Reading during Wellington Lockdown

by Jennifer Shennan

  • Out Loud
    by Mark Morris [Penguin Press]
  • Behind the Scenes at the Ballets Russes – Stories from a Silver Age
    by Michael Meylac [Methuen/Drama]

I am always willing to get down on my hands and knees in Wellington’s Unity Bookshop to search for whatever few titles might be on their Dance shelf, down at floor level below the Music shelves, in case something new has arrived since my last genuflection.

That’s the way I discovered Mark Morris’ memoir, Out Loud, last year, and found much stimulation in his vigorous style of memoir-writing. Various friends have not shared my appreciation of the book, finding its ‘no-holds barred’ expression hard-going, but to me its frankness and honesty were refreshing. ‘Judge me if you dare’ Morris seems to be saying. I do judge him, though rather by the musicality in much of his choreography than by the gossip and intrigue with which he furnishes the book.

He writes profiles of different artists and colleagues that vary in their appeal, but I found much interest and insight in the sustained account of his friendship and working partnership with American composer, Lou Harrison. Harrison had spent a year in New Zealand on a Fulbright fellowship back in the early 1980s and his enthusiasm for gamelan music, indeed for many Asian musics, we all found invigorating. I choreographed to his Solstice, (previously choreographed by Jean Erdman of The Open Eye theatre in New York) so I came to know Lou very well, and caught up with him again on subsequent study visits to America. Morris’ every word about Lou evokes his generosity of spirit, the uncompromising commitment that hallmarked all of his composition work, and his abiding interest in dance as a parallel art. Reading about Lou was like meeting up again with a dear friend after many years.     

The Mark Morris Dance Company brought Handel’s L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato to  the International Arts Festival in Wellington in 1998. Live music was always Morris’ point of departure so the sizeable vocal and instrumental forces were sourced locally. That has meant you can easily find singers or players who were involved in the production, and who still rate it as one of the highlights of their musical careers.

To read Out Loud in tandem with Joan Acocella’s earlier biography of Morris is an interesting exercise that aids our evaluation of this prolific choreographer, while confirming my continuing admiration for Acocella’s outstanding skills as a dance writer.

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Another more recent find from Unity Books’ bottom shelf was Behind the Scenes at the Ballets Russes, by Michael Meylac. It has proved a hugely rewarding read.  [Translation is by Rosanna Kelly].

Meylac’s young days as an ardent follower of ballet in his native Russia, and his subsequent work as a scholar of Russian literature and history, now for decades living and teaching outside his homeland, make him admirably equipped to provide a political and social background of European ballet history, and to discuss the development of distinctive ballet styles in different eras and countries. I often say that the history of ballet is the history of the world, and while I don’t expect anyone should listen to me on the topic, I think we all should listen to Meylac.

A poignant Preface to the English edition is subtitled The West in Russia and Russia in the Westa permeable membrane. The following Introduction is an erudite and thoughtful overview of the way the Russian ballet diaspora spread out in waves across the world during the 20th century … originally via Diaghilev’s and Pavlova’s companies, and subsequently through the number of other ‘Russian Ballet’ companies that formed in their wake and toured to far corners of the world. But that worked not only in one direction and it is the genius of this book that allows Meylac to identify many continuities and connections, within ballet’s endeavours, rather than the single block treatment of just one country or one company, as so many books have already done. His Introduction provides context for the interviews that form the main part of the book, conducted with more than thirty practitioners of the many generations in this ballet lineage.

The interviews are in two parts, then divided further into clusters—Part OneThe Ballets Russes—In the Shadow of Diaghilev; Remembering Colonel de Basil’s Baby Ballerinas; The Dancers; The BaIlets Russes in Australia; The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in America. Part Two—The Marquis de Cuevas and Others.

Interviews are with Rachel Cameron (on Tamara Karsavina—a pearl), Tamara Geva, Alexandra Danilova (if star rating I would give this a 5), Irina Baronova, Tamara Toumanova (a black pearl this one), Tatiana Riabouchinska and more and more (27 in total). It brings tears to your reading eyes to catch the tumultuous early decades of the 20th century as background to these stories. it is refreshing, sometimes riveting, to hear so many voices, and each reader will be bound to find traces and links to their own dance experience, maybe only two degrees of separation between their teacher and someone who may have danced with Nijinsky, or been hired or fired by Diaghilev, or been in or at the premiere of legendary productions—The Firebird, say—to learn what Pavlova said when she watched a class, hear how starving dancers found food, or what Fokine said when Hitler marched by in the street below. Pavlova and Fokine were both here in New Zealand so you can place a couple of jigsaw pieces into the wider picture of this country’s dance history.

I was intrigued by the interview with Nini Theilade, born in Java but who finished up in Denmark where she choreographed works on the Royal Danish Ballet that Poul Gnatt danced in. There was further interest in the interview with Jean Babilée, a stellar performer with les Ballets des Champs Elysées when Gnatt joined that company immediately after World War II. That will perhaps be where he gained inspiration for the legendary Bluebird that he danced here in 1953, in the same Opera House in Wellington where Pavlova had danced in 1926, and where Loughlan Prior’s Firebird has just premiered in 2021. And so it continues, the ties that bind. The recent remarkable documentary Force of Nature Natalia, about Osipova, offers contemporary evidence that new choreography can still be appreciated on both sides of the Ballet Curtain, ‘the permeable membrane’, despite the political treachery that exists around them in the impermeable Iron Curtain that has rung down again.

All the above were reasons to read the book, but it is Meylac’s dedication to John Neumeier, choregrafo assoluto, and his exquisite final interview with him, plus his Afterword Like a tree, the art of ballet has many roots…that would make me buy it twice. Neumeier’s prolific choreographic oeuvre and directorial responsibility for Hamburg Ballet (since 1973!) are phenomenal achievements that leave other ballet companies in the shade. Meylac identifies Neumeier as the most deeply inspired inheritor of the best of the Russian heritage—his work with Galina Ulanova, his closeness to Vera Volkova, and his museum collection of works by and about his adored Nijinsky, and his new choreographies revisiting masterpieces are all unparalleled elsewhere.

Meylac’s discerning book reeks with integrity — looking back in ballet history so as to look forward, guiding us to understand so as to appreciate, leaving varying opinions verbatim to speak for themselves, and celebrating the lifelines that secure our dancelines.

footnote – Hamburg Ballet is my favourite ballet company on the planet and I am still in thrall to the Goethe Institut for offering me, back in 2005, many weeks of a dance study tour through Germany that wound up in Hamburg, enabling me to see eight of Neumeier’s full-length ballets, each in a ‘one night stand’ through a searingly memorable week. No other ballet company on Earth begins to match that production record. I’ve returned to Hamburg since, to repeat the pleasure, and just to be sure I hadn’t imagined it all on the previous visit. It was worth another separate trip to Copenhagen to see his The Little Mermaid by Royal Danish Ballet, a choreography I’ll be taking to Heaven with me when my time comes. It’s extra thrill that ‘our’ Martin James has many times danced the lead role in Neumeier’s Ulysses.

I’ve always enjoyed the synchronicity that Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in Taiwan, my all-time favourite contemporary dance company (now that Douglas Wright has gone) was also founded by Lin Hwai-Min in the same year as Neumeier’s company, in 1973. The repertoire of both companies has been exclusively of their choreographer/director’s works. These are phenomenal periods of longevity in performance arts and demonstrate that dance companies can survive on artistic genius with administration serving that vision, rather than the reverse situation of bureaucracies controlling artistic output.

Jennifer Shennan, 1 September 2021

The Firebird, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The Firebird. Royal New Zealand Ballet

Online screening, 27 August-6 September 2021

I was booked to cross the Tasman to see Royal New Zealand Ballet’s recent double bill program, The Firebird and Paquita, but the pandemic got in the way yet again. So I was pleased that a stream of Firebird was available, filmed in Wellington on its opening night there on 28 July 2021.

This Firebird was commissioned from Loughlan Prior, choreographer in residence with Royal New Zealand Ballet, and, while Prior used the music of Igor Stravinsky, familiar to many dance audiences, what resulted was a unique take on the story rather than what many might expect from a production named The Firebird. In essence, Prior’s Firebird is about hope in a world plagued by environmental crises and other chaotic matters, and the Firebird is portrayed as a phoenix-like character who gives hope as she rises from the ashes of destruction.

For most of the time the setting is grim and dark and seems mostly to take place in a run down corner of a harbour town where, in the background, we can see the remains of a ship and a gangplank or two that give the upstage area some height. This world is populated by two groups of people, the Wastelanders who work to survive in harsh conditions and the Scavengers who are constantly and sometimes unpleasantly on the lookout for food and water. Occasionally the scene shifts from a corner of this settlement to a forest-like area (no trees, just scrims and darkness) where the search for food and water takes place. The main figure among the Wastelanders is Arrow (Harrison James). He is without water and falls asleep in the forest area where he is discovered by the Firebird (Ana Gallardo Lobaina). After their encounter she gives him a feather, plucked from her body: it is capable of drawing up water from the depths of the earth.

But later the Firebird is captured by the Scavengers, led by the Burnt Mask (Paul Mathews) and his partner Elizaveta (Kirby Selchow). The Firebird is eventually released by Arrow’s partner, Neve (Sara Garbowski), but, angry at having been captured, the Firebird calls on the dark side of her powers to create an inferno that initially engulfs the harbour settlement. Then, drawing on her last remaining strength, she extinguishes the inferno and collapses into Arrow’s arms. Her body bursts into flames. But from the ashes she is reborn and hope fills the world.

Ana Gallardo Lobaina’s performance as the Firebird is an absolute standout, as is Prior’s choreography for her. At times, especially in her first solo, her movement is quite grounded, but at other times her arms have such a beautiful, lyrical quality, and the way she moves her neck and head tells us so much about her character. Her various pas de deux with Arrow are filled yet again with swirlingly beautiful arms and exceptional lifts. The duet after their first encounter is especially interesting. Harrison James’ performance here is at first hesitant and anxious; he is unsure of how to react to the creature he has just encountered. But he shows growing pleasure in the meeting and we see those changes of emotion quite clearly in the choreography and the performance of it.

Ana Gallardo Lobaina and Harrison James in The Firebird. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Another choreographic highlight is the manner in which Prior develops the idea of the inferno that the Firebird creates. Four dancers surround her and support her as she storms her way around the stage, and at times they gather around her in poses that extend her arms so her wing span looks huge and confronting. Lobaina’s death throes are also beautifully structured and performed, as is her rebirth at the end of the work.

The Firebird and the inferno she creates. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court


There were one or two moments that I thought needed some extra work from Prior. These were times when groups of dancers stood around watching the main events. Often they appeared not to be involved in the action taking place before them and they reminded me of the young ladies of the village in some productions of Giselle who stand around admiring each other’s dresses rather than being involved in the downstage action. On the other hand, the final group dance as the Firebird was reborn was great to watch with everyone joining in the spreading joy.

I was not a fan of some of Tracy Grant Lord’s costumes, in particular the ‘dropped crotch’ pants worn by many of the characters. While such clothes are something of a fashion item these days, they just look daggy to me, although I guess that added to the shabby look (no doubt intentional) that distinguished those characters and the roles they were playing. The costume for the Firebird, however, was quite spectacular in colour, fabric and cut.

I was blown away by Jon Buswell’s lighting and the exceptional use of visuals and animation from POW Studios, including the orange-red flame and sparkling red spots of light that preceded the comings and goings of the Firebird. Then there were the images of water covering the stage and the crashing waves that appeared in the background as chaos began to rage through the settlement. And, after the incendiary red orb, the darkness and the clouded sky behind the ruined ship that made up the main part of the set, the arrival of the light was quietly beautiful, especially the huge, softly-petalled pink flower that replaced the darkness of the sky.

The Firebird is reborn. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

In the end this Firebird has to be seen as an outstanding example of collaborative input from an exceptional team of creative artists. I can’t help wondering if the kind of visual additions of a technological kind that we saw in this Firebird is the way forward. I have seen similar uses of technology by contemporary companies in Australia (Sydney Dance Company springs to mind) but ballet companies often seem to be a little more set in their ways, especially in large-scale narrative works lasting two or more hours, which may not be surprising. But let’s keep moving.

Michelle Potter, 29 August 2021

Featured image: The Firebird, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The Firebird, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The Frock. MADE

I didn’t see Graeme Murphy’s 2017 work, The Frock, as a live production. It was fashioned by Murphy and his creative associate Janet Vernon on the Tasmanian group of ‘senior’ dancers, Mature Artists Dance Experience (MADE), a company I have never had the luck to see live either. But some research I have been doing recently aroused my interest and I found a way to see The Frock on film. And what an adventure it was!

The Frock follows the life experiences of a woman who sits at the side of the stage on what looks like the verandah of a house in a rural area of Australia. She watches as her life unfolds before her, although leaves the comfort of her verandah to participate in many of the experiences that play out on stage. She is nameless and is something of an ‘everywoman’ living across several decades, beginning perhaps in the 1950s.

But before those decades begin to unfold choreographically, in the opening section the woman explains the moments that define her situation, especially the dress made by her mother, the frock of the title; and her sexual experience as a teenager (wearing the frock), which resulted in an out-of-marriage pregnancy. Throughout the work the frock appears on a wire mannequin designed by Gerard Manion. The mannequin is a mobilised device (robotics by Paul Fenech) with a voice (that of Murphy) that comments verbally, not always kindly, on what is happening.

The first moment of remarkable dancing comes when the frock is tried on for the first time. We watch as the woman (in real life and in the story in her sixties perhaps) dances a duet with another performer representing the woman as a young girl wearing that frock. Murphy’s choreography is lyrical and emotion-filled movement; not a collection of difficult steps but swinging, swaying movement easily fitting the bodies of those older dancers. It is also the first time we see the backcloth (design by Gerard Manion) that stayed in place for most of the show—a beautiful collection of draped fabrics, lit throughout by Damien Cooper.

From there the decades unfold before us: the ‘swinging sixties’ and seventies, along with the smoking of drugs and the hallucinations that resulted; the rise of feminism; midlife; and the gradual move through the following decades to old age, the ‘Age of Invisibility’. Choreographic highlights included, for me, the rock ‘n roll scenes; the section when the woman contemplates her childless life; the beautiful reunion scene in which the woman and friends from her past come together dancing to Moon River, that evocative song from Breakfast at Tiffany’s; a trio as mid-life approaches danced with the aid of lengths of diaphanous cloth; and the extraordinary solo by the woman performed to a poem (written by Murphy) entitled ‘But still I fly’. The poem is heard in the clip below, along with excerpts from various parts of the work.

It was fascinating to see Murphy using some of the techniques that have appeared in so many of his works, including the use of flowing cloth as a device. But also noticeable was the use of linked arms and hands making linear patterns, something that I recall from many of Murphy’s works with Sydney Dance Company. Then there were references (that perhaps I imagined) to Botticelli’s ‘Three Graces’ in his well-known painting Primavera, and even, briefly, to Nijinsky’s choreography for Afternoon of a Faun. (Murphy does this so many times—brings up a mixed bag of ideas, imagined or not).

The sound design by Christopher Gordon with Christo Curtis was brilliantly put together to evoke every moment in every decade. Apart from Moon River, standouts for me were the Sunday School activities of the early moments when the hymn being sung was that well-known Sunday School song, Jesus Loves Me; the Indian inspired music that accompanied the drug and hallucination scenes; and some hugely moving operatic excerpts.

Jennifer Irwin’s costume were also so evocative of the decades being represented as the story proceeded. Especially outstanding from this point of view were those in the scene taking place in the 1960s filled, as it was, with mini-skirted dresses in brightly coloured, floral fabric, sometimes matched with knee high boots in bright colours. How it takes those of a certain age back to their own teenage years.

The Frock might be counted as one of Murphy’s most theatrical productions with so many exceptional collaborative elements, including its hugely diverse selection of musical interludes; its poem ‘But still I fly’; and its robot carrying the storyline line along. But perhaps more than anything it arouses such a range of emotions in the viewer. That to me is theatricality at its best. Sometimes The Frock is quite simply confronting. At other times it is just hilarious. But more than anything it is deeply moving as a comment on life’s many changing situations. I have to admit I started to cry at the end as the woman, and the daughter she had never met, intuitively knew who the other was when they came together unexpectedly in an op shop where both admired that frock hanging on a rack of clothing on sale. But the weeping quickly turned to laughter as the dress was shoplifted out! Magnificent Murphy.

Michelle Potter, 22 August 2021

Featured image: Scene from The Frock. MADE 2017. Photo: © Sandi Sissell


Postscript: I should add that a complete version of The Frock is not publicly available at this stage, although a promo is available on Vimeo, beautifully put together by Philippe Charluet of Stella Motion Pitures.

The poster image below announces the premiere of the work in Japan in 2018.

And we danced. Act 2, 1980-1999

And we danced, a three part documentary from the ABC produced by WildBear Entertainment, looks at the first six decades of the Australian Ballet. The series makes use of archival footage held by the Australian Ballet, and that footage is complemented by photographs and interviews with former and current company staff and dancers, and with commentary from Ita Buttrose, current chairperson of the ABC.

I was originally going to wait until all three episodes had been screened before making comments. But the second episode, covering the two decades of the eighties and nineties, was so full of memorable moments that I decided I just had to comment on the second episode and mention some of those moments—the ones that especially moved me in some way.

It was always going to be hard to cover in 58 or so minutes everything of significance that occurred over two decades, especially when the two decades covered in the second episode were tumultuous in so many ways. There was the strike of the early 1980s and the various changes of artistic directorship that ensued; the AIDS epidemic; Paul Keating’s Creative Nation and the strong arts funding that developed under Keating; the era of Maina Gielgud and her eventual departure from the company; the arrival of Ross Stretton and his very different management style and artistic aesthetic; and more.

And we danced needed to be selective in what it covered in detail, but what I found especially engaging was the examination of how the company began to move from a pioneering company in its earlier years to one that was a mature arts organisation. While there were many ways in which an Australian identity began to emerge, and various social and cultural contexts were mentioned, particularly poignant were the comments by Stephen Page as he talked about Bangarra Dance Theatre and the Australian Ballet working together on Rites under the directorship of Ross Stretton.

Then, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the incredible range of choreography that those of us who were lucky enough to have been audience members at the time were able to experience. One of the most interesting sections concerned the last program curated by Maina Gielgud before she left the company. Her triple bill of Stanton Welch’s Red Earth, Meryl Tankard’s The Deep End, and Stephen Page’s Alchemy was so strongly Australian and the comments on why (or how) this program happened were well contextualised. And of course it was great to see footage of Stanton Welch’s Divergence, another exceptional work from the Gielgud period.

I also enjoyed the discussion of Spartacus. It has never been one of my favourite ballets, neither in the Laszlo Seregi (Australian Ballet premiere 1978) version nor the more recent one by Lucas Jervies. But looking at the brief footage shown of the Seregi production I was bowled over by Steven Heathcote in the main role. The drama he injected into every movement was just brilliant. And then there was the wonderful story of the poster with the sexy image of Heathcote that was consistently stolen when the production was taken to the US.

Poster image of Steven Heathcote in Spartacus

It was also interesting to see and hear comments from former dancers and directors, especially Marilyn Rowe and Marilyn Jones who played major roles in the 1980s. More of the full project later.

Michelle Potter, 26 July 2021

Featured image: Scene from Stanton Welch’s Divergence. Still from And we danced.

Joy Womack: The White Swan

A film by Dina Burlis and Sergey Gavrilov. Release date (digital format): 19 July 2021 by 101 Films (London).
(Available on various digital platforms soon. See this link)

Canberra dance audiences may well remember Joy Womack, who performed briefly in Canberra in 2018 for Bravissimo Productions. That one-off program featured dancers from across the globe—Womack was one of them. She was enticed to Canberra by the directors of the National Capital Ballet School and for Bravissimo Productions she danced Vasily Vainonen’s Moskovsky Waltz, partnered by Italian artist Francesco Daniele Costa. It was a simply stunning performance.

At the time of her Canberra appearance, Womack was a principal dancer with Universal Ballet in Korea, but prior to her Korean career she studied and performed in Russia, initially with the Bolshoi Ballet and then with Kremlin Ballet Theatre. Her Russian career is featured in a new documentary: Joy Womack: The White Swan.

Womack was born in California and brought up in California and Texas and the film begins with family snapshots of the Womack family. But it quickly progresses to Moscow where Womack was accepted as a student at the ballet school attached to the Bolshoi Ballet and then, after graduation, into the Bolshoi Ballet. Womack’s overwhelming desire to dance with the Bolshoi is explored and in many respects the film is a psychological portrait of a determined dancer. Womack talks openly about her thoughts, her dreams, and the mental challenges she constantly faced.

But perhaps the most confronting aspect of the film is the way it explores the many difficulties Womack faced as she negotiated living in Russia. Many of those difficulties are strongly dance-related and concern, for example, the shape of the body that the Russian teachers and directors believed was necessary for progress through the school and company; the apparent hierarchical system within ballet companies; and the management of a dancer’s injuries. There were many moments when I was shocked to tell the truth, perhaps none more than when I watched as Womack stood in a canteen and asked for ‘a salmon sandwich without the bread’ and proceeded to eat from a plate on which was spread just a few slices of smoked salmon.

Other issues were more overtly political and included attitudes to women, and the perception of an American way of life as made manifest in day to day living and in attitudes to performance. Particularly compelling remarks were made by Nikita, the Russian dancer Womack married in Moscow and by his mother, an incredibly glamorous, impeccably dressed and adorned lady. But especially powerful was Womack’s resignation from the Bolshoi Ballet and the reasons for it. (No spoiler given on this matter!).

After leaving the Bolshoi, Womack worked for several years with Kremlin Ballet Theatre and, while the Bolshoi experience was her ‘dream of a lifetime’ experience, her time with Kremlin seems to have been much more rewarding. She was strongly supported by her teacher/coach/mentor, Janna, and admired by the company’s director.

Joy Womack with coach Janna. Kremlin Ballet Theatre. Still from Joy Womack. The White Swan

It was in the Kremlin company that Womack was given what she had longed for at the Bolshoi—principal roles in the classics, Nutcracker, Giselle and Swan Lake. Womack regarded the leading role in Swan Lake as the ultimate experience for a ballet dancer and, when she eventually got to perform it, her rendition of the White Swan in Act II moved the director of the company to congratulate her, saying she was the best White Swan he had seen. Towards the end of the film we see brief footage of Womack dancing in these principal roles, including (too briefly) as the White Swan.

Joy Womack as the White Swan, Swan Lake Act II. Kremlin Ballet Theatre. Still from Joy Womack. The White Swan

Joy Womack: The White Swan is a film that is both confronting and challenging but also deeply moving at times. There are some beautiful shots of Moscow scattered throughout and I loved the backstage scenes especially those featuring those lovely Russian ladies working in the costume department.

Ladies of the wardrobe. Still from Joy Womack. The White Swan

The film ends with the Kremlin period. But after that Womack went on to take up a contract with Universal Ballet in Seoul. She then danced briefly with Boston Ballet. She divorced her first husband and is at the time of writing engaged to an American man. I also read that she is seeking joint Russian/American citizenship and currently works with Astrakhan Opera and Ballet Theatre in southwestern Russia. I will long remember her Canberra performance so it was a real pleasure to watch this documentary!

Michelle Potter, 17 July 2021

Featured image: Joy Womack in Moscow. Still from Joy Womack. The White Swan.

Navarasa. Mudra Dance Company

2 – 4 July 2021, Little Theatre, Lower Hutt
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

For over 30 years Shri Vivek Kinra has been teaching Bharata Natyam in Wellington, at Mudra Dance Academy. There have been hundreds of pupils over the decades, many reaching advanced level and performing the arangetram, two-hour solo recital, that marks their professional debut. Others have arrived more recently in New Zealand and are of Indian, Sri Lankan or Fijian origin. One is of Anglo-Irish descent, proving anyone could be in if prepared to do the work.

Kinra draws on this pool of talent to form Mudra Dance Company, presenting traditional and new works in seasons that have become a shining beacon in the city’s annual dance program. The technique and expression from each performer is always delivered with the assured musicality that is built in to Bharata Natyam from young pupils’ first class (5 year olds have been known to weep at the door of the Academy since pupils are not accepted until the age of six).

Kinra choreographs and directs these seasons but announced his own retirement from performing in 2015. Fortunately for us he continues to perform mimed cameos of each choreography, by way of narrated introduction to the themes and moods to expect. These little jewels are like dances you can hold in your hand, and are alone worth the time and ticket price. His own training was at Kalakshetra, in Chennai, where he still maintains strong connections, and works with colleagues, Gayatri Lakshmanan chief among them, and the musicians who play the compositions recorded on Kinra’s annual visits to India.

Of the eight items on the program, six are choreographed by Kinra. The main one, Navarasa, which translates as Nine Emotions, lends its name to the whole program. 

It is a stunning depiction of the gamut of valour, love, wonder, amusement, disgust, anger, fear, compassion and benevolence as experienced by the Mother Goddess Meenakshi in various encounters with gods, demons, humans and animals both tame and wild. In Tamil sung poetry, it is, as I was expecting, a miniature masterpiece.

(l-r) Emotions of anger, wonder and valour. Mudra Dance Company, 2021. Photo: © Gerry Keating

In its mimed prologue, there was a sudden dying of the light. Kinra continued in the dark but knew it would be better if we could see him. A voice cried out for the gods to send light, which will have shaken awake the lighting technician to do as bid, and all was well. Was this part of the choreography all along? A nod to the Covid year that has darkened so many dance stages around the world? Could have been, should have been. You just have to turn the light back on and carry on as before. Vaccines and danced prayers will see us through.

Another item, this time in Sanskrit, is the Shlokas from Shri Krishna Karnamritam. The intoxicating beauty of this god is depicted through musk paste on his forehead, a jewel on his chest, a pearl at the tip of his nose, bracelets, sandalwood paste and a pearl necklace. But wait, there’s more. A herd of cows, a flock of peacocks, dark clouds and strikes of lightning. The piece ends in a dance about dancing—high sophistication this. The Ras Leela is a renowned depiction of ecstasy, usually performed with sticks that percussively mark the beat and interweaving positions of the dancers. Here subtle handclaps were substituted for sticks and it was poignant to hear a swelling response that had a number of the audience gently joining in that handclapping.  

I first saw a Ras Leela danced by a large group from the Indian community at the first Pacific Arts Festival in Suva in 1972 (when Kinra was a babe in arms). Performed by 100 dancers out of doors, it was staged by the artists based at the Indian Cultural Centre in Fiji, five musicians and dancers resident in a full-time program for two years at a time, funded by ICCR from India. A short while later Professor Jenny McLeod brought those artists to Victoria University for a memorable intensive workshop at the School of Music. Political events in Fiji followed, the Centre was closed, and the next time I visited Suva it was a sorry sight to see the once vibrant place now empty and derelict with doors and windows creaking on their hinges and banging open in the wind. Life goes on but it’s hard to claim that all of history is progress. 

There is a long and interesting history of Indian dance in New Zealand—beginning with Sivaram’s and Louise Lightfoot’s visit in 1950s, Liong Xi in 1960s, Amala Devi in 1970, the Balachandrans, Chandrabhanu, Kanan Deobhakta, two astonishing visits by Kathakali dance theatre, and there are others. Fortunately for audiences who wish to deepen their appreciation of the art, there is a vast literature on the subject. Two leading scholars of the field, Dr Kapila Vatsyayan and Dr Sunhil Kothari, have died recently, but were both aware of Kinra’s work here in New Zealand, in the world map of dance.

There was an exuberant cadence to the performance in the final Thillana, choreographed by the late Rukmini Devi, founder of Kalakshetra. (She too once visited New Zealand, as guest of the Theosophical Society). Mudra’s line-up of radiantly costumed and bejewelled dancers was a joy to the capacity audience. It is not to demote any of their previous memorable seasons to mark Navarasa as their strongest choreography yet.

Jennifer Shennan, 03 July 2021

Featured image: Senior dancers of the Mudra Dance Company, 2021. Photo: © Gerry Keating

Balanchine and Robbins. The Royal Ballet Live, 2021


A recent streamed production by the Royal Ballet paid homage to George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, two American choreographers whose work over the course of the twentieth century was undeniably momentous. The stream began with George Balanchine’s Apollo, Balanchine’s first collaboration with Igor Stravinsky, which had its premiere in 1928.

This production of Apollo opened with the birth of the god Apollo, a section of the work not often presented, although it has been part of the structure of the work from its beginnings. Apollo’s mother, Leto, danced on this occasion by Annette Buvoli, is seen in labour and when we get our first glimpse of Apollo he is standing centre stage wrapped tightly in swaddling clothes. Two hand maidens begin to unwind the swaddling cloth until Apollo takes over and swirls out of the cloth. He is given a lute and the handmaidens help him pluck the strings, which at this stage of his life are unfamiliar to him. It has been a while since I saw this ‘birth and growth’ section and it is fascinating to see these stages in the life of Apollo condensed into a minute or so.

From these opening moments the ballet takes the form that is more familiar. Encounters begin between Apollo and the three muses, Polyhymnia (Mime), Calliope (Poetry) and Terpsichore (Music and Dance) who dance for and with Apollo until he eventually ascends Mt Olympus, called home by his father Zeus.

Fumi Kaneko (Polyhymnia), Claire Calvert (Calliope), Melissa Hamilton (Terpsichore) and Matthew Ball in Apollo. The Royal Ballet, 2021. Photo: © Rachel Hollings

This Royal Ballet performance, however, was perhaps not the best Apollo I have seen. Somehow it lacked excitement especially from Matthew Ball as Apollo. I have always thought of Apollo as a somewhat flamboyant and influential character and Ball seemed to me to be rather too retiring (perhaps nervous?), despite his excellent technical accomplishments. For me, the most engaging performance came from Fumi Kaneko as Polyhymnia. She entered fully and easily into the dramatic nature of the character, and her role in the unfolding story was easy to follow.

But Balanchine’s choreography for Apollo is always a joy to watch with its beautiful groupings and poses and its use of rounded and enfolding arms that prefigure the fluidity of Balanchine’s later choreography for his corps de ballet in various of his works. Other sections, including those movements from the Muses where they turn on pointe but with bent knees, always make me think of how challenging Apollo must have been for audiences (and dancers?) in 1928.

The absolute highlight for me on this program, however, was the second item, Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky pas de deux, danced by Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov. It was ballet at its finest in terms of crowd appeal and Nuñez and Muntagirov have the strength of technique to make those show-stopping movements look easy. It was also totally transfixing to watch the joy they exhibited as they moved, and the way they engaged with each other throughout (even in the curtain calls). They were just brilliant.

The program ended with Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a gathering. I watched the Royal Ballet’s production of this work in October 2020 and reviewed it then so won’t review again other than to mention the beautiful performance by Fumi Kaneko as the Green Girl. Kaneko, who was promoted to Royal Ballet principal last month, danced with such joy and such apparent ease that it was impossible not to be moved and thrilled, as I have been every time I have seen her dance.

Michelle Potter, 03 July 2021

Featured image (shown below in full): Vadim Muntagirov and Marianela Nuñez in Tchaikovsky pas de deux. The Royal Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Rachel Hollings

Glory Tuohy-Daniell, Rika Hamaguchi and Lillian Banks in SandSong. Bangarra_Dance Theatre 2021. Photo © Daniel Boud

SandSong. Bangarra Dance Theatre

11 June 2021, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

SandSong. Stories from the Great Sandy Desert begins with some black and white footage that is instantly confrontational. Moving sharply from one event to another, and accompanied by an exceptionally loud sound score, it shows some of the atrocities endured by the Indigenous inhabitants of the Kimberley region over an extended period of time. In fact, the work as a whole focuses on the Kimberley area of Western Australia. Program notes tell us that SandSong is ‘a journey into ancient story systems framed against the backdrop of ever-changing government policy and of the survival of people determined to hold strong to their Culture.’

The opening footage sets the scene for what unfolds over the course of the performance and a timeline in the printed program expands on what the footage illustrates.

But SandSong had quite a different feel from most of the recent Bangarra productions I have seen. There were strong anthropological references in the early sections. In Act I, the Cold Dry Season, gender divisions in traditional society were made clear in a range of ways. We saw women’s business and activities in the form of specific dances, such as a bush onion dance showing the gathering and preparation of this food. We also watched preparations for a totem ceremony in which the men only were involved. As such the choreography was gender specific with the women performing quite simplistic movements at times, as opposed to the men for whom the choreography had more variety, more energy. Often the choreography for the men seemed to border on anger or to look inflammatory, while that for the women seem reserved and calm.

This gender division continued in Act 2, the Hot Dry Season, but changed somewhat as the story continued through the four sections. Particularly dramatic was Act 3 when the community entered a phase of working outside their traditional culture. The opening section, ‘Auction’ was especially powerful. Were the Kimberley people really being auctioned off for jobs on cattle stations and the like? A feeling of devastation crossed the footlights. Act 4 saw a kind of resolution, however, as healing and resilience began to emerge and by the end, as Rika Hamaguchi made her way around the stage, the anger and humiliation subsided as the dancers expressed their ties to kin and community.

Rika Hamaguchi in the final scene from SandSong. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2021. Photo © Daniel Boud

Of the dancers, Beau Dean Riley Smith stood out throughout the show, as he has done for the past several years. While he did not play a specific character as he did, for example, in Macq and Bennelong, his ‘maleness’ in the early sections was brilliant. It was clear in every movement and every part of his body, including neck and head as well as limbs. I also admired the work of Baden Hitchcock with his fluid and very expressive movement, and of Rika Hamaguchi who had a beautiful serenity at times. But Bangarra is full of new faces. We have much to anticipate I think.

Baden Hitchcock in SandSong. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2021. Photo © Daniel Boud

Once again Jennifer Irwin’s costumes were simply outstanding, especially in the feathery detail that seemed an essential part of many items, but also in the contemporary feel that her costumes developed towards the end.

Bangarra Dance Theatre in SandSong. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2021. Photo © Daniel Boud

Jacob Nash’s backcloth was quite simple and shimmered under the lighting of Nick Schlieper. Steve Francis concocted the score from a range of sources including voice and words along with recordings from previous Bangarra shows.

I came away from SandSong with mixed reactions. It is perhaps a show that needs more than a single viewing for the complexities, not so much of the story, but of the choreographic expression of those stories to become clearer.

Michelle Potter, 14 June 2021

Featured image: Glory Tuohy-Daniell, Rika Hamaguchi and Lillian Banks in SandSong. Bangarra Dance Theatre 2021. Photo © Daniel Boud

Glory Tuohy-Daniell, Rika Hamaguchi and Lillian Banks in SandSong. Bangarra_Dance Theatre 2021. Photo © Daniel Boud

The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet (2021)

4 June 2021. Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

I last saw Greg Horsman’s production of The Sleeping Beauty for Queensland Ballet (originally made for Royal New Zealand Ballet) back in 2015. Then I made a flying, unanticipated trip to Brisbane because I needed to see a different version from the one created by David McAllister for the Australian Ballet. I disliked the McAllister production, which was not about Aurora to my eyes, and in which everything was overpowered by the design elements. I came away from that initial Brisbane experience much more satisfied that Aurora had a role in the ballet, and that the collaborative elements worked with each other to create a whole without one element dominating all.

Having all that out of my system, this time I was able to concentrate on other aspects of the production. Horsman has reimagined certain parts of the storyline and, while this is now a relatively commonplace procedure, it has to be done really well and with a sound reason for changing things. The main issue for me was making Carabosse too much like the other fairies. She wore the same style tutu as the others (except it was black and had transparent sleeves). But sometimes she danced together with the other fairies and somehow, despite representing the spirit of evil, she seemed to recede into the background as a major player in the narrative. The role was performed quite nicely, technically speaking, by Georgia Swan but I wanted a Carabosse who stood apart, strongly, from the others. It just didn’t happen.

Carabosse (centre) and the Fairies in The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet, 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

The leading roles of Aurora and the Prince were danced by Neneka Yoshida and Victor Estévez. Yoshida danced pretty much faultlessly but didn’t seem to be as involved in her role as I have seen from her on previous occasions. On the other hand, Estévez was not only a strong performer in a technical sense (his entrance at the beginning of the second act—the Prince’s hunting party—was spectacular and drew applause), but he had the carriage and demeanour of a prince at every moment.

Neneka Yoshida and Victor Estévez in The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

Lucy Green and Kohei Iwamato were the Bluebirds for this performance. While Green and Iwamoto performed beautifully in terms of technique—and all those beats, including the series of brisés volés, need strong techniques—I was disappointed (and I often am). The story behind the Bluebird section is that he is teaching her how to fly and that she is listening to him. This backstory rarely comes across and it didn’t on this opening night. It was a shame about Iwamato’s costume, too. It had a very high neckline that practically removed his neck from sight.

Lucy Green and Kohei Iwamato as the Bluebirds in The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

The highlight of the evening for me was the Prince’s hunting party scene. Estévez I have mentioned. His friends, danced by David Power and Joel Woellner, and Gallifron the Prince’s tutor, a role taken by Vito Bernasconi, brought light and shade, some amusement, and good dancing and acting to the scene.

Choreographically Horsman has kept much of what we think of as the original movements, especially in the various pas de deux and solos. But where he has made choreographic changes there is little excitement. Much is predictable. Lots of arabesques. Lots of retiré relevé type movements.

So, all in all I found the production and the performance somewhat disappointing. In fact I began to wonder about remakes of well-known classics. While there will always be changes of one sort or another to any ballet, it takes an exceptional choreographer to do a remake. Those who succeed usually bring a completely new work to the stage. Liam Scarlett did it with his Midsummer Night’s Dream. Graeme Murphy has done it on several occasions. I thought Horsman did it (almost) with his Bayadère, despite the fact that there were certain issues associated in some minds with current thoughts re political correctness.

But this Sleeping Beauty was not a remake, just the same story with a few elements added, a few removed, and some changes to the way the story unfolded. It made me long for someone to do something completely new, or to revive an old fashioned production! Seeing it in 2015 was just a relief after the McAllister production. In 2021 perhaps my reservations were a result of having watched the Royal Ballet’s recent streaming of its hugely engaging presentation of the Ninette de Valois Beauty of 1946?

Michelle Potter, 7 June 2021

Featured image: Serena Green, Laura Tosar, Chiara Gonzalez and Mia Heathcote as the Fairies in The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet, 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

Te Mauri o Pōhutu. Kia Mau Festival

Fridays through June, 2021. Toi Poneke Arts Centre Gallery, Wellington
…from Jennifer Shennan

At Toi Poneke Gallery last Friday evening, we watched Te Mauri o Pōhutu (The Life-Force of Pōhutu) , a lyrical duo performed by Bianca Hyslop and Paige Shand, with vocals by Tūī Matira Ranapiri Ransfield, with Rowan Pierce as sound and spatial designer. The event, with an extended karanga of welcome and challenge, opened the month-long Kia Mau Festival in Wellington.

This is a dance of flow and surge and curve and turn and return, of arc and arch and sweep and pull and tilt—not a straight limb nor an angled joint in sight, no pointed hook for a dancer’s foot, no self-conscious strut or mannered striving of torso and limbs, just two beautifully-tuned bodies, dressed in the sacred red of blood and of mana, moving with grace and nature, dancing a twenty-minute lullaby and homage to an old woman’s life, to family, to village, to history and to the present, to gravity, to the air around and above, with their bare feet on the same ground we all stand on. The dance is an embrace, a mapping, a marking. Bianca has said elsewhere … ‘I’m not interested in making works of protest, rather to create living works of beauty that serve as reminders…’ and in her program note here …’Te Mauri o Pōhutu is a sensual offering that addresses the fragility of memory, connection to whenua and reclamation of culture from within foreign frameworks.’  Amen and Kia Mau to that.

After a koru of curving swirling hands, growing into arms then swelling into torso spirals, we are reminded of the kowhaiwhai shapes of painted ceiling panels in nga whare whakairo, meetings houses, and of the tossing flights of poi in Maori dance. An intriguing section follows with the two dancers picking up marker pens to draw the outline of a village on an adjacent boardfirst the landline, then the road, the houses, a church, a bridge, a river – a story without words.

Movement in the following section suggests stronger claim to emotions of closeness, strife, then a mood of acceptance as the two dancers move behind a screen to make shadows of their thoughts. It’s a poignant image of mind and body taking their leave of each other…followed by video of Te Pōhutu in close-up. The potency of the geyser’s force is clear, but the dance has found a space to co-exist in its shadow. We all know how unpredictable geysers and volcanoes can be, witness the horrors of the Whakaari Island recent eruption, with devastating injuries and loss of life. At the entrance to the gallery, we have passed a plinth on which sits a tiny ‘sculpture’, a cone of sand, a miniature mountain. A reminder. 

Toi Pōneke, Rotorua’s famous cone geyser, Pōhutu, has been mecca for decades of tourists watching and wondering at its power. For centuries before that it has been a central landmark in Ohinemutu village for Te Arawa people, whose home is Rotorua and surrounding areas. We all as children watched Pōhutu, and marvelled at its mighty forces escaping from under the ground, wondering if it would blow all the way up to the sky and take us with it. The geyser blows on average every twenty minutes—the same duration of this dance which has borrowed its name. The geyser will have blown several times as I have been writing this appreciation, and probably at least once while you have been reading it.

All photos: © Roc Torio

Jennifer Shennan, 6 June 2021