Glimpses of Graeme. Reflections on the work of Graeme Murphy. Book review

Book by Michelle Potter. Published by FortySouth Publishing, Tasmania
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

The first word of appreciation for this book should go to its design and visual appeal. A well-made paperback volume of good weight and proportion, it feels right in the hand, and its pages stay open (instead of closing themselves as typical paperbacks annoyingly do). In addition the ink of the text sits bright on the page rather than being absorbed into the paper, so that by running your hand over the page you discover a kind of braille, a little dance for your fingertips, in a haptic pleasure I don’t recall noticing in other volumes (clever designer).   

The front cover image is Murphy the man, in dance profile and grinning, the back cover Graeme the young schoolboy, smiling his pleasure for the ice cream sundae he has just enjoyed. The front endpaper has a curtain-call lineup of applause—the back endpaper has Murphy acknowledging that applause—with a facing image of Graeme and his life and work partner, Janet Vernon, back to back. Their combined lifetime contribution to dance in Australia receives tribute in every chapter of the book (heroic couple, generous author).

The frontispiece photo has Graeme Murphy en l’air, not in some balletic cliché of soaring jeté or flying leap, limbs outspread, striving beyond gravity, where aspiration replaces destination. This is not any role performed but the man himself, right here, right now, in the middle of the page, looking straight at you, the reader. Hello.

Portrait of Graeme Murphy, 1986. Photo: © Greg Barrett

Simultaneous movement in both upward and downward directions is implied. The single vertical stroke of the svelte elevated dancer in white trousers and loose-lapelled jacket, legs pointing down with pencil sharp engaged feet in an exquisite fifth position displaying all the stylised turnout that ballet requires of a dancer, (but none of the distorted overarched eagle feet sometimes displayed by those more interested in virtuosity than in dialogue or eloquence). Meantime the upper body is that of a relaxed and graceful man, hands tucked into large pockets, an enigmatic smile hovering around his lips. The floor is not shown in the photo so the image is of a dancer enduringly airborne, not one ounce of the effort involved in an elevation of this order allowed to show. Dancing masters of the Italian Renaissance had a term for this quality—sprezzatura/‘divine nonchalance’—as though to say ‘Look—leaping like this is as easy as breathing. I’ll teach you how to do it if you like.’ Yeah right. It’s a graceful yet wonderfully cheeky portrait, inviting readers into the book (gifted dancer, clever photographer). I savoured the photo for a day before starting to read the text. Felt as though I had been dancing.

The book title is borrowed from Murphy’s first major choreography, Glimpses, 1976. The astonishing photograph from that work reveals his early theatrical vision, with Janet Vernon standing tall on the chest of dancer Ross Stretton. 

Janet Vernon and Ross Stretton in Glimpses, 1976. Photo: © David Parker

Eight chapters celebrate Murphy’s choreographic works in thematic rather than chronological treatment, mainly through excerpts selected from reviews Michelle has written over the years. It has been a colossal choreographed body of work. Over and over Murphy’s collaborations with design artists and composers are acknowledged and there is much discussion of the Australian content within the works, by dint of those collaborations rather than simply in local narratives or settings.

I thoroughly enjoyed reminders of those of Murphy’s works we have seen in New Zealand — with design by Kristian Fredrikson, the striking Orpheus for the RNZBallet’s celebrated Stravinsky centenary season in 1982, devised by artistic director Harry Haythorne.  Our company also staged The Protecting Veil the following decade.  Sydney Dance Company visited with Shining (I recall a mighty performance from New Zealand dancer Alfred Williams). They returned with Some Rooms, a fine work which appealed to audiences wider than just dance aficionados. Berlin was a major work that well warranted the trip to Auckland then, so of interest now to learn of the creative processes of its music ( with Iva Davies and Icehouse) and design (by Andrew Carter).

I also saw Mythologia in Sydney, 2000, though I retain much livelier memories of the inspired Nutcracker, The Story of Clara, and of the remarkable  Swan Lake for Australian Ballet. Harry Haythorne had roles in these two works, but it was his tap-dancing-on-roller-skates routine in Tivoli that warranted yet another trip across the Tasman, to see the hilariously entertaining yet simultaneously poignant production. The closing image has never left me.

It’s also a good memory that Murphy invited New Zealand choreographer Douglas Wright to stage his legendary Gloria, to Vivaldi, on Sydney Dance Company.

Once when I was visiting Harry in Melbourne, he took a phone call from Graeme and I recall a very long conversation, more than an hour, with loads of laughter while Harry winked and indicated I should continue browsing his bookshelf. They were clearly best of mates with a great deal of respect for each other’s work.  

There’s another synergy one can appreciate: Graeme’s work, Grand, was made for and dedicated to his mother—and Michelle has made and dedicated this book to her own mother who died recently.

The book’s text is succinct and its themes clearly delineated. My paraphrasing would not be nearly as useful as my encouragement to you to find and enjoy it for yourself (lucky reader).

Jennifer Shennan, 19 November 2022

Featured image: Cover image (excerpt) of Glimpses of Graeme. Full cover reproduced below.

Glimpses of Graeme now available and launch date set

My latest book, Glimpses of Graeme. Reflections on the work of Graeme Murphy, is now available at the FortySouth online store. This is a ‘niche book’ and only 350 copies have been printed. Buy your copy soon. Here is the link to the FortySouth store.

Glimpses of Graeme will be launched in Hobart on 18 November at which MADE (Mature Artists Dance Experience) will perform excerpts from works created for them by Murphy. For more information about the launch follow this link. Scroll down to find news of the event.

See below for a short video, created by Philippe Charluet, showing snippets from several of the works discussed in the book. In addition to showcasing the dancers from Sydney Dance Company, the footage includes music and performance by Synergy musicians.

Michelle Potter, 4 October 2022. Updated 22 October 2022

Dance diary. September 2022

This month’s dance diary has, with one significant exception, a Canberra focus, from news about writing by Canberra-based authors (including me) to performances generated, or soon to be performed from within the ACT.

  • Glimpses of Graeme

My book, Glimpses of Graeme. Reflections on the work of Graeme Murphy, is currently being printed and will be available shortly from the Hobart-based company FortySouth Publishing. The book is a collection of articles and reviews I have written over several decades about Murphy’s career. The writing is arranged according to themes I think are noticeable in Murphy’s output, including ’Music Initiatives’, ’Crossing Generations’, ’Approaches to Narrative’ and ’Postmodernism’.

Cover for Glimpses of Graeme designed by Kent Whitmore with a detail from an image by Branco Gaica showing Murphy during the production of his 1995 work, Fornicon

This month’s featured image shows Murphy and cast taking a curtain call following a performance in 2014 of Murphy’s Swan Lake. The image, shot by Lisa Tomasetti, fills the inside cover (front and back) of the book. More information on how to secure your copy will appear shortly.

UPDATE, 4 October 2022: The book is now for sale at the FortySouth online shop. Only 350 copies have been printed so buy your copy soon at this link.

  • Parijatham from the Kuchipudi dance repertoire

Canberra’s Sadhanalaya School of Arts is bringing Parijatham, a timeless, iconic dance drama in the classical Indian dance style, Kuchipudi, to the stage in early November. It tells the story of conflict created between two of Lord Krishna’s consorts, Queen Rukmini and Queen Satyabhama. It is set to classical South Indian music and is one of 15 dance dramas from the admired choreographer, Dr Vempati Chinnasatyam.

Divyusha Polepalli and Vanaja Dasika in a scene from Parijatham. Photo: © Sanjeta Sridhar

In the image above, Lord Krishna, played by Divyusha Polepalli tries to pacify the enraged Queen Satyabhama, played by Sadhanalaya School of Arts Director Vanaja Dasika, after she discovers Krishna has given his favourite consort Queen Rukmini a divine parijatha (jasmine) flower instead of giving it to her.

The work will have two performances only on 6 November at the Gungahlin College Theatre. Book at this link.

  • Daphne Deane

Canberra writer, John Anderson, has been researching for a number of years the life and career of Daphne Deane, an Australian with extensive experience in the presentation of theatrical activities around the world in the first half of the 20th century. I first came across the name Daphne Deane when researching the history if the Ballet Russes companies and their visits to Australia between 1936 and 1940 but very little appeared to have been written and published about her life and activities.

John Anderson’s book is nothing short of an eye-opener! We have much to learn about a woman who was all but written out of most of the historical accounts of the visits to Australia by the Ballets Russes companies, but whose activities during and beyond those visits were extensive. Anderson notes, for example, that Arnold Haskell’s book, Dancing round the world, which has become ’the putative history’ of the 1936-1937 tour to Australia simply ignores Deane by not mentioning her once. Anderson writes, ‘Deane effectively became a woman who never was, written out of the record of the tour’ and later ’In Haskell’s significant omission, we can see the beginnings of a man-made amnesia about Deane’s part in the tour.’

Cover design by Paul Anderson

Anderson’s book is available, free to read and download, as an e-text via Trove. Follow this link.

  • Dance.Focus 22—Film Premieres

Dance Hub SA and Ausdance ACT recently partnered to commission five filmmakers to produce a short film to ’challenge, resonate and engage with screen dance.’ The films premiered on five consecutive evenings and are now available to watch via YouTube. More information and links to the five films are here.

I especially enjoyed Son; Like Mother; Like Son danced by Petra Szabo Heath with her son Rowan and filmed by Tim Baroff with music by Rian Teoh. The outdoor setting was stunning and nicely juxtaposed with an indoor one, and the work reminded me of a comment once made by Graeme Murphy, ’We all dance from the moment we are born.’ But there was also rather more dancing in this short film than in most of the others in this series, which made me wonder what screen dance is, or how those who make screen dance conceive of its dance component.

  • Promotions at Queensland Ballet

And on a non-Canberra note, but one I am really pleased to include, Queensland Ballet has just promoted Mia Heathcote and Patricio Revé to principal artists. Both dancers have been dancing superbly recently and the promotions are well deserved.

Patricio Revé and Mia Heathote in Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon. Queensland Ballet, 2022. Photo: © David Kelly

As it happens, I have been following Heathcote’s progress since she was at the Australian Ballet School when she appeared in a program called Let’s Dance in 2012. See this link (it includes a gorgeous photo of Heathcote from Tim Harbour’s work, Sweedeedee). See also tags for Heathcote and Revé.

Michelle Potter, 30 September 2022

Featured image: Graeme Murphy taking a curtain call with dancers (l-r) Brett Chynoweth, Kevin Jackson, Lana Jones, Rudy Hawkes and Miwako Kubota following a performance of Murphy’s Swan Lake. The Australian Ballet, 2014. Photo: © Lisa Tomasetti

Dance diary. August 2022

  • Cranko. The Man and his Choreography. A new book

A new book, Cranko. The Man and his Choreography by Ashley Killar is due to be released in London next month. Killar, who danced extensively with Stuttgart Ballet when John Cranko was the company’s artistic director, presents a detailed and extensively researched analysis of the life and career of Cranko, going right back to his childhood in South Africa. The book will also have an Australian launch in December, coinciding with the production of Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet as part of the Australian Ballet’s Sydney season. At present the book can be pre-ordered from Book Depository or from the British publisher at this link. In Australia it will initially be available through Bloch Dance stores.

Read more about the book at this link, where you’ll find some unexpected items, including recipes (and see above an image of Cranko as chef).

  • Douglas Wright’s Gloria

The latest news from CO3, the Perth-based contemporary company led by Raewyn Hill, is that the company will be staging Douglas Wright’s Gloria in September.

Douglas Wright (centre) performing in his Gloria in 1990. Photo: © Patrick Reynolds

Here is what Jennifer Shennan wrote about Gloria in 2004, which she updated for Raewyn Hill just recently:

Gloria—by Douglas Wright & Antonio Vivaldi

To Vivaldi’s exuberant music, Douglas Wright made Gloria, the best dance ever choreographed in New Zealand. It affirms and celebrates life as it is on Earth. Dancers clad in gold silk launch themselves into the air and seem to stay there, flying over each other in twists and plaits, bodies somehow freed from gravity, aiming for the stars, hitting the sun.

Douglas was commissioned by his friend Helen Aldridge to choreograph a work commemorating the life of her daughter, and also his friend, Deirdre Mummery, who had died of an accidental drug overdose.

Helen did not know what might result—a lament? an elegy? commiseration? She could scarcely have imagined the ecstasy and expression of life’s force as these exquisite dancers walk then run, lean then leap, lift then fall, roll then rise, turn then hold, shimmer then fly.

The physical stamina required is phenomenal but not for a moment do we sense any struggle. The choreography is woven of exquisite lines and loops, allowing the dancers to embrace every baroque quaver in the light and shade of Vivaldi’s Gloria. It affirms and celebrates life as it is in Heaven, where Deirdre and Douglas now live.

Written by Jennifer Shennan in 2004, for BEST—a New Zealand compendium [AWA Press 2004]; reworked for Raewyn Hill, August 2022

My review from 1993, when Gloria was staged by Sydney Dance Company along with Graeme Murphy’s Protecting Veil, is at this link. See also the tag Douglas Wright for more about Wright’s work as it appears on this website.

Further information about the CO3 staging is available on the company’s website.

  • News from James Batchelor

Short Cuts to Familiar Places, James Batchelor’s latest work, will receive its world premiere in Düsseldorf, Germany, in October. The work investigates the concept of ‘body lineage’ and, in his media release, Batchelor describes it as exploring ‘the idea of the body as a site of inscription, a morphing map or text that is continuously re-drawn and re-written’.

Batchelor has been researching the background for this work for a year or so now and he has given particular focus to the work of his teacher at Canberra’s QL2, Ruth Osborne, and her connections through her own teacher, Margaret Chapple. Chappie, as she was familiarly known, was a student of and dancer with Gertrud Bodenwieser and, after Bodenwieser’s death, directed (with Keith Bain) the Bodenwieser Dance Centre in Sydney. Batchelor has also worked with, and considered the heritage of others with connections to Bodenwieser including Eileen Kramer and Carol Brown.

James Batchelor in a study for Short Cuts to Familiar Places. Photo: © Morgan Hickinbotham

With luck Short Cuts to Familiar Places will eventually be shown in Australia. Stay tuned.

Production credits (from the media release):
CHOREOGRAPHY, PERFORMANCE James Batchelor DRAMATURGY, PRODUCTION Bek Berger COMPOSITION Morgan Hickinbotham PERFORMANCE Chloe Chignell LIGHT DESIGN Vinny Jones COSTUME DESIGN Juliane König CHOREOGRAPHIC CONSULTATION Ruth Osborne, Eileen Kramer, Carol Brown RESEARCH CONSULTATION Michelle Potter

  • The end of an era?

It was something of a shock to learn that the world renown dance magazine Dancing Times will publish its very last issue next month, September 2022. The London-based magazine with an international reach was established in 1910 when its predecessor, a house magazine of the Cavendish Rooms, was bought by founding Dancing Times editor P. J. S. Richardson. Since then it has had other editors with the present holder of the position being Jonathan Gray. Current production editor of the magazine, Simon Turner, writes:

Sadly, since 2020, the tremendous economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the rapid increase in costs over the past year, means that the magazine is no longer financially viable in its current form.

The news has shocked the international dance world of course and we have to hope that the same fate does not occur with Dance Australia, which already has reduced its schedule from a print version every two months to one every three months.

*********************

But on different although related issue, dance reviews and articles in print outlets in Australia (and elsewhere?), especially those by knowledgeable contributors, seem to be slowly disappearing. Another end to an era? I was struck by a recent notification from the Sydney Opera House of an event due to take place in September called ‘How do you solve a problem like the media?’ Despite the clear allusion in the title to a well-known song and by extension to the arts, this event appears to be focusing on politics, with which I have no issues of course. But the opening remark in the advertisement for the occasion, ‘The media has gone through a huge upheaval in recent decades. Now we’re starting to see the effects …’, applies equally to the arts, and to dance in particular, which scarcely ever gets an informed and in depth mention, even in online outlets associated with newspapers.

  • Liz Lea at the Edinburgh Fringe

As mentioned in the July dance diary, Liz Lea’s RED was set to be part of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe and RED took the stage from 16-28 August. Read Helen Musa’s review of the Edinburgh show for Canberra City News at this link. And in the light of my comments above re the disappearance of the arts from print outlets, we are lucky in Canberra that City News, which has a weekly print edition as well as an online presence, still sees fit to carry news and reviews about the arts, including dance.

  • Glimpses of Graeme. Another new book

My next book is currently being designed, although a release date is not yet available. Called Glimpses of Graeme. Reflections on the work of Graeme Murphy, it consists of a selection of reviews and articles I have written about Murphy and his works. Rather than gathering the pieces together chronologically, as is often the case with such collections, I have arranged them in chapters that reflect themes that I believe characterise Murphy’s oeuvre. More later.

Michelle Potter, 31 August 2022

Featured image: The chair Cranko used for rehearsals in Stuttgart. From Ashley Killar’s website regarding his book.

El Abrazo. The Embrace—Argentine Tango Moments. Neville Waisbrod

Book review by Jennifer Shennan

This impressive book contains close to 200 photographs, culled from some 3000, taken by Neville Waisbrod, tango dancer-turned-photographer of Wellington.

Evident throughout is Waisbrod’s deep feeling and respect for the dance form in milonguero style. This is not tango for display or spectacle, for competition or ambition, for innovation or experiment, for the money or the bag, but rather for the intimate unspoken communication that builds between partners, between steps, between movement and music. It’s both in time and across time, and as you close the book you feel you have been dancing too.

Several pithy quotes, catching what a writer, poet, philosopher, teacher or dancer has penned about tango, or wider dance ideas, are scattered throughout the book. These are few in number but that restraint only makes them more evocative since we all know that less is more. Sources of quotes range from renowned tanguero and teacher, Carlos Gavitos,

The tango is not in the steps.
The tango is between one step and another.
There, when you do nothing,
you can see whether you dance tango.

Alicia Pons, a revered teacher regularly visiting New Zealand from Argentina, Tango is a journey not a destination.

JL Borges, The tango was having its way with us.

and from Waisbrod himself, The memory of an embrace will last a lifetime, while the steps will be forgotten by the end of the night.

There are further quotes from Jacques d’Amboise, Martha Graham, Wendy Whelan, Omar Khyyám, William Shakespeare, TS Eliot, Albert Einstein. These, as well as the Introduction and the Endnotes, are given in both English and Spanish.

The photographs are black & white or grained grey, with the focus on the mutual embrace of a dancing couple—upper body, head, neck, shoulders, arms, hands (for all of which, read ‘hearts and minds’). An image typically shows the face or profile of one dancer and thus the back of the head of the partner. We can read the facial expression of the one and, from the angle of head or neck, handhold raised or shoulder embraced, can imagine that of the partner. The concentration is intense. You’re not eavesdropping on these dancers, but looking and listening with your eyes and limbs.

A man and a woman hold each other and we hold our breath—they’ve probably been married for 45 years and we can tell their life story from the enchanted eyes of the one who faces the camera, and from the inclined and trusting head of his partner. It’s a love sonnet. Another couple, possibly three decades apart in calendar age, who may never have met before this milonga, are here not counting the years so much as sharing them. One tanguera is wearing a plaster cast on a broken arm and her partner carries its weight for her. The back of one head reveals hearing aids ‘the better to hear the music with, my dear’. One couple is dreaming, eyes closed, a hint of a smile hovering. A young couple shares an explosive laugh and we can only guess at what caused their mirth. Another couple, both males, are dancing more than just the steps their teacher taught them. A sadness etched into one woman’s face is lifted by the sense that her partner is allowing the dance to be bigger than any individual dancing it. Another image echoes that rapport, though with the gender roles reversed. Perhaps the memory of an earlier now departed life partner is nurtured by the physical proximity of a dance partner. One quote, ‘Dancing is cheaper than therapy’, could be the caption of several of these images, or perhaps of them all.

There are in fact no captions to individual photographs so the dancers remain anonymous. Although they have given their permission for reproduction, they are not posing for the camera and will be unaware they were being captured in that moment. The prime place given to the visuals within this book evokes for me the classic works of director Carlos Saura, who devoted entire feature-length films, with very few if any words, to the subject of just one dance form—Sevillanas, let’s say, or his fabled flamenco trilogy, Blood Wedding: the rehearsal—Carmen: the performance—El Amor Brujo: the dénouement.

JL Borges, Argentinian writer & poet, famously wrote…Tango can be debated, and we have debates over it, but it still encloses, as does all that which is truthful, a secret. This book borrows that notion to tell its own unspoken truth.

Waisbrod did not need to travel across continents in search of these dancers. They are all in New Zealand. His credit to Belinda Ellis for editorial help and design of the book is heartfelt. Search further and you find another modest little credit, ‘proudly supporting the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand’. This is a book of considerable humane and artistic merit, and, at $75.00, is cheaper than therapy.    

www.theembracebook.com
ISBN 978-0-473-59266-0

Jennifer Shennan, 10 August 2022

All photos: © Neville Waisbrod

The Dancer. A biography for Philippa Cullen

Evelyn Juers, The Dancer. A biography for Philippa Cullen. (Sydney: Giramondo Publishing, 2021)

ISBN: 9781925818727; 592 pp

RRP $39.95

This book by Evelyn Juers is spectacularly different from any biography I have read before, especially from any dance biography I have yet encountered. It is in essence the story of Philippa Ann Cullen (born Melbourne, Australia 1950; died Kodaikanal, India, 1975), a dancer who performed across the world and whose creative process involved experiments with theremins and movement-sensitive floors. Her work produced movement unlike that of most of her contemporaries, and she was at the forefront of using electronic music as an accompaniment to her work. The book is distinguished by the breadth of its author’s research and her sensitivity to the socio-political background in which Cullen worked. But it is different in two major ways from most biographies with which I am familiar: by the manner in which the author inserts her own voice into the story, and by the author’s writing style.

Before entering into the story of Cullen’s life and career, Juers investigates Cullen’s family history on both her mother’s and father’s side. This is an in depth examination drawing on as many sources as Juers was able to discover. It has its ups and downs as those who have been involved in family history no doubt have discovered. Some material is always elusive, although Juers is able to set up a clear lineage for Cullen.

Once this history has been established, Cullen’s own life takes the stage. Juers gives an insight into Cullen’s education; her dance training in Sydney at the Bodenwieser Dance Studio; her early public performances, including those with the choreographic enterprise Ballet Australia; the beginnings of her own choreography; her developing interest in the theremin and electronic music, and their uses in her creative process; and her studies at Sydney University.

Towards the end of 1972, Cullen, with the aid of a an Australia Council grant, travelled overseas to examine the role and potential of electronics in dance. She visited a host of countries in Europe, including Britain, the Netherlands and Germany as well as Africa and India; and she met and worked with a range of contemporary artists who opened up a variety  of new possibilities for her. Cullen returned briefly to Australia in early 1974 and became involved in a series of seminars, workshops, demonstrations and performances before returning to India just a few months later.

But in this book there is a lot more to the Cullen story than her life in dance. Cullen’s emotional life plays a strong role throughout. There are extensive quotes from letters written to and by Cullen. There are extracts from Cullen’s diaries, which she seems to have kept religiously throughout life, and in which she appears to have recorded her dreams. Juers consistently reports on the dreams as the story progresses. Cullen’s personal notes also refer often to her love life and her concerns about pregnancies. She had many lovers and a long affair with composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, whom she met in Australia in 1970.

With regard to the constant appearance of the author’s voice as added commentary, Juers was a friend of Cullen and, in the book’s prologue, she explains how they met and how she continued the friendship after that first meeting. Her comments throughout the book expand and add an extra, personal element to the story. When both she and Cullen were in London at the same time, for example, they used to go on walks together:

That day she was wearing her thick woollen socks with sandals and we talked about wool, a predilection we shared. My mother was a knitter: on round needles she made wide swinging skirts with scalloped hems, she sculpted beanies around ponytails or plaits, topped off with colourful pompoms; when I had whooping cough she knitted me a daffodil yellow cardigan and I got better. Unselfconsciously I’d spent much of my early childhood dressed in wool. In London, as a kind of anchor, I immediately bought myself a second-hand loom and—alongside Herculean university reading lists and writing assignments—spent hours each day weaving. They say wool has memory. Philippa’s grandmother had taught her to darn, and her oldest woollen jumpers made her feel just right.

And there are many similar examples throughout the book. As a result, we meet Cullen not simply as a dancer absorbed in specific areas that were of particular interest to her, but as a forthright, funny, curious person, and ultimately as a human being who lived with an intensity that can only be described as incredibly moving—a life that was both heart-rending in its sorrowful moments but full of joy at other times.

Often, too, the author’s voice questions events or asks that events affecting Cullen’s life be seen within the wider context of the time. This is especially true of the closing section of the book dealing with the medical diagnosis that was offered as an explanation of Cullen’s death. On occasions, Juers also adds comments about her own writing process in relation to the Cullen story. She records at one stage:

I wrote to Jill Purce [one of Stockhausen’s later girlfriends] to ask if she knew Philippa Cullen, explaining that I was writing a book about her, and that I was trying to be as precise as possible about the chronology and circumstances of her association with Stockhausen.

Then follow several paragraphs regarding Purce’s response. Such sections blur the received boundaries of biography/memoir/autobiography.

As for the writing style, it is unique to Juers and at times contains sentences of a single word, or just a few words, or sentences that would in other situations be considered a clause rather than a sentence. Often the style is challenging, but then for many so was Cullen’s approach to dance. ‘I haven’t met anybody who accepts what I do without question,’ Cullen once said.

In her writing Juers also makes references to the ideas and writings of major figures from the literary world, such as James Joyce, Samuel Johnson, the Bronte sisters, and others, which open up further understanding of (or questions about) Cullen’s life and creative approach; and also tell us much about Juers’ own background as an author and reader. More challenges arise for the reader when direct quotes from original source materials are italicised within the text so the published pages regularly skip from Roman fonts to italics and back again, and from ‘I’ to ‘she’ and back again.

I found the book hard going at times, especially in the early family history sections when I wondered, despite my admiration for the depth of Juers’ research, whether the extent of detail that Juers included was absolutely necessary. But I was constantly smitten by various sections as I traversed the story. They included a section on Cullen’s return to Australia from overseas, briefly in the 1970s, when the world that unfolded on the pages of the book was strongly evocative of a dance counter-culture that existed in Sydney (and elsewhere in Australia) at the time. Then there was the dramatic and very moving story of Cullen’s last days in a remote town in India in 1975, when the author’s voice queried the nature of the physical condition that led to Cullen’s death, and when those who had helped her through her last days added their thoughts to the epilogue.

After finishing the book I felt the need to go back and start reading it again when those parts of the book that I initially found not so relevant to the essential story would probably make more sense. In fact I wonder whether I will regret some of this review when I do reread!

My closing thoughts, however, are that The Dancer is extraordinarily dense with information, ideas and challenges but is a remarkable, beautifully researched, forthright book. A  bit like the best dance really.

Michelle Potter, 21 December 2021

Built for Ballet. Leanne Benjamin with Sarah Crompton

Last time I wrote a book review for this site I was puzzled by the difference between a memoir and an autobiography. Well there is no struggle this time. Leanne Benjamin’s Built for Ballet is clearly an autobiography of a woman who has had an absolutely stellar career as a dancer across continents. It focuses not on one aspect of her life but, going back to where earlier I went searching for definitions, it ‘primarily focuses on facts—the who-what-when-where-why-how of [an author’s] entire timeline.’ We are privy to Benjamin’s dance-focused life from the time she took her first dance lessons, aged three, in Rockhampton, to 2020 when the book was completed. And it is a fascinating account of that life, written in a very conversational tone. It is hard to put the book down once one starts.

I am, however, curious about that conversational tone. While it is lovely to be carried along with the story, I couldn’t help wondering how it was written. Was it partly constructed as a result of oral interviews, with Benjamin’s words translated straight to written form? This would perhaps account for certain grammatical issues that I found a little grating. Speaking isn’t always grammatically correct, especially when agreements between verb and subject, and the use of ‘me’ and ‘I’ as subject or object are concerned. I am perhaps a pedant but I do find certain things annoying and wish that strict copy editing could remain an essential part of book production so that the written word retains its grammatical structure.

Moving on, however, Benjamin is thoroughly honest about her relationships with coaches, directors, other dancers and the like and it is great to read of her approaches to rehearsals, classes, being coached, partners, and performing. Then, one can vicariously feel the exhaustion of the extensive travel that Benjamin undertook both with the companies with which she was involved and as a guest artist around the world. The way Benjamin addresses the various injuries all dancers sustain over the course of a career also arouses a feeling of empathy for the pain and the loss of performances that have to be endured.

I especially enjoyed Benjamin’s discussion of her work with some of the most outstanding choreographers of her time. Her work with Kenneth MacMillan, and later with Wayne McGregor, stand out. What did she gain from being coached by them? And how was she able to pass on what she had gained to younger dancers when she became a coach herself? It’s all there. And yes, her thoughts on Ross Stretton and his time both with the Australian Ballet and the Royal Ballet are featured at one stage.

Benjamin does not gloss over her personal life either. We learn of her various love interests, her marriage and the birth of her son, and the fate of her extended family including her mother-in-law and father-in-law, both of whom had major dance or dance-related careers.

Perhaps one section that I found fascinating, largely because of where I live, concerned the photo that appears on the back cover of the book (although all the photos in the book are interesting and often quite personal). The back cover has a photograph taken in 2006 by Jason Bell at a location outside Alice Springs. It is a spectacular image. A print is in the collection of the National Library of Australia in Canberra and is often used as a publicity shot for anything to do with dance and the National Library. It is etched in my mind as a result. Benjamin discusses the circumstances surrounding the photo shoot.

Built for Ballet, back cover (detail). Image: © Jason Bell, 2006

Built for Ballet is an engrossing read. It is honest to the core and opens one’s eyes to much that goes on behind the scenes in a dancer’s life. Built for Ballet is published by Melbourne Books.

Michelle Potter, 8 November 2021

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.

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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