistic and sustainable manner.
  • Dance must extend its boundaries without losing sight of its own intrinsic qualities as a discipline.
  • We need an active debate about why dance continues to be relevant, who creates this relevance, and how to generate new opportunities for artists.

What bothers me, however, is the reliance throughout the paper on what I think has become a cliché: dance is ephemeral (with the often unspoken but usually implied notion that, as a result, dance has nothing much to offer conceptually, intellectually or any other ‘-ually’ word). I realise, of course, that Healey does not fall into the category of someone who thinks that dance has no lasting value because it is ephemeral, but many do think that way. Of course dance is ephemeral but so is anything we see (or hear) in the theatre. Is it the existence of words and a script connected with a play, or the existence of musical notation in a concert that causes many to think that these art forms are not so ephemeral and therefore more worthy in some way? As it happens there are dance works these days that use words in various circumstances and for various reasons. Lloyd Newson’s creations come to mind immediately. And, of course, Healey first ventured into film making to ‘make dance stay around for a bit longer’.

Despite the above, I really enjoyed Healey’s paper, and the Vimeo links to selections from her film works are a bonus. But I would have loved the paper to have had a fourth provocation that questions the notion of ephemerality in the arts and how people outside the immediate dance world can be persuaded that this does not make dance an inferior art form. We always seem to be justifying its presence.

Capturing the vanishing: a choreographer and film by Sue Healey. Platform Paper No. 60, August 2019. (Sydney: Currency House). More information at www.currencyhouse.org.au

For more about Sue Healey on this website follow this tag link.

Michelle Potter, 13 August 2019

Featured image: Sue Healey and Sarah Jayne Howard during the filming of Virtuosi, 2012. Courtesy of Sue Healey

Sue Healey with Sarah Jayne Howard  during the filming of Virtuosi

Filling the Space. Quantum Leap/QL2 Dance

8 August 2019. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre

As the curtain went up on QL2’s 2019 Quantum Leap production, Filling the Space, I sat up with a jolt. There were a couple of ballet barres onstage and dancers standing in ballet positions, even doing the occasional demi-plié. Not only were we faced with the barres and the pliés but the entire space of the Playhouse stage was stripped of its usual accoutrements—no legs or borders to mask the wing space or to hide the lighting or flies. Everything that is usually hidden from the audience was on show. What was this? Well, it was the beginning of James Batchelor’s Proscenium and Batchelor, now with a good number of works behind him, has never left us in any doubt that what he creates will be unusual in approach and leave us to ponder on what his works are about.

But what made Filling the Space, the overall production, so fascinating was that it showed off the diversity of the choreographic voice. We saw the work of three choreographers, Batchelor, Ruth Osborne and Eliza Sanders, and it would be hard to find three works so different in conception and vocabulary.

Batchelor’s Proscenium examines the space of the stage both within and beyond the structure that frames that space—the proscenium. It was rewarding to consider the particular use of the space he identified in the context of dance and architecture, which was the overarching theme of Filling the Space. But for me Batchelor’s use of the architecture of the stage space was not the most interesting feature of his work. His choice of movement vocabulary was the highlight. It ranged from extremely slow and intensely detailed, even introspective, movement to faster unison work with some partnering that relied on balance and support. As well there was extensive manipulation of those barres and other metal frames, some that dropped from the flies, others that looked like clothing or costume racks. At one point we watched a circus-like stunt with one dancer balancing on a narrow support joining the end parts of one of those racks while another dancer spun the whole structure with ever increasing speed in a giant circle. At another point, rows of chairs were brought onstage and dancers entered, sat down, moved some parts of the body, then rose and, with arms still in the pose they had taken while seated, made their exit. Batchelor was examining how stage space can be filled and emptied in various ways, but it was the way in which that examination occurred that was more interesting than the fact that it occurred.

A moment from Proscenium. Quantum Leap, 2019. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Ruth Osborne’s Naturally Man-Made was danced against a background of footage shot on and around the grand staircase of Canberra’s Nishi building, a staircase made of recycled timber and a spectacular part of the building. Sometimes we saw the staircase as an installation devoid of people, at other times the footage included dancers performing on the staircase. In front of this footage dancers performed what might be called Osborne’s signature style—mass groupings of dancers with occasional break away moments. It fulfilled nicely, if in an obvious manner, the concept of dance and architecture.

Dancers of QL2 in Ruth Osborne’s Naturally Man-Made, Quantum Leap 2019. Photo:
© Lorna Sim

Eliza Sanders had a totally different take on what constitutes architecture. Her work, The Shape of Empty Space, looked at emotional responses to different spatial environments. In this work her movement vocabulary was almost like mime. It focused on two main emotions, a feeling of being wild and free in some environments, with an accompanying flinging of arms, legs, and indeed the whole body in an unrestrained way; and a feeling of being crowded into a tight space, with an accompanying restraint in movement and groupings of dancers. The work was stunningly lit by Mark Dyson with well lit spaces alternating with hidden spaces set up by black curtains hanging at intervals in the performing space. It was architecture built by light and darkness through which we watched dancers appear and disappear. The work had a sculptural ending as dancers built an architecture of their own.

Dancers of QL2 in Eliza Sanders‘ The Shape of Empty Space, Quantum Leap 2019. Photo:
© Lorna Sim

Both Batchelor and Sanders are QL2 alumni who are now working professionally as independent dancers and choreographers. Osborne is an early mentor to them. How lucky are the current dancers of QL2 that they get to work with choreographers whose creativity is so different, whose vocabulary is so individualistic, and whose work is so fascinating to watch, and so interesting to think about.

Michelle Potter, 10 August 2019

Featured image: Dancers of QL2 in James Batchelor’s Proscenium. Quantum Leap 2019. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Bright Young Things and Eastern Corset Dancers, 'Undercover' Palm Beach Pictures, 1982. Design by Kristian Fredrikson, National Library of Australia

Dance diary. July 2019

  • The Fredrikson Project

At the beginning of July, I set up a funding project via the Australian Cultural Fund in an effort to raise enough money to pay for digitisation of designs for inclusion in my forthcoming book on the life and career of designer Kristian Fredrikson. Following Fredrikson’s death in 2005, the executors of his estate place a large collection of his personal papers and designs in the National Library in Canberra. Unfortunately very little of this material has been digitised so the costs of acquiring material at a resolution suitable for publication are high. The same applies to material held in the National Gallery also in Canberra.

Well the project has now ended and I am thrilled to report that we achieved our funding goal. I thank from the depths of my being those incredibly generous people who supported the project and allowed us to reach our goal. Below, in low resolution, are three images that may well appear in the book. They are all, as is the featured image, from Fredrikson’s film commissions from the 1980s. Just a tiny sample of the kinds of designs to which I now have access.

Fredrikson’s designs are filled with surprises. All images are from MS 10122, National Library of Australia.

  • Deon Hastie appointed to head NAISDA College

The latest news from NAISDA College is that Deon Hastie has been appointed Head of Dance at the College. Hastie is a former student of NAISDA and graduated from there in 1998. Many will remember him as an exceptional artist with Leigh Warren and Dancers between 1999 and 2010. He both danced and choreographed during those years and, on leaving the company worked as an independent choreographer and teacher and has been artistic director of Kurruru Youth Performing Arts in Adelaide since 2010. He is seen below in an image by Adelaide-based photographer Alex Makeyev.

Deon Hastie in Divining. Leigh Warren and Dancers, 2000. Photo: © Alex Makeyev. National Library of Australia
  • Press for July 2019

‘Bangarra celebrates 30 years with pride.’ Review of Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Bangarra: 30 years of sixty five thousand. The Canberra Times, 23 July 2019, p. 13.

Michelle Potter, 31 July 2019

Featured image: Bright Young Things and Eastern Corset Dancers from Undercover. Palm Beach Pictures, 1982. Design by Kristian Fredrikson, National Library of Australia

Bright Young Things and Eastern Corset Dancers, 'Undercover' Palm Beach Pictures, 1982. Design by Kristian Fredrikson, National Library of Australia

The White Crow. A film from Ralph Fiennes

I remember how much I enjoyed reading Julie Kavanagh’s biography of Rudolf Nureyev—Nureyev. The Life published in 2007. It was so beautifully researched and very readable. So the recently released ‘biopic’ The White Crow, which was inspired by Kavanagh’s book, had something to live up to for me. Well, despite a swag of less that ecstatic reviews from film critics around the world, I loved this movie. Directed by Ralph Fiennes, it follows the early life of Rudolf Nureyev, from his birth until his defection to the West in 1961.

As this is a dance site I am assuming that readers are aware of the basic outline of Nureyev’s early life so I won’t recount the story. Instead I am selecting moments, some that brought me close to tears, some that made me smile, and some that, despite knowing what was going to happen, had me the edge of my seat. And others.

I was moved when Nureyev’s mother, Farida, was about to give birth on the train rattling its way through the Russian countryside. Her daughters stood in the corridor, shielded from the birth but hearing the groans and shrieks coming from their mother. The smallest of the daughters had tears in her eyes— such a beautiful moment from such a little girl. It brought me close to tears.

Another moment connected with Farida also moved me. Nureyev, sitting alone in the office of the French Police Department at Le Bourget Airport, had to decide which door to take to leave the office. Would he leave via the back door and choose freedom, or would he leave through the main door, back into the hands of the Soviet representatives? They had told him, amongst other things, that he would never see his mother again if he chose freedom. We knew, of course, which door he would choose, but nevertheless, the tension throughout the airport scenes was gripping. As we sat there waiting for him to make his decision, however, the filmed location changed. We were transported back to Ufa, where Nureyev grew up and where he took his first dance lessons. In this flashback the young Nureyev entered the Ufa studio and his teacher asked his mother to leave. The young Nureyev began to dance a folk dance—it was performed so well by a little boy playing Nureyev aged eight or so. But as Farida disappeared down the corridor we knew that the choice had been made way back there in Ufa.

The scene in the dance studio was not the only time the film flashed back to Nureyev’s earlier life. I found these flashbacks, which were in black and white rather than the colour of the main footage, quite mesmerising. They were evocative and developed the storyline in an inspired way.

In the movie I really enjoyed meeting Clara Saint played by Adèle Exarchopoulos. As the woman who befriended Nureyev and then was instrumental in facilitating his defection, she has always seemed a mysterious character. She was somewhat mysterious, or perhaps reserved in personality, in this movie too but it was interesting to have a three dimensional reading of her.

Fiennes, the director, played Alexander Pushkin, Nureyev’s main teacher at the Kirov school and the man who, with his wife, accommodated Nureyev in their St Petersburg apartment during a momentous time in his early dancing life in St Petersburg. Fiennes’ portrayal was restrained and it was hard to know what he really thought of any situation in which he found himself. I had to wonder why he didn’t react a little more strongly to his wife’s sexual relationship with Nureyev, which was made very clear to us. But then maybe the real Pushkin didn’t mind?

Oleg Ivenko, a dancer himself, played the grown up Nureyev and we saw some respectable dancing from him. I couldn’t help but think, however, that his dancing owed a lot to Nureyev whose approach, all those years ago now, to turns, jumps, manèges and the like changed the look of male dancing forever. Having said that, it was interesting to see Nureyev himself in the credits (in dancing footage that had been reduced to minuscule size) and to realise that his technique was really quite raw in many ways.

And the moment that made me smile? After negotiating his way through the crowd at Le Bourget, not to mention managing the ongoing harassment of the Soviet representatives, Nureyev finally reached the office of the Police Department. ‘Do you have a cognac?’, he asked. And of course, being French, they did.

A film well worth seeing!

Michelle Potter, 30 July 2019

My most recent writing on Nureyev was for the printed program for the 2018 visit to Brisbane by Teatro all Scala from Milan. Here is a link to that article.

Ivy Foster as the Child in 'Ochids'. Foster Dance Group, 2019. Photo: © Jocelen Janon

Orchids. Foster Dance Group

reviewed by Jennifer Shennan
24 -27 July 2019. Circa Theatre, Wellington

Suppose somebody took a stem of orchids, choreographed them into women and tossed their experiences, emotions and memories deep into a seamlessly danced stream of consciousness that we might peer into and look for reflections from the depths. Somebody did.

Orchids, choreographed by Sarah Foster-Sproull, is a continuously flowing hour-long dance performed by a cast of seven—six adult women (Katie Burton, Joanne Hobern, Tori Manley-Tapu, Rose Philpott, Marianne Schultz and Jahra Wasasala) of contrasting age and physique, representing us all in the complexity of light and shade in our experiences. In a choreographic masterstroke, a young girl (Ivy Foster, the choreographer’s daughter), serenely evoked our past as a child, and our hope for a future. 

The work, ‘an allegory for the dark and light masks of the female psyche’, presents emotions and states of being, rather than storylines with cadence. That openness of texture invites the audience to recognise, interpret, contemplate, empathise, sympathise with and wonder at the undercurrents of meaning in the imaginative movement imagery. 

Scene from Orchids. Foster Dance Group, 2019Photo: © Jocelen Janon
Scene from Orchids. Foster Dance Group, 2019. Photo: © Jocelen Janon

There’s a sculptural quality to the torsos, and much use is made of Sproull’s hallmark hand gestures that seem like a celestial signing of some unspoken speech, a pointing finger that suggests a location or an event, but also asks a question, leaving it unanswered. These motifs always remind me of the account I once read of a 116 year old Japanese woman lying in her bed, patiently awaiting her moment of departure, and performing for her family gathered around ‘her second-to-favourite hand dance.’ (One can only wonder how many hand dances she knew, and what she was saving her favourite one for…perhaps for the afterlife?)

The sequence in Orchids has episodes of solo, duo and larger groupings that suggest woman alone, mother and daughter, sister, friend, rival, confidant, devotee. Much of the movement reflects individuals’ personal experiences with strong emotional force and sometimes surprising dynamic attack, but there are also hints of wider cultural resonance in reference to various female deities or spiritual forces. I believe I recognised one of those to come from Indian Hindu mythology—with Shakti, the goddess of many aspects including the strength of a male capable of stamping out underfoot the demon devil of ignorance.

Music composed by Eden Mulholland had percussive clarity that helped shape the work, and was at one point used as accompaniment, a pluck and two strums, for what suggested a Portuguese fado song about to be danced, but then morphed into more sensuous strings for an all-female Zorba’s dance. A most striking image was the ray of the performers’ fingers shaped like a halo round the face of young Ivy Foster which resonated as the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe, a beacon of hope so desperately believed in by millions of Mexican pilgrims.

The dance follows you home to study the orchids flowering in a pot on your window ledge, to read their folds of petals, their crevices of secrets, their shadows that hide hurt on the underside, beneath the hope that shines light on the upside.

Jennifer Shennan, 26 July 2019

Featured image: Ivy Foster as the Child in Orchids. Foster Dance Group, 2019. Photo: © Jocelen Janon

Ivy Foster as the Child in 'Ochids'. Foster Dance Grouyp, 2019. Photo: Jocelen Janon