Kevin Jackson, Robyn Hendricks and Nathan Brook in a study for Anna Karenina. Photo: © Justin Ridler

Dance diary. September 2019

  • The Australian Ballet 2020

The Australian Ballet’s 2020 season, announced earlier this month, looks to be the most interesting the company has offered for years. I was thrilled to see that Yuri Possokhov’s Anna Karenina was on the list. Although I haven’t seen this particular work I was lucky enough to see San Francisco Ballet perform Possokhov’s Rite of Spring back in 2013. It was totally mesmerising and I can’t wait to see Anna Karenina.

Another work I have seen elsewhere, which I am also anticipating with pleasure, is Frederick Ashton’s A Month in the Country, which dates back to 1976. Seeing it just a few years ago I wrote, ‘I found myself swept along by a strong performance from Zenaida Yanowsky as Natalia Petrovna and by Ashton’s ability to define characters through movement. The young, the old, different levels of society, everything was there in the choreography’.

The Australian Ballet’s 2020 season includes A Month in the Country as part of a triple bill, Molto, which also comprises Tim Harbour’s Squander and Glory, one of his best works I think, and a revival of Stephen Baynes’ crowd pleasing Molto Vivace. A Month in the Country needs strong acting (as no doubt Anna Karenina does too), so fingers crossed that the company’s coaching is good.

For other good things on the 2020 program, including Graeme Murphy’s delayed Happy Prince and a new work, Logos, from Alice Topp, see the Australian Ballet’s website.

  • In the wings

Two stories that were meant to be posted in September were held up for various reasons. One is a profile of Shaun Parker who is currently in Taiwan performing at the Kuandu Arts festival in Taipei. The other is Jennifer Shennan’s account of a tribute held recently in Wellington to celebrate 40 years of teaching by Christine Gunn at the New Zealand School of Dance. Jennifer’s story is reflective and personal without ignoring the stellar input from Gunn over 40 years.

The issues that delayed these two posts have been sorted and the stories will appear shortly.

Portrait of Shaun Parker
  • Press for September 2019

None! I am reminded of Martin Portus’ comment to me in a recent email ‘Ah! The death of the [print] outlet!’

Michelle Potter, 30 September 2019

Featured image: Kevin Jackson, Robyn Hendricks and Nathan Brook in a study for Anna Karenina. Photo: © Justin Ridler

Kevin Jackson, Robyn Hendricks and Nathan Brook in a study for Anna Karenina. Photo: © Justin Ridler
Kristian Fredrikson design for the Indian Prince (detail) in 'Rose Adagio', West Australian Ballet 1971

Dance diary. January 2019

  • Robert O’Kell

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

  • Oral histories

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

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

  • A new Anna Karenina

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

  • Edna Busse

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

  • Press for January 2019

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

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

Michelle Potter, 31 January 2019

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

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

Anna Karenina. Eifman Ballet

15 August 2012, Capitol Theatre, Sydney

There is a lot to admire in Boris Eifman’s balletic interpretation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel, Anna Karenina. It is definitely not that Eifman covers all the complexities of the plot in his narrative but that, having chosen to reduce the storyline to a love triangle between the influential statesman Alexey Karenin (Oleg Markov); Anna (Nina Zmievets), his wife; and Alexey Vronsky (Oleg Gabyshev), cavalry officer and Anna’s lover; he presents a theatrically powerful distillation of the emotional heart of the novel.

Eifman emphasises individual incidents and single moments in the narrative and this approach is supported by a lighting design from Gleb Filshnitsky who uses strong spotlighting to direct the audience’s focus. I admired the quite minimal designs of the costumes by Slava Okunev with their reduced colour palette, largely of slate grey, black and white, and the multi-functioning black and gold setting by Zinovy Margolin with its architectural and historical allusions. They also supported Eifman’s vision. Alongside the three principals in this production, the corps de ballet becomes a kind of chorus filling roles as socialites, visitors to Venice, and eventually as the train that kills Anna.

Nina Zmievets and Oleg Markov in a scene from Anna Karenina, Eifman Ballet, 2012. Photo: © Cynthia Sciberras

Eifman’s choreography is an odd mixture of classical and contemporary movement. There is the temptation to think of Martha Graham, perhaps even Nacho Duato at times, and also musical comedy routines. But it is more a case of it being Eifman’s own brand of eccentric movement where bodies are twisted and contorted and thrown around dramatically. I am not particularly a fan of Eifman’s ‘flash-bang’ choreographic style, although the dancers clearly relished what they were dancing and that in itself is something to admire. For a while I didn’t notice that the women were on pointe, so focused was the choreography on flinging the body from one extraordinary shape and position to another. But once I started looking more closely I disliked the way the women used (or didn’t use) their feet. Pointe shoes look ghastly if the foot isn’t working strongly inside them and often it wasn’t, which totally destroyed the line of the leg in my opinion.

Scene from Anna Karenina, Eifman Ballet, 2012. Photo: © Cynthia Sciberras

What I really didn’t like was the Tchaikovsky mash-up to which the work was set musically. In particular, there were some musical selections that are so closely identified with other ballets as to detract from what Eifman was trying to achieve. The scene in Venice where Anna and Vronsky have fled, for example, was danced to music that is used for that wonderful Polonaise in the finale of Balanchine’s Theme and Variations. No matter how elegant those black and gold Venetian carnival costumes were, it was all but impossible not to wish one was seeing Theme and Variations instead of Anna Karenina. Similarly, the ballet opened with the music that opens Balanchine’s Serenade, and again it is hard to not visualise that ballet rather than watch what is unfolding on stage in Anna Karenina.

I think it’s worth looking at Judith Flanders’ summation of Eifman Ballet as posted on not so long ago. She wrote, ‘Boris Eifman has always divided the critics. Western audiences tend to respond the way they do to car crashes: they are appalled, but find it hard to look away. Russians, meanwhile, virtually stand on their seats and scream for more.’ There is also an interesting comment posted at the end of the Flanders’ piece!

I wasn’t appalled, there was too much to think about and plenty to admire, but to my eyes Eifman’s way of presenting ballet is definitely eccentric. Having said that, perhaps we need a few more eccentricities here in Australia?

Michelle Potter, 17 August 2012