My year, 2022

by Jennifer Shennan

My year’s list of dance highlights seems thinner than usual since a number of productions didn’t make it to curtain-up. There are no lowlights though (why would you write about lowlights?) so I’ll just call them lights.

From a screen viewing I followed with interest the choreographic venture, Journey, by Lily Bones. I remember Lily’s serene sense of line as an unusual individual dancer at both NZSchool of Dance and later in RNZBallet.  After a time performing in Europe she is now based in Sydney and is a colleague there of Martin James. Her resilience in surviving serious illness, and her determination to make dances despite zero external resources has given her a maturity and quiet confidence to choreograph themes that speak and that we can hear. No glamour or glitz, just her truth. Refreshing.  

It was a treat indeed to see again an Arts Channel broadcast of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in Rice. Choreographed by Lin Hwai Min in 2013 (and toured to Auckland in 2017), it is talisman to their repertoire, with typically perfect proportion in shaping the cycle of rice growth and harvesting. Like all Lin’s work, there is pacing and spacing through the episodes that deliver at one level of nature at work in the titled theme, and also allegorical layers of reference to human and personal experience. The erotic sensuality in a single central duet in Rice defines the original power of creation. I own a dvd of this work but choose not to watch it alone—so how is that different from sitting alone and watching a broadcast? just a sense that there will be others out there watching ‘with me’, a feeling of being in the audience that is shaped by a performance in time. Cloud Gate’s repertoire has a strength in its Chinese legacy and vocabulary that is yet accessible to the wider world. Riveting.   

Another memorable experience on screen was the final sequence by the young boy in the studio, as epilogue to the film The White Crow, the dramatisation by Ralph Fiennes of Nureyev’s defection to the west.  Overall I was not as transported by the film as others seemed, but was certainly moved by how that final dance was allowed to speak for itself. Poignant.

Pump Dance Studio’s Roll the Dice also transformed the commitment of young performers  into something more than the sum of its parts. Infectious.

From NZSchool of Dance, Loughlan Prior’s Verse, a solo to the Folies d’Espagne played by the consummate ensemble Hesperion XXI, shone with the clarity of a beacon, both in choreography and performance. Luminous.

Joshua Douglas in Loughlan Prior’s Verse. New Zealand School of Dance, 2022. Photo: © Stephen A’Court.

Two books—by Michelle Potter on Graeme Murphy, and by Ashley Killar on John Cranko—offered insights into those prolific choreographic careers, with welcome reminders of the live performances we have seen by their companies. Revelatory.

Not from this year, but nevertheless shaped by the pandemic term we are still experiencing, the tour de force of Strasbourg 1518 by Lucy Marinkovich and Lucien Johnson, remains the total standout dance season of recent times. Their earlier work, Lobsters, also holds its place on the list of memorable works of the decade. Indelible.

It has been indeed moving to follow the heroic project by Raewyn Hill, artistic director of Co3 Contemporary Dance in Perth, where she re-staged Gloria, the celebrated work by the late Douglas Wright, New Zealand’s visionary choreographer. Immortal.

A dance lives for as long as it is remembered, and can cheat death by a measure. Russell Kerr died earlier this year, and for many people the memory of his production of Petrouchka in which he cast Douglas in the title role, also stands as an indelible milestone in this country’s dance history. Legendary.

We are looking forward to the fifth in the series of the Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet & Related Arts, in Wellington, late February. The subject will be Patricia Rianne, celebrated dancer, teacher and choreographer whose long career spans years both in New Zealand as well as UK, Europe and Asia. A delight.

Season’s greetings and good wishes to all those who watch dance, who create dances, who perform, who write and who read about dancing. Sprezzatura.

Jennifer Shennan, 21 December 2022

Featured image: Huang Pei-hua and Tsai Ming-yuan in Rice. Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, 2021. Photo: © Liu Chen-hsiang

Gloria. Co3

Digital screening, December 2022 (filmed during a September season from the Heath Ledger Theatre, Perth)

I first saw Douglas Wright’s Gloria in 1993 in Sydney when it was performed by Sydney Dance Company. Then it was a relatively new piece from Wright with its world premiere having taken place in Auckland in 1990. In 1993 I was the Sydney reviewer for Dance Australia so I am in the fortunate position of being able to look back at my reactions to that early production. In fact, a copy of that review appears on this website at this link.

The features of Gloria that thrilled me in 1993 are also powerful features of the Co3 production —its life affirming message, the witty choreography, the unusual and challenging connection (or not) between music and dance, and in general the vigour and vitality of the work. But on this occasion I saw it as a streamed event and, generously from Co3, the Perth-based contemporary company led by Raewyn Hill, I was able to watch it over a 48 hour period. This meant that I had time to go back and look more closely at certain sections. While every section had its highlights, two sections and one particular moment stood out for me.

The one particular moment came at the end of the first movement of Vivaldi’s Gloria, to which the work is danced. The dancers began with quite slow, unison movement that turned into energetic leaps, turns and fast running down the diagonal. As the dancers left the stage, and as the first movement was coming to an end, a single male dancer, Sean MacDonald whose connections with Gloria go back to a 1997 production, was left alone on the stage. His final jump ended with him lying on his back, legs and arms moving slowly as if he was running in that prone position. He rolled over, slowly stood up, and lifted his arms to the front, palms facing upwards. The lights faded but the music continued and the power of MacDonald’s final, simple movement was breathtaking.

Another section that moved me immensely was performed to the ‘Domine Deus’ section, sung (according to the credits that ended the stream) by soprano Sabra Poole Johnson from St George’s Cathedral Consort, the group that provided the vocals for the Vivaldi score. This section began with a group of five dancers moving slowly in a sculptural formation but eventually separating with four sliding off leaving one dancer (Francesca Fenton I believe) alone. She began her solo on the floor but slowly assumed a standing position and, in so doing, seemed to be exploring her physical existence before she broke into a waltz-like dance full of grace and fluidity. Like MacDonald before her, as her dance came to and end she lifted her arms, stretching them forward with palms facing upwards as if to announce she had discovered her identity, her existence, herself.

I also enjoyed the section danced to the movement ‘Et in terra pax’. It featured Claudia Alessi who had danced in Gloria in 1991 when it was staged for the Perth Festival by Chrissie Parrott. What made this section so appealing to me was the sculptural qualities of the choreography, which in fact were noticeable throughout the work, although perhaps not to the same extent as in ‘Et in terra pax’.

There were of course many other moments that continue to resonate: the joyous quality of the dance to ‘Laudamus Te’ and the duet between two male dancers (Sean MacDonald and Scott Galbraith I think) in which we witnessed the changing nature of human relationships. Also great to watch were those moments when a dancer was held and swung back and forth by two other dancers as others ran underneath and around the activity. But I guess I go back to my original review for Dance Australia and confirm more than anything that Wright’s Gloria is life-affirming whatever one might think of specific sections. Wright uses dance to convey a message about humanity. Simple but astounding.

I was lucky to be able to keep going back to watch sections of Gloria but I am sure I missed a lot by not seeing it live, especially as the music was played live by a chamber group from the West Australian Symphony Orchestra and sung live by the St George’s Cathedral Consort, with the whole conducted by Dr Joseph Nolan. Nevertheless, the sound quality of the streamed version was just beautiful and I absolutely loved being immersed in this production from Co3 of Douglas Wright’s spectacular Gloria.

Michelle Potter, 25 December 2022

Featured image: Scene from Gloria. Co3, Perth, 2022. Photo: © Shotweiler Photography

At the time of writing, the streamed Gloria is still available to watch for the small price of AUD 19. The offer is available until mid-January. See ‘Watch at home’ at this link.

Season’s greetings, 2022

To all those who have logged on to this website throughout 2022, thank you for your interest. I wish you the very best for the holiday season. To me the holiday season means Christmas, and the photographs below are some of my favourite Christmas-related images from years past (with one from this year).

Yuumi Yamada as Clara in The Nutcracker. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Carols by Candlelight, Woden Valley Youth Choir, 2022
Carols by Candlelight, Canberra’s Woden Valley Youth Choir, 2022

Christmas bells, Bali 2018

The church at Chimayo, New Mexico, 2007


Have a safe and happy holiday season, whichever holiday you may be celebrating.

Michelle Potter, 24 December 2022

Featured image: The Santa Claus on the right was a Christmas present from a little boy in one of my ballet classes way back in the 1980s. On a trip to Scandinavia in around 2006 (perhaps a little earlier?), I bought the other two. The little wood cutter in the centre always sits on top of the quintessentially French bûche de Noël (Christmas log), a dessert I often make at Christmas time.

Cranko. The man and his choreography. Book review

Cranko. The man and his choreography by Ashley Killar
Matador/Troubador Publishing
ISBN. 978-0-646-86603-1
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This biography of John Cranko is a deeply researched, widely contextualised and beautifully written account of the life and work of a major choreographer of mid-20th century. There is meticulous detail in the documentation and analysis of Cranko’s vast choreographic output, both within the text and in appendices. Ashley Killar has drawn on that oeuvre, as well as many of Cranko’s letters to friends and colleagues, to evaluate the teeming imagination and artistry, musical ear, lively sense of wit and satire, the devoted loyalty to friends and colleagues, the generous personality, the frankness over frustrations when things went wrong, the ability to move on to the next thing, the excesses in a sometimes reckless lifestyle —-all the good and some of the bad in a life fully lived but ended too soon. You come to know the man through coming to know his works, not just by reading a list of titles but by experiencing the texture and timing of the choreographies. That’s skilful dance writing.

Killar was a member of Stuttgart Ballet from 1962 to 1967 so he knew Cranko well. The book Is a devoted tribute to the man and his work, but in no measure is it simply hagiography. The contexts of socio-political history and related arts that open several chapters, and are also summarised in the appendix of choreography, are welcome reminders of a 20th century world. The contrasts of living conditions and morale in South Africa (where Cranko was born, in 1927), in post-war England (where he lived, danced and began to choreograph), in a divided post-war Germany without a single national ballet company (where he flourished, from 1961 to 1973), in Russia (where there were intriguing interactions within the political control of ballet, and the dancers visiting from Stuttgart had to step through a door in an iron fire-curtain lowered to end the applause but the audience would not cease applauding), and in America (where on a number of tours, thanks to Sol Hurok, Cranko met with great success with audiences, who loved the narrative and dramatic power of his works that their own dance-makers had not produced. There was also ongoing disdain from certain critics, Arlene Croce the most vocal among them… as though to say, ‘If you love —Balanchine then you must hate Cranko’. OK, so did that mean the reverse was true?  (KIllar’s pen is wiser and more tempered than Croce’s was).  

These contextual accounts are briefly but tellingly written and the book should appeal to a much wider readership than just ballet afficionados. It places the man in his dances, his dances in society, and societies in their response to his dances. That’s resonant choreography and insightful appreciation combined.

There were seemingly unconventional work practices in all his career. Cranko never had an office but would sit in the company canteen, use the phone on the counter, and be at all times accessible to the dancers he considered members of a family—holding no truck with the typical power and control that many a ballet company director adopts in the vain pretence that this secures leadership. The accounts around England’s Royal Ballet and that company’s ethos under Ninette de Valois’ directorship, come under the spotlight. Peggy van Praagh by contrast emerges as a genuinely joyful and encouraging figure who instantly recognised Cranko’s talent and knew how to help him rein in so that his best ideas could emerge, that less would be more. Her own long life generously devoted to dance is well caught here.

You could look at the listing of dancers in the Stuttgart company and fledgling choreographers stimulated and nurtured  by Cranko—they are among the best in the world, and New Zealand gets an entry. There is further resonance for New Zealand in that Martin James danced the title role of Eugene Onegin many times, rating it one of the most demanding and rewarding in his own remarkable performing career. It is but one example of how the dance profession becomes a kind of country in its own right, crossing over the political and historical boundaries defined by nationalism and history.

Cranko’s longstanding friendships with designer John Piper, and with composer Benjamin Britten (whose Gloriana, Peter Grimes, Prince of the Pagodas, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bouquet Garni were choreographed to) are covered. Figures in the English ballet world include Cranko’s relationship with the somewhat caustic de Valois, the idiosyncratic Frederick Ashton, as well as his camaraderie with Kenneth MacMillan, and are notable. It is Peggy van Praagh who emerges as an independent thinker and visionary to my mind.  I was intrigued to hear of the early influence on Cranko of the work of Rudolf Laban and Kurt Jooss—and later of his appreciation of the technique and style of Martha Graham, and suspect van Praagh was instrumental in this open-mindedness. Cranko’s partnership with Anne Woolliams as influential teacher at Stuttgart and her later appointment to the Australian Ballet, where van Praagh was a pioneering and spirited leader, provide a further connection to ballet in this part of the world.

From a hugely prolific body of work it is probably the early Cranks revue, the now largely forgotten Prince of the Pagodas, his The Lady and the Fool, Romeo & Juliet, Onegin and The Taming of the Shrew for which he is most remembered.

Marcia Haydée was legendary dancer and company stronghold at Stuttgart for many years. Among the young dancers in his company whose choreography he encouraged and nurtured are John Neumeier, Jiri Kylian, Gray Veredon (New Zealand’s own) and Ashley Killar himself (artistic director of RNZBallet 1992-1995, whose No Exit and Dark Waves were among the most dramatically incisive works in the company’s entire repertoire).

Cranko’s legacy speaks volumes and Killar has done him proud.

Jennifer Shennan, 13 December 2022

Cranko. The man and his choreography is available through Bloch’s ballet centres (including by mail order). Alternatively, the book is available to order through bookstores, or direct from www.troubador.co.uk/bookshop/biography/cranko/ 

Go to www.crankobiography.com for more information.

Romeo and Juliet. The Australian Ballet (2022)

10 December 2022 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Choreography: John Cranko
Design: Jürgen Rose
Lighting: Jon Buswell
Composer: Sergei Prokofiev

It is hard to believe that it is around 20 years since John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet was last performed by the Australian Ballet. Since then the production of Romeo and Juliet that the Australian Ballet has shown on numerous occasions has been by Graeme Murphy. Apart from the Murphy production, in the 20 years prior to the current production of Cranko’s work, I have seen Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, danced by the Royal Ballet and by Queensland Ballet, as well as productions by Stanton Welch for Houston Ballet, Sasha Waltz for the Paris Opera Ballet, John Neumeier’s production danced by the Royal Danish Ballet, a condensed version with the title R & J by Natalie Weir for Expressions Dance Company, and a reimagined production of the story, called Unravel, by a Canberra-based pre-professional company. So, rather than do a regular review I am simply noting some high points from the performance I saw just recently from the Australian Ballet.

Tybalt
I had the good fortune to see Joseph Romancewicz in the role of Tybalt, kinsman of the Capulet family. I have enjoyed watching Romancewicz for some time now and I thought his performance as Tybalt demonstrated a well thought through characterisation. He was cold and unrelenting in his dislike for the Montagues. He never fell out of character and his sword fight with Mercutio and then his death at the hands of Romeo were dramatic and powerful.

The ball scene (Act I, scene 4)
The largely-black costumes by Jürgen Rose for the guests at the Capulet ball were spectacular, as was the choreography and the dancing of it. I especially loved the moments when the men fell to their knees, on cushions they had dropped to the floor, and made a kind of reverence to their lady partners.

The music
The well-known music by Sergei Prokofiev, with the orchestra under the baton of the new Australian Ballet conductor Jonathan Lo, sounded just brilliant. Filled with such a diversity of thematic material and so much emotion, it was used to great effect by Cranko.

The carnival scene in the marketplace of Verona (Act II, scene 1)
Although I found the costuming for this scene a little overly decorative, the dancing was exciting to watch: I especially enjoyed the acrobatic moments by a quartet of very flexible performers. But all the dancers were full of the excitement of the moment, until the joy was interrupted by the demands of Tybalt.

The carnival in the marketplace from Romeo and Juliet. The Australian Ballet, 2022. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The progression of the storyline
The storyline moved along quickly and without a hitch. Every scene made its point clearly, never lingering over non-essential matters. The one exception, perhaps, was the dance of the bridesmaids (Act III, scene 3) which choreographically seemed to be a little uninspiring to me and continued for too long.

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Apart from the dance for the bridesmaids, there were other aspects of the work that didn’t appeal, which I think related more to the dancers I saw than to the work itself. Apart from Romancewicz, the only other dancer who made my eyes light up was Lucien Xu as Benvolio, who often is an easy-to-ignore character. But not this time.

As a final comment, I have to say that Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet, which concludes the Australian Ballet’s 2022 season, is a master work really. It had, thankfully, so much more to offer than the previous program, Instruments of Dance.

Michelle Potter 12 December 2022

For reviews of other productions of Romeo and Juliet, and some stories relating to the work, see this link.

Featured image: The carnival in the marketplace from Romeo and Juliet. The Australian Ballet, 2022. Photo: © Jeff Busby