‘Once a dancer, always a dancer’ is a phrase that springs to mind when looking at how David McAllister is managing retirement after serving for two decades as artistic director of the Australian Ballet. Since leaving that directorship role at the end of 2020, McAllister has published Soar, his autobiography; created a new Swan Lake for the Finnish National Ballet; been honoured with various awards; and taught for many organisations and dance schools across Australia (amongst a variety of other activities).
But the most recent news is perhaps the most interesting of all his recent engagements. In a commission that he has described as ‘an exciting retirement opportunity’, he will act as interim artistic director for the Wellington-based Royal New Zealand Ballet until a replacement is chosen to take over from Patricia Barker, who has announced her retirement. McAllister will take up the role early in March. Barker will return to the United States following the regional tour, Tutus on Tour, which concludes on 12 March.
Barker’s retirement comes at a significant point in RNZB’s history. The year 2023 is the 70th anniversary of the company’s foundation in 1953 by Poul Gnatt. Over those 70 years, and looking at the book The Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60 (edited by Jennifer Shennan and Anne Rowse), it is clear that the company has appointed directors from around the world. But was the last New Zealander to hold the post really Bryan Ashbridge in 1971? One wonders if, in celebration of the company’s stellar history, it is an appropriate time to appoint once more a New Zealander as director? Time will tell and, in the meantime, I’m sure McAllister will do a terrific job and will be admired by all involved. Interesting times for dance in New Zealand.
At the end of December it is always interesting to look back on statistics for the year. During 2022, Jennifer Shennan and I have posted 58 items on the website (just over one per week) and we have received around 46,000 visits over that period. Melbourne tops the list of cities from which our readers have come, but the website attracts visitors from around the world, especially (apart from Australia and New Zealand) from the United States and the United Kingdom. May our statistics continue to improve over the year to come and I wish all our friends and colleagues a happy new year. May 2023 be filled with dance, in whatever form that may currently be for you.
In the meantime, below are some news items that emerged during December 2022.
In a recent ‘Behind Ballet’ post, the Australian Ballet has explained why I have not seen Joseph Romancewicz onstage for some time. I have admired his dancing, and his strong stage presence, since 2018 when I thoroughly enjoyed his performance in a small role in a production of The Merry Widow, but had been a little disappointed that I hadn’t seen him recently. Well an injury in 2021 has kept him out of performances but it seems, with the help of the Australian Ballet’s health team and some surgery, he has recovered. He was an excellent Tybalt in the recent production of Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet and I look forward to seeing him again in 2023.
Melanie Lane, whose recent work in Canberra was Metal Park for QL2 Dance’s annual Quantum Leap show, has been named Choreographer in Residence 2023-2024 by Melbourne’s Chunky Move. The Choreographer in Residence initiative will invest $120,000 in Lane’s practice over the two years including a direct contribution of $50,000 in artist fees and $70,000 towards the commission of a major work in the second year of the tenure.
Lane has previously been commissioned by Sydney Dance Company, where she showed her unforgettable workWOOF, and by Australasian Dance Collective, Dance North, Chunky Move, Schauspiel Leipzig and West Australian Ballet. She was the recipient of the 2018 Keir choreographic award and the 2017 Leipziger Bewegungskunstpreis in Germany.
I interviewed Lane earlier this year while she was preparing Metal Park. See this link for what I wrote as a result of the interview. I am very much looking forward too to seeing what eventuates from Lane’s work with Chunky Move.
La Nijinska. A new book by Lynn Garafola
How little I knew about Bronislava Nijinska before reading Lynn Garafola’s latest, intensively researched book La Nijinska. It is a very dense book but, from the countless research elements, stories and anecdotes, one or two stand out for me, largely for personal reasons. I was interested to read about the genesis of Les Noces for example: it has a whole chapter to itself. It reminded me of a performance in Canberra way back in 1982 when Don Asker, then directing the city’s resident dance company, Human Veins Dance Theatre, choreographed a version of Les Noces for a Stravinsky Festival. Asker collaborated with the Canberra School of Music and, perhaps ‘for the first time ever’, so the media reported, had the music performed as Stravinsky envisaged it. The orchestra, including four grand pianos, soloists and chorus, shared the stage with the dancers. It was a monumental undertaking and one not to be forgotten.
Perhaps the most interesting snippet for me, however, was a brief discussion of Nijinska as a potential director of a second Ballets Russes company for Colonel de Basil, one that would eventually head to Australia. The story goes:
Now, in the summer of 1936, rumours circulated about the likelihood of de Basil forming a second company that would tour Australia, while the main company danced in Germany and the United States. Thomas Armour … wrote to a friend on April 22, “I have been told de Basil really plans this year to have two companies and that Nijinska will be in charge of the second.” (Lynn Garafola, La Nijinska. New York, Oxford University Press, 2022, p. 359).
Well it didn’t happen that Nijinska came to Australia in that role. It was Leon Woizikowsky who headed that 1936 visit to Australia. One must wonder however how different ballet in Australia might have been had it happened!
The Dying Swan
As we begin a new year, enjoy a beautiful performance of The Dying Swan danced by Nina Ananiashvili. It comes from the Jacob’s Pillow playlist, an amazing source of dance on film from works performed over the years at Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, Massachusetts. Watch Ananiashvili here.
In 2022 I managed to see more live performances than I did in 2021. I was even able to get to New Zealand to see Loughlan Prior’s Cinderella. There were still a number of online offerings to add to the year’s viewing of course, and online watching has become part of my life I think.
As I did in 2021, I have chosen just five performances as my highlights for 2022, and the pluses and minuses experienced in 2021 were pretty much the same in 2022: difficulties resulting from choosing such a small number, but the advantage of having to focus strongly on what defines for me an outstanding work.
Below are my ‘top five’ productions for 2022, arranged chronologically according to the date of performance. I have included a link to my review in each case and have simply included in this post the main reason why I chose each work. All posts refer to live performances.
LESS (Canberra. Australian Dance Party, March)
LESS was a brilliant collaborative endeavour, and an outstanding site-specific work, the ongoing focus of Australian Dance Party. Here is the link to the review.
(As a Canberra-based writer I also chose LESS as my highlight for 2022 for Dance Australia and my comments should appear in that magazine soon).
Kunstkamer (Sydney. The Australian Ballet, May)
Kunstkamer was an outstanding work that showed the Australian Ballet and its dancers in a totally new light. Here is the link to the review.
Li’s Choice (Brisbane. Queensland Ballet, June)
Li’s choice showed the exceptional diversity of Queensland Ballet’s dancers and the equally exceptional directorship of Li Cunxin and his support staff. Here is the link to the review.
Galileo (Parramatta. Sydney Choreographic Ensemble, June)
Francesco Ventriglia skilfully demonstrated how choreography can convey a huge range of ideas and while doing so make a totally absorbing and focused work. Here is the link to the review.
Cinderella (Auckland. Royal New Zealand Ballet, August)
Loughlan Prior gave his Cinderella a setting and storyline that was a courageous and totally unexpected look at a well-worn story, Here is the link to the review, and another link to an interview with Loughlan Prior in which he talks about Cinderella.
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.
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.
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.