Jade Dewi Tyas Tunggal

When I reviewed Mirramu Dance Company’s Morning Star on this website back in March of this year I mentioned Jade Dewi Tyas Tunggal as one of the performers who really stood out for me. That post received comments from two readers commenting on Jade and her qualities as a performer. Well, last week I had the opportunity to speak to Jade for a preview story for The Canberra Times. Opal Vapour opens in Canberra shortly and I was interested especially in talking to Jade about her Javanese heritage and how it feeds into Opal Vapour.

Jade Dewi Tyas Tunggal

It struck me as we were talking that what I have admired about Jade Dewi Tyas Tunggal’s dancing (such as I have seen to date anyway) is the same quality that I have noticed on those occasions when I have watched Javanese performers. I recall walking into a hotel lobby in Yogyakarta (so long ago that Yogyakarta was still spelt with a ‘Dj’ instead of a ‘Y’) where a woman was singing to the sole accompaniment of a stringed instrument, the rebab. The sound was refined and the singer had such power and dignity coursing through her body. It was impossible not to be totally entranced. Even the large rat that scurried across the lobby could not detract from the mesmerising effect this singer and her musician had.

Jade says she is interested in the idea of embodiment in performance, being present to audiences. This idea is clearly part of her practice and largely the reason why her performances are so captivating, just as that Javanese singer was so powerful.

But Jade also talked about feeling very Australian.  Part of the inspiration for Opal Vapour came from the idea of water as a metaphor. She was interested in the idea that water was a life giving force as she watched the Australian drought coming to an end. Water had a power to transform a landscape and she began to think about pouring certain qualities into dance and then pouring them out and inviting other qualities to enter. So the comment that she has ‘an amazing imagination’ is so true.

I can’t wait now to see Opal Vapour, which seems to bring together such a  range of influences, including the power and resilience of Jade’s Javanese heritage. Read more in the story in The Canberra Times, including the meaning of the yellow net seen in the image below.

Jade Dewi Tyas Tunggal in 'Opal Vapour'. Photo Paula Van Beek
Jade Dewi Tyas Tunggal in Opal Vapour. Photo: Paula Van Beek

 

Michelle Potter, 1 June 2013

UPDATE: Here is a link to my review of Opal Vapour published in The Canberra Times on 18 June 2013.

Natalie Weir on R & J

When I recorded my first ‘On dancing’ segment for ArtSound FM I was not aware that Natalie Weir’s much lauded work R & J, made for her Brisbane-based Expressions Dance Company, was on a whirlwind tour of the eastern states. The tour includes a performance, one only, at the Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre and, had I known, I would have mentioned it as something for dance lovers in Canberra and surrounding regions to anticipate during May. So, as an update to that program I spoke to Weir about R & J and the rigours of one night stands, and about company she now leads.

David Williams and Elise May in 'R & J', Photo: Chris Herzfeld
David Williams and Elise May in R & J Act III, Expressions Dance Company. Photo: © Chris Herzfeld/Camlight Productions, 2012

R & J is Weir’s take on the well-known story of Romeo and Juliet. But rather than following one story over an evening-length work, Weir tells three separate love stories each of which takes place in a different era. It begins with a story set in the present day; it flashes back to the 1800s for the second; and the final story comes back to the 1950s. With a cast of just six dancers, a production crew of four and an indispensable truck driver there is not much room for manoeuvring. And yes, Weir agrees that it is a rigorous schedule for all. But, says Weir, when she made the work in 2011 she knew she wanted a work that could be shown at major venues and that could also tour regionally. It is designed so that it can be bumped in and out in a day. And this is mostly what happens on the current seven week regional tour, which takes in eighteen different cities from Hobart in the south to Rockhampton in the north.

Weir was appointed artistic director of Expressions in 2009 and is slowly beginning to realise her unique vision for this small contemporary company. She says the first part of her vision was to build a small ensemble of dancers with whom she could work well and who understood her approach.  ‘I have employed dancers straight from tertiary training, dancers who are in their thirties and beyond and dancers in between those age groups’, she says. ‘I wanted a range of ages and maturities in the company. That was an essential’.

The second part of her vision, which she says grew from some of the frustrations she encountered while working as an independent artist, was to have the capacity to commission music specifically for her works. R & J has a score by John Babbage, saxophonist with the Brisbane group Toplogy. Although the R & J regional tour uses recorded music, when the work premiered in Brisbane in 2011 Topology played onstage and having live musicians working in this way is part of Weir’s vision too. Her next work, When time stops, will premiere in Brisbane in September and has a commissioned score from Iain Grandage, which will be played live on stage by members of the chamber orchestra, Camerata of St John’s.

After a long career as an independent choreographer, which has been distinguished by commissions from most Australian ballet and contemporary companies, as well as from international companies including American Ballet Theatre, Houston Ballet and Hong Kong Ballet, Weir has come into her own as director of Expressions.

Michelle Potter, 7 May 2013

R & J is at the Queanbeyan performing Arts Centre on 14 May.
Follow the link for dates in other regional centres.

Update 18 May 2013: See my review of the show at this link.

The Australian Ballet and Canberra

The discussion of the Australian Ballet and its visits to Canberra, or lack of them over recent years, has become very tedious. This morning The Canberra Times published yet another piece relating to the problems of presenting the Australian Ballet in Canberra.

‘The ballet company’s stunning performances of Romeo and Juliet and new versions of Swan Lake that drew rapturous praise in other parts of Australia could not be staged in the ACT because of a lack of a venue’, the article stated.

The article was wider in scope than a simple discussion of the difficulties faced by the Australian Ballet and was basically a plea for a bigger, better theatre. I agree it would be wonderful to have a new theatre that wasn’t the butt of complaints and that could take larger shows than the present theatre can adequately handle. But what do we do in the meantime? A new theatre will probably be built eventually but, like the very fast train, it may be a long time coming.

Does Canberra really have to be by-passed by the Australian Ballet as has happened over recent years? And yes, I know we had Telstra Ballet in the Park last year—and what a huge audience it attracted on a very inclement evening. And we’ve had a few tidbits as part of a couple of Canberra Symphony Orchestra matinee programs. But not many main-stage events recently.

The Australian Ballet’s 2013 Canberra program, opening shortly, is interesting in this regard. All three works on the program are relatively small scale in terms of the cast required. The pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain is just that, a pas de deux, a dance for two (the complete ballet is cast for just six dancers). George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments is cast for twenty-five dancers although they all come together only briefly at the end of the work. Garry Stewart’s new work Monument is, I understand, made for nineteen dancers. None of these three works needs a full orchestra; none is complemented by a huge set or needs masses of props. What’s wrong with the Australian Ballet coming on an annual basis and bringing this kind of ‘chamber’ repertoire?

Karen Nanasca, study for 'Monument'. Photo: Georges Antoni.
Karen Nanasca in a study for Garry Stewart’s Monument. Photo: © Georges Antoni. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

The Australian Ballet at present has a ballet mistress and repetiteur who is an experienced stager of the works of George Balanchine. So many Balanchine ballets fall into this ‘chamber’ category, and what remarkable ballets they are. Graeme Murphy, Stanton Welch and Stephen Baynes have all made works for the Australian Ballet that don’t have huge casts and elaborate sets and costumes. The list is endless. Way, way back Canberra was even the venue for the culmination of the Australian Ballet’s Choreographic Workshop program. Graeme Murphy’s beautifully sensual one act ballet Glimpses, depicting the world of artist Norman Lindsay and danced to Margaret Sutherland’s score Haunted Hills, had its premiere on one such occasion. Why not give Canberra back its annual visit and give it a program made up of works that suit the stage space, that are do-able in Canberra, rather than constantly returning to the chestnut of the facilities not being up to scratch? Let’s get over the prevailing attitude and look for what can happen, rather than what can’t.

What’s wrong with at least giving a ‘chamber’ program a go for a few years to gauge audience reaction? And of course the media have to write about it positively and intelligently so that it doesn’t seem that Canberra is only getting these works because the big ones can’t fit.

As for Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet, well there’s more to the Australian Ballet, and to ballet as an art form, than large scale works like these two, which in their most recent Australian Ballet manifestations didn’t draw ‘rapturous praise’ everywhere anyway. That’s a bit of hype, even though both works were thought-provoking and certainly worth seeing. And anyway for those hankering after blockbusters, Sydney is not far away while we wait for a new theatre. Plenty of us make the trip.

Michelle Potter, 4 May 2013

Symmetries, the Canberra triple bill from the Australian Ballet
23–25 May 2013. Canberra Theatre Centre

John Baldessari installation

13 Rooms. Kaldor Public Art Project

13 Rooms, 11–21 April 2013, Pier 2/3 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay

The city of Sydney has just finished playing host to an ambitious project of installation art, or more correctly perhaps of performance art in which human bodies behaved as sculpture, sometimes moving sculpture, sometimes talking sculpture, existing for a moment in time before going home, or in some cases being replaced by another shift of bodies. The event took place in the mysteriously cavernous space of Pier 2/3 with individual installations/performances showing in purpose-built, small white rooms designed by Harry Seidler & Associates.

'13 Rooms', the space

There was a dance element to one installation, Revolving Door by American artists Allora & Calzadilla. This piece of performance art was choreographed by Rafael Bonachela and performed by dancers of Sydney Dance Company augmented by students from Brent Street, a Sydney performing arts academy. The human ‘door’ of what was a circular space inside one room was a line of bodies representing the internal structure of a revolving door. This human chain of bodies came to a standstill occasionally, as indeed revolving doors do when no-one is using them, then took up the movement again sometimes with linked arms, sometimes with raised arms. Occasionally they would clap hands, lift arms, sit down or engage in some other simple activity.

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There was of course no music for the dancers to keep time with so to keep the rhythm and to maintain a straight line they had to rely on body time, a concept with which Bonachela is, I’m sure, familiar given his interest in the work of Merce Cunningham. The need to maintain a completely blank look appeared to be another requirement and there were one or two unsettling moments for me, and perhaps for other viewers, when it became apparent that one dancer was focusing on me in order to maintain his blank expression. Does one look away or stare back, I wondered?

Revolving Door also had its amusing moments. Some viewers ventured into the circular space, which had an exit door on two sides, and got caught up in the movement, escaping just in time as the human door pursued its relentless pathway.

And just as body time, where dancers have to sense how and when the bodies of their colleagues move, is a characteristic of Cunningham’s work, so was performance art a component of the early aesthetic of Merce Cunningham and John Cage and their designers, in particular Robert Rauschenberg. Together Cunningham, Cage and Rauschenberg and a collection of dancers and other artists and musicians presented at Black Mountain College in North Carolina in 1952 what is generally regarded as the first ‘happening’ in the United States, Theatre Piece No. 1. Rauschenberg went on to create many acts of performance art, usually with dancers involved, while Cunningham’s Events reflect an ongoing interest in one-off activities.

The whole event was interesting from the point of view of what is generally regarded as the impermanence of performance art. These installations were largely works that had been installed elsewhere around the world including in Manchester in 2011 and Essen in 2012. As John McDonald remarked in his review of the show for The Sydney Morning Herald on 13‒14 April: ‘It is a relatively novel idea that performances may be reconstructed by different performers years after their first appearance…Many of the most famous pieces were staged in obscure locations to small audiences. We know them only in the form of grainy, decayed videos or poor-quality stills’.

Another installation I especially enjoyed was Damien Hirst’s work, first made in 1992, in which a set of twins sits in front of two of Hirst’s spot paintings, which although they look alike are quite different from each other. The situation gained an added interest when a set of twins from amongst the onlookers asked to be photographed in the installation.

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And on the day I visited, the performer in John Baldessari’s Thirteen Colourful Inside Jobs was engaged in repainting her room from aqua to flamingo pink.

13 Rooms was an undertaking of Kaldor Public Art Projects.

Michelle Potter, 22 April 2013

Featured image: Moment from John Baldessari’s Thirteen Colourful Inside Jobs, 13 Rooms, Kaldor Public Art project.

John Baldessari installation

All photos: © Michelle Potter

Who was Richard White?

Just recently I received a query relating to my article on the Dandré-Levitoff Russian Ballet published in Dance Research in 2011. In that article I mentioned that there were some ancillary activities associated with the Sydney season of the company’s tour and noted that ‘a demonstration of the Cecchetti technique took place in conjunction with Sydney ballet teacher Richard White’.

‘Who was Richard White?’ was the query.

Richard White, SMH 1935

I didn’t go into the Richard White episode in detail in the Dance Research piece as it was something of a side issue to the main thrust of the article. However, in response to the query and after a bit of delving into old newspapers I can add that Richard White ran a ‘dancing academy’ in Sydney and advertised it variously including as ‘Sydney’s outstanding School for classical ballet, rhythm, tap, musical comedy and ballroom’ and as  ‘Australia’s Foremost School’ . In other advertisements he describes himself as ‘Ballet Master to J. C. Williamson Ltd and Prince Edward Theatre’. [See note below for further explanation of the advertisement reproduced above.]

From contemporary newspaper articles Richard White appears to have been a very proactive gentleman. He produced a range of entertainments using pupils from his school, was the dance adjudicator at various eisteddfods, ran a Musical Comedy and Revue Club and his Richard White Girls danced prior to film showings at the now demolished Prince Edward Theatre in Sydney. One of his shows is reported to have included ‘a great variety of Work including tap, character and symbolic dancing as well as pure ballet in “The Birthday of the Infanta”.

But in terms of the Cecchetti demonstration during the Sydney season of the Dandré-Levitoff Russian Ballet, I suspect it was his assistant, Jocelyn Yeo, who contributed most to the event. She had arrived from London at some earlier stage and was White’s ‘associate ballet teacher’ according to contemporary reports, although she too seems to have been extraordinarily proactive.

On the occasion of the Cecchetti demonstration she joined members of the Dandré-Levitoff Russian Ballet to demonstrate the technique. According to Alan Brissenden and Keith Glennon in their book Australia Dances (still the most useful book on Australian dance history to have been published in recent years), Yeo had trained with Margaret Craske before coming to Australia. The Australian Women’s Weekly of 3 November 1934 tells us she was a ‘soloist from the Diaghileff Russian Ballet’ and ‘was also with the famous Anton Dolin Company’. The short Women’s Weekly story goes on to explain that she was ‘a fully accredited teacher of the Cecchetti method of the classical ballet—the method adopted by such famous dancers as Pavlova, Dolin, Idkzowski [sic], Baronova and others’ and that she was ‘a member of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing, London, and passed the intermediate and advanced examinations in classical ballet with honors’.

Those with a greater knowledge of the history of Cecchetti work in Australia than I may be able to add more about Yeo and/or White.

NOTE: The scanned advertisement reproduced above has been taken from a poor quality source. It comes from The Sydney Morning Herald, 2 March 1935, p. 3 and can be viewed on Trove by using those details in the search box of the digitised newspaper section.

Michelle Potter, 26 February 2013

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Some thoughts on Giselle and the Paris Opera Ballet

Interesting news from Paris is that Benjamin Millepied will take up the position of Director of Dance at the Paris Opera Ballet following the retirement of Brigitte Lefèvre in 2014. Millepied, dancer and choreographer whose performing career has included a significant stretch of time with New York City Ballet where he rose from corps dancer to principal, is perhaps best known to a wider public for his work with Natalie Portman on the movie Black Swan. Millepied’s stage choreography was most recently seen in the southern hemisphere in 2012 in the Royal New Zealand Ballet season of NYC. RNZB staged Millepied’s 2005 work 28 variations on a theme by Paganini.  

Meanwhile, the Paris Opera Ballet, a company with a long and illustrious heritage, opens its Sydney season of Giselle at the Capitol Theatre tomorrow. It has been a while since a full production of Giselle has been danced in Australia, and this is a perfect opportunity to see it performed by the company whose forebears danced it at its world premiere.

Giselle first took to the stage in Paris in 1841 at the theatre of the Paris Opera. The ballet was developed by a first-rate team of European creatives. Its libretto was written by poet and critic Théophile Gautier and dramatist Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and was based on a story by the German writer Heinrich Heine. Its music was composed by Adolphe Adam and its choreography created by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot. On opening night the role of Giselle was danced by Italian ballerina Carlotta Grisi and her performance that night established her as a major star.

Since that opening performance Giselle has hardly been out of the ballet repertoire making it one of the most enduring of all the classics. It has undergone various changes over time, as happens with all works in the performing arts, but essentially it remains the story of a young peasant girl, Giselle, who falls for Albrecht, a nobleman in disguise. She has her heart broken and dies when it becomes clear that Albrecht is engaged to a noblewoman, Bathilde. Giselle returns in spirit form—as a Wili, that is a spirit of a betrothed girl who has died before her wedding night. Led by their queen, Myrthe, the Wilis are intent on pursuing to their death all men who enter the forest at night. It falls to Giselle to save a grieving Albrecht from this fate.

But like all works of art that have endured over centuries, Giselle takes place in a complex world. We encounter many differences of life-style—peasants appear alongside noblemen; and different realms of nature—a fertile countryside where a bountiful grape harvest is celebrated in Act I contrasts with a forest graveyard and the chill of night in Act II. In the Paris Opera Ballet production flower symbolism also plays a significant role. White flowers appear in both acts. They are daisies and field flowers in Act I. Giselle’s peasant admirer, the gamekeeper Hilarion, leaves a bouquet of white daisies outside Giselle’s cottage rather than the dead rabbit or bird he leaves in productions by many other companies. A single daisy also hints that all is not well when Giselle and Albrecht engage in the ‘he loves me, he loves me not’ game with daisy petals.

In Act II Hilarion returns with daisies for Giselle’s grave but the flowers of Act II include lilies, white roses and flowering myrtle, powerful symbols of love, immortality, purity, and in the case of myrtle used for centuries in bridal bouquets. The Queen of the Wilis, Myrthe, carries a branch of flowering myrtle as her sceptre; Albrecht enters with an armful of lilies for Giselle’s grave; Giselle pleads with Myrthe to spare Albrecht and a handful of white roses tumble from her arms and fall at Myrthe’s feet. The forces of nature are powerful throughout.

Giselle also presents us with a number of conundrums. Where or who is Giselle’s father for example? We only meet her mother, Berthe, who in Act I superstitiously tells the story of the Wilis and provides a foretaste of what will occur in Act II. Could the father be the Duke of Courland, who in Act I arrives with his hunting party and is served with refreshments by Berthe? In the Paris Opera Ballet production (at least on its current video manifestation) he takes a particular interest in Giselle, cupping her chin in his hands and looking into her eyes. He seems quite familiar with Berthe as well. And why did Giselle die? Was it of a broken heart? Was it from all the dancing in which we see her engage in Act I, just as Berthe prophesied? Or did she inherit a weak constitution? And how does she die? Does she stab herself with Albrecht’s sword, which Hilarion uses to expose Albrecht’s real identity? And what of Albrecht? Does he really love Giselle? Or is he living a lie and wreaking havoc on the life of a young peasant girl as he plays at being a peasant himself? Marie-Antoinette and her fake rustic village at Versailles come to mind.

The dancing itself in this Paris Opera Ballet production is almost flawless in a technical sense. In addition, the dancers, male and female, have an elegance and a perfection in the way they carry themselves that not only reflects their impeccable training but somehow also seems to reflect their royal heritage. The Paris Opera Ballet can trace its lineage back to 1661, when the French monarch Louis XIV, the Sun King, established the Académie royale de danse. Louis XIV was an enthusiastic and accomplished dancer himself. His familiar name, the Sun King, is reputed to date from his appearance as Apollo, god of the sun, in one of the sequences in Les Ballets de la nuit in 1653. He was just 14 at the time and was dressed in a costume replete with golden rays that fanned out around him as we imagine the rays of the sun radiate from a golden orb. Legend also has it that he had such slim and elegant ankles that he loved to pose with his heel pushed forward to show the royal ankles in all their glory. Ballet technique, the story goes, has been characterised by a ‘turn out’ of the feet and legs ever since.

There is so much to ponder on as the story of Giselle unfolds. I am filled with anticipation!

Giselle, Paris Opera Ballet, Capitol Theatre, Sydney, January 29–February 9

© Michelle Potter, 28 January 2013

Postscript (29 January 2013): Shame about the misspelling of Laurent Hilaire’s name in The Sydney Morning Herald‘s article (p. 7) this morning. Not a good advertisement  for Australian media on the morning of the Paris Opera Ballet’s opening. And, although the same article also notes that Millepied has no official ties with the Paris company, Millepied has made a work for the company, his Amoveo (2006).

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James Upshaw and Lydia Kuprina in South America

Recently I had the good fortune to be contacted about a photograph album believed to have belonged to James Upshaw, probably best known in Australia for his work as television producer for the ABC. The album was indeed assembled by Upshaw and the photographs largely cover a period from 1942 until 1946. During this period Upshaw and his then wife, Phillida Cooper, or Lydia Kuprina as she was known at the time, danced their way around Central and South America, first as members of Colonel de Basil’s Original Ballet Russe and then as an independent dance duo.

James Upshaw ca. 1943James Upshaw, ca. 1942

Cooper had been a pupil of Melbourne teachers Eunice Weston and Jennie Brenan and had left Australia in 1939 to study ballet in Paris with Lubov Egorova. She returned with the de Basil company for its third tour of Australia, 1939‒1940, and then left with them in 1940 for the United States. With de Basil she danced under the name of Lydia Couprina. Her birth name may have been Helen Phillida Cooper, although on some archival records she appears as Phillida Helen.

Upshaw was born in 1921 in Paris to an American father and a French mother and spent his childhood and youth in France and America. I have not yet been able to ascertain where he trained as a dancer but he appears to have joined de Basil in New York at the end of 1941 apparently, as did others, to escape military service. A letter dated May 1943 from Valrene Tweedie (whom Upshaw married at a later stage in Australia) to her friend Marnie Martin in Sydney explains:

 Phyllida married Jimmy Upshaw, one of the boys escaping the draft.

They married in Buenos Aires in 1942. It was probably in 1944 or 1945 that Upshaw and Cooper took on independent work dancing in nightclubs and casinos and later venturing into film. They later toured in Europe and danced on television in London before returning to Australia in the early 1950s.

Upshaw and Kuprina, Rio 1946Lydia Kuprina and James Upshaw performing in Rio de Janeiro, 1946

The album recalls other albums assembled by dancers while on tour and contains leisure shots as well as rehearsal and performance shots. It is especially interesting to see the repertoire that was being performed, and to see that it was sometimes being performed outdoors.

Faune outdoorsA performance of L’Après-midi d’un faune, Viña de Mar, Chile 1942

But what makes this album particularly significant is that it documents the activities of the Original Ballet Russe following the infamous strike of 1941, which resulted in a period of several months when the de Basil dancers were stranded and practically penniless. Looking at the album without the knowledge of the difficulties that the strike engendered, and which continued to plague the company for the rest of its existence, it would be easy to imagine that all was fun and games. The album nevertheless gives a wonderful insight into company life and will I’m sure yield more knowledge of this period of de Basil’s company.

at-the-beach-2On the beach in Rio, 1942

Michelle Potter, 5 December 2012

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Meryl Tankard: an original voice. Part eight—The voice

On 30 November 2012 the content of this post was deleted.

The background to the book is, however, worth retaining:

In 2004 I began working on the manuscript of a book, Meryl Tankard: an original voice. In that year a book about Tankard was commissioned by the National Library of Australia as part of a series called Australian Lives. The commissioning letter said, in part, that the book should:

… present a life of Meryl Tankard along with an account of her career and achievements … provide insights into her way of working, her acknowledged successes, her less well-known career highlights and her private life … [cover] key personal and professional associations … explore why she has, from time to time, been embroiled in some difficulties and controversies.

For a variety of reasons the Library decided not to proceed with publication of the manuscript as a title in the Australian Lives series. A proposal was considered again in 2008 after I had added to and significantly enhanced the manuscript once I no longer needed to adhere to a limit of 25,000–30,000 words. Again the Library decided not to proceed, with the final decision being made on the grounds that the publication would not attract enough public interest for sales to cover costs. Eventually, in 2011, I found a publisher who thought publication was a viable proposition, but other circumstances relating to copyright and permissions, which I was unable to secure, meant that once again publication did not proceed.

However, a huge amount of research went into the manuscript. Some of it was conducted overseas and some of it foregrounded works by Tankard that have not been seen in Australia or that were one-off shows. Extensive research also went into putting together a list Tankard’s choreographic works from 1977 to 2009. In addition, many, many people generously shared thoughts and material with me. It seemed a cruel fate for this research not to see the light of day. So, I published the major part of it on this website. I am delighted that the book is now available in expanded form as a self-published print production—unfortunately though without images! The print edition includes the eight chapters originally posted on this website plus a preface, introduction, bibliography, index and an updated list of choreographic works. Ordering details are at this link.

Michelle Potter, 30 November 2012

The Australian Ballet’s first New Zealand tour, 1963

I was surprised, when the Australian Ballet’s 50th anniversary book Luminous was published, to discover that the company’s first overseas tour was listed as that of 1965‒1966. That tour lasted five months and was a massive and hugely important undertaking for a company that was not quite three years old when it set out from Australia in August 1965. The tour was ostensibly to appear in the Commonwealth Arts Festival in the United Kingdom but it took in many other cities across the globe, including Paris where Peggy van Praagh’s production of Giselle received the Grand Prix of the City of Paris. But what happened to the 1963 tour to New Zealand I wondered? It was small by comparison. It lasted just six weeks and was just across the Tasman. But it happened.

An explanation of sorts was provided by Colin Peasley in an oral history interview he recorded in 2000. In the early days of the Australian Ballet’s history the business side of the company was handled by the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust (AETT), which received government funding on behalf of the company, in partnership with the J. C. Williamson organisation (JCW), which owned theatres across Australia and New Zealand and also sets and costumes used in many early Australian Ballet productions. Peasley suggested that the first New Zealand tour had never been regarded by the company as its first overseas tour, which was perhaps related to the fact that at that stage company contracts were issued by JCW. The contracts were similar to those issued by JCW for its musical comedy shows and for the Borovansky Ballet. That is, the contracts were Australasian ones. It is a plausible rationale for regarding the tour as an internal one, but not an excuse.

While primary source material relating to the tour is scattered somewhat haphazardly amongst various archival collections, it seems that seasons were initially planned between June and August 1963 for Auckland, Hamilton, Palmerston North and Wellington on the North Island and at least Christchurch on the South Island. The repertoire included the full-length Swan Lake, along with Les Sylphides, Just for fun, Lady and the Fool, One in Five, Melbourne Cup and some divertissements including the pas de deux from Don Quixote and Sylvia and Robert Pomie’s Pas classique. With artistic director Peggy van Praagh at the helm, the company was led by international guest stars Sonia Arova and Caj Selling, the Australian Ballet’s Kathleen Gorham and Karl Welander and New Zealander Jon Trimmer.

Sonia Arova & Caj Selling in 'Sylvia' pas de deux
Sonia Arova and Caj Selling in the pas de deux from Sylvia, 1963. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

The tour was a partnership with the New Zealand Ballet Trust and the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation. Negotiations for the season were in place as early as 12 January 1963 when a letter from Louis van Eyssen, then general manager of the fledgling Australian Ballet, noted that the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation was prepared ‘to make [its] second orchestra of 25 available to complement our Ballet Company on our proposed tour of New Zealand’. The company left for New Zealand on 15 June 1963.

Although press reports and reviews were positive, it was a difficult tour in which the company lost fairly hefty amounts of money and which ended ahead of its proposed schedule: the season in Wellington was cut short and the company did not visit the South Island at all. The AETT had decided to go ahead on the basis of the orchestral assistance offered by New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation and by advantageous terms regarding theatre rentals offered by JCW, although it was concerned about the tour quite early in the negotiation period. Box office losses for Australian Ballet seasons in Australian capital cities in the early part of 1963 had been a cause for concern and at one stage Stefan Haag, executive director of the AETT, attempted to convince the New Zealand Ballet Trust to increase its participation on a profit and loss basis from 10% to 50%. The Executive Council of the New Zealand Ballet Trust declined, eventually making it clear that 10% on a profit or loss basis was to be qualified by a loss limit of £1,500. Haag also made overtures to secure a grant from the New Zealand Arts Council, but this too came to nothing.

Specific problems arose in Auckland, the first stop. The company was competing with two popular shows, the Cherry Blossom Show and the Black and White Minstrel Show. As the season in Auckland commenced van Eyssen wrote to Haag saying:

… Harry Wren’s Cherry Blossom show is splashed across a full page of the daily papers and so far he has sold the first two weeks completely out. Similarly with the Black and White Minstrel Show which is offering very strong competition as well in both newspaper advertising and also bookings.

Peasley noted that some performances were packed, some half full, and some practically empty.

It appears there were orchestral problems as well. During the Wellington season, which opened on 18 July, van Praagh wrote to Haag saying that the orchestra had ‘been nothing but a problem ever since we started’. There was, allegedly, strife within the ranks and van Praagh claimed that at one matinee neither the first trumpet nor the first clarinet had turned up to play. There were explanations and denials in the press of course. All in all it seems to have been a colourful tour from a backstage perspective.

There were also reports in the New Zealand and Australian press suggesting that the tour had been shortened because the company feared that its subsidy would be cut because of the poor box office takings. This, of course, was vehemently denied, although in May a memorandum to Haag from an unidentified writer suggested that the losses on the seasons in Australia prior to the New Zealand tour were so serious that they called for radical revision of plans and, in fact, an abandonment of the idea of a permanent Australian company. The writer went on to say that there was not a sufficient public for ballet to support annual seasons either in Australia or in New Zealand.

In the end the company continued as we all know, despite returning from New Zealand earlier than expected. However, the first New Zealand tour, which was also the company’s first overseas tour no matter what the dancers’ contracts stated, deserves further consideration and acceptance for its role in the growth of the company.

© Michelle Potter, 10 September 2012

Meryl Tankard: an original voice. Part seven—Independence

On 30 November 2012 the content of this post was deleted.

The background to the book is, however, worth retaining:

In 2004 I began working on the manuscript of a book, Meryl Tankard: an original voice. In that year a book about Tankard was commissioned by the National Library of Australia as part of a series called Australian Lives. The commissioning letter said, in part, that the book should:

… present a life of Meryl Tankard along with an account of her career and achievements … provide insights into her way of working, her acknowledged successes, her less well-known career highlights and her private life … [cover] key personal and professional associations … explore why she has, from time to time, been embroiled in some difficulties and controversies.

For a variety of reasons the Library decided not to proceed with publication of the manuscript as a title in the Australian Lives series. A proposal was considered again in 2008 after I had added to and significantly enhanced the manuscript once I no longer needed to adhere to a limit of 25,000–30,000 words. Again the Library decided not to proceed, with the final decision being made on the grounds that the publication would not attract enough public interest for sales to cover costs. Eventually, in 2011, I found a publisher who thought publication was a viable proposition, but other circumstances relating to copyright and permissions meant that once again publication did not proceed.

However, a huge amount of research went into the manuscript. Some of it was conducted overseas and some of it foregrounded works by Tankard that have not been seen in Australia or that were one-off shows. Extensive research also went into putting together a list Tankard’s choreographic works from 1977 to 2009. In addition, many, many people generously shared thoughts and material with me. It seemed a cruel fate for this research not to see the light of day. So, I published the major part of it on this website. I am delighted that the book is now available in expanded form as a self-published print production—unfortunately though without images!. The print edition includes the eight chapters originally posted on this website plus a preface, introduction, bibliography, index and an updated list of choreographic works. Ordering details are at this link.

Michelle Potter, 30 November 2012