Marlo Benjamin, Kimball Wong and Jana Castillo in Tanja Liedtke’s construct. Australian Dance Theatre, 2017. Photo: © Chris Herzfeld/Camlight Productions

Construct. Australian Dance Theatre. ADAPT Season 2020

Tanja Liedtke’s Construct, a streamed performance from 2017, was an eye-opener. I had not, for various reasons, seen the work before and, while I had heard a lot about it, I really had no idea what to expect. Well, it was funny, it was sad, it was revealing, it was complex, it was about life (and at one stage about death).

Danced with great panache and skill by Marlo Benjamin, Jana Castillo, and Kimball Wong, it examined from so many points of view the notion of construction, as the name implies. The stage space was filled with various items used in building construction, a saw horse, items of timber, power tools, a ladder at one stage, and other such items. The construction of a house was intended as further items were added, and as the basic shape of a house took place. But on a different level the work was also about the ‘construction’ of relationships and often this was indicated by the touching (or not) of index fingers (à la Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling painting). Sometimes the human element was intense, at other times distant, but Liedkte managed to move from one situation to another with ease, often rapidly but, remarkably, without creating any confusion in one’s mind while watching.

Marlo Benjamin, Kimball Wong and Jana Castillo in Tanja Liedtke’s construct. Australian Dance Theatre, 2017. Photo: © Chris Herzfeld/Camlight Productions
Kimball Wong and Jana Castillo in Tanja Liedtke’s construct. Australian Dance Theatre, 2017. Photo: © Chris Herzfeld/Camlight Productions

Choreographically Construct was entirely different from anything I have seen before. Sometimes the movement seemed quite simple. There was walking, simple jumping, and lying on the floor. But most of the movement was complex and required extreme flexibility, even acrobatic skills from the dancers. But to me it never looked acrobatic or overly physical—just fluid, remarkable and unique.

The work opened with a very funny sequence in which Wong made a largely unsuccessful effort to balance Benjamin and Castillo in an upright position. The two women were as immobile as the strips of wood that became such an inherent feature of the rest of the work. As Construct progressed those strips of wood became windows, roofs, doorways, even a toilet seat at one stage. But looking back, the immobile ladies perhaps represented certain aspects of human relationships, the inability to control another person perhaps?

Construct is an astonishing work created by a choreographer who had a hugely inventive mind. I wish I had seen more of her work.

Michelle Potter, 9 August 2020

Featured image: Marlo Benjamin, Kimball Wong and Jana Castillo in Tanja Liedtke’s construct. Australian Dance Theatre, 2017. Photo: © Chris Herzfeld/Camlight Productions

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

The Royal Danish Ballet. Jacob’s Pillow Virtual Festival 2020

The Royal Danish Ballet has had a close relationship with Jacob’s Pillow, that beautiful dance venue in the Berkshires in Massachusetts, since the 1950s. Ted Shawn, founder of the Pillow, was even given a knighthood by the King of Denmark in 1957 for initiating the cultural exchange that brought the Danes to the attention of an American dance audience.

Most recently the company, presently led by Nikolaj Hübbe, performed at the Pillow in 2018. Highlights from that 2018 program have just been streamed by Jacob’s Pillow as they, like all of us around the world, attempt to manage a situation in which live performance is pretty much impossible. The streamed program consisted of the pas de sept from A Folk Tale, the pas de deux from Act II of La Sylphide, the pas de deux from Act I of Kermesse in Bruges, the pas de deux from Act II of Giselle, and the pas de six and tarantella from Napoli. With the exception of Giselle, all had choreography by August Bournonville, whose unique style has become synonymous with the Royal Danish Ballet (although of course these days the company dances the choreography of many others).

This program was danced without scenery, which put the focus firmly on the choreography, and it enabled us, I think, to look beyond the complexity of those incredible beaten steps and the beautiful ballon that has always seemed to be the cornerstone of the Bournonville technique. Not that those particular features, and the complexity of the combinations of steps, was unclear, but other aspects of the technique became more apparent (at least to me). I was moved especially by the use of the upper body, the epaulement and the incline of the head; by the simplicity of some of the steps that provided a contrast to the more complex ones; and by the use of academic positions of the arms—constant use of bras bas, and third position captured my attention in particular.

I loved too the interactions between the dancers when they weren’t dancing. At times they were casual onlookers, at others they applauded their colleagues efforts, or they showed them off to the audience. The dance became a regular human activity rather than an eisteddfod-like showcase.

Royal Danish Ballet in the Tarantella from Napoli, 2018. Photo: © Christopher Duggan

While Napoli was the highlight as the closing work, and it was danced with strength, joy and vibrancy, I admired in particular the pas de deux from Kermesse in Bruges. Andreas Kaas had great presence on stage and an exceptional ability to connect with his partner, Ida Praetorius on this occasion. They gave the pas de deux a real storyline. But that pas de deux also demonstrated how duets from Bournonville often involve a particular structure in which the partners often dance side by side, sometimes in unison, sometimes executing the same steps next to each other but as a kind of mirror image. There are fewer high lifts as a result (although, of course, they are not missing).

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

The one jarring issue for me occurred in the pas de deux from La Sylphide danced by Amy Watson and Marcin Kupinski—nothing to do with the performance itself but with the shirt Kupinski wore. It seemed to be made of very light material and every time he jumped (which was often) it moved up and down to the extent that I kept thinking he was lifting his shoulders and destroying the line of his body. He wasn’t and his performance in Napoli showed his physical composure. But in La Sylphide that shirt made it seem as if he wasn’t in control.

Ida Praetorius, Marcin Kupinski and Kizzy Matiakis in Napoli, Royal Danish Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Christopher Duggan

The one non-Bournonville work, the Act II pas de deux from Giselle, seemed a little lack-lustre to me. Perhaps it did need something else—if not some scenery then the presence of Myrthe. I did admire, however, the way J’aime Crandall used her arms with so much expression.

But shirts and lack-lustre aside, what a wonderful hour of dancing. And follow this link for an excerpt from A Folk Tale courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive.

Michelle Potter, 1 August 2020

Featured image: Andreas Kaas and Ida Praetorius in the pas de deux from Kermesse in Bruges. Royal Danish Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Christopher Duggan

Afterthought (from an Australian perspective): Given the Australian connections in the Danish Royal Family, perhaps we need to persuade the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) to make an effort to partner with the Royal Danish Ballet in QPAC’s very successful International Series. The Series has so far seen American Ballet Theatre, the Paris Opera Ballet, the Royal Ballet, La Scala Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet, and others, come to Brisbane for a summer season. The Royal Danish Ballet would be a magnificent addition.

The Sleeping Beauty. The Royal Ballet. Digital Season 2020

I have often wondered about Ninette de Valois’ 1946 staging of The Sleeping Beauty, which opened up Covent Garden after World War II. My interest was sparked after examining dance in wartime London while undertaking research for my 2014 biography of Dame Margaret Scott.* More recently I have been interested in Oliver Messel, who designed that 1946 production, given that Kristian Fredrikson, as an emerging designer in the 1960s, admired Messel’s work, and in fact some of his 1960s designs are indebted to Messel.** So, it was interesting to be able to watch a recent revival of the de Valois production, a revival staged by Monica Mason and repetiteur Christopher Newton, originally in 2006.

The streamed production was a performance from early 2020 and featured Fumi Kaneko as Aurora and Federico Bonelli as Prince Florimund. I had not seen Kaneko, a Royal Ballet First Soloist, dance before and for me the most startling feature of her dancing was her exceptional sense of balance. It showed itself throughout the performance and, in fact, was more startling outside the Rose Adagio than within it. I also admired her characterisation as the 16 year old Aurora In Act I. She was full of youthful joy and excitement, although I would have liked a little more contrast in her Aurora of the last act, which would have strengthened her overall performance. She was, however, absolutely enchanting in this last act in her solo variation from the grand pas de deux. Her beautifully expressive arms and hands, for example, told us of the process of her becoming an adult.

Bonelli is a dab hand at playing princely figures and did not disappoint. I especially admired the emotional quality he brought to Act II as a lonely prince looking for love. Then, as with Kaneko, his solo variation in Act III was beautifully danced with exceptional control of those assorted leaps and turns. In fact, the grand pas de deux was thrilling from start to finish. Of the other characters, Elizabeth McGorian was an outstanding Queen, full of love and then concern for her daughter, while Kristen McNally was an individualistic and highly theatrical and flamboyant Carabosse. Thomas Whitehead developed the character of Catalabutte well and Yasmine Naghdi and Matthew Ball showed off their excellent techniques as Princess Florisse and the Bluebird. I especially enjoyed Naghdi’s understanding of what is behind that particular dance, that is she is listening to the Bluebird teaching her how to fly.

But how things have changed since 1946, at least from where I stand. This production had so much more mime than what I am used to seeing. Has it been lost in later productions? If so, why I wonder because in the Royal Ballet production it made the story much stronger, and there were no problems in understanding what was being ‘said’. And there were moments when certain aspects of the story were opened up. We know that the King banned all spindles from his kingdom after Carabosse declared that Aurora would die from pricking her finger on such an item. But I can’t remember seeing a production where three village women, trying to hide their spindles, were brought before the King who wanted to execute them. Such moments fill out the story and give back the narrative to what is essentially a narrative ballet. I loved it.

All in all, and as ever, the Royal Ballet gave us an exceptional performance from every point of view.

As for the Messel costumes, I thought many were just too much. Too much colour, too much decoration. I’m not sure why the Lilac Fairy had those bright pink layers of tulle to her tutu. It was only in the darkness of the forests of Act II that the glints of lilac could be seen peeking through the lolly pink. But it was interesting to see those characteristics of Messel tutus that Fredrikson picked up on in his early work—wide decorative shoulder straps, and an overlay of feathery (or leafy) patterns spilling down from the bodice onto the tulle skirt of the tutu, for example. This style was exemplified by the tutu for the Lilac Fairy (danced by Gina Storm-Jensen). Those few of Fredrikson‘s designs that are still readily available for Peggy van Praagh’s 1964 staging of Aurora’s Wedding, his first Australian Ballet production, show a similar approach. Fredrikson acknowledged his interest in Messel’s work when he said he admired Messel’s ‘extraordinary richness and imagination’.

Michelle Potter, 29 July 2020

Featured image: Fumi Kaneko in a still from Act I, The Sleeping Beauty. The Royal Ballet, 2020

*Dame Maggie Scott. A life in dance (Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2014)
**Kristian Fredrikson. Designer (Melbourne: Melbourne Books, 2020)

Coppélia. The Australian Ballet. Digital Season 2020

The Australian Ballet’s production of Coppélia dates back to 1979—thirty-one years ago—when it was staged by Peggy van Praggh with George Ogilvie as dramaturg. This 2020 digital screening was dedicated to Ogilvie, who died in April of this year. There is little doubt that Ogilvie’s input had a lot to do with the long-lasting success of the ballet and in fact he returned to work with the Australian Ballet for its 2016 production, which is the one we see in this online screening. Of course it can’t be denied that the visual beauty of the production, with sets and costumes by Kristian Fredrikson, added to its success. Fredrikson, who was born in Wellington, New Zealand, admitted that he designed Coppélia as a tribute to van Praagh who, back in the 1960s, gave him the opportunity to work in Australia. He regarded van Praagh as the person who nurtured his early career. It was indeed a lovely tribute from Fredrikson since Coppélia was a work in which van Praagh herself had shone during her own dancing career.

Peggy van Praagh as Swanilda. 'Coppélia', Act 11, 1940s. Photo: Anthony
Peggy van Praagh as”Swanhilda” (i.e. Swanilda) in Coppélia, Act 11, 1940s. Photo: Anthony. National Library of Australia

The dancing in many of the productions of Coppélia I have seen has often been of a rather mixed quality. But not this time. Led by Ako Kondo as Swanilda, Chengwu Guo as Franz and Andrew Killian as Dr Coppélius, with a stunning supporting cast, there was little to complain about, and everything to admire as far as performance goes.

Ako Kondo in the Spanish variation in Coppélia Act II. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Kondo shone technically and in her acting, as did Guo. I especially loved the moments in Act I where the two of them stood in line to greet the official party arriving in the village square with Kondo declining, in no uncertain terms, to hold Guo’s hand (he had been paying too much attention to the doll on Dr Coppélius’ balcony). I also admired the grand pas de deux in Act III, which unfolded beautifully and was technically spectacular.

Andrew Killian was an interesting Dr Coppélius, not too over the top but very believable as an eccentric man totally absorbed in perfecting his magical powers. There was a lovely, calm rendition of the Prayer solo in Act III from Robyn Hendricks. And the corps de ballet deserves special mention for the vibrantly performed character dances in Act I. The Mazurka had its leading couple, but Guo joined in with a solo that added some spectacular moments in true principal artist fashion—exceptionally controlled turns, magnificent jumps and a truly beautiful showman-style use of head, chest and arms

As has been the case with pretty much every streamed production I have watched recently, it was great to see the occasional close-up shot of an individual dancer to give us a view of facial expressions and, of course, to give insight into the details of costumes.

My review of a 2016 performance, which I saw in Sydney with a quite different cast is at this link.

Michelle Potter, 20 July 2020

Featured image: Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in the grand pas de deux in Coppélia Act III. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Postscript: It was extremely annoying that the cast sheet that was available on the Australian Ballet’s website, supposedly to give us information about the cast, was not the correct one. It was dated the evening performance in Sydney of 16 December 2016 but the cast was entirely different from the one we saw, who also, apparently, performed on 16 December. Perhaps there was a matinee performance on 16 December? But at least there were credits at the end of the film, which helped.

Douglas Wright—the last dance. Tempo Dance Festival Online video viewing

15–19 July 2020
Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Auld Lang Syne

Several repeat viewings of this enigmatic little dance have reminded me of auld acquaintance —never to be forgotten, but still very good to have it brought to mind. I see it as Douglas’s conversation with the Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci. He moves but does not locomote. He stays within his kinesphere. 

The first minute is a spoken explanation from Douglas of the work’s gestation—’The images came to me. I told them to go away but they wouldn’t go away, they stayed like a cat scratching its paw on the door to be let in. I found a theme—one we all know about—the search for ecstasy—be that chocolate éclair, heroin rush, or orgasm. That quest is part of everyone’s life. The images grew into the work The Kiss Inside.’

Douglas stands his ground and lets his gestures speak. You can ‘hear’ as his hands sign and pray and plea, let him rest his cheek a little then wake him up. His arms spread like a tree branch, fold like a bird wing, or arc up and over like those of an angel. He signs himself with a cross, touches his fingertip to the pulse points in his throat or face, his breast or groin. He reaches down to walk his hands over the floor in front of him, to check the ground, terra firma, terra incognito. There’s driving pulse in the music by Naftuke Brandwein—Escorting the Bride and Groom Home.

The dance is first shown in Douglas’ home, in his jeans and boots, on the living room carpet, in front of his bookshelf, an art piece on the wall, a statue of a female saint adjacent. The year is 2014. The dance ends with the right arm forward, hand upwards, palm facing us, in a gesture that says ‘Wait’ or ‘Stop’. In Part Two of the film, Douglas dances on stage, within the choreography The Kiss Inside.  (Sky City, Auckland, 2015)

Douglas Wright in his solo from The Kiss Inside, 2015. Photo: © Pippa Samaya

A giant tree branch is suspended overhead. Trees exist both above and below ground. Douglas always was a dendrophile, so there are echoes for us of his first choreography for RNZBallet, decades ago, The Decay of Lying—and of the later works, A Far Cry and Forever.

Here Douglas walks on stage, bare foot, dressed in white pyjama. A uniformed nurse, on standby, watches him closely. She’ll be his first responder. His final gesture has re-shaped to become a right arm raised high, with the fist declaring ‘I hereby pledge. This is my truth.’  Douglas then walks to exit stage left.

(Update of 19 July 2020)

*******************************

Douglas Wright, New Zealand’s uniquely meteoric dancer, choreographer, writer, artist, died in late 2018. His last choreography, a short solo, M_Nod, was reviewed in On Dancing. His last full-length work, The Kiss Inside, was also reviewed here.

Douglas’ close colleague, rehearsal director and now choreographic executor, Megan Adams, has produced an unusual and poignant video document which traces the solo Douglas choreographed for himself within The Kiss Inside, but which he was only able to dance at some performances, when his health and stamina permitted.

Tempo Dance Festival, normally an annual live season in Auckland, has become a digital season this year due to Covid restrictions. Megan’s film is being screened this week, until Sunday.

From TDF website: It is an absolute honour to be hosting Douglas Wright’s The Kiss Inside (solo) this week on the Tempo digital stage. Thank you to Megan Adams for bringing this film together and allowing us to share such rare and beautiful footage. 

Here’s what Megan has to say about the work:

The Kiss Inside (2015) was the last time Douglas Wright performed on stage. He made an exquisite solo which sadly, due to sickness, he was unable to perform at every venue, so many people missed the opportunity to see him dance. In fact, Douglas didn’t advertise that he was performing, so many people didn’t even know that he had choreographed a solo for himself in this work. This solo was made over many weeks in his lounge in Mount Albert, Auckland. He would make choreographic material and I would visit him every week and he would show me what he had made, tell me where he thought it would go and we’d listened to music he was considering. We would share choreographic ideas and scrutinise every detail of the movement. Afterwards we would drink tea, talk about life and laugh. I occasionally videoed the sessions and the rehearsal footage in the film is of the first time that Douglas performed the entire dance from start to finish. I love the intimacy of the footage, we can hear him breathe and sigh and feel his vulnerability as he finds his way through such an intricate solo for the first time. What an absolute privilege it is to witness visionary artist Douglas Wright rehearsing at home, in his jeans and boots, in front of his favourite chair and the statue of a saint.

Douglas Wright’s The Kiss Inside (solo) will be up on the Tempo website from the 15–19 of July. 

There are motifs in this dance we recognise and remember from other work by Douglas (especially Elegy)—a kind of urgent semaphore of gesture, a celestial signing, in which we are being told things. This is before or beyond language—dance typically has no script anyway—but Douglas always had an urgent need to communicate—and indeed used dance, also visual art of found sculpture, and drawing—plus a considerable body of writing, to do just that.

Body of work. Work of the body. How he savoured language and its parallel existence alongside movement to say what he thought we should know.

This ascetic dance catches death by the tail and cheats it by 9 minutes. You can say a lot in 9 minutes if that’s all the time you’ve got. It’s how long it took me to write this review.

Don’t miss the dance.

Jennifer Shennan, 16 July 2020

Featured image: Douglas Wright rehearsing his solo from The Kiss Inside, 2014.

Artists of Australian Dance Theatre in ‘The Age of Unbeauty’. Photo: Chris Herzfeld

The Age of Unbeauty. Australian Dance Theatre. ADAPT Season 2020

The Age of Unbeauty goes back to 2002 when, as a work in progress. it was performed at the Adelaide Fringe. After that it played across Australia and around the world and won a number of awards. I am not sure of the date of the performance that was streamed as part of ADAPT, and by the time I thought to try to find out the streaming had closed. I’m not sure that it was ever revealed in the closing credits anyway

I hadn’t seen The Age of Unbeauty before and several words came straight to mind as I watched: violence, hatred, cruelty, intimidation, shame, vulnerability—words like that. It dealt with man’s inhumanity to man and certainly the relationships between the characters were mostly inhumane, and related, or so I understand, to artistic director Garry Stewart’s thoughts on the horrific treatment of refugees. Choreographic violence was clear. The dropping of pants was a constant image. There were references to medical issues, to imprisonment, to abuse. And there was a heart-stopping moment when two naked figures were visible behind a glass door unable to get out.

The Age of Unbeauty. Australian Dance Theatre. Photo:Chris Herzfeld
The Age of Unbeauty. Australian Dance Theatre. Photo: © Chris Herzfeld Camlight Productions

As we have come to expect from Australian Dance Theatre under Stewart’s direction, the performers were astonishing. Their gymnastic skills seem to know no bounds. They threw themselves through the air. They tumbled and turned. They balanced in positions that defy belief. But despite their incredible physical skills, somehow they are beginning to remind me of circus performers rather than dancers. It was, thus, with a sense of pleasure that I watched a quite beautiful video clip, the work of David Evans, towards the end of the work. In black and white, it consisted of individual headshots of men and women making simple, calm, unhurried moves. They turned their heads, or moved their gaze, nothing much more. Humanity at its most moving. Relief!

Michelle Potter, 13 July 2020

Featured image: Artists of Australian Dance Theatre in The Age of Unbeauty. Photo: © Alex Makayev

Artists of Australian Dance Theatre in ‘The Age of Unbeauty’. Photo: Alex Makayev

HELD. Australian Dance Theatre. ADAPT Season 2020

I have been a fan of Lois Greenfield’s dance photography for some years now. As a matter of fact, three of her images hang in my study and I also had the pleasure of visiting her in her New York studio and buying a small selection of her work for the Jerome Robbins Dance Division when I was working there. One of my favourite shots is of former Australian Ballet dancer Annabel Bronner Reid caught by Greenfield amidst a sweeping length of fabric while executing a quite breathtaking grand jeté. So HELD, in which Lois Greenfield takes an integral role, holds a special place in my thoughts.

HELD, in a recording dating from the work’s premiere in Adelaide in 2004, was streamed for 48 hours in June as part of Australian Dance Theatre’s streaming initiative, ADAPT. In essence it examines dance and live photography for what together they might tell us about time and perception, for example, or motion and stillness. Greenfield is onstage for most of the hour-long performance, and captures on camera what she sees in front of her. Her images are shot at the astonishing speed of 1/2000 second and are projected within seconds onto onstage screens—usually two, one on either side of the stage space.

Stewart’s choreography is ideally suited to this kind of process. His dancers move at speed and in an explosive fashion. They put themselves into shapes that not many other dancers do. So what we see captured by Greenfield’s camera is startling. In fact we see dancers making unexpected shapes, taking twisted poses, showing intertwined bodies, which all add to a vision, a still image that would be unknown to us without Greenfield. Time passes, dance is ephemeral, and movements between movements are often unseen by the human eye, or not extracted by us from the vision ongoing movement. Greenfield gives us something of that ephemerality, and a lot of what we never perceive.

Beyond the astonishing mid-air moves that the dancers are so adept at performing, and that Greenfield captures so well, there are other sections that are also startling for their apparent lack of physical virtuosity. One section consists of groups of dancers posing almost motionless while a video plays on a screen placed centre stage. The video shows mostly close-up views of dancers’ faces. Emotional moments perhaps? Another fascinating section shows Greenfield’s ability to engage in a series of very fast takes so that a single resulting image transforms the dancer into a Shiva-like figure with multiple arms radiating from the torso.

It was a real treat to see HELD and to recall the talent of Greenfield as a dance photographer; the ADT dancers for their absolutely ballistic movement; and Stewart as a choreographer dealing with conceptual issues, and one who is also able to introduce diversity in both movement and concept. It sent me back to my photographs and the enjoyment they give.

A glimpse of my study in 2008 shortly after arriving home from New York, hence the sparseness of the surroundings. It is now jam-packed (and messy) with books, photos, essential devices and other such items, as well as the Greenfield photos

Michelle Potter, 27 June 2020

Featured image: A moment from HELD, Australian Dance Theatre, 2004. Photo: © Lois Greenfield

La Fille mal gardée. The Royal Ballet. Digital season 2020 (and some memories)

I had the pleasure recently of watching, via its digital streaming season, a performance by the Royal Ballet of Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée. It featured Marianela Nuñez as Lise and Carlos Acosta as Colas and dates back to 2005. The partnership between Nuñez and Acosta was technically outstanding and delightful from the point of view of the interactions between the two dancers. Ashton’s choreography, of course, was full of beautiful and often unexpected movements, including his constant use of epaulement; and scenes that I relished seeing again—the storm scene for example, with the cast rushing hither and thither was quite absorbing.

Below is a link to the Act I Pas de ruban.

But the production also brought back memories of some other productions I had seen, and some wider contextual issues that have arisen over the years.

Memories of Fille

  • Paris Opera Ballet

Perhaps the most memorable production I have seen was a performance by the Paris Opera Ballet in 2009. It happened on 14 July, the French national day, so there were one or two moments before and during that performance where that significance of that day was not forgotten. Here is a link to the review I wrote.

  • A thoughtful young man

On a contextual issue, I am curious about the image below from an Australian Ballet performance of Fille during the 1970s. Who is the young man standing there looking thoughtful? I have my suspicions! The image was taken by Walter Stringer and is part of his collection held in the National Library in Canberra. Sadly, the colour is fading, or changing, and I have had to put a filter on it so that the face of the dancer is a little clearer.

Dancers in a 1970s Australian Ballet production of La Fille mal gardée. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

(Update on the photograph above: Confirming my suspicion, those who know suggest the thoughtful young man is Graeme Murphy).

  • Alan Alder

And on another contextual issue, I recently made a timed summary of an oral history interview I did with Alan Alder back in 1999. The interview and its summary will shortly go online. In the meantime, below I have posted a short (1 min 12 secs) excerpt from the interview.

Alder was well-known for his portrayal of Alain, Lise’s rich but slightly unusual suitor in Fille, both during his time with the Royal Ballet and later with the Australian Ballet. The role was created by Ashton on Alexander Grant, and later the role was taken on by Donald Britton. But due to circumstances, which Alder explains in the interview, while with the Royal Ballet’s touring company Alder took over the role from Britton. On one occasion, when the touring company was in Edinburgh, Ashton decided to take a trip from London to see how Alder was handling the role. In the brief extract below Alder speak of Ashton’s reaction.

  • David Vaughan

The production by the Royal also brought back memories of my late colleague David Vaughan, former archivist for the Merce Cunningham company and author of Frederick Ashton and his Ballets. Cunningham and Ashton were the two choreographers Vaughan admired most of all (although some correspondence I had with him shortly before he died suggests that, had he lived on, he would have added Alexei Ratmansky to that list). But I often wondered what he considered were the characteristics of Cunningham and Ashton that drew him towards these two choreographers. Did he see similarities in their approaches to choreography? Sadly, I never asked and now I will never know.

Michelle Potter, 16 June 2020

Featured image: Marianela Nuñez and Carlos Acosta in La Fille mal gardée. The Royal Ballet, 2005. Photo: © Bill Cooper/ROH

Dancers of Australian Dance Theatre in 'Devolution', 2006. Photo: © Chris Herzfeld/Camlight Productions

Devolution. Australian Dance Theatre. ADAPT Season 2020

The first thing I did after watching Garry Stewart’s Devolution (created in 2006) was go to the dictionary to check exactly what ‘devolution’ meant. In its most straight forward meaning, the dictionary (The Macquarie Dictionary is my go-to hard copy source) says ‘the transfer or delegation of power or authority’. But it appears to have a biological meaning, that is ‘degeneration, retrograde evolution’. Both are interesting, or perhaps relevant, with regard to Devolution. Looking on the list of credits, too, Stewart lists Steve Griffiths as ‘Biology Consultant’.

Looking at the work, however, it is impossible not to be instantly overwhelmed by the huge mechanical devices that populate the stage space—robotic structures created by Louis-Philippe Demers. They lurch forward and backward, up and down, and often dominate the choreography (or the choreography for humans that is). Some smaller structures take over the humans somewhat and become prosthetic appendages, although that they need to be attached to a cable hooked up to something backstage limits the dancing possibilities and detracts from the overall image they generate when attached to a dancer.

Tim Ohl in Devolution. Australian Dance Theatre, 2006. Photo: © Chris Herzfeld/Camlight Productions

As for performances by the human dancers, it is in the mode we have come to expect from Stewart. The dancers have no fear (or so it seems) as they throw themselves through the air and fall the the floor, only to get up again and continue their adventurous foray through space. Daring physicality is the hallmark of the dancing. We also see headstands held for a long time, and an incredible solo that is a series of variations while in a backbend. It’s extreme movement to put it mildly.

Costumes by Georg Meyer-Wiel someteimes had the dancers looking like insects given that the material was layered, shell-like and protective, although they also revealed the dancers’ backsides. No protection there.

But what of the connections between people and robots? What of devolution? Who is delegating power to whom? What is the biological process? Are the humans falling into some kind of degenerative state as the robotic structures march forward? I didn’t see Devolution during its premiere season so it was an experience to see it during this streaming season. But it isn’t my favourite piece by Stewart.

The most gentle aspect of Devolution came from video artist Gina Czarnecki with her beautiful images that floated through the space at the beginning and end of the work. They looked initially to me like abstractions of dancers’ limbs, but later they seemed more like the insects that were suggested by the dancers’ costumes. Whatever, they had a calming effect.

I watched Devolution between streamings of Giselle from the Australian Ballet and La Fille mal gardée by the Royal Ballet. Such different ends of the dance spectrum!

Michelle Potter, 13 June 2020

Featured image: Dancers of Australian Dance Theatre in Devolution, 2006. Photo: © Chris Herzfeld/Camlight Productions

Daniel Gaudiello as James in 'La Sylphide', Act II. The Australian Ballet, 2013. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Paquita & La Sylphide. The Australian Ballet. 2020 Digital Season

I saw this program twice in 2013 and have to admit that, apart from outstanding performances by one or two dancers in each of the casts I saw, I was somewhat underwhelmed. But this screening by the Australian Ballet as part of its 2020 digital season left me absolutely thrilled.

The Paquita we see is really an excerpt from a full-length ballet of the same name that is rarely seen these days. Its choreography is by Marius Petipa and what we see in this excerpt is Petipa’s classicism. We see it in spades, especially in the way the dancers hold their bodies, erect and proud, with a straight spine as the central axis, and in the kinds of steps the dancers perform. In his introductory remarks to the streamed production, David McAllister calls it a ‘ballet ballet’. And so it is.

The cast is led by Lana Jones and Kevin Jackson. They show off their classical technique brilliantly. Jones. for example, has a series of fouetté turns in one solo and she launched straight into eight (or it could even have been nine) double turns in succession. Spectacular. The four soloists, Amy Harris, Juliet Burnett, Ako Kondo and Miwako Kubota, all danced with extraordinary skill. Standing out for me were Amy Harris with her perfectly controlled fouetté relevés, and Ako Kondo who made a thrilling entrance with a series of grands jetés and then proceeded to dazzle us with some exceptional turning steps, including some pretty much perfect double turns in attitude. Then I can’t forget the corps de ballet (which in fact included some of today’s principal artists such as Benedicte Bemet and Dimity Azoury). The corps danced with great style and each one of them looked as though she loved performing.

Ako Kondo in 'Paquita', The Australian Ballet. Photo © Jeff Busby, 2013
Ako Kondo in Paquita. The Australian Ballet, 2013. Photo © Jeff Busby

Then came La Sylphide with Leanne Stojmenov as the Sylph and Daniel Gaudiello as James, with choreography by Erik Bruhn after August Bournonville. Act I raced along and I enjoyed Gaudiello’s acting from the opening moments when, asleep in his armchair, a little dream-like smile kept hovering across his face as the Sylph danced around him. Stojmenov was a truly beautiful Sylph with an understanding of the needs of the Romantic style of movement. She seemed so light, so supernatural, so at home with the gentle tilt of the head and the forward-leaning style of movement we expect in the Romantic style. She has a beautifully coordinated body and it is quite fascinating to watch the relationship between legs, arms, upper body and head, each seeming to be separate actions yet at the same time part of an alluring whole.

Of course both Gaudiello and Stojmenov came into their own in Act II. Gaudiello’s beats were breathtaking as was his ability to perform with the ballon and apparent ease that characterises the Bournonville style. And Stojmenov continued with her Romantic and supernatural manner. Apart from the technical aspects of their performance, Stojmenov and Gaudiello also interacted so well that the story simply sped along, taking us with it. It was a perfect pairing for this ballet. The issues I felt when I saw the program live were mostly still there, but seemed no longer to matter, thanks to Stojmenov and Gaudiello. Bouquets to them both.

Colin Peasley as Madge and Andrew Wright as Gurn also gave strong performances and I enjoyed as well being backstage at the Sydney Opera House while the overture to La Sylphide was playing. I can’t wait to look again.

My reviews of previous performances are at these links: Melbourne; Sydney. I was also lucky enough to see the full-length Paquita as restaged by Pierre Lacotte for the Paris Opera Ballet but it was before I started this website and, unfortunately, I have no written record of the performance.

Michelle Potter 30 May 2020

Featured image: Daniel Gaudiello as James in La Sylphide, Act II. The Australian Ballet, 2013. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Daniel Gaudiello as James in 'La Sylphide', Act II. The Australian Ballet, 2013. Photo: © Jeff Busby