The Listeners. A ballet by Joanna Priest

Towards the end of research for my forthcoming publication, Dame Maggie Scott: a life in dance, an item relating to Joanna Priest’s ballet The Listeners emerged, quite unexpectedly. I had briefly looked into The Listeners as it was one of the ballets performed during the opening season by the National Theatre Ballet in Melbourne in September 1949. This was the occasion when Dame Margaret Scott made her return to the stage, following a lengthy stay in St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney, during the 1947—1949 Australasian tour by Ballet Rambert.

The appearance of this previously unknown item (unknown to me anyway) prompted me to look at The Listeners in a little more depth. My main source for further investigation was a Laban score for the work, part of the small collection of notated scores acquired by the National Library of Australia from Meg Abbie Denton in around 2004. Further information came from Meg’s publication Joanna Priest: her place in Adelaide’s dance history (Adelaide: Joanna Priest, 1993), and Alan Brissenden’s and Keith Glennon’s Australia dances: creating Australian dance 1945–1965 (Adelaide: Wakefield Press,  2010).

The Listeners was first staged for the South Australian Ballet Club in Adelaide on 30 November 1948 at the Tivoli Theatre (later Her Majesty’s). It was inspired by a poem written by Walter de la Mare, and Priest used the poem’s title as the name of her ballet. It was performed to Erno Dohnanyi’s String Quartet No 2 in D flat major, Opus 15, played by the Elder String Quartet, and had designs by Kenneth Rowell, his second commission from Priest.

'The Listeners', South Australian Ballet Company, 1948. Photo: Colin Ballantyne
Harry Haythorne as the Traveller, with Margaret Monson (left) as the Woman who Loved Him and Lynette Tuck as the Woman He Loved in The Listeners, South Australian Ballet Club, 1948. Photo: Colin Ballantyne

In the poem, the only human is a traveller who knocks on the door of a deserted house, deserted except for ‘a host of phantom listeners’ who do not respond to him. For her work, Priest added two women in the traveller’s life—one who loved him, the other whom he loved—as well as the child who was born from the liaison between the traveller and the woman who loved him. They were joined by the force of circumstance represented by four female dancers. Program notes explain:

The traveller arrives at an abandoned house which holds intimate memories…and here among “a host of phantom listeners” the conflict of his relationship with two women is re-enacted in his imagination. Dogged by the relentless interference of circumstance he tries in vain to weave into an enduring pattern his longing for the woman he loves, and his loyalty to the woman who has borne him a child. The harmony of the pattern is perpetually broken by inexorable forces, and, as in life, his struggles against them prove unavailing.

In the original production Harry Haythorne danced the Traveller, Margaret Monson the Woman who Loved  Him, and Lynette Tuck the Woman He Loved.

The ballet entered the repertoire of the National Theatre Ballet in 1949 with Rex Reid as the Traveller, Joyce Graeme as the Woman who Loved Him, Margaret Scott as the Woman He Loved and Jennifer Stielow as the Child. Six extra dancers were added, three men and three women, representing phantom listeners. Kenneth Rowell designed new sets and costumes for this production.

Alan Brissenden’s report of the National’s production has a number of errors, in particular some confusion as to which roles were danced by whom, but of the overall production he says:

The complex choreography followed the melodic structure of the music…and was firmly knit with the development of the story.

What is the unexpected item? It will appear in the plates section of Dame Maggie Scott: a life in dance.

Michelle Potter, 14 August 2014

Featured image: Joyce Graeme as the Woman who Loved Him and Jennifer Stielow as the Child in The Listeners, National Theatre Ballet, 1949. Photo: Harry Jay

Joyce Graeme as the Queen in Swan Lake, National Theatre Ballet, 1951. Photo Walter Stringer

Swan Lake. National Theatre Ballet

Some time ago now I posted a photo from Walter Gore’s ballet, The Crucifix, as staged for the National Theatre Ballet The photo had always fascinated me while working at the National Library of Australia and Athol Willoughby had some interesting words to say about it. Here is a link to the post.

Well, another photo, also from the days of the National Theatre Ballet has also always held a fascination. It is of Joyce Graeme as the Queen in Act III of the National’s full-length Swan Lake, the first ever full-length production to be presented in Australia. The stage presence of Graeme floods out of the picture and recalls the words of Keith Bain quoted in an obituary for Graeme: ‘once seen, never forgotten’.

Joyce Graeme as the Queen in Swan Lake, National Theatre Ballet, 1951. Photo Walter Stringer
Joyce Graeme as the Queen in Swan Lake, Act III, National Theatre Ballet, 1951. National Library of Australia. Photo: Walter Stringer

The costumes for the pages are rather unusual and, while looking through the Rex Reid Collection at the Artscentre Melbourne, I came across a note that describes the costumes. In a folder of material relating to Ann Church, the designer of the momentous full-length Swan Lake, I found the following, in handwriting that appears to be that of Church: ‘The Queen’s pages had scarlet and white jerkins, crimson-pink-and white striped tights’.

On the same scrap of paper there was also a description of costume for the ‘Queen Mother’. ‘This was a black taffeta coat, lined and faced with crimson satin. The sleeves, also lined with crimson, were jagged and also reached the floor, and the train was cut in points like a star. It fastened beneath the bust and the wide neck was trimmed with coq feathers. Underneath, the bodice was mauve jersey, outlined with black velvet and pearls. The sleeves were mauve jersey, covered with black net; black velvet points with pearls, over the hands. The underskirt was mauve taffeta covered with black net. The black net skirt was criss-crossed with black ribbon with large tassels at the joins’.

That description also conjures up a striking item but unfortunately it doesn’t accord with the costume Graeme is wearing so maybe it is her costume for Act I? Perhaps someone who was part of the production may be able to help?

Michelle Potter, 16 March 2014

Rafael Bonachela and Interplay

In January I talked to Rafael Bonachela, largely about his new triple bill program, Interplay, which will open in Sydney in March and then travel to Canberra in April and onwards from there. Interplay features brand new works from Bonachela and Gideon Obarzanek and a return to Australia of Jacopo Godani’s Raw Models.

Rafael Bonachela at Walsh Bay. Photo Peter Grieg
Rafael Bonachela at Walsh Bay. Photo: Rafael Bonachela at Walsh Bay. Photo: © Peter Grieg

It is hard to think of anyone who has such enthusiasm and passion for dance, or anyone who loves talking so generously about what he is doing. The story has just been posted on DanceTabs. Here is the link.

Choreography by Rafael Bonachela, Gideon Obarzanek and Jacopo Godani

SYDNEY:  15 March – 5 April, Sydney Theatre
CANBERRA: 10–12 April, Canberra Theatre Centre
MELBOURNE: 30 April – 10 May, Southbank Theatre

Michelle Potter, 4 February 2014

Simple Symphony. Walter Gore

Earlier this year Rafael Bonachela choreographed a work to Benjamin Britten’s Simple Symphony for his Sydney Dance Company. As a result, a few questions and comments arose on various websites about the use of this music for dance. Then, more recently, the Dancing Times carried letters about Walter Gore’s ballet Simple Symphony (danced to the Britten score) with some questions about the date of that production. In the course of research for another project, I had occasion to look at some archival material relating to the Ballet Rambert tour of Australia and New Zealand in the National Library of Australia, including the scrapbooks of Australian dancer Charles Boyd. From those sources I can add the following:

Gore’s ballet was created in 1944 and Mary Clarke in her Decca Book of Ballet states that its first performance was in Bristol on 29 November 1944. It was initially performed on Arts Council tours for the troops in England. The ballet was notated in Laban notation by Australian Cecil Bates in 1992 who notes that the work was taught to him by Gore when Bates joined the Rambert company during its Australia tour of 1947–1949. A copy of the notated score is part of the National Library’s music collection. Bates also notes that the version he learnt was unaltered from the 1944 original. Bates restaged it for his South Australian Ballet company in 1963.

Other notes on the Laban score state that the work was created by Gore during World War II during periods of leave from duty in France with the armed forces, and that it was created largely on Sally Gilmour and Margaret Scott. The work was performed throughout the Rambert Australasian tour. Its first Australian performance was at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne, on 24 October 1947 with Gore and Sally Gilmour in the principal roles. A note in Rambert Australian programs says it was ‘a thank-offering created by Walter Gore, Rambert’s premiere danseur, a few months after he was twice torpedoed on D-Day’.

It was also filmed during the Australian leg of the Australasian tour at Sandgate, a beachside suburb north of Brisbane, by Alan Denby for the ‘Public Instruction Department’. It was anticipated that the film would be distributed to schools in Queensland, although I am not sure whether this ever happened. Charles Boyd’s scrapbooks indicate that the photo below, taken on location during the filming, appeared in Brisbane’s Courier Mail in September 1948.

Filming Walter Gore's 'Simple Symphony', Sandgate, Queensland,1948
Filming Simple Symphony, Sandgate, 1948

A copy of this film is in the collection of the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra.

Michelle Potter, 15 November 2013

Finale, 'Les Sylphides', Dandré-Levitoff Russian Ballet, ca. 1934

Dandré-Levitoff Russian Ballet. Divertissements and dancers in Australia, 1934–1935 tour

Renewed interest in my research into the 1934–1935 tour by the Dandré-Levitoff Russian Ballet has prompted me to post further material that originally appeared as appendices to my article on the tours. The article appeared in Dance Research (Edinburgh University Press), 29:1 Summer 2011.

Below is a list of divertissements that were performed in Australia, Appendix B of the Dance Research article. In a previous post I listed the repertoire and schedule of performances (Appendix A of the Dance Research article) but listed only the title ‘Divertissements’, where appropriate, without giving details.

This list of divertissements, the short pieces that usually concluded each program, has been constructed from programs for Australian seasons in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. Occasionally alternative names were used and they have been included preceded by a slash. Occasionally, too, Promenade (Old Vienna) and Polovtsian Dances were listed in advertisements as divertissements rather than as main program items. They have not been included on this list and have been kept as part of the main repertoire schedule. The list may not be complete and other divertissements may have been in included outside Australia.

Abhinaya nrita (Authentic Hindu music/Hindu melody)
Bluebird (Tschaikowsky)
Dance of the doll (Kiurci)
Dance of the doll (Salvado)
Dance of the hours (Ponchielli)
Danse russe/Russian dance (Bakalienikoff)
Etude plastique (Liszt)
Grand pas classique (Deldevez)
(Grand) pas hongrois classique (Glazounoff)
Guitana/La gitana (Salvado)
Ice maiden (Grieg)
Indian tribal dance (Minkus)
Japanese dances (Original Japanese music)
L’oiseau (Schumann)
Magyar tanc/dance (Bartok)
Mexican dance (Padilla)

Negro fire-worship dance (Stempinsky)
Nocturn (Schumann)
Pas de fleurs (Tschaikowsky)
Pizzicato (Gillet)
Spanish character dance (Romero)
Spanish dance (Albeniz)
Spanish dance (Granados)
Tarantella (Rossini)
The faun (Debussy)
The love song (Kreisler)
Toreador Spanish dance (Julio Garson)
Trepak (Launitz)
Valse (Fetras)
Valse (Strauss)
Valse brilliante (Chopin)
Voices of spring (Strauss)


Below is a list of dancers who performed during the Australian leg of the tour, Appendix C of the Dance Research article.

Press reports on the arrival of the company in Australia noted that it comprised 36 dancers. (‘The Russian Ballet arrival in Sydney’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 26 October 1934, p. 12). Listed below, with some explanatory notes, are those whose names I have found appearing on programs or mentioned in the press, adding up to less than 36 dancers.

Olga Spessiva (Brisbane and Sydney) and Natasha Bojkovich with
Kathleen Crofton, Lisa Elem, Juliana Enakieff, Tamara Djakelly (Giakelly), Eileen Keegan, Raia Kuznetzova, Molly Lake, Eleanora Marra, Lola Michel,* Anna Northcote, Elvira Rone, Christine Rosslyn, Vera Sevna, Edna Tresahar,** Audrey Valeska.

Molly Lake. Photo: Personal archive of Anna Northcote (Severskaya), private collection
Molly Lake in her dressing room. Photo: Personal archive of Anna Northcote, private collection

Anatole Vilzak, Stanley Judson, Paul (Pavel) Petroff, H. Algeranoff and Dimitri Rostoff with Jan Kowsky (Leon Kellaway), Travis Kemp, Slava Toumine, A. Piekers, George Zorich.***

* The name Lisa Mitchell is mentioned in a review (‘Ballets of beauty’, Courier Mail (Brisbane), 15 October 1934, p. 21) but not in cast lists in programs. I have assumed the review is a misspelling of Lola Michel, a name that does appear in cast lists and reviews.
** The Sydney Morning Herald mentions an Edna Tresabel (‘The Russian Ballet. Arrival in Sydney. Olga Spessiva and her company’. The Sydney Morning Herald, 26 October 1934, p. 12). I have not been able to find another reference to Tresabel and have assumed it to be a misspelling of Edna Tresahar.
***George Zorich spelled his second name Zoritch in his memoirs. It was always Zorich in programs for this company.

The following dancers are listed in various South African newspaper sources but did not appear in Australia in 1934–1935: Vera Nemchinova, Anatole Oboukhoff, L. Kutchurovsky (Katshrovsky), Nicolai Zvereff. Marina Grut also mentions that Nana Gollner and Yvonne Blake performed in South Africa (Selma Jeanne Cohen (ed), International Encylopedia of Dance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), Vol. 5, p. 650.

A photo of Otto Kruger appears in Brisbane programs but this name never appears in cast lists in the programs.


The material contained in these appendices should not be considered as necessarily complete or definitive at this stage. Any additions or corrections, preferably with sources cited, are welcome. Other online material about the tour is at this tag: Dandré-Levitoff Russian Ballet.

All textual material contained in these appendices and in the article is the intellectual property of The Society for Dance Research and should not be reproduced without permission. Full bibliographic details.

Michelle Potter, 23 September 2013

Featured image: Finale, Les Sylphides, Dandré-Levitoff Russian Ballet, ca. 1934. Personal archive of Anna Northcote, private collection

Finale, 'Les Sylphides', Dandré-Levitoff Russian Ballet, ca. 1934

The image below is labelled ‘Lisa … Carnival’ in Anna Northcote’s photo album. It is possibly the Lisa Mitchell/Lola Michel/Lisa Mulchelkans/Elisa Mutschelkmans mentioned in the list of dancers above and in the comment from David Sumray below.

Lisa (Mitchell?). Photo: Personal archive of Anna Northcote, private collection
Sue Healey filming Sarah Jayne Howard for 'Virtuosi'

Virtuosi. Sue Healey

Sue Healey has been making dance films since 1997. However, her latest production, Virtuosi, is different in a very major way. At around 80 minutes in length Virtuosi is a documentary, whereas until now Healey has focused on making short films. Virtuosi is eight stories in one, dance portraits of eight New Zealanders, ‘artists from the edge of the world’, who have made careers beyond their homeland: Mark Baldwin, Craig Bary, Lisa Densem, Raewyn Hill, Sarah-Jayne Howard, Ross McCormack, Jeremy Nelson and Claire O’Neil. And of course both Healey and the composer of the film’s music, Mike Nock, fall into the same category. They too are New Zealanders whose careers have taken them well beyond their homeland.

Healey says when the opportunity arose she was ready to take on the challenge of a full-length film. She says she always enjoyed making short films, using what she refers to as ‘the distillation approach, honing the idea to its essence’, but that it was time for her to investigate ‘a different duration and its inherent qualities and demands’. Not that it was all smooth sailing, apparently. Healey says that finding a structure for the documentary was a huge challenge and that she was more than fortunate to work with an expert editor in Lindi Harrison and with Judd Overton as director of photography. Of Overton, Healey says: ‘Judd’s shooting style is extremely improvisatory—he is willing to solve problems in the here and now, rather than having pre-conceived notions of shot and frame. This is an extremely exciting way of making film and art’. This approach fitted nicely with Healey’s own strategies.

‘As a filmmaker’, she says, ‘I am still very much influenced by the choreographic approach, preferring to allow the structure to find itself organically through the process. Now, this goes against the usual film canon and can land you in very hot water when you realise you don’t have the necessary shots and logic to fully render an idea. However, I was extremely confident that I had more than enough material to create a range of outcomes’.

Specifically, Healey set a range of tasks for her eight subjects asking them, for example, to create movement sequences in iconic locations in their ‘new’ homes. Each of the artists created an outdoor ‘public’ dance (stills and production shots from some of these dances are in the mosaic below). Each also created a ‘still life’ solo in an interior location. And each created an intimate, close-up hand dance.

Scenes from the filming of Virtuosi. Images courtesy of Sue Healey

Virtuosi has already been shown at festivals from New York to Tasmania (and of course in New Zealand where it premiered in 2012). Healey has recently heard that is in competition in the Golden Prague International Television Festival, and also that it will get a theatrical release throughout New Zealand. In addition, Virtuosi exists as a 3 channel installation for gallery spaces.

Canberra audiences have the opportunity to see Virtuosi as part of Scinema: Dance science and dance memories, a week-long program of dance films at the National Film and Sound Archive. Virtuosi screens on Thursday 15 August at 7 pm in the ARC cinema at the National Film and Sound Archive and is preceded by one of Healey’s short films called Once in a blue moon.

Virtuosi is short listed at the 2013 Australian Dance Awards in the category Outstanding Achievement in Dance on Film or New Media. Recipients of awards will be announced in Canberra on 5 August 2013.

Michelle Potter, 19 July 2013

Featured image: Film maker Sue Healey with performer Sarah-Jayne Howard. Courtesy Sue Healey

Sue Healey filming Sarah Jayne Howard for 'Virtuosi'

The Stretton Legacy

As Canberra gets ready to host the 2013 Australian Dance Awards as part of the city’s centenary celebrations, it is inevitable and absolutely appropriate that thoughts are turning to those dancers, teachers, directors and others who have made a major contribution to dance in the city in some way. Canberra-born Ross Stretton comes instantly to mind.

When Stretton died in 2005, following a career as a dancer in Australia and the United States, as the sixth artistic director of the Australian Ballet, and briefly as director of London’s Royal Ballet, I gathered together a list of the repertoire Stretton chose for his four and a half years at the helm of the Australian Ballet. It was published in Brolga, No. 23 in December 2005. As this article is not available via the online issues of Brolga, I am posting it here ahead of the ADAs.

Stretton marked his directorship with a catch phrase, a slogan of sorts: ‘Creativity, Energy, Passion’. It was often thrown back at him, sometimes with a touch of sarcasm, and it became known as the ‘CEP factor’. But behind it was Stretton’s passionate belief that dance was not superficial; it was an art form that in its greatest moments engaged mind, body and soul. Looking back at the repertoire list, which includes an astonishing twelve new commissions in the space of just over four years, as well as new acquisitions for the company from the existing international repertoire, it is clear that the CEP factor was hard at work.

Looking again there are a few works that haven’t been seen since Stretton’s directorship that I would love to see back: 1914 (despite the fact that it was not in general well-reviewed), Dark Lullaby, In the Upper Room, Theme and Variations and The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude are among them.

Below is a Jeff Busby shot of Elisha Willis in 2000 in William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, and below that is a link to the original Brolga article (with one or two corrections to the original). Other corrections if needed or comments are welcome.

Elisha Willis in 'The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude', 2000. Photo: Jeff Busby
Elisha Willis in The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, 2000. Photo: © Jeff Busby

‘The Stretton Legacy’. First published in  Brolga. An Australian Journal about Dance, December 2005, pp. 31–34.

Michelle Potter, 24 June 2013

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
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 2013.

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