DIA Beacon Events (2008). Merce Cunningham Dance Company. DIA Art Foundation, Beacon, New York. Riggio Galleries, 5 December 2008. Photo: © Stephanie Berger

A Feast of Cunningham

2 March 2019. 92Y, New York (Harkness Dance Festival 2019)

In 2019 the dance world is celebrating the centenary of the birth of Merce Cunningham with events across the globe. Most, not surprisingly, are being held throughout the United States. In Australia we had just one event, and I found it highly disappointing. So, it was a thrill to be in New York on a brief visit at a time when the 92nd St Y was holding a program (part of the 2019 Harkness Dance Festival) called A Feast of Cunningham. It was led by Sydney-born Melissa Toogood, a former dancer with Merce Cunningham Dance Company and a distinguished coach and teacher of Cunningham technique.

The program consisted of solos from Doubles (1984) and Loose Time (2002); Septet (1953); an excerpt from Scenario (1997); Cross Currents (1964); excerpts from Landrover (1972) and Trails (1982); and a Minevent. While all had their specific interest, for me it was Septet that gave the greatest pleasure. One of the very early works from Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which I had never seen before, it was fascinating to see choreography that had such an obvious link to the vocabulary and structure of ballet. The dancers used the upper body differently (with a bit more fluidity perhaps), and arms were more curved than is apparent in later works, with beautifully rounded fourth positions apparent at various times. I was also surprised to see one of the male dancers execute (very nicely I might add) a manѐge of turns and jumps. Quite balletic really.

While many of the dancers could be singled out for the particular qualities they exhibited, I found Melissa Toogood’s dancing exceptional. She appeared in several of the works and showed a great command of those features that characterise Cunningham technique, in particular a wonderful awareness of the space the body occupies when it moves (or takes a pose). When she faces front everything faces front, exactly. When she tilts her head to the side it goes exactly to the side, and so on. This exactness was missing from the young dancers from the New World School of the Arts who performed the Minevent that closed the program. While the enthusiasm was all there, in the end, without the exactness we saw from Toogood (and the other older, more experienced dancers), the Minevent looked a little messy to me. More rehearsal/class time needed?

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DIA Beacon Events (2009). Brandon Collwes of Merce Cunningham Dance Company. DIA Art Foundation, Beacon, New York. Dan Flavin Gallery, 20 February December 2009. Photo: © Stephanie Berger

Also on show at the 92Y was an exhibition of photographs, Merce Cunningham: Passing Time 1967-2011, Photos by James Klosty and Stephanie Berger. Klosty’s images date to the 1960s and 1970s and have long been seen as the standard go-to shots for that early era of Cunningham’s work. The exhibition included many of his classic shots, including portraits of Cunningham’s collaborators of the time such as, John Cage, David Tudor, Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns and others. Stephanie Berger’s images are quite different and their great strength is that they show clearly the nature of Cunningham vocabulary: the tilt of bodies, the strong sense of direction and spatial awareness, the extended limbs, the typical leaps and poses, and much more. Next to Berger’s shots, Klosty’s images have a kind of mystery and an emotive quality. Berger, on the other hand, gives us a fresh and exciting look at Cunningham’s work, and her images have their own emotional appeal. The work of both photographers benefits from this joint display.

Both images used in this post are from Merce Cunningham: Passing Time 1967-2011, Photos by James Klosty and Stephanie Berger and are used with the kind permission of the photographer.

Michelle Potter, 5 March 2019

Featured image: DIA Beacon Events (2008). Merce Cunningham Dance Company. DIA Art Foundation, Beacon, New York. Riggio Galleries, 5 December 2008. Photo: © Stephanie Berger

DIA Beacon Events (2008). Merce Cunningham Dance Company. DIA Art Foundation, Beacon, New York. Riggio Galleries, 5 December 2008. Photo: © Stephanie Berger
Hannah Tasker-Poland and Emmanuel Reynaud in 'Thursday'. Borderline Arts Ensemble, 2019. Photo: © Philip Merry

Thursday. Borderline Arts Ensemble

3 March 2019. Wellington Railway Station Foyer

Choreography: Lucy Marinkovich/Borderline Arts Ensemble 
Performers: Hannah Tasker-Poland and Emmanuel Reynaud
Music: Sergei Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No.2 (Adagio)

after 1945 David Lean /Noel Coward film classic, Brief Encounter. 

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan.

You’ve reached the Wellington Railway Station. In 15 mins your train is due to leave for Waikanae, so there’s time, no great hurry. It’s a fine day, just a bit draughty across the foyer, probably as well to keep your coat on. You stroll around a little and admire the warm pinkish-brown of carrara marble walls, the high vaulted ceiling panels painted in bright lightness. It’s all quite beautiful, must be the finest railway station in the world. The speakers are piping familiar Rachmaninoff, which is somehow comforting in such a transitory space.

Damn, something is caught in your eye and it stings, A man passing tries to help you. Whoa! Who is this? All the longing you’ve always kept inside but never voiced out loud, your secret that you could love someone till the end of time, even if there is no such actual person, or, if there is, you’ll never meet, it’s just a longing that you’ve always lived—perhaps others have it too?—but how would you know because this is not anything you can talk about. That would be unlucky and you might be overheard by strangers. There is no such person, too true to be real, too beautiful to last, to have a name, and she may not even notice you, and you’d risk losing her when you’d only just met. No, he’s just a kind man passing by, trying to help you sort your eye problem. Or let’s say it is just the thing called hope, the thing with feathers, that you nurture in the breast while reading Emily Dickinson’s poems on train journeys.

It’s not that you’re at all the type to fall carelessly and deeply in love with a stranger in a public place—for example, the man sitting in the third row of the No.14 bus that time you went to town … that was a breath-holding ride, you thought you could be together forever … but he knew nothing about you, did not even notice you, so the affair was safely over by the time you alighted at the third-section bus-stop. There was no dance, it was all in your mind, your soft head. So how come this day is different? This man does notice you, more than that—he pauses, he stops, he turns, he offers to help, he wants to meet you, he feels the same as you do. This is a film script, surely? You’re actually in this film, yet you never auditioned, and there was never any rehearsal. Who’s the choreographer here? Swan Lake is the story of a man and a woman who meet, they dance and love, but she is due to fly out that evening and he will lose her forever. This is different, it’s just a train station, remember.

Hannah Tasker-Poland and Emmanuel Reynaud in Lucy
Marinkovich’s Thursday. Borderline Arts Ensemble, 2019. Photo: © Philip Merry

A number of other travellers  stop to watch the couple—and are fixed by the beautiful figures-of-eight they see traced, like infinity signs lying sideways. Small fires flicker inside those who are watching too. No one is voicing a commentary, there are no subtitles, no flyers to hand out, no powerpoint. The dance is the point of power. This is not pornography, it’s not erotic (though nearly it is…), it’s just a 13 minute love dance on the marble floor of a railway station, by a man and a woman who keep their coats on while they fall into the depths of each other’s eyes and drown there, just managing to save each other by doing beautiful things, whatever their bodies will allow— like waves and billows, like leaning and longings, with arms, and hands, with legs, feet, faces, eyes, the backs of their heads too—they don’t always need to be watching to know what the other is doing, they can just tell. He knows they will never have to argue or disagree, they will love and hold and be held forever. This is better than all the lyrics of all the love songs on all the shelves of all the music shops of the world. These are minutes of assurance that you can love someone you don’t even know by name, and still catch your train. But, hold the Rachmaninoff … the voice-over announces that the Waikanae train will be leaving in two minutes time. You both pause, you raise hands in the gesture of a farewell wave—oh no—but yes—but no, let it go without you. You walk back towards each other, hold still, hold tight. She has let the train go without her.

All the dance moves up till this point were just rehearsal, so now it’s time to do them all again, only more fully, and slower, deeper to lunge, higher to lift, wider to arc, stronger to clasp. The watching travellers are all choosing to miss their trains too. They can’t walk away from lovemaking. At the start there was a posterboard on the edge of the space that read ‘New World, special coffee & muffin offer free. Today only’ but the message has been changed while no-one was looking and now reads ‘Innocence is contagious, if you like’ which everyone knows is true, and better value than coffee and a muffin, even when that’s free.

They continue dancing and it is the loveliest thing you ever saw in a Railway Station. Then the voice-over for the next train to Waikanae, and oh, she must leave now, and so she does. He turns and walks to the street, it’s his eyes that are stinging now, holding the memory of all that just happened. Probably. Today only. In 13 minutes. And will last forever. Surely.

————-

Lucy and partner/colleague, Lucien Johnson, will take up the year-long Harriet Friedlander Residency in New York. May they keep their coats on. while at the subway station.

Jennifer Shennan, 3 March 2019

Featured image: Hannah Tasker-Poland and Emmanuel Reynaud in Lucy
Marinkovich’s Thursday. Borderline Arts Ensemble, 2019. Photo: © Philip Merry

Hannah Tasker-Poland and Emmanuel Reynaud in 'Thursday'. Borderline Arts Ensemble, 2019. Photo: Philip Merry

Royal New Zealand Ballet Choreographic Series

1-2 March 2019, Opera House Wellington

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This program to open 2019 has four new and contrasting works that will appeal to audiences in different ways. The dancers, as always, give their all, but the production needs to settle down yet, and the lighting effects be reduced by perhaps 50%, if it is to source the power of theatre.

Hine the first work, by Moss Paterson, opens with a strongly rendered haka fronted by males, but the following sequence for females, with the unexpected choices of pointe shoes and scantily clad dancers, is a challenge to reconcile with the evocation of a whare whakairo. The first woman in Maori mythology, Hine ahu one, has been a number of times choreographed—(I think of Louise Potiki Bryant, of Kelly Nash, and of Merenia Gray’s works, and believe they could all be considered for future possible restagings). I found the back projections for this Hine often distracting, and the aural overload a challenge. I am no fan of strobe light in the theatre at the best of times, believing it belongs to the rock concert stage or the disco bar, and often weakens the development of form in a choreography. So Hine was for me, with its various quotes from other dances we have seen recently, a work in progress.

Y(It is decades since this company performed it, but no-one forgets how Gray Veredon harnessed the ihi, wehi and wana of haka into his classic cameo work, Tell Me A Tale. Anyone wishing to choreograph Te Ao Maori onto a ballet stage needs to study that work, and Veredon, a pioneering member of this Company, would be willing to help—right now though he is impressively occupied with staging a new full-length commission at Polish National Ballet. One could also consider bringing back to their home company some of our other ex-pat choreographers and teachers who have made strong careers abroad—Cameron McMillan, Mark Baldwin, Andrew Simmons, Martin James and Patricia Rianne come to mind).

The second work is by James O’Hara, The Sky Is Not So Different From Us, Perhaps… with musician Anita Clark on stage. The work has a layered movement texture I found cumulatively mesmerising. Ceaseless pulses and undulations hint at the physics inside a human body—the rhythms of breathing and of blood circulating, as measures of life, except for one sad Pierrot figure standing in catatonic contrast until the violin vibrations thaw her out. The ever-repeating tape-loop of violin and vocals adds to the work’s atmosphere and mystery. Multi-layered costumes echo the choreographic theme, though for some of them, less would be more (and why a very tall man would wear a constricting mid-calf pink skirt I found impossible to fathom). The best of this work is very good indeed.

(left) Mayu Tanigaito in The ground beneath our feet; (right) Abigail Boyle in Artemis rising, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. All photos: © Stephen A’Court

Shaun James Kelly’s work, The Ground Beneath our Feet, is a winner. He summons the airborne energy and élan we have always welcomed from the dancers in our Company, whatever the chosen choreographic style or aesthetic. I personally prefer to hear Bach in the scores as left to us, so the doctored treatment of the Violin Concerto, while you can do it, did not seem to me to add anything new. A galvanising pleasure though to see the commitment between partners within each dancing couple. The total frisson of the evening for me was Mayu Tanigaito. The prodigious technique of this dancer allows her to transform to a hummingbird, a diving swallow, a fairy tern. That she can do it all and more, and flash a smile the while, puts her in a class of her own. (Many of us have long wished that the superb full-length work Madame Butterfly, by Australian choreographer Stanton Welch, and stunning design by Peter Farmer, could be re-staged from our Company’s strong and richly defined repertoire, and the title role offered to this dancer as a vehicle for her talent).

This season marks the retirement, after 13 stalwart years dancing, of Abigail Boyle, a much loved and highly versatile performer with classical, dramatic and comic abilities in spades. The work Artemis Rising, choreographed for her by Sarah Foster-Sproull, was effectively a solo, with other dancers as a shadow chorus. It leaves some striking images for us to savour, and acts as tribute to Abigail’s performing, and a blessing on her future career transition (she plans to develop a teaching and coaching career).

The purest combination of technique, phrasing and line was to be seen whenever watching Abigail in class in the studio—an experience I will treasure to the end of my days. Many know and love this dancer, and wish her the very best for the coming years. (Readers may care to read the fine interview with Bess Manson published in The Dominion Post, 2 March 2019, and available online at www.stuff.co.nz—Dancer Abigail Boyle, Breaking through the fourth wall).She has been given a spirited and fitting farewell.

A recent Company newsletter advised that they are also currently considering how to honour the significant contribution to ballet and theatre in New Zealand of Sir Jon Trimmer who gave his retirement performance late last year. If that turns out to be an 80th Birthday Benefit Gala in September, say, one can imagine the Opera House dome needing to be opened to let out the tsunami of excitement and gratitude that New Zealanders would want to show him by way of salute and thanks for the legendary 60+ years career with this Company. Kia ora rawa atu, he totara nui o te ao kanikani o Aotearoa. I nga ra o mua, i nga ra inaianeihe wiri mo he takahia taonga enei. Tena koe, e hoa.

Jennifer Shennan, 2 March 2019

Featured image:Caroline Wiley in The sky is not so different from us … perhaps. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Robert O'Kell as Santa Claus, 2018

Dance diary. February 2019

  • Robert O’Kell

Do you recognise the Santa Claus in the featured image for this post? No? Well it’s Robert O’Kell, former dancer with the Australian Ballet, West Australian Ballet and several overseas companies, who each year delights children as Santa Claus in a department store in Victoria. Following a request from a former pupil of O’Kell, and with the generosity of one of O’Kell’s former dance partners, I was able to contact O’Kell and put his former student in touch with him. He also sent me some information about his career, including some Santa photos.

  • Australian Dance Awards

Earlier in February Ausdance National released the news that the Australian Dance Awards for 2019 have been cancelled. This is a hugely regrettable situation but one that reflects an overall reduction in support for dance, which has been building momentum for some time now. Read the media release at this link.

  • Oral histories

In February I had the pleasure of recording two more oral history interviews. I interviewed Li Cunxin in Brisbane for the National Library of Australia. We focused largely on his career in Australia, picking up where Mao’s Last Dancer finished.

Later, while in Wellington, I interviewed Jennifer Shennan for the Oral History Project of the National Dance Archive of New Zealand.

Jennifer Shennan. Wellington, 2019. Photo: Michelle Potter

Jennifer Shennan. Wellington, 2019. Photo: Michelle Potter

Both were fulfilling experiences in so many ways and what was recorded in both instances reflects the energy and determination of the people who push the boundaries of dance and whose achievements create our dance history.

Here is a link to the list of oral histories I have conducted for various organisations, now stretching back over three decades.

  • Press for February 2019

Critics’ survey 2018. Dance Australia, February–March 2019, pp. 38–40. Online link

‘A powerful yet wordless narrative inspired by dreams.’ Review of Christopher Samuel Carroll’s Icarus. The Canberra Times, 28 February 2019. Online only at this stage. [UPDATE: The print and digital version of this review appeared in The Canberra Times, 1 March 2019, p. 29 as ‘Dreams of flight from a world at war.’]

Michelle Potter, 28 February 2019

Dame Margaret Scott. Photo Angela Lynkushka

Dame Margaret Scott, 1922—2019

I was deeply saddened to hear of the death of Dame Margaret Scott on 24 February 2019. I was enormously privileged to have spent considerable time with her throughout 2014 as I wrote her biography for Text Publishing. Even before that, way back in 1993, I had the pleasure of recording an oral history interview with her for the National Library of Australia, which eventually formed a framework for the biography.

Vale Maggie. You were an exceptional woman and you changed the face of dance in Australia. The obituary I wrote has been published in Dance Australia at this link.

Dame Margaret Scott, AC, DBE, OBE.
Born Johannesburg, South Africa, 26 April 1922
Died Melbourne, Australia, 24 February 2019

Michelle Potter, 24 February 2019

Featured image: Dame Margaret Scott, 1994 (detail). Photo: © Angela Lynkushka. Used with the kind permission of the photographer

Dame Margaret Scott. Photo Angela Lynkushka