Cockatoo Calling. Liz Lea

What do dancers/choreographers do in quarantine/lockdown? If they’re Liz Lea they make short videos, in this case for Science Week 2021.

Cockatoo calling is made for children so if you have your family at home, with the children doing home schooling, you might be interested in Lea’s introduction to the habits of the sulphur crested cockatoo. But even for grown ups it’s a fun experience.

One particular section reminds me of a dance colleague who some years ago was visiting me in Canberra and was shocked that I was trying (in vain I might add) to keep the cockatoos out of our yard. My friend was from New York City where having a cockatoo or three in your yard (which most people in New York don’t have anyway) was such a beautiful surprise that she couldn’t understand why I was shooing them away. Why was I? They were busy chewing on the wood of our deck and I had visions of it collapsing!

I’ve now given up. They come all the time, it’s one of the joys of living in Canberra. And the deck is still standing.

Enjoy the footage at the link below.

Michelle Potter, 26 August 2021

Josephine Baker. Legendary dancer

by Jennifer Shennan

Josephine Baker, singer and dancer, heroine of wartime French Resistance, later a civil rights and peace activist, will be re-interred at the Panthéon monument in Paris, making the entertainer the first black woman to receive the country’s highest honour.

American-born but by choice a Parisian, Baker, who died in 1975, was buried in Monaco, dressed in a French military uniform with the medals she received for her role as part of the French Resistance. President Macron has announced that a re-interment ceremony is planned for November 30, 2021, at the Paris monument, which houses the remains of scientist Marie Curie, French philosopher Voltaire, writer Victor Hugo and other French luminaries.

Born in St Louis, Missouri, in 1906, Baker moved to Paris in 1925 in flight from the racism and segregation she encountered in the United States. She performed at le Théâtre des Champs-Elysées and later at les Folies-Bergère in Paris, becoming a mega-star, adulated by many followers. She posed for Picasso, among other artists; F. Scott Fitzgerald and numerous writers praised her, with Colette calling her a ‘beautiful panther’. André Levinson wrote:  ‘Some of her poses, with her waist curved inward, her rump projecting, her arms interlaced and lifted in semblance of a phallic symbol … evoke all the marvels of noble black statuary: she is no longer the dancing girl… she is the Black Venus…’

Baker, together with Maurice Chevalier, entertained many of the French troops, during WWII, and also was a Resistance courier of information passed between the French and their allies as she used her celebrity status for travel purposes (with documents hidden in her underwear).

Baker took part in 1963 in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom alongside the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who made his ‘I have a Dream’ speech there. She had become a French citizen after her marriage to industrialist Jean Lion in 1937. Between 1954 and 1965, three husbands later, she adopted 12 orphaned or destitute children of different ethnicities, calling them her ‘rainbow tribe’. One of her most celebrated numbers was ‘J’ai deux amours—mon pays et Paris.’

A fine biography, Jazz Cleopatra, by Phyllis Rose was published in 1989. The International Encyclopedia of Dance entry on Baker has an inspiring cameo of her by Marie-Francoise Christout, which reads—‘The “black pearl” is remembered for her feline walk, her warmth, and her exceptional rhythmic spontaneity. She received France’s Croix de Guerre for her work during the war, as well as the medal of the City of Paris and membership in the Legion’.  The French certainly know how to honour and re-bury their dead.

Jennifer Shennan, 23 August 2021

Featured image: Josephine Baker, 1949. Photo: Carl van Vechten, Van Vechten Collection at Library of Congress, Public Domain

The Frock. MADE

I didn’t see Graeme Murphy’s 2017 work, The Frock, as a live production. It was fashioned by Murphy and his creative associate Janet Vernon on the Tasmanian group of ‘senior’ dancers, Mature Artists Dance Experience (MADE), a company I have never had the luck to see live either. But some research I have been doing recently aroused my interest and I found a way to see The Frock on film. And what an adventure it was!

The Frock follows the life experiences of a woman who sits at the side of the stage on what looks like the verandah of a house in a rural area of Australia. She watches as her life unfolds before her, although leaves the comfort of her verandah to participate in many of the experiences that play out on stage. She is nameless and is something of an ‘everywoman’ living across several decades, beginning perhaps in the 1950s.

But before those decades begin to unfold choreographically, in the opening section the woman explains the moments that define her situation, especially the dress made by her mother, the frock of the title; and her sexual experience as a teenager (wearing the frock), which resulted in an out-of-marriage pregnancy. Throughout the work the frock appears on a wire mannequin designed by Gerard Manion. The mannequin is a mobilised device (robotics by Paul Fenech) with a voice (that of Murphy) that comments verbally, not always kindly, on what is happening.

The first moment of remarkable dancing comes when the frock is tried on for the first time. We watch as the woman (in real life and in the story in her sixties perhaps) dances a duet with another performer representing the woman as a young girl wearing that frock. Murphy’s choreography is lyrical and emotion-filled movement; not a collection of difficult steps but swinging, swaying movement easily fitting the bodies of those older dancers. It is also the first time we see the backcloth (design by Gerard Manion) that stayed in place for most of the show—a beautiful collection of draped fabrics, lit throughout by Damien Cooper.

From there the decades unfold before us: the ‘swinging sixties’ and seventies, along with the smoking of drugs and the hallucinations that resulted; the rise of feminism; midlife; and the gradual move through the following decades to old age, the ‘Age of Invisibility’. Choreographic highlights included, for me, the rock ‘n roll scenes; the section when the woman contemplates her childless life; the beautiful reunion scene in which the woman and friends from her past come together dancing to Moon River, that evocative song from Breakfast at Tiffany’s; a trio as mid-life approaches danced with the aid of lengths of diaphanous cloth; and the extraordinary solo by the woman performed to a poem (written by Murphy) entitled ‘But still I fly’. The poem is heard in the clip below, along with excerpts from various parts of the work.

It was fascinating to see Murphy using some of the techniques that have appeared in so many of his works, including the use of flowing cloth as a device. But also noticeable was the use of linked arms and hands making linear patterns, something that I recall from many of Murphy’s works with Sydney Dance Company. Then there were references (that perhaps I imagined) to Botticelli’s ‘Three Graces’ in his well-known painting Primavera, and even, briefly, to Nijinsky’s choreography for Afternoon of a Faun. (Murphy does this so many times—brings up a mixed bag of ideas, imagined or not).

The sound design by Christopher Gordon with Christo Curtis was brilliantly put together to evoke every moment in every decade. Apart from Moon River, standouts for me were the Sunday School activities of the early moments when the hymn being sung was that well-known Sunday School song, Jesus Loves Me; the Indian inspired music that accompanied the drug and hallucination scenes; and some hugely moving operatic excerpts.

Jennifer Irwin’s costume were also so evocative of the decades being represented as the story proceeded. Especially outstanding from this point of view were those in the scene taking place in the 1960s filled, as it was, with mini-skirted dresses in brightly coloured, floral fabric, sometimes matched with knee high boots in bright colours. How it takes those of a certain age back to their own teenage years.

The Frock might be counted as one of Murphy’s most theatrical productions with so many exceptional collaborative elements, including its hugely diverse selection of musical interludes; its poem ‘But still I fly’; and its robot carrying the storyline line along. But perhaps more than anything it arouses such a range of emotions in the viewer. That to me is theatricality at its best. Sometimes The Frock is quite simply confronting. At other times it is just hilarious. But more than anything it is deeply moving as a comment on life’s many changing situations. I have to admit I started to cry at the end as the woman, and the daughter she had never met, intuitively knew who the other was when they came together unexpectedly in an op shop where both admired that frock hanging on a rack of clothing on sale. But the weeping quickly turned to laughter as the dress was shoplifted out! Magnificent Murphy.

Michelle Potter, 22 August 2021

Featured image: Scene from The Frock. MADE 2017. Photo: © Sandi Sissell


Postscript: I should add that a complete version of The Frock is not publicly available at this stage, although a promo is available on Vimeo, beautifully put together by Philippe Charluet of Stella Motion Pitures.

The poster image below announces the premiere of the work in Japan in 2018.

Many Happy (re)Turns

By Jennifer Shennan

Anne Rowse is a well-known and much-loved figure in the New Zealand dance scene. Her 90th birthday was recently celebrated in style at several events in her home town of Wellington, and at a family gathering at Queenstown in the following days. London called in long-distance, as did many colleagues and former students from a global spread of cities. 

Anne had early ballet training in New Zealand, continued that in London, then had a performance career with Festival Ballet between 1952 and 1960, when she danced alongside fellow New Zealander Russell Kerr. She retired from performing and returned home with husband Ken Sudell to start a family. After some years she commenced teaching and in 1979 was appointed Director of the National School of Ballet, in 1982 re-named New Zealand School of Dance to mark the introduction of contemporary dance as well as teacher-training courses.

Everyone invited to the birthday events accepted, since ‘Joyous occasions are few. We will celebrate’ (that’s a quote from composer, the late Douglas Lilburn). Perhaps they were also hoping that Anne’s renowned optimism, elegance and positivity would prove infectious, and that they might catch some of whatever she’s got.

Anne recently performed the central role in Doris Humphrey’s movingly beautiful Air for the G-String, something she has done maybe a dozen times over the years, her serenity and presence more poignant on every occasion. (Air, along with a dozen other Humphrey and Limon repertoire, was first staged by Louis Solino when he was on the faculty at New Zealand School of Dance. Anne rates it as a major coup to have appointed Solino to the staff since none of those fine classic choreographies would otherwise ever have been seen here). A number of other highly successful initiatives date back to her time at the School. It is heartening to learn that Anne is mid-stream writing her Memoirs so there will be a record of important dimensions in New Zealand dance.

Early in the week an open class of Renaissance and Baroque dance included Anne dancing a menuet-à-deux from Kellom Tomlinson’s 18th century treatise. With Robert Oliver on bass viol, and Keith McEwing as partner, she brought a striking grace to the menuet—(I here declare a very happy ‘conflict of interest’ since I set the dance). Matz Skoog (former artistic director of RNZBallet) was in the room and reference to his experience in late Baroque theatre productions at Drottningholm in Sweden gave an extra resonance to the lines and legacy we trace in ballet history—not for old time’s sake, but for future time’s sake.

Anne Rowse and Keith McEwing in Menuet-à-deux. Photo: © Sharon Vanesse

A few days later a large crowd of well-wishers attended an event at New Zealand School of Dance where director Garry Trinder and associate director Christine Gunn, together with present and past staff and students, acknowledged Anne’s contribution and celebrated her milestone. Other speakers included Liz Davey and Deirdre Tarrant, and The Royal Academy of Dance, itself celebrating 100 years of achievement, made a presentation of the President’s Award on behalf of Luke Rittner from London.

The junior scholars performed a piece set by Sue Nicholls, a contemporary work by Holly Newsome was danced by 1st year students, then the pas de deux from the second movement of Concerto by Kenneth MacMillan was given a flawless performance by Louise Camelbeke and Zachary Healy. The luminous choreography, to the Shostakovich Second Piano Concerto, beautifully played by Philip O’Malley, was a blessing without words.

Louise Camelbeke and Zachary Healy in Kenneth MacMillan’s Concerto. New Zealand School of Dance, 2021. Photo:© Stephen A’Court

The school song—E te whaea e—was given a robust rendition by all students and staff, thus ending the presentation in high spirits.

Dance … so intensely in and of the present … can equally invoke other times, places and people, their work then and now, their memories of then, and the books they write now.

Many happy returns, Anne. We celebrate 21sts, why not 91sts? See you next year.

Jennifer Shennan, 19 August 2021   

Featured image: Anne Rowse, 2015. Photo: © Kerry Ferigo

An Australian Dance Collection. The oral history component

Below, attached as a PDF file, is a list of oral history recordings with artists working in dance related fields, as held in the National Library of Australia (NLA) and the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA). Interviews conducted by the National Library are in audio format while many of the National Film and Sound Archive projects are film/video recordings, although the list includes early radio interviews acquired by the NFSA.

The collection was significantly augmented as a result of an Ausdance National initiative to create an Australia Council-funded project spread over several years in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Its ultimate aim was the building up of a national dance collection that crossed two of Canberra’s major collecting institutions—it was to cover dance across a range of media and was to have a coherent and easily accessed existence. The oral history recordings made as a result of this project augmented existing oral history material in both institutions, and the collecting of dance material in oral history format has continued to grow. The ultimate aim of the Australia Council-funded project was, however, never fully realised. A website, Australia Dancing, made an important start but it was closed down as an active site in 2012. An Australian Dance Collection certainly exists but the links between organisations, and even links within individual organisations but across formats, are not always easy to discover.

There have been other significant projects in which oral history has been a major component, including the Esso Performing Arts and Oral History Archive Project, managed by the National Library between 1988 and 1990, and the Heath Ledger Oral History Project with emerging artists, managed by the National Film and Sound Archive in 2011 and 2012. The featured image on this post shows Geoffrey Ingram, an early general manager of the Australian Ballet, being interviewed in 1989 as part of the Esso Performing Arts and Oral History Archive Project. Below is a brief excerpt from an interview with Joe Chapman for the Heath Ledger Project.

More information about individual interviews can be found via the catalogues of the respective institutions. Access to the interviews varies according to the wishes of the interviewee. Many National Library interviews, however, are available online and online access instructions are also available via the catalogue. The significance of the oral history dance collection across the National Library and the National Film and Sound Archive cannot be overestimated. So often an oral history recording is the sole record of the life and career of certain of our dance artists.

I encourage readers of this post to alert me to any NLA or NFSA interviews that are missing from the list. There are sure to be some! Here is a link to the current list.

Michelle Potter, 10 August 2021

Featured image (detail): Geoffrey Ingram being interview by Michelle Potter. National Library of Australia, 1989. This interview is available online at this link.