While in New Zealand to see Royal New Zealand Ballet’s Cinderella, I had the pleasure of engaging in an extended conversation with choreographer Loughlan Prior. Not unexpectedly, much of the conversation focused on his production of Cinderella, a production dense with allusions of various kinds.
One aspect of the production that intrigued me was the references to Swan Lake that were noticeable during the show. The first was not enormously obvious, but perfectly clear to anyone who had seen Swan Lake multiple times. It happened quite early in the first act when the image of a bird flew across the digital backdrop. Prince Charming, who was somewhat frustrated by his domineering mother, the Queen, gathered up his hunting gear and set off, clearly with the intention of shooting the bird. Shades of Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake as he sets off after his birthday celebrations to shoot swans! But Prior’s Cinderella changes the story when the Queen, in an act that demonstrated her overbearing behaviour, shot the bird first. I learnt later that the bird was a magpie and, to emphasise the Queen’s reaction and her overbearing behaviour, a black and white magpie decoration was layered onto the dress she wore to the ball in Act II.
A much more obvious reference to Swan Lake appeared in the second act of Prior’s Cinderella, when guests at the ball were dancing and generally cavorting.
The two Step-Sisters, whose behaviour became more and more outrageous as the night wore on (swinging from chandeliers for example), linked arms and performed steps in a manner that was instantly recognisable. If the arms and movements weren’t recognisable to some then the music (performed in this production by a brass band) certainly would have been. Those Step-Sisters were dancing (or trying to dance) the so-well-known Dance of the Little Swans from Swan Lake. Why I wondered?
Prior tells me he had Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake in his mind and also Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in which Wheeldon had the Queen of Hearts parody the Rose Adagio from The Sleeping Beauty. But he also added that the Little Swans in this case also referred back to the Stepmother who, he said, was ‘an ultra stage-mum’ who had had her daughters taught a fabulous dance that they were not capable of doing properly.
‘This show is quite irreverent,’ Prior explains. ‘It pokes fun at various things.’ He also uses the words ‘eclecticism’, ‘flamboyant’, ‘many cultural references’ and ‘set in a world of excess’. As I wrote in my review, one viewing is definitely not enough to absorb everything about this multi-faceted production.
Prior also spoke of his admiration for and ongoing collaboration with Claire Cowan, composer of the score for Cinderella. ‘Claire is not afraid to use unusual instruments,’ he says. ‘She loves percussion, and there are also four recorders in the orchestra [for Cinderella] giving a medieval feel at times.’ With Cowan he has also established a company called Lo Co Arts and the first full-length work from Lo Co Arts will premiere at New Zealand’s next Tempo Festival.
Prior, now a dual citizen of Australia and New Zealand, plans to work across Australasia (and beyond). To date his major works have been in New Zealand but he is quite clear that he has to be able to work elsewhere as well. ‘It’s crucial for me to be working around Australasia,’ he says. ‘There’s not enough work to be choreographing full-time if I’m just in New Zealand.’ But, going back to Cinderella, he remarks, ‘My real passion is in storytelling. I’m really pleased with what the company has let me do. They trusted me to follow a particular journey.’
Loughlan Prior’s journey is one to follow I suggest. See my review of Cinderella at this link.
Harry Haythorne (Artistic Director of Royal New Zealand Ballet 1981—1992) was always an enthusiastic admirer of Gray Veredon’s choreography. In 1981, the effervescent Ragtime Dance Company, to Scott Joplin, had set the stage sizzling and gave Jon Trimmer one of his favourite roles. In 1988 Harry commissioned Tell Me A Tale, which wove elements of 19th century Pakeha settlers interacting with local Maori community, incorporating haka into the danced narrative. To my memory that was the most assured choreographic staging in and of a bi-cultural New Zealand we have seen.
Veredon’s rapport with designer Kristian Fredrikson was evident in the shadowed atmosphere of a powerful set and vintage costumes. Images remain of the performances by Jon Trimmer as the father, Kerry-Anne Gilberd the mother, Kim Broad the son, with Warren Douglas powerfully leading the haka that challenged a love interest across the racial divide. It’s always intriguing to think about what keeps some dance memories alive for decades while others fade.
In 1989, Haythorne commissioned A Servant of Two Masters—with Veredon and Fredrikson again working together. The request was for a set that could easily travel abroad since Veredon’s contacts with the impresario Manfred Gerber enabled the Company’s first tour to Europe. Fredrikson came up trumps with silk banners that filled the stage yet could be folded down into two suitcases. Board a plane with a ballet in your carry-on luggage? Touché.
To vivacious Vivaldi, the full-length work proved a triumph as Veredon, who knew commedia dell’arte well, made stunning character roles for every soloist in the company, each one of whom rose to the challenge—most outstandingly Eric Languet as Truffaldino and Warren Douglas as Brighella. Even the Artistic Director was on stage as Harry leapt at the chance to play Dr. Lombardi, cavorting opposite Jon Trimmer as the wealthy Pantalone. It is true as Michelle Potter points out they did not push their luck by overplaying the farce, but reined in their comic timing which of course controls character the more impressively. Many audience veterans vote Servant as the ‘best ever’ work from RNZB repertoire. The tour proved hugely memorable for the Company for a completely different reason—they were in Berlin when the Wall came down. Dancer Turid Revfeim’s memories and descriptions of the events could and should be the subject of another full-length choreography.
In the book The Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60, Veredon wrote a perceptive article, Developing New Synergies, about his numerous seasons with RNZB. His tribute to Jon Trimmer as leading dancer for decades is for the record. Veredon also shares cogent and relevant ideas for choreographic development within a ballet company, and the responsibility to keep the best of the repertoire extant. Ka hau te rangatahi—the new net goes fishing.
Jennifer Shennan, 4 July 2022
Editor’s note: This article began as a comment on the review on this website of the Australian Ballet’s production of Harlequinade but deserved to become a short article on new and old repertoire. Gray Verdon’s comments on repertoire in The Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60, as mentioned above, are definitely worth reading especially the last paragraph on p. 166. More about A Servant of Two Masters and Tell me a Tale can be found in Kristian Fredrikson. Designer, pp. 147-156.
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.
Anne Rowse is a well-known and much-loved figure in the New Zealand dance scene. Her 90th birthday was recently celebrated in style at several events in her home town of Wellington, and at a family gathering at Queenstown in the following days. London called in long-distance, as did many colleagues and former students from a global spread of cities.
Anne had early ballet training in New Zealand, continued that in London, then had a performance career with Festival Ballet between 1952 and 1960, when she danced alongside fellow New Zealander Russell Kerr. She retired from performing and returned home with husband Ken Sudell to start a family. After some years she commenced teaching and in 1979 was appointed Director of the National School of Ballet, in 1982 re-named New Zealand School of Dance to mark the introduction of contemporary dance as well as teacher-training courses.
Everyone invited to the birthday events accepted, since ‘Joyous occasions are few. We will celebrate’ (that’s a quote from composer, the late Douglas Lilburn). Perhaps they were also hoping that Anne’s renowned optimism, elegance and positivity would prove infectious, and that they might catch some of whatever she’s got.
Anne recently performed the central role in Doris Humphrey’s movingly beautiful Air for the G-String, something she has done maybe a dozen times over the years, her serenity and presence more poignant on every occasion. (Air, along with a dozen other Humphrey and Limon repertoire, was first staged by Louis Solino when he was on the faculty at New Zealand School of Dance. Anne rates it as a major coup to have appointed Solino to the staff since none of those fine classic choreographies would otherwise ever have been seen here). A number of other highly successful initiatives date back to her time at the School. It is heartening to learn that Anne is mid-stream writing her Memoirs so there will be a record of important dimensions in New Zealand dance.
Early in the week an open class of Renaissance and Baroque dance included Anne dancing a menuet-à-deux from Kellom Tomlinson’s 18th century treatise. With Robert Oliver on bass viol, and Keith McEwing as partner, she brought a striking grace to the menuet—(I here declare a very happy ‘conflict of interest’ since I set the dance). Matz Skoog (former artistic director of RNZBallet) was in the room and reference to his experience in late Baroque theatre productions at Drottningholm in Sweden gave an extra resonance to the lines and legacy we trace in ballet history—not for old time’s sake, but for future time’s sake.
A few days later a large crowd of well-wishers attended an event at New Zealand School of Dance where director Garry Trinder and associate director Christine Gunn, together with present and past staff and students, acknowledged Anne’s contribution and celebrated her milestone. Other speakers included Liz Davey and Deirdre Tarrant, and The Royal Academy of Dance, itself celebrating 100 years of achievement, made a presentation of the President’s Award on behalf of Luke Rittner from London.
The junior scholars performed a piece set by Sue Nicholls, a contemporary work by Holly Newsome was danced by 1st year students, then the pas de deux from the second movement of Concerto by Kenneth MacMillan was given a flawless performance by Louise Camelbeke and Zachary Healy. The luminous choreography, to the Shostakovich Second Piano Concerto, beautifully played by Philip O’Malley, was a blessing without words.
The school song—E te whaea e—was given a robust rendition by all students and staff, thus ending the presentation in high spirits.
Dance … so intensely in and of the present … can equally invoke other times, places and people, their work then and now, their memories of then, and the books they write now.
Many happy returns, Anne. We celebrate 21sts, why not 91sts? See you next year.
There are perhaps 1,000 images in the iconography I have assembled over decades from my interest in the anthropology of dance and in world dance traditions. I was encouraged in this project by my teacher, Professor Roderyk Lange, whose publications demonstrate his encyclopaedic knowledge of dance in many times and places.
Of all these images, there is one I return to again and again, believing it to be the most beautiful dance photograph I know. Taken by Heide Smith, it appears in her book Tiwi: The Life and Art of Australia’s Tiwi People, published in 1990. The caption reads ‘a Relationship dance’, which in turn reminds me of the book by anthropologist Jane Goodale—Tiwi Wives, a book containing detailed accounts of traditional indigenous dances, with particular reference to the ways that different gestures and movements of certain parts of the body are recognised as defining the relationships between a dancer and those for whom the dance is being performed on a given occasion.
In the photo a woman, Gerardine Tungatalum, stands poised on one leg, her other foot raised behind the calf of the supporting leg. Her hips are swayed to one side to counterbalance the raised foot, then the waist curves to correct, so that the upper body comes back into the vertical line, thus creating a sinuous curve that weaves back and forth across the central axis from foot to head. One arm is stretched out low to the side, the other arm bent with her hand lifted to touch her forehead. The overall impression conveyed is one of serene equilibrium, with deep involvement in the meaning and mood of the dance.
There are countless graphic images in sculpture and painting of the many classical dance traditions of India. The associated literature is possibly the most extensive and detailed analysis of a peoples’ dance aesthetics and related mythology anywhere in the world. Celebrated scholars, Dr Kapila Vatsyayan and Dr Sunhil Kothari, have both written about this trope of a dancing body simultaneously moving in and out of balance, as though in subtle defiance of gravity. I am reminded of those writings by this exquisite photo portrait of a Tiwi woman.
Heide Smith’s photograph is framed by two figures—a woman seated on the ground watching, possibly singing, possibly marking percussion on her knee, and a man who sits nearby, also watching intently. Other photographs in the book suggest they are recordings of actual situations and events, with no indication that they are being posed for a visiting photographer. It is a gift indeed to be able to capture such a sense of movement and context within a still image of a dance, and I thank Heide for it.
In all the upheavals of 2020 ̶ 21, there has been a seismic range of responses to Covid-induced constraints from dance companies, artists, entrepreneurs and media worldwide. Film-makers and videographers have engaged with choreographers and dancers as never before, and the results have been in some cases breathtaking.
Plenty of companies initially took a standard line of having dancers capture themselves on smartphones in daily work outs in their apartment kitchens and sending in the somewhat underwhelming results for their company to stream. It certainly highlighted, by their absence, the critical importance of the ballet masters’ role in the daily life of a dancer. Other companies saw the opportunity to make income from subscribers who could watch existing films of their repertoire broadcast within a limited time frame. Others again recognised with vision the unprecedented chance for what amounted to free publicity for their companies or theatres, and generously offered open viewing of works to audiences worldwide.
New York City Ballet presented several new choreographies designed for socially distanced preparation and performance, and these were screened alongside commentary and discussion with the performers. For me though the highlight was the exquisite Moon Water by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, due to be performed live at Sadler’s Wells, instead broadcast through pre-existing film. It was introduced especially for the occasion by choreographer, Lin Hwai-Min, and will remain indelibly memorable, in my mind and also those of friends who took the tip I sent them to watch. Many are still thanking me months later for what they describe as the most serene and consoling dance experience they have ever known.
Two further memorable examples of dance films that have crossed my screen as Arts Channel broadcasts during the Covid era are of flamenco artists—both of them phenomenally though differently talented. Rocío Molina was the subject of a documentary, Impulso, that tracked the choreographic progress of her new work from its beginnings in Madrid, through various previews in different Spanish venues, through to its premiere at the Théâtre national de Chaillot in Paris. Molina is a wild child but her passion to live through dance burns holes in your television screen.
The other program more recently screened, again through Sadler’s Wells, is of Maria Pagés from Seville. Her company’s mid-year season in London was cancelled, so a documentary was made instead. The choreographic vision ranged from portrayals of the seasons through traditional flamenco movement, in floreo and braceo arm movements, both timeless and sinuous. As well she draws on contemporary global phenomena—such as the rise of populism, weakening of democracy, culture of bullying. There were astonishing film clips of the braying, barking oratory of Adolf Hitler, the hammering rhythms and cadences of his declamations, which were then reproduced to startling effect in the rhythmic patterns of the dancers’ stamped canes. The sophistication of choreographic vision invites us all to consider how bullying in any situation can be countered or contained. Top marks to Sadler’s Wells for bringing this stage work to the screen.
The Australian Ballet’s 2021 season will include performances of George Balanchine’s work, The Four Temperaments, a ballet that had its world premiere in 1946. Then it was performed by Ballet Society, the forerunner to New York City Ballet, in the auditorium of the Central High School of Needle Trades in Manhattan (now the High School of Fashion Industries). For an explanation of the title of the ballet see this link from the George Balanchine Trust website.
Researching the ballet, ahead of its (hopefully live) performances in 2021, has uncovered some fascinating stories, articles and recollections by those who have danced in it over the years, and about the company that first performed it, Ballet Society. According to Bernard Taper in Balanchine. A Biography, Ballet Society was ‘a most peculiar venture’ that was organised by Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein to encourage the production of new works. It was to be an organisation that ‘would cater only to an elite subscription audience’. The press was not invited to the first production, which consisted of The Four Temperaments and Maurice Ravel’s The Spellbound Child (L’enfant et les sortilèges) as staged by Balanchine with an English translation of a text from Colette. The press, however, managed to get to see the show by ‘buying their own subscriptions’ or ‘sneaking into the auditorium on performance nights’. So began a ballet that was ground breaking then and is still remarkable today. It is more often than not described as ‘A dance ballet without plot’ (Balanchine’s subtitle), but according to Taper ‘[it] seemed to demonstrate that ballet could do anything that modern dance could do—and more.’
It was not (and is not) an easy ballet to dance. In the beginning there were the costumes to contend with. The original costumes were designed by Swiss-American artist Kurt Seligmann and were somewhat extravagant and not easy to wear. In Barbara Newman’s Striking a balance, Tanaquil LeClercq, who danced in the corps de ballet in the original production, recalls:
I had a large nylon wig that came down to about my rear end. It had a large pompadour, and it had a large white horn in the middle like a unicorn’s, which made it difficult to do all the things [Balanchine] had made. That was number one. Very irritating. You come to dress rehearsal, and if you swing your arm close to your head, suddenly there’s a horn. The other thing was that [Kurt] Seligmann had made wings, red wings, fingers enclosed, and there was no place to get out. If you got into your costume and then got something in your eye or wanted to unzip yourself to get out, you couldn’t. Once you tied your toeshoe ribbons, that was it. It gave you a feeling of claustrophobia I can’t describe. All enclosed. Not even gloves with fingers—no fingers at all. It was hideous.
The Seligmann costumes were eventually abandoned and were replaced from 1951 by simple practice clothes, black leotards for the women, and black tights and a white T-shirt for the men, which are still worn today.
Then there was the choreography. Merrill Ashley, in her memoir Dancing for Balanchine, speaks of some of the choreography she found difficult. She danced the leading role in the Sanguinic section when the work was revived for New York City Ballet after slipping out of the repertoire for some years. She writes:
There was one movement about which [Balanchine] was particularly concerned. He wanted me to step backward on pointe and then, without traveling at all, put my heel down flat on the floor and let my body fall back—without losing control. Actually the step was meant to make me look as if I had fallen off pointe suddenly, and was therefore falling back. It was very difficult, especially lowering the foot without moving the heel at all. I wasn’t able to do it right, but when Balanchine told me that no one else had ever done it correctly either, I felt a little better. Although I come closer to it now, I still move my foot as I lower my heel.
Quite recently the NYCB website published an article by NYCB’s Manager, Editorial and Social Media, Madelyn Sutton. It is well worth a read and it also contains two video snippets. Read and watch at this link.
In Australia, The Four Temperaments premiered in 1985 when the Australian Ballet was under the directorship of Maina Gielgud. The ballet was staged by Victoria Simon and appeared on a program with Balanchine’s Serenade and the first performance of Robert Ray’s The Sentimental Bloke. (It is perhaps of interest to note that in 2021 The Four Temperaments will be part of a similarly constructed program, which will also include Serenade and the first performance of a newly commissioned work from New York-based choreographer Pam Tanowitz). Later, in 2003, Australian audiences saw it on an Australian Ballet program called American Masters, which also included Glen Tetley’s Voluntaries and Jerome Robbins’ In the Night. Again it was staged by Victoria Simon. It was brought to Australia by New York City Ballet in 1997 when that company toured to the Melbourne Festival, and was last performed here by the Australian Ballet in 2013 as part of its Vanguard season. Then it was staged by Eve Lawson. I am curious to know who will stage it in 2021.
Michelle Potter, 13 January 2021
Featured image: Backstage at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, during the 1958 tour to Australia by New York City Ballet, 1958. Photo: Walter Stringer, National Library of Australia.
(The Four Temperaments was not performed during this 1958 tour. I just like the image and my use of it reflects difficulties associated with permission to use images of The Four Temperaments. The article by Madelyn Sutton mentioned above contains some very nice images.)
Ashley, Merrill. Dancing for Balanchine (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1984)
Balanchine, Georg, and Francis Mason. Balanchine’s Festival of Ballet (New York: W. H Allen & Co, 1984)
Newman, Barbara. Striking a balance. Dancers talk about dancing. Revised edition (New York: Limelight Editions, 1982)
Taper, Bernard. Balanchine. A Biography (New York: Times Books, 1984)
The short film SHELTER, from California-based Reneff-Olson Productions, features dancers from across the world. It was made in response to the difficult situation in which performers find themselves at the moment during the COVID-19 crisis. The production company is headed by siblings Alexander and Valentina Reneff-Olson and, speaking of the making of SHELTER, Alexander Reneff-Olson said:
I wanted to bring attention to the current realities performing artists are facing during this time. Self-isolation has kept dancers from performing in conventional ways and traditional venues, but it hasn’t diminished their resilience, even in the face of these unprecedented times.
You might be surprised at the number of people who are involved in SHELTER who have strong connections with Australia and New Zealand. I was when it was suggested by a colleague from San Francisco that I take a look.
First up is perhaps Danielle Rowe, former principal with the Australian Ballet. After leaving Australia, Rowe has had a varied career, first with Houston Ballet, and then Nederlands Dans Theater and various other companies. She is now well into a career as a choreographer. Her work Remember, Mama, for Royal New Zealand Ballet’s 2018 program Strength and Grace, was reviewed on this site by Jennifer Shennan. Read that review at this link. Rowe is currently choreographing a production of The Sleeping Beauty for Royal New Zealand Ballet. It is due to open in October (provided that is a possibility given current restrictions).
For SHELTER, Rowe worked with Garen Scribner, a New York-based actor, dancer and singer, on the choreography and the casting of the dancers who appear in the SHELTER. And, as Alexander Reneff-Olson has commented, Rowe also ‘selected and assigned sections of the choreography to each dancer and provided artistic feedback as the editing progressed’.
Australian Ballet principals, Amber Scott and Ty-King Wall, also appear, as does Artistic Director designate David Hallberg. Then there are Australians who no longer dance in Australia but are busy making exceptional careers elsewhere in the world. They include Benjamin Ella, currently a soloist with the Royal Ballet in London, and Jared Wright, at present a soloist with Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam. Royal New Zealand Ballet principal, Nadia Yanowksy, seen in the image above, is also featured in SHELTER.
The project grew from an earlier work called Hey Mami co-choreographed and performed by Rowe and Scribner in 2015. But the idea grew to include 26 dancers and, as Alexander Reneff-Olson explains:
Dani and Garen assigned specific time-codes from Hey Mami for each dancer to learn and film themselves performing, and they offered to virtually rehearse individually with any dancers who wanted to.
The individual segments were then edited by the Reneff-Olson team.
SHELTER also has some quite beautiful scenes shot on the stage of an empty San Francisco War Memorial Opera House. Alexander Reneff-Olson explains:
The city and County of San Francisco gave about a 12 hour advance warning on the shelter-in-place order taking effect, and we used some of that time to capture what footage we could of Joseph Walsh [a principal with San Francisco Ballet] in the War Memorial Opera House, the home of San Francisco Ballet.
The full video can be viewed at this link where you will also find credits and a full list of the dancers who appear.
Michelle Potter, 20 May 2020
With thanks to Kate McKinney of San Francisco Ballet for putting me in touch with Alexander Reneff-Olson, and Renee Renouf Hall for suggesting I take a look at SHELTER.
This year, for the first time in over 100 years, all public gatherings to mark Anzac Day were cancelled, due to the lockdown imposed as part of the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic: an enemy if ever there was one, not war between nations this time but a hope that all countries might join a common fight.
Traditionally Anzac Day commemorations shape up as a kind of countrywide choreography, starting with a Dawn Parade in every city, town, village or marae—a bugle, a salute, a karakia, a march, a haka, a hymn, a prayer, a poem—‘They shall grow not old’—a minute’s silence and The Last Post
There are church services, radio and television broadcasts, concerts, gatherings and wakes throughout the day to remember sacrifice—the war dead and wounded, refugees and fugitives, and the whole sad sorry waste of it all. It is a statutory public holiday, restaurants, shops, schools and theatres are closed, normal life is on hold for a day, then it’s back to busy business. But ‘normal life’ has been on hold these many weeks now. So how was this Anzac Day different from other years?
Some today stood alone at the roadside in front of their home, before dawn at 6am, holding a candle perhaps, and a transistor radio to hear the national broadcast, or watched television coverage of the Prime Minister standing at her gate. Many families had made sculptures or graphics of poppies to display in their gardens. Some of the 1000s of teddy bears in house windows to cheer passersby these past weeks were today wearing poppies too. Many of us will have been mindful of the shocking statistic that in two months of the 1918 influenza pandemic more New Zealanders died than had been killed during the whole of World War I.
We’ve grown so accustomed to the commercialisation of Christmas and to a degree Easter, surrounded as we are by tsunamis of merchandise ‘to show we care’. Today was differently focused. Some folk had developed their own ideas and found resources to express an experience, share a thought, address a concern, tell a story, to give a voice to hope. Isn’t that what art does? Mere entertainment has to me never seemed sufficient, either in peace or wartime.
Numerous dance companies worldwide, stymied by the current pandemic and obliged to cancel many performances and productions, have in past weeks moved to make selected works from their repertoire available online. The Royal New Zealand Ballet have already screened video of Loughlan Prior’s Hansel & Gretel, Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Christopher Hampson’s Cinderella. For today their program from 2015, Salute, was aired, comprising two works—Andrew Simmons’ Dear Horizon and Neil Ieremia’s Passchendaele. My review of the Company’s season in 2015 is at this link.
What a pity this broadcast could not have included Jiri Kylian’s masterwork, Soldatenmis/Soldiers’ Mass, to Martinu, from the same program—(prohibitive fees or copyright issues perhaps?) since it was a work that suited the Company’s dancers of that time to the drumbeat of their hearts and ours. Laura Saxon Jones, sole female performing alongside all the male dancers of the Company, will never be forgotten.
Other outstanding choreographies with a war, or anti-war theme, include Jose Limon’s noble Missa Brevis, dedicated to the spirit of Polish resistance; Young Men, Ivan Perez’ choreography startlingly performed by Ballet Boyz; and of course the legendary work Der grüne Tisch/The Green Table, by Kurt Jooss, a work I used to dream might one day be performed by RNZB, so well it would have suited them until just a few years ago. I remain grateful to have seen the Joffrey Ballet’s authoritative performances however, and another unforgettable production in which the late Pina Bausch played The Old Woman—a performance of such chiselled beauty stays with one for life, as though she had stepped from a painting by Modigliani, or Munch, or a figure from the mediaeval Danse Macabre of Lübeck Cathedral.
(I’m often reminded of the very fine study by William McNeill, Harvard historian, who in his book Keeping Together in Time, considers how coordinated rhythmic movement, and the shared feelings it evokes, has been a powerful force in holding human groups together—how armies of the world, train and march and move—be that in quick, slow, double or dead march, the goose step, the North Koreans’ grand battement smash, or the soldiers’ antics at the Pakistan-Indian border).
Both RNZB works, Simmons’ Dear Horizon and Ieremia’s Passchendaele, retain all the impact and power of their first staging, with the New Zealand Army Band playing to precise perfection, for the former the music of Gareth Farr, for the latter the composition by Dwayne Bloomfield. The contained emotion of the music, particularly in cello and brass solos, stops time.
Ieremia’s early career, as for so many of the dancers who worked with Douglas Wright, absorbed much influence from the driven and airborne choreography of that master dance-maker. An indelible image that remains with me is from Wright’s The Kiss Inside—a scene in which a gorilla-suited figure passes a tray of cut oranges around a group of boys (a team of rugby players, refreshments at half time?). Soon, just a little older, the same young men are in a faraway other place, a different game, writhing on the ground, in an agony of wounds, bleating like sheep. The gorilla passes a microphone among them to record their messages for relaying home. The bleating becomes recognisable as a cry of pathos, ‘Mummy, Mummy’ from one dying soldier after another. Says it all really.
Today, 25 April 2020, I watched Royal New Zealand Ballet’s streaming ofAndrew Simmons’ Dear Horizon and Neil Ieremia’s Passchendaele, two works that reflected on the Anzac spirit. In these days of ‘digital stages’, ‘digital seasons’ and the like, I wondered why nothing similar had happened in Australia. Or did something escape my attention?
I have to admit to wondering what could have been streamed in Australia. For a start, in 2016 Queensland Ballet programmed an exceptional triple bill of three works under the title Lest we forget. Two were by non Australian choreographers and neither of them was exactly right for the occasion. But one was Natalie Weir’s We who are left. It would have been perfect. As my review of We who are left was published on the London-based site, Dancetabs, I am reproducing the text here for those who may not have seen the Dancetabs review.
Natalie Weir’s Lest we forget. Queensland Ballet, July 2016(review first published on Dancetabs, 31 July 2016)
It was, I believe, Agnes de Mille who exhorted choreographers to aim to make an impact in the first 30 seconds of their works if they wanted to harness the interest of an audience. Choreographer Natalie Weir did exactly that in Queensland Ballet’s triple bill program, Lest We Forget, a program honouring the ANZAC soldiers of World War I. Weir’s work, We who are left, begins in darkness. One by one five male dancers are revealed, standing in individual pools of light. As we watch each man is joined by a woman and we can almost hear the women shouting ‘Don’t leave me’, ‘Stay’, ‘I love you’ as they throw themselves into the arms of their partners, cling to them, and reluctantly tear themselves away as their partners ready themselves to leave for the war zone. Instant emotional involvement is the only possible reaction. The five couples then lead us on a journey of parting, fighting, death, survival, longing, and memories of what was and what might have been.
Choreographically the work is outstanding throughout. After the strongly emotional opening scene, the men engage in their war activities. At first their movements have a quality of military precision to them. But as this section proceeds they throw themselves around the performing space in athletic leaps as they become more and more bound up in the process of war. Then, dramatically, an upstage screen lifts and four of the five men walk slowly backwards into the grey recesses that are revealed. The screen descends and just a single soldier, ‘The man who lived’ danced by Jack Lister, remains onstage. A lyrical pas de deux between Lina Kim and Camilo Ramos follows. It is a duet recalling memories of past times and is filled with Weir’s signature pas de deux style in which bodies tip, dive, twist and wrap around each other.
Perhaps the choreographic highlight, however, comes at the moment when Clare Morehen, ‘She who was left’, stands onstage with a pair of soldier’s boots in front of her. She dances around them, sometimes with sharp pique-style movements that suggest agony, sometimes with extended legs and stretched arms that suggest a range of other emotions. Then, surprisingly, she is joined by her man, Shane Wuerthner. They dance together but separately. Morehen stretches out to him but they never touch. They kiss but their lips never meet. He lies on the floor and she steps over him crisscrossing her way along the body. They are astonishing moments and present a totally different take on memory from what we saw from Kim and Ramos. Later, the other four women enter with pairs of boots and poignantly place them on the floor. But nothing can equal the dream-like moments we spend with Morehen and Wuerthner.
The work is danced to selections from Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem Opus 66 and Weir has chosen largely from those sections of the score that include the spoken word in the form of poetry by Wilfred Owen. The score pounds relentlessly and adds a separate level of drama to the overall work. David Walters lighting design is spectacular throughout beginning with that striking downlighting in the opening moments, through to brooding lighting washing across the stage as the men find themselves in the act of war, and on to further pools of light highlighting the women as they survey the empty boots of those who did not return. Costumes by Noelene Hill are perfectly of the period and neutral in their colours.
We who are left has an innate simplicity—five couples, five sets of boots, basically a grey colour scheme. That’s about it on an obvious level. Yet it is masterful in its ability to communicate general thoughts about the effects of war, while at the same time conveying a sense of individuality. It is like a dagger in the heart with its theatricality, its choreographic sensibility, and its dramatic power. It is nothing less than a knockout.
Then there’s Stephen Baynes’ 1914 made for the Australian Ballet way back in 1998. One of my ongoing gripes is that 1914 has never been revived. I am told by some that it ‘had problems’, but I thought it was an exceptional work. In 1998 I was writing for Dance Australia and my review appeared there. Here is what I wrote of this work.
Stephen Baynes’ 1914. The Australian Ballet, April 1998(review first published in Dance Australia, June/July 1998)
Stephen Baynes’ new work, 1914, opened with many expectations riding on it. It was Baynes’ first evening-length work, his first narrative ballet and the first time he had taken a novel, David Malouf’s Fly away Peter, as specific inspiration. But most of all, it was a major Australian work: the Australian Ballet’s first ever full-length work with choreography, score and design all commissioned from Australian artists.
As a collaboration, 1914 achieves much. On the most obvious level, the ballet (and the book) follows a simple narrative centring on the lives of three Australians, Jim Saddler, Imogen Harcourt and Ashley Crowther. Jim and Ashley enlist and go to France to fight in the Great War and the lives of the three are torn apart and changed forever. But the collaborative team of Baynes, Graeme Koehne (composer), Andrew Carter (set and lighting designer) and Anna French (costume designer), have added to the simple story something of the poetic and impressionistic qualities of Fly away Peter. Through the contributions of this creative team the story becomes a journey from light to dark and, finally, back to light again with Imogen, who is left alone in the final moments of the ballet to resolve her—and our—feelings of loss and grief.
In his choreographic definition of the characters, Baynes’ greatest success is with Jim, whose movements are both unaffected and expansive. Especially in the first solo, with its emphasis on clean lines and movements that highlight an open chest and outstretched arms, Jim emerges as laconic but free-spirited. On opening night Steven Heathcote interpreted this choreography with a total lack of pretension. Damien Welch and Joshua Consandine performed the role of Jim later in the season but, while they both danced with style, neither had the combination of maturity and un-selfconsciousness that made Heathcote’s interpretation so satisfying.
Imogen is probably the most difficult role in the ballet. She must be the down-to-earth photographer whose relationship with Jim is based purely on a shared interest in birds; the dream figure who appears to Jim in France; and the solitary woman whose emotions must carry the ballet to a close. Her final solo requires a strong sense of balance and is full of steps that seem to twist and turn in on themselves, as she works to come to grips with Jim’s death. On opening night Lisa Bolte was clearly in control technically and brought a deep honesty to the role. In other casts Miranda Coney and Vick Attard both contributed individualistic interpretations and Attard, especially, was emotionally convincing in the final solo. But both Attard and Coney sometimes seemed to move with a kind of lightness and affectation that is at odds with the character of Imogen.
The English-educated Ashley is defined largely through other people—his cultivated friends who visit Jim who works for him and the soldiers he commands. Neither Adrian Burnett, Matthew Trent nor David McAllister seemed able to transform him into anything other than a distant and insubstantial figure. Marc Cassidy, on the other hand, brought life to one of the Australian soldiers in France brilliantly—a larrikin gambler and smoker who was clearly based on Malouf’s character, Clancy.
As an Australian work, 1914 is profoundly moving. Without being facile, there is a simplicity in the choreography that reflects the qualities of openness and directness, perhaps even naivety. There are times too when the sense of Australian sound, light and colour is overwhelmingly beautiful. Carter is the star of the creative team here—his abstractions of the landscape into a few trees, a couple of sand dunes and a patch of sky is awesome.
As a theatrical work, 1914 makes demands on a ballet audience. Probably the most affecting moment in the work has no dancing. When the scene changes from France to Australia following Jim’s death for the resolution of the ballet, all the audience has, for what seems like quite a long time, are changes of lighting, visual imagery and musical theme. But those moments are intensely enriching. Baynes and his team have made a quietly impressive work that asks the audience to see that emotions can be evoked through stillness, sound and visual imagery as well as movement.