June Greenhalgh & Russell Kerr in Prismatic Variations.Choreographed by Russell Kerr and Poul Gnatt. New Zealand Ballet 1960

June Kerr (1932–2018)

by Jennifer Shennan

Russell Kerr has been the treasured father of ballet in New Zealand since he returned here in 1957 after some years dancing in UK, where he had married fellow dancer, June Greenhalgh. His directorship of New Zealand Ballet in 1960s was a visionary and courageous one and his loyal contribution has continued in all the years since. June danced in the celebrated United Ballet seasons of 1959–1960, but then became the mother of two children. Her contribution to ballet in this country may not have been as publicly visible as her husband’s but it was just as real, and she was with him every step of the way.

June Kerr, nee Greenhalgh, was born in 1932, in Southend-on-Sea, England, the youngest of three children.  Her father had started his seafaring career on sailing ships and later became a merchant navy captain while her mother held the home fires during his extended periods of time away at sea.

As a child June attended the Cone-Ripman school where the curriculum combined general education with ballet and related theatre-arts training.  Originally based in London but relocated during WWII to Hertfordshire, it later became known as Arts Educational School.

Anton Dolin, having danced with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, became a pioneer of ballet in England (and toured New Zealand with the Covent Garden Russian Ballet in late 1930s). Dolin visited the Cone-Ripman school after World War II and selected 12 young dancers, June Greenhalgh among them, to join a troupe he and Alicia Markova were forming. This later developed into a permanent London-based company, Festival Ballet, of which June was thus a foundation member. (Renamed English National Ballet in 1989, this is the company that performed a season of Giselle in Auckland earlier this year. The ballet world sits across national boundaries and through time, its best dancers becoming citizens of an international ‘country’).

In 1952 Anne Rowse, a young New Zealand dancer training in London, also joined Festival Ballet, and she and June became instant friends. Anne spoke movingly at the funeral of the  lifelong friendship that ensued.

June Greenhalgh in Ruth Page’s The Merry Widow/Vilia. Festival Ballet 1953

In 1953 another young New Zealander, Russell Kerr, joined Festival Ballet. He and June held hands, but he explained to her they’d better not get too serious because he would at some stage be returning to New Zealand, feeling a moral obligation to do that on account of the Government bursary he had been awarded. ‘Not a problem. I’d come too,’ replied June, and so they were married without delay.

Festival Ballet, under the Polish impresario Julian Braunsweg, toured and performed in UK, Europe, Canada and US with memorable programs, and the likes of Igor Stravinsky conducting in the pit. In 1957 the Kerrs left all that behind and came to settle in New Zealand. (Lucky I was, to be a child pupil at Nettleton-Edwards School of Ballet in Auckland where Russell became a partner. I continue to learn from him to this day).

Make no mistake—Russell would become the lion, and June the lioness, of ballet in this country when they moved to Wellington in 1962 and he became director of New Zealand Ballet. (Poul and Rigmor Gnatt had been the pioneering tiger and tigress who preceded them, since 1953). With unstinting loyalty, Kerr delivered pedigree standards of heritage repertoire (Swan Lake, Petrouchka, Prince Igor, Schéhérazade, Coppélia, Nutcracker, and much more), to put New Zealand firmly on the world ballet map. His own choreographic output was enormously prolific and gave the Company some of its greatest hits—Prismatic Variations, Carnival of the Animals, Peter Pan, A Christmas Carol, Terrible Tom … it’s a very long list.

The spouse of such a driven choreographer is the supportive, attentive, unpaid and often invisible, kindest critic who stays calm and acts as a beacon when storms rage and finances plummet—or, in the Kerrs’ case, when Russell worked himself close to death to sustain the company endeavour, through to 1969. A disastrous fire that had destroyed almost all the Company’s resources in 1967 had not helped.

There were later periods directing Auckland Dance Centre, then the Kerrs moved to Christchurch which would remain their home until today. Southern Ballet Theatre was a highly enterprising initiative and for years productions were mounted there on a miniature scale but uncompromising in dance and music standards. There were numerous collaborations with composer, Philip Norman, and designer, Peter Lees-Jeffries, so Christchurch was well served in that time. No-one can remember how it was financed probably because there was no budget worth remembering.

June would accompany Russell to Wellington whenever he was engaged by Royal New Zealand Ballet to stage a production on the company. She was always so pleased to walk in the Botanical Gardens, to visit a gallery, or over a coffee to swap family news, always with the kindest interest and sweetest nature. ‘No I won’t have another coffee thanks. I’ll be meeting Russell for lunch in the rehearsal break so I’ll have one with him then.’ In later years the dear couple would still venture out together to a local café and continue their lifelong habit of people-watching in public places. ‘That’s where you learn about different characters—how they move, what they look like, you can guess much of their experiences from such things. It’s like research for choreography,’ Russell would say.

They were still holding hands when June died last week. The photos on the order of service show a fine-boned, wide-eyed, gorgeous redhead, gamine beauty, a shade reminiscent of Moira Shearer (the ballerina in the famed film, The Red Shoes ). Ballet in New Zealand owes much to the Kerr family.

In 1940, June, aged 8, was on the list of children to be repatriated out of war-time London to live out the duration of the war elsewhere, in her case on the SS City of Benares to Canada. For reasons never explained, her parents removed their daughter from the passenger list the day before it sailed, and just as well because the ship was torpedoed in mid-Atlantic.

June would later tell that story, and when asked ‘What happened to the 90 children on board?’ would answer ‘Oh, they were all saved’ and she went to her grave believing that to be so. In fact, 77 of the 90 children on board died, but it’s a reasonable guess June’s parents believed that an 8-year-old didn’t need to know that. It was a heart-stopping moment at the funeral to learn about what was probably the only ‘lie’ anyone ever told to this kind and trusting woman

June Kerr: Born South-end-on Sea, England, 12 June 1932; married Russell Kerr, 1 son, 1 daughter; died Christchurch, New Zealand, 29 October 2018

A version of this obituary first appeared in The Dominion Post on 24 November 2018. Sources: Russell Kerr, David Kerr, Anne Rowse, Keith McEwing.

Featured image: June Greenhalgh & Russell Kerr in Prismatic Variations. Choreographed by Russell Kerr and Poul Gnatt; designed by Raymond Boyce. New Zealand Ballet 1960. Photo: © John Ashton

June Greenhalgh & Russell Kerr in Prismatic Variations.Choreographed by Russell Kerr and Poul Gnatt. New Zealand Ballet 1960

 

 

 

 

Douglas Wright, 2016. Photo: © John Savage

Douglas Wright (1956–2018)

Douglas James Wright, dreamer of dances
by Jennifer Shennan

Douglas Wright, dancer, choreographer, writer, poet, visual artist, has died at the age of 62.

An obituary is normally about the deceased, but I begin with my declaration of conflict of interest (actually, deeply shared interest)—namely, that Douglas is the single most important artist in my life. His fearless vision through an astonishingly prolific artistic output moved us beyond comfort, beyond normalcy, beyond the already known. Not fantasy, not surrealism, not escapism, but expressionist art of the highest order, framed with wit—dark, caustic, incorrigible, ironic and hilarious by turns, and teeming with alternative perceptions of the natural and social givens. As a New Zealand artist across five genres, Douglas Wright remains a phenomenon without peer.

The Solomon Islands term for a choreographer translates as ‘dreamer of dances’. That epithet pleased Douglas since he often referenced Morpheus, god of dreams, son of Hypnos, god of sleep. His last dance, commissioned by art gallery director Michael Lett, was exquisitely performed by Sean MacDonald at Tempo Dance Festival in October, with final rehearsals conducted at the hospice. Titled M_Nod, with Morpheus in mind, it incorporated a James Joyce reading from Finnegan’s Wake, an aesthetic that suited Douglas well. The work was dedicated to the late Sue Paterson, Douglas’ long-standing colleague and friend.

In 1998 Douglas was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, and in 2000 a Laureate of The Arts Foundation. His company, Douglas Wright and Dancers, only ever received project-based funding from the Arts Council and there can be no easy way to analyse why his phenomenal talent was not better supported and continuously facilitated across the decades. Permanent funding of company management and adequate resources to tour his work internationally were what he wanted and deserved, but they were never forthcoming. In that, we let down both him and ourselves.

Now that Douglas is safely silenced, the tributes are flowing in torrents. Our best honour to him however is to remember his work, and lucky we are that he has written about dance, the most ephemeral of the arts, in depth and detail. The outstanding video documentary Haunting Douglas by Leanne Pooley (Spacific Films) is the finest portrait of a dance artist anywhere.

A consummate man of the theatre, the words Douglas loathed most were ‘bland’ and ‘boring’. His constant attention was to our experiences—the public, the personal and the private. If it had happened, or been thought or dreamt, then spit it out, say it loud, choreograph it, write it, draw it, sculpt it, tell it as it is. If some audiences or critics took offence, at least they were not bored. It was proof they were engaged. An indelible image remains—from Black Milk—when Three Graces, dressed in nurses’ uniforms, brought forward a tray of medical syringes then knelt to inject the stage floor, presumably a local anaesthetic to help us through what was to follow.

Douglas certainly had a gift for naming his dances—listen to them—Now is the Hour, Passion Play, How on Earth, As It Is, Buried Venus, Inland, Forever, Black Milk, Rapt, The Kiss Inside. He did not need tertiary education to lead him to literature, but as a school boy simply raided the library. His voracious reading habits included an early affinity with the writings of Janet Frame. His memoir, Ghost Dance, (Penguin, 2004, awarded the Montana prize for Best First Book) makes clear the abiding importance of his relationship with artist Malcolm Ross. (David Eggleton’s 2004 review for The Listener of Ghost Dance is definitive).

Douglas grew up in rural New Zealand, in Tuakau. The place name means tu = to stand, akau = river bank. You get a good view of a river when you stand on its bank. You get a good view of Douglas Wright through Pooley’s documentary, about his childhood intrigue at the woman dancing in a white dress on the porch of the neighbouring house in moonlight (‘…perhaps she was a moth who laid her eggs in me’) and fascination with his grandmother taking him to Catholic Mass (later referenced in Halo, for Royal New Zealand Ballet).

To his father’s disgust, rugby held no interest for the child but Douglas’ childhood talent for gymnastics brought him junior champion status and photos reveal a strength, grace and line that would eventually lead him to dance. The boy travelled alone from Tuakau to Auckland for regular training sessions, which led into the darkness of predatory sexual abuse in bus stations as bad as anything you’ve imagined. He was robbed of his childhood and the scars lasted for life, yet he could later communicate the complexity of the experiences without letting it destroy him. One poem, in his volume CactusFear (Steele Roberts, 2011) tells us about it, if you can get through it without crying.

After leaving school there was a dramatic drug career, eventually supplanted by his dance career, initially with Auckland-based Limbs Dance Company (1980–1983). Teacher Dorothea Ashbridge imparted the ballet technique that helped Douglas ‘map my body … give names and directions to movements my body already knew’. He spent 1983–1987 with Paul Taylor Dance Company in New York, a spectacular career, with performances and choreography (Hey Paris, Faun Variations) still remembered decades later by New Yorkers who probably see six dance performances every week.

Douglas’ astonishing strength combined with lyricism can be seen in DV8’s talisman and horrifyingly brilliant work by Lloyd Newson, Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men, in 1988 (available on dvd). Back in New Zealand Douglas’ grief at losing friends to Aids is choreographed into Elegy, 1992. Although not the death sentence it once signaled, Douglas’ own HIV diagnosis was encompassed in choreographies Forever and Ore.

In 1993 Russell Kerr cast Douglas in the title role of his production of Petrouchka for Royal New Zealand Ballet, described in Royal New Zealand Ballet at Sixty (VUP, 2013). His insights into performing that celebrated role, created by Nijinsky, are rare, if not unique, in the annals of ballet history. Douglas wrote what Nijinksy was unable to.

Douglas Wright as Petrouchka 1993, Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Photo Guy Robinson

Douglas Wright as Petrouchka 1993, Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Photo Guy Robinson

Three works commissioned by Royal New Zealand Ballet, The Decay of Lying (1992), Rose and Fell, (1997) and Halo (2000) are all remembered by the dancers. Critics were challenged, as critics often are, but Douglas remained disappointed that the company never re-staged any of those works.

Douglas’ mercurial and multi-faceted personality was reflected in his works—by turns ecstatic (Gloria, A Far Cry); melancholic (Terra Incognito, Black Milk); grief-stricken (Elegy, Rose & Fell); satirical (The Decay of Lying); gender-shifting (Hey Paris, Forever); political (Black Milk); spiritual (Rapt, The Kiss Inside). We sense that whatever happened to him surfaced somewhere in one of his choreographies, but were never just about himself. He staged themes that may have shocked, or saddened, but they rang with truth.

Douglas released the artistry in many dancers and they know who they are. Lisa Densem (in the astonishing photo montage by Peter Molloy on the cover of the Pooley documentary) told me, ‘After you’ve worked with Douglas you have had more than a dance experience. He lets you become his friend.’

Several dancers became his muses: Debbie McCulloch with whom he shared an early close rapport; the enigmatic ‘goddess-like’ Kilda Northcott; Sarah Jayne Howard, a fiery furnace of a performer. Alex Leonhartsberger danced like Douglas-come-again, then Sean MacDonald became the final trusted courier of Douglas’ dream visions. Repertoire has been expertly staged in recent years by rehearsal director, Megan Adams.

There were only the briefest tours taking Douglas’ works abroad, yet, had that been responsibly managed and financed, he would have earned an international reputation as the Pina Bausch of the Southern Hemisphere. Nought to be done about that now but live with it. At least his treasures are in Nga Taonga Film & Sound Archive, in art galleries, on bookshelves, and in the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Douglas once asked me how baroque dance works—not that he wanted to perform one, just to understand how people danced in different times and places, so I showed him. He instantly caught the implications of the highly stylised technique, then quoted Louis XIV to me, and in one hour learned a sarabande that would take a ‘normal’ student a year to master.

Five of Douglas’ drawings, purchased by the Chartwell Collection for Auckland Art Gallery, hang in a current exhibition there alongside works by Colin McCahon, by Gretchen Albrecht (who provided the backdrop for Douglas’ first full-length work, Now is the Hour) and Jim Allen, celebrated sculptor of light. Douglas’ note alongside his work reads, ‘The figures in my drawings are verbs not nouns’. A number of these drawings are incorporated into his volume of poetry, Laughing Mirror, (Steele Roberts, 2007) where he famously penned the line, ‘Never trust an artist who is always trying to explain their work’.

Perhaps Auckland City Council might consider converting Douglas’ council flat, his home for many decades, in Norgrove Ave, Mt. Albert, into a choreographic residence? Alongside all else, Douglas was a perfectionist, not to say obsessive, gardener. The ancient cycads growing there (he would groom the spider webs off them with a toothbrush) might inspire a younger generation of home-grown dance-makers. Goodness knows, the country needs them.

Helen Aldridge, a Waiheke teacher and arts advocate, commissioned from Douglas a choreography to commemorate the life of her daughter, Deirdre Mummery, who died of an accidental drug overdose. Helen told me she did not know what to expect—perhaps a lament, or lachrimae? Instead, Douglas produced the exquisite Gloria, to Vivaldi, celebrating the life of his young friend. Gold silk-clad dancers fly and twist and turn in an airborne wonder. It’s the best dance ever made, by anyone, anywhere.

Beautifully filmed by Alun Bollinger, it’s there on YouTube (note, inexplicably, in two parts), posted anonymously by ‘a Rugby supporter’. Where is James Joyce when you need him?

Douglas is survived by his loyal and devoted mother, Pat, and the dancers of New Zealand.

Douglas James Wright: born 14 October 1956, Pukekohe; died 14 November 2018, Auckland

Acknowledgements: Megan Adams, Helen Aldridge, Lisa Densem, Sarah (Lawrey) George, Sean MacDonald, Keith McEwing, Leanne Pooley, Turid Revfeim, Guy Robinson, Anne Rowse, Roger Steele

This obituary is posted with the permission of The Dominion Post where it appeared on 17 November 2018.

Featured image: Douglas Wright, 2006. Photo: © John Savage

Douglas Wright, 2016. Photo: © John Savage

 

Ghost Dance by Douglas Wright

For other posts on this website about Douglas Wright, including reviews about some of the works mentioned above, follow this link. See too the review of Douglas Wright’s memoir, Ghost Dance, also mentioned above, at this link.

Promotional image for QL2's Belong, 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim

Dance diary. October 2018

  • Belong. QL2’s Chaos Project for 2018

Every year Canberra’s young dancers audition for the Chaos Project staged by QL2. The umbrella name suggests the chaotic situation with which the project begins—in 2018 there were 45 young dancers, boys and girls, aged from eight upwards. But of course by the time the show hits the stage the chaos is gone and, despite the age and experience of the dancers, we the audience are always treated to a wonderful evening of youth dance. The 2018 project, called Belong, had sections choreographed by Olivia Fyfe, Jodie Farrugia and Luke Fryer with Ruth Osborne adding (with her usual flair) an opening and closing section. The topic for exploration—‘belonging’—generated some interesting choreographic responses including the addiction (and disconnection from others) to smart phones and social media; supporting others in a variety of ways; bullying; and other similar matters affecting young people. Dance for the times!

  • Liz Lea and RED

Liz Lea will present her truly exceptional work RED in Liverpool, England, in November as part of the LEAP Festival. It will have a one-off performance on 7 November at 6pm at the Warehouse Studio Theatre, Hope University Creative Campus. RED premiered in Canberra earlier this year. Follow this link for my review of the premiere performance.

Liz Lea in a study for RED, 2018

Liz Lea in a study for RED, 2018

  • Sydney Dance Company in 2019

Sydney Dance Company has announced its season program for 2019, which will celebrate what is the company’s 50th anniversary. Season choreography will be by Rafael Bonachela, Gabrielle Nankivell, Melanie Lane and Gideon Obarzanek. Full details at this link.

While each of the three programs that will take place over 2019 promises something unusual, it will definitely be fascinating to see what Obarzanek does with a work called Us 50 in which, in the spirit of the anniversary, he will use 50 dancers drawn from former and current company dancers, along with members of the community.

Former and current dancers from Sydney Dance Company: (left to right) Kip Gamblin, Linda Ridgeway, Rafael Bonachela, Sheree Zellner (da Costa), Lea Francis and Bradley Chatfield. Photo: Pedro Greig

  • Oral history: Ariette Taylor

My most recent oral history interview for the National Library was with Ariette Taylor, whose contribution to the work of Australian Dance Theatre during the directorship of Jonathan Taylor has probably not been fully explored to date. In addition to a discussion of her work in Adelaide, the interview includes Taylor’s background as a dancer in Holland and with Ballet Rambert, and her work as a theatre director after the Taylor family moved from Adelaide to Melbourne.

  • Remi Wortmeyer

As part of my research for the interview with Ariette Taylor I was searching for information about Mascha ter Weeme, who directed Ballet der Lage Landen, which Taylor joined in Amsterdam in 1957. I accidentally came across some news about Remi Wortmeyer, former dancer with the Australian Ballet and now principal with the Dutch National Ballet. This is old news (from 2016) but I had not come across it before so am posting it here in case any of my readers have also not heard it.

Wortmeyer was, in 2016, the recipient of the beautifully named Mr Expressivity Award at the international ballet festival, Dance Open, in St Petersburg. The trophy, I understand, replicates the lower leg of Anna Pavlova!

Remi Wortmeyer . Mr Expressivity, 2018
Remi Wortmeyer trophy

Wortmeyer’s website is at this link and the images above are from this site.

  • Jacob’s Pillow (again)

The latest post from Jacob’s Pillow is a series of video clips with the links between the clips centring on black costuming. There is a clip of David Hallberg dancing Nacho Duato’s solo Kaburias, which makes me think back to that wonderful piece, Por vos muero, which was at one stage in the repertoire of the Australian Ballet but not seen for a number of years now. For my New Zealand readers there is a short clip of an early piece by Black Grace, Minoi, seen at the Pillow in 2004. Then there is a mesmerising clip from Un ballo, a work choreographed by Françoise Adret,with perhaps a nod to Duato, for Lyon Opera Ballet. Lots more. Check out the Pillow’s dance interactive site .

  • Meryl Tankard’s Two Feet

I have long regretted that Meryl Tankard’s solo show Two Feet has never been revived. Well news just in from the Adelaide Festival 2019 is that Tankard is reviving the work for next year’s festival. It will feature the remarkable Natalia Osipova. I imagine tickets will fly out the door!

  • Press for October 2018

‘Bravissimo bringing ballet gala to town.’ Preview of World Superstars of Ballet Gala, Bravissimo Productions. The Canberra Times, 1 October 2018, p. 20. Online version

‘Uneven but often impressive show.’ Review of Happiness is …, Canberra Dance Theatre. The Canberra Times, 16 October 2018, p. 20. Online version

Michelle Potter, 31 October 2018

Featured image: Promotional image for QL2’s Belong, 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Promotional image for QL2's Belong, 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim

 

Dance diary. September 2018

  • What’s coming in 2019

Both the Australian Ballet and Queensland Ballet have announced their 2019 season programs and details can be found on their respective websites: The Australian Ballet; Queensland Ballet. Both companies have an exciting range of works to tempt us in 2019. I am especially looking forward to Dangerous Liaisons, a new work by Liam Scarlett for Queensland Ballet based on a novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, and to The Happy Prince, a new work by Graeme Murphy for the Australian Ballet.—two exceptional choreographers who take us to places we are least expecting.

  • And on the subject of …

…Liam Scarlett, Queensland Ballet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Queensland Ballet production of Liam Scarlett’s Midsummer Night’s Dream opens in Melbourne shortly. If you live in Melbourne don’t miss it. It’s spectacularly good.

Yanela Pinera as Titania, Queensland Ballet 2016

Yanela Piñera as Titania in Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Queensland Ballet 2016. Photo: © David Kelly

Here are two reviews, one from New Zealand and one from Australia (It’s a co-production). From New Zealand check this link. From Australia check this link.

  • From New Zealand: a new book

Sir Jon Trimmer, the extraordinary New Zealand dancer, now approaching 80 and still performing, is the subject of a new book. The book was reviewed by Jennifer Shennan for DANZ. Here is a link to that review.

Why Dance? is available to purchase online at this link. RRP: NZD34

 
 
Royal New Zealand Ballet has also announced its 2019 program and appears to have an interesting year ahead. Loughlan Prior’s Hansel and Gretel is something to look forward to I suspect. Details at this link.

  • The Stars of World Ballet Gala

I have to admit that my heart sank, momentarily, when I heard that Canberra was to get a gala of world stars of ballet. Recent and ongoing visits by Russian ballet companies, with star dancers advertised, have left me unamused to say the least as the standard of dancing has been really poor, in my opinion. But a Canberra-only gala set for 2 & 3 October appears to be something quite different. A preview story I wrote for The Canberra Times is not due for print publication until 1 October, so doesn’t appear in the ‘Press’ section at the end of this September post. But the article has already appeared online at this link. The story was to have the image of Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo, which appears below, but The Canberra Times had an unfortunate technical issue with reproducing it and was forced to choose another from its archive. Such a shame as the one finally used does no justice to Kondo and Guo. Nevertheless, it will be a treat to see the pair perform in this gala along with dancers from America, Cuba, and Italy. My review of the show will appear in a few days.

Australian Ballet dancers Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in 'The Sleeping Beauty'. Photo Jeff Busby

Australian Ballet dancers Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: © Jeff Busby

  • Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive

It has been a while since I have mentioned Jacob’s Pillow in a post, but those who have been following my writing for a while will know that the Pillow holds a special place in my heart. I have just received a  link to a collection of filmed excerpts from the Jacob’s Pillow archive, which I would like to share. There is something for everyone to be found. Here is the link.

And I continue to be amazed at what one sees if one looks up in the reading room at Jacob’s Pillow, and by the beauty of the site in Becket, Massachusetts.

 

  • Jonathan Taylor: an oral history

In September I had the pleasure of talking to Jonathan Taylor, dancer, choreographer and director, and former artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre, for the National Library of Australia’s oral history project. Taylor was interviewed for the Library back in 1991 by Shirley McKechnie. It was time to do an update, which added a little more about Taylor’s work with ADT and continued with stories from his post-ADT life. More details when the interview appears on the Library catalogue.

  • Press for September 2018

‘Ballet school showcases rising stars.’ Preview of Showcase 2018 from the Australian Ballet School. The Canberra Times, 18 September 2018, p. 19. Online version 

‘Demanding double-act.’ Review of Cockfight (Gavin Webber and Joshua Thomson). The Canberra Times, 28 September 2018, p. 34. Online version

Gavin Webber and Joshua Thomson in 'Cockfight'

Gavin Webber (foreground) and Joshua Thomson in Cockfight. Photo: © Darcy Grant

Michelle Potter, 30 September 2019

Featured image: Hero image for Queensland Ballet’s 2019 season.

Australian Dance Awards 2018

The 2018 Australian Dance Awards, the 21st since the current format was introduced in 1997, were held in Brisbane on 8 September. Initially they were held annually in Sydney and followed on from the Dancers’ Picnic initiated by Keith Bain to celebrate International Dance Day (29 April). Now they are more inclusive in terms of where they are held with the venue changing each year.

There were some interesting performances during the evening and also a challenging forum, Spring Fling, on the Saturday morning of the awards in which four dance folk—Adrian Burnett, Jana Castillo, Matthew Lawrence and I—discussed, with excellent audience participation, a range of issues associated with the existence (or not) of an Australian ‘style’.

'Elements', Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts, Australian Dance Awards 2018. Photo: Morgan Roberts Photography

Elements, Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts, Australian Dance Awards 2018. Photo: Morgan Roberts Photography

Nominations for 2019 open in December 2018 and close at the end of February 2019. Consider nominating! Check out the procedure via the new website designed as a sponsorship by Designfront.

In the meantime here is a link to the list of winners. Katrina Rank says it all!

Kathrina Rank, Services to Dance 2018

Katrina Rank, Australian Dance Awards, Services to Dance Education, Brisbane 2018. Photo: Lauren Sharman

Michelle Potter, 13 September 2018

James Batchelor in ‘Hyperspace’. Photo: Morgan Hickinbotham

Dance diary. August 2018

  • James Batchelor

James Batchelor has been busy touring his recent works, including Deepspace, in the United Kingdom and Europe. Deepspace will also be shown back in Australia in November. See this link for details.

Batchelor also has news of his latest production, Hyperspace, which is the third and last work to focus on his explorations into the world of Antarctica. He writes:

The premise of HYPERSPACE is to study the body in relation to the deep unknowns of the universe, into spaces beyond the reach of human touch. What is the role of the body in discovery? HYPERSPACE is an awakening of this infinite body but also a speculation of the unknown future body. It is a science fiction as performance, contributing to contemporary conversations taking place in science and art that are dealing with the role of the body in relation to discovery and our future in space.

Hyperspace has just been shown in Italy at a festival in Bassano del Grappa.

  • Eileen Kramer book

Eileen Kramer, former dancer with the Bodenwieser Ballet and now advocate for many aspects of dance for older people, has been spending time recently writing a memoir about her youth in 1930s bohemian Sydney and how she came to the arts. Kramer’s memoir is being published by Melbourne Books and a crowd-funding appeal to assist with publishing costs is current until mid September. See this link.

The subtitle of the book—’Stories from the Philip Street Courtyard’—is interesting. So many dancers from the 1930s and 1940s mention Sydney’s Phillip Street as a place where they lived, including Tamara Tchinarova Finch who lived in a Phillip Street apartment with her mother when they decided to stay in Australia in 1939 after the tour by the Covent Garden Russian Ballet. I have always been left with the impression that it was a hotbed of alternative practices.

And how appropriate is the publication of this book, given that Sue Healey’s beautiful short film, Eileen, has been short-listed for an Australian Dance Award! Results early in September at the awards ceremony in Brisbane. Read more about Eileen Kramer from this website here.

  • Anouk van Dijk leaves Chunky Move

Chunky Move is searching for a new artistic director following the recent resignation of Anouk van Dijk after seven years at the helm.

Chunky Move Chair Leigh O’Neill thanked Ms van Dijk and acknowledged her contribution to the company saying:

Anouk has introduced a fresh perspective on contemporary dance to Melbourne, and to Australia, whilst continuing Chunky Move’s legacy of supporting the development of artists and leading important cultural conversations through the company’s work.

She brings a highly rigorous and visceral approach to choreography, centering the dancer as a key creative force, and has nurtured a new generation of dancers and artists across disciplines.

Read van Dijk’s biography here.

  • DirtyFeet

DirtyFeet, the Sydney-based not for profit organisation supporting independent artists, is holding its Out of the Studio season in September. Two choreographers will present works in this season—Sara Black and Lucky Lartey. Lartey, based in Sydney and originally from Ghana, will show Full Circle, which draws on both his traditional dance culture and contemporary dance. Black, the recipient of a Helpmann Award in 2008, trained in Canberra and is presenting a work based on our heart beat, pulse, and life source.

DirtyFeet flyer

The program takes place at Shopfront Arts Co-Op, 88 Carlton Pde, Carlton NSW on 21 and 22 September. More information at this link.

Image: Dancer Jessica Holman. Photo Hayley Rose

  • Press for August 2018

‘Quantum Leap into glorious past.’ Review of Two Zero, Quantum Leap’s 20th anniversary program. The Canberra Times, 13 August 2018, p. 18. Online version.

Michelle Potter, 31 August 2018

Featured image: James Batchelor in Hyperspace, 2018. Photo: Morgan Hickinbotham

James Batchelor in ‘Hyperspace’. Photo: Morgan Hickinbotham

Athol Willoughby with Noelle Aitken and Naeidra Torrens, 'Swan Lake', National Theatre Ballet, 1950s.

Athol Willoughby. Lifetime Achievement Award 2018

The Australian Dance Awards committee has announced that the Lifetime Achievement Award for 2018 will be presented to Athol Willoughby, OAM, in recognition of his exceptional contribution to the dance profession in Australia for over 65 years. The presentation will take place in Brisbane at the Australian Dance Awards ceremony on 8 September.

Willoughby has had a long and distinguished career as one of Australia’s leading ballet dancers and teachers and as an adjudicator and examiner for Cecchetti Ballet Australia. His performing career connected him with significant developments in mid-century Australian ballet, in particular with the National Theatre Ballet and major figures who directed it including Joyce  Graeme, Walter Gore and Valrene Tweedie.

Valrene Tweedie and Athol Willoughby in Le Coq d’or, National Theatre Ballet, 1955. Photo: Walter Stringer. Personal collection of Athol Willoughby

Willoughby’s introduction to dance came when, as a young boy, he had a job sweeping out a cinema in Hobart prior to weekend screenings. He can still recall the excitement of seeing the stars of Hollywood musicals on screen—Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly were among them. But the real start of his long and illustrious career as a dancer, teacher, examiner, adjudicator and mentor came when, by chance, he was sitting next to a priest in the Theatre Royal in Hobart during a performance by the Borovansky Ballet. The priest arranged a meeting for him with local ballet teacher Beattie Jordan. Willoughby never saw the priest again but Jordan accepted him as a pupil and set him on his career path.

Later Willoughby was thrilled by performances in Hobart by the Melbourne-based National Theatre Ballet and made the decision to move to Melbourne where he was taught by esteemed Cecchetti teacher Lucie Saranova. He eventually joined 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. 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.

In Melbourne in the 1950s Willoughby had gained his Cecchetti qualifications and had begun teaching, including for Margaret Scott at her newly opened ballet school in Toorak. On his return from England he performed in pantomimes over the Christmas period and took up teaching again, largely in regional Victoria. But his work as an educator and mentor began in earnest in 1963 when he bought the Essendon Academy of Ballet, where he was director until his retirement in 1997. He also returned to the stage as a guest artist with the Australian Ballet in Anne Woolliams’ Swan Lake and Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker.

The students whose careers the charismatic Willoughby nurtured have gone on to dance across the world, have become teachers and examiners, and have had their lives enriched by his continued service to dance, in particular to the Cecchetti approach to ballet. But he is nevertheless humble enough to say, ‘I was just there to try to teach them classical ballet correctly—I like to see it done correctly—and with discipline.’

In 2017 Willoughby celebrated his 85th birthday and his Lifetime Achievement award is formal recognition by the dance community of his extraordinary contribution.

See this link for further posts about Athol Willoughby. The citation above is a slightly expanded version of that issued under my name by the Australian Dance Awards committee.

  • Quoted from an oral history interview recorded in 2013 for the National Library of Australia’s Oral History and Folklore Program. TRC 6514

Michelle Potter, 14 August 2018

Featured image: Athol Willoughby with Noelle Aitken and Naeidra Torrens in Swan Lake, National Theatre Ballet, 1950s. Personal collection of Athol Willoughby

Athol Willoughby with Noelle Aitken and Naeidra Torrens, 'Swan Lake', National Theatre Ballet, 1950s.

Edna Busse and Kenneth Gillespie in 'The Black Swan', Borovansky Ballet, 1951

Edna Busse celebrates 100 years

Former Borovansky Ballet dancer, Edna Busse, has just celebrated her 100th birthday. Busse was born in Melbourne in 1918 and received her early dance training with Eunice Weston. She was for a time junior assistant to Weston but later studied with Xenia Borovansky at the Borovansky Ballet Academy and subsequently danced with the Borovansky Ballet from its earliest days. With that company she danced a variety of roles including those in Borovansky’s restaging of Anna Pavlova’s Autumn Leaves and in Frederick Ashton’s Façade staged by Laurel Martyn. She also danced in the classics as produced by Borovansky, as well as in a number of Borovansky’s own works such as L’Amour ridicule and Fantasy on Grieg’s Piano Concerto.

Edna Busse and dancers of the Borovansky Ballet in 'Autumn Leaves', 1946. Photo Hugh P Hall

Edna Busse and dancers of the Borovansky Ballet in Autumn Leaves, 1946. Photo: Hugh P Hall. National Library of Australia

By 1946 she was prima ballerina with the company and the first fully Australian trained dancer to reach the rank of principal. Her most frequent partners were Martin Rubinstein and Serge Bousloff.

Edna Busse and Martin Rubinstein in the Blue Bird pas de deux, Borovanksy Ballet 1940s. Photo: Phil Ward
Serge Bousloff with Edna Busse (left) and Rachel Cameron in 'L'amour ridicule', Borovansky Ballet 1940. Photo Hugh P Hall

 

(left) Edna Busse and Martin Rubinstein in Bluebird pas de deux. Photo Phil Ward; (right) Serge Bousloff with Edna Busse (left) and Rachel Cameron (right) in L’Amour ridicule. Photo: Hugh P Hall. Borovansky Ballet, 1940s. National Library of Australia

One of the most remarkable works in which she took the leading role during her career with the Borovansky Ballet was The Black Swan, Borovansky’s second ballet on an Australian theme following on from his Terra Australis of 1946. Danced to music by Sibelius and with designs by William Constable, The Black Swan was based on an historical incident in 1697 when a Captain Vlaming from the Dutch East India Company encountered and named Rottnest Island and the river on which the city of Perth now stands. He was particularly struck by the number of black swans on the river and his crew captured several and took them back to Java. A libretto, written around this incident by M. Millet, told the story of the Captain entranced by a black swan as a symbol of a new (to him) land. The work was first performed in 1949. Busse took the role of the Black Swan in productions of 1950 and 1951.

Scene from The Black Swan. Borovansky Ballet, 1951

Scene from The Black Swan. Borovansky Ballet, 1951

Busse went to London in 1952 where she danced at the Palladium in a variety of shows, including in the pantomime Cinderella in 1953. While overseas she studied with Mathilde Kschessinska in Paris but came back to Australia in 1955 when family illness required her return. In Australia she was given a contract by entrepreneur Harry Wren and continued to dance for another few years, including in the Tivoli Circuit’s production of The Good Old Days (1956–1957) and as a guest artist with Laurel Martyn’s Victorian Ballet Guild. Injury forced her to retire. Busse then taught in Melbourne for several years before opening a ballet school in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, in 1968. With the support of a local consortium she established Inland Ballet and, over many years, produced both the classics and new works for this company.

Edna Busse was interviewed for the National Library of Australia’s Oral History and Folklore Program in 2014 and her time in Wagga Wagga is discussed in more detail there. The interview, which has been debated somewhat on this website, is not available online but copies are available via the National Library via the ‘order a copy’ tab.

Michelle Potter, 9 August 2018

Featured image: Edna Busse and Kenneth Gillespie in The Black Swan, Borovansky Ballet, 1950–1951. National Library of Australia

Edna Busse and Kenneth Gillespie in 'The Black Swan', Borovansky Ballet, 1950

Jocelyn Vollmar in the Borovansky production of 'Symphonie fantastique', 1955. Photo: Walter Stringer

Jocelyn Vollmar (1925–2018)

American ballerina Jocelyn Vollmar has died in San Francisco at the age of 92. Born in San Francisco, Vollmar began her dance training aged 12 at San Francisco Ballet School under William Christensen and Gisella Caccialanza. As a student she danced in the first American Coppélia and the first American full-length Swan Lake in 1940. She joined San Francisco Ballet in 1943 and her roles in the following years included the Snow Queen in Nutcracker in 1944, and Myrthe in Giselle in 1947 with guests Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin. In the late 1940s she danced as a principal with New York City Ballet and Ballet Theatre and studied further in Paris with Lubov Egorova and Olga Preobrajenska. She also danced with the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas in the early 1950s.

Vollmar was invited by Edouard Borovansky to come to Australia as ballerina with his Borovansky Ballet for his season beginning in 1954. Her first role with the Borovansky company was the Street Dancer in Le beau Danube where critics praised her ‘talent for mime’ and her ‘spirited dancing.’ Over the course of a two year term with the Borovansky Ballet, Vollmar  danced leading roles in all the company’s productions including the classics such as GiselleLes SylphidesNutcracker in a new production by David Lichine, and Swan Lake Act II, and in the Borovansky Ballet’s stagings of the Ballets Russes repertoire including PetrouchkaLes Presages: Fifth SymphonyLa Boutique fantasqueScheherazade and Le beau Danube. Her partners with the Borovansky Ballet included Vassilie Trunoff and Royes Fernandez and fellow principal dancer, Peggy Sager, spoke of the great versatility she brought to the company during her brief time with them.

Vollmar returned to San Francisco when the Borovansky Ballet went into recess in 1956 and, although invited to return to Australia for the next Borovansky season, she decided to stay in her home city. She danced with San Francisco Ballet until 1972. On retirement from performing Vollmar took up teaching and when Helgi Tomasson took over San Francisco Ballet in 1985 he invited her to teach in the company school, where she taught and coached upper division classes until 2005.

Jocelyn Vollmar. Born San Francisco 25 November 1925; died San Francisco 13 July 2018.

Michelle Potter, 8 August 2018

Featured image: Jocelyn Vollmar in the Borovansky production of Symphonie fantastique, 1955. Photo: Walter Stringer

Dance diary. July 2018

  • New patron for Canberra’s QL2 Dance

It has just been announced that Canberra’s youth dance organisation QL2 Dance has a new patron, Sydney Dance Company’s artistic director Rafael Bonachela. He joins Shirley McKechnie, AO, as co-patron following the retirement of Sir William Deane, AC, KBE, QC and Lady Deane who had been much respected patrons for fourteen years.

Bonachela has worked with many former QL2 dancers some of whom have joined Sydney Dance Company to pursue their professional careers, including Sam Young Wright now dancing in Germany with Jacopo Godani’s Dresden Frankfurt Dance Company. Other alumni include Daniel Riley now dancing with and choreographing for Bangarra Dance Theatre, Jack Ziesing formerly with Expressions Dance Company, now with Dancenorth, and James Batchelor, independent artist. Bonachela has recognised the qualities of alumni of QL2 saying:

It is an honour and a privilege to be the QL2 Dance Patron for 2018. QL2 Dance truly sets the example for quality dance in Canberra and nationwide. Over my choreographic career I have worked with many artists that have passed through their doors and commend them all on their professionalism, technique and creativity. The training and performance platform that QL2 offer to youth dancers and emerging artists in Australia is of the highest standard; an invaluable asset to the local community. I look forward to joining and supporting QL2 on their journey into the future.

Quantum Leap, the QL2 performing arm, will celebrate its twentieth anniversary from 9–11 August at the Canberra Theatre Centre with a production called Two Zero. Choreography will be by Eliza Sanders, Stephen Gow, Sara Black, Ruth Osborne, Alison Plevey, Dean Cross and Daniel Riley, with the Quantum Leap Ensemble.

Sam Young-Wright and Chloe Leong in ‘Variation 10’ from Triptych, Sydney Dance Company, 2015. Photo: © Peter Grieg

  • Dame Gillian Lynne (1926–2018)

I was sorry to hear of the death of Gillian Lynne early in July, although I had heard when last in London that she was not at all well. In my April Dance Diary I recalled briefly her work for Robert Helpmann in Australia and more recently for Birmingham Royal Ballet, and also commented on how much I enjoyed reading her autobiography A dancer in wartime. Here is a link to an obituary published in London by The Guardian.

Some time ago now (in 2011 to be exact) when I was working on an article for Dance Research about the Dandré-Levitoff tours, I posted an article on Alexander Levitoff. Very recently a comment on that article was made and in it was included an extremely interesting catalogue of photographs, including some of Levitoff. But there are many others that I have not seen elsewhere.  Here is the link to the 2011 post. Scroll down for the comments and the link.

  • Press for July 2018

‘Dark Emu lacking in structure.’ Review of Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Dark Emu. The Canberra Times, 30 July 2018, p. 20. Online version at this link.

Michelle Potter, 31 July 2018

Featured image: Portrait of Rafael Bonachela (detail), 2013. Photo: © Ben Symons