Jack Riley and Nikki Tarling in 'Duplex' at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze

Dance diary. October 2020

  • Jack Riley

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.

Jan Pinkerton and Ross Philip in Nearly Beloved, Act II. Sydney Dance Company 1991. Photo: Don McMurdo. Courtesy National Library of Australia

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.

Marge Champion and Norton Owen dancing together in 2014

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.

Here is a link to an obituary published in The Guardian.

  • 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.

(l-r) Anne Rowse, Kerry-Anne Gilberd, Sir Jon Trimmer and Jennifer Shennan discussing Kristian Fredrikson. Designer at the Unity Books forum, Wellington, October 2020.

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.

John Smythe at the Unity Books forum on Kristian Fredrikson. Designer, Wellington October 2020

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

Ausdance ACT’s new director. Dr Cathy Adamek

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’.

Portrait of Cathy Adamek. Photo: © Meaghan Coles

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.

Michelle Potter, 14 October 2020

Featured image: A moment from Open Bliss, 2019. Photo: © Alex Waite-Mitchell

Dance diary. September 2020

  • Gray Veredon on choreography

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.

  • Jack Riley

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.

  • Jake Silvestro

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.

Michelle Potter, 30 September 2020

Featured image: Giovanni Rafael Chavez Madrid as Oberon and Mayu Takata as Titania in Gray Veredon’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ballet of the Baltic Opera Danzig, 2020. Photo: © K. Mystkowski

Basking in reflected glory. Edith Campbell

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!

Costume for a Prostitute in A Night in Venice, Opera-Technique Inc. , Wellington 1962. Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

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.

Australian Dance Party in 'Lake March', Canberra 2020.

Dance diary. August 2020

  • Lake March. Australian Dance Party

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!

Australian Dance Party in Lake March, Canberra 2020. Photo: © Lorna Sim.
  • 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.

Australian Arts Review (this review also appeared in Canberra CityNews)

Sydney Arts Guide

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.

Michelle Potter, 31 August 2020

Featured image: Australian Dance Party in Lake March, Canberra 2020. Photo: © Lorna Sim.

Australian Dance Party in 'Lake March', Canberra 2020.
Abigail Boyle and Jon Trimmer in Russell Kerr's 'Swan Lake'. Royal New Zealand Ballet, revival of 2007. Photo: © Maarten Holl /RNZB

Dance diary. July 2020

  • Kristian Fredrikson. Designer

My book, Kristian Fredrikson. Designer, is now available in bookshops across Australia, and from online outlets, including the publisher’s site, Melbourne Books, and specialist online sellers such as Booktopia and Book Depository. I am indebted to those generous people and organisations who contributed to the crowd funding projects I initiated to help with the acquisition of hi-res images, where purchase was necessary, and to other photographers and curators who contributed their work and collection material without charge. I am more than happy with the reproduction quality of the images throughout the book.

The featured image on this post is from a New Zealand production of Swan Lake and, in addition to Fredrikson’s work in Australia, his activities in New Zealand are an integral part of the book. So too is his work for Stanton Welch and Houston Ballet, and reflections from Houston Ballet staff on the Fredrikson-designed Pecos and Swan Lake also are integral to the story. The book features some spectacular images from those two works.

Two promotional pieces for the book are at the following links: Dance Australia; Canberra CityNews.

  • Royal Danish Ballet

It is a while since I saw a performance by the Royal Danish Ballet so I am looking forward to watching the company dance via a stream from Jacob’s Pillow taken from a performance they gave there in 2018. More later… In the meantime, read my thoughts on the 2005 Bournonville Festival in Copenhagen. I was there on behalf of ballet.co (now Dancetabs).

Andreas Kaas and Ida Praetorius in the pas de deux from The Kermesse in Bruges. Royal Danish Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Christopher Duggan
  • Further on streaming

Two productions, which streamed in July, which I watched but haven’t reviewed in detail, were Trisha Brown’s Opal Loop/Cloud Installation and Aszure Barton’s Over/Come. Both were streamed via the Baryshnikov Arts Centre site. I was especially interested in Opal Loop/Cloud Installation because the installation, which provided the visual background for the work, was by Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya. Nakaya is renown in Canberra for his fog installation (Foggy wake in a desert: an ecosphere) in the sculpture garden of the National Gallery. My grandchildren love it, some for the way the fog comes from the ground-level structure that generates it, others simply for the presence of the fog! I wondered what it was like to dance amid the cloud/fog in Opal Loop.

But I love watching the loose-limbed dancing that characterises Brown’s choreography and have great memories of watching various of her pieces performed, several years ago now, at the Tate Modern.

As for Aszure Barton, Over/Come was created while Barton was in residence at the Baryshnikov Arts Centre, and was filmed in 2005. Efforts to find out a bit more about it, especially the dancers’ names, have been pretty much unsuccessful. Two dancers stood out—a tall gentleman wearing white pants that reached just below the knee (his fluidty of movement was exceptional), and a young lady who danced a cha-cha section. I’d love to know who they are.

  • The Australian Ballet

How devastating that the Australian Ballet has had to cancel its Sydney season for November-December, meaning that very few performances from the company have made it to the stage in 2020. I guess I was lucky that I managed to get to Brisbane in February to see The Happy Prince. 2020 is not the kind of farewell year David McAllister would have liked I’m sure.

Michelle Potter, 31 July 2020

Featured image: Abigail Boyle and Jon Trimmer in Russell Kerr’s Swan Lake. Royal New Zealand Ballet, revival of 2007. Photo: © Maarten Holl /RNZB. Courtesy of Matthew Lawrence

Abigail Boyle and Jon Trimmer in Russell Kerr's 'Swan Lake'. Royal New Zealand Ballet, revival of 2007. Photo: © Maarten Holl /RNZB

Athol Willoughby (1932–2020)

Athol Willoughby, OAM, professional dancer, dance teacher, educator, examiner, adjudicator, board member and patron of Cecchetti Ballet Australia, has died in Melbourne at the age of 87.

Athol Willoughby was born and educated in Tasmania. His interest in dance began in Hobart when, with a friend, he would go to the movies every Friday night. It was the era of Hollywood musicals and he would watch outstanding male dancers, including Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, both of whom he greatly admired. But it was not until the Borovansky Ballet toured to Hobart, when Willoughby was aged 14, that he was given an opportunity to take ballet classes with Hobart teacher, Beattie Jordan. He began formal ballet training in 1946.

An early dance portrait of Athol Willoughby, 1940s(?). Courtesy of Anne Butler
An early dance portrait of Athol Willoughby, 1950s (?). Courtesy of Anne Butler

Willoughby’s career began in earnest, however, when the Melbourne-based National Theatre Ballet visited Hobart. Willoughby took some classes with the company and, as a result, Leon Kellaway, the company ballet master, suggested he should move to Melbourne to take classes at the National Theatre Ballet School. In Melbourne, Willoughby was taught by esteemed Cecchetti teacher, Lucie Saronova, whose influence on his future was immense. Remembering Saronova’s classes Willoughby recalled:

I enjoyed Madam’s classes but they lasted exactly an hour and she packed a lot into a class. There was very little correction. It was doing the exercises that was supposed to get you there, not breaking the exercises down, as is the custom today. But a terrifying aspect of Madam’s classes was that she had been a fantastic turner. She always, at the end of every class, gave a series of diagonal turns. And it didn’t matter whether you were male or female you had to do these diagonal turns. Well I hadn’t been brought up to expect anything like this—perhaps a few chaînés, petits tours as Cechetti calls them, or posé turns—but not these complex diagonals. I used to hate it. I used to try to be the last one down the diagonal until I subsequently figured out that if you were first you had the least attention and you were out of the way and forgotten.

Later in the 1950s he gained his own qualifications as a Cecchetti teacher and began working across Melbourne, including for Dame Margret Scott at her ballet school, which she set up in Toorak in 1955. But his performance career continued in Melbourne and he eventually joined the National Theatre Ballet and performed with them, dancing both the classics and the repertoire of two directors of the company, Walter Gore and Valrene Tweedie. Tweedie, also Cecchetti trained, remained a close colleague until her death in 2008.

Athol Willoughby and Valrene Tweedie in Tweedies’s production of Francesca da Rimini. National Theatre Ballet, 1955. Photo: Walter Stringer. Personal collection of Athol Willoughby

In 1958 Willoughby left for London where he took classes with Anna Northcote and Stanislas Idzikowski. He took on various theatrical and non-theatrical jobs before joining Peter Darrell’s Western Theatre Ballet. But an illness in the family necessitated a return to Australia in 1961. He danced in Tivoli shows during the 1960s, including in a pantomime production of Cinderella in which he played one of the Ugly Sisters. He also continued to teach, travelling across the city and into regional centres before buying the Essendon Academy of Ballet in 1962. He directed the Essendon Academy until 1997 and the students whose careers he nurtured over more than three decades have gone on to dance across the world. Some have become teachers and examiners. But all had their lives enriched by his continued service to dance, in particular to the Cecchetti approach to ballet. But his humility was such that he was able to say, ‘I was just there to try to teach them classical ballet correctly—I like to see it done correctly—and with discipline.’

But before he retired from teaching he twice returned to the stage as a guest artist with the Australian Ballet: in Anne Woolliams’ 1990 revival of Swan Lake in which he took the role of the Hungarian Ambassador, and in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. The Story of Clara in 1992 and 1994 where he played one of Clara the Elder’s émigré friends.

Willoughby once described himself as ‘a born collector of books and clothes and bits and pieces’. His home in Carlton North, which he shared with his partner James O’Donnell, was evidence of his collecting obsession, and of his interest in many forms of art. Both Willoughby and O’Donnell would often visit Canberra to take in the latest exhibition at the National Gallery, or National Library. I was fortunate enough to be able to have lunch with them on a number of those visits. Sharing a meal with them was always a very special occasion. Vale Athol.

Portrait of Athol Willoughby. Courtesy of Anne Butler

Athol Willoughby: born Campbell Town, Tasmania, 1 September 1932; died Melbourne, Victoria, 19 July 2020

Read more about Athol Willoughby at these links: Athol Willoughby. Lifetime Achievement Award 2018; Athol Willoughby. An oral history; Dance diary. March 2013 (on Walter Gore’s ballet The Crucifix—scroll down!).
Please note that Athol Willoughby’s oral history interview for the National Library is not at present available online. This reflects certain permissions that Willoughby placed on public use of the material. I hope the situation may be able to be changed. It is a wonderful interview, full of fascinating anecdotes as well as being a good outline of Willoughby’s career.

Michelle Potter, 21 July 2020

Featured image: Portrait of Athol Willoughby, 2018. Photo: © Michela Dent-Causon

Cy-gents. Queensland Ballet, 2020

60 dancers: 60 stories. Queensland Ballet. Week 4

Art must prevail

Very belatedly, here are my thoughts on the fourth and final week of Queensland Ballet’s month of fundraising.

What a treat was the hilarious Cy-gents. And what a wonderful name! The Dance of the Little Swans from Swan Lake Act II has long been used, most often by men dressed in tutus and showing hairy legs, as a caricature of ballet. But QB’s Cy-gents was something else. Dressed in male practice attire, with the addition of a couple of baseball caps worn backwards (sideways perhaps is better), Liam Geck, Ari Thompson, Luke Dimattina and Kohei Iwamato danced to an arrangement by Janette Mulligan of the Petipa choreography for those Little Swans.

Each dancer performed in a different setting but editing of the four individual performances meant that sometimes we saw different arrangements on screen—each of the four dancing separately across the screen, four shots of one dancer, or some variation of that. Choreographically it was close enough to what we know and love but far enough away that it looked (mostly) as if it were made for male dancers. And the ending! I’ve never seen a Swan Lake cygnet fall into the ‘lake’ before. A very special three minutes or so.

I was taken too by Laura Tosar’s Nostalgia, which she said was danced in ‘the living room of her youth’. What an amazing house that was. It had to have been a set-up? But whatever, it was fascinating.

Laura Tosar in Nostalgia. Queensland Ballet, 2020

Queensland Ballet’s initiative in setting up this project, and the input from the dancers, music team and other support staff throughout June was absolutely brilliant. I only managed to mention around one sixth of what was on offer, but every video clip had a special quality. The company deserves every dollar it attracted.

Michelle Potter, 13 July 2020

Featured image: Cy-gents. Queensland Ballet, 2020

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson in 'Giselle'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Dance diary. June 2020

  • On streaming

The current corona virus situation has given us many opportunities to see streamed productions from many of the world’s best companies. Some have been thrilling, and have been works, or have involved casts, that I am unlikely to see outside this streaming arrangement. One or two, however, have left me wondering.

The Australian Ballet’s decision to stream its 1986 production of Giselle was an odd one I thought. In the thirty-four years since 1986 much has changed in terms of filming techniques and in what we expect from dancers. I was underwhelmed in particular by the poor quality of the footage and I was not a fan of the characterisations of the leading characters, except perhaps by that of Paul de Masson as Hilarion. Techniques are stronger now as well.

It was also touted as Maina Gielgud’s production, which it no doubt was even it was staged by Colin Peasley. But Gielgud had been director of the company for just a few years in 1986 and, having seen more recent productions that have involved her input, most recently in 2018 but also in 2015, her production has grown in so many ways. Could we not have had something closer to 2020? The 1986 recording was a poor choice.

Then there was Smuin Ballet’s staging of Stanton Welch’s Indigo. I have often wondered about Indigo made originally for Houston Ballet in 1999. Its title seemed curious: how do you make a ballet about a colour? Well of course the title referred to the colour of the costumes, although that is also something of a curiosity to my mind. That aside, I was really disappointed by Welch’s choreography. It was filled with jerky staccato movements and I longed for a bit of lyrical relief. It also seemed to sit awkwardly, I thought, on the physiques of the Smuin dancers. But at least now I have seen it and needn’t muse about the title any more.

  • Australian activity in New Zealand

It is interesting to note that two Australian choreographers are to have their work performed in the coming months by Royal New Zealand Ballet, which will shortly return to full-scale performing. Alice Topp’s Aurum will be part of a mixed bill program called Venus Rising. The program is due to take place in August/September and will also feature works by Twyla Tharp, Andrea Schermoly, and Sarah Foster-Sproull.

See these links for my reviews of Aurum: Melbourne (2018), Sydney (2019). In both cases Aurum was part of a triple bill called Verve.

Andrew Killian and Dimity Azoury in Alice Topp's 'Aurum'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud
Andrew Killian and Dimity Azoury in Alice Topp’s Aurum. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Later, in October through to December, Danielle Rowe, former principal with the Australian Ballet and now making a name for herself as a choreographer, will present her new Sleeping Beauty, also for Royal New Zealand Ballet.

For more information see the website of Royal New Zealand Ballet.

  • Australian Dance Awards

The closing date for nominations for the 2019 and 2020 Australian Dance Awards has been extended. These two sets of awards cover work presented in 2018 and 2019. The closing date is now 20 July. For further information and to nominate follow this link.

Michelle Potter, 30 June 2020

Featured image: Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson in Giselle. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson in 'Giselle'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

A little closer to 2020!

60 dancers: 60 stories. Queensland Ballet. Week 3

Art must prevail

The standout performance for me in the third week of Queensland Ballet’s fundraising project was A Day at the Theatre. Choreographed and performed by Company Artists Alyssa Kelty and D’Arcy Brazier, it was a jazzy danced tour around QPAC from the stage door to the stage itself and around the parkland areas outside the QPAC buildings. I especially loved the way Kelty and Brazier paused next to a poster in the tunnel/walkway just past the stage door, which showed a quote from actor/writer Tim Minchin: ‘Define yourself by what you love.’ And the equally jazzy music the dancers used was an original piece composed and performed by Brett Sturdy from QB’s great music team.

But I also loved Awakening Passion choreographed by Jette Parker Young Artist Lachlan Mair who just recently joined Queensland Ballet from the Australian Ballet School. Mair says his contribution ‘explores [his] journey of discovery for [his] love for this art form’. He has managed to encapsulate so much within his short piece, which takes us from tentative steps at the barre to a a final reverence. I look forward to following Mair’s ongoing journey. His ability to extend and use every part of his body as he moves promises much.

Lachlan Mair in a moment from Awakening Passion

And as I post this, Queensland Ballet has just passed its goal of raising $1,000,000 to keep its artists and staff employed and to ‘keep the magic alive’. Exceptional!

Michelle Potter, 28 June 2020

Featured image: Alyssa Kelty and D’Arcy Brazier in a moment from A Day at the Theatre