The best of everything to those who have followed this website over the past year. Thank you for your loyalty. And here’s hoping that 2021 will be one that is filled with dance, even live dance perhaps? Stay safe and healthy.
Highlights of 2020 (on and off stage)
I was very fortunate to see the opening night performance of Graeme Murphy’s The Happy Prince. It had a short run in Brisbane in February but showings elsewhere were cancelled due to the pandemic. I really would like to see it again as there was a lot there that needed a second look. I hope we will see it again, given that the leadership of the Australian Ballet has changed.
By mid year we were still not back in the theatre but Alison Plevey and her Australian Dance Party created Lake Marchin which, over several weekends in August, eight dancers, accompanied by two musicians, made their way around Canberra’s three lakes. They paused briefly on occasions to engage with each other and with the rather surprised audience of joggers, bike riders and so on who were also using the lakeside for exercise. Lake March won Plevey a Canberra Critics’ Circle award in December. The citation read:
For courageously working within the restrictive conditions generated by COVID-19 to bring an innovative and entertaining production of dance and live music, presented in several outdoor venues, to an audience of dance goers and the wider Canberra community. Alison Plevey for Lake March.
In October we were able to venture into the theatre for a QL2 Dance program featuring a work called Sympathetic Monsters by Jack Ziesing. It was an absorbing work in terms of its choreographic structure and in its thematic content.
Of course I watched many streamed performances over the course of 2020. It was more than interesting to see close-up images of faces and expressions and also details of costume. Nothing can replace a live performance but I derived much pleasure from streamed performances, especially from companies I wouldn’t normally see. Borrowed Light from Finland’s Tero Saarinen Company in collaboration with Boston Camerata was perhaps the most outstanding example. I was transfixed by this performance and have Jacob’s Pillow to thank for streaming it as part of the Pillow’s Virtual Festival 2020.
Sunil Kothari (1933–2020). Indian dance critic
I was saddened to hear of the death of Indian dance writer Sunil Kothari from complications of COVID-19. He visited Australia on a number of occasions and I recall a talk he gave in Canberra for the Canberra Critics’ Circle, several years ago now. He was a passionate advocate for dance and was a mentor to Padma Menon, who performed extensively in Canberra during the 1990s.
Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. More reviews and comments
Kristian Fredrikson. Designer featured as the ‘Publishing Spotlight’ in the Summer 2020–2021 edition of the newsletter of the Friends of the National Library of Australia. The review was written by Friends Committee Member and well known Canberra-based arts and craft specialist, Meredith Hinchliffe. Follow this link to read the review.
Ever since the announcement that David Hallberg was to become the new artistic director of the Australian Ballet, there has been speculation about what he might bring to the company. With his extraordinary background across the world, including extended periods as a dancer with American Ballet Theatre in New York and Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, as well as guest seasons with major companies around the world, including an extended position as principal guest artist with the Royal Ballet, it has seemed obvious that he would have much to offer. His contacts, and his wide personal experience, would ensure that he would be able to bring a diverse repertoire of works to the Australian Ballet. The announcement of the Australian Ballet’s season for 2021 shows exactly that.
The season is made up of a gala opening program in Melbourne, two mixed bill programs and three full-length works. Sound familiar? Looking more closely, however, the individual content of each season might be seen as somewhat unexpected. The opening season for Sydney dance goers is New York Dialects. It consists of two works by George Balanchine, Serenade and The Four Temperaments, which show somewhat different aspects of Balanchine’s output; and a newly commissioned work from Pam Tanowitz. Who could not look forward to Balanchine? But I am curious to see what Tanowitz produces as the one work of hers that I have seen (Solo for Russell for a New York City Ballet streaming program) left me cold I have to say.
The other mixed bill has two vastly different works both based on the balletic vocabulary—Petipa’s third act from Raymonda and William Forsythe’s Artifact Suite. I had the pleasure once of seeing the full-length Artifact but have never seen the Suite that Forsythe created from the full-length version. I look forward to the Suite and I am sure it will contain all the startling aspects (blackouts, lowering of the front curtain in mid-performance, and so on) that characterise the full production. An interesting choice from Hallberg.
As for the full-length works, we will get to see (I hope, anyway) Anna Karenina with choreography by Yuri Possokhov, whose choreography I admire immensely; John Cranko’s familiar Romeo and Juliet; and Alexei Ratmansky’s revival of the long-lost Harlequinade, originally created by Petipa in 1900.
What has impressed me so far is the way Hallberg speaks about the repertoire for the 2021 season. His words are straightforward and clear but they don’t dumb things down at all. His discussion of the Counterpointe program, for example, he says
The juxtaposition of Raymonda and Artifact Suite shows the evolution of classical ballet. Raymonda adheres to tradition and pageantry; Forsythe took this history and ‘imitated’ it, creating a work that overwhelms both dancers and audience with gestural references given new meaning. These seminal works both counteract and perfectly complement each other.
It has also been interesting rereading his autobiography A body of work. Dancing to the edge and back (New York: Atria Paperback, 2017). Now he is the new artistic director, the sections in his book where he talks about seeking to understand more about the nature of ballet take on a new meaning. During the reread I especially admired his enquiring mind, and his interest in an analytical approach to certain aspects of his career.
Hallberg has good connections already with the Australian Ballet as a result of guesting with the company on various occasions, and from the extended time he spent in Melbourne being treated for injury by the company’s rehabilitation team. He is an exceptional dancer (oh those beats!) and I clearly recall the first time I saw him in 2010 in Kings of the Dance. ‘Hallberg danced with classical perfection,’ I wrote. But despite all the positive signs, he has to prove that he can direct a company successfully. A new era? Fingers crossed.
The recently released online tribute to retiring director of the Australian Ballet, David McAllister, has much to enjoy. Titled Celebrate David McAllister, it is hosted by Virginia Trioli with concept and curatorship from Fiona Tonkin. Tonkin, towards the end of the stream, explains the origin of the initiative.
We never gave up David. We had mainstage galas set for you, we had a one-off ‘gala-ette’, and now we have this online streaming tribute. We could not let COVID-19 stop us offering you a collective, heartfelt thank you
In three parts, it covers first up McAllister’s performing career with some wonderful footage—those fabulous turns in La Fille mal gardée—; the second looks at what Trioli refers to as ‘some of the milestones David has achieved’ during his term as artistic director; and in the final section artists from around the world—dancers, choreographers, directors, crew and others—pass on memories and good wishes for the future.
I especially enjoyed the final section. Some messages were a little tearful, others somewhat hesitant, but all were heartfelt. I loved Liz Toohey leaning forward towards the camera and saying ‘best partner in the world’. Then there was Lisa Pavane stringing together adjectives that began with D, then A, then V, then I and then D again. And just fancy Richard Evans, Executive Director 2002-2007, being taught Giselle in his kitchen (by David of course). ‘I can’t look at Giselle the same way again,’ Evans admits ‘It was a famous night.’
Below is a link to the full feature.
As a sideline to the above, a short video made by the National Portrait Gallery to celebrate the Peter Brew-Bevan photograph that is in the NPG collection, is also a good watch, even though it has no focus on the retirement.
And on a personal note, David launched two of my books A collector’s book of Australian dance (2002) and Dame Maggie Scott. A life in dance (2012). He is a terrific speaker! Now there’s a potential future.
Michelle Potter, 15 December 2020
Featured image: David McAllister and Liz Toohey in the Bluebird pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet, 1984. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia
The recipients of Australian Dance Awards for 2018 and 2019 were announced on 8 December. The announcement was streamed by Ausdance National in order to manage the various restrictions on travel, gatherings of people and the like as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. But it was relaxing at least to be able to watch from the comfort of one’s lounge room, or at a small ‘watch party’.
The two recipients of the Lifetime Achievement Award were Jill Sykes (2019) and Janet Karin (2020). As is the usual practice, the Lifetime Achievement Awards were announced prior to the other awards and this information has been on the Ausdance National website since late November.
Both awardees have had astonishing careers for well over the forty years that is a requirement for nominations in this category, and their love for and commitment to dance is exceptional. Read the citations that accompany their award at the following links: Jill Sykes; Janet Karin.
Below is the list of awardees in other categories with just one or two personal comments, some photographs, and links to my reviews, where available:
Services to Dance Valerie Lawson (2018) Philippe Charluet (2019)
The work of filmmaker Philippe Charluet crosses many boundaries from documentaries to the addition of film sequences in dance works (remember, for example, his black and white footage in Nutcracker. The Story of Clara). He has worked with many Australian companies including Sydney Dance Company, Meryl Tankard Company, and the Australian Ballet and his contribution to Australia’s dance heritage is inestimable. His website, Stella Motion Pictures, is at this link. Below is a trailer for his documentary on Meryl Tankard.
Services to Dance Education Karen Malek (2018) Sue Fox (2019)
Outstanding Achievement in Community Dance Tracks Dance for In Your Blood (2018) Fine Lines for The Right (2019)
Outstanding Achievement in Youth Dance FLING Physical Theatre for Body & Environment (2018) QL2 Dance for Filling the Space (2019)
Filling the Space was a triple bill program comprising Proscenium by James Batchelor, Naturally Man-Made by Ruth Osborne, and The Shape of Empty Space by Eliza Sanders. It was performed by QL2’s Quantum Leap group, the senior group at QL2.
Outstanding Achievement in Choreography Narelle Benjamin and Paul White for Cella (2018) Garry Stewart for South with Australian Dance Theatre (2019)
Outstanding Achievement in Commercial Dance, Musicals or Physical Theatre The Farm for Tide (2018) Strut Dance for SUNSET (2019)
Outstanding Achievement in Dance on Film or New Media RIPE Dance for In a Different Space (2018) Samaya Wives for Oten (2019)
Congratulations to the awardees and to those who were short listed as well. Some of the short listed items that I especially admired included the work of West Australian Ballet, especially the production of and dancing in Giselle and La Sylphide; Liz Lea’s RED; the performance by Anca Frankenhaeuser in MIST; and Alice Topp’s Aurum. Some results were very close.
This month’s dance diary has an eclectic mix of news about dance from across the globe. I am beginning with a cry for help from a New Zealand initiative, Ballet Collective Aotearoa, led by Turid Revfeim, dancer, teacher, coach, mentor, director across many dance organisations. I am moved to do this as a result of two crowd funding projects I initiated when I was in a similar position and needed an injection of funds to help with the production of my recent Kristian Fredrikson book. I was overwhelmed by the generosity of the arts community. It made such a difference to what my book looked like and I will forever be grateful.
Ballet Collective Aotearoa
Ballet Collective Aotearoa was unsuccessful in its application to Creative New Zealand for funding to take its project, Subtle Dances, to Auckland and Dunedin in early 2021. The group has secured performances at the arts festivals at those two New Zealand cities. BCA’s line-up for Subtle Dances brings together a great mix of experienced professional dancers and recent graduates from the New Zealand School of Dance. They will perform new works by Cameron McMillan, Loughlan Prior and Sarah Knox.
For my Australia readers, Prior has strong Australian connections, having been born in Melbourne and educated at the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School. Then, Cameron McMillan, a New Zealander by birth, trained at the Australian Ballet School and has danced with Australian Dance Theatre and Sydney Dance Company. And, dancing in the program will be William Fitzgerald who was brought up in Canberra, attended Radford College and has been a guest dance teacher there, and studied dance in Canberra with Kim Harvey.
The campaign to raise money for Turid Revfeim’s exceptional venture is via the New Zealand organisation, Boosted. See this link to contribute. See more on the BCA website.
Interconnect. Liz Lea Productions
Liz Lea’s Interconnect was presented as part of the annual DESIGN Canberra Festival and focused on connections between India and Canberra. The idea took inspiration from the designers of the city of Canberra, Walter Burley and Marion Mahoney Griffin, and from the fact that Walter Burley Griffin spent his last years in India where he died in Lucknow in 1937. As a result, the program featured a cross section of dance styles from Apsaras Arts Canberra, the Sadhanalaya School of Arts and several exponents of Western contemporary styles.
Interconnect was shown at Gorman Arts Centre in a space that was previously an art gallery. Physical distancing was observed, as we have come to expect. I enjoyed the through-line of humour that Lea is able to inject into all her works, including Interconnect. I was also taken by a short interlude called Connect in which Lea danced to live music played on electric guitar by Shane Hogan, and which featured on film in the background a line drawing of changing patterns created by Andrea McCuaig. Multiple connections there!
Choreographer Gray Veredon has put together a new website set out in several parts under the headings ‘The Challenge’, ‘New Ways in Set Design’, and ‘Influences and Masters’. His themes are developed using as background his recent work in Poland,A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Gray Veredon’s website can be viewed at this link.
Jean Stewart, whose dance photographs I have used many times on this website, is the subject of a short video put together by the State Library of Victoria. Jean died in 2017 and donated her archive to the SLV. Here is the link to video. And below are two of my favourite photographs from other sources. I can’t get over the costumes in the background of the Coppélia shot! Is that Act II?
Other Stewart favourites appear in the brief tribute I wrote back in 2017.
Jacob’s Pillow fire
Devastating and heartbreaking news came from Jacob’s Pillow during November. Its Doris Duke Theatre was burnt to the ground.
Nina Popova, Russian born dancer who danced in Australia during the third Ballets Russes tour in 1939-1940, died in Florida in August 2020. I was especially saddened to learn that her death was a result of COVID-19.
Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. More comments and reviews
Kristian Fredrikson. Designer was ‘Highly Recommended’ on the Summer Reading Guide in its ‘Biography’ category.
Mention of it also appeared on the Australian Ballet’s site, Behind Ballet, Issue # 252 of 18 November 2020 with the following text:
KRISTIAN FREDRIKSON, DESIGNER A lavish new book by historian and curator Michelle Potter takes us inside the fascinating world of Fredrikson, whose rich and inventive designs grace so many of our productions. MORE INFO
I was also thrilled to receive just recently a message from Amitava Sarkar, whose photographs from Stanton Welch’s Pecos and Swan Lake for Houston Ballet are a magnificent addition to the book. He wrote: ‘Congratulations. What a worthwhile project in this area of minimal research.‘ He is absolutely right that design for the stage is an area of minimal research! Let’s hope it doesn’t always remain that way.
I recently had the opportunity to write a short article about Melbourne-based dancer and choreographer Jack Riley for The Canberra Times, my first piece of writing for this particular outlet in 50 weeks given certain changes that have happened to performing arts writing lately. My story had to have a particular focus and so I was not able to mention the commission Riley had from the University of Melbourne last year, which involved a trip to Florence, Italy, where he made a work called Duplex. The Canberra Times used neither the headshot nor an image from Florence, both of which were sent to me by Riley. But the Florence shot was so striking I have used it as the featured image for this month’s dance diary. A PDF of the story published in The Canberra Times is available at the end of this post. See ‘Press for October 2020’.
Jan Pinkerton (1963–2020)
I only recently heard the sad news that Jan Pinkerton, dancer and choreographer, had died in August. She performed with Sydney Dance Company, Australian Choreographic Ensemble (as a founding member), and Bangarra Dance Theatre. The eulogy at the funeral service was given by Lynn Ralph, general manager of Sydney Dance Company 1985–1991 and a long-term friend of Pinkerton. In it she told us the role Jan Pinkerton most liked performing was Act II of Graeme Murphy’s Nearly Beloved. I found the image below in the National Library’s collection and, in lieu of a detailed obituary, I am including it in this month’s dance diary.
Lynn Ralph’s eulogy is a moving one and contains words from Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon as well as from Stephen Page. The funeral service was recorded and is available online.
Australian Dance Awards
The short lists for the Australian Dance Awards for 2018 and 2019, with the exception of the awards for Lifetime Achievement, have been released. The winners will be announced at a specially filmed event in December. Stay tuned for more. The short lists are available at this link.
Marge Champion (1919–2020)
Marge Champion, dancer and actor in Hollywood musicals of the 1950s, and inspiration to many over the years, has died in Los Angeles at the age of 101. I discovered that she had died via Norton Owen who posted the image below on his Facebook page.
In his brief comment about the relationship he had with her I found out one more thing about the Jacob’s Pillow site. Blake’s Barn, home of the incredible Jacob’s Pillow Archives, was named after Marge Champion’s son, Blake. The building’s donor was Marge Champion. She is seen in the video clip below dancing with her husband Gower Champion in the final scene from Lovely to Look At.
Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. More reviews and comments
Unity Books in Wellington hosted a lunchtime forum in its bookstore on 15 October. The forum was chaired by Jennifer Shennan and featured former Royal New Zealand Ballet dancers Kerry-Anne Gilberd, Anne Rowse and Sir Jon Trimmer.
A particularly interesting comment was made at the end of the discussion by John Smythe of the New Zealand review site, Theatreview. Smythe was playwright-in-residence with Melbourne Theatre Company when MTC was producing Shakespeare’s All’s Well that Ends Well, directed by Sir Tyrone Guthrie in 1970. He recalled that Sir Tyrone was taken aback by the costume for Helena in Act III (design reproduced in the book on p. 47) when he saw it during the tech run. He turned to Smythe and said ‘I’ve made a mistake. She’s got no business in that dress.’ Apparently he thought it was overly elaborate for the character he had drawn in his production but, knowing how much work had gone into the design and the making of the costume itself, he resolved not to tell Fredrikson but to live with the error. Smythe is seen below making his comment with the book open at the costume in question.
And on Twitter from Booksellers NZ: ‘Stopped by our local Unity Books & thrilled to have stumbled on a lunchtime talk including one of my heroes, the marvellous Sir Jon Trimmer. Celebrating the launch of Kristian Fredrikson: Designer by Michelle Potter.’
Press for October 2020
‘The Canberran dancer in an Archibald Portrait’. Story about dancer Jack Riley whose portrait by Marcus Wills achieved finalist status in the 2020 Archibald Prize and is hanging in the Art Gallery of NSW at present. The Canberra Times, 26 October 2020, p. 10. Here is a link to a PDF of the story.
Michelle Potter, 31 October 2020
Featured image: Jack Riley and Nikki Tarling in a moment from Duplex, 2019. Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenzi
Dr Cathy Adamek thinks it is time for regional re-engagement in dance. Adamek, who has had an extraordinarily diverse career across art forms to date, has just been appointed Director, Ausdance ACT. Her long-term vision is for making connections, including eventually establishing touring initiatives, initially between independent artists working in South Australia and the ACT. This aspect of a much wider vision seems very much like a ‘seize the moment’ one. On the one hand there are Adamek’s strong connections with Adelaide and, on the other, in the current COVID 19 situation the Adelaide-Canberra ‘bubble’ already exists even as borders with some other states and territories remain closed. It is also just the kind of initiative Canberra artists need.
Adamek began her dance life learning ballet in Adelaide with Joanna Priest and Sheila Laing. She was accepted into WAAPA to continue dance studies at tertiary level but an injury forced her to move to acting. Adamek eventually continued her training at NIDA and the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London and, with the addition of a strong musical background since childhood, she has pursued a career across dance, physical theatre, choreography, film, and electronic music, and has acted as a voice-over in various situations. She completed her PhD in 2017 at the University of South Australia. Her thesis, entitled Adelaide Dance Music Culture: Late 1980s–Early 1990s, reflected her interest in connecting with new music as well as her experiences on the dance floor in ‘the second summer of love’. A recent residency at Dance Hub SA saw her working on a piece called Open Bliss, a development from her PhD research and one of several of her personal choreographies. She has tutored at various institutions and most recently has been President of Ausdance SA. With her diverse background she describes herself as a ‘creative producer’.
Along with her interest in establishing regional re-engagement, Adamek says that her aim in her new position in Canberra is basically to serve the needs of Ausdance. ‘I have had 25 years of working in the arts,’ she says ‘now I want to work to help others in the dance community. I also have a particular interest in turning dance works into film and to extending that interest out to schools where there is a need for different perspectives and training.’ She also has a particular passion for ensuring that dance is developed from a dramaturgical point of view. This interest, she says, grew from her background at NIDA in the 1990s. ‘It was a hybrid era,’ she says, ‘when art forms were brought together. I want to present dance in a theatrical way. It has to be a journey in movement and with logic and theatricality.’
Why Canberra I wonder? I suggest to her that it doesn’t always have a strong profile to many outside the city. ‘It’s a lot like “secret Adelaide”, she counters. ‘Besides, I love travelling, I love going to new places. Canberra sits between those beautiful mountains. It has the Gallery and other collecting institutions. I had no hesitation.’
Like many arts organisations, Ausdance ACT has struggled a little in recent times. Cathy Adamek could well be the one to deliver its rejuvenation.
I am pleased to be able to post some interesting material sent to me by New Zealand-born choreographer, Gray Veredon. He has just loaded the first of a series of video clips in which he talks about his aims and ideas for his choreographic output. He uses examples from his latest work, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which he mounted recently in Poland. See below.
Alan Brissenden (1932–2020)
The dance community is mourning the death of Dr Alan Brissenden, esteemed dance writer and outstanding academic from the University of Adelaide. Alan wrote about dance for a wide variety of magazines and newspapers from the 1950s onwards and was inducted into the Hall of Fame at the Australian Dance Awards in 2013.
As I looked back through my posts for the times I have mentioned Alan on this site, it was almost always for his and Keith Glennon’s book Australia Dances: Creating Australian Dance, 1945–1965. Since it was published in 2010, it has always been my go-to book about Australian dance for the period it covers. No gossip in it; just the story of what happened—honest, critical, carefully researched and authoritative information. Very refreshing. Find my review of the book, written in 2010 for The Canberra Times, at this link.
A moving obituary by Karen van Ulzen for Dance Australia, to which Alan was a long-term contributor, is at this link.
It was interesting to see that Marcus Wills’ painting Requiem (JR) was selected as a finalist for the 2020 Archibald Prize. While Wills states that the painting is not meant to be ‘biographical’, the (JR) of the title stands for dancer Jack Riley. Riley began his performing career as a Quantum Leaper with Canberra’s youth group, QL2 Dance. After tertiary studies he has gone on to work with a range of companies including Chunky Move, Australian Dance Party, and Tasdance.
See the tag Jack Riley for more writing about him and his work on this site.
The first live performance in a theatre I have been to since March took place in September at the newly constructed black box theatre space at Belconnen Arts Centre, Canberra. It was a circus-style production called L’entreprise du risque. It featured Frenchman Bernard Bru and Australian Circus Oz performer Jake Silvestro, along with two young performers who trained at Canberra’s Warehouse Circus, Imogen Drury and Clare Pengryffyn.
While the show was somewhat uneven in standard, the standout performer was Jake Silvestro, whose acts on the Cyr wheel showed incredible balance and skill in general.
But whatever the standard, it was a thrill to be back watching live theatre again.
Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. More reviews and comments
In Wellington, New Zealand, Kristian Fredrikson. Designer is being sold through Unity Books, which presented the publication as its spotlight feature for its September newsletter. Follow this link. It includes Sir Jon Trimmer’s heartfelt impressions of the book, which I included in the August dance diary.
An extensive review by Dr Ian Lochhead, Christchurch-based art and dance historian, appeared in September on New Zealand’s Theatreview. Apart from his comments on the book itself, Dr Lochhead took the opportunity to comment on the importance of archiving our dance history. Read the full review at this link.
Royal New Zealand Ballet also featured the book in its September e-newsletter. See this link and scroll down to READ.
Back in Australia, Judy Leech’s review appeared in the newsletter of Theatre Heritage Australia. Again this is an extensive review. Read it at this link.
Press for September
‘Capital company.’ A story on Canberra’s professional dance company, Australian Dance Party. Dance Australia, September-November 2020, pp. 31-32.
I first met Edith Campbell in 2018 when I delivered the first Russell Kerr Lecture in Wellington. The day after the lecture Edith sent me a collection of items from productions by Opera-Technique Inc., the operetta company for which Kristian Fredrikson designed his very early shows, and with which Edith appeared as a performer. The material, which included press clippings and a booklet listing Opera-Technique productions between 1954 and 1994, was extremely helpful in my research, clearing up a number of points about those early Fredrikson years.
Edith has now read the Fredrikson book and has written a quite fascinating piece giving a personal account of what it was like performing with Opera-Technique. One section in particular suggests to me that, even in 1962 with his work on A Night in Venice, Fredrikson was involved in researching an accurate background for his designs. I am thrilled to be able to post Edith’s reflections on this site. And as more and more comments come in about the book I can’t help feeling that we need another book!
Read Edith’s story below.
Michelle Potter, 27 September 2020
Kristian Fredrikson, Designer—by Michelle Potter Basking in reflected glory! Reflections on reading this book
by Edith Campbell, Wellington
Who does not get a kick out of being in some way, however small, connected with a special event or with a ‘star’ reported in a publication? In 1963, having recently arrived in Wellington from my hometown Edinburgh, I joined a Wellington Polytechnic choral singing evening class (housed in the Wellington Technical College) which I discovered was also the amateur group Opera-Technique. Formed by enthusiastic former students of the Wellington Technical College (now Wellington High School), they had already presented a few musical productions in their spacious School Hall; Strauss’ A Night in Venice was their current project. Rehearsals involved working closely with Musical Director Harry Botham (a double-bass player in the National Orchestra and teacher at the Polytechnic) and of course with producer Harry Baker, referred to by Michelle Potter as teacher and mentor of the young Kristian Fredrikson as the costume designer. I do remember occasionally seeing this dark-haired young man about the place—of course we all admired his work—colourful—imaginative—sparkling!
As was common at that time, many of the cast were very ‘handy’ with their sewing machines. Mrs. Daphne Lawrence—our most excellent wardrobe mistress—a trained tailoress—was a whizz at interpreting the designer’s drawings; she produced practical patterns and cut out the fabrics. There were several real dressmakers in, or attached to, the company who did the more intricate work, but quite a number of the cast received their cutout costumes to sew together. What fun to stitch ribbons of sequins in swirls on the supposedly bare-bosoms of we show girls and insert a mirror into our garters to catch the eye of perspective clients! (Imaginative touches Kristian!) It was exciting to be so intimately involved in the production in this way in addition to singing and dancing in it—accompanied by a section of the National Orchestra no less!
Being presented in a School Hall the general public did not comprehend that the production not only was performed entirely by adults, but was extremely professional in every area, and so Opera-Technique took the bold step of taking their next production—Offenbach’s La Vie Parisienne—into the city to perform in the Opera House! (took many years to pay off the debt!) Again the stage was filled with Kristian’s scintillating designs. Allan Lees designed the set. At this time overseas companies fairly frequently brought plays and musicals to the country’s main centres. From well-known institutions, in their homeland’s ‘down time’, they found it profitable to ‘tour the colonies’. The thespians resident in NZ were extremely well-versed in their craft, but, as the small population could not support them professionally (i.e. full time), the general populace saw them as amateurs and asked—if one may draw a Biblical analogy—‘can any good thing come out of Nazareth?’ (John 1: 46). The standard of the shows put on by these so-called amateurs was of a high calibre in every respect both on stage and behind the scenes—set and costume design, lighting, stage management, even front-of-house—could often put the overseas companies to shame. It was a long time before the ‘Nazareth’ concept was overcome!
So this was the vibrant theatre scene into which the young Kristian was introduced—one where his excellent talents were recognized and fostered. An early illustration in the book shows his designs for the Kings in Menotti’s gem Amahl and the Night Visitors. They were seen and appreciated widely for several years as Opera-Technique presented the lovely Christmas story in many churches and halls in the greater Wellington area (had a simple very adaptable set by Allan Lees). Along with many singers and those in related stage crafts, Kristian’s experience with Opera-Technique stood him in good stead when he spread his wings to fly across the Tasman and further.
Be life humdrum or exciting, whatever makes a person tick—whatever motivates them, is always intriguing. Based on meticulous research, Michelle tells Kristian’s story beautifully. Every performer must ‘get under the skin’ of any character he or she plays. A costume that is ‘just right’ is itself a physical manifestation of that skin and Kristian had the knack of creating that skin with his designs. While spiritually getting under the skin, being wrapped in it by donning a costume adds a tremendously reassuring dimension. After a performance the audience will remember the expressiveness of a sonorous voice, the grace of a movement, but the visual appearance is an essential element in recreating the memory. With her liberal use of direct quotes from Kristian’s writings and reported conversations, Michelle gives us insight into his intense passion for attention to detail and his extensive studies to be very aware of the background of the stories he was illustrating, also that of the writers and composers—he worked with the complete picture for his references.
Needless to state, Kristian loved to return to NZ to fill commissions from the RNZ Ballet and the dancers and the audiences loved it too! In Peter Pan, Sir Jon Trimmer was in his element as he strutted about in his exuberant Captain Hook costume, complete with be-feathered hat. In real life Jon is delightfully comedic with more than a touch of mischievousness and his costume caught a whiff of that too!
It is often reported that a block-buster movie has a cast of thousands. A considerable proportion may actually appear on the screen (or be consigned to the cutting room floor). Though perhaps not strictly part of the ‘cast’, many of the thousands are the indispensable support people. By the time the last chord is played to accompany the rolling credits seldom does one patron remain in the cinema! Admittedly the ‘rolling’ is too fast to read individual names, but one glimpses titles such as ‘Best Boy’ or ‘caterer’. So sadly so much passion and creativity is not immediately acknowledged. Hopefully theatre audiences go home clutching their programs to peruse later the list of all the off-stage people who contributed so much to their pleasure!
Let us be immensely grateful to Michelle for her words and wonderful selection of illustrations to not only recognise Kristian’s accomplishments, but to remind us of the great number of talented and dedicated people who brought his designs to life in the many facets of the productions. The performers on stage receive applause—sometimes on the last night of a season, conductors, designers and stage managers are invited on stage also and a wave is given in the direction of the lighting box. Maybe a representative of all the ‘other people’ could appear. We all do what we do to express and share our love of beauty … but it is nice to occasionally receive at least a sliver of that light of reflected glory!!
Featured image: Front cover (detail) of the program for the Opera-Technique Inc. production of La vie parisienne, 1963. National Library of New Zealand, Eph-A-OPERA-OT-1963. The full cover image is below.
Canberra’s dance companies, large and small, have always been good at making site specific works, especially in outdoor venues. The city lends itself well to such events. Canberra dance-goers will remember exceptional performances in outdoor venues from past companies such as Meryl Tankard Company and Paige Gordon and Performance Group.
Canberra’s current professional company, Australian Dance Party led by Alison Plevey, has continued the tradition with many of Plevey’s productions taking place outdoors. August saw ADP’s Lake March, a response over several weekends to the difficult situation dance companies find themselves in at present. Performing as part of the Where You Are Festival around three of Canberra’s lake areas, Lakes Burley Griffin, Ginninderra, and Tuggeranong, eight dancers and two musicians (Michael Liu on violin and Alex Voorhoeve on cello) moved in a line around the edges of the lake areas, observing social distancing as they proceeded. They paused occasionally and engaged in spontaneous expressive movement before continuing the march until they reached a final destination.
Lake March attracted an interested audience of cyclists, kids on scooters, joggers and Canberrans enjoying the outdoors. A few performances in mid-August were postponed, however, when the weather was less than warm. It was snowing in some parts of Canberra!
Jacob’s Pillow: the name
Regular visitors to my website will know that I have a great fondness for Jacob’s Pillow, that amazing dance venue (and it’s more than a performance venue) in Massachusetts. I have just recently posted reviews of two of the Pillow’s 2020 digital offerings—a program from the Royal Danish Ballet, and Borrowed Light from Tero Saarinen Company and Boston Camerata. Both were terrific performances.
I have, however, occasionally wondered why the site was called Jacob’s Pillow and so I was interested to discover (somewhat belatedly given that I was at the Pillow in 2007!) the history behind the name.
The YouTube link above shows Norton Owen, Director of Preservation at the Pillow, explaining the origins of the name.
Freeman. A new documentary to watch
The ABC has produced a documentary to mark the 20th anniversary of Cathy Freeman’s historic win in the 400m sprint at the Sydney 2000 Olympics. The film is co-directed by Stephen Page and features Bangarra dancer Lillian Banks as a young Cathy Freeman. The documentary includes archival footage, interviews and dance sequences. It will be available on ABC iview from 13 September.
Kristian Fredrikson. Designer
In addition to the review of my recent publication, Kristian Fredrikson. Designer, written by Jennifer Shennan and posted on this site, here are some reviews and a comment made during August.
And from Sir Jon Trimmer, esteemed former dancer with Royal New Zealand Ballet in a note to Unity Books in Wellington:
What a magnificent book this is. Michelle Potter has been able to bring Australia and New Zealand close together by including all of Kristian’s work in both countries. Our own ballet company’s history is brought to life in a very special way… and there’s even mention of the Chez Lily, that Dixon Street coffee bar where we spent so much time talking about our dreams and our work, back in the day. I thought I was the only person who remembered it. We are very lucky that Michelle has produced this special book. It is one to treasure.