The best of everything to those who have followed this website over the past year. Thank you for your loyalty. And here’s hoping that 2021 will be one that is filled with dance, even live dance perhaps? Stay safe and healthy.
Highlights of 2020 (on and off stage)
I was very fortunate to see the opening night performance of Graeme Murphy’s The Happy Prince. It had a short run in Brisbane in February but showings elsewhere were cancelled due to the pandemic. I really would like to see it again as there was a lot there that needed a second look. I hope we will see it again, given that the leadership of the Australian Ballet has changed.
By mid year we were still not back in the theatre but Alison Plevey and her Australian Dance Party created Lake Marchin which, over several weekends in August, eight dancers, accompanied by two musicians, made their way around Canberra’s three lakes. They paused briefly on occasions to engage with each other and with the rather surprised audience of joggers, bike riders and so on who were also using the lakeside for exercise. Lake March won Plevey a Canberra Critics’ Circle award in December. The citation read:
For courageously working within the restrictive conditions generated by COVID-19 to bring an innovative and entertaining production of dance and live music, presented in several outdoor venues, to an audience of dance goers and the wider Canberra community. Alison Plevey for Lake March.
In October we were able to venture into the theatre for a QL2 Dance program featuring a work called Sympathetic Monsters by Jack Ziesing. It was an absorbing work in terms of its choreographic structure and in its thematic content.
Of course I watched many streamed performances over the course of 2020. It was more than interesting to see close-up images of faces and expressions and also details of costume. Nothing can replace a live performance but I derived much pleasure from streamed performances, especially from companies I wouldn’t normally see. Borrowed Light from Finland’s Tero Saarinen Company in collaboration with Boston Camerata was perhaps the most outstanding example. I was transfixed by this performance and have Jacob’s Pillow to thank for streaming it as part of the Pillow’s Virtual Festival 2020.
Sunil Kothari (1933–2020). Indian dance critic
I was saddened to hear of the death of Indian dance writer Sunil Kothari from complications of COVID-19. He visited Australia on a number of occasions and I recall a talk he gave in Canberra for the Canberra Critics’ Circle, several years ago now. He was a passionate advocate for dance and was a mentor to Padma Menon, who performed extensively in Canberra during the 1990s.
Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. More reviews and comments
Kristian Fredrikson. Designer featured as the ‘Publishing Spotlight’ in the Summer 2020–2021 edition of the newsletter of the Friends of the National Library of Australia. The review was written by Friends Committee Member and well known Canberra-based arts and craft specialist, Meredith Hinchliffe. Follow this link to read the review.
This month’s dance diary has an eclectic mix of news about dance from across the globe. I am beginning with a cry for help from a New Zealand initiative, Ballet Collective Aotearoa, led by Turid Revfeim, dancer, teacher, coach, mentor, director across many dance organisations. I am moved to do this as a result of two crowd funding projects I initiated when I was in a similar position and needed an injection of funds to help with the production of my recent Kristian Fredrikson book. I was overwhelmed by the generosity of the arts community. It made such a difference to what my book looked like and I will forever be grateful.
Ballet Collective Aotearoa
Ballet Collective Aotearoa was unsuccessful in its application to Creative New Zealand for funding to take its project, Subtle Dances, to Auckland and Dunedin in early 2021. The group has secured performances at the arts festivals at those two New Zealand cities. BCA’s line-up for Subtle Dances brings together a great mix of experienced professional dancers and recent graduates from the New Zealand School of Dance. They will perform new works by Cameron McMillan, Loughlan Prior and Sarah Knox.
For my Australia readers, Prior has strong Australian connections, having been born in Melbourne and educated at the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School. Then, Cameron McMillan, a New Zealander by birth, trained at the Australian Ballet School and has danced with Australian Dance Theatre and Sydney Dance Company. And, dancing in the program will be William Fitzgerald who was brought up in Canberra, attended Radford College and has been a guest dance teacher there, and studied dance in Canberra with Kim Harvey.
The campaign to raise money for Turid Revfeim’s exceptional venture is via the New Zealand organisation, Boosted. See this link to contribute. See more on the BCA website.
Interconnect. Liz Lea Productions
Liz Lea’s Interconnect was presented as part of the annual DESIGN Canberra Festival and focused on connections between India and Canberra. The idea took inspiration from the designers of the city of Canberra, Walter Burley and Marion Mahoney Griffin, and from the fact that Walter Burley Griffin spent his last years in India where he died in Lucknow in 1937. As a result, the program featured a cross section of dance styles from Apsaras Arts Canberra, the Sadhanalaya School of Arts and several exponents of Western contemporary styles.
Interconnect was shown at Gorman Arts Centre in a space that was previously an art gallery. Physical distancing was observed, as we have come to expect. I enjoyed the through-line of humour that Lea is able to inject into all her works, including Interconnect. I was also taken by a short interlude called Connect in which Lea danced to live music played on electric guitar by Shane Hogan, and which featured on film in the background a line drawing of changing patterns created by Andrea McCuaig. Multiple connections there!
Choreographer Gray Veredon has put together a new website set out in several parts under the headings ‘The Challenge’, ‘New Ways in Set Design’, and ‘Influences and Masters’. His themes are developed using as background his recent work in Poland,A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Gray Veredon’s website can be viewed at this link.
Jean Stewart, whose dance photographs I have used many times on this website, is the subject of a short video put together by the State Library of Victoria. Jean died in 2017 and donated her archive to the SLV. Here is the link to video. And below are two of my favourite photographs from other sources. I can’t get over the costumes in the background of the Coppélia shot! Is that Act II?
Other Stewart favourites appear in the brief tribute I wrote back in 2017.
Jacob’s Pillow fire
Devastating and heartbreaking news came from Jacob’s Pillow during November. Its Doris Duke Theatre was burnt to the ground.
Nina Popova, Russian born dancer who danced in Australia during the third Ballets Russes tour in 1939-1940, died in Florida in August 2020. I was especially saddened to learn that her death was a result of COVID-19.
Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. More comments and reviews
Kristian Fredrikson. Designer was ‘Highly Recommended’ on the Summer Reading Guide in its ‘Biography’ category.
Mention of it also appeared on the Australian Ballet’s site, Behind Ballet, Issue # 252 of 18 November 2020 with the following text:
KRISTIAN FREDRIKSON, DESIGNER A lavish new book by historian and curator Michelle Potter takes us inside the fascinating world of Fredrikson, whose rich and inventive designs grace so many of our productions. MORE INFO
I was also thrilled to receive just recently a message from Amitava Sarkar, whose photographs from Stanton Welch’s Pecos and Swan Lake for Houston Ballet are a magnificent addition to the book. He wrote: ‘Congratulations. What a worthwhile project in this area of minimal research.‘ He is absolutely right that design for the stage is an area of minimal research! Let’s hope it doesn’t always remain that way.
David McAllister (with Amanda Dunn), Soar. A life freed by dance (Melbourne: Thames & Hudson, 2020)
Mary Li, Mary’s last dance (Penguin Australia, 2020)
When faced with two dance books recently published in Australia, one by David McAllister and one by Mary Li, my first reaction was, are they memoirs or autobiographies and what is the difference? I didn’t really know the difference until a bit of online searching suggested that a memoir is generally focused on a particular aspect of the author’s life, whereas an autobiography covers an entire life: ‘Although it’s subjective, [an autobiography] primarily focuses on facts – the who-what-when-where-why-how of [an author’s] entire timeline.’ Both books, I concluded are memoirs. Soar focuses on McAllister’s sexuality, Mary’s last dance on Li’s first daughter, Sophie, and how Li managed Sophie’s profound deafness. Both of course, also give us other information about the life and career of two significant figures in the Australian dance world, but a particular focus is definitely there.
The writing in Mary’s last dance is forthright. We are left in no doubt about Li’s stand on pretty much everything she writes about. The early part, in which we learn of her family background as Mary McKendry, is both entertaining and informative, as are the stories about her professional career, her meeting with her husband Li Cunxin, and their subsequent life together. But it is the focus on managing Sophie’s deafness that is compelling, giving an insight into the concerns that plagued Li as she and her husband sought to make life for Sophie a comfortable and fruitful one. How the situation developed as Sophie took control of her own life is great reading. This book speeds along and constantly touches the heart.
Soar has a quite different quality. There are some lovely anecdotes and some interesting comments by McAllister about his various engagements around the world. The Prologue, ‘Ballet boy lost’, comes with a jolt and sets the scene for McAllister’s search to understand his sexual identity and find peace with himself, which he says in the final chapter he thinks he has achieved. And the image of McAllister on the back cover by Lisa Tomasetti is brilliant. But the tone of the book is somewhat shy and retiring and there seems to be an overriding concern to speak kindly of those who have crossed his path. McAllister has been a popular artistic director, as much as anything for his kind and generous nature.
Two memoirs. Both easy reads. Two very different personalities revealed.
I am pleased to be able to post some interesting material sent to me by New Zealand-born choreographer, Gray Veredon. He has just loaded the first of a series of video clips in which he talks about his aims and ideas for his choreographic output. He uses examples from his latest work, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which he mounted recently in Poland. See below.
Alan Brissenden (1932–2020)
The dance community is mourning the death of Dr Alan Brissenden, esteemed dance writer and outstanding academic from the University of Adelaide. Alan wrote about dance for a wide variety of magazines and newspapers from the 1950s onwards and was inducted into the Hall of Fame at the Australian Dance Awards in 2013.
As I looked back through my posts for the times I have mentioned Alan on this site, it was almost always for his and Keith Glennon’s book Australia Dances: Creating Australian Dance, 1945–1965. Since it was published in 2010, it has always been my go-to book about Australian dance for the period it covers. No gossip in it; just the story of what happened—honest, critical, carefully researched and authoritative information. Very refreshing. Find my review of the book, written in 2010 for The Canberra Times, at this link.
A moving obituary by Karen van Ulzen for Dance Australia, to which Alan was a long-term contributor, is at this link.
It was interesting to see that Marcus Wills’ painting Requiem (JR) was selected as a finalist for the 2020 Archibald Prize. While Wills states that the painting is not meant to be ‘biographical’, the (JR) of the title stands for dancer Jack Riley. Riley began his performing career as a Quantum Leaper with Canberra’s youth group, QL2 Dance. After tertiary studies he has gone on to work with a range of companies including Chunky Move, Australian Dance Party, and Tasdance.
See the tag Jack Riley for more writing about him and his work on this site.
The first live performance in a theatre I have been to since March took place in September at the newly constructed black box theatre space at Belconnen Arts Centre, Canberra. It was a circus-style production called L’entreprise du risque. It featured Frenchman Bernard Bru and Australian Circus Oz performer Jake Silvestro, along with two young performers who trained at Canberra’s Warehouse Circus, Imogen Drury and Clare Pengryffyn.
While the show was somewhat uneven in standard, the standout performer was Jake Silvestro, whose acts on the Cyr wheel showed incredible balance and skill in general.
But whatever the standard, it was a thrill to be back watching live theatre again.
Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. More reviews and comments
In Wellington, New Zealand, Kristian Fredrikson. Designer is being sold through Unity Books, which presented the publication as its spotlight feature for its September newsletter. Follow this link. It includes Sir Jon Trimmer’s heartfelt impressions of the book, which I included in the August dance diary.
An extensive review by Dr Ian Lochhead, Christchurch-based art and dance historian, appeared in September on New Zealand’s Theatreview. Apart from his comments on the book itself, Dr Lochhead took the opportunity to comment on the importance of archiving our dance history. Read the full review at this link.
Royal New Zealand Ballet also featured the book in its September e-newsletter. See this link and scroll down to READ.
Back in Australia, Judy Leech’s review appeared in the newsletter of Theatre Heritage Australia. Again this is an extensive review. Read it at this link.
Press for September
‘Capital company.’ A story on Canberra’s professional dance company, Australian Dance Party. Dance Australia, September-November 2020, pp. 31-32.
Canberra’s dance companies, large and small, have always been good at making site specific works, especially in outdoor venues. The city lends itself well to such events. Canberra dance-goers will remember exceptional performances in outdoor venues from past companies such as Meryl Tankard Company and Paige Gordon and Performance Group.
Canberra’s current professional company, Australian Dance Party led by Alison Plevey, has continued the tradition with many of Plevey’s productions taking place outdoors. August saw ADP’s Lake March, a response over several weekends to the difficult situation dance companies find themselves in at present. Performing as part of the Where You Are Festival around three of Canberra’s lake areas, Lakes Burley Griffin, Ginninderra, and Tuggeranong, eight dancers and two musicians (Michael Liu on violin and Alex Voorhoeve on cello) moved in a line around the edges of the lake areas, observing social distancing as they proceeded. They paused occasionally and engaged in spontaneous expressive movement before continuing the march until they reached a final destination.
Lake March attracted an interested audience of cyclists, kids on scooters, joggers and Canberrans enjoying the outdoors. A few performances in mid-August were postponed, however, when the weather was less than warm. It was snowing in some parts of Canberra!
Jacob’s Pillow: the name
Regular visitors to my website will know that I have a great fondness for Jacob’s Pillow, that amazing dance venue (and it’s more than a performance venue) in Massachusetts. I have just recently posted reviews of two of the Pillow’s 2020 digital offerings—a program from the Royal Danish Ballet, and Borrowed Light from Tero Saarinen Company and Boston Camerata. Both were terrific performances.
I have, however, occasionally wondered why the site was called Jacob’s Pillow and so I was interested to discover (somewhat belatedly given that I was at the Pillow in 2007!) the history behind the name.
The YouTube link above shows Norton Owen, Director of Preservation at the Pillow, explaining the origins of the name.
Freeman. A new documentary to watch
The ABC has produced a documentary to mark the 20th anniversary of Cathy Freeman’s historic win in the 400m sprint at the Sydney 2000 Olympics. The film is co-directed by Stephen Page and features Bangarra dancer Lillian Banks as a young Cathy Freeman. The documentary includes archival footage, interviews and dance sequences. It will be available on ABC iview from 13 September.
Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. Some reviews and comments
In addition to the review of my recent publication, Kristian Fredrikson. Designer, written by Jennifer Shennan and posted on this site, here are some reviews and a comment made during August.
And from Sir Jon Trimmer, esteemed former dancer with Royal New Zealand Ballet in a note to Unity Books in Wellington:
What a magnificent book this is. Michelle Potter has been able to bring Australia and New Zealand close together by including all of Kristian’s work in both countries. Our own ballet company’s history is brought to life in a very special way… and there’s even mention of the Chez Lily, that Dixon Street coffee bar where we spent so much time talking about our dreams and our work, back in the day. I thought I was the only person who remembered it. We are very lucky that Michelle has produced this special book. It is one to treasure.
This book is treasure and joy. It covers the lifelong career of Wellington-born Kristian Fredrikson, designer for ballet, theatre, opera, film and television in both New Zealand and Australia. The volume is itself an achievement of fine design—superbly presented and generously illustrated, though selective in the careful interpolation of images, both drawings and performance photographs, into the text. It is an appreciative profile by an author who clearly loves the work of her subject but, resisting hagiography, has produced perceptive analysis and an enduring record of his lifetime’s work in a notoriously ephemeral performing art. Both she and the publisher are to be congratulated.
Extensive research (Potter first conducted an oral history with Fredrikson in 1993) has allowed coverage of his prolific body of work. There are frequent quotations from his own unpublished writings about ideas and work processes, which I found illuminating. The appendices provide extensive documentation, leaving the text refreshingly accessible.
There are stimulating insights and analyses of both the aesthetic and historical influences in Fredrikson’s work (Klimt is there, Rothko is there, mediaeval Sicily, 19th century New Zealand, war-time Vietnam, outback and small-town Australia are there). Potter’s invaluable commentaries will help audiences follow, in retrospect, ‘new narratives from old texts’ in the innovative reworkings of classics such as Harry Haythorne’s Swan Lake (1985) for Royal New Zealand Ballet, Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. The Story of Clara (1992) and his Swan Lake (2002) both for The Australian Ballet.
Long-time ballet followers in New Zealand would say they knew Fredrikson’s work well, keeping memories for decades of his sumptuous Swan Lakes, the ingenious A Servant of Two Masters, a poignant Orpheus, a searing Firebird, an enigmatic Jean [Batten], a spirited Peter Pan, atmospheric A Christmas Carol, and hilarious The Nutcracker. The book also includes his prolific output across other genres of theatre away from ballet. It is fascinating to learn of Fredrikson’s sensitive and restrained approaches to plays and films such as Hedda Gabler, with Cate Blanchett, or those with Australian Aboriginal, Vietnamese or American Indian settings … ‘away from dancers who spend their time twirling around on their toes’. We thus see a different side to the designer who always prioritised the contribution he could make to a collaborative project, rather than use it as an opportunity to primarily display his own aesthetic.
Interviews with his ballet colleagues, especially Gray Veredon and Graeme Murphy, contribute to the portrayal of a deeply intelligent, thoughtful, private man with uncompromising respect for those trusted choreographers and directors with whom he worked most closely. The standout choreographic collaborations would have been with Murphy, Veredon and Russell Kerr, and they are quoted as appreciating the close integration of design and choreographic ideas, with a sense of movement always portrayed in the designs. Fredrikson did not dress mannequins, he dressed movers.
Dancers, too, appreciated this empathy, even when his costumes of period or character required particular weights, silhouettes and textiles. There are descriptions of his attending dance rehearsals to photograph sequences so as to be sure whatever fantasy he had in mind would also prove practical. Compromises and re-workings were sometimes required.
Increasingly, today’s ballet practitioners seem less and less interested in the source and history of their art. It is heartening to learn how Fredrikson’s starting point for his concepts grew out of impeccable historical research. Since my own work and interests lie in Renaissance and Baroque dance and related arts, I was pleased to copy out a passage from his own words, about transforming, or inventing a historical period:
The problem is most of us don’t know true period. We look at a Watteau painting and we say, ‘Oh that’s how they dressed in Watteau’s time.’ Well they didn’t. Watteau made up his own people. We look at Rembrandt and say, ‘That’s how they dressed in Rembrandt’s day.’ They did not. Rembrandt created costumes for them… Our understanding of the past is so unreal that even if I do the real history, it’s surreal. And I suppose that’s what I do. I go towards the real history and that seems extraordinary.
I am now very happy to have this quote as a fridge magnet in my kitchen. It seems to echo the equally interesting and challenging practice of a writer using historical or autobiographical fiction as an imaginative way of telling a ‘true’ story.
Chapter 6, New Zealand Impressions, has a fabulous full-page image of Captain Hook in Russell Kerr’s Peter Pan. Jon Trimmer is portrayed as the seductively beautiful pirate, Peter Pan squatting at his feet is Everyboy—with a somewhat perplexed expression on his face, wondering why anyone would want to leave childhood and become an adult. The study for the Angel of Death in Murphy’s Orpheus is chillingly beautiful. The priceless comic play of Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi and Jon Trimmer as Pantalone in Veredon’s A Servant of Two Masters is evidence of one of the best productions RNZB ever staged.
But it is the two quietly dramatic photographs from Veredon’s Tell me a Tale that could slow your breathing. The choreography tells a particular story, though it could have been the story of many a family. The cast are early European settlers arriving in New Zealand, meeting and interacting with Maori people. The young pakeha boy befriending a Maori girl brings forth a furious haka from her brother—performed by the much admired (and then much missed ) Warren Douglas. This was the most convincing representation of haka on a ballet stage I have seen in six decades of watching a range of attempts. What a sorry business that Tale was never restaged by RNZB, and it’s a safe if sad bet it is never likely to be—even though the original cast are around and could still be involved, and indeed the choreographer, one of New Zealand’s finest dance-makers, is still actively staging his works in Europe. I treasure these fine photographs of a talisman work from RNZB ‘s early repertoire, gone but not forgotten. It belongs here in New Zealand, exists nowhere else, and should be neither gone nor forgotten.
The eighth and final chapter ‘The Ultimate Ballet: Swan Lake’ is an insightful comparison of approaches taken to this classic work, tracing the five different productions Fredrikson worked on. There are both similar and contrasting elements within those stagings—revealing the nature of von Rothbart’s evil, learning that Odette’s mother’s tears created the lake that her daughter will drown in, and the possibility of lovers separated by death though reuniting in an afterlife. The themes of love, treachery and loyalty are the same as those we live by, so even quite different settings in any production of calibre are as close to home as we choose to invite them.
You could call this an illustrated biography of the life’s work of a totally committed theatre designer. His life was his work, and the book emulates the man. There is no gossip, no bodice-ripping tell-all of a private life, no imposed psychoanalysis, and Alleluia to that I say. If you want to know who Kristian Fredrikson was and what was important to him, read his work. Read this book.
Jennifer Shennan, 18 August 2020
Featured image: Stephen McTaggart and Kerry-Anne Gilberd in a scene from Gray Veredon’s Tell Me a Tale (detail). Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1988. Photographer not identified. Collection of Gray Veredon
Canberra’s Australian Dance Party (ADP) has begun 2020 in style. They have received program funding for two years rather than having to work from project to project, which has been their means of operating until now. This gives them a chance to plan ahead a little. The company has also just finished its first interstate tour with three performances of Mine! in Brisbane at the Supercell Festival of Contemporary Dance. Just prior to heading to Brisbane, ADP performed Mine! at the Australian National University, where the images on this post were taken.
Mine! was triggered by a reaction to proposals for mega-mines in Queensland, and by a culture of self gratification that the Party believes characterises much of society today.
Australian Dance Awards
Ausdance National has announced that the Australian Dance Awards will resume operation after a hiatus during 2019. Ausdance is working towards a double awards night later in 2020. It will recognise outstanding dance across a variety of areas during 2018 and 2019. Further details as they come to hand.
News from Liz Lea
Liz Lea has recently been touring her one woman show RED in the United Kingdom. It is good news that this show, which premiered in Canberra in 2018, is receiving the exposure it deserves. Lea has also been appointed Movement Director for a show to take place in Kuwait in April. It is being directed by Talal Al-Muhanna, Kuwaiti director of the documentary On the trail of Ruth St Denis, in which Lea appeared and which she researched.
The Fredrikson book
Editing and design of Kristian Fredrikson. Designer is moving into final stages. Pre-order is now available at this link. The media release is also available at the same link by clicking on ‘More information’. (Believe me you will be able to read the title on the front cover once the book is published). And, thanks to those who kindly donated to my various crowd funding projects, the book will be a hardback with a jacket.
And while on the subject of dance-related books, my recent newsletter from Jacob’s Pillow contained a note about a new book (or new-ish, it was published in December 2019) on Ted Shawn. The image below shows on the right the author, Paul Scolieri, standing next to Norton Owen, Director of Preservation at the Pillow. I noticed that the book is available through Book Depository. I am curious to know if Scolieri refers at all to Shawn’s Australian visit and was reminded of the range of comments that came in for a post on Shawn on this site back in 2011.
Early in February I had the pleasure of interviewing Douglas Gautier, CEO and Artistic Director of the Adelaide Festival Centre. The interview was part of the Australia-China Council Project currently being conducted by the National Library of Australia. Douglas Gautier spent a considerable amount of time in Hong Kong and had many connections with arts organisation in the region. The interview is not yet available online.
There is much that is interesting in Sue Healey’s Platform Paper published by Currency Press on 1 August 2019. What I found very readable was the information about Healey’s early career. There were her early dancing days in New Zealand, her father’s interest in making Super 8 movies, the nuns who taught her at school, her move to Australia, her student days at the Victorian College of the Arts, and her work with Nanette Hassall and DanceWorks. It was good too to read her discussion of the various processes she has gone through to develop her exceptional film making techniques, her thoughts on the various short films she made, and her remarks on her more recent move to making longer works. Some of her films have been reviewed on this website, most recently Eileen, and I have thoroughly enjoyed writing about them.
All this background leads in the Platform Paper to the three provocations Healey presents at the end of the paper. They basically relate to the role of independent dance and independent artists in society and culture. In a slightly abbreviated form the provocations are:
Independent dance artists deserve to be funded in a more realistic and sustainable manner.
Dance must extend its boundaries without losing sight of its own intrinsic qualities as a discipline.
We need an active debate about why dance continues to be relevant, who creates this relevance, and how to generate new opportunities for artists.
What bothers me, however, is the reliance throughout the paper on what I think has become a cliché: dance is ephemeral (with the often unspoken but usually implied notion that, as a result, dance has nothing much to offer conceptually, intellectually or any other ‘-ually’ word). I realise, of course, that Healey does not fall into the category of someone who thinks that dance has no lasting value because it is ephemeral, but many do think that way. Of course dance is ephemeral but so is anything we see (or hear) in the theatre. Is it the existence of words and a script connected with a play, or the existence of musical notation in a concert that causes many to think that these art forms are not so ephemeral and therefore more worthy in some way? As it happens there are dance works these days that use words in various circumstances and for various reasons. Lloyd Newson’s creations come to mind immediately. And, of course, Healey first ventured into film making to ‘make dance stay around for a bit longer’.
Despite the above, I really enjoyed Healey’s paper, and the Vimeo links to selections from her film works are a bonus. But I would have loved the paper to have had a fourth provocation that questions the notion of ephemerality in the arts and how people outside the immediate dance world can be persuaded that this does not make dance an inferior art form. We always seem to be justifying its presence.
Capturing the vanishing: a choreographer and film by Sue Healey. Platform Paper No. 60, August 2019. (Sydney: Currency House). More information at www.currencyhouse.org.au
The death of Shona Dunlop MacTavish in Dunedin, New Zealand, on 18 June at the age of 99 sent me back to her autobiography, Leap of faith. It was published in 1997 and the early sections give a fascinating account of her schooldays in New Zealand and her time in Europe over four years beginning 1935. Those four years included her introduction to dance and in Leap of faith Dunlop MacTavish gives her thoughts on her early teachers, one of whom was Gertrud Bodenwieser. Of Bodenwieser and how her classes affected people, Dunlop MacTavish writes
Frau Gerty, as she was known by her students, was a small erect figure who, when not demonstrating, examined her class through an intimidating lorgnette … Although nervous at first, I began to relax and enjoy myself as it appeared she was taking little notice of me. Soon I was swept up with the rest of the class—a mass of whirling bodies with ecstatic faces.
The book continues through Dunlop MacTavish’s life in in South America on tour with Bodenwieser’s dancers; follows her experiences in Australia, China and Africa (the latter two with her missionary husband Donald MacTavish); and then moves on to the Philippines. The story then comes back to New Zealand and her home city of Dunedin where she set up a number of dance-related initiatives.
Dunlop MacTavish’s choreographic output was extensive and a list of her choreographies in Australia and New Zealand forms an appendix to Leap of faith. It is remarkable list. As one example, the first solo she created for herself was Two souls alas reside within my breast. Along with others of her early works, she danced it when her husband-to-be came to the Bodenwieser studio in Sydney to be introduced to her dancing. In her oral history interview for the National Library of Australia she explains the origin of the work:
I’d seen a young man in a nightclub with a very scarred face, beautiful on one side, all scarred on the other. It suddenly gave me the image of how many of us actually have two personalities. The title of the work was taken from some writing by Goethe. [Faust, First Part]
For more on the remarkable life of Shona Dunlop MacTavish, here is a link to an oral history interview I recorded with her for the National Library on 13 April 1998. It is available online both as audio and as a transcript. Leap of faith is also definitely worth a re-read.
Queen’s Birthday Honours list
Congratulations to Li Cunxin, Meryl Tankard and Régis Lansac, who were all recognised in the 2019 Queen’s birthday honours list. Li and Tankard received an AO, Lansac an OAM.
In a recent conversation with Patrick Harding-Irmer and Anca Frankenhaeuser I also heard that Robert Cohan, founding artistic director of London Contemporary Dance School and London Contemporary Dance Theatre, had also been honoured in England. Cohan influenced the careers of many Australian dancers and choreographers. He was knighted!
With regard to the Australian awards, Lansac’s work is not often acknowledged as much and as appropriately as it should be, so it is especially pleasing to see that he has been recognised. Below are a few of many photographs taken by Lansac that are part of a collection held in the National Library of Australia. His career has crossed boundaries as these images show. Here, too, is a link to an article that appeared in the now-defunct National Library of Australia News, which gives a little insight into Lansac’s early Australian collaborations and commissions. See also the tag Régis Lansac on this website.
A new book by Valerie Lawson has just been published. I have not yet had time to read the copy I have but, flicking through the pages, there are some great photographs in it that, as far as I am aware, have never been published before. Lawson also sets the scene for what is (or rather what is not) contained in the book when she writes: ‘Dancing under the southern skies is not a detailed description of professional ballet performances in Australia—the dates, the theatres, the casts, the designers—although the detail is important and, one day, might become a dictionary of ballet.’ The next paragraph in the introduction explains what is included. But I will leave that for your further reading!
‘Vale Jonathan Taylor’, Dance Australia, June/July 2019, p. 13. PDF at this link
Michelle Potter, 30 June 2019
Please consider supporting my Australian Cultural Fund project to raise money to have hi-res images made for my book on the career of designer Kristian Fredrikson, which is heading towards publication. See the project, which closes on 30 July 2019, at this link. Donations are tax deductible. [Update 1 August 2019: Project closed]
Featured image: Evelyn Ippen, Bettina Vernon, Emmy Towsey and Shona Dunlop, Bodenwieser Ballet, Sydney c. 1939. Photo: Max Dupain
In March I had the pleasure of being in New York for the first of a number of events to celebrate 75 years since the foundation of what is now the Jerome Robbins Dance Division. In the featured image, curators seated (left to right) are Madeleine Nichols, Michelle Potter, Jan Schmidt and current curator Linda Murray. Current staff are standing. Founding curator Genevieve Oswald was unable to attend and, sadly, died two weeks later in her home in California aged 97.
The event began with a tribute to Gegi Oswald with a screening of various images relating to her work, and with an interview with her by Walter Terry, which she gave at one stage during her more than 40 years as curator. Then we curators were asked to give our responses to several questions posed to us about our time with the Division. It was a nostalgic evening and wonderful to catch up with friends and colleagues to celebrate the work and vision of the Division.
Mind you it was freezing in New York. This is what it looked like in Central Park on 2 March!
BOLD II 2019, Canberra
Circumstances of various kinds meant that I was unable to attend many of this year’s BOLD events. But of the events I did attend I was especially interested in Paige Gordon’s talk ‘Who’s Counting?’ in which she discussed her present work in Perth and related it back to her earlier experiences in Canberra.
It was also a treat to be at Sue Healey’s showing of several of her current initiatives with dance on film. In particular I admired her short film Weerewa. Portrait of a landscape shot in the area of Lake George just north of Canberra and recently shown at Le FiFA festival in Canada.
A body of work. Dancing to the edge and back a book by David Hallberg
In March I came across David Hallberg’s autobiographical book, which I had not known of previously even though it was first published in 2017. It was of course of particular interest because of Hallberg’s connections with Australia, and in particular with his rehabilitation by the team at the Australian Ballet, Paul Baird Colt, Megan Connelly and Sue Mayes, which he discusses at towards the end of the book.
Hallberg also mentions arriving in Australia for the first time and being taken aback by the beauty of Sydney Harbour from the sky: ‘The Sydney Opera House and its surroundings, first viewed from fifteen thousand feet in the air, trumped all photos I had ever seen. Here was Australia!’ It reminded me of the photo of Hallberg taking a pose on the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House, and of seeing him dance in Cinderella in 2013.
His book is also fascinating for its insights into the exhausting schedule of those like Hallberg who travel constantly between engagements.
My review of Sydney Dance Company’s latest show, Bonachela/Nankivell/Lane is in the pipeline (and late due to other commitments including a preview piece on the show for The Canberra Times). It’s coming soon but I can say now that I was stunned by Melanie Lane’s thrilling WOOF.
Press for March 2019
‘Indigenous fusion fizzles with styles.’ Preview of Djuki mala. The Canberra Times, 27 March 2019, p. 26. Online version