Dance for Ukraine, a humanitarian appeal to raise money for Ukraine and its people, was put together and directed by Alina Cojocaru (Romania) and Ivan Putrov (Ukraine). It was staged on 19 March 2022 at the London Coliseum and was streamed on Marquee TV making it accessible for those of us who live outside London. It was a great opportunity to see a range of artists dancing a range of choreography, some of it familiar, some not, some filled with sadness and mourning, some filled with joy and hope. It was also a great opportunity to donate via the (minimal) cost to stream, with the possibility of making a further donation as well.
The gala opened with a dramatic and moving rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem. This powerful and emotion-filled singing by a small choir of voices led by Ksenia Nikolaieva was followed by short, spoken introductions by Cojocaru and Putrov, who trained together as children in Kyiv. Then the dancing began.
It was a initial shock that the first dance was a pas de deux from Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land. I am lucky enough to have seen this work twice, once with English National Ballet, who commissioned the work in 2014, and once with Queensland Ballet, who staged it in 2017. It is an extraordinary work and my initial shock was nothing to do with its appropriateness for the gala. It was appropriate as this pas deux concerns a woman’s reaction to her realisation that the man in her life was not returning from war. My feeling of shock was that we were seeing a work by Scarlett, one which I thought I would never see again. It was, however, an exceptional experience to see once more the sense of loss conveyed by Scarlett’s choreography and, of course, death is now part of the Scarlett story so a certain degree of symbolism could easily be felt. The Act II pas de deux from Scarlett’s version of Swan Lake was also featured later in the program.
Looking at the program as a whole, the standout dancer for me was Francesco Gabriele Frola partnering Mayara Magri in the Ali and Medora pas de deux from Le Corsaire. Frola is now a principal with English National Ballet and his technique and stage presence are spectacular. He is one of those dancers who gives one goose bumps from the minute he steps onstage, not to mention the gasps that can’t be held back when watching his manèges, his beats, his turns and his beautiful attention to his partner.
Also highly interesting were two male solos—The Dying Swan danced by Cuban born Javier Torres with choreography from Michel Descombey and Lacrymosa danced by Royal Ballet first soloist Luca Acri with choreography by Edward Stierle. This Dying Swan was a far cry from the Anna Pavlova version with which many are more than familiar. It had a very human element to the choreography as we watched a man, whose life seemed to be crumbling under physical pressures, hover closer and closer to death, although fluttering hands and arms paid service to the original solo. Luca Acri danced his solo, Lacrymosa, to a section of Mozart’s Requiem and showed off a stunning technique full of control, fluidity and power.
There were some items that were not so steeped in sorrow. I enjoyed a beautiful performance of Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky pas de deux danced by the magnificent Marianela Nuñez partnered by Reece Clarke and also a work I had never seen before, one of Ben Stevenson’s Three Preludes danced by Junor Souza and Emma Hawes. The Stevenson work, danced around and on a portable barre, was quite simple but beautiful in the way it showed an arrangement of shapes that can be put together by two dancers working with a strictly classical vocabulary. Then there was a performance of the grand pas de deux from Carlos Accosta’s production of Don Quixote performed with panache by Miki Muzitani and Mathias Dingman.
Other works included a section from FAR by Wayne McGregor, an extract from John Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias with Alina Cojocaru and Mathieu Ganio, a section from Bournonville’s La Sylphide, a work called Ashes choreographed by Jason Kittelberger and danced by Natalia Osipova, and a section from Kenneth MacMillan’s Requiem.
Cojocaru and Putrov have said ‘We are united in our belief that art can and must stand up for humanity. So many of our fellow artists believe the same and have joined us to show their support for the people of Ukraine in this moment of need.’
Michelle Potter, 26 April 2022.
With thanks to Elliott Franks for permission to use his images. The streaming of Dance for Ukraine on Marquee TV ended on 24 April.
2 April 2022. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre
The work of Jake Silvestro defies categorisation. He is at once a dancer, a circus performer, a physical theatre artist, and a visual artist. All these qualities appear quite clearly in his solo show, December.
As we enter the theatre for December, our eyes are drawn to a dimly-lit stage covered by detritus that looks initially like rocks but turns out to be large sheets of crumpled paper. A fireplace without a surrounding wall sits in one downstage corner. We can hear the sound of birds chirping in the background and, as the show proper begins, the lighting changes to a reddish glow. Silvestro walks into this setting and rustles around in the scrunched paper. He uncovers some items including a small box, which we later discover is filled with pieces of chalk and other materials used for drawing; and a curved piece of wood of some sort, which later turns out to be part of a Cyr wheel. December is Silvestro’s personal reflections on the disastrous fires that consumed parts of the Australian bush in December 2019 and into 2020. That reddish lighting of course suggests those fires! And the set suggests a burnt out residence.
Throughout the piece, Silvestro moves around the set sometimes in a slow, thoughtful walk, but most times with spectacular leaps, runs, tumbles and jumps. He sometimes uses the props on the set as aids or additions to his movement. A dance with two chairs, one untouched by the fire, the other damaged, which he uncovers from amongst the crumpled detritus, shows us his skills in incorporating objects into his choreography. His interest in the visual arts takes over on a number of occasions and he manipulates large pieces of cloth so they become a background for his drawing and painting. He takes out some chalk from the box he found and draws geometric patterns on the stage floor. I wonder what he is doing but decide he must be drawing the floor plan of the burnt out residence. Or perhaps how the house will look when he rebuilds.
At one stage Silvestro picks up some pieces of fabric that he fashions into items that represent people. One represents a baby. He cradles it in his arms. Another is a head (of a woman, a partner perhaps). He touches it lovingly and then dances with it. A storyline is in there somewhere but it’s up to us to make it up.
Two particular moments stand out for me. In one Silvestro picks up the piece of curved wood he has rescued from the crumpled mess on the floor and joins it to another larger piece of circular material so that a Cyr wheel is created. He is a fabulous performer on this item of circus paraphernalia and his whirling and spinning while inside the wheel are breathtaking. In another he adds a brightly coloured shirt to his rather workman-like costume (that of someone who has been fighting the fire perhaps), picks up some brightly coloured hoops and proceeds to engage us with a brilliant display as he manipulates the hoops, letting them play up and down and across his body. It is a particularly joyous moment compared with most of the rest of the work and suggests perhaps that there is hope for the future.
December was an engaging show filled with many emotions and some great movement. I wish, however, that there had been some sort of handout, or information board in the foyer, that at least gave credits. I have no idea who did the lighting, who designed the soundscape, who was responsible for the setting and so on. Some of us like to know, especially if we are writing up the show. Perhaps next time?
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.’
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.
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.
His sensitively nuanced productions of Swan Lake became benchmarks of the ever-renewing classic that deals with mortality and grief.
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 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
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.
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.
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.
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.