Sir Jon Trimmer in open conversation with Garry Trinder

by Jennifer Shennan
9 July 2019. New Zealand School of Dance         

An armchair conversation with Sir Jon Trimmer was the brainchild of Garry Trinder, Director of New Zealand School of Dance. It was held in the theatre at Te Whaea, mid-week of the school’s winter intensive national seminar, so that many young students, parents and teachers could attend. It was also open to the public and a large contingent of Friends and friends, colleagues, admirers, teachers and audience-goers took the chance to express publicly their appreciation of, and thanks for, this dancer’s phenomenal career. It was twilight hour, so a poignant echo that, on innumerable performance nights across the past six decades, warm-up, make-up, dress-up, curtain-up would have been taking place at around the same time. In reviving the memories and pleasures of those performances, the conversation summoned many ghosts, all of them good. No bad ghosts arrived. Love was in the air.

The names of the main players in his early story include: Jonty’s parents and siblings who danced and sang their way around the family home; Pamela Lowe, his older sister whose dance school in Petone he attended; Poul Gnatt who arrived in 1953 like a lightning bolt from afar and established a ballet company on zero resources yet with the highest of aspirations; Russell Kerr, a quiet genius of ballet, music and theatre arts who succeeded him as Artistic Director of the company in 1962, contributing to its growing international recognition; Alexander Grant, our legendary character dancer expatriate; Peggy van Praagh who offered support during the early years of her directorate of The Australian Ballet—including an enterprising initiative whereby several dancers had three-month exchange residencies between the two companies. Jacqui and Jon Trimmer were later invited to dance with The Australian Ballet on an international tour with guest artists Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, and entertaining tales were told of those times.

Harry Haythorne, a subsequent director of New Zealand Ballet, was another Australasian success story. He and Jonty were obviously great mates (‘We both knew all the hit songs and numbers from vaudeville and music-hall era—had a ball outdoing each other’). There’s no better illustration of that rapport than their twin roles in A Servant of Two Masters, Gray Veredon’s classic commission with inspired design by Kristian Fredrikson. The Film Archive’s copy of that commedia dell’ arte ballet is still worth viewing for the dazzling line-up of its stellar cast—Trimmer and Haythorne, Kerry-Anne Gilberd, Cathy Goss, Karin Wakefield, Lee Patrice, Eric Languet, Warren Douglas, Kilian O’Callaghan. The earlier romp, The Ragtime Dance Company to Scott Joplin, was another of Veredon’s and Fredrikson’s hits. Bernard Hourseau’s Carmina Burana and Ashley Killar’s choreographies No Exit and Dark Waves also gave Jon some of his strongest roles. Many of the heritage works of the Company’s repertoire exist only in memory, but are no less real for that, and a number of them could do with re-visiting.

Jon Trimmer as the wealthy Pantalone and Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi in 'A Servant of Two Masters'
Sir Jon Trimmer (left) as Pantalone and Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi in Gray Veredon’s A Servant of Two Masters. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1989. Photographer not known

Christopher Hampson’s Romeo & Juliet, and Cinderella, Stanton Welch’s Madame Butterfly, Liam Scarlettt’s Midsummer Night’s Dream are further impeccable works that secured RNZB’s reputation for full-length choreographies, combining all the power that dancing, music and design can offer. If asked to name one indelible image of Jon Trimmer on stage, I’d probably first lodge a conscientious objection—What, only one?’ but then describe his power as the Duke of Verona in R&J. He strode in, on a high, elevated back platform, glared down first at the Montagues, then at the Capulets—at everyone stunned by the horror of what had played out, then again at both houses —turned and strode off. His demand that warring end and a truce be declared, delivered in so few gestures, carried all the power of Shakespeare’s tragedy. The timing and the minimalism of those few moments on stage, said it all.

We should tell our grandchildren what we saw. Find the music, tell them the story, show them photos, keep the dress-ups box at hand, take them to a matinee, suggest they draw and write afterwards what they saw, maybe send a postcard to their favourite dancer. Who knows where it might lead, but it can only be a good place.

The clearly important international parts of Jon’s career, with Sadler’s Wells Ballet, and Royal Danish Ballet, were referenced, (‘It certainly helped in Denmark to have Poul Gnatt’s mantle on my shoulders. He was still vividly remembered by everyone there—and clearly had been one of their top dancers’) but it is overwhelmingly apparent that the Trimmers’ commitment and loyalty to the Royal New Zealand Ballet has shaped their lives, and that of so many younger dancers and colleagues here whose artistry they have helped to develop. For that we say Thank You.

Garry asked: ‘When did it first occur to you that the recreation and pleasure you took in dancing as a boy could become your life work, your career?’ Jon replied: ‘Well, you know I’m not sure I can say. I just kept on doing what I loved.’

Garry Trinder (right) asks a question of Sir Jon Trimmer. New Zealand School of Dance, Wellington, 2019.

‘What he loved’ included Poul’s pedigree productions of Bournonville ballets—La Sylphide and Napoli; the talisman Prismatic Variations, Russell’s Prince Igor, Petrouchka, Swan Lake, Giselle, Coppélia, Christmas Carol, Peter Pan; interesting new work with Russell Kerr in an interlude at Auckland Dance Centre; plus 100 more… Servant, Ragtime Dance Company, La Fille mal Gardée, Cinderella, Romeo & Juliet … who’s counting and where do we stop? Clearly this is significant repertoire that earned the Company an international recognition and reputation, as well as its royal charter.

The sagas of company politics, funding and management highs and lows over the years were referred to in the briefest of terms, as also the devastating challenge of the fire that destroyed almost all the company’s resources in 1967. The abiding impression one gains is of the resilience and determination to somehow hold on to the reins—with Poul Gnatt, Beatrice Ashton, Richard Campion, Russell Kerr and the Trimmers as the heroes in those early battles.

Young dancers listening will have taken on board Jon’s words about the importance of breathing while moving—to shape and sustain an arabesque, to support a jump, to control a pirouette … ‘oh and the music of course, that helps enormously.’

Another tip, this one he had from Russell Kerr—’Go and sit outside a café, watch people as they walk by. Study their gait, their timing, how they hold their body. That will tell you much about their character which you can then put into your performance, make it lifelike.’

Jon: ‘I stopped dancing princes at a certain age but went on to old men, old women and witches. Look, it’s been just wonderful to work with all those talented people.’ Jon, one could guess it’s been just as wonderful for them, as it has been for us too.

A friend in the audience commented later—’One thing that struck me was his presence when speaking. When Trinder was talking Jonty seemed like just a genial old man, but as soon as he started to speak you couldn’t take your eyes, or attention, away from him.’ That magnetic presence and practice of paying attention has also worked in the opposite direction and been a way of life for Jon for years. He has watched countless RNZB rehearsals and performances with the most attentive eye, and always found a way of gently encouraging younger dancers, suggesting a tip to a colleague as to how the smallest shift in physics of limbs or expression of eyes or face might enhance their performance. Such generosity in the competitive world of ballet arts is rare, but makes the man worth his weight in gold.

There are more stories to be found in Jon’s recently published memoir, Why Dance?and details of the Company productions are listed in the three published histories of the RNZBallet—at 25, 50 and at 60 years.

Jon has also explored pottery and painting as further means of expression. He is a legendary gardener —and, one senses, a deeply happy man Of course he’s not stupid and wants a much better world for dancers, but the knowledge that he has used his own given talents to the maximum has allowed him to remain positive throughout a career that has seen some tortured ups and downs of politics and make-overs during the decades (every ballet company knows them). His humour is quick but never biting, always gentle with wry amusement, a rich sense of irony, patience in waiting for time to resolve troubles of the political variety, and truckloads of performance memories.

Also apparent is a deep and genuine love of his country—’Oh it was wonderful to travel through the whole countryside as we toured everywhere in the early days—we saw so much, and made so many wonderful friends as billets. We’re still friends.’

Bill Sheat, a pillar in many areas of the arts community in New Zealand, says: ‘During my long term as Chairman of the Board of RNZB I was lucky enough to see Jon T. perform countless times. Whenever he made his first appearance there would be a wave of whispered delight as the audience recognised him. It was a mixture of love, ownership and appreciation.’

Tuesday evening was a sweetheart affair—no notes, no microphones, no bullshit, no self-aggrandisement, no lecturing, no breathless promotions, no shouting and whistling, just an ocean of smiling faces and sustained, warm applause that is echoing yet, and holding history. There is no future without the past.

So what did Jonty do? He joined in the applause of course.

Jennifer Shennan, 12 July 2019

Featured image: Sir Jon Trimmer (left) makes a point during his conversation with Garry Trinder. New Zealand School of Dance, Wellington, 2019

Please consider supporting the Australian Cultural Fund project to raise money to have hi-res images made for a book on the career of designer Kristian Fredrikson, which is heading towards publication. See the project, which closes on 30 July 2019, at this link.

Dance diary. June 2019

  • Shona Dunlop MacTavish (1920-2019)

The death of Shona Dunlop MacTavish in Dunedin, New Zealand, on 18 June at the age of 99 sent me back to her autobiography, Leap of faith. It was published in 1997 and the early sections give a fascinating account of her schooldays in New Zealand and her time in Europe over four years beginning 1935. Those four years included her introduction to dance and in Leap of faith Dunlop MacTavish gives her thoughts on her early teachers, one of whom was Gertrud Bodenwieser. Of Bodenwieser and how her classes affected people, Dunlop MacTavish writes

Frau Gerty, as she was known by her students, was a small erect figure who, when not demonstrating, examined her class through an intimidating lorgnette … Although nervous at first, I began to relax and enjoy myself as it appeared she was taking little notice of me. Soon I was swept up with the rest of the class—a mass of whirling bodies with ecstatic faces.

The book continues through Dunlop MacTavish’s life in in South America on tour with Bodenwieser’s dancers; follows her experiences in Australia, China and Africa (the latter two with her missionary husband Donald MacTavish); and then moves on to the Philippines. The story then comes back to New Zealand and her home city of Dunedin where she set up a number of dance-related initiatives.

Dunlop MacTavish’s choreographic output was extensive and a list of her choreographies in Australia and New Zealand forms an appendix to Leap of faith. It is remarkable list. As one example, the first solo she created for herself was Two souls alas reside within my breast. Along with others of her early works, she danced it when her husband-to-be came to the Bodenwieser studio in Sydney to be introduced to her dancing. In her oral history interview for the National Library of Australia she explains the origin of the work:

I’d seen a young man in a nightclub with a very scarred face, beautiful on one side, all scarred on the other. It suddenly gave me the image of how many of us actually have two personalities. The title of the work was taken from some writing by Goethe. [Faust, First Part]

Shona Dunlop in a study for Two souls alas reside within my breast, c. 1945. Photo: Clifton Firth. From a card using material from the National Dance Archive of New Zealand

For more on the remarkable life of Shona Dunlop MacTavish, here is a link to an oral history interview I recorded with her for the National Library on 13 April 1998. It is available online both as audio and as a transcript. Leap of faith is also definitely worth a re-read.

  • Queen’s Birthday Honours list

Congratulations to Li Cunxin, Meryl Tankard and Régis Lansac, who were all recognised in the 2019 Queen’s birthday honours list. Li and Tankard received an AO, Lansac an OAM.

In a recent conversation with Patrick Harding-Irmer and Anca Frankenhaeuser I also heard that Robert Cohan, founding artistic director of London Contemporary Dance School and London Contemporary Dance Theatre, had also been honoured in England. Cohan influenced the careers of many Australian dancers and choreographers. He was knighted!

With regard to the Australian awards, Lansac’s work is not often acknowledged as much and as appropriately as it should be, so it is especially pleasing to see that he has been recognised. Below are a few of many photographs taken by Lansac that are part of a collection held in the National Library of Australia. His career has crossed boundaries as these images show. Here, too, is a link to an article that appeared in the now-defunct National Library of Australia News, which gives a little insight into Lansac’s early Australian collaborations and commissions. See also the tag Régis Lansac on this website.

Below left: Pierre Thibaudeau of Entr’acte Theatre in a solo performance, Sydney 1985. Below right: Richard Talonga of One Extra Company in Kai Tai Chan’s Midnight Moon, Sydney 1984.

Above left: Portrait of dancer Mary Duchesne, 1987. Above right: Tim Coldwell, Circus Oz, 1982. All photos: © Régis Lansac

  • Dancing under the southern skies

A new book by Valerie Lawson has just been published. I have not yet had time to read the copy I have but, flicking through the pages, there are some great photographs in it that, as far as I am aware, have never been published before. Lawson also sets the scene for what is (or rather what is not) contained in the book when she writes: ‘Dancing under the southern skies is not a detailed description of professional ballet performances in Australia—the dates, the theatres, the casts, the designers—although the detail is important and, one day, might become a dictionary of ballet.’ The next paragraph in the introduction explains what is included. But I will leave that for your further reading!

Further information is on the publisher’s site.

  • Press for June 2019

‘Vale Jonathan Taylor’, Dance Australia, June/July 2019, p. 13. PDF at this link

Michelle Potter, 30 June 2019

Please consider supporting my Australian Cultural Fund project to raise money to have hi-res images made for my book on the career of designer Kristian Fredrikson, which is heading towards publication. See the project, which closes on 30 July 2019, at this link. Donations are tax deductible.

Featured image: Evelyn Ippen, Bettina Vernon, Emmy Towsey and Shona Dunlop, Bodenwieser Ballet, Sydney c. 1939. Photo: Max Dupain

Dance diary. May 2019

  • David McAllister to retire

The news for May is headlined by the announcement that David McAllister, artistic director of the Australian Ballet since 2002, will retire at the end of 2020. McAllister has always been generous in situations that are about dance but fall outside performances. He launched, for example, two of my books, A Collector’s Book of Australian Dance and Dame Maggie Scott. A Life in Dance. In this month’s featured image (above) he is seen in the Chunky Move studios in Melbourne launching A Collector’s Book. The banner on the left shows an image that appears in the book and that was taken by Greg Barrett.

I have also enjoyed seeing McAllister at various conferences, including the first BOLD Festival held in Canberra in 2017.

Who will be the next director? The names that have been mentioned in the press so far (I have arranged them alphabetically by family name) include Leanne Benjamin, David Hallberg, Li Cunxin, Graeme Murphy, and Stanton Welch. One or two of them have declared they are not interested (not sure if I necessarily believe that). I have one or two others in my mind but I won’t mention them here! I do hope, however, that whoever survives the selection process and becomes McAllister’s successor will be someone who will be audacious in repertoire choices.

  • Shaun Parker and Company

In September 2010, dancer (and singer in the counter tenor mode) Shaun Parker registered a name: Shaun Parker and Company. Next year the company that bears that name will celebrate its 10th anniversary with, I believe, a special program.

The company has just recently returned from the Middle East and Austria where Parker’s most recent production, KING, was performed. In the meantime, Parker is now working on a new show for young people, IN THE ZONE, which will premiere in Sydney this coming September. It will feature street dancer Libby Montilla and the technology of AirSticks.

Scene from KING, Shaun Parker and Company, 2019. Photo: © Prudence Upton
  • Archibald Prize 2019

Among the finalists for the 2019 Archibald Prize, Australia’s well-known portrait prize hosted by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, was a portrait entitled Mao’s Last Dancer by Chinese-born artist Jun Chen. Chen, who is currently based in Brisbane, was commissioned last year by the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra to paint a portrait of Li Cunxin, artistic director of Queensland Ballet. It was one of twenty portraits commissioned to celebrate the Gallery’s twentieth anniversary. Chen followed up with a second portrait of Li and entered it for the Archibald Prize. While it didn’t take first place it was good to see a portrait of a dancer among the 2019 finalists. See all the finalists here.

Mao’s Last Dancer: Jun Chen’s portrait of Li Cunxin
  • Following new posts

I have had a number of requests recently asking how to join up to receive notification of new posts. Here’s how to do it:

1, Make a comment by going to the ‘Leave a reply’ form, which you will find at the end of every post.
2. Before hitting the ‘Post comment’ field, check the box that says ‘Notify me of new posts by email’. (Make sure you have also filled out your name and email address. A website address is not necessary).
3. After you have submitted the comment you will receive a follow-up email asking you to confirm. It will say ‘Confirm follow’. Once you have clicked on this field you should begin to receive notifications of new posts.

Michelle Potter, 31 May 2019

Featured image: David McAllister launching A Collector’s Book of Australian Dance, Melbourne 2003. Photo: © Lynkushka

Detail on a vase, Royal Apartments, Palazzo dei Normanni, Palermo

Dance diary. April 2019

  • Mirramu turns 30

When Elizabeth Dalman’s reign as founding artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre came dramatically to an end in 1975, she went to Italy where she spent the next decade. Not long after her return to Australia she moved to a new home on a property on Lake George, close to Canberra. There she created Mirramu Creative Arts Centre, which has just celebrated its 30th anniversary. See this link for a list of Dalman’s incredible range of activities over recent years, at Mirramu and elsewhere. Those activities stand as a testament to Dalman’s total commitment to dance.

  • Bodenwieser Dance Centre

Many in the Australian dance world will remember the Bodenwieser Dance Centre on City Road in Chippendale, Sydney. The building is up for sale and will go to auction on 3 May. This link takes you to a petition to save the building for future use by the dance community. Consider signing.

  • D H Lawrence on dance

It has been a long time since I read anything by D. H. Lawrence—it goes way back to English II at Sydney University. But in looking for something to read while on holidays, I bought Lawrence’s Twilight in Italy (first published in 1916). In the following extract he is describing a dance by locals from the area around Lake Garda in the northern part of Italy.

‘… It is a strange dance, strange and lilting, and changing as the music changed. But it had always a kind of leisurely dignity, a trailing kind of polka-waltz, intimate, passionate, yet never hurried, never violent in its passion, always becoming more intense. The women’s faces changed to a sort of transported wonder, they were in the very wonder of delight. From the soft bricks of the floor the red ochre rose in a thin cloud of dust, making hazy the shadowy dancers; the three musicians, in their black hats and their coats, sat obscurely in the corner, making a music that came quicker and quicker, making a dance that grew swifter and more intense, more subtle, the men seeming to fly and to implicate another strange inter-rhythmic dance into the women, the women drifting and palpitating as if their souls shook and resounded to a breeze …’

I have cut the quote above in mid-sentence, as that particular sentence is VERY long, probably too long. I must admit, however, that I enjoyed reading Lawrence’s thoughts and his mode of expression. But would we write like that about dance these days?

  • Link to articles and reviews published in The Canberra Times

I was somewhat shocked to discover that I can no longer make links to online versions of my articles and reviews published by The Canberra Times. At this stage pretty much every Canberra Times link on this website now goes to a page with the news of the current day. My predilection for providing online links via The Canberra Times’ (old) website goes back to May 2013 so it will be something of a task now to remove those links. Taking readers to the latest news of the day is useless for my purposes. Luckily I have kept a paper copy (what is paper you may ask?) of everything published. So, while a plug has been pulled, not everything has gone down the sink.

  • Press for April 2019

‘Farewell to a grand dame.’ Obituary for Dame Margaret Scott. Dance Australia, April/May 2019, pp. 13–14. PDF at this link.

‘Sydney Dance Company turns 50.’ The Canberra Times/Panorama, 20 April 2019, p. 7. Expanded version at this link.

Michelle Potter, 30 April 2019

Featured image: Detail on a vase, Royal Apartments, Palazzo dei Normanni, Palermo, Sicily. Photo: Neville Potter

Detail on a vase, Royal Apartments, Palazzo dei Normanni, Palermo
Artists of Sydney Dance Company in Rafael Bonachela's 'Cinco', 2019. Photo: Pedro Greig

Sydney Dance Company turns 50

Below is the text of an article I was commissioned to write about the Canberra season of Sydney Dance Company’s first program for 2019, Bonachela/Nankivell/Lane. It was meant also to include a note on the company’s 50 year history. Sadly and disappointingly, a truncated version, with no images, appeared in The Canberra Times. It was not what I was led to believe would happen.

Several people in the dance community were generous in their support of what I was writing, so I am posting the story as it was meant to be, and I’m including some images: an article on dance without images hardly makes sense.

Sydney Dance Company turns 50 in 2019 and it’s time to commemorate the exceptional endurance of one of the country’s favourite contemporary dance companies. It’s time, too, to celebrate Sydney Dance Company’s bold commitment to the new in the performing arts. The company’s current artistic director, Rafael Bonachela, calls that commitment ‘the continued investment the company has made in new Australian work over its 50-year history’. 

Shane Carroll, former dancer with the company during the years it was led by Graeme Murphy, has been engaged in digging deep into the history of the company. She has come up with some astonishing figures. In addition to the creation of 250 new works, over 50 years Sydney Dance Company has commissioned new scores from 38 composers—the very first going to Peter Sculthorpe in 1971. It has also commissioned 124 different designers, employed more than 260 dancers, and has shown the work of about 90 different national and international choreographers.

‘It’s an amazing contribution,’ Carroll says. ‘The company has been a leader in developing a broad view of contemporary dance in Australia and the longevity of the company is incredible. It has also often been a rollicking ride. There have been no safe productions and funding has often been shaky. But the company has just persisted and has continued to push boundaries.’

Sydney Dance Company began quite modestly in 1969 as Ballet in a Nutshell. It was the idea of the then artistic director of the Australian Ballet, Peggy van Praagh, and was led by a foundation member of that company, Suzanne Musitz. Her small team consisted of some dancers from the Australian Ballet School and one pianist. It was essentially a dance in education company taking dance into schools, initially secondary schools in Sydney. A little later, to attract more boys to its sessions, the name was changed to Athletes and Dancers. 

The group grew into a fully-fledged dance company named the Dance Company (NSW). After being led by Musitz for another few years and then, briefly, by Dutch choreographer Jaap Flier, Graeme Murphy was appointed artistic director at the end of 1976. With his artistic associate (now wife) Janet Vernon, Murphy led the company for 30 years. The name change to Sydney Dance Company came in 1979.

The contribution made by Murphy and Vernon over that period raised the profile of the company to that of an internationally respected one whose repertoire was hugely diverse. In the early years of his directorship, Murphy’s choreography included the first evening length work by an Australian contemporary dance company with Poppy (1978), which looked, inventively, at the life of Jean Cocteau; Glimpses (1976), a work based on the art and writing of Norman Lindsay using a score by Margaret Sutherland; and a very daring Daphnis and Chloe (1980) with designs by Kristian Fredrikson to music by Ravel. Murphy’s commitment to new work, often with an Australian theme, and to collaborating with Australian composers and designers, continued until 2007 when he and Vernon resigned.

Rafael Bonachela joined the company as artistic director in 2009. His first program in Sydney Dance Company’s 50th anniversary year consists of a new work of his own, Cinco; another brand-new work, Neon Aether, from Gabrielle Nankivell; and WOOF from Melanie Lane, which was first seen in 2017 as part of Sydney Dance Company’s experimental choreographic season, New Breed. Canberra audiences will see this program in May.

Cinco, which means five in Spanish, has been created on just five dancers. It is danced to five movements of a string quartet by Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera, which ‘by chance’ says Bonachela, was written in the 1950s.  Bonachela admits that there is something about numbers that fascinates him. He loves the idea that, in this case, the emphasis on the number five is unusually significant. Fashion design Bianca Spender has created the costumes for Cinco. Bonachela says he has admired her work for some time, especially the way her clothes are both structured and fluid. Spender’s Cinco costumes move beautifully with the body, and play with colour and shape.

Holly Doyle, Chloe Leong and Charmene Yap in Cinco, Sydney Dance Company 2019. Photo:
© Wendell Teodoro

In 2014 Gabrielle Nankivell made a powerful, idiosyncratic statement with Wildebeest for Sydney Dance Company’s New Breed season. Now she is back with Neon Aether, which was inspired by aspects of the solar system and science fiction. Nankivell’s partner in life, Luke Smiles, has created an electronic score, which is punctured by voices announcing instructions relating to a journey in space. Those instructions coincide with dramatic blackouts from lighting designer Damien Cooper.

Artists of Sydney Dance Company in 'Neon Aether'. 2019. Photo: Pedro Greig
Artists of Sydney Dance Company in Neon Aether. 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Melanie Lane had a smash hit with WOOF in the New Breed season of 2017, so much so that Bonachela has included it in this 50th anniversary program. It too has a commissioned score, this time by Clark, who is Lane’s partner in life and who prefers to be known, theatrically at least, by just one name. Bonachela describes WOOF as ‘brilliant, powerful and about community and belonging, with a touch of vulnerability.’ Watching it on opening night in Sydney in March it reminded me a little of an absorbing, modern-day Rite of Spring.

Artists of Sydney Dance Company in WOOF, 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig

There are several Canberra connections to celebrate in this current season. Bonachela is now a patron of Canberra’s youth dance organisation, QL2. He accepted the invitation last year, mentioning that he wanted to mentor young dancers and adding how impressed he had been with dancers who had come through the various QL2 programs and then joined Sydney Dance Company.

Then there is Melanie Lane. Now with an international reputation, Lane grew up in Canberra and trained at the National Capital Ballet School when it was directed by Janet Karin. Lane recalls Karin’s ongoing interest in new choreography and was inspired to make her own dances as a result. Karin says she felt sure that Lane would go on to choreograph and adds that as a dancer Lane was ‘fluid, sensuous, strong and feminine all in one.’ On opening night of this anniversary program, WOOF was greeted with huge applause and even had Bonachela himself standing, shouting and whistling. Composer of WOOF, Luke Smiles, has a strong connection with Canberra too. He performed as a dancer with Sue Healey’s Vis-à-vis Dance Canberra back in the 1990s.

In addition, Sydney Dance Company, under its various different names, has been touring to Canberra for almost the entire 50 years of its existence. In fact, the company’s first season under the name Dance Company (NSW) was in 1971 in Canberra, when Love 201 with that commissioned score from Peter Sculthorpe was presented.

The program Bonachela/Nankivell/Lane is Bonachela’s tribute to Sydney Dance Company’s commitment to the new in dance. But Sydney Dance Company’s commitment to Canberra is definitely something that also deserves to be celebrated by local audiences. Don’t miss it.

Michelle Potter, 20 April 2019

Featured image: Artists of Sydney Dance Company in Rafael Bonachela’s Cinco, 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Artists of Sydney Dance Company in Rafael Bonachela's 'Cinco', 2019. Photo: Pedro Greig
Portrait of Jonathan Taylor. Photo © Grant Hancock

Jonathan Taylor (1941–2019)

I’ve never done anything else but dance … *

Jonathan Taylor, dancer, choreographer and artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre from 1976 to 1985, has died in Melbourne at the age of 77.

Taylor was born in Manchester, England, where he began tap and ballet lessons as a very young boy. As a teenager he was taught in London by Andrew Hardie at the International School of Dancing. His professional career began when he danced in musicals and pantomime shows in London. At that stage he was asked to change his name for theatrical purposes from John (his birth name) to Jonathan—a union representative discovered there was another John Taylor, a juggler, on the circuit. 

In 1959 Taylor joined a company started by Leonide Massine with which Harry Haythorne was also involved, the Nervi International Ballet, before joining Amsterdam Ballet (later Dutch National Ballet), again with the involvement of Haythorne. In Amsterdam Taylor met his wife-to-be, Ariette van Rossen, also a dancer with Amsterdam Ballet, and shortly afterwards they moved to England. In England they joined Ballet Rambert, where Marie Rambert was fond of referring to Jonathan as ‘Jack’. Taylor toured extensively with the Rambert company, and also began his choreographic career with Diversities, made for Ballet Rambert in 1966, ‘Tis Goodly Sport in 1970, and Listen to the Music in 1972. He left Rambert in 1972 and took up a freelance career in 1973.

Taylor first came to Australia in 1975 to work with Ballet Victoria, then directed jointly by Garth Welch and Laurel Martyn. He was to stage his Listen to the Music, much admired by Peggy van Praagh, and create a new work. The new work turned out to be Star’s End and it was a huge hit in Melbourne. As a result, Taylor was invited back to Australia to be interviewed for the position of artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre in Adelaide. He was subsequently offered the position and arrived in Australia in 1976 with his wife and three children. He also brought with him Joe Scoglio and Julia Blaikie, close friends from his Rambert days, who joined him and Ariette Taylor to make up a foursome who would go on to make Australian Dance Theatre one of the most remarkable companies in the Australian contemporary dance world. Scoglio acted as assistant director, Blaikie as ballet mistress. Both also performed as dancers with the company.

Julia Blaikie and dancers of Australian Dance Theatre in Flibbertigibbet, 1978. Photo: © Jeff Busby.

Under Taylor the repertoire of Australian Dance Theatre included works from choreographers with whom Taylor had worked in England, in particular Christopher Bruce and Norman Morrice, as well as new works of his own. Some of his own works had Australian themes that drew on an English approach to Australian manners and attitudes—Incident a Bull Creek for example. Others, such as Wildstars, reflected his background in London with popular entertainment—many thought I’d sold my soul to the devil, he has remarked.** The company also had a strong emphasis on workshops and works for children, the latter led by Ariette Taylor who had begun working with children in London before the move to Australia. The company was initially jointly funded by the South Australian and Victorian governments. It toured widely in Australia and internationally.

Alan Israel (left) and John Nobbs in Christopher Bruce’s Black Angels. Australian Dance Theatre, c. 1980. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia.

Taylor left Australian Dance Theatre, unhappily, at the end of 1985. He and his family moved to Melbourne shortly afterwards. There he worked freelance, which included (at the invitation of Anne Woolliams) a brief period as choreographer in residence at the Victorian College of the Arts. He also worked in Holland with Netherlands Dance Theatre, as well as in a variety of other countries, and with several Australian companies including Kai Tai Chan’s One Extra Company and Maggie Sietsma’s Expressions Dance Company. In 1988 he was appointed Dean of the Victorian College of the Arts and in this capacity led both the tertiary and secondary schools until 1997. During those ten years he continued to choreograph, including in New Zealand where, in 1992, he created Hamlet for Harry Haythorne then directing the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

In the years following his work with the Victorian College of the Arts, Taylor again worked freelance, often in collaboration with Ariette Taylor with Handspan Theatre, where he was a board member from 1993 to 1998, and the Keene-Taylor Theatre Project.

In his recent oral history interview for the National Library of Australia, Taylor spoke of the one regret he had in life, which was that he had never been asked to choreograph for the Australian Ballet. But he also spoke emotionally of what he had especially enjoyed.

I enjoyed coming to Australia and having the ability to be in charge of my own company. It also allowed me not only to choreograph and be a creative person, and when I left the company in 1985 I don’t think they realised they were cutting off creativity as well as a job. I’m sure they didn’t, and that was a great blow. But it was wonderful to not set a standard, but set my standard—the standard of the dancing, the standard of the choreography, and the presentation of the performance.*** Listen to this quote

Jonathan Taylor is survived by his wife Ariette, their children, Ingmar, Juliet and Rebe, and their families.

John (Jonathan) Taylor: born Manchester, England 2 May 1941; died Melbourne Australia, 27 March 2019

Michelle Potter, 3 March 2019

Featured image: Portrait of Jonathan Taylor (detail), n.d. Photo:
© Grant Hancock

All images and oral history extracts used with permission

* Jonathan Taylor, Oral history interview recorded by Michelle Potter, September 2018, Oral History and Folklore Collection, National Library of Australia, TRC 6977
** Ibid.
*** Ibid

2019 Dance Division staff

Dance diary. March 2019

  • Jerome Robbins Dance Division

In March I had the pleasure of being in New York for the first of a number of events to celebrate 75 years since the foundation of what is now the Jerome Robbins Dance Division. In the featured image, curators seated (left to right) are Madeleine Nichols, Michelle Potter, Jan Schmidt and current curator Linda Murray. Current staff are standing. Founding curator Genevieve Oswald was unable to attend and, sadly, died two weeks later in her home in California aged 97.

The event began with a tribute to Gegi Oswald with a screening of various images relating to her work, and with an interview with her by Walter Terry, which she gave at one stage during her more than 40 years as curator. Then we curators were asked to give our responses to several questions posed to us about our time with the Division. It was a nostalgic evening and wonderful to catch up with friends and colleagues to celebrate the work and vision of the Division.

Mind you it was freezing in New York. This is what it looked like in Central Park on 2 March!

Central Park under snow, March 2019
  • BOLD II 2019, Canberra

Circumstances of various kinds meant that I was unable to attend many of this year’s BOLD events. But of the events I did attend I was especially interested in Paige Gordon’s talk ‘Who’s Counting?’ in which she discussed her present work in Perth and related it back to her earlier experiences in Canberra.

It was also a treat to be at Sue Healey’s showing of several of her current initiatives with dance on film. In particular I admired her short film Weerewa. Portrait of a landscape shot in the area of Lake George just north of Canberra and recently shown at Le FiFA festival in Canada.

Still from Weerewa. Portrait of a Landscape

  • A body of work. Dancing to the edge and back a book by David Hallberg

In March I came across David Hallberg’s autobiographical book, which I had not known of previously even though it was first published in 2017. It was of course of particular interest because of Hallberg’s connections with Australia, and in particular with his rehabilitation by the team at the Australian Ballet, Paul Baird Colt, Megan Connelly and Sue Mayes, which he discusses at towards the end of the book.

Hallberg also mentions arriving in Australia for the first time and being taken aback by the beauty of Sydney Harbour from the sky: ‘The Sydney Opera House and its surroundings, first viewed from fifteen thousand feet in the air, trumped all photos I had ever seen. Here was Australia!’ It reminded me of the photo of Hallberg taking a pose on the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House, and of seeing him dance in Cinderella in 2013.

David Hallberg in costume for the Prince in 'Cinderella'. Photo: Wendell Teodoro, 2013
David Hallberg in costume for the Prince in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella. Photo: © Wendell Teodoro, 2013

His book is also fascinating for its insights into the exhausting schedule of those like Hallberg who travel constantly between engagements.

  • Bonchela/Nankivell/Lane

My review of Sydney Dance Company’s latest show, Bonachela/Nankivell/Lane is in the pipeline (and late due to other commitments including a preview piece on the show for The Canberra Times). It’s coming soon but I can say now that I was stunned by Melanie Lane’s thrilling WOOF.

Artists of Sydney Dance Company in Melanie Lane’s WOOF, 2019. Photo:
© Pedro Greig
  • Press for March 2019

‘Indigenous fusion fizzles with styles.’ Preview of Djuki mala. The Canberra Times, 27 March 2019, p. 26. Online version

Michelle Potter, 31 March 2019

This week in New Zealand

There’s only one dance to report on from New Zealand this week—the haka taparahi, performed in the road in Christchurch, to leaders and members of the Muslim community, by members of Black Power, the bikers gang who do not ordinarily appear in public to demonstrate emotion in a dance. But these are not ordinary times.

A haka like that is done to challenge some force in opposition, to threaten and to conquer it, to annihilate it. Pukana! In this case the force was the hate-filled act of massacre and attack on hundreds of Muslims at prayer by a white supremacist among us, killing 50 of them, and wounding as many more. At the same time the haka exhorts people to kia kaha, to be strong, against whatever tide is threatening to overwhelm them. Pukana!

The country is devastated, struck down in grief and disbelief. In truth we are struggling with how to choreograph expression of that. To date there are millions of flowers lying silently against the walls of mosques, in parks and gardens, on street corners, on beaches countrywide. Candles are burning along human chains of witnesses, and from the windows of shops and houses.

We are undone, but we will be back. This Friday, Gamelan Padhang Moncar of Indonesian heritage will play at Victoria University to accompany visiting dancers from Bali. The gamelan will be led by Budi Putra, whose good friend was gunned down at the mosque last Friday. This performance will echo that haka, and we will not be undone.

(TVNZ website carries footage of the haka by Black Power on Sunday 17 March)

Jennifer Shennan, Tuesday 19 March 20

Memorial for Dame Margaret Scott

15 March 2019. State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

Dame Margaret Scott was farewelled with style and grace, and more than a little bit of emotion, in a memorial event arranged by the Australian Ballet and the Australian Ballet School and presented in Melbourne on 15 March 2019.

It began with an initial surprise as we entered the auditorium of the State Theatre. I wondered why we were asked to enter through the door at the back of the auditoriun. Well, it was so that we would properly enjoy the guard of honour made by two rows of young dancers from the Australian Ballet School, the girls dressed in simple white tutus and the boys in black tights and white shirts. They were lined up on each side of the auditorium stretching pretty much from the last row of the stalls down to the stage. On the stage a giant screen had been lowered and we saw an image of a smiling Maggie, full of the joy of life. And standing in the middle of a row close to the front was Maggie’s husband, Professor Derek Denton, watching as we entered.

Following an introduction from Steven Heathcote and an opening tribute from Maggie’s younger son, Angus Denton, reminiscences were given by several of Maggie’s former students and colleagues including Colin Peasley, David McAllister, Graeme Murphy, Marilyn Rowe and Lisa Pavane. Those who auditioned for her as young and hopeful dancers all admitted to being in awe of Maggie at first, but all continued to say how much they had grown to love and respect her.

Interspersed among the spoken tributes were three short performances. The first was Embrace, created by Paulina Quinteros, which was accompanied on the printed program by the phrase ‘For Dick, Matthew and Angus’, to which was added the words ‘Lucky are those who have experienced the sweetness of loving’. It was danced by Chloe Reynolds and Daniel Savetta (with Steven Heathcote playing a small role). Embrace was followed by the Act II pas de deux from Nutcracker. The Story of Clara, danced by Benedicte Bemet and Jarryd Madden. Level 8 students of the Australian Ballet School gave the third performance, a movement from Stephen Baynes’ Ballo Barocco.

But the most moving moments were left till last when a series of images of Maggie, covering the gamut of her life and career, were flashed across the screen.

The end seemed to have been reached when Jim McFarlane’s iconic image from Nutcracker (above left) appeared and all went dark. But no, Earl Carter’s equally iconic Nutcracker image appeared of Maggie rejoicing in the pleasures she experienced in Act I of Nutcracker (above right). Then, from each side of the stage a procession of students, former dancers and others entered and, in single file, moved to the centre of the stage where each placed a single white rose on the floor in front of Maggie’s image before making a slow exit. A beautiful tribute to an exceptional woman.

A State Memorial for Dame Margaret will be held on 22 March at the National Gallery of Victoria International commencing at 10:00 am. My obituary for her is at this link.

Michelle Potter, 17 March 2019

Featured image: Maggie Scott in Gala Performance (detail with text added). From the Ballet Rambert souvenir program for its 1947–1949 Australian tour

Robert O'Kell as Santa Claus, 2018

Dance diary. February 2019

  • Robert O’Kell

Do you recognise the Santa Claus in the featured image for this post? No? Well it’s Robert O’Kell, former dancer with the Australian Ballet, West Australian Ballet and several overseas companies, who each year delights children as Santa Claus in a department store in Victoria. Following a request from a former pupil of O’Kell, and with the generosity of one of O’Kell’s former dance partners, I was able to contact O’Kell and put his former student in touch with him. He also sent me some information about his career, including some Santa photos.

  • Australian Dance Awards

Earlier in February Ausdance National released the news that the Australian Dance Awards for 2019 have been cancelled. This is a hugely regrettable situation but one that reflects an overall reduction in support for dance, which has been building momentum for some time now. Read the media release at this link.

  • Oral histories

In February I had the pleasure of recording two more oral history interviews. I interviewed Li Cunxin in Brisbane for the National Library of Australia. We focused largely on his career in Australia, picking up where Mao’s Last Dancer finished.

Later, while in Wellington, I interviewed Jennifer Shennan for the Oral History Project of the National Dance Archive of New Zealand.

Jennifer Shennan. Wellington, 2019. Photo: Michelle Potter

Jennifer Shennan. Wellington, 2019. Photo: Michelle Potter

Both were fulfilling experiences in so many ways and what was recorded in both instances reflects the energy and determination of the people who push the boundaries of dance and whose achievements create our dance history.

Here is a link to the list of oral histories I have conducted for various organisations, now stretching back over three decades.

  • Press for February 2019

Critics’ survey 2018. Dance Australia, February–March 2019, pp. 38–40. Online link

‘A powerful yet wordless narrative inspired by dreams.’ Review of Christopher Samuel Carroll’s Icarus. The Canberra Times, 28 February 2019. Online only at this stage. [UPDATE: The print and digital version of this review appeared in The Canberra Times, 1 March 2019, p. 29 as ‘Dreams of flight from a world at war.’]

Michelle Potter, 28 February 2019