Kairos. Meryl Tankard

20 January 2023. Carriageworks, Eveleigh. Sydney Festival

In 2012 I self-published a biography of Meryl Tankard, which for better or worse I entitled Meryl Tankard. An original voice. Well rarely has that ‘original voice’ been so noticeable as it was in Tankard’s latest work, Kairos. The word ‘kairos’ means (in Greek) ‘the right or opportune moment for doing, a moment that cannot be scheduled’ and media information tells us that Tankard’s Kairos was a response to the uncertain and challenging times in which we live, and especially the circumstances in which the work was made. ‘The right and opportune moment is now’, we were told.

The work was really a collection of solos for each of the six dancers Tankard worked with to create Kairos: Lillian Fearn, Cloé Fournier, Taiga Kita-Leong, Jasmin Luna, Julie Anne Minaai and Thuba Ndibali. A young girl, Izabelle Kharaman, joined the group on two brief occasions. As is her usual practice, Tankard acknowledged the dancers as collaborators, although it is hard to know just how much of each solo was from the dancers and how much from Tankard. Each dancer had a very distinctive way of moving so there was no strong choreographic through-line, although there were moments when Tankard-esque features surfaced. The frequent tossing of her long hair by Lillian Fearn, especially towards the end of the work, was one such feature. But only rarely did the dancers work as a group.

(l-r) Lillian Fearn, Cloé Fournier, Thuba Ndibali, Julie Ann Minaai in Kairos, 2023. Photo: Régis Lansac

I especially enjoyed Thuba Ndibali’s movement, especially the way he used his long, loose limbs, although not so entertaining was his duet (of sorts) with Taiga Kita-Leong when Ndibali treated Kita-Leong as a kind of dog (slave?). I also admired Fearn whose elegance and strength of presence was mesmerising. But each performer seemed involved in his or her own activities and thoughts so there seemed to be no narrative through-line. In the end I gave up trying to decide what each moment meant. They could have meant anything according to how one was feeling or thinking at the time.

One or two moments were annoying, to me anyway. But then perhaps that was part of the whole. Not everything makes us happy, not in troubling times, not ever really. I wondered why, for example, at one stage the dancers appeared with boxes over their heads with the boxes having pictures/photos(?) on the front of the box. They were meant to refer to a period in the life of Australian artist Sidney Nolan when he was creating portraits using a particular medium that Tankard and her creative team found unusually interesting. But for me the parading with the boxes was pretty much meaningless and perhaps even insensitive to Nolan’s practice.

Another moment that was frustrating was when Cloé Fournier stood on a stool and recited in French a poem by Arthur Rimbaud, Le dormeur du val (The Sleeper in the Valley). The French is not difficult to understand but I could not hear every word being spoken. There was a lot of ambient sound and Fournier’s projection was not always strong enough to overcome other noises. This was a shame because the poem is fascinating for the way it presents the image of a soldier apparently asleep but actually dead, having been shot. Here was one moment when at least one idea stood out—appearances can be deceptive—but we missed it by not hearing the full version of the poem.

Looking more positively, however, visually and musically Kairos was completely absorbing. Régis Lansac’s video design and photography were brilliant. I was especially taken with some early moments in the work when the backcloth of scrims had changing images of a bush landscape projected on it. Mysterious figures hovered in the background, and bird sounds and other bush noises filled the air. Such atmosphere! The lighting by Verity Hampson was also outstanding. The accompanying and inspiring score was by Elena Kats-Chernin, who performed live on a grand piano that was situated mostly in a downstage corner, but that was pushed by the performers into a centre stage position towards the end of the work.

Tankard’s original voice was certainly there on show in Kairos. It was especially obvious in her powerful aesthetic of collaboration, but not always in the positive manner that I remember from her works made in Canberra and Adelaide. There was much that was puzzling about Kairos, largely because of a lack of easily understood themes and from choreography that seemed messy in its diversity, even though it was mostly performed skilfully. As a result, I thought that for the audience a certain negativity permeated the work. Kairos reminded me of an article by Helen Shaw, which appeared recently in The New Yorker entitled New York’s Theatre Festivals Imagine a World After Mankind. In it Shaw examines ‘visions of the future’ and finds that in several shows she has seen recently she has been somewhat dismayed to notice in the performances a delight in, and savouring of the disappearance of the world as we have known it. Dance doesn’t have to be like that, although it seems more and more as if that is the way it is going.

Michelle Potter, 22 January 2023

Featured image: Lillian Fearn in Meryl Tankard’s Kairos. Photo: Régis Lansac

Gloria. Co3

Digital screening, December 2022 (filmed during a September season from the Heath Ledger Theatre, Perth)

I first saw Douglas Wright’s Gloria in 1993 in Sydney when it was performed by Sydney Dance Company. Then it was a relatively new piece from Wright with its world premiere having taken place in Auckland in 1990. In 1993 I was the Sydney reviewer for Dance Australia so I am in the fortunate position of being able to look back at my reactions to that early production. In fact, a copy of that review appears on this website at this link.

The features of Gloria that thrilled me in 1993 are also powerful features of the Co3 production —its life affirming message, the witty choreography, the unusual and challenging connection (or not) between music and dance, and in general the vigour and vitality of the work. But on this occasion I saw it as a streamed event and, generously from Co3, the Perth-based contemporary company led by Raewyn Hill, I was able to watch it over a 48 hour period. This meant that I had time to go back and look more closely at certain sections. While every section had its highlights, two sections and one particular moment stood out for me.

The one particular moment came at the end of the first movement of Vivaldi’s Gloria, to which the work is danced. The dancers began with quite slow, unison movement that turned into energetic leaps, turns and fast running down the diagonal. As the dancers left the stage, and as the first movement was coming to an end, a single male dancer, Sean MacDonald whose connections with Gloria go back to a 1997 production, was left alone on the stage. His final jump ended with him lying on his back, legs and arms moving slowly as if he was running in that prone position. He rolled over, slowly stood up, and lifted his arms to the front, palms facing upwards. The lights faded but the music continued and the power of MacDonald’s final, simple movement was breathtaking.

Another section that moved me immensely was performed to the ‘Domine Deus’ section, sung (according to the credits that ended the stream) by soprano Sabra Poole Johnson from St George’s Cathedral Consort, the group that provided the vocals for the Vivaldi score. This section began with a group of five dancers moving slowly in a sculptural formation but eventually separating with four sliding off leaving one dancer (Francesca Fenton I believe) alone. She began her solo on the floor but slowly assumed a standing position and, in so doing, seemed to be exploring her physical existence before she broke into a waltz-like dance full of grace and fluidity. Like MacDonald before her, as her dance came to and end she lifted her arms, stretching them forward with palms facing upwards as if to announce she had discovered her identity, her existence, herself.

I also enjoyed the section danced to the movement ‘Et in terra pax’. It featured Claudia Alessi who had danced in Gloria in 1991 when it was staged for the Perth Festival by Chrissie Parrott. What made this section so appealing to me was the sculptural qualities of the choreography, which in fact were noticeable throughout the work, although perhaps not to the same extent as in ‘Et in terra pax’.

There were of course many other moments that continue to resonate: the joyous quality of the dance to ‘Laudamus Te’ and the duet between two male dancers (Sean MacDonald and Scott Galbraith I think) in which we witnessed the changing nature of human relationships. Also great to watch were those moments when a dancer was held and swung back and forth by two other dancers as others ran underneath and around the activity. But I guess I go back to my original review for Dance Australia and confirm more than anything that Wright’s Gloria is life-affirming whatever one might think of specific sections. Wright uses dance to convey a message about humanity. Simple but astounding.

I was lucky to be able to keep going back to watch sections of Gloria but I am sure I missed a lot by not seeing it live, especially as the music was played live by a chamber group from the West Australian Symphony Orchestra and sung live by the St George’s Cathedral Consort, with the whole conducted by Dr Joseph Nolan. Nevertheless, the sound quality of the streamed version was just beautiful and I absolutely loved being immersed in this production from Co3 of Douglas Wright’s spectacular Gloria.

Michelle Potter, 25 December 2022

Featured image: Scene from Gloria. Co3, Perth, 2022. Photo: © Shotweiler Photography

At the time of writing, the streamed Gloria is still available to watch for the small price of AUD 19. The offer is available until mid-January. See ‘Watch at home’ at this link.

Cranko. The man and his choreography. Book review

Cranko. The man and his choreography by Ashley Killar
Matador/Troubador Publishing
ISBN. 978-0-646-86603-1
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This biography of John Cranko is a deeply researched, widely contextualised and beautifully written account of the life and work of a major choreographer of mid-20th century. There is meticulous detail in the documentation and analysis of Cranko’s vast choreographic output, both within the text and in appendices. Ashley Killar has drawn on that oeuvre, as well as many of Cranko’s letters to friends and colleagues, to evaluate the teeming imagination and artistry, musical ear, lively sense of wit and satire, the devoted loyalty to friends and colleagues, the generous personality, the frankness over frustrations when things went wrong, the ability to move on to the next thing, the excesses in a sometimes reckless lifestyle —-all the good and some of the bad in a life fully lived but ended too soon. You come to know the man through coming to know his works, not just by reading a list of titles but by experiencing the texture and timing of the choreographies. That’s skilful dance writing.

Killar was a member of Stuttgart Ballet from 1962 to 1967 so he knew Cranko well. The book Is a devoted tribute to the man and his work, but in no measure is it simply hagiography. The contexts of socio-political history and related arts that open several chapters, and are also summarised in the appendix of choreography, are welcome reminders of a 20th century world. The contrasts of living conditions and morale in South Africa (where Cranko was born, in 1927), in post-war England (where he lived, danced and began to choreograph), in a divided post-war Germany without a single national ballet company (where he flourished, from 1961 to 1973), in Russia (where there were intriguing interactions within the political control of ballet, and the dancers visiting from Stuttgart had to step through a door in an iron fire-curtain lowered to end the applause but the audience would not cease applauding), and in America (where on a number of tours, thanks to Sol Hurok, Cranko met with great success with audiences, who loved the narrative and dramatic power of his works that their own dance-makers had not produced. There was also ongoing disdain from certain critics, Arlene Croce the most vocal among them… as though to say, ‘If you love —Balanchine then you must hate Cranko’. OK, so did that mean the reverse was true?  (KIllar’s pen is wiser and more tempered than Croce’s was).  

These contextual accounts are briefly but tellingly written and the book should appeal to a much wider readership than just ballet afficionados. It places the man in his dances, his dances in society, and societies in their response to his dances. That’s resonant choreography and insightful appreciation combined.

There were seemingly unconventional work practices in all his career. Cranko never had an office but would sit in the company canteen, use the phone on the counter, and be at all times accessible to the dancers he considered members of a family—holding no truck with the typical power and control that many a ballet company director adopts in the vain pretence that this secures leadership. The accounts around England’s Royal Ballet and that company’s ethos under Ninette de Valois’ directorship, come under the spotlight. Peggy van Praagh by contrast emerges as a genuinely joyful and encouraging figure who instantly recognised Cranko’s talent and knew how to help him rein in so that his best ideas could emerge, that less would be more. Her own long life generously devoted to dance is well caught here.

You could look at the listing of dancers in the Stuttgart company and fledgling choreographers stimulated and nurtured  by Cranko—they are among the best in the world, and New Zealand gets an entry. There is further resonance for New Zealand in that Martin James danced the title role of Eugene Onegin many times, rating it one of the most demanding and rewarding in his own remarkable performing career. It is but one example of how the dance profession becomes a kind of country in its own right, crossing over the political and historical boundaries defined by nationalism and history.

Cranko’s longstanding friendships with designer John Piper, and with composer Benjamin Britten (whose Gloriana, Peter Grimes, Prince of the Pagodas, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bouquet Garni were choreographed to) are covered. Figures in the English ballet world include Cranko’s relationship with the somewhat caustic de Valois, the idiosyncratic Frederick Ashton, as well as his camaraderie with Kenneth MacMillan, and are notable. It is Peggy van Praagh who emerges as an independent thinker and visionary to my mind.  I was intrigued to hear of the early influence on Cranko of the work of Rudolf Laban and Kurt Jooss—and later of his appreciation of the technique and style of Martha Graham, and suspect van Praagh was instrumental in this open-mindedness. Cranko’s partnership with Anne Woolliams as influential teacher at Stuttgart and her later appointment to the Australian Ballet, where van Praagh was a pioneering and spirited leader, provide a further connection to ballet in this part of the world.

From a hugely prolific body of work it is probably the early Cranks revue, the now largely forgotten Prince of the Pagodas, his The Lady and the Fool, Romeo & Juliet, Onegin and The Taming of the Shrew for which he is most remembered.

Marcia Haydée was legendary dancer and company stronghold at Stuttgart for many years. Among the young dancers in his company whose choreography he encouraged and nurtured are John Neumeier, Jiri Kylian, Gray Veredon (New Zealand’s own) and Ashley Killar himself (artistic director of RNZBallet 1992-1995, whose No Exit and Dark Waves were among the most dramatically incisive works in the company’s entire repertoire).

Cranko’s legacy speaks volumes and Killar has done him proud.

Jennifer Shennan, 13 December 2022

Cranko. The man and his choreography is available through Bloch’s ballet centres (including by mail order). Alternatively, the book is available to order through bookstores, or direct from www.troubador.co.uk/bookshop/biography/cranko/ 

Go to www.crankobiography.com for more information.

Romeo and Juliet. The Australian Ballet (2022)

10 December 2022 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Choreography: John Cranko
Design: Jürgen Rose
Lighting: Jon Buswell
Composer: Sergei Prokofiev

It is hard to believe that it is around 20 years since John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet was last performed by the Australian Ballet. Since then the production of Romeo and Juliet that the Australian Ballet has shown on numerous occasions has been by Graeme Murphy. Apart from the Murphy production, in the 20 years prior to the current production of Cranko’s work, I have seen Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, danced by the Royal Ballet and by Queensland Ballet, as well as productions by Stanton Welch for Houston Ballet, Sasha Waltz for the Paris Opera Ballet, John Neumeier’s production danced by the Royal Danish Ballet, a condensed version with the title R & J by Natalie Weir for Expressions Dance Company, and a reimagined production of the story, called Unravel, by a Canberra-based pre-professional company. So, rather than do a regular review I am simply noting some high points from the performance I saw just recently from the Australian Ballet.

Tybalt
I had the good fortune to see Joseph Romancewicz in the role of Tybalt, kinsman of the Capulet family. I have enjoyed watching Romancewicz for some time now and I thought his performance as Tybalt demonstrated a well thought through characterisation. He was cold and unrelenting in his dislike for the Montagues. He never fell out of character and his sword fight with Mercutio and then his death at the hands of Romeo were dramatic and powerful.

The ball scene (Act I, scene 4)
The largely-black costumes by Jürgen Rose for the guests at the Capulet ball were spectacular, as was the choreography and the dancing of it. I especially loved the moments when the men fell to their knees, on cushions they had dropped to the floor, and made a kind of reverence to their lady partners.

The music
The well-known music by Sergei Prokofiev, with the orchestra under the baton of the new Australian Ballet conductor Jonathan Lo, sounded just brilliant. Filled with such a diversity of thematic material and so much emotion, it was used to great effect by Cranko.

The carnival scene in the marketplace of Verona (Act II, scene 1)
Although I found the costuming for this scene a little overly decorative, the dancing was exciting to watch: I especially enjoyed the acrobatic moments by a quartet of very flexible performers. But all the dancers were full of the excitement of the moment, until the joy was interrupted by the demands of Tybalt.

The carnival in the marketplace from Romeo and Juliet. The Australian Ballet, 2022. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The progression of the storyline
The storyline moved along quickly and without a hitch. Every scene made its point clearly, never lingering over non-essential matters. The one exception, perhaps, was the dance of the bridesmaids (Act III, scene 3) which choreographically seemed to be a little uninspiring to me and continued for too long.

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Apart from the dance for the bridesmaids, there were other aspects of the work that didn’t appeal, which I think related more to the dancers I saw than to the work itself. Apart from Romancewicz, the only other dancer who made my eyes light up was Lucien Xu as Benvolio, who often is an easy-to-ignore character. But not this time.

As a final comment, I have to say that Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet, which concludes the Australian Ballet’s 2022 season, is a master work really. It had, thankfully, so much more to offer than the previous program, Instruments of Dance.

Michelle Potter 12 December 2022

For reviews of other productions of Romeo and Juliet, and some stories relating to the work, see this link.

Featured image: The carnival in the marketplace from Romeo and Juliet. The Australian Ballet, 2022. Photo: © Jeff Busby

The Nutcracker. Queensland Ballet (2022)

2 December 2022. Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

I have fond memories of watching a production of Nutcracker pretty much every Christmas as a young ballet student in Sydney and it is great to see Queensland Ballet making their Nutcracker (choreographed by Ben Stevenson originally in 1976) a Brisbane tradition. Every production has its high points and the highlight for me in this Queensland Ballet performance was the snow scene where Clara (Chiara Gonzalez) is transported, after her encounter with the Nutcracker and his fight with the army of rats, to the Kingdom of the Sweets via a snowy landscape. The appearance of the Snow Queen gave me a frisson of excitement to begin with and as the dancing progressed the goose bumps continued. Mia Heathcote as the Snow Queen and Patricio Revé as the Prince danced exceptionally well both in solos and pas de deux, and the snowflake corps de ballet were also a delight to watch. The set for this section (sets by Thomas Boyd) reminded me of a trip way back in December 2007 through the snowy Kit Carson Forest, in New Mexico.

Mia Heathcote and Patricio Revé in Ben Stevenson’s Nutcracker. Queensland Ballet, 2022. Photo: © David Kelly

Then there was the orchestra playing that moving section of Tchaikovsky’s score with the addition of the Voices of Birralee from St Peter’s Lutheran College Choir. It was all just glorious and, to the amazement of everyone (at least those where I was sitting), snowflakes fell on us as the lights went up for interval!*

But to the production as a whole: the opening scenes were filled with action as guests enjoyed themselves at the Christmas party that opens the ballet. The stage space was a little crowded, however, and the action rather too full of pantomime-style behaviour for my liking. It weakened the presence of Dr Drosselmeyer (Alexander Idaszak) and his two sets of dolls, and the other various activities that have prominence in these scenes. There were just too many people trying to dominate the action of the party.

But as Clara retired to bed and the army of rats and the soldiers who fight the rats arrived, the production became easier to watch. There were some lovely humorous moments, including when ‘nurse rats’ arrived, with one waving a white flag and others carrying a stretcher, to carry off the injured body of the King Rat. The King Rat had just a brief role but Vito Bernasconi, who danced the part on opening night, was an outstanding interpreter of Stevenson’s expressive choreography of twists, bends and jumps that gave such character to the role—and Desmond Heeley’s costume was exceptional.

Vito Bernasconi as the King Rat in Ben Stevenson’s Nutcracker. Queensland Ballet, 2022. Photo: © David Kelly

Act II was very ‘sweetish’ with little cakes and other sweet items decorating the set and a bunch of cooks rushing in and out with their items for Clara to taste. Some of the entertainment, watched by Clara and the cooks, was somewhat different in Stevenson’s version from what many older folks might remember. For example, the Russian gopak usually a dance for more than one man, was a solo brilliantly performed by Bernasconi, and the Chinese Dance (Mali Comlecki and Luke DiMattina) was highly acrobatic and was akin to a martial arts demonstration. The always-anticipated Waltz of the Flowers showed Lucy Green and David Power dancing the lead couple with exception fluidity and grace.

Lucy Green and Dvvid Power as the lead couple in the Waltz of the Flowers in Ben Stevenson’s Nutcracker. Queensland Ballet 2022. Photo: © David Kelly

The grand pas de deux was danced on opening night by Yanela Piñera as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Patricio Revé as her Prince and once more I was especially impressed by Revé as a partner. He is completely engaged with whomever he partners, and in whatever role he performs. Watching Piñera was a joy too as from the relatively close seat I had I could see how every tiny move she made filled the space around her. Beautiful dancing from both artists.

Yanela Piñera and Patricio Revé in the grand pas de deux from Ben Stevenson’s Nutcracker. Queensland Ballet, 2022. Photo: © David Kelly

From a different point of view, I have much admiration for Nigel Gaynor, Queensland Ballet’s conductor and musical arranger. I have always been impressed by the collaborative way he works and this time I was sitting close enough to see just how he engaged with the dancers, even applauding at various stages (baton still in hand), when a solo or pas de deux was especially spectacular.

Despite my comments on the opening party scenes of this production, it was a treat to see this Nutcracker danced so beautifully across the evening by the hugely talented team that makes up Queensland Ballet these days.

Michelle Potter, 4 December 2022

* I’m not sue what the ‘snow’ was except that it wasn’t bits of white paper. Perhaps water, slightly frozen? But this delightful addition to audience experience has never happened to me before.

Featured image: Mia Heathcote as the Snow Queen in Ben Stevenson’s Nutcracker. Queensland Ballet, 2022. Photo: © David Kelly

Instruments of dance. The Australian Ballet

26 November 2022 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

After watching Kunstkamer earlier this year, I felt such positivity about the future direction of the Australian Ballet under the direction of David Hallberg. I wrote, ‘Kunstkamer is a complete change for the Australian Ballet. It is a magnificent, brilliantly conceived, exceptionally performed work giving audiences (and perhaps even the dancers) a whole new look at what dance can achieve, and maybe even what we can expect for the next several years under Hallberg?’ After Instruments of dance I am not so sure about those expectations. I found Instruments of dance, which consisted of three works by choreographers working across the world today, decidedly underwhelming, and as my companion succinctly put it, ’Things can only get better.’

The program opened with Wayne McGregor’s Obsidian tear, which I first saw in London in 2018. Then I found it a cold work. This time it certainly wasn’t cold, in fact it was the opposite. After the opening emotion-filled duet, it showed anger, aggression and even a sense of hatred and ill feeling between the nine members of the all-male cast. It was a comment by McGregor, to my mind anyway, on aspects of sexuality. But what bothered me on this occasion was the choreography, which was often full of McGregor’s body-bending movement, but at other times seemed really static with dancers simply standing with arms in geometric shapes. Somehow it didn’t come together as a unified whole and I remain convinced that Obsidian tear is not one of McGregor’s outstanding works, despite some extraordinary and heart-wrenching moments.

The middle work on the program, Annealing, came from Alice Topp, whose brilliant Aurum remains fixed in my mind four years after I saw it first. Annealing means, we are told, ‘ the process of heating metal or glass to a temperature below its melting point in order to make it softer’. It began with a startling duet, which was followed by an equally startling group section. The duet was dressed simply and elegantly but the costumes for the group section that followed were extravagantly designed, to put it mildly, with all dancers wearing gold clothing that concealed most of the working body. This of course limited the kind of movement that could be executed and in this group section Topp often focused on unison movements of the arms and hands, and bends of the upper body. This looked fine when unison was strongly executed but it was really a dance for costumes more than anything.

Scene from Annealing, 2022. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Justin Peck’s Everywhere we go closed the program. It had, perhaps not surprisingly, a strong American look given that Peck is currently artistic director of New York City Ballet and was a dancer with the company for many years. It had a distinct show bizz feel, which I would enjoy (perhaps) if I went to see a musical but it was frustrating to say the least when in the repertoire of a ballet company. It was repetitious and in fact the audience clapped and cheered at one point thinking that the work had come to an end. But it hadn’t and it continued in its repetitious manner for several more minutes. In addition to many fast turning steps (a little a la Balanchine), Peck used lines of dancers whose numbers grew and diminished constantly and also often used what to my mind were quite ugly poses in which the dancers lent forward with curved backs that somehow mirrored the statically held, curved arms that accompanied the leaning. Then there was all that grinning out to the audience. No thanks.

Scene from Justin Peck’s Everywhere we go, 2022. Photo: © Jeff Busby

As a subscriber (I am not regarded as a legitimate reviewer apparently and so do not enjoy any reviewer privileges), I paid $236 to see this show. It is a big price to pay for a program that delivered little that I could admire and enjoy. I am hoping I will see something better next year.

Michelle Potter, 28 November 2022

Featured image: Scene from Obsidian tear, 2022. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Glimpses of Graeme. Reflections on the work of Graeme Murphy. Book review

Book by Michelle Potter. Published by FortySouth Publishing, Tasmania
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

The first word of appreciation for this book should go to its design and visual appeal. A well-made paperback volume of good weight and proportion, it feels right in the hand, and its pages stay open (instead of closing themselves as typical paperbacks annoyingly do). In addition the ink of the text sits bright on the page rather than being absorbed into the paper, so that by running your hand over the page you discover a kind of braille, a little dance for your fingertips, in a haptic pleasure I don’t recall noticing in other volumes (clever designer).   

The front cover image is Murphy the man, in dance profile and grinning, the back cover Graeme the young schoolboy, smiling his pleasure for the ice cream sundae he has just enjoyed. The front endpaper has a curtain-call lineup of applause—the back endpaper has Murphy acknowledging that applause—with a facing image of Graeme and his life and work partner, Janet Vernon, back to back. Their combined lifetime contribution to dance in Australia receives tribute in every chapter of the book (heroic couple, generous author).

The frontispiece photo has Graeme Murphy en l’air, not in some balletic cliché of soaring jeté or flying leap, limbs outspread, striving beyond gravity, where aspiration replaces destination. This is not any role performed but the man himself, right here, right now, in the middle of the page, looking straight at you, the reader. Hello.

Portrait of Graeme Murphy, 1986. Photo: © Greg Barrett

Simultaneous movement in both upward and downward directions is implied. The single vertical stroke of the svelte elevated dancer in white trousers and loose-lapelled jacket, legs pointing down with pencil sharp engaged feet in an exquisite fifth position displaying all the stylised turnout that ballet requires of a dancer, (but none of the distorted overarched eagle feet sometimes displayed by those more interested in virtuosity than in dialogue or eloquence). Meantime the upper body is that of a relaxed and graceful man, hands tucked into large pockets, an enigmatic smile hovering around his lips. The floor is not shown in the photo so the image is of a dancer enduringly airborne, not one ounce of the effort involved in an elevation of this order allowed to show. Dancing masters of the Italian Renaissance had a term for this quality—sprezzatura/‘divine nonchalance’—as though to say ‘Look—leaping like this is as easy as breathing. I’ll teach you how to do it if you like.’ Yeah right. It’s a graceful yet wonderfully cheeky portrait, inviting readers into the book (gifted dancer, clever photographer). I savoured the photo for a day before starting to read the text. Felt as though I had been dancing.

The book title is borrowed from Murphy’s first major choreography, Glimpses, 1976. The astonishing photograph from that work reveals his early theatrical vision, with Janet Vernon standing tall on the chest of dancer Ross Stretton. 

Janet Vernon and Ross Stretton in Glimpses, 1976. Photo: © David Parker

Eight chapters celebrate Murphy’s choreographic works in thematic rather than chronological treatment, mainly through excerpts selected from reviews Michelle has written over the years. It has been a colossal choreographed body of work. Over and over Murphy’s collaborations with design artists and composers are acknowledged and there is much discussion of the Australian content within the works, by dint of those collaborations rather than simply in local narratives or settings.

I thoroughly enjoyed reminders of those of Murphy’s works we have seen in New Zealand — with design by Kristian Fredrikson, the striking Orpheus for the RNZBallet’s celebrated Stravinsky centenary season in 1982, devised by artistic director Harry Haythorne.  Our company also staged The Protecting Veil the following decade.  Sydney Dance Company visited with Shining (I recall a mighty performance from New Zealand dancer Alfred Williams). They returned with Some Rooms, a fine work which appealed to audiences wider than just dance aficionados. Berlin was a major work that well warranted the trip to Auckland then, so of interest now to learn of the creative processes of its music ( with Iva Davies and Icehouse) and design (by Andrew Carter).

I also saw Mythologia in Sydney, 2000, though I retain much livelier memories of the inspired Nutcracker, The Story of Clara, and of the remarkable  Swan Lake for Australian Ballet. Harry Haythorne had roles in these two works, but it was his tap-dancing-on-roller-skates routine in Tivoli that warranted yet another trip across the Tasman, to see the hilariously entertaining yet simultaneously poignant production. The closing image has never left me.

It’s also a good memory that Murphy invited New Zealand choreographer Douglas Wright to stage his legendary Gloria, to Vivaldi, on Sydney Dance Company.

Once when I was visiting Harry in Melbourne, he took a phone call from Graeme and I recall a very long conversation, more than an hour, with loads of laughter while Harry winked and indicated I should continue browsing his bookshelf. They were clearly best of mates with a great deal of respect for each other’s work.  

There’s another synergy one can appreciate: Graeme’s work, Grand, was made for and dedicated to his mother—and Michelle has made and dedicated this book to her own mother who died recently.

The book’s text is succinct and its themes clearly delineated. My paraphrasing would not be nearly as useful as my encouragement to you to find and enjoy it for yourself (lucky reader).

Jennifer Shennan, 19 November 2022

Featured image: Cover image (excerpt) of Glimpses of Graeme. Full cover reproduced below.

New Zealand School of Dance. Performance Season

16 November 2022. Te Whaea Theatre, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This year’s Performance Season by New Zealand School of Dance offers two programs that alternate throughout a ten-day season. The opening program has five works all choreographed by Loughlan Prior, performed by the school’s stream of classical ballet students. The following evening has five works each by a different choreographer, performed by contemporary dance students.        

Loughlan Prior graduated from NZSD, followed a performing career and has more recently become a full-time free-lance choreographer. Even as a student he knew the pull towards choreography and has already a prolific output, one could say outpouring, of both short and full-length works, including a number of dance films, to his credit.  His works have been seen widely in New Zealand and also staged in a number of countries abroad.

His pithy and helpful program notes are reproduced here since they don’t need re-writing…

Storm Surge
Music: Matteo Sommacal, The Forgotten Strains (For Piano and String Quartet);
Exile Upon Earth: 3. Pensive; Follow It Blindly (For Piano and Cello);
The Sign of Gathering (For Piano and String Quartet)
Costume Design: Max de Roy
Inspired by the wild weather of Wellington, this newly created work explores the drama, beauty and fragility of the human body. Placed within varying environments, small fragments of movement are pieced together to create a complex matrix of shifting forms and patterns. The dancers are seen to dart and weave through a vibrant landscape evoking turbulent skies      

The opening section in low light had a mesmerising quality in arm movements suggesting the ebb of kelp tossed in the tide. Next a duo of abstract movement in unison, followed by a sequence with emotion newly introduced, gave the sense that the choreography was evolving through layered references, the weather outside towards the weather inside. All eight dancers were focussed and in form for this premiere performance, with Aidan Tully particularly noticeable in the cast.

Verse
Music: Antonio Martin Y Coll, Differencias sobre las Folias
Physical calligraphy. A script embodied in flesh
dedicated to Wellington arts patron, the late David Carson-Parker

Verse, a solo, beautifully performed by Joshua Douglas, is a carefully chiselled transition of a 17th century sarabande towards a contemporary sensibility. Prior has taken the minimalism of baroque dance movement vocabulary, through which intense emotion can be conveyed, from its iteration as the legendary Folies d’Espagne. The first known review of a dance performance in European literature is of a sarabande, by François Pomey mid 1660s, and I’ve yet to come across a finer account of a danced performance in any era. I’m drawn to art that reminds us infinity lies in both directions, ever outward, ever inward, as we walk backwards into the future. I would vote Verse as my favourite work from both programs if it were a competition, which thankfully it’s not.

Joshua Douglas in Loughlan Prior’s Verse. New Zealand School of Dance, 2022. Photo: © Stephen A’Court.

(Verse takes its strength from the single music source, Diferencias sobre las Folias, theme and variations by Antonio Martin Y Coll, superbly rendered by Jordi Savall and Hesperion XX1. In contrast, a number of the other dances across both evening’s programs use excerpts from many different music sources for a single dance work, leaving a choreography to devise its own structure, predictably with varying degrees of coherence).

Curious Alchemy
Music: L.v Beethoven String Quartet no.3, op.130; C.Saint-Saens, String Quartet no 1, op.112
This short work was commissioned for students of the Canadian National Ballet School for a festival in 2017.

Four dancers in smart red contoured leotards moved with an attractive energy, conveying a playful mood of youthful enthusiasm. MIguel Herrera was particularly immersed in the humour of the style.

Time Weaver
Music: Philip Glass, Metamorphosis
This hypnotic and seemingly infinite, arrangement of Glass’ work for harp is symbolic of our relationship with the continuum of time and the perceived linear passage in which we live our lives. Two figures are captured curving, sculpting, playing, ‘living’ inside an unending duet, an ouroboros. If the stage light was never to fade, the dance could go on forever. 

India Shackel and Aidan Tully performed this sustained pas-de-deux with unflinching care and admirable command of the technical demands it makes, resulting in a ritual or prayer-like atmosphere.

Coloratura
Music: N. Porpora, O. Davis, G.Giacomelli, R.Broschi – numerous excerpts.
Originally created for Palucca Hochschule für Tanz Dresden, this stylish work never made it to the stage due to the Covid pandemic. Now in 2022 the piece finds a new home at NZSD and has been expended into a large ensemble work to feature the talents of every classical student. Fun, quirky and irreverent, Coloratura pays homage to the vocal mastery and comedic timing of world-renowned mezzo soprano Cecilia Bartoli. There is high energy and pure joy in every note, inspiring an infectious celebration of dance and music.

Fun, quirky and irreverent, indeed, as the excesses and extremes of staged opera are satirised. A lip-synching Diva, played by a masked Rilee Scott draped in fineries, struts the stage while he delivers many repeats of soft vague arm gestures in floating arm-covers to assist delivery of the lyrics. However the variety of would-be dynamic gestures that opera singers actually use while performing is a minefield waiting for choreographic exploration, since these are the often clumsy remnants of the earlier time when singers also danced and dancers also sang. Here a large dance chorus of attendants played backing, fronting and siding roles and one could imagine an expanded version of this piece in a heightened explosive finale with the ripped bodices and revelations of star performers in competition laid bare, as opera’s surreal characters sing and love, sing and dance, sing and suffer, sing and die, then come back to life for the curtain calls.

New Zealand School of Dance students with Rilee Scott (centre) in Loughlan Prior’s Coloratura, 2022. Photo: © Stephen A’Court.

One suspects that Loughlan Prior finds a new dance idea every day of his waking life—and more in his dreaming life. This was a special opportunity to showcase his work on many young dancers who clearly relished their roles and gave spirited performances.

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17 November, 2022. Te Whaea Theatre, Wellington

The contemporary dance program opened with the premiere of Craig Bary’s State of Perpetuation. In an arresting beginning to a vocal section, the dancers held sculptural shapings in what was possibly the best lit work of the evening. It invited our own response, and the recurring motifs of hands quivering in wiri, or circular motions of wrist that suggested the thrust of poi movement I found both subtle and memorable.

(I know it’s important to thank the sponsors but one could hope space could be found in an 18-page printed program for a summary profile of each choreographer. Craig Bary was an exceptional student at the school years back, and later a phenomenal performer in a number of Douglas Wright’s choreographies. Dance is ephemeral enough by its nature so deserves the respect of memory within its legacy at every possible opportunity).

Midlight, choreographed by Christina Chan and Aymeric Bichon, was a duet danced by Persia Thor-Poet and Seth Ward. Their two bodies intertwined as one almost throughout, inviting thoughts about where individual identity is reshaped within a relationship.

Rubble, by Holly Newsome, had a large cast moving to vocal and percussion sections. Its theme involved the motivation needed to get up and get on with the daily dance. The song, Rise & Shine, framed the work with humour.   

A Kind Tone, by Tyler Carney-Faleatua, again with a large group cast, explored the lifting of layers, both literally in swathes of draped costume, and metaphorically in regard to how a community supports individuals. Sequences of a slowly locomoting tight-knit group from which different individuals had to push and struggle to emerge, were memorable.

Students of New Zealand School of Dance in Tyler Carney-Faleatua’s A Kind Tone, 2022. Photo: © Stephen-A’Court

Sarah Foster-Sproull, another graduate from NZSD some years back, is a gifted choreographer with a major output. Her work here, To The Forest, To The Island, with music by Eden Mulholland, gave a strong cadence to the program and the dancers were galvanised into energised performances as they explored the notion of the places where we take refuge.

The work was originally conceived for film by students at Auckland’s Unitec. In this live version, a number of tube light sticks carried and positioned around the stage then reflected sequences of many bright colours which moved towards strobe effects. This seriously challenges the audience’s viewing access, and I confess my response is always to close my eyes at any time where lights are shone at the audience or strobe effects are used in the theatre. It was clear however that the committed dancers relished the chance to perform in a strong and animated choreography.

In different ways, works on both programs referenced themes of identity of individuals and of groups, as well as motivation in how to respond to challenges. The last three years of tumultuous experiences related to the global pandemic have affected life for every individual, family, neighbourhood in the country, indeed in every country on the planet. The resilience needed to adapt and continue when continuity is often the first casualty, with dance training programs probably more challenged than most enterprises, is reflected in many of these works.

To many the divide between ‘classical’ and ‘contemporary’ dance is more of an aesthetic concept than a reality in today’s professional dance world, and several of the works we saw could have been performed in either program. The school’s whakatauki or motto—Kia kōrero te katoa o te tinana/to talk with the whole body—offers encouraging reminder of the choreographic aspiration to get the physics of motion to reveal the physics of emotion.

Jennifer Shennan, 19 November 2022

Featured image: India Shackel and Aidan Tully in Loughlan Prior’s Time Weaver. New Zealand School of Dance 2022. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Roll the dice. Pump Dance Studios

5 November 2022. Opera House, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

When I taught Dance Studies to students at New Zealand School of Dance several decades ago, one of the sessions I enjoyed the most, and students assured me they did too, was built around the documentary of the celebrated New York City Ballet dancer, Jacques d’Amboise—He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’ * and his associated book, Teaching the Magic of Dance.**         

Each year d”Amboise would book the theatre at Lincoln Center, then through the National Dance Institute which he had founded, liaise with teachers in numerous Manhattan schools, to prepare a full-length narrated show with a cast of thousands, well, at least 1000. He would borrow artists from NYCB to play lead roles, then recruit local cops, street sweepers or truck drivers and teach them a few numbers to widen the scene. It was always the irrepressible enthusiasm and musicality in d’Amboise that proved infectious for everyone to give their best.  ‘Give it a go—you don’t know if you can dance until you try’ … was his encouraging word, and the resulting film is evidence of their lift-off. Small wonder it won Academy awards, and made its mark worldwide.

A high-spirited and imaginative dance show, Roll The Dice, in a 2.5 hour long performance played twice last weekend to capacity audiences at Wellington’s Opera House. Pump Dance Studios brought what seemed like 200 young dancers together in a tightly sequenced show combining hip-hop, jazz and contemporary dance with faultless timing and spirited expression. It brought alive for me the memory of Jacques d’Amboise, who died last year aged 86, but whose legacy endures. No one who saw his fine performing or witnessed his spirited dance-making will forget him.

Roll the Dice followed the structure of a Monopoly game, with a narrative of rhyming couplets highlighting the greed that has driven so much of the world’s destruction of its natural resources. Starting with youth in protest, this became a journey of how to play the game and get out of jail without the Earth being the loser. Baddies v. Goodies played out in numerous episodes in which huge businesses, bankers, entrepreneurs, politicians, money lenders, pirates, war-profiteers and polluters were in contrast with young, hardworking and clear-thinking youth on a mission. Natural forces of water, wind, sun and air were danced and mimed into hydroelectricity, solar heating, sustainable building practices. There was a plea for the preservation of the environments for animals—meerkats, hyenas, panthers and penguins all disarmingly portrayed in dance. By re-writing the rules and disrupting the greed, The Goodies won in the end. What a heartening change from the daily news bulletins in our lives.

I particularly enjoyed the show’s atmosphere of inclusivity—there were soloists and leaders among the cast but also a sense that there’s no such thing as a minor role, and the resulting commitment was exponential in effect. There were numerous inventive ideas in lighting and staging—costume racks on wheels transformed into train carriages, onesie suits becoming hot dogs, $2 shop red bandanas signalling a band of pirates, a black net curtain reducing lives to mere shadows in death—numerous effective transitions that all prioritised ideas and imagination ahead of big budget and wardrobe. It worked so well because the narrative stayed alive at the spine of the show, and every performer believed in it. Jacques d’Amboise would have been tickled pink.

* The film is available on YouTube
** the book listed with Amazon

Jennifer Shennan, 18 November 2022

All photos: © Nick George Creative

Intersecting journeys. Two films by Sue Healey

11 November 2022. Arc Cinema, National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra

Sue Healey’s relatively recent initiative, Intersecting Journeys, was made up of two films, Meeting Place and Alumni, both produced by Canberra’s QL2 Dance on behalf of Youth Dance Australia, with the support of the Australia Council for the Arts. Healey says that having this commission helped her through some of the most difficult times of the COVID pandemic, and watching the films it is clear that the making of them was a challenging and demanding enterprise for Healey and her team. The result is both intriguing and absorbing.

The screening in the Arc Cinema at the National Film and Sound Archive began with Meeting Place in which eight youth dance companies teamed up and shared common practices. Working in four teams each made up of dancers from two of the eight companies, they met in four different locations to connect and collaborate. Dancers from Melbourne’s Yellow Wheel teamed up with those from Austi Dance & Physical Theatre in Austinmer, New South Wales. They met where the Yarra River meets Merri Creek. Then the Indigenous youth company, Wagana, located in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, teamed up with dancers from NAISDA College and met at Kedumba Cascades near Katoomba. Australian Dance Theatre’s youth group, Tread, was joined by Tasmania’s Stompin youth company and they performed at Sellicks Beach on the Fleurieu Peninsula out of Adelaide. Canberra’s Quantum Leap dancers teamed up with those from Newcastle’s Flipside Project run by Catapult Dance. They danced together on Newcastle Breakwater.

Harlisha Newie and Maddison Fraser from NAISDA College at Kedumba Cascades. Screenshot from Meeting Place, 2022

What stood out from these four exploratory dances was, on the one hand, the utter commitment of the young dancers who performed them and, on the other, the locations chosen, all very different but all with a watery theme. Absolutely stunning was the work of Maddison Fraser from Wagana who, without obvious trepidation, walked up the waterfall and sat down on a rock in the middle of the rushing water, as seen in the header image to this post.

But beyond the choreography, which I suspect was partly improvised, and the incredibly beautiful locations chosen, was the remarkable film work of cinematographer Richard Corfield and drone cinematographer Ken Butti, the latter seen especially strongly in relation to the Newcastle Breakwater. Their work added immensely to what was an exceptionally well directed film from Healey.

Dancers from Quantum Leap and the Flipside Project performing on Newcastle Breakwater. Still from Meeting Place, 2022

The second film was Alumni, which in many respects was a sequel to Meeting Place. Healey had identified a number of former youth company dancers who had gone on to make national and international careers in dance. As a number of them were working outside of Australia she asked all those identified to contribute footage from youth performances in which they had danced, and then to film their reaction, in a danced format, to watching that early footage. Healey then assembled the material into mini dance biographies about each dancer. It was a monumental task and Healey responded with a varied analysis of material so that the biographies, as mini as they were (given the time frame), showed up the different personalities of each dancer.

James Batchelor in a screenshot from Alumni, 2022

I enjoyed Alumni, especially when watching those whose post-youth company, professional work I have been able to follow, including James Batchelor, Jack Ziesing, Chloe Chignell, and Sam Young-Wright. But it was really Meeting Place that I found especially fascinating. Apart from the dancing and exceptional filming and directing, looking at the four locations and the way they were integrated into the dancing, I could not help thinking what a beautiful country we live in here in Australia.

Overall, however, what Intersecting Journeys made very clear was the significance of giving young dancers the positive mentoring that the best youth companies make available to them.

Watch brief excerpts from both films below.

Michelle Potter, 13 November 2022

Featured image: Maddison Fraser at Kedumba Cascades in a scene from Meeting Point in Sue Healey’s Intersecting Journeys, 2022