Russell Kerr (1930–2022) Scripting the Dreams

This is an expanded version of an obituary written by Jennifer Shennan and published in The Dominion Post online on 2 April 2022.

Russell Kerr, leading light of ballet in New Zealand, has died in Christchurch aged 92. The legendary dancer, teacher, choreographer and producer influenced generations of New Zealand dancers. Kerr’s hallmark talent was to absorb music so as to draw out character, narrative, human interest, emotion, poetry and comedy that ballet in the theatre can offer. Thrusting your leg high in the air, or even behind your head, just because you can, is the empty gesture of perfunctory performance that he found exasperating. Shouting and sneering at dancers, telling them they are not good enough, was anathema to him. One dancer commented, ‘Mr Kerr always treated you as an artist so you behaved like one.’

Born in Auckland in 1930, the younger of two sons, Russell was already learning piano from his mother, a qualified teacher, when a doctor recommended dance classes to strengthen against the rheumatoid arthritis that ailed the child. Did that doctor follow the remarkable career that ensued from his advice?  Years later Russell was asked if it was difficult, back then, to be the only boy in a ballet school of girl pupils? He chuckled, ‘Oh no, it was marvellous—there I was in a room full of girls and no competition for their attention. It was great fun.’

Kerr made impressive progress both in dancing and piano, achieving LTCL level, then starting to teach. He could have been a musician, but dancing won out when in 1951 he was awarded a Government bursary to study abroad. In London he trained at Sadler’s Wells, with Stanislaw Idzikowski (a dancer in both Pavlova’s and Diaghilev’s companies), and also Spanish dance with Elsa Brunelleschi. Upon her advice and just for the experience, he went to an audition at the leading flamenco company of José Greco. Flamenco would be one of the world’s most demanding dance forms, both technically and musically. Remarkably, he was offered the job, providing he changed his name to Rubio Caro! How fitting that Kerr’s first contract was as a dancing musician. When asked later how he’d managed it he replied, ‘Oh, I just followed the others.’

Russell Kerr in 1951 shortly before leaving for England

After a time, Sadler’s Wells’ leading choreographer, Frederick Ashton, declared Russell’s body not suitably shaped for ballet. ‘I’ll show you’ he muttered to himself, and so he did. In a performance of Alice in Wonderland, he scored recognition in a review (‘Kerr’s performance as a snail was so lifelike you could almost see the slimy trail he left behind as he crossed the stage.’ As he later pointed out, ‘not many dancers are complimented in review for their slimy trails’). A sense of humour and irony was always hovering.

Kerr danced with Ballet Rambert, and was encouraged towards choreography by director Marie Rambert. Later he joined Festival Ballet, rising to the rank of soloist, earning recognition for his performances in Schéhérazade, Prince Igor, Coppélia, Petrouchka among others. Nicholas Beriosov had been regisseur to choreographer Fokine in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Kerr’s work with him at Festival Ballet lent a pedigree to his later productions from that repertoire as attuned and authentic as any in the world.

The investment of his Government bursary was exponentially repaid when Russell, now married to dancer June Greenhalgh, returned to New Zealand in 1957. He told me he spent the ship’s entire journey sitting in a deck chair planning how to establish a ballet company that might in time become a national one. Upon arrival he was astonished to learn that Poul Gnatt, formerly with Royal Danish Ballet, had already formed the New Zealand Ballet and, thanks to Community Arts Service and Friends of the Ballet since 1953, ‘…they were touring to places in my country I’d never even heard of. So I ditched my plans and Poul and I found a way to work together.’

Kerr became partner and later director of Nettleton-Edwards-Kerr school of ballet in Auckland. (I was an 11 year old pupil there. It was obvious that Mr Kerr was a fine teacher, encouraging aspiration though not competition. We became friends for life). Auckland Ballet Theatre had existed for some years but Kerr built up its size and reputation, staging over 30 productions. Perhaps the highlight of these was a season of Swan Lake on a stage on Western Springs lake. He produced a series, Background to Ballet, for Television New Zealand in its first year of broadcasting, and also choreographed many productions for Frank Poore’s Light Opera Company.

In 1959, New Zealand Ballet and Auckland Ballet Theatre combined in the United Ballet Season, involving dancers June Greenhalgh, Rowena Jackson, Philip Chatfield, Sara Neil and others. The program included Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor to Borodin’s sensuous score, and Prismatic Variations, co-choreographed by Kerr and Gnatt, to Brahms’ glorious St Anthony Chorale. Music as well as dance audiences in Auckland were astonished, and the triumphant season was repeated with equal success the following year in Wellington, when Anne Rowse joined the cast.

June Greenhalgh & Russell Kerr in Prismatic Variations.Choreographed by Russell Kerr and Poul Gnatt. New Zealand Ballet 1960
June Greenhalgh and Russell Kerr in Prismatic Variations, 1960. Photo: © John Ashton

In 1960 a trust to oversee the New Zealand Ballet’s future was formed, and by 1962 Kerr was appointed Artistic Director. His stagings of classics—Giselle, Swan Lake, La Sylphide, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, Coppélia, Les Sylphides, Schéhérazade—were balanced with new works, including the mysterious Charade, and whimsical One in Five. Kerr used compositions by Greig, Prokofiev, Liszt, Saint-Saens and Copland for his own prolific choreographic output—Concerto, Alice in Wonderland, Carnival of the Animals, Peter and the Wolf, The Alchemist, The Stranger. In 1964 he invited New Zealander Alexander Grant who had an established reputation as a character dancer with England’s Royal Ballet, to perform the lead role in Petrouchka, a superb production that alone would have earned Kerr worldwide recognition.

A fire at the company headquarters in 1967 meant a disastrous loss of sets and costumes that only added to the colossal demands of running the company on close to a shoestring budget. Kerr’s health was in an extremely parlous state. In 1969 Gnatt returned from Australia and as interim director, with the redoubtable Beatrice Ashton as manager, kept the company on the road.

Russell had worked closely with Jon Trimmer, the country’s leading dancer, and his wife Jacqui Oswald, dancer and ballet mistress. They later joined him at the New Zealand Dance Centre he had established in Auckland, developing an interesting new repertoire. The Trimmers remember, ‘…Russell would send us out into the park, the street or the zoo, to watch people and animals, study their gait and gestures, to bring character to our roles.’  Kerr also mentored and choreographed for Limbs Dance Company. The NZDC operated until 1977, though these were impecunious and difficult years for the Kerr family. But courage and the sticking place were found, and Russell, as always, let music be his guide.

In 1978 he was appointed director at Southern Ballet Theatre, which proved lucky for Christchurch as he stayed there until 1990, later working with Sherilyn Kennedy and Carl Myers. In 1983 Harry Haythorne as NZB’s artistic director invited all previous directors to contribute to a gala season to mark the company’s 30th anniversary. Kerr’s satirical Salute, to Ibert, had Jon Trimmer cavorting as a high and heady Louis XIV.

His two lively ballets for children, based on stories by author-illustrator Gavin Bishop—Terrible Tom and Te Maia and the Sea Devil—proved highly successful, but there was a whole new chapter in Kerr’s career awaiting. After Scripting the Dreams, with composer Philip Norman, he made the full-length ballet, A Christmas Carol, a poignant staging alive with characters from Dickens’ novel, with design by Peter Lees-Jeffries. (The later production at RNZB had new design by Kristian Fredrikson).

Possibly the triumph of Kerr’s choreographies, and certainly one of RNZB’s best, was Peter Pan, again with Norman and Fredrikson, with memorable performances by Jon Trimmer as an alluring Captain Hook, Shannon Dawson as the dim-witted Pirate Smee, and Jane Turner an exquisite mercurial Tinkerbell.

Study for Captain Hook in Russell Kerr's 'Peter Pan', 1999. © 1998 Kristian Fredrikson
Study for Captain Hook and Peter Pan in Russell Kerr’s Peter Pan, 1999. © 1998 Kristian Fredrikson

His sensitively nuanced productions of Swan Lake became benchmarks of the ever-renewing classic that deals with mortality and grief.

Russell Kerr rehearsing 'Swan Lake'. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1997. Photo: © Maarten Holl
Russell Kerr rehearsing ‘Swan Lake’. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1997. Photo: © Maarten Holl

Leading New Zealand dancers who credit Russell for his formative mentoring include Patricia Rianne, whose Nutcracker and Bliss, after Katherine Mansfield, are evidence of her claim, ‘I never worked with a better or more musical dance mind.’ Among many others are Rosemary Johnston, Kerry-Anne Gilberd, Dawn Sanders, Martin James, Geordan Wilcox, Jane Turner, Diana Shand, Turid Revfeim, Shannon Dawson, Toby Behan—through to Abigail Boyle and Loughlan Prior.

An unprecedented season happened in 1993 when Russell cast Douglas Wright, the country’s leading contemporary dancer, in the title role of Petrouchka. He claimed Wright’s performances challenged the legendary Nijinsky.

An annual series named in his honour, The Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet & Related Arts, saw the 2021 session about his own life and career movingly delivered by his lifelong colleague and friend, Anne Rowse. The lecture was graced by a dance, Journey, that Russell had choreographed for two Japanese students who came to study with him. It would be the last performance of his work, the more poignant for that.

Russell was writing his memoirs in the last few years, admitting the struggle but determined to keep going. He said, ‘Writing about my problem with drink is going to be a very difficult chapter.’ Russell had told Brian Edwards in a memorable radio interview decades back, of the exhausting time when his colossal work commitments had driven him ‘to think that the solution to every problem lay in the bottom of the bottle.’  He eventually managed to turn that around and thereafter remained teetotal for life—but by admitting it on national radio, he was offering hope to anyone with a similar burden, himself proof that there is a way out of darkness.

He viewed the sunrise as an invitation to do something with the day. He would bring June a cup of tea but not let her drink it till she had greeted the sun. Recently he took great joy in seeing photos of my baby granddaughter, rejoicing to be reminded of the hope a new life brings to a family.

Russell concurred with the sentiment expressed in Jo Thorpe’s fine poem, The dance writer’s dilemma (reproduced in Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60):

… the thing…
which has nothing to do with epitaph
which has nothing to do with stone.
I just know I walk differently
out into  air
because of what dance does sometimes.

Russell Kerr was a good and decent family man, loyal friend, master teacher and choreographer, proud of his work but modest by nature, resourceful and determined by personality, honest in communication, distressed by unkindness, a leader by example. A phenomenal and irreplaceable talent, he was a very great New Zealander. 

He is survived by son David, daughter Yvette and their families.

Russell Kerr photographed in 2007

Russell Ian Kerr, QSM, ONZM, Arts Foundation Icon
Born Auckland 10 February 1930
Married June, née Greenhalgh, one son (David), one daughter(Yvette)
Died.Christchurch 28 March, 2022

Sources: David Kerr, Anne Rowse, Jon Trimmer, Patricia Rianne, Rosemary Buchanan, Martin James, Mary-Jane O’Reilly, Ou Lu.

Jennifer Shennan, 3 April 2022

Featured image: Russell Kerr as director of Southern Ballet in 1983

Dance diary. March 2022

  • Anna Karenina. The Australian Ballet

During March I watched a streamed showing of Anna Karenina from the Australian Ballet. Choreographed by Ukrainian-born choreographer (currently resident in the United States) Yuri Possokhov, this production of Anna Karenina premiered in 2021 in Adelaide with just a few performances, but its presentation in other States had to be cancelled, and cancelled, until March 2022 when it opened in Melbourne.

I was struck more than anything by the spectacular set design (Tom Pye), which for the most part was quite minimal but nevertheless evocative, and which frequently moved seamlessly to new features as locations changed. But I found the lighting (David Finn) quite dark for most of the production, with the major exception being the peasant-style ending, which I’m not sure was an essential part of the story to tell the truth. I’m not sure either if the consuming darkness was more a result of the streaming situation or part of the overall production. But the darkness was annoying.

There were some strong performances from Robyn Hendricks as Anna and Callum Linnane as Vronsky but perhaps the strongest characterisations came from Benedicte Bemet as Kitty and Brett Chynoweth as Levin. But I am not sure that this production is ideal for streaming and I am looking forward to seeing it live in Sydney in April.

Bendicte Bemet and Brett Chynoweth in Anna Karenina. The Australia Ballet, 2022. Photo: © Jeff Busby

But on the issue of the history of productions based on the Tolstoy novel Anna Karenina, I recently came across a ’Stage Direction’ article by Stephen A. Russell published on the website of the Sydney Opera House. It gave an interesting, short introduction to the variety of ways in which the novel has been used in a theatrical manner. The article is currently available at this link, although may not be there for the long term.

  • Henry Danton (1919-2022)

The death of leading dance personality Henry Danton was announced back in February. Read the obituary by Jane Pritchard published in The Guardian at this link.

Henry Danton also played a significant role in the growth of professional ballet in Australia. He was a guest artist with the Melbourne-based National Theatre Ballet over several years and during that time consistently partnered Lynne Golding, including in the National’s full-length production of Swan Lake and in Protée, staged for the company by Ballets Russes dancer Kira Bousloff before she moved to Perth to establish West Australian Ballet.

  • Bangarra Dance Theatre

Bangarra Dance Theatre recently announced the departure from the company of three dancers, wonderful artists who have given audiences so much pleasure in recent productions. Baden Hitchcock, Rika Hamaguchi and Bradley Smith have left the company to pursue other options. All three are beautiful dancers and I’m sure their future careers will continue to give us pleasure.

Rika Hamaguchi in the final scene from SandSong. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2021. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Other news from Bangarra is that the company’s children’s show Waru—journey of the small turtle, cancelled last year due to COVID, will be coming to the stage later this year. Conceived and created by Stephen Page and Hunter Page-Lochard, along with former Bangarra dancers and choreographers Sani Townson and Elma Kris, Waru tells the story of Migi the turtle who navigates her way back to the island where she was born. Waru is on in Sydney from 24 September to 9 October 2022 in the Studio Theatre at Bangarra’s premises at Walsh Bay.

  • Russell Kerr (1930-2022)

Prominent New Zealand dance personality Russell Kerr died in Christchurch earlier this month. Read an obituary with a great range of images at this link. I am expecting an obituary from his close friend and colleague Jennifer Shennan shortly and will publish it on this site when received. For further material on Russell Kerr and his activities on this website follow this tag.

Michelle Potter, 31 March 2022

Featured image: Robyn Hendricks as Anna and Callum Linnane as Vronsky in Anna Karenina. The Australian Ballet, 2022. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Writing Dancing

The art of writing about dance has been on my mind for a while just recently—more so than usual that is. Several recent occurrences have sparked off my current bout of thinking. First, a colleague in New Zealand sent me an email in which she asked if I had read Zadie Smith’s article Dance lessons for writers, first published in The Guardian in 2016. I hadn’t read it, but it sounded interesting so I quickly got myself a copy. Then, Canberra-based dancer and writer, Emma Batchelor, gave a talk at the recent BOLD Festival in which she discussed the Smith article—one of those strange co-incidences that happen occasionally. Not long after, I read that Clement Crisp, renowned English dance writer and critic, had died.

The Zadie Smith article included six short analyses, or comparisons really, of the dancing styles of well-known figures, which Smith puts side by side: Fred Astaire/Gene Kelly, Michael Jackson/Prince, Rudolf Nureyev/Mikhail Baryshnikov and others. But it was Smith’s opening section that was the strongest element in the article. She based her opening comments around a remark addressed to dancers by Martha Graham:

There is a vitality, a life force, and energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.

Smith asked what an art of words could take from the art that needs none. She mentioned the ideas of position, attitude, rhythm and style. It’s a terrific quote by Graham and an interesting concept by Smith of writers learning from what dance offers. Problem is that Smith didn’t really pick up in her following comments/analyses the ideas she found apparent in Graham’s paragraph. At least she didn’t in my mind!

Then along came Emma Batchelor! In her paper, Batchelor posed slightly rearranged subtitles following on from Smith’s Dance lessons for writers. She discussed for example Writing lessons learned from dance and Writing lessons for dancers. Ultimately she wrote:

The dance work I most respond to has an intellectual rigour. The thought process behind movement, the development of an idea. An understanding of what you want to convey and how.

Legibility. How legible is an idea, a movement.
Experimentation and play. Testing.
Literality. Opening or closing down space for interpretation.
Striving for a sense of ease, making the complicated look effortless.

Batchelor then examined a particular work by choreographer Chloe Chignell, Poems and other emergencies, which Batchelor believed demonstrated some of the ideas set out in her talk. While watching Chignell’s work, Batchelor realised she wanted to write about it and concluded, ‘Could the movement exist without words? The words without the movement? They were entwined.’

It was a thrill to hear Batchelor speak on this topic and her comments made clear to me that, while Smith had a terrific opening paragraph or two, she didn’t really develop, as I mentioned earlier, the thoughts she had presented in the comments that followed.

As for Clement Crisp (1931-2022), his writing over many decades has been remarkable and his death is a major loss to the dance world. But I lost much of my admiration for his work when he began to use the offensive word ‘Eurotrash’ for works that did not appeal to him. (He was not the only critic to use the word, I hasten to add). I prefer to stand by the words of American writer Marcia Siegel. I reviewed a collection of her writing entitled Mirrors and Scrims and the quote below is from that review:

[She says], ‘I see myself as both a demystifyer and a validator, sometimes an interpreter, but not a judge.’ She fearlessly carries through with this stance. In an analysis of the position of the much-admired critic Arlene Croce (as understood from her reviews), Siegel writes:

‘I think a critic has to take even mavericks and crackpots at their word. In not doing so, Arlene Croce places herself above the artists. She implies she knows better than they do what’s right for dance. To my mind, that’s the one thing a critic isn’t allowed.’

There is much to think about, across many areas, as we who write about dance pursue our work.

The review of Mirrors and Scrims is at this link.

Michelle Potter, 13 March 2022

Featured image (overwritten): Jareen Wee in Liz Lea’s The Point. Photo: © Andrew Sikorski

And the dance goes on …

This is a slightly edited version of the text and PowerPoint images for a keynote paper I gave at the 2022 BOLD Festival in Canberra on 3 March 2022

Looking at the opening slide for my talk this morning you may be wondering why, for a keynote talk at a dance-oriented festival, I have chosen an image from a theatre production, Melbourne Theatre Company’s 1975 production of The Revenger’s Tragedy. And perhaps you may be curious as to why I have given it the title ‘And the dance goes on.’ All should, I hope, become clear as we proceed.

But first take a good look at Kristian Fredrikson’s costume design for the Duke in The Revenger’s Tragedy in the slide above. Fredrikson was an exceptional designer and an artist really. No stick figures for him. His designs were drawn as if they were being worn by the particular character in the play, film, dance, opera, or whatever theatrical genre he was working on, and he worked across them all. He did a huge amount of research, and collaboration, before designing and had in his mind a very clear picture of the nature of each particular character. Not only that, his designs are filled with movement, both body movement and the potential movement of the costume. Take a look at the way he has positioned the Duke’s head, thrown back and assertive. Look at the way he has drawn the legs, well-separated as if in movement. Then there are the expressive arms and hands. He has also drawn the costume spread out well —partly of course to show details of the design but also to indicate how the costume, especially the cloak, would move as the Duke strode across the stage. This design will be on show in the National Library’s exhibition On Stage, which opens tomorrow. I encourage you to visit the exhibition. I hope the backstory, which I will discuss shortly, will make seeing the design especially interesting.

On this next slide here are three more costume drawings from the same play, The Revenger’s Tragedy. These are not part of the exhibition but are part of the National Library’s exceptional collection of Fredrikson material, and my talk will focus to a large extent on the National Library’s collections of various materials, including Pictures, Manuscripts, Oral History and Ephemera.

You can see, left to right, Lussurioso, whom one writer has called a ‘lustful jerk’ and who is the Duke’s legitimate son; then the Prison Keeper; then Gratiana, who is the mother of the revenger. I think you can see again an interest in movement in the designs, as well as expressiveness in the way the characters are drawn.

The Revenger’s Tragedy is a Jacobean play dating to the very early seventeenth century. It was first performed in London in 1606 and there has been much academic discussion over the years about the author, but the latest understanding is that it was written by one Thomas Middleton. The play centres on lust and ambition in an Italian court and the Revenger of the title, whose name is Vindice, seeks revenge on the Duke for poisoning Gloriana, the woman he loves. This happened several years before the play starts but Vindice has been mulling over it for years. In a convoluted series of events the Duke is poisoned and then stabbed by Vindice. But the Duke’s successor, Lussurioso, is also killed and eventually Vindice is condemned to be executed. This is a very simple outline but you will understand the extent of the killings when I tell you that one reviewer of the Melbourne Theatre Company production wrote: ‘It opens with a bloodcurdling shriek accompanying a tableau vivant and closes with an ironical shrug and a pile of dead bodies.’ As an example of his involvement in works he was designing, Fredrikson wrote his own notes about revenge tragedies, and at one point said: ‘Revenge tragedies require the designer to reach into his or her darkest imaginings and personify not only various of man’s worst sins but also a bizarre nightmare world. They are horror stories in the true sense because they deal with the obsession of revenge which is pursued until it results in massacre.’

It is probably not surprising to anyone here that a genre called ‘revenge tragedy’ ends in tragedy! But this Melbourne Theatre Company production had a surprise outcome and that outcome went on to have long-lasting effects on the growth of dance in Australia. The show was directed by David Myles, an Australian who began his theatrical career in television before heading to London, making a career there and across Europe. He returned to Australia in the 1990s but in 1975 he was in Australia as a guest director for Melbourne Theatre Company. The final orgy scene of The Revenger’s Tragedy needed a choreographer to give it an orgiastic feeling and it was none other than Graeme Murphy who was commissioned to create that scene. Graeme had returned to Australia in 1975 after spending time in Europe, in particular with the Ballets Félix Blaska in Grenoble, France. He and Janet Vernon spent 1975 freelancing before joining the Australian Ballet again in 1976.

I’m going to play you now a brief audio clip from an oral history interview with Kristian Fredrikson, who explains a little about what happened with the choreography.

He makes an error or two in this clip, saying that Graeme was a student or dancer with the Australian Ballet when he was brought in to work on The Revenger’s Tragedy. But, as I have just mentioned, Graeme was actually freelancing in 1975. Fredrikson also doesn’t remember, on the spur of the moment, the name of the director, which I have mentioned was David Myles. Here is how Fredrikson describes what happened.

It is more than interesting to hear him say that the director threw out Graeme’s contribution, but Fredrikson’s memories may be a little exaggerated. A conversation I had with Graeme while I was writing my biography of Fredrikson indicates that much of what he choreographed did become part of the production, and, as you can see from the image below, his name appears as choreographer on the printed program for The Revenger’s Tragedy. But apparently it was not a smooth process. Notice too that the playwright’s name is given as Cyril Tourneur although, as I mentioned scholars now believe that the playwright was Thomas Middleton.

Now, despite the ‘pile of dead bodies’ with which the play closes, and the apparent difficulties David Myles may have had with the choreography, the meeting of Murphy and Fredrikson was a momentous one. While both would pursue independent careers over the years, they would also constantly team up in major collaborative endeavours for a number of theatrical organisations.

As I have mentioned, in 1976 Murphy rejoined the Australian Ballet as a dancer and as the company’s first resident choreographer. But at the end of the year, he was appointed to head the Sydney-based Dance Company (NSW), later to be renamed by Murphy as Sydney Dance Company. Shortly after taking up his appointment, he called Fredrikson, and much to Fredrikson’s pleasure and surprise, offered him a commission to work on a new ballet he was planning, a production of Shéhérazade, not to the well-known score by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov as famously used by Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes, but to a song cycle by Maurice Ravel.

Shéhérazade, which premiered in Sydney in 1979, was, in my opinion, one of the most stunning of the works Murphy made early in his career with Sydney Dance, not only from a choreographic point of view, but also in terms of the collaborative endeavours created together by Murphy and Fredrikson. It certainly got the collaboration off to a good start. Above is an image from the original 1979 production in which both Murphy and Janet Vernon danced.

Shéhérazade was an incredibly erotic work. Brian Hoad, who was dance critic for the now-defunct magazine The Bulletin, called it ‘a choreographic mood painting at its most luscious…it turns out to be one of the most thoroughly bewitching evocations of sensuality ever to grace a stage.’ In the background you can see a hint of lighting and a backcloth and I want to show you the backcloth in more detail and the colour that was involved.

The backcloth was like a tent and four dancers, the Watchers, sat suspended in it. You can see one in the image on the left. They watched the dance unfold below them and shielded their eyes when matters got too erotic. The colour scheme was blue and gold and you can see a design for the tent bottom right of the slide. It’s now part of the National Gallery of Australia’s collection, while the two photographic images are part of the National Library’s collections. I’ll play you another audio clip from the Fredrikson oral history in which he talks about designing Shéhérazade. You’ll hear him mention that Gustav Klimt, whose art work, made in Vienna in the early twentieth century, was his inspiration. But also interesting is the way he speaks about the collaboration. ‘Shéhérazade came about in an easy flash’ he says.

So, a result of The Revenger’s Tragedy one spectacular aspect of dance in Australia was born, a collaboration between a choreographer and a designer that resulted in some sensational works over three decades for Sydney Dance Company, the Australian Ballet, and Opera Australia.

Now, there are more designs in the On Stage exhibition that record the Murphy/Fredrikson collaboration, including one or two for Swan Lake and Nutcracker: The Story of Clara. I’m going to focus on Swan Lake, which premiered for the Australian Ballet in 2002.

The Murphy Swan Lake is quite a change from what many had come to see as the ‘normal’ version. The narrative follows the tragic story of a young, vulnerable woman, Odette, who yearns for the loyalty of husband-to-be, Prince Siegfried, but who discovers on the eve of her wedding that Siegfried has a lover, the seductive and possessive Baroness von Rothbart. That discovery marks the beginning of Odette’s mental decline, which takes place in Act I, following the wedding. In Act II Odette is confined to a sanatorium after Siegfried’s mother, a cold and dismissive Queen, calls a doctor towards the end of Act I to attend to Odette’s apparent illness. In the sanatorium Odette is attended by nuns and, at one stage while there, she rocks rhythmically backwards and forwards in a dazed state and has a vision of white swans and a frozen lake. In a scenic transformation we are transported to the lakeside where Odette dances with the swans of her imagination and, meeting Siegfried there, she performs a duet with him. Later she leaves the sanatorium and in Act III arrives at a glittering party hosted by the Baroness and Siegfried. But, although Siegfried ultimately rejects the Baroness and regrets his behaviour towards Odette, Odette believes she can never find peace and in Act IV drowns herself in the lake of which she has dreamt in Act II.

The image on the left on the slide above is a design that you will see in the exhibition from tomorrow onwards. It is for ‘The young duchess’ (or ‘The Young Duchess-to-be’ as she was eventually called when the work went on stage). The costume is what she wore to the ‘glittering party’ hosted by Siegfried and the Baroness in Act III. You can see that it is not so much a work of design art, but a practical drawing that would be used by the wardrobe department when making the costume. It’s interesting to see an Edwardian style in parts of that costume, especially in the high neck and the draped, low-slung bodice. Fredrikson wanted to set this Swan Lake in the Edwardian era, although not every costume had all that much that was recognisable as Edwardian. On the right is a design for the Baroness von Rothbart in Act III, also for the ‘glittering party’—without many Edwardian references, I think. And here is what the Baroness’ costume looked like when made up.

But what is interesting about this Swan Lake is that by this stage, 2002, Fredrikson had become more than a designer for Murphy. They had set up a relationship that went beyond things coming ‘in an easy flash’, as Fredrikson had mentioned in relation to Shéhérazade, to one where Fredrikson had become an essential member of the creative team. He replied by email at one stage to a request from a journalist for information about Swan Lake with these word (and unfortunately I can’t play them as audio since they were written rather than spoken):

‘The actual inspiration for this production came about at our (Graeme, Janet and myself) first brainstorming meeting to see in which direction we wished the story to go so that it would please not only us, but also have an emotive and comprehensible value for the audience. For some time we considered manipulating the tragic story of the imperial family of the Romanovs … but soon discarded this as needing too much distortion to fit the score. Then, secondly, we were well versed in the history of the first production of the ballet and the bitter rivalry between the two ballerinas who first played Odette. This seemed promising as a scenario, but after an amount of discussion we were discouraged by the problems of conveying the romance of the original story. It was Janet who first brought up the obvious fact that this ballet was about Royal Romance and its ultimate despairing failure … So this was our beginning and, although we were determined that this would be no biography of any one particular Royal duo, we would have much material to supply us for Tchaikovsky’s tragedy.

So,  Fredrikson was totally part of the development of the story as well as the designer of sets and costumes. Fredrikson died in 2005 and Swan Lake was his last collaboration with Murphy.

That collaboration had grown and developed over almost three decades and gave the dance world some spectacular productions. And it all began with The Revenger’s Tragedy. My title for this talk …  ‘And the dance goes on …’ alludes to the ongoing and developing relationship between Murphy and Fredrikson.

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Thank you for coming (or watching if you are online) and I hope you will take the opportunity to visit On Stage, which continues until 7 August, and will find particular enjoyment in looking at the designs by Fredrikson for Murphy productions. There are one or two more that I haven’t had time to discuss. I hope too you might be interested in reading more about the Murphy Connection in my recent book Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. Chapter 4 is in fact called ‘The Murphy Connection” although the beginnings of the connection form part of Chapter 3, ‘Into the Seventies’.

Michelle Potter, 8 March 2022

International Women’s Day with Somebody’s Aunt

Today, 8 March, is International Women’s Day. This morning I received an email containing a YouTube link to a 3 minute dance creation, ‘Aunts on Scooters by Somebody’s Aunt’, celebrating older women on the move. Somebody’s Aunt has been part of the Canberra dance scene for 17 years and has presented all kinds of work in unconventional spaces while using a variety of dance forms and related activities. With this short film they have set out to show that ‘older people can scoot to many and varied locations for different activities and all the while having fun and scooting safely’.

Here is the link:

The scooters being used are Neuron electric scooters powered in the ACT by electricity from renewable energy. There are some lovely scenes of Canberra in there too!

Michelle Potter, 8 March 2022

Featured Image: Dancers from Somebody’s Aunt. Photo: © Natsuko Yonezawa