Dame Margaret Scott. Photo Angela Lynkushka

Dame Margaret Scott, 1922—2019

I was deeply saddened to hear of the death of Dame Margaret Scott on 24 February 2019. I was enormously privileged to have spent considerable time with her throughout 2014 as I wrote her biography for Text Publishing. Even before that, way back in 1993, I had the pleasure of recording an oral history interview with her for the National Library of Australia, which eventually formed a framework for the biography.

Vale Maggie. You were an exceptional woman and you changed the face of dance in Australia. The obituary I wrote has been published in Dance Australia at this link.

Dame Margaret Scott, AC, DBE, OBE.
Born Johannesburg, South Africa, 26 April 1922
Died Melbourne, Australia, 24 February 2019

Michelle Potter, 24 February 2019

Featured image: Dame Margaret Scott, 1994 (detail). Photo: © Angela Lynkushka. Used with the kind permission of the photographer

Dame Margaret Scott. Photo Angela Lynkushka
Tamara Tchinarova and friends, Christchurch 1939

Russell Kerr lecture, February 2019

The Russell Kerr lecture for 2019 was delivered in Wellington, New Zealand, on 10 February 2019 by Dr Ian Lochhead. Lochhead is dance critic for The Press, Christchurch, and formerly Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Canterbury. His lecture focused on the tours to New Zealand by the Monte Carlo Russian Ballet in 1937 and the Covent Garden Russian Ballet in 1939.

While the lecture as a whole opened up a number of issues that perhaps have not been fully considered in previous writings about the Australasian Ballets Russes tours, for me the most fascinating moment of all came when Lochhead flashed up the image used as the featured image on this post. It is well known to most Australians interested in the tours of the Ballets Russes and shows (l–r) Serge Ismailoff, Anna Volkova, Oleg Tupine, and Tamara Tchinarova (later Tamara Finch) with bicycles. Paul Petroff stands to the right, hands in pockets. It belongs in the Papers of Tamara Finch (MS 9733) and it has always been considered to have been taken somewhere in Australia. But Lochhead showed convincingly that the image was shot in Christchurch in 1939 during the visit to that major South Island city by the Covent Garden Russian Ballet.

Lochhead introduced us (or certainly me) to Olivia Spencer Bower, an English-born artist who lived a large part of her life in New Zealand. Spencer Bower, it seems, was taken with the dancers of the Covent Garden Russian Ballet and the Spencer Bower collection at the Christchurch Art Gallery includes an album of photographs, which she may have taken herself, of the Covent Garden Russian Ballet during its 1939 visit. One, reproduced below, shows a row of at least seventeen dancers holding bicycles and lined up in front of a theatre identified by Lochhead (a Christchurch resident) as Christchurch’s Theatre Royal. It has a large poster advertising the Covent Garden Russian Ballet across its entrance and to the side of the line-up is the tobacconist and hairdresser shop seen in the featured image above. Ismailoff, Volkova, Tupine, and Tchinarova are wearing the same clothes in both images. There is no doubt that the featured image above is not from Australia but from Christchurch.

Covent Garden Russian Ballet, Her Majesty's Theatre Christchurch, 1939. Olivia Spencer Bower photo album, Christchurch Art Gallery
Covent Garden Russian Ballet, Theatre Royal, Christchurch, 1939. Olivia Spencer Bower photo album, Christchurch Art Gallery. Reproduced with the permission of the Olivia Spencer Bower Foundation

It is always a thrill to discover new information about material in archival holdings. And it is even better when new information allows us to revise previous assumptions. The featured image in this post celebrates Christchurch as a venue for the visiting Ballets Russes companies that had such an influence on the growth of dance in the southern hemisphere.

Ian Lochhead’s lecture was preceded by two danced items: a performance of the Prelude from Les Sylphides danced by Taylor-Rose Frisby, a second year student of the New Zealand School of Dance; and The Dying Swan performed by Abigail Boyle from Royal New Zealand Ballet. Frisby showed beautiful control and I look forward to seeing more of her work. Abigail Boyle has featured on this website on several occasions. Live music, and it was exceptional, came from pianist Hamish Robb and cello player Inbal Megiddo, both from the New Zealand School of Music, Te Koki.

It is with a certain regret that I add that Boyle will shortly retire as a performer. Recent news from Royal New Zealand Ballet indicates that Boyle will dance in RNZB’s forthcoming New Choreographic Series and will then pursue a teaching career.

A note on the first Russell Kerr lecture held in 2018 is at this link

Michelle Potter, 15 February 2019

Featured image: Serge Ismailoff, Anna Volkova, Oleg Tupine, and Tamara Tchinarova, Covent Garden Russian Ballet, Christchurch, 1939. Photographer not identified. Papers of Tamara Finch, National Library of Australia

Tamara Tchinarova and friends, Christchurch 1939

Kristian Fredrikson design for the Indian Prince (detail) in 'Rose Adagio', West Australian Ballet 1971

Dance diary. January 2019

  • Robert O’Kell

Robert O’Kell danced with the Australian Ballet from 1962 to 1966 and then again in 1969. In 1971 he danced the role of the Indian Prince in a Rose Adagio staged by West Australian Ballet, which was the subject of an earlier post on this website. During a period of research at the National Library I chanced upon some designs by Kristian Fredrikson for this Rose Adagio, and a little later some material from Rex Reid, which identified O’Kell as the Indian Prince in this production. I am curious to know if O’Kell is still alive and if so how he can be contacted. If you can help I would love to hear from you via the comments box below.

  • Oral histories

In January I had the pleasure of recording two new oral histories for the National Library of Australia. The first was with Fiona Tonkin. It was part of a the Australia-China Council project, a collaborative venture between the Australia-China Council and the National Library of Australia to document the role of the Council in Australian cultural life. Tonkin had just joined the Australian Ballet when the company went to China in 1980 and she had some lovely anecdotes about that tour. The China experience was a part only of the interview, which was a ‘whole of life’ recording that now joins the National Library’s extensive archive of dance interviews.

My second interview in January was with renowned photographer Heide Smith. In the interview Smith recalled one of her earliest commissions after migrating to Australia in 1971 with her husband and two daughters—she was commissioned by the arts magazine The Entertainer to photograph various performers working in Sydney. It was the time when Margot Fonteyn was guesting with the Australian Ballet and Smith has, amongst her extensive archive, some beautiful images of Fonteyn and Garth Welch in costume for Raymonda, along with close-ups of each of them.

Garth Welch, Sydney 1971. Photo Heide Smith

Photos of Garth Welch and Margot Fonteyn, Sydney 1971. © Heide Smith. Reproduced with permission.

  • A new Anna Karenina

An article in a newspaper from the United States attracted my attention this morning. The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago (currently directed by former Australian Ballet dancer Ashley Wheater) will open a new production of Anna Karenina on 13 February 2019. It will have choreography by Yuri Possokhov, who is at present choreographer-in-residence at San Francisco Ballet. I was hugely impressed by Possokhov’s version of The Rite of Spring, which I saw several years ago, in 2013 to be exact. It is, unfortunately, the only one of his works that I have seen so far. But it seems that the Australian Ballet is splitting the cost of mounting the new Anna Karenina fifty-fifty with Joffrey. The Australian Ballet, or so the Chicago Tribune announced, will premiere the Possokhov Anna Karenina in Melbourne in May 2020. Something to anticipate?

  • Edna Busse

Edna Busse, ballerina with the Borovansky Ballet in its early days, died on 2 January 2019 aged 100. An obituary will follow later. Posts about Busse are at this tag.

  • Press for January 2019

‘Production brought to life for kids.’ Review of Storytime ballet. Coppélia. The Australian Ballet. The Canberra Times, 21 January 2019, p. 16. Online version

‘Another BOLD program for festival’. Preview of BOLD II, Canberra 13–17 March. The Canberra Times, 28 January 2019, p. 16. Online version

Michelle Potter, 31 January 2019

Featured image: Kristian Fredrikson, design for the Indian Prince (detail) in ‘Rose Adagio’, West Australian Ballet 1971

Kristian Fredrikson design for the Indian Prince (detail) in 'Rose Adagio', West Australian Ballet 1971

Katrina Rank in costume for 'Birdwatching'. Credit Robert Wagner

BOLD II. 2019

Below is an expanded version of an article published in print and online by The Canberra Times on 28 January 2019.

Canberra’s remarkable performer, mentor and choreographer, Liz Lea, has once again taken on the mammoth task of presenting BOLD, a festival she founded in 2017 in anticipation of it becoming a biennial event. In that inaugural year, Lea boldly did the whole thing without any external funding. At least this year she managed to secure some financial backing so, while life for her at the moment may still hold a myriad of organisational problems, at least there are fewer financial concerns. And as BOLD patron, Dr Elizabeth Cameron Dalman of the Lake George-based Mirramu Creative Arts Centre, says:

Making a career in the arts, particularly in dance, is not an easy pathway. It requires skill and discipline, both a flexible body and a flexible mind, determination and a great deal of audacity. One needs to be ‘bold’.

In its extensive program of talks, film showings, workshops and performances, BOLD II will focus on the legacy and heritage of dance in Australia and elsewhere, but will also have a strong focus on diversity of practice and issues of gender and ethnicity.

Indigenous artists will play a prominent role. A soft launch by the senior group from Tasmania, MADE, will be held at the Dickson Tradies Tramway Bar on the afternoon of March 13. It will be followed that evening by the official launch—a performance by Vicki van Hout whose indigenous heritage is with the Wiradjuri people of New South Wales. Van Hout will perform her recently created solo plenty serious TALK TALK at QL2 Theatre, Gorman Arts Centre. The work examines the consultative process that characterises the creation of indigenous and van Hout has been reported as saying:

Even if I am on stage by myself, as an artist, I am never truly alone as I am bound to bring my family, my peers and mentors to work with me. In this piece, I decided to place the usual behind-the-scenes action of the indigenous arts making process front and centre.

Vicki van Hout in 'plenty serious TALK TALK'. Photo Heidrun Lohr

Vicki van Hout in plenty serious TALK TALK, 2018. Photo: © Heidrun Löhr

Another indigenous performer we can look forward to seeing is violinist Eric Avery, who may be remembered as the musician who played violin for Lea’s earlier work made with Tammi Gissell, Magnificus, magnificus. Avery, who also dances with Marrugeku, a company operating between Broome in Western Australia and Carriageworks in Sydney, will amongst other activities, lead a dance through Parliament House, creating choreography while playing live.

Not all performances will take place in theatre venues. In addition to Avery’s activities at Parliament House, there will be performances at the National Portrait Gallery (as happened in 2017), and several performances will take place at lunchtime on the podium outside the National Library. On March 14 Katrina Rank, who in 2018 was the recipient of an Australian Dance Award for Services to Dance, will perform her solo, Birdwatching. On the following day Canberra’s senior ensemble, the GOLDS, will also be on the podium performing Annette from Lea’s collaborative and award-winning work Great Sport! .

The GOLDs in Liz Lea's 'Annette'. Credit Lorna Sim

The GOLDs in Liz Lea’s Annette, 2016. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Several international performers are also taking part this year, including Javanese dancer Didik Hadiprayitno,whose approach to dance certainly highlights the theme of diversity of practice. He is a cross-dresser who impersonates women in his performances of traditional Javanese and Balinese dance. Lea first encountered his work in 2017 when she was appearing at a festival in Java, which Hadiprayitno was directing. Lea recalls:

It was an outdoor festival with the theme of Gods and Goddesses. It rained and there were umbrellas everywhere, even on top of lights. But it was extraordinary. I wanted to bring so many of the dancers to Australia for BOLD but in the end was only able to bring Hadiprayitno.

Didik Hadiprayitno

Indonesian cross-dresser Didik Hadiprayitno. Photographer not identified

Also coming from Asia, this time from Singapore, is violinist, Kailin Yong, whom many in Canberra will remember from last year’s 40th anniversary performance by Canberra Dance Theatre when he performed with Anca Frankenhaeuser in MIST. For BOLD II Yong will be bringing along his wife and young child, who will feature in a trio that ex-Canberran Stephanie Burridge is creating on the family. Yong is also composing new music for a solo for Frankenhaeuser, and another Canberra-based dancer, Debora di Centa, will also perform with Yong as accompanist.

Former Canberrans will also feature throughout the festival. Sue Healey, who led a dance company, Vis-à-vis Dance Canberra, for several years in the 1990s, and who has since made a career as an award-winning film maker, will show a selection of her most recent short films at the National Film and Sound Archive on March 15. They include selections from En route, a film made as part of a public art installation project for Wynyard railway station in Sydney. En route was shot at various disused stations and railway lines across New South Wales and features several performers with Canberra connections including James Batchelor and Elizabeth Cameron Dalman, Dalman will also feature in others of Healey’s films including in Weerewa, a collaborative venture with the Taiwanese group Danceology.

Still from 'En route'. Courtesy Sue Heale

Still from En route. Courtesy Sue Healey

Paige Gordon, whose company Paige Gordon and Performance Group was also a significant force in Canberra in the 1990s, will speak at the festival. Her talk goes back to a moving work she made in Canberra called Shed. A place where men can dance. The reaction to Shed inspired Gordon’s current path of working with people across the community, and helping them to move and be moved by dance.

A new feature for the 2019 festival, which Lea anticipates will be a permanent feature of future BOLD festivals, is the BOLD lecture in honour of Janis Claxton. Claxton, who died last year, was an Australian who graduated from the Queensland University of Technology, and who went on to make an impact on the contemporary dance world in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe and America. Lea explains:

She was a feisty woman. I first saw her work in the 1990s and was impressed by the way she was promoting gender equality and working in non-traditional spaces. She contacted me just before she died and I was moved that she had done that. She was a bold artist and I wanted to honour her.

This year the BOLD lecture will be delivered by Claire Hicks, director of Critical Path the Sydney-based organisation fostering choreographic research and development. Other keynote speakers for 2019 are Karen Gallagher, Padma Menon and Marilyn Miller.

Perhaps what is most interesting for Canberra audiences is the way BOLD II will reflect the legacy of Canberra dance over several decades. And as we look at the past, we can also see a future. The finale to BOLD II, however, will be less about dance and more about what Canberra has to offer visitors. On Sunday March 17 the BOLD Balloon Breakfast will take place with participants watching the launch of hot air balloons at the Canberra Balloon Spectacular. The breakfast will be followed later that morning by JUICE, a closing performance by the Canberra group Somebody’s Aunt at McKellar Ridge Wines at Murrumbateman. A wine tasting will follow.

A schedule of events (subject to change according to injuries and other matters that inevitably affect dance artists) is available on the BOLD website . It indicates the many artists and speakers from Australia and across the world who have not been specifically mentioned here.  Registrations are now open.

Michelle Potter, 28 March 2019

Dance diary. December 2018

All good wishes for 2019 and my grateful thanks to all who have visited this site over the past year, especially those who have taken the time to comment. And of course special thanks to my co-contributor, Jennifer Shennan, who throughout the year opened our eyes to what was happening in the New Zealand dance world.

  • New artistic directors

Both Expressions Dance Company and Chunky Move have announced the appointment of new artistic directors. In Brisbane Amy Hollingsworth is the new director of Expressions Dance Company replacing Natalie Weir. Hollingsworth’s immediate past position was ballet mistress and creative associate with Queensland Ballet

Amy Hollingsworth. 2018. Photo: Transit Dance

Amy Hollingsworth, 2018. Photo: © Transit Dance

In Melbourne Antony Hamilton and Kristy Ayre will jointly lead Chunky Move following the resignation of Anouk van Dijk. They will be joined by Freya Waterson who will be responsible for the company’s national and international touring program.

Antony Hamilton, Kristy Ayre and Freya Waterson. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

I look forward to seeing how the companies develop in 2019.

  • Padma Menon

In Canberra it is interesting news that Padma Menon has decided to take up teaching once more. She says: ‘After almost a decade, I am offering classical Indian dance classes again! The classes will focus on teaching choreography and the technique of Indian dance. However, I always like to highlight the emotional heart of Indian theatre, and how these ancient traditions can be meaningful to us in our lives today. These classes are for adult beginners looking for a contemporary approach to an ancient tradition.’ Contact Moving Archetypes for more information: Moving Archetypes <info@movingarchetypes.com.au>

  • December reading

While relaxing over Christmas I had the luxury of reading a few books, including two dance books. Eileen. Stories from the Phillip Street Courtyard, newly published, is a kind of memoir in which Eileen Kramer, former Bodenwieser dancer, recalls her life in Sydney in the 1930s. To be frank, it is not a well edited publication, but the glimpse it gives of Sydney is interesting and Kramer’s illustrations, done in the style of naïve art, are a delight.

Douglas Wright’s ghost dance is a book that has been sitting, unread, on my bookshelf for a long time. Wright’s death earlier this year was my cue to get on with reading it. In his author’s note he writes: ‘ghost dance is not a conventional autobiography with a linear progression through life, but a faithful record of the journeys I felt compelled to make into my own past and that of a close friend.’ What an eye-opener some of those journeys were! And I must say I learnt a lot about New York, where Wright lived while a dancer with Paul Taylor—things from the 1980s about which I had absolutely no inkling. But what was incredibly striking was his beautiful, often startling use of language. It almost outdid the creativity of his choreography.

The rest of my reading concerned Indonesia … and Dances of Bali by Kartika D. Suardana awaits.

Michelle Potter, 31 December 2018

Merry Christmas 2018

Selamat Hari Natal from the Island of the Gods where, at Christmas time, cultures meet and everything is possible. And where every day dance is part of life.

 

Michelle Potter, 25 December 2018

Featured image: Balinese Barong (detail) as he appears in the Kris Dance. Other images from a Nusa Dua hotel. All images by Michelle Potter.

Elma Kris and Daniel Riley in 'Spear'. Photo Tiffany Parker

Dance diary. November 2018

  • The changing face of Bangarra Dance Theatre

Bangarra Dance Theatre has just announced that the company is saying farewell at the end of the year to six of its dancers: Waangenga Blanco, Daniel Riley, Tara Robertson, Kaine Sultan-Babij, Luke Currie-Richardson and Yolanda Lowatta. Each has made an amazing contribution to Bangarra over recent years. Who can forget Daniel Riley’s remarkable performances in the film Spear, and his equally powerful dancing and acting as Governor Macquarie in Jasmine Sheppard’s Macq? Then it’s hard to forget, again in Spear, Kaine Sultan Babij as ‘Androgynous Man’ stalking through long grass and between trees? And there is a myriad of performances from Waangenga Blanco that stand out. As well as his role in Patyegarang, there is the ‘Angel’ duet, danced with Leonard Mickelo, in Riley, and his powerful performance in Frances Rings’ Terrain. So much more …

I wish them all well for wherever their dancing takes them and look forward to seeing them before they leave in Dubboo, opening shortly in Sydney. And of course there is the thrill of seeing new dancers in 2019.

Waangenga Blanco in 'Patyegarang', Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2014. Photo: Greg Barrett

Waangenga Blanco in Patyegarang, Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2014. Photo: © Greg Barrett

  • Robert Helpmann. The many faces of a theatrical dynamo

A new book of essays on Robert Helpmann has recently been published. It contains essays from a range of scholars and performers and is supplemented by a DVD of archival footage, including a documentary on the revival of Miracle in the Gorbals in 2014 by Birmingham Royal Ballet

My chapter, ‘Elektra. Helpmann uninhibited’ considers the origins of Helpmann’s ballet Elektra, Helpmann’s choreographic approach, and the differences, particularly in relation to Arthur Boyd’s designs, between the English production of Elektra in 1963 and that presented by the Australian Ballet at the Adelaide Festival in 1966.

Robert Helpmann book cover

Edited by Richard Cave and Anna Meadmore. Published in the United Kingdom by Dance Books in October 2018.
ISBN 9781852731793

Available from Dance Books Ltd and other retailers.

 

  • Canberra Critics’ Circle Awards, 2018 (Dance)

Canberra Critics’ Circle, now almost 30 years old, held its annual awards in November. This years dance awards went to:

Liz Lea: For the multi-media production RED, which drew together the work of four choreographers, including Lea, in a moving, courageous and dramatically coherent exploration of the medical condition of endometriosis.
My review of RED is at this link.

Alison Plevey and the Australian Dance Party: For Seamless, an innovative, well-considered and theatrically staged comment on the fashion industry, performed with wit and skill at the 2017 Floriade Fringe.
My review of Seamless is at this link.

Seamless, Floriade Fringe 2017. Australian Dance Party. Photo: Lorna Sim

Scene from Seamless, Floriade Fringe 2017. Australian Dance Party. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Emma Nikolic and Karen Brock: For their innovative choreography for the Canberra Philharmonic Society’s production of Strictly Ballroom. Their inventive interpretations of a number of traditional ballroom dance styles allowed the large ensemble of dancers to convince as champion ballroom dance contestants.

Michelle Heine: For her choreography for Free Rain Theatre Company’s production of 42nd Street. Her choreography for the spectacular production numbers successfully captured the authentic Broadway feel of the musical and was exceptionally well danced by the ensemble.

  • James Batchelor

Canberra dance goers will be interested to learn that James Batchelor will be back working in Canberra in 2019. He will be showing his latest work, Hyperspace, at a time and a Canberra venue to be announced. Hyperspace was made in 2018 during residencies in Nottingham, England, and Bassano del Grappa, Italy, and was recently performed in the B.motion festival in Bassano and at La Briqueterie Paris. It will also be part of the Dance Massive 2019 line up in Melbourne.

Batchelor is also looking forward to creating a new full-length work for Quantum Leap. It will premiere as QL2’s major work for the full ensemble at the Playhouse in August.

  • NGA Play. Sally Smart

The National Gallery of Australia has just installed a new children’s play area that highlights aspects of the Gallery’s extensive collection of costumes from the era of the Ballet Russes. It is designed by Melbourne-based artist Sally Smart, one of whose interests is in the juxtaposition of the art of the Ballets Russes with contemporary ideas of assemblage, cut-out items and patchwork-style lengths of fabric.

Dance features in a series of projections of dancer Brooke Stamp improvising in homage to and inspired by the dances of the Ballets Russes era (with a nod to Javanese dance). Stamp performed live (a one-off performance) at the opening of the play area early in November.

Brooke Stamp improvises for 'NGA Play. Sally Smart', 2018

Brooke Stamp improvising at the opening of the National Gallery of Australia’s children’s installation. Photo: Michelle Potter

  • Press for November 2018

’Rudolf Nureyev.’ Program article for La Scala Ballet’s Australian season, 2018. This article contains two very interesting, casual photos of Nureyev (one with Fonteyn), which I have not come across before.

‘Movement and message fail to link.’ Review of Australian Dance party’s Energeia. The Canberra Times, 22 November 2018, p. 20. Online version

 

Michelle Potter, 30 November 2018

Featured image: Elma Kris and Daniel Riley in Spear. Photo: © Tiffany Parker

Elma Kris and Daniel Riley in 'Spear'. Photo Tiffany Parker

 

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