Beneath Sky Snakes. Cameron McMillan—dance on screen

reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

The power and excitement of Len Lye’s kinetic sculpture is clearly etched in the memory from visits I have made to the Govett-Brewster Gallery in Taranaki New Plymouth over the years. (Len Lye, a New Zealander, b.1901, began his arts experiments here but his subsequent career, based in New York through many decades, earned him a huge international reputation. His monumental sculptures with kinetic, aural and cinematic dimensions have been much discussed in publications by Wystan Curnow and by Roger Horrocks, and in a particularly fine documentary, Flip & Two Twisters, directed by Shirley Horrocks).

The Govett-Brewster gallery building is an inspired architectural presence in its own right. In tandem with the Len Lye Foundation, a major collection of Lye’s work is housed there and shown in sequential displays throughout the year. One of my visits I remember particularly well, since my companion and I lingered long in the gallery and then spent the rest of the afternoon in the cafe discussing Lye’s work, as well as the gallery’s achievement which originated with the vision of arts philanthropist Monica Brewster, who established it back in 1960s, independently of local council and other institutional governance.

That in turn led to my comparative thoughts about dance and the structure of performing arts companies versus independent artists—about who ‘owns’, who directs, who funds, who governs, who controls, who survives, who thrives—about how heritage repertoire is guarded, how programming is selected, how the welfare of the artists in companies is maintained, and how free-lance artists develop their work, who of them survive, who thrives, who is the dramaturg?—in a word, how dancers work, how dance works. All of these aspects are apparent to audiences, even if only subliminally, since they are reflected in the morale and calibre of each dancer we see in any given performance. It is said we get the politicians we deserve. Do we get the dances we deserve? Do the dancers get the recognition they deserve? As usual the answer is Yes & No.

Cameron McMillan, New Zealand born and raised, is a thriving surviving dance-maker. His current website is zinging testament to that. Born and raised in New Plymouth, he later trained at the Australian Ballet School and then joined RNZBallet in 1997, under Artistic Director, Matz Skoog. It was in 2000 that Cameron was noticed and singled out in glowing words in a review by Joan Acocella who saw him in Mark Morris’ Drink to me only with thine eyes—with the music most memorably played by pianist David Guerin onstage.(We had brought Acocella from New York to an Arts Festival here, under a Fulbright project on arts writing. The British Council had brought Michael Billington, drama critic, as part of the same program).

Cameron McMillan in Beneath Sky Snakes, 2020. Screenshot

Acocella wrote that McMillan’s talent was striking already but that his potential was huge and that he could expect a major international career. She has proved not wrong. He choreographed Unsuspecting View for the Tutus on Tour of 2001, left RNZB not long after and has developed a stellar international career abroad, unfortunately little reported on back here, among several of our ex-pat choreographers whose work should be shared here but never is. Turid Revfeim’s Ballet Collective enterprise is soon to help redress that regrettable situation.

In 2015, I saw and reviewed a performance of Cameron’s work at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts where Ou Lu had appointed him choreographer-in-residence. It’s a poignant work, with a large cast of dancers, string quartet playing on stage. The theme concerns a corps-de-ballet dancer’s experience—a glimpse into something we all see but rarely discuss. The work would thrill audiences here, if only they had the chance to see it.

During the extraordinary times of Covid 2020, dancers and dance companies worldwide have been both staunch and flexible in streaming videoed responses to the wild changes in their lives and work. In some cases that has brought publicity and exposure they could never have dreamed of, and we have been offered access to extraordinary choreographic riches—Saarinen’s Borrowed Light, Lin Hwai Min’s Moonwater, Marston’s The Cellist  would be some of the finest examples—though we have probably all seen enough of the dances videoed on a mat in the living room or on the patio—as a message of dancers’ resilience they’re fine, but as choreography they were mostly short of the mark.

Cameron McMillan in Beneath Sky Snakes, 2020. Screenshot

Cameron McMillan, in collaboration with the Govett-Brewster Gallery, has made a work in response to Len Lye’s Sky Snakes, which had its premiere exhibition in February 2020. Beneath Sky Snakes is an absorbing choreographic response to a sculpture that was moving already. The dance has a man on the ground, beneath a sky with huge forces of stalactite proportions. Tempo Dance Festival, an annual Auckland season, enterprisingly made the video available during this year’s digital season since the live program was cancelled. The choreography is yet in early stages of the film treatment it deserves but the dance shows a performer still moving with the mesmerising fluidity that Acocella described back in 2000. Perhaps a Govett-Brewster commission to Cameron could see a series of dances relating to other of Len Lye’s works. We all benefit from writing, talking, thinking about and remembering good dancing. Malo and Manuia

Jennifer Shennan, 11 September 2020

Featured image: Cameron McMillan in Beneath Sky Snakes, 2020. Screenshot

Borrowed Light. Jacob’s Pillow Virtual Festival 2020

Borrowed Light is a collaborative endeavour between the dancers of Finland’s Tero Saarinen Company and the singers of Boston Camerata. Inspired by the Shaker movement as it was made manifest in the United States largely during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it premiered in France in 2004, came to Jacob’s Pillow in 2006, and then again in 2012. A film of that 2012 production was recently screened as part of the Pillow’s Virtual Festival for 2020. With choreography by Saarinen, accompanied by traditional Shaker songs sung by Boston Camerata, and with some stunning contributions from others in the creative team, Borrowed Light is a truly exceptional collaboration.

Borrowed Light begins in silence and semi-darkness. A single female dancer moves in a shaft of light. Slowly the stage space lightens a little and, dimly in the background, we can make out seven other dancers and eight singers. The solo dancer’s expansive arm movements seem to be calling the others into the performance. She begins to clap, her movement gets faster, and she adds some stamping movements. Slowly she is joined by the other dancers and singers and the performance moves forward.

Opening sequence of Borrowed Light. Tero Saarinen Company and Boston Camerata, 2012. Photo: © Christopher Duggan

Looking back after the performance has finished, it seems clear that this opening section sets the scene for the rest of the performance. Light and dark change places frequently, slow and fast movements alternate, clapping and stamping feature at various times, and choreographically the work focuses on very loose swinging arms; fluid upper bodies; and wide, strong steps. Dancers and singers come and go as the centre of attention but are equal partners in the work.

Two sections stood out for me: a solo danced to a rendition of that well-known Shaker song Simple gifts, and a much wilder section danced by three couples to The great wheel is turning round. The solo to Simple gifts, began and finished in silence and throughout the solo the dancer scarcely moved within the stage space. But the expressive power of her movement, especially the detailed placing of the hands and fingers in the air and on the body, was exceptional. As for The great wheel, it began quite calmly with a spread-out circle of dancers. A smaller circle of singers positioned inside the large circle turned slowly as the singing progressed. But gradually the movement gathered momentum and the circle of dancers became tighter and closed in on itself. A sense of euphoria developed in the choreography and ultimately trance-like behaviour became apparent as some dancers fell to the ground. It was heart-stopping dancing and singing!

But of course there were many other sections that generated different emotions—the ecstasy of the dancers performing to Virgins clothed in a fresh white garment, or the seriousness of movement and song in I will comfort them that mourn, for example. In fact every moment of Borrowed Light was astonishing in its own way.

Ecstatic dancing in Borrowed Light. Tero Saarinen Company and Boston Camerata, 2012. Photo: © Christopher Duggan

Costumes by Erika Turunen were mostly black but had exquisite detail and a touch of blue-grey colour, differently embedded into the costumes according to gender and role. They were masterly too in the way they played with texture and different fabrics and, in the case of the dancers, in the way they moved so beautifully.

Costumes for the female dancers in Borrowed Light. Tero Saarinen Company and Boston Camerata, 2012. Photo: © Christopher Duggan

The set by Mikki Kunttu (who also designed the lighting) used the barn structure of the Ted Shawn Theatre in which the show was performed as a backdrop. Onstage there was a series of black risers. They functioned both as a platform for performance on various occasions and also as a resting place for performers when not singing or dancing. What was also quite distinctive about Borrowed Light was the way in which the artists interacted. There was no real separation between singers and dancers, an aspect of the work that set out to highlight the Shaker attitude to community.

Singers and dancers in Borrowed Light. Tero Saarinen Company and Boston Camerata, 2012. Photo: © Christopher Duggan

Borrowed Light was a truly masterful show. Each individual part was moving, or exciting, or dramatic, or religiously fanatical even. But the whole was coherent and so beautifully and unusually structured. I watched it twice but wish I could have watched it many more times, except that it was only available for a short period!

Michelle Potter, 24 August 2020

Featured image: Maria Nurmela and Tero Saarinen in a moment from Borrowed Light. Tero Saarinen Company and Boston Camerata, 2012. Photo: © Christopher Duggan

NOTE: The title Borrowed Light comes from ‘the architectural practice, common for the Shakers, of building windows into interior rooms, thus maximising dayllght and productivity.’

Charmene Yap in a still from Cuatro 1. Sydney Dance Company, 2020

Cuatro. Sydney Dance Company Digital Season 2020

Rafael Bonachela is fond of giving his works Spanish names (he is after all a Spaniard by birth). Cuatro is Spanish for ‘four’ and Bonachela’s work entitled Cuatro consisted of four short solos for four artists of Sydney Dance Company. Each separate dance was accompanied by music played by a solo musician from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Much of the creative development was conducted online with the final four outcomes filmed in isolation at the Sydney Dance Company studios in Ultimo.

Each dance was performed in a different space, beautifully designed and lit by Pedro Greig. Greig was also the film-maker. Each dancer wore a variation on a soft, flowing costume designed by Bianca Spender. The fabric colours ranged from very light grey through soft blue to golden yellow and each had some variation on a rolled and twisted design element, usually a part of the costume that crossed the shoulder.

Cuatro 1 was danced by Charmene Yap to an oboe accompaniment played by Diana Doherty. It took place in a confined space of three white walls.

Cuatro 2 featured Davide Di Giovanni performing to a violin accompaniment played by Andrew Haveron. The background this time was less confined with a draped back wall giving a softer look.

Cuatro 3 showed us Juliette Barton dancing to an accompaniment from Umberto Clerici on cello. Barton and Clerici performed in a black performing space that had three panels, made of what looked like small tiles, on each side of the space. The panels were lit with an exquisite golden glow, and often we saw dancer and cellist in shadow.

Juliette Barton in a still from Cuatro 3. Sydney Dance Company, 2020

Cuatro 4 was performed by Chloe Leong with Emma Sholl playing flute. By the time we reached this fourth dance all walls had disappeared and Leong danced in a fine white mist that spread itself widely.

Choreography for all four solos was by Bonachela and each dancer showed his or her astonishing command of Bonachela’s movement style. This time I felt his choreography was slower and more liquid than usual and its qualities of introspection were deeply moving.

I began thinking of, and watching this series of solos as individual works. Each was released separately with a week between each. Eventually, I stopped watching this way and decided to wait until all four had been screened so I could watch the four in one viewing. I’m glad I did this because I’m not sure I would have had the same reaction had I just watched each a week apart.

I did have a favourite solo—that of Barton accompanied by Clerici. The filming was exceptional with its shadows and close-up shots. Barton was technically brilliant and I loved the way Clerici played his cello with his whole body and seemed completely lost in the sound. But what was wonderful about watching the four dances as if they were one work was that, for me anyway, an emotional underpinning emerged. The work began in that enclosed space with Yap sometimes touching the walls as if to highlight an inability to extract herself from the space. It moved to the possibility of emerging with the softer backcloth against which Di Giovanni performed. By Cuatro 3 the blackness of despair was there but the glorious lighting promised hope. By Cuatro 4 we had reached freedom.

Bonachela has always said his works can mean whatever we want them to mean. I love that. Beautiful work from the whole team

Michelle Potter, 20 August 2020

Featured image: Charmene Yap in a still from Cuatro 1. Sydney Dance Company, 2020

Charmene Yap in a still from ‘Cuatro’ no. 1

Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. Book review

Kristian Fredrikson, Designer by Michelle Potter
Melbourne Books. AUD 59.95

reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This book is treasure and joy. It covers the lifelong career of Wellington-born Kristian Fredrikson, designer for ballet, theatre, opera, film and television in both New Zealand and Australia. The volume is itself an achievement of fine design—superbly presented and generously illustrated, though selective in the careful interpolation of images, both drawings and performance photographs, into the text. It is an appreciative profile by an author who clearly loves the work of her subject but, resisting hagiography, has produced perceptive analysis and an enduring record of his lifetime’s work in a notoriously ephemeral performing art. Both she and the publisher are to be congratulated.

Extensive research (Potter first conducted an oral history with Fredrikson in 1993) has allowed coverage of his prolific body of work. There are frequent quotations from his own unpublished writings about ideas and work processes, which I found illuminating. The appendices provide extensive documentation, leaving the text refreshingly accessible.

There are stimulating insights and analyses of both the aesthetic and historical influences in Fredrikson’s work (Klimt is there, Rothko is there, mediaeval Sicily, 19th century New Zealand, war-time Vietnam, outback and small-town Australia are there). Potter’s invaluable commentaries will help audiences follow, in retrospect, ‘new narratives from old texts’ in the innovative reworkings of classics such as Harry Haythorne’s Swan Lake (1985) for Royal New Zealand Ballet, Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. The Story of Clara (1992) and his Swan Lake (2002) both for The Australian Ballet.

Tutu for Princess Odile in Harry Haythorne’s Swan Lake, Act III. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1985. The Dowse Art Museum, Lower Hutt, New Zealand. Gift of Royal New Zealand Ballet

Long-time ballet followers in New Zealand would say they knew Fredrikson’s work well, keeping memories for decades of his sumptuous Swan Lakes, the ingenious A Servant of Two Masters, a poignant Orpheus, a searing Firebird, an enigmatic Jean [Batten], a spirited Peter Pan, atmospheric A Christmas Carol, and hilarious The Nutcracker. The book also includes his prolific output across other genres of theatre away from ballet. It is fascinating to learn of Fredrikson’s sensitive and restrained approaches to plays and films such as Hedda Gabler, with Cate Blanchett, or those with Australian Aboriginal, Vietnamese or American Indian settings … ‘away from dancers who spend their time twirling around on their toes’. We thus see a different side to the designer who always prioritised the contribution he could make to a collaborative project, rather than use it as an opportunity to primarily display his own aesthetic.       

Interviews with his ballet colleagues, especially Gray Veredon and Graeme Murphy, contribute to the portrayal of a deeply intelligent, thoughtful, private man with uncompromising respect for those trusted choreographers and directors with whom he worked most closely. The standout choreographic collaborations would have been with Murphy, Veredon and Russell Kerr, and they are quoted as appreciating the close integration of design and choreographic ideas, with a sense of movement always portrayed in the designs. Fredrikson did not dress mannequins, he dressed movers.

Dancers, too, appreciated this empathy, even when his costumes of period or character required particular weights, silhouettes and textiles. There are descriptions of his attending dance rehearsals to photograph sequences so as to be sure whatever fantasy he had in mind would also prove practical. Compromises and re-workings were sometimes required. 

Increasingly, today’s ballet practitioners seem less and less interested in the source and history of their art. It is heartening to learn how Fredrikson’s starting point for his concepts grew out of impeccable historical research. Since my own work and interests lie in Renaissance and Baroque dance and related arts, I was pleased to copy out a passage from his own words, about transforming, or inventing a historical period:

The problem is most of us don’t know true period. We look at a Watteau painting and we say, ‘Oh that’s how they dressed in Watteau’s time.’ Well they didn’t. Watteau made up his own people. We look at Rembrandt and say, ‘That’s how they dressed in Rembrandt’s day.’ They did not. Rembrandt created costumes for them… Our understanding of the past is so unreal that even if I do the real history, it’s surreal. And I suppose that’s what I do. I go towards the real history and that seems extraordinary.

I am now very happy to have this quote as a fridge magnet in my kitchen. It seems to echo the equally interesting and challenging practice of a writer using historical or autobiographical fiction as an imaginative way of telling a ‘true’ story.

Study for Captain Hook in Russell Kerr's 'Peter Pan', 1999. © 1998 Kristian Fredrikson
Study for Captain Hook and Peter Pan in Russell Kerr’s Peter Pan, 1999. © 1998 Kristian Fredrikson

Chapter 6, New Zealand Impressions, has a fabulous full-page image of Captain Hook in Russell Kerr’s Peter Pan. Jon Trimmer is portrayed as the seductively beautiful pirate, Peter Pan squatting at his feet is Everyboy—with a somewhat perplexed expression on his face, wondering why anyone would want to leave childhood and become an adult. The study for the Angel of Death in Murphy’s Orpheus is chillingly beautiful. The priceless comic play of Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi and Jon Trimmer as Pantalone in Veredon’s A Servant of Two Masters is evidence of one of the best productions RNZB ever staged.

Jon Trimmer as the wealthy Pantalone and Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi in 'A Servant of Two Masters'
Jon Trimmer as the wealthy Pantalone and Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi in A Servant of Two Masters, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1989. Photographer not identified. Courtesy Arthur Turnbull LIbrary, Wellington, New Zealand.

But it is the two quietly dramatic photographs from Veredon’s Tell me a Tale that could slow your breathing. The choreography tells a particular story, though it could have been the story of many a family. The cast are early European settlers arriving in New Zealand, meeting and interacting with Maori people. The young pakeha boy befriending a Maori girl brings forth a furious haka from her brother—performed by the much admired (and then much missed ) Warren Douglas. This was the most convincing representation of haka on a ballet stage I have seen in six decades of watching a range of attempts.  What a sorry business that Tale was never restaged by RNZB, and it’s a safe if sad bet it is never likely to be—even though the original cast are around and could still be involved, and indeed the choreographer, one of New Zealand’s finest dance-makers, is still actively staging his works in Europe. I treasure these fine photographs of a talisman work from RNZB ‘s early repertoire, gone but not forgotten. It belongs here in New Zealand, exists nowhere else, and should be neither gone nor forgotten.     

The eighth and final chapter ‘The Ultimate Ballet: Swan Lake’ is an insightful comparison of  approaches taken to this classic work, tracing the five different productions Fredrikson worked on. There are both similar and contrasting elements within those stagings—revealing the nature of von Rothbart’s evil, learning that Odette’s mother’s tears created the lake that her daughter will drown in, and the possibility of lovers separated by death though reuniting in an afterlife. The themes of love, treachery and loyalty are the same as those we live by, so even quite different settings in any production of calibre are as close to home as we choose to invite them.  

You could call this an illustrated biography of the life’s work of a totally committed theatre designer. His life was his work, and the book emulates the man. There is no gossip, no bodice-ripping tell-all of a private life, no imposed psychoanalysis, and Alleluia to that I say. If you want to know who Kristian Fredrikson was and what was important to him, read his work. Read this book.

Kristian Fredrikson with costumes for Cinderella. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1991. Photo: © Ross Giblin. Courtesy Stuff/The Evening Post

Jennifer Shennan, 18 August 2020

Featured image: Stephen McTaggart and Kerry-Anne Gilberd in a scene from Gray Veredon’s Tell Me a Tale (detail). Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1988. Photographer not identified. Collection of Gray Veredon

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