Balanchine and Robbins. The Royal Ballet Live, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle Potter, 03 July 2021

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

Elma Kris and Beau Dean Riley Smith in ‘Bennelong’. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2017. Photo: © Vishal Pandey

Dance diary. April 2020

  • Digital streaming

There has been much to watch via digital streaming over the past few weeks. The Australian Ballet, Sadler’s Wells, New York City Ballet, Royal Ballet of New Zealand, and others have all provided some excellent footage of works from their repertoire. Some of the works I have seen via digital streaming I have already mentioned on this site, but there are two impressive productions I have just watched that I have not yet written about (except in relation to previous live productions).

Bangarra Dance Theatre’s filmed version of Bennelong is outstanding. I have been impressed with the work on the occasions when I have seen it live—my review is at this link. But it was exciting to see it on film as well. What I liked especially was being able to see Jennifer Irwin’s costumes close up. Her leafy outfits for the dancers in the opening movements were just beautiful, and it was fascinating to see close up the textures of the fabrics used for the women in Bennelong’s life, who appear towards the end of the work. I also loved being able to see Beau Dean Riley Smith’s facial expressions throughout. He was such an impressive performer in this role. The film was (and still is at the time of writing) available via the Sydney Opera House website.

The second film that I really enjoyed was New York City Ballet’s production of Balanchine’s Apollo. It has been a while since I have seen Apollo live and I was staggered by the performance and interpretation of the title role given by Taylor Stanley, NYCB principal. He danced with such athleticism and displayed precision and strength throughout. He saw himself as a god and was determined to act accordingly. It was an eye-opener. This film was available on but finishes on 1 May. But … next up from NYCB is Ballo della Regina. I’m sure it will be worth watching.

  • International Dance Day

Wednesday 29 April 2020 was International Dance Day. But much (if not all) that had been planned was not able to come to fruition. Some of the Canberra dance community did, however, put together a short video, Message in Motion. It centres on a speech by South African dancer and choreographer Gregory Vuyani Maqoma and is spoken by Liz Lea. The opening movement sequences are from James Batchelor, who is currently confined in Paris where he has a residency.

  • George Ogilvie ((1931-2020)

I was sorry to hear that George Ogilvie, theatre director, had died in Braidwood, New South Wales, on 5 April 2020. I especially regret that he did not live to see the Kristian Fredrikson book published, although he knew that it was on its way. Ogilvie was one of the executors of the Estate of Kristian Fredrikson, and so I had some dealings with him as a result of his holding that position. He and Fredrikson enjoyed a productive and close collaborative connection beginning in the 1960s when Ogilvie was working as artistic director of Melbourne Theatre Company. They then went on to work together in productions by various theatrical companies including the Australian Ballet and the Australian Opera (as it was then called).

Ogilvie also taught mime for the Australian Ballet School in its early years and in his autobiography, Simple Gifts, he recalls his time there, mentioning in particular his recollections of Graeme Murphy.

Vale George Ogilvie.

  • Chrissa Keramidas

In a previous post I mentioned an oral history I had recorded with Chrissa Keramidas for the National Library’s oral history program. That interview now has a timed summary, which is online together with the audio, at this link.

Michelle Potter, 30 April 2020

Featured image: Elma Kris and Beau Dean Riley Smith in Bennelong. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2017. Photo: © Vishal Pandey

Elma Kris and Beau Dean Riley Smith in ‘Bennelong’. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2017. Photo: © Vishal Pandey
Robin Grove, 2009

Robin Grove (1941-2012)

This is a belated, personal tribute to Robin Grove who died on Christmas Day 2012. Robin had a long and distinguished career as an academic but was also an acclaimed writer about and reviewer of dance. Ballet and music had been part of his life from an early age and as a young man he took classes with Laurel Martyn’s Ballet Guild.

During the 1960s he choreographed several ballets for the Guild, whose company at that stage was named the Victorian Ballet Company (later Ballet Victoria). Perhaps the best known of Robin Grove’s works for the Guild was Apollon Musagète, to the score by Igor Stravinsky. A filmed (but silent) rehearsal of this work is in the collection of the National Film and Sound Archive, as I was thrilled to discover while working in the Archive in the late 1990s.

The current dance literature is a little confusing with regard to performance dates for Apollon Musagète but it appears that it was given its first company performance in a short season at the Palais Theatre, St Kilda, on 4–5 September 1964. It shared the program with Carnaval, Bottom’s Dream (Maxwell Collis), the pas de deux from Nutcracker and Once upon  a Whim (Martyn). Its décor was by Warwick Hatton* and the program has the additional design credit line ‘after Lionel Feininger’. A note in the 1964 program states that the work was added to the company’s repertoire ‘after its successful reception in the programme Repertoire Nights held in the Victorian Ballet Guild’s studio theatre’, although I have not yet been able to establish the date of that earlier showing. The 1964 program records that Apollo was danced by Maxwell Collis, Calliope by Barbara Warren-Smith, Poly[hymnia] by Dianne Parrington, and Terpsichore by Jillian Luke. Other Muses were danced by Pamela Baker, Elaine Kemp, Margaret Crowder, Victoria Gibaljo, Mary Long and Denise Saunders.

The work was reprised at least once at the Guild studio theatre by the Victorian Ballet Company in September 1967. It was part of a program of four ballets with the other three comprising The Little Mermaid (Rex Reid) The Comedians (Jack Manuel) and Dear Dorothy Dix (Michael Charnley). The program was reviewed in The Herald (Melbourne) on 1 September 1967 by H. A. Standish.

I can’t remember when I first met Robin—it may have been at a Green Mill dance conference in Melbourne around 1992, but he worked with me to establish Brolga: an Australian journal about dance, which appeared for the first time in December 1994. I valued his support and his input as Brolga developed as an idea and then blossomed as an enterprise. He was a member of the advisory panel from that first issue onwards and later, when I went to work in New York in 2006, he became co-editor (with Alan Brissenden) until December 2008.

He contributed Silent Stories, a wonderful analysis of Laurel Martyn’s 1963 work Sylvia, to the first issue of Brolga, and he continued to contribute on a number of occasions after that. It was he who suggested that we devote an entire issue to the work of Laurel Martyn, and the issue—a kind of Festschrift—appeared in June 1996 in celebration of Martyn’s 80th birthday. In addition to Robin’s article, The smile of Terpsichore: notes on Laurel Martyn as choreographer, that issue included articles by Janet Karin, Geoffrey Ingram, JoAnne Page and Joel Crotty. It also contained extracts from an oral history interview with Martyn and a list of her choreography from 1935 to 1991. In my opinion the Laurel Martyn issue remains one of the best we produced.

Robin brought to Brolga an amazingly wide-ranging attitude to what we could publish in a dance journal. His background in music and literature was invaluable and I trusted his opinion unreservedly when he read articles that I thought needed a second opinion with regard to publication. Of his own articles, what I loved was the way he was able to place his material into a wide cultural context. But I guess what I loved most was that he believed that ballet was an art form worthy of consideration at the highest level.

I regret that our lives did not cross after my return from New York. An obituary, published in The Age in April 2013, is at this link.

Michelle Potter, 18 August 2013

Featured image: Robin Grove, Melbourne 2009. Courtesy Elisabeth Grove

Robin Grove, 2009


* I have not been able to find information about Warwick Hatton’s design work and would be pleased to hear from readers who may know of his background. The costumes, as far as I can ascertain from the Stringer images, recall some features of the designs for David Lichine’s Protée, which was seen in Australia during the Ballets Russes tours and which was designed by Giorgio de Chirico.

** Of the two Stringer photos above the image on the left is from the collection of the National Library of Australia and is dated 1967. The dancers’ names on the Library’s catalogue record do not coincide with those on the 1964 program. The Stringer image on the right was kindly supplied by Elisabeth Grove.

Swans and Firebirds

Swans and Firebirds (Schwäne und Feuervögel)
Austrian Theatre Museum, Palais Lobkowitz, Lobkowitz Platz 2, Vienna, 25 June to 27 September 2009

Georges Barbier, ‘Tamara Karsarvina in The Firebird‘, pochoir print from the series Homage to the Ballets Russes, after 1914. Collection: Derra de Moroda Dance Archives, Salzburg.

Like many other museums, galleries and libraries around the world, the Austrian Theatre Museum in Vienna is staging an exhibition to mark the centenary of the first Paris season of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Although this exhibition carries a sub-title ‘Die Ballets Russes 1909-1929’ it uses the  term ‘russes’ in a wide sense as the exhibition includes material not strictly speaking from the Diaghilev enterprise as we have come to understand it. Jointly curated by Drs Claudia Jeschke and Nicole Haitzinger from the University of Salzburg, it draws for its material on the collections of a number of institutions, largely in Russia, Germany and Austria, and one major private collector, John Neumeier.

The exhibition suffers at the outset from being displayed very awkwardly in two rooms at the far end of the main entrance to the Palais Lobkowitz. The two rooms are on opposite sides of the entrance lobby and  thus are not obviously linked except perhaps in an architectural sense. Combined with pretty much non-existent signage, this physical arrangement makes for a disorienting experience for the exhibition viewer.

One finds oneself moving fairly logically, or snake-like, from the central space at the end of the lobby, which is devoted to material from Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor, into the first room to the right. This first room focuses on the notion of ‘white’ and includes material from Les Sylphides and, mysteriously given the white tag, Diaghilev’s 1920s production of The Sleeping Princess. Other material relates to The Dying Swan and includes an interesting reconstruction of the swan tutu as worn by Pavlova in this celebrated solo. A video screening in this room—a dancer from the Bayerisches Staatsballett dancing the waltz from Les Sylphides—is a problematic inclusion. The amplified sound of the dancer landing after the many jumps in this solo is unpleasant, spoils the sound of the accompanying music and does little to evoke the poetic qualities of Les Sylphides. It does nothing for one’s perception of the dancer’s skills either.

Moving to the second room is not a logical progression from the first and initially the impression is that the exhibition finishes with the white material. Once one discovers the second room, on the left of the main lobby, the two other organising concepts—’unicolour’ (einfarbig) and ‘multicolour’—enter the equation. Designs for Petrouchka and Coq d’or are major items in the multicolour section and lead on to Natalia Goncharova’s beautiful drawings and extensive notes for the unrealised ballet Liturgie. Beyond Liturgie is material relating to Le Sacre du printemps and Les Noces, including a rare and valuable glimpse of the progression of Goncharova’s work for Les Noces from early designs in the Russian Primitivist mode to the final stripped-back designs. But the three colour codings—the organising concepts—are forced. The material to my mind is pushed to fit the concepts rather than emerging from them. Much of the material doesn’t seem to fit well anyway. This includes some quite fascinating notations (in facsimile) from 1910 by Fokine for Firebird from the St Petersburg State Theatrical Library.

But perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this second room is a loop video, which purports (according to the wall label) to show two recordings of George Balanchine’s Apollo each of around 30 mins in length. Sadly, however, all that is playing is about 3 minutes of a Radio Canada recording made in March 1960 with Jacques d’Amboise as Apollo and Diana Adams, Francia Russell and Jillana as the Muses. A great cast. But it got to where Apollo receives his lyre and holds it up to start playing only to return to the opening moments of Apollo’s birth from where it continued again to the receiving of the lyre. And nothing of the second recording.

Looking more positively, there are some wonderful items in the exhibition and many of them belong to John Neumeier. In fact, the strength and individuality of Neumeier’s collection is perhaps the outstanding aspect of this exhibition. In the pre-exhibition space—that is in the space between those two annoyingly unlinked rooms—there is a beautiful bronze sculpture of Adolphe Bolm in Polovtsian Dances. It stands about 25 cm high and is mounted on a small wooden plinth. It captures the passionate movement of Polovtsian Dances beautifully. Also from Neumeier’s collection is a hat by Léon Bakst for Tamara Karsarvina in Firebird—a pert little skull cap in green and tan with a white feather perched on top. Although designed by Bakst, it is in many respects one of those devotional items that so often grace dance exhibitions rather than an art historical piece. With the inclusion in the show of many photos of Karsarvina as well as designs for costumes she wore, this little cap seems to embody the spirit of its original wearer. Also of considerable interest are several photographs taken in Paris in 1910 by Auguste Bert, most again from the Neumeier collection. They include one of Vera Fokina as the Tsarina in Firebird. She stands with her body turned just slightly off-centre. Her head tilts softly to the left, her chest lifts and her hands gently lift her hair from her shoulders. This and other photographs by Bert have a soft, expressive quality and a sense of light movement to them. They are an absolute delight to examine and very revealing of this photographer’s approach to dance as an expression of the age.

There is a catalogue to this exhibition. Unfortunately there are a number of oversights in its production. Perhaps the most frustrating is that the images are not credited adequately – a final frustration in an exhibition that really needed to have been curated and produced more rigorously.

Michelle Potter, 1 July 2009