Simple Symphony. Walter Gore

Earlier this year Rafael Bonachela choreographed a work to Benjamin Britten’s Simple Symphony for his Sydney Dance Company. As a result, a few questions and comments arose on various websites about the use of this music for dance. Then, more recently, the Dancing Times carried letters about Walter Gore’s ballet Simple Symphony (danced to the Britten score) with some questions about the date of that production. In the course of research for another project, I had occasion to look at some archival material relating to the Ballet Rambert tour of Australia and New Zealand in the National Library of Australia, including the scrapbooks of Australian dancer Charles Boyd. From those sources I can add the following:

Gore’s ballet was created in 1944 and Mary Clarke in her Decca Book of Ballet states that its first performance was in Bristol on 29 November 1944. It was initially performed on Arts Council tours for the troops in England. The ballet was notated in Laban notation by Australian Cecil Bates in 1992 who notes that the work was taught to him by Gore when Bates joined the Rambert company during its Australia tour of 1947–1949. A copy of the notated score is part of the National Library’s music collection. Bates also notes that the version he learnt was unaltered from the 1944 original. Bates restaged it for his South Australian Ballet company in 1963.

Other notes on the Laban score state that the work was created by Gore during World War II during periods of leave from duty in France with the armed forces, and that it was created largely on Sally Gilmour and Margaret Scott. The work was performed throughout the Rambert Australasian tour. Its first Australian performance was at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne, on 24 October 1947 with Gore and Sally Gilmour in the principal roles. A note in Rambert Australian programs says it was ‘a thank-offering created by Walter Gore, Rambert’s premiere danseur, a few months after he was twice torpedoed on D-Day’.

It was also filmed during the Australian leg of the Australasian tour at Sandgate, a beachside suburb north of Brisbane, by Alan Denby for the ‘Public Instruction Department’. It was anticipated that the film would be distributed to schools in Queensland, although I am not sure whether this ever happened. Charles Boyd’s scrapbooks indicate that the photo below, taken on location during the filming, appeared in Brisbane’s Courier Mail in September 1948.

Filming Walter Gore's 'Simple Symphony', Sandgate, Queensland,1948
A copy of this film is in the collection of the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra.

Michelle Potter, 15 November 2013

Les illuminations. Sydney Dance Company

3o August 2013, Studio Theatre, Sydney Opera House

With his latest program, Les Illuminations, Sydney Dance Company’s Rafael Bonachela has given audiences a new look at his spectacular dancers. This is an intimate program, made so by its venue, the Studio at the Sydney Opera House, and by its setting within that venue. The program, which consists of two short pieces both to music by Benjamin Britten, Simple Symphony and Les Illuminations, is danced on a T-shaped catwalk with the audience seated in the round. On the cross bar of the ‘T’ sits a string ensemble of musicians from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. They are joined in the second part by singer Katie Noonan, who sings the soprano role in Les Illuminations. The dancers perform entirely on the long line of the T.

What struck me instantly as Simple Symphony began was that Bonachela was taking advantage of the restricted performance space and was using more high lifts than usual. ‘Boisterous Bourrée’, the opening duet danced by Janessa Dufty and Andrew Crawford, began with a kind of ‘presage’ lift and continued with some gorgeous partnering, including more lifts. These two dancers set up a lovely partnership not only by dancing so well but also through their emotional connection with each other. Touch, glances, head movements, all played a part in making this duet a wonderful opener. The third part, ‘Sentimental Sarabande’ also stood out for its strong and emotionally engaging dancing by Fiona Jopp and Bernhard Knauer. With Toni Maticevski’s close fitting, light coloured costumes, decorated with pale turquoise trimmings, and the often playful moments in the choreography, Simple Symphony reminded me of a pastoral romp.

 

'Les Illuminations'. Jessica Thompson and Charmene Yap. Photo: Ellis Parrinder, 2013
'Les Illuminations'. Thomas Bradley and Cass Mortimer Eipper. Photo: Ellis Parrinder, 2013

Studies for Les Illuminations. Left: Jessica Thompson and Charmene Yap; right: Thomas Bradley and Cass Mortimer. Photos: © Ellis Parrinder, 2013. Courtesy Sydney Dance Company

There was nothing pastoral about the second section of the program, Les Illuminations. This was a darker side of life and featured just four dancers once more—Juliette Barton, Charmene Yap, Thomas Bradley and Cass Mortimer Eipper. The title Les Illuminations relates to a poem written by the Frenchman Arthur Rimbaud and the choreography seemed to me to have many elements that characterise Symbolism, a movement in the arts that was ‘in the air’ at the time when Rimbaud and his lover Paul Verlaine were writing. Ideas were suggested as dancers prowled around their long, narrow space casting telling glances at each other. Nothing seemed obvious. Maticevski’s costumes, this time sleeveless bodysuits in black with the addition of a black feathered headdress worn by Barton and a black face mask worn by Bradley, suggested a kind of decadence to me, again part of the Symbolist mood.

This second part of the program was certainly striking and as ever beautifully danced but I’m just not sure that the ideas that Rimbaud was writing about can be well portrayed through the medium of dance. It did, however, set up an effective contrast with Simple Symphony.

Michelle Potter, 1 September 2013.

NOTE: A dance work to Simple Symphony was first seen in Australia in October 1947 during a tour by Ballet Rambert. That version was choreographed by Walter Gore. Gore’s Simple Symphony was filmed in Brisbane (outdoors, or at least partly outdoors, if I remember correctly from watching the film some years ago) in 1948. Here is the National Film and Sound Archive’s catalogue record. Although of course Bonachela’s Simple Symphony is quite, quite different, it makes a nice tie-in with the Gore production, given Bonachela’s connections with Rambert Dance.

 

Bill ‘Angel’ Akers

While preparing for my recent Spotlight talk at the Arts Centre Melbourne I had occasion to listen to an oral history interview I recorded for the National Library in 2002 with Bill Akers. One of the many positions Akers held across the course of his very full life was director of productions with the Australian Ballet. He was also an inspired lighting designer, worked in various roles with the Borovansky Ballet and, prior to that, worked in theatre and film and on radio as an actor.

Ultimately, I used an audio clip from the interview in the talk and an audience member commented at the end on how nice it was to hear Bill’s voice again. Well that’s one of the benefits of recording oral history. But apart from anything else he had a beautiful voice. It was deep, generous and cultivated. In his interview he had something to say about that voice, which relates to his first radio appearances:

I became a club leader and gymnasium instructor in the YMCA and one Friday night, having lost the National Table Tennis Championship, I was standing rather dejectedly in the boys’ division and the telephone rang. A man called Bill Arthur, who subsequently became a parliamentarian and went on to join the House of Reprehensibles [sic]—he ran a show called ‘Over to you’, said ‘Look Bill, an actor hasn’t turned up for an interview, would you do it?’

Well, with characteristic reluctance I rushed out of the YMCA, ran down Pitt Street at the rate of knots, rushed round into Market Street and was up in Studio 149 before you could breathe. I hadn’t the faintest idea what I was doing. They shoved a script into my hand and said: ‘Say anything after the letter A’. So I did the interview and I was ‘A’. I didn’t know who ‘A’ was but they would go out and interview a boy who was perhaps an apprentice plumber or an apprentice clerk or something or other and they would get the details of his job and what the prospects were and things like that. And an actor would come in and play that boy on the radio.

Well the following Tuesday they rang me up and said would I do it for a year, so I got a contract. At the end of the year, of course I wanted to go into the theatre and I wrote to Keith Wood who was the director of that program and told him this. And he rang me up and very kindly said to me: ‘Look, Bill, you’re very talented but if you’re going to become an actor, the first thing you have to do is do something about that terrible voice’. Well I did have a voice that was very high at the time and very nasal. So high that only dogs could hear it. It was very nasal and Australian and so on. So he sent me to Bryson Taylor who was a voice production teacher who listened to me for five minutes and said: ‘Have a cup of tea’. And he talked to me for a while and at the end he said: ‘Look, I’m sure you’re very talented but I don’t think anybody could ever do anything with that voice’. I’ve never drunk tea since.

Not long after this Akers became a student at the Rathbone Academy of Dramatic Art in Sydney and went on to appear on radio in episodes of the Lux Radio Theatre and the Caltex Theatre. He also worked with the John Alden Company playing Shakesperian roles, and with the J. C. Williamson organisation in a variety of productions.

'For better, for worse'. Photo Hal Williamson

Michael Duffield, Bill Akers and Joan Duan in a scene from For better, for worse, 1953. Photo Hal Williamson. Courtesy National Library of Australia

At the request of Harald Bowden of the J. C. Williamson organisation, Akers joined the Borovansky Ballet as assistant stage manager in the 1950s. His interview contains recollections of arriving at the theatre for the first time as ASM, his impressions of Borovansky and his thoughts on the Borovansky Ballet.

I walked through the stage door of Her Majesty’s Theatre at about 11:30 in the morning to be confronted by these fifty raging egos jumping up and down and whirling around in the air. They were rehearsing a ballet called Symphonie fantastique and Mr Borovansky was standing on a chair shouting imprecations at these people. He had a pair of baggy old corduroy slacks on … He had a Chesty Bond’s singlet, rather loosely flapping and ballet slippers and a beret on the back of his head, which fell off as he got down onto the stage.

To me, despite the fact that I think I’ve met lots and lots of very great people in my life—I’ve been very privileged for that—he is the greatest person I think I’ve ever known. I think he contributed more to Australian theatre, particularly to dance, than anybody else. He created a ballet audience. He made ballet in Australia … he was just a fantastic man [with] particular drive and charisma. When you worked with Mr Borovansky you were alive twenty-four hours a day. He was the most stimulating person imaginable.

The Borovansky Ballet was a great big, magnificent, glamorous rough diamond with wonderful ballerinas. Boro virtually created ballet in this country, which is supposed to be a sports minded country, a situation that led at one stage to us having the greatest per capita ballet audience in the world. And that went on for twenty years … In Boro’s day, of course, triple bills were tremendously popular but he knew how to plan them. He was a genius at planning triple bills. He would introduce a new work like Paul Grinwis’ ballet Eternal Lovers. He would sandwich it in between the second act of Swan Lake and Le Beau Danube, which he knew the public adored. His triple bills were wonderful.

Throughout the interview Akers tells many other anecdotes about people he met and people he admired. He has the following to say about Joyce Graeme when she toured in Australia with Ballet Rambert, 1947‒1949:

I’ve seen some magnificent Queens of the Wilis [in Giselle] but there will never be another Queen of the Wilis like Joyce Graeme. She was an icicle. It was just a magical performance. She wasn’t nearly as good a dancer technically as many of the others I’ve seen but the icy chill she brought to the stage … and of course she was very tall and very thin and she was an electric presence on stage.
Joyce Graeme, Ballet Rambert, 1947 or 1948

Joyce  Graeme in costume for Myrthe, Queen of the Wilis, in Giselle.  Ballet Rambert, 1947 or 1948. Geoffrey Ingram archive of Australian ballet. Photographer unknown. Courtesy National Library of Australia

And he recalls the arrival of John Cranko to stage Pineapple Poll for the Borovansky Ballet in 1954:

[Cranko] first came to Australia for Mr Borovansky to stage Pineapple Poll. Wonderful fellow he was. Great sense of humour. And he’d seen Symphonie fantastique the night before. We were all waiting on stage, breathless, for this great, new, young choreographer to arrive. And at five to ten I used to set off the alarm and class used to start promptly at ten … Well Mr Cranko wasn’t there and everybody was standing on stage thinking: ‘He would never dare to be late’. Then the two doors at the back of the theatre flew open and he came screaming across the stage doing grands jetés, which is what started the final movement of Symphonie fantastique. And he got to the centre of the stage and he said ‘Well there you are, I have proved to you that I can dance. Now let’s see if you can’.

And why was Akers called Angel? As he tells the story, during one of his engagements in a musical comedy show a well-known female actor (whom he declined to name) suggested he looked like the devil with his Van Dyke beard. As a result members of  the company started calling him Lucifer, who according to the bible disguised himself as the Angel of Light. ‘Angel Akers’ was the long term result.

Bill Akers died in 2010. The extracts above are a minute part of an interview that documents many aspects of a long and varied career in the theatre. And like all oral history, it’s the voice that encapsulates the man—no longer ‘high and nasal’ but beautifully modulated and able to express in the most amusing way the most serious of endeavours.

Michelle Potter, 2 May 2012.

Here is the link to the National Library catalogue for the Akers interiew. The National Library cataloguers have yet to add Akers’ year of death to the reord. [This has been rectified—MP, 11 May 2012]

‘Mim’. A personal memoir of Marie Rambert. Brigitte Kelly

‘Mim’. A personal memoir of Marie Rambert: Brigitte Kelly (Alton: Dance Books, 2009). Available in Australia from Footprint Books or any good bookseller.

Marie Rambert, or Mim as she was familiarly known, brought her company, Ballet Rambert, to Australia in 1947. The company stayed until early 1949 and appeared in Adelaide, Brisbane, Broken Hill, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney with a short tour to New Zealand in May 1948. Astonishingly, they gave over 500 performances during those fifteen or so months.

Australian newspapers of the time refer to Rambert as a dynamic and somewhat unusual woman and it is clear that she enjoyed playing to the press. One clipping in a scrapbook held in the National Library of Australia shows her in a balletic pose supported by the entrepreneur Benjamin Fuller. He, somewhat portly, looks a little embarrassed. She is in her element! So it is not surprising to read in Brigitte Kelly’s absorbing memoir, Mim, sentences such as ‘She was a loose canon likely to explode in any direction’.

marie-rambert
Marie Rambert in Australia, 1948. Photo: The Courier Mail (Brisbane). Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Australia.

Kelly writes in an easy style. It is anecdotal but full of information and it offers opinions but is not opinionated. Perhaps what comes through most strikingly is the way Rambert’s personality, and that of her husband Ashley Dukes, affected the growth of Ballet Rambert. Kelly writes: ‘The strength and weakness of Mim and Ashley lay in the fact that they wanted complete autonomy over their enterprises, an understandable wish since they could then keep control over the artistic standards they set themselves’. There were serious and ongoing consequences especially of a financial nature according to Kelly.

A jolt to the Australian story is that the company left for Australia hoping to pay off large debts with profits made on tour. They returned from Australia bankrupt. Kelly writes: ‘[T]he manager, Dan O’Connor, had disappeared taking all the money and somewhere along the line lost the costumes and scenery’.

But the book also opens up the story of Rambert in an affectionate way offering many insights that only a dancer who was personally close to the company and its directors can offer. Rambert’s career with Diaghilev is touched upon as well as her ongoing connections with Diaghilev dancers. Her life in France before moving to England makes intriguing reading. And of course the trials and tribulations of the early company from the perspective of someone who performed in those early works of Frederick Ashton, Antony Tudor, Andree Howard, Walter Gore and others of equal note is engrossing.

Mim is a beautifully personal book. A memoir. And well worth the read.

Michelle Potter, 10 December 2009

For more about Ballet Rambert in Australia see my article published in National Library of Australia News, December 2002.

Postscript:

The author of Mim, Brigitte Kelly, came to Australia with the Covent Garden Russian Ballet on its 1938-1939 tour dancing under the name Maria Sanina. She speaks about the photo below, taken by Melbourne-based photographer Spencer Shier, in part three of her memoir ‘Dancing for joy: a memoir’ published in Dance Chronicle, 22, Nos 1, 2 & 3 (1999) saying that it represents her decision to model herself on film star Hedi Lamar. She writes ‘There was a photo call for the souvenir program. I dressed myself in the nun’s costume from the second movement of Choreartium, and when I look at the photograph the “look-alike” effect is really quite good’. (p. 362).

brigitte-kelly
Maria Sanina (Brigitte Kelly) in costume for Choreartium, Covent Garden Russian Ballet, Australian tour, 1938 or 1939. Photo: Spencer Shier. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Australia. http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-vn3416401