Dance diary. September 2021

  • San Francisco Dance Film Festival

In September I had the pleasure of acting as moderator for an online discussion of Firestarter. The story of Bangarra. Firestarter will be shown at the San Francisco Dance Film Festival in October. Details at this link. Guests for the session were Frances Rings, associate artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre, and the co-directors of the film, Wayne Blair and Nel Minchin.

Scene from Firestarter. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The Festival program includes some interesting dance material in addition to Firestarter. The full program will be available via Marquee TV, which has just updated its streaming program to Australia (but unfortunately not to New Zealand, due to circumstances beyond the control of SFDFF). Follow this link to see the full San Francisco Dance Film Festival program.

  • Natalia. Force of Nature

I have had the good fortune to see Natalia Osipova on stage on a number of occasions. Pure Dance, a program of six short works shown in Sydney in 2019, and Woolf Works, which I saw in both London and Brisbane, especially stand out. So I was curious to see the DVD, Natalia. Force of Nature, subtitled ‘Portrait of a dance superstar.’ It was released a couple of years ago now, and contains some interesting rehearsal footage and examines Osipova’s interest in, and performance of contemporary dance as well as traditional classical ballet.

Natalia Osipova and David Hallberg in The Leaves are Fading. Pure Dance, Sydney, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

But what was most fascinating to me was the footage we saw of Osipova as a student in Russia. From those early shots of Osipova in class, aged about nine, and through some very early performances as a student, it was very clear that she has what to me is the almost perfect body for classical ballet. The limbs are beautifully long and so well proportioned in relation to the rest of the body; both turnout and flexibility are completely natural; and the spine is so straight, especially through the neck and into the skull. These physical features are so very clear in scenes of a young Osipova in class and I can’t remember ever seeing a body so perfectly attuned to the physical qualities that are intrinsic to the classical mode. When I reviewed her performance in the Tudor pas de deux from The Leaves are Fading (the opening presentation from Pure Dance), I wrote, ‘From Osipova we saw incredibly liquid arm movements, beautiful use of the upper body, and an ability to make every movement look so easy.’ That ease is in large part a result of a body so perfectly suited to classical ballet.

Of course when watching her in performance one is overwhelmed by so many other aspects of her dancing—her emotional input, her dramatic abilities, the way she connects with her partner to bring fluidity to the performance and strength to interpretation, for example. She really is a superstar. But how thrilling it was to see that close to perfect body in class.

  • Mary’s last dance

It was lovely to see that Mary’s Last Dance: The untold story of the wife of Mao’s Last Dancer by Mary Li (Penguin Random House, 2020) has been awarded The Courier-Mail People’s Choice Queensland Book of the Year Award for 2021. The award is given to a Queensland-based author from books entered in the fiction and non-fiction categories and is determined by public vote. Only rarely do books about the arts, dance in particular, make book award lists, let alone turn out as winners. So, congratulations to Mary Li and to the Queensland public for their votes!

  • Betty Pounder
Portrait of Betty Pounder, 1940s (?). National Library of Australia, J. C. Williamson Collection. Photographer not identified
Portrait of Betty Pounder, 1940s (?). National Library of Australia, J. C. Williamson Collection.

Betty Pounder, dancer and choreographer for musical theatre, the Australian Ballet and other outlets, was born just over 100 years ago in August 1921. Designer Kevin Coxhead is planning a book celebrating Pounder’s life (she died in 1990) and career, and the first part of the book has just appeared in the most recent newsletter of Theatre Heritage Australia. The opening image of the chorus line-up from No No Nanette is quite special! Pounder looks outstanding even just standing there. Read the first part at this link. There is at present no indication of when the full book will appear.

Michelle Potter, 30 September 2021

Reading during Wellington Lockdown

by Jennifer Shennan

  • Out Loud
    by Mark Morris [Penguin Press]
  • Behind the Scenes at the Ballets Russes – Stories from a Silver Age
    by Michael Meylac [Methuen/Drama]

I am always willing to get down on my hands and knees in Wellington’s Unity Bookshop to search for whatever few titles might be on their Dance shelf, down at floor level below the Music shelves, in case something new has arrived since my last genuflection.

That’s the way I discovered Mark Morris’ memoir, Out Loud, last year, and found much stimulation in his vigorous style of memoir-writing. Various friends have not shared my appreciation of the book, finding its ‘no-holds barred’ expression hard-going, but to me its frankness and honesty were refreshing. ‘Judge me if you dare’ Morris seems to be saying. I do judge him, though rather by the musicality in much of his choreography than by the gossip and intrigue with which he furnishes the book.

He writes profiles of different artists and colleagues that vary in their appeal, but I found much interest and insight in the sustained account of his friendship and working partnership with American composer, Lou Harrison. Harrison had spent a year in New Zealand on a Fulbright fellowship back in the early 1980s and his enthusiasm for gamelan music, indeed for many Asian musics, we all found invigorating. I choreographed to his Solstice, (previously choreographed by Jean Erdman of The Open Eye theatre in New York) so I came to know Lou very well, and caught up with him again on subsequent study visits to America. Morris’ every word about Lou evokes his generosity of spirit, the uncompromising commitment that hallmarked all of his composition work, and his abiding interest in dance as a parallel art. Reading about Lou was like meeting up again with a dear friend after many years.     

The Mark Morris Dance Company brought Handel’s L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato to  the International Arts Festival in Wellington in 1998. Live music was always Morris’ point of departure so the sizeable vocal and instrumental forces were sourced locally. That has meant you can easily find singers or players who were involved in the production, and who still rate it as one of the highlights of their musical careers.

To read Out Loud in tandem with Joan Acocella’s earlier biography of Morris is an interesting exercise that aids our evaluation of this prolific choreographer, while confirming my continuing admiration for Acocella’s outstanding skills as a dance writer.

                                                                      ********

Another more recent find from Unity Books’ bottom shelf was Behind the Scenes at the Ballets Russes, by Michael Meylac. It has proved a hugely rewarding read.  [Translation is by Rosanna Kelly].

Meylac’s young days as an ardent follower of ballet in his native Russia, and his subsequent work as a scholar of Russian literature and history, now for decades living and teaching outside his homeland, make him admirably equipped to provide a political and social background of European ballet history, and to discuss the development of distinctive ballet styles in different eras and countries. I often say that the history of ballet is the history of the world, and while I don’t expect anyone should listen to me on the topic, I think we all should listen to Meylac.

A poignant Preface to the English edition is subtitled The West in Russia and Russia in the Westa permeable membrane. The following Introduction is an erudite and thoughtful overview of the way the Russian ballet diaspora spread out in waves across the world during the 20th century … originally via Diaghilev’s and Pavlova’s companies, and subsequently through the number of other ‘Russian Ballet’ companies that formed in their wake and toured to far corners of the world. But that worked not only in one direction and it is the genius of this book that allows Meylac to identify many continuities and connections, within ballet’s endeavours, rather than the single block treatment of just one country or one company, as so many books have already done. His Introduction provides context for the interviews that form the main part of the book, conducted with more than thirty practitioners of the many generations in this ballet lineage.

The interviews are in two parts, then divided further into clusters—Part OneThe Ballets Russes—In the Shadow of Diaghilev; Remembering Colonel de Basil’s Baby Ballerinas; The Dancers; The BaIlets Russes in Australia; The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in America. Part Two—The Marquis de Cuevas and Others.

Interviews are with Rachel Cameron (on Tamara Karsavina—a pearl), Tamara Geva, Alexandra Danilova (if star rating I would give this a 5), Irina Baronova, Tamara Toumanova (a black pearl this one), Tatiana Riabouchinska and more and more (27 in total). It brings tears to your reading eyes to catch the tumultuous early decades of the 20th century as background to these stories. it is refreshing, sometimes riveting, to hear so many voices, and each reader will be bound to find traces and links to their own dance experience, maybe only two degrees of separation between their teacher and someone who may have danced with Nijinsky, or been hired or fired by Diaghilev, or been in or at the premiere of legendary productions—The Firebird, say—to learn what Pavlova said when she watched a class, hear how starving dancers found food, or what Fokine said when Hitler marched by in the street below. Pavlova and Fokine were both here in New Zealand so you can place a couple of jigsaw pieces into the wider picture of this country’s dance history.

I was intrigued by the interview with Nini Theilade, born in Java but who finished up in Denmark where she choreographed works on the Royal Danish Ballet that Poul Gnatt danced in. There was further interest in the interview with Jean Babilée, a stellar performer with les Ballets des Champs Elysées when Gnatt joined that company immediately after World War II. That will perhaps be where he gained inspiration for the legendary Bluebird that he danced here in 1953, in the same Opera House in Wellington where Pavlova had danced in 1926, and where Loughlan Prior’s Firebird has just premiered in 2021. And so it continues, the ties that bind. The recent remarkable documentary Force of Nature Natalia, about Osipova, offers contemporary evidence that new choreography can still be appreciated on both sides of the Ballet Curtain, ‘the permeable membrane’, despite the political treachery that exists around them in the impermeable Iron Curtain that has rung down again.

All the above were reasons to read the book, but it is Meylac’s dedication to John Neumeier, choregrafo assoluto, and his exquisite final interview with him, plus his Afterword Like a tree, the art of ballet has many roots…that would make me buy it twice. Neumeier’s prolific choreographic oeuvre and directorial responsibility for Hamburg Ballet (since 1973!) are phenomenal achievements that leave other ballet companies in the shade. Meylac identifies Neumeier as the most deeply inspired inheritor of the best of the Russian heritage—his work with Galina Ulanova, his closeness to Vera Volkova, and his museum collection of works by and about his adored Nijinsky, and his new choreographies revisiting masterpieces are all unparalleled elsewhere.

Meylac’s discerning book reeks with integrity — looking back in ballet history so as to look forward, guiding us to understand so as to appreciate, leaving varying opinions verbatim to speak for themselves, and celebrating the lifelines that secure our dancelines.

footnote – Hamburg Ballet is my favourite ballet company on the planet and I am still in thrall to the Goethe Institut for offering me, back in 2005, many weeks of a dance study tour through Germany that wound up in Hamburg, enabling me to see eight of Neumeier’s full-length ballets, each in a ‘one night stand’ through a searingly memorable week. No other ballet company on Earth begins to match that production record. I’ve returned to Hamburg since, to repeat the pleasure, and just to be sure I hadn’t imagined it all on the previous visit. It was worth another separate trip to Copenhagen to see his The Little Mermaid by Royal Danish Ballet, a choreography I’ll be taking to Heaven with me when my time comes. It’s extra thrill that ‘our’ Martin James has many times danced the lead role in Neumeier’s Ulysses.

I’ve always enjoyed the synchronicity that Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in Taiwan, my all-time favourite contemporary dance company (now that Douglas Wright has gone) was also founded by Lin Hwai-Min in the same year as Neumeier’s company, in 1973. The repertoire of both companies has been exclusively of their choreographer/director’s works. These are phenomenal periods of longevity in performance arts and demonstrate that dance companies can survive on artistic genius with administration serving that vision, rather than the reverse situation of bureaucracies controlling artistic output.

Jennifer Shennan, 1 September 2021

Dance diary. December 2020

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.

Adam Bull as the Prince in The Happy Prince. The Australian Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeff Busby

By mid year we were still not back in the theatre but Alison Plevey and her Australian Dance Party created Lake March in 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.

Australian Dance Party in a moment from Lake March. Lake Burley Griffin, Canberra, 2020. Photo: © Lorna Sim

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.

Dancers from the Tero Saarinen Company in Borrowed Light. Photo: © Christopher Duggan
  • 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.

  • Site news

At this time of year it is always interesting to look back at which posts were most popular over the course of the year. Leading post was the obituary for Athol Willoughy (and 2020 is not the first year that an obituary has taken first place). Following on were Thoughts on Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring (still popular after all these years); Romeo and Juliet. The Australian Ballet; Terrain. Bangarra Dance Theatre; and Moon Water. Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan.

Most visits came from Australia followed by the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and France.

Michelle Potter, 31 December 2020

Featured image: Gum blossoms, Canberra, 2007 (detail). Photo: © Nick Potter

Dance diary. November 2020

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.

Promotional image for Interconnect. Photo: © Kevin Thornhill and Andrew Sikorski. Design by Andrea McCuaig

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!

  • Gray Veredon

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

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.

Here is a link to the report from the Pillow.

  • Nina Popova (1922-2020)

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.

Michelle Potter, 30 November 2020

Featured image: Abigail Boyle and William Fitzgerald in a promotional image for Subtle Dances, Ballet Collective Aoteaora, 2020. Photo: © Celia Walmsley, Stagebox Photography

Two recent books

  • 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.

Michelle Potter, 26 November 2020

Here is where I enjoyed a discussion of memoir versus autobiography.

Dance diary. September 2020

  • Gray Veredon on choreography

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.

  • Jack Riley

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.

  • Jake Silvestro

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.

Michelle Potter, 30 September 2020

Featured image: Giovanni Rafael Chavez Madrid as Oberon and Mayu Takata as Titania in Gray Veredon’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ballet of the Baltic Opera Danzig, 2020. Photo: © K. Mystkowski

Australian Dance Party in 'Lake March', Canberra 2020.

Dance diary. August 2020

  • Lake March. Australian Dance Party

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!

Australian Dance Party in Lake March, Canberra 2020. Photo: © Lorna Sim.
  • 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.

Australian Arts Review (this review also appeared in Canberra CityNews)

Sydney Arts Guide

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.

Michelle Potter, 31 August 2020

Featured image: Australian Dance Party in Lake March, Canberra 2020. Photo: © Lorna Sim.

Australian Dance Party in 'Lake March', Canberra 2020.

Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. Book review

Kristian Fredrikson, Designer by Michelle Potter
Melbourne Books. AUD 59.95

reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

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.

Tutu for Princess Odile in Harry Haythorne’s Swan Lake, Act III. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1985. The Dowse Art Museum, Lower Hutt, New Zealand. Gift of Royal New Zealand 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.

Study for Captain Hook in Russell Kerr's 'Peter Pan', 1999. © 1998 Kristian Fredrikson
Study for Captain Hook and Peter Pan in Russell Kerr’s Peter Pan, 1999. © 1998 Kristian Fredrikson

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.

Jon Trimmer as the wealthy Pantalone and Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi in 'A Servant of Two Masters'
Jon Trimmer as the wealthy Pantalone and Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi in A Servant of Two Masters, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1989. Photographer not identified. Courtesy Arthur Turnbull LIbrary, Wellington, New Zealand.

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.

Kristian Fredrikson with costumes for Cinderella. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1991. Photo: © Ross Giblin. Courtesy Stuff/The Evening Post

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

Dancers of Australian Dance Party in 'Mine!', Canberra 2020. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Dance diary. February 2020

  • Mine! Australian Dance Party

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.

Olivia Fyfe in 'Mine!', Australian Dance Party, 2020. Photo: © Lorna Sim
Olivia Fyfe in Mine!, Australian Dance Party, 2020. Photo: © Lorna Sim

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.

Ryan Stone in 'Mine!', Australian Dance Party, 2020 Photo: © Lorna Sim
Ryan Stone in Mine!, Australian Dance Party, 2020 Photo: © Lorna Sim
  • 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.

  • Other books

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.

  • Oral histories

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.

My January interview with Chrissa Keramidas is now online, although it currently lacks a timed summary. Coming soon! As well, an interview with Lisa Pavane, recorded a few years ago, was recently made available online. It does already have its summary.

Michelle Potter, 29 February 2020

Featured image: Dancers of Australian Dance Party in Mine!, Canberra 2020. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Sue Healey with Sarah Jayne Howard during the filming of Virtuosi

Capturing the vanishing. A choreographer and film. Sue Healey

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

For more about Sue Healey on this website follow this tag link.

Michelle Potter, 13 August 2019

Featured image: Sue Healey and Sarah Jayne Howard during the filming of Virtuosi, 2012. Courtesy of Sue Healey

Sue Healey with Sarah Jayne Howard  during the filming of Virtuosi